Outside the Fence At Timberghost
by Tim Neal
Flying back from an unsuccessful caribou hunt in Quebec, I happened to be seated next to another hunter who had similar luck with a different outfitter. I guess the caribou weren’t cooperating anywhere that week. As we compared notes and spoke of past hunts and hunts to come, I mentioned that I had enough bonus points to draw an Iowa whitetail tag. He immediately informed me he had been guiding in Iowa for several years. That is how I first met Jeff Eaton from Timberghost Ranch. Like a lot of hunters, I had heard about Timberghost; and like a lot of hunters, I thought they were only a high fence operation. Jeff explained that while a part of their operation is a high fence preserve, they also run a completely free-range hunting operation. The more we talked, the more intrigued I became. When we landed in Montreal, we exchanged contact info and parted company.
That evening in our Montreal hotel room I explained my findings to my friend, Paul Carter, who had been on the caribou hunt with me. Paul had been applying with me for Iowa deer for three years, and we agreed to give them a try when we drew our Iowa tags. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long—we drew the following year.
We arrived at Timberghost in early November. To say the main lodge was impressive would be an understatement. A huge main floor with what must be close to 100 impressive whitetail mounts. A fantastic view out the picture windows and off a huge deck. A dining area that could probably seat 40 people, a bar area, leather sofas, and big screen TV. Downstairs a full game room with big screen TV, pool table, shooting gallery and various games. Upstairs there were several bedrooms where the preserve hunters stay. Out front was a huge patio with fire-pit. Across the parking lot were a two-bedroom cabin complete with kitchen, two full baths and two TVs with satellite. This is where the free-range hunters stay as they normally must get up earlier then the preserve hunters due to the travel time to reach the outlying properties. Although not as fancy as the main lodge, it was nicer than a lot of motels I’ve stayed in. All meals are prepared by a professional chef and open bar included in the main lodge. Steak, seafood, chops with all the trimmings plus desert served each evening. No Mountain House or canned stew on this hunt!
But we didn’t wait four years and travel to Iowa to eat, so the first evening we met with our guide and went over numerous recent trail camera photos. We talked about options for the morning based on predicted weather and wind. With 4,000 acres and close to 100 stand locations there were many options. This was repeated every evening. We hunted different stands and farms almost every day, and although I saw two great bucks, I never had an opportunity at a 150” plus buck, my self-imposed minimum. Paul on the other hand shot his best whitetail to date, a mature 140+ inch buck. Even though I wasn’t successful I was impressed with their operation and both Paul and I made plans to return as soon as we could draw another tag.
I returned in October 2017, but without Paul. He had crashed his mountain bike a few months prior and damaged his shoulder to a point he couldn’t draw his bow. I arrived the afternoon the day before my hunt was supposed to start to warm and breezy conditions. I stored my gear and went to the main lodge to grab some lunch. Shortly thereafter, Mike Hine—Timberghost’s Head Honcho—joined me. He was personally going to be taking care of me during my stay. As we talked strategy, he informed me that I was the first free-range hunter of the year and the only free-range hunter for the week. I had all their leases outside the fence to myself. It was early afternoon, so he suggested I check my equipment and we would get an early start on my hunt and sit that evening.
We drove to a travel corridor in the hardwoods where he gave me directions to a ladder stand and said he would pick me up after dark. With great expectations, I made it to the stand and climbed in. I sat until dark and didn’t see a single animal. Back at the lodge, I showered, changed cloths and had a fantastic dinner. I met a group of preserve hunters that were leaving the next day and got to see pictures of the huge bucks they had harvested. Mike grabbed me and took me to the “War Room” where they have aerial photos with marked stand locations of all their properties. These are hung on the wall and available to the hunters at all times. Additionally, they have trail-camera photos of any shooter bucks they have seen on that property. Looking at the weather forecast we discussed options for the morning. This would be repeated after each morning and evening hunt.
The next morning it was off to a different stand on the same property. A few does was all I saw. That afternoon we tried another stand on a different property with a few does and small bucks seen. But the weather was cooler with even cooler temps predicted. The following day was similar, but with more deer and a few larger, but not shooter bucks seen. The third morning was cooler yet and with much more activity, but still no big bucks seen. During lunch at the lodge, Mike informed me the wind was finally favorable to hunt a property that held probably the largest free-range buck they had on camera.
