Persistence Pays Off
By Robert Gratson
During the last week of the 1997 archery season, I found myself in a situation on State Game Lands #51 in Fayette County that would eventually test my knowledge and skills for the next two years.
It was a fairly uneventful day because of the warm weather. As daylight faded, I picked up my equipment and started back to my truck. I was walking down an overgrown logging road when I thought I heard a grunt. I decided to stop and listen; I knew it was too dim to take a shot, but I was curious as to what I heard. Then, just on the other side of a thicket, a deer came from my left and stepped into the road. It stood there about 12 yards in front of me. I was shocked and dumbfounded! It was a beautiful, high-racked, massive buck. The incident was over as fast as it happened -- so I thought! In reality, it had just begun!
There were only a few days left in the season, and I figured I had no chance of patterning this animal, let alone seeing it again. But the encounter was so close to my stand, I thought that if I moved my ladder stand a little I might just have a chance.
The following morning I was not able to hunt, but by 2 p.m. I was in the stand and ready. At about 3:00, a small 4-pointer and three does passed by.
Not long after that, a decent, pencil-racked 7-pointer came in. I had the opportunity to take it but decided to pass. I knew deep inside there was something bigger and better close by because the bucks that had just passed were nervous and jumpy.
I was right. About a half-hour before sunset, a buck suddenly showed up. I knew it was the one from the night before, and it was heading to the same place. It came within 20 yards and offered me the best shot any archer could ever ask for. The buck was perfectly broadside and looking away. I came to full draw, put the pin on it, held my breath and released. I heard a thud and was sure of a fatal hit because of the sound and the way it raised its hindquarters. The deer kicked and then ran away.
I waited only 15 minutes, and by that point, the excitement was killing me. But I would soon find nothing but a major heartbreak! I went to the area of the shot, and there, stuck in a stump at ground level, was my arrow with absolutely no trace of a hit. To this day I still can't figure it out.
I hunted the remaining three days with no sight of the buck. On the final evening of the archery season, the good Lord gave me the opportunity to harvest a nice 8-pointer.
Although happy with the 8-pointer, I couldn't quit thinking about the other buck. The image of that monster was imbedded in my mind. I let my grandfather get a crack at him during the gun season that same year.
On the first morning, I sat right beside him on the opposite side of the hollow from the old clear-cut where I first saw the buck. We sat there for hours and saw a lot of does and a couple of spike bucks, which he won't shoot. There was no sign of the buck anywhere. By now I figured it was gone or harvested by someone else down the hollow. We hunted that area the entire season with no sign of the buck.
The second day of doe season, I decided to hunt up around an old house foundation that used to be a big farm and was now overgrown with a huge crabapple thicket on the top. I still had my doe tag and had seen does there during archery season. The old farm sits in the middle of a giant saddle. At the top on one end is the backside of the clear-cut and on top of the other end is the crab-apple thicket. As daylight broke, I saw two deer wander off in the distance and disappear. At this point I decided to move about 200 yards over, closer to the foundation.
I was slowly still-hunting the ridge over toward the farm and noticed I was surrounded by giant buck rubs. As I took a closer look, I noticed the rubs were deeply gouged at least three feet off the ground, and I was looking at 10-inch trees. I knew from experience that they had to be done by a big buck. I had this overwhelming gut feeling that these were the makings of MY buck. As I stood there looking at the rubs, I noticed a big doe. I didn't hesitate. I took her.
I radioed my grandfather in the hollow and told him that I was taking the doe down the hill and through the hollow to the Game Lands road and told him to meet me there.
We met and made plans for the afternoon hunt so he could get his doe. I told him to drop me back off at the old farm road, and I would poke around up there because there was a ton of fresh sign. He would be sitting in the bottom of the hollow so if something was up there it would run down to him.
It took me 20 minutes to reach the farm. I was walking a zigzag through the fields and thickets toward the old foundation. I jumped four does immediately, but they were heading up the hill away from my grandfather. I tried to make a big circle to the top of the knob in order to cut them off and push them back down to him. I slowly reached the top of the knob. There were two giant pines and a couple of old, rusty Chevy Vegas about 40 yards in front of me. No does in sight.
I was just about ready to turn around when a flicker of something in the two pines caught my eye. I looked close as it stood up. I could not believe my eyes! It was the buck. It seemed like 15 minutes went by. We both stood there staring at each other. I could finally see its size and mass with my 40x binoculars. At 40 yards I could almost count the burrs. The buck was a perfect 8-pointer, but its mass and height were the impressive parts. I had taken some nice bucks, but this one had more than 5 1/2-inch bases and was just as thick all the way up to its P3 with long tines. As the deer said its goodbyes, it walked away without even raising its tail. That was the end of the 1997 season for me.
All winter I frequented the area and studied trails and sign but never saw the buck again except for part of it in March of 1998. I took my closest bowhunting buddy out to the areas that I had seen the deer and what I think were its signs. We agreed that together we might be able to come up with the buck's travel pattern. We looked at my notes and maps, and I showed him the areas I had seen the deer so that we could come up with a feasible plan. We decided to walk the route, and everything began to fall into place. We saw rubs, scrapes and lone beds. About halfway through the route, we ran into a giant scrape at least 10 feet by 6 feet in the middle of the crabs. Then I noticed something in the "Y" of a tree. It was a shed, and not just any shed. The buck's right side shed had become caught in the tree and was hanging there -- a little chewed up but still impressive. I finally knew that I was on the right path.
During turkey season in May, I looked around and saw a lot of bucks, but it was still too early to tell anything because they were still in the early stages of velvet. When mid-August rolled around, I had the buck in my sight pretty regularly. It was unmistakably large compared to the other bucks we were seeing in the area. Throughout the rest of August and September, I frequently saw it in the fields in the early morning hours and had the deer's travel trails down fairly well. It was just a waiting game until archery season began. I knew I would have to get a shot at it early because the forage would be changing quickly and its patterns would change as well.