A Trail to a Trophy
by Mark Kayser
I think he’ll go 180 inches or better,” one of my hunting partners stated with a straight face. That’s all it took; he had my full attention. I trusted his judgment on the buck he’d seen in September and he rarely added invented points to a score, but what intrigued me even more was his description of the buck. “He’s a main frame 5-pointer, but he has a lot of garbage points, especially on his G2 and brow area.
A group of us hunted a particular South Dakota ranch and our unwritten rule was to respect efforts if someone was working an area for a big buck. Nevertheless, if nobody is hunting and someone else has an open weekend the entire ranch is available to hunt. Luckily, I had a week in late October open when none of the others would be free. It would be my one chance to try and tag the monster with my Mathews bow before the pressure of rifle season arrived.
The sighting of the monster whitetail three weeks earlier still weighed on my mind and I figured since the buck was mature he’d rarely hit the hayfields during legal shooting light. Scouting efforts by my partners verified that fact. Instead of hunting edges, I moved into the depths of the riparian zones and hunted a different kind of edge: interior edges. What are interior edges? These are edges created by past flooding, where water once coursed and left behind a grassy alleyway. Western whitetails follow these interior pathways, marking the edges with rubs, and scrapes just as if they were walking along a woodlot in Iowa.
Despite my 5-day effort, I couldn’t put a plan together to put me within bow range of the brute, much less lay eyes on him. On the last day of my hunt, I bow killed a 4 ½-year-old, 5-pointer after grunting it into 12 yards. A misting of Primetime Estrus scent in an open shooting lane held the buck perfectly for a TV-like ending. Although this meant the end of my bowhunting season for the giant, my rifle permit would give me another opportunity in mid-November.
Just prior to the November opener, a massive blizzard rolled across the western half of the state. It shut down travel and plugged the backcountry roads. I talked to my partners who braved the storm and despite their efforts the storm limited their access to the remote ranch. I joined them a few days later and toiled through the snow and mud only to move to another hunting location to try a more hospitable environment. The big buck would have to wait.
It’s not that I wanted to abandon the buck, but filming for TV means I have to hunt efficiently and effectively. Moving to an area giving me more flexibility to cover country without the obstacles of snow and mud meant a higher chance of getting a show. Two deer later and two shows in the can I suddenly found myself with a 3-day break before I needed to head to a Wyoming whitetail hunt. I knew just where to spend my time.
I’d been keeping tabs on my hunting partners and not only had none of them shot the giant buck, none had even seen him. There was always the possibility someone had already tagged the buck on a neighboring property, but word would have spread and so far, mum was the word. Once again, I targeted the big bottom where my friends had seen the non-typical back in September. I eased through the half-mile long bottom stopping occasionally to rattle and grunt. Something was eerily wrong. There were no deer in the bottom whatsoever. Had someone been trespassing and pressured it? At the end of the afternoon I finally managed to roust a yearling mule deer, but the deer I had seen nearly two weeks earlier were AWOL.
My instinct kicked in, and at sunset I hiked to an overlook to scan a distant winter wheat field. My instinct was still working. The field was littered with muleys and whitetails. I counted nearly 80 deer and at least 20 bucks while scanning the winter wheat and an adjacent milo field. None were exceptionally outstanding, but with the bulk of the does in the neighborhood, the bucks would all be nearby. Two problems remained. I only had the next morning to hunt and getting to this location required busting ice to cross the river in my truck. Even if the ice would break I still had to hope my truck would crawl back up the slippery riverbank on the far side. Overnight, I heard it rain, further diminishing my confidence.
In the dark of the morning, I chanced the crossing and unbelievably my old Chevy made it across the ice-choked obstacle. Instead of targeting the field I stopped short and hiked to a small knob overlooking a draw leading from the fields. The deer often funneled down it to return to bedding cover in the adjoining river breaks. I still had a cameraman in tow from my previous hunts so we set up to watch the ravine and waited for shooting light. Minutes prior to shooting light I heard a truck behind me and looked to see some other hunters accessing a neighboring pasture near the fields. I grumbled to myself since they’d likely put the deer on alert. Later, I surmised it was the best thing to happen. Why? Suddenly a buck came running by below, likely in escape mode from the truck. After a three-second, Nikon-enhanced glance to confirm the buck as a shooter; I said one sentence and one sentence only to my cameraman.
“Get on that buck because I’m going to shoot him when he stops,” as I pointed to the buck kicking in the afterburners below. At that moment I didn’t know it was the giant we’d been hunting, but I knew it was a seriously big buck.
Intensely looking for escape cover, the buck raced upwards into the river breaks and farther away from me. I’m not a risk-taker when it comes to shooting and rarely take shots at running game. I found the buck in my riflescope and prepared to howl at the buck to hopefully stop it in confusion. Just then the planets and stars aligned. Near the top of the ridge the buck stopped for a split second. As I look back, I believe he was surveying his escape options. Should he dive into the left draw or the right draw? Either one was brimming with cover. Regardless of his thought process my mind was screaming “shoot!” I didn’t have time to range the distance, but felt confident it was a dead-on shot with my .300 Winchester Magnum TC Encore Pro Hunter.
The buck was quartering away on a steep slope and the Hornady bullet caught him in the back with driving force down through his vitals. He dropped in his tracks. Not sure he was down for good I reloaded and rushed to the buck to confirm the shot. As I walked over to the buck, I realized that I had totally underestimated his size. That’s rare in the hunting world, but rewarding when it happens. Of course I only had 15-seconds to judge, adjust, estimate range and get a shot off. As I walked closer, I started to think that the buck either had a lot of sticker points or the yucca plant he as wedged in was creating an optical illusion. It wasn’t. My mouth dropped as I picked up his head resting in the yucca. He was a giant.
I quickly counted the points and came up with 12 per side all built around a massive 5×5 mainframe rack. My cameraman and I traded congratulations, but my real desire was to call home and share the moment with my family. After tagging the brute I raced to a high point in hopes of getting cell service and called home. My wife answered and I shared with her and my kids’ one of my favorite whitetail hunting memories. I’d say it’s my best, but watching my kids take their first deer holds the top spots. Nevertheless, the buck is a true western whitetail trophy.