As the buck my 3 year old son had nicknamed “Puppa” sprinted twenty yards into the thicket I hoped my shot had been as true as it appeared when I let it go. Within a second or two I heard the unmistakable sound of a deer hitting the ground and I knew we had finally accomplished our goals.
The journey towards this moment really started back in the summer of 2007 when part of the property my brother in-law and I lease was logged. The following summer we decided to start taking steps to improve our property, and our hunts, and the first thing we did was take advantage of some of the newly opened up areas by putting in a few small food plots. From those humble beginnings in the summer of 2008 the mission began to flourish and develop quickly.
In the summer of 2009 we expanded our small food plots to try and keep up with the deer usage and the areas that had been logged in 2007 really started to take off and fill in. I imposed my first ever antler restrictions upon myself and vowed to take only a 6pt or better that year. After taking a 6pt early in the season I realized that I wanted to take the next step in my hunting progression and bumped my personal goal up to letting anything under an 8pt get a free pass. Over the course of the season I passed on several small bucks that I may have shot in the past and enjoyed the “challenge” of passing on bucks and certainly had no regrets with my decision. After the season ended I made the decision to up my goals for the upcoming season and made it my personal goal to target animals 2.5 yrs old or older and an 8pt or better.
In the spring of 2010 we talked with our landowner and got permission to put up 1000ft fence that would keep the cows out of about 8-10 acres of woods that had previously been part of the pasture. We also got word that our landowner would be planting an additional 40 acres of former pasture land bordering our lease into canola that year.
Putting that fence up was a two weekend long battle but almost instantly improved and isolated an existing bedding area by keeping the cows out and allowing the deer to really settle in and get comfortable. With our food plots doing well, the clear-cut areas continuing to grow into thick lush habitat, the new fence and the new 40 acres of food bordering us things on our property were starting to look better and better.
We were very lucky to time it so our personal hard work was able to get complimented by Mother Nature’s natural process (the regrowth of the logged areas) as well as our landowner’s new farming venture (which led to the planting of 40 acres of prime forage on our border). The combination of all three forces had lead to a dramatic change on and around our property heading into the 2010 season.
When you are trying to change things it is easy to get discouraged when it doesn’t seem like the effort you are putting in is resulting in equal improvement on the other end. We could see the physical changes on our property (the food plots, the newly fenced off area, improved bedding and cover, etc) but hadn’t yet seen the results from those changes that we had hoped would follow. Then, over the course of a two week period during the 2010 bow season we had 3 separate encounters with some really nice bucks and also got another nice buck on our trail cameras a few different times.
While we were unable to harvest any of these bucks in 2010 just seeing them and knowing that bucks of their caliber were around and were using our place was enough to really remind us of why we were doing what we were doing.
In the spring of 2011 it was as if somebody flipped a switch on our property. Our landowner helped us out by agreeing to plant a roughly 1.5 acre plot within the fenced in area we had created in 2010. The addition of this plot as well as our increased use of trail cameras led to what was probably the most exciting summer of my hunting career. Within the first few camera checks of the season it was obvious that things had changed and we saw more big bucks on our cameras that summer than we had seen in all the years combined since we started running trail cameras.
Heading into the season I think I was more excited than I had ever been. On opening day of bow I missed a shot at a 10pt that I had spent all summer drooling over and that would have been the biggest of my career. Throughout the season I saw several other good bucks and passed on a nice 8pt that a few years prior I would have definitely shot. Our neighbors took two ten points that fall that scored 128 (the buck that I missed with my bow earlier) and 135. Both of those bucks had been on our property during the year and we had pictures of both on our cameras. If there was any doubt left that our efforts had begun to pay off the fall of 2011 put those questions to rest. We now knew for sure that we were on the right path.