I climbed into the stand early with high hopes. I had only been sitting a short time when a large bodied buck appeared across the bean field from me. The stand was at the narrow end of the field and he just materialized out of some weeds. He was walking directly at me at a steady pace. I took a quick look through my binos. He was a fully mature heavy 8-point that I thought would score around 150 inches. A buck I would be happy with, but not really the one I had dreamt of. I was struggling on what to do. The buck made my decision for me as he walked straight at me and directly under my stand never giving me a decent shot angle. He was gone as quickly as he appeared. Deer movement was good that evening with small bucks chasing does in front of me all afternoon. I did glimpse a big buck at the far end of the field that could have been our target buck. He was just too far away and moving too much to know for sure. I met Mike for the ride back to the lodge and relived the afternoon sightings.
While grabbing a cup of coffee and tossing a few snacks in my pack for the morning sit, Mike informed me that the wind was wrong to hunt the stand from the previous evening. We were headed to a new property that they had just acquired that year. Trail-camera photos showed two exceptional bucks using the area. The bucks weren’t consistent, but seemed to move through every few days. Mike dropped me off and pointed me down the trail marked by reflectors to a ladder stand in a woodlot next to a small creek. He said there were crops on the ridge above me and the bucks used the creek as a travel corridor between feeding and bedding areas. The morning brought me several doe sightings and a few small to medium bucks, but no shooters. As I was climbing out of the stand for my 11 o’clock pickup I was hoping the wind would allow me to return to the stand from the previous evening.
My pow wow with Mike after lunch wasn’t what I was hoping for. The wind forecast was not favorable for the previous evenings stand. He gave me a few options, but he felt the stand I had set that morning was our best shot, so off we went. As I got out of the truck and gathered my gear I commented to Mike the wind wasn’t blowing as predicted. He checked his weather app and said it should be blowing out of the southeast. I said “it’s not, it’s coming out of the southwest.” He got out of the truck and agreed the weatherman was wrong. Mike said jump in and we sped off. He had a stand on the other side of the property that would work for our wind.
Thirty minutes later I was climbing into another ladder stand located in a row of trees along a fence line. I had a large open pasture with a pond to the rear, standing corn started 75-yards in front of me, a wood lot to both my right and left with batch of weeds directly between me and the corn. I was just getting situated when suddenly a doe came bursting from the woods to my left. She stopped momentarily at 40-yards, looked around, and trotted into the woods to my right. I was standing with bow in hand when a few seconds later two bucks erupted from the exact place she had come from. The larger buck was a possible shooter, but he never slowed down, and then turned into the corn. The smaller buck turned, came directly under my stand, and stood looking around. About 30-seconds later a big buck exited the woods from the same spot as the others. Nose to the ground; he covered the opening of the weed patch in a blink of an eye and entered the woods where the doe was headed. The smaller buck soon followed the rutting buck into the woods.
The next few hours were uneventful with no deer sightings at all. As I stood there going over what I could have done differently, I spied what appeared to be the same smaller buck returning from the woods headed in the direction he had originally come from a few hours earlier. He slowly walked across the opening not 20-yards from my stand. I hoped by some miracle the big buck would follow. The wait was short as not five-minutes later I could see him walking down the fence line. I was already standing, my bow in hand. The only problem was he was walking directly towards me along the heavily treed fence line. I wasn’t sure if I could get a shot. At about 30-yards for no reason I can explain, he angled to his right and started crossing the mostly open weed patch. I had my Prime Centergy at full draw as he slowly walked by at under 20-yards. I let my Dead Meat-tipped arrow loose. He took off at a full run. But seeing the Gold Tip Pierce arrow covered with blood sticking out of the ground, along with the blood trail I could clearly see from my stand, I was confident he wouldn’t go far. I called Mike and gave him a quick rundown of what had just happened. He said he was on his way and if I felt good about my shot to take a quick look as it was getting dark. Once on the blood trail I had no doubt he was down. Forty-yards later I was standing over my best archery whitetail.
I went back to Timberghost after my unsuccessful first trip due to the quality operation and professional hardworking staff. I’m glad I did. I’ll be back with them as soon as the state of Iowa sees fit to give me another tag. I know the chances of improving on my Boone and Crockett class buck isn’t good, but I’m confident the staff will supply me with a quality free-range hunt.