I believe it’s safe to assume that most of us who chase trophy whitetails would sacrifice any other part of the deer season just to hunt during the rut. Because, if there’s a time during the season when mature bucks are prone to make mistakes, the rut is that time. It’s also the time when “phantom bucks” can just suddenly appear seemingly out of thin air. You know what I mean here, those bucks that you’ve never seen or captured on any of your scouting cameras. But one day there they are. And better yet, they eventually start moving around during daylight.
Jake and I had this very thing happen a couple seasons back. We’d had photo after photo of immature bucks throughout the archery season. But just as we were closing in on the rut, a wonderful thing happened. Not one, but two mature bucks suddenly showed up on a couple of our RECONYX cameras. And not only did the two bucks just suddenly show up, they continued to make periodic appearances in front of our cameras.
Initially these two bucks restricted their periodic visits to our property exclusively to the nighttime hours. But as it got later into the month of November, both of them showed up in front of one of our cameras in broad daylight. Unfortunately, Jake and I happened to be hunting out of state when these daytime visits occurred (of course)! And as these things often go, both bucks have since disappeared altogether. We know for sure that one of them, the heavy 8 point, was shot during the 2016 gun deer season. The big 10 point simply dropped off the face of the earth. Gone!
The same thing happened on our property during the 2017 hunting season. We had a couple big bucks suddenly appear in late October and stick around into early November. Once again Jake and I were hunting out of state at that time. We did start hunting our property immediately upon our return, and I did have a very close encounter with one of our target bucks, a hog-bodied 8 point. However, the buck I was really after, a long tined 9 point, was a no-show. After getting dozens of RECONYX photos of him the last week of October and first few days of November, he literally dropped off the face of the earth.
And that pretty much sums up our 2017 Wisconsin hunting season. But while neither of us scored on a buck, we were encouraged that we could almost count on some big bucks showing up on our property sometime in late October and/or early November of 2018. However, things didn’t go quite like they had the past two seasons. Though we were encouraged by the appearance of some really good looking up and coming bucks, we never captured any photos of shooter bucks.
Off To South Dakota
So rather than spinning my wheels in an attempt to kill a big deer in Wisconsin, I decided to head to western South Dakota for a combination archery/gun hunt with our good friends Pat and Branden West at Dakota Ranch Outfitters. My long time cameraman Matt Tande would be filming me on this hunt, and he’d already spent nearly two weeks in South Dakota guiding hunters for DRO. I knew that, between Pat, Branden, Matt and myself, we’d be able to come up with a solid game plan for the next four days. Because I also knew that there were some very solid whitetails roaming around DRO’s hunting properties.
Initially it was my plan to attempt to fill my archery tag first and then switch over to gun. But after hearing that the rut was “off” a bit, Matt and I decided that maybe we should spend the first day just feeling things out. It was our plan to spend the morning hours sitting in an elevated blind that overlooked a large brushy meadow. Then at midday we’d head to a nearby high bank where we’d sit and watch a large expanse of river bottom cover. (Matt and I were both very familiar with the spot, as we had collaborated on taking a beautiful 10 point whitetail there during the 2010 South Dakota gun deer season.)
To cut right to the chase here, deer movement in the river bottom was pretty much non-existent, and the remainder of our first day ended up being relatively uneventful. However, that didn’t discourage us from making a return trip to our vantage point on the high bank the very next morning. Right off the bat we could tell that things were dramatically different than they had been the previous day. Quite literally, there were deer everywhere. We saw deer walking, deer bedded down and whitetail and mule deer bucks “cruising”. And far off the in distance, on a neighbor’s property, we could see a huge whitetail buck tending an obviously hot doe.
As is usually the norm when you’re constantly seeing deer, time went by quickly that morning. Then, as we were glassing the river bottom around 10:15 I heard Matt say, “There’s a really good buck walking in that tall grass just on the other side of the river.” I quickly checked to see where Matt was looking and immediately spotted the deer. One look through my Vortex binoculars told me all I need to know. It was indeed a very good buck!
It was apparent right off that the big buck was alone. And it appeared as though he was going to continue on his current route and eventually cross the river to our side. At that point Matt and I took off on a run to move into a position on the high bank that would put us almost directly above the buck if he did indeed come across the river. We arrived at our new spot and quickly got set up just as the big deer was walking down the river bank. He hesitated only briefly before stepping into the water and crossing to our side. At that point he immediately disappeared into a cedar thicket.
Unsure whether the buck was walking toward or away from us in the thicket, I decided to let go with a rattling sequence to see if I could lure him out into the open. I’d barely finished rattling when the big whitetail suddenly exploded out of the far end of the thicket. He was a good 350 yards away, but coming straight toward us on a dead run!
The big whitetail eventually closed the distance to just under 200 yards before stopping to check his surroundings. And I promptly shot right over his back! Rather than running off and out of sight, the buck loped only about 20 yards before stopping to see what had happened. It proved to be a fatal mistake. The hit was picture perfect and the old whitetail once again made it only about 20 yards, but this time he ended up lying on the ground.
It took Matt and I a while to figure out how to get down to where my trophy was laying in the river bottom. While we had known the deer was big, we didn’t know just how big he really was until we walked up on him. Without doubt, of all the many mature whitetails I’ve taken over the years, this South Dakota buck ranks as the most massive overall. And that great mass manages to disguise the fact that the inside spread of the antlers actually is 19 2/8″. The rack also boasts 11 typical points, with a couple extra ‘kickers’ adding even more character.
I’ve been asked how it feels to shoot a deer like this. Well, I believe it feels exactly how it should. Of course, there’s deep admiration and respect for the animal. There’s also a tremendous amount of appreciation for my good friends Pat and Branden West. I can’t begin to explain how much those two gentlemen have done for me over the years. Trust me when I say that their generosity and friendship hasn’t gone unnoticed.
And then there’s Matt Tande. One of the hardest working, most dedicated and knowledgeable individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure to share my hunts with. I’m so grateful he was with me on this one.
Finally, even though I have the antlers sitting right next to me as I write this, I’m still harboring a bit of disbelief that I was fortunate enough to harvest such an impressive and majestic animal. But that’s the way its been with all the trophy animals I’ve taken over the years. I hope that never changes.