As we rolled into 2012 we were anxious to see what the year would bring and if it would live up to the fun we’d had in 2011. It wasn’t too long after we deployed the trail cameras that we started to find good bucks and it became clear the fun of 2011 was not a fluke. The continued work we’d been putting into habitat improvements and food plots combined with the passing of younger bucks had created a piece of property that was now drawing and even holding mature bucks and seeing these bucks had gone from a hope back in 2006 or 2007 to a regularity in 2012.
Throughout the 2012 off season we continued to improve and refine our food plot strategy and work on our bedding areas. This was our first year using plot screen as well as our first year focusing on providing full season browse in our large food plot. Our landowner added another 20 acres of canola on our property and we realized that unlike back in 2008 we now had to be sure to focus on bedding. In 2008 even our small food plots were a good food source for the area and they drew a good amount of deer. In the last few years food sources had become abundant thanks to agricultural changes as well as additional food plots on bordering land so we set out to further improve our bedding to hold deer instead of draw them with food.
Unfortunately for my brother in-law and I, despite the increase in good bucks in the area and the dramatic increase in sightings and encounters, as the 2012 season came to a close we had yet to put our tag on one any of those good bucks. We had shared multiple times in the joy of our neighbors successes but were still missing the ultimate personal pay off for the work we’d put in.
Heading into 2013 we were once again able to put a few good bucks in front of our trail cameras over the course of the summer and our hopes were high as we neared the season. Our list of bucks going into the 2013 season may have been a bit shorter than prior years but that fact was certainly not a negative reflection on the progress of our property.
This season’s list contained 3 bucks but those three bucks were all 3 yrs old or older and we believe that two of the three are 4 years old. While we may have had more target bucks in 2011 (we had 5 bucks on our list that year) a few of those bucks were 2 year olds. When picking out our list for 2013 we decided to leave off a few decent 2 year olds now that we’ve seen the way things have changed in the area. Obviously there is no guarantee that they will make it through this year and/or stay in the area next year but we’ve seen enough 3 and 4 year olds the last few years to know that it’s possible.
With our last pre-season trail camera pull I was able to confirm that the buck we were calling “Puppa” was by far the most photographed of our target bucks and was also the most paternable. We had gotten several pictures of him in or around our larger food plot in the evenings and my initial thought was to hunt him from a stand over a run between the plot and the bedding area. Unfortunately the winds for the first few days would not work well with that stand and I had to adjust my game plan.
After checking the winds for the afternoon of opening day I decided to try a stand directly on the plot for that first evening. The plan nearly came together that night with a last light sighting of Puppa but as light faded away I was forced to let him walk. As he disappeared I got out of the stand and used the escape path we had trimmed this summer for just such an occasion and was able to exit the area without getting busted.
The following afternoon as I headed back out to that same plot the winds had changed and I decided to use a stand nearer to where the buck had entered the plot the night before. As I sat looking at the plot we’d sweated through our shirts planting this summer I couldn’t help but wonder if despite all of our hard work I had once again let our opportunity slip through my fingers. Would this be another memory like the 2011 season where we came oh so close to bringing the story full circle only to see it fall apart at the last second?
With a little less than an hour of light left I heard footsteps coming down the run that I had come here to watch. I stared down the hill and quickly spotted legs moving through the underbrush. As the deer hit a clearing I saw the profile view of the buck I had come here for. I drew and as he hit a shooting lane I slowly squeezed the trigger of my release sending a broadhead tipped arrow of redemption and reward his way.
A few hours later, as I celebrated with a neighbor, he and I looked at the buck and discussed the long road it had been. This particular neighbor has been walking the same path we are on (and been doing it for many more years) and after years of hard work and marginal returns he has taken good bucks the last few years. He knew the hard work that we have put into our property and knew exactly what I was feeling as I told him the story of the hunt. As good as it felt to take the buck it may have felt even better to watch him share in the excitement of my success just as we had done with him the last few years. The smiles and laughter were plentiful as we discussed the excitement of the last few years and the possibility of what lies ahead.
When I look at this buck on my wall in the years to come it will always trigger the memory of the hunt, but more importantly it will remind me of the journey we took to get there.
Take care and thanks for reading!