I’d only seen him on the game camera twice. An absolute showstopper of a whitetail buck, the kind typical of low-fenced ranches in the Texas Hill Country. Long, lean from covering lots of ground looking for love, but full-bodied from the hormones coursing through his veins, he must have been pushing one hundred and sixty pounds on the hoof. An absolute monster by my standards. Looking at the size of his snout, and the subtle lightened shade around his lips, I knew this was his peak year. A mature 10-pointer with what looked to be a nearly twenty-inch inside spread, he was in all respects the perfect buck. And wiley as the coyote of the same name . . .
I’d first spotted him in velvet in early fall. Driving around my ranch one morning looking for some hogs my parents had told me they’d seen, I spooked him from some tall grass. He was absolutely majestic. Even in velvet, and with his body still lean from the summer, he was huge. I’d never seen a whitetail that large at our place, but a record amount of rainfall in the summer, and some neighbors getting serious about feeding protein had combined to bring this perfect specimen into being.
I never saw him again during the pre-season except for two midnight shots from my StealthCam. Suspicions confirmed, I consulted everything I could get my hands on to find out when the peak rut would be in effect. Once I narrowed down a five-day window of time, I contacted my boss, told him I needed to take some personal time, and set out to wait.
Opening morning came crisp and clear with decent activity around the feeder. Most of the does looked healthy, a godsend given the depredation of the recent drought. My heart just wasn’t in it though. I took a coworker with me and we got a nice cull buck for his first deer. I’ve always enjoyed taking new hunters out to get their first deer, and while my coworker was appreciative and the deer didn’t suffer, I still felt hollow. I knew that big buck was out there, outsmarting every other hunter by laying low in deep cover during the day and feeding at night. Only love could make him do something stupid like come out during the day in open fields. I’d just have to wait.
I honestly didn’t know if I could squeeze the trigger even if I spotted him again. Just giving it consideration felt like it would jinx the whole gig. And I had my doubts about my mental state around killing. While he’d certainly provide a great deal of meat, he was still a big, old, stinky buck; not the best for anything but sausage. And I’ve never been one to mount antlers on the wall or go hunting around for them. Well, except for hunting sheds during the spring, but they’re not attached to the animal so it seems a bit more fair. I knew that if the opportunity came, I’d make a decision I wouldn’t regret.
The week of the rut finally came, so I disconnected my work email from my phone, left a note on my desk that I’d taken to the woods and would be unreachable for a week, and pointed my truck west. I set up in my favorite blind near the place where I’d seen him on the camera. The first day came and went with a tremendous flurry of activity. Bucks of all kinds were nose-to-the-ground, chasing does and occasionally getting lucky in the process. I knew that big buck had to be out there somewhere, but he sure didn’t show up on the first day.
Day two played out a bit different as the wind really kicked up. A blessing and a curse as the deer took cover with the swirling eddies of wind blowing around. I nearly died of boredom as the wind kicked up little tornadoes of dried leaves all around my blind. But I knew that getting the opportunity at that big buck wasn’t going to be easy, and while catching up on my Netflix queue back at the house held a certain appeal, I felt that God, nature, and a variety of other deities would reward me if I put the work in to wait it out. The night of day two, the temperature dropped twenty degrees over the span of a few hours.
Sunrise on day three found me high up in a tree listening to a completely still morning come to life around me. The little tornadoes of dried leaves were nowhere to be found as a thick layer of frost coated the ground. As the sun started to peek over the far horizon, a gentle breeze kissed my face. Knowing my scent would be carried towards my neighbor’s fence line, I positioned myself to look directly into the direction of the wind. As soon as there was enough light, I immediately started glassing the world in front of me. With the rut in full swing, a cold front in full effect and the wind in my face, I knew that the conditions couldn’t be any more perfect to see that big buck.
Shortly after sunrise, a doe with two yearlings in tow pawed at the corn under my feeder. She looked around occasionally while she picked at the corn on the ground when suddenly her head shot up. She stamped her foot on the ground once, twice, then a third time. I watched as jets of steam shot out from her nostrils. Clearly something had ruffled her feathers. Perhaps the buck I sought? I watched as a fox ran past her, his mind on a rabbit out and about on this cold morning. Deciding that they’d spent enough time at the feeder, the young mother herded her kiddos up, and trotted off.
Twenty minutes later, a small Axis buck sauntered up. He was at least as big in the body as the buck I’d seen on camera, but only a nub buck. Normally, he’d already be dead as visions of Axis jerky danced in my head, but I knew that he’d been sent to test my resolve. Sure, this was a chip shot at this range, and he’d presented about as many perfect broadside shots as could be had, but I didn’t take him. I just knew in my soul that this was a final test thrown at me by the aforementioned religious figures. Not giving in here would certainly mean that Mr. Buck would walk into my crosshairs soon enough.
Alas, the next thing to present themselves a few hours after sunrise was a herd of six does. Most were young with the exception of one, clearly the alpha. She kept the group in line with a sharply placed kick here and there that let the girls know she was boss. Soon after they showed up, a young spike trotted out with his nose to the ground. He pulled up short of the group, again with a perfect broadside shot. Again, I held off. And lucky I did as that old doe gave him a piece of her mind for daring think he was fit for any of her girls. I took great joy in watching the social hierarchy when I saw movement at the tree line. Big movement.
Sure enough, it was my buck. I set my binoculars down and picked up my rifle. Already my hands were shaking as I watched him strut out into the open. He was massive! Even bigger than he looked on the camera. I managed to crack open the bolt on my trusty Ruger to ensure that there was actually a cartridge in the chamber. Once satisfied, I raised the rifle to my shoulder and rested it on the branch in front of me. Never has a more stable sight picture been acquired.
I picked him up in the crosshairs and tracked him as he put his nose to the ground and started pushing around the younger does. He took a couple of steps towards the corn, and paused. I clicked the safety off on my Ruger and gently eased my finger over to the trigger. I caressed the cold steel and started to apply pressure when suddenly he sprinted off towards the old doe. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding and eased my finger off the trigger.
I watched through the scope as he ran from left to right across my field of view, never seeming to slow down enough for another shot. This was maddening! Finally he slowed to a walk with his nose to the ground. I eased the crosshairs to a point right behind his massive shoulders, and waited for him to slow before letting out a loud whistle. Instantly, he stopped, shot his head straight up in the air. I slowly squeezed on the trigger waiting for the recoil to obscure my sight picture.
<BEEEEPPP BEEEEPPP BEEEEPPP BEEEEPPP>
That’s my alarm. It is 6:00 AM and I need to get a run in before I have to be in the office. I’m in Austin, my bed is soft, my wife is quietly snoozing beside me, and my phone says the date is sometime in early August. Whitetail season is still a few months away, but it might as well be eons as long as my dreams keep getting haunted by visions of trophy bucks.