I believe everyone’s favorite place to hunt is where they grew up.
Maybe it’s nostalgia, or a longing to return to their roots. But from Coastal Carolina to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, I’ve found that most hunters hold a special place in their heart for the piece of dirt where they shot their first deer. It’s where you learned the woods, learned the animals, and most importantly, learned yourself.
Fortunately, that place for me is Illinois. My brother and I were the direct beneficiaries of growing up on a farm. Dad farmed corn and soybeans with a little livestock in the mix, and mom was the postmaster in our little town of Hamilton. I had 49 kids in my graduating class and nearly every football field I played on was bordered by rows of corn behind the guest bleachers. You could even take your deer tag into the principal’s office and get an excused absence for opening day of shotgun season. (That story, plus “buying a gallon of gas for less than a dollar,” is the one I can’t wait to tell my grandkids)
When Kim and I were deciding where to settle down and raise a family, I told her I could live anywhere as long as I’m in Illinois during November. That’s easy to say (and easy for her to agree with) when we’ve yet to have the kids, clients, employees and the obligations that come with grown-up life. Soon, life got busy for us. Last year I spent the first week of November in a NICU when Kim delivered our baby girl, Brooklyn, six weeks early. In reality, missing one season is a blip on the radar of life, and spending time in a NICU taught us just how fortunate we are to have healthy children - it’s life’s greatest blessing.
Still, skipping the rut entirely is a tough one to swallow. This year brought its own set of unique challenges, and I was honestly expecting a repeat of last year. But family came to the rescue, and my mom promised to stay with Kim and the kids so I could make the trip home to hunt with dad. It was the first time I was able to hunt the dirt I grew up on in over two years.
The first week of November was warm, even hot at times, with highs in the 70’s every day. I had a pile of work I couldn’t put off, so I brough my office and supplies with me to keep things rolling while I was on “vacation.” It was an odd sight to see a 27” iMac and hard drives humming in the living room against a backdrop of the old farm antiques and refinished furniture my mom and dad collect. I’d start each workday at sunrise, then knock off at 1 pm to deer hunt the afternoons. It didn’t bother me a bit to sit out half-days with the weather 20 degrees above normal. After a couple days of hunting, most of the activity was happening in the last 30 minutes of daylight.
On the evening of November 4th, I climbed into a stand in a cedar tree off the edge of a bean field. This corner has always been good during the rut. A few years ago I shot a heavy 9-pointer from the same spot and even wrote a blog post about it here. Sitting in this particular tree on my parent’s farm brought back all kinds of memories – too many to even write about – and as I sat there, I couldn’t help but think about how good it was to be back home.
With an hour left in the day, I was watching three does and two fawns across the bean field, when I heard a long, drawn out grunt about 75 yards to the south. I was up on a flat bench about 20 yards off the edge of the field, and the grunt came from down in a shallow ravine behind me. With no deer close by to spook, I decided to rattle a little to get the buck’s attention and make him think the action was in this bean field. From his current location, I knew he had his choice of three crop fields to hit after dark. I wanted to convince him that mine was the one he should choose. A short rattling sequence later, a small 8-pointer read the script, cruised under me and headed out across the field to harass the does. But the deer I heard grunting never showed.
Twenty minutes later came the same long grunt in a slightly different spot but still the same distance away, deeper into cover. I grunted a bit in that direction with no response. Twenty minutes after that, light was fading and I was losing hope that this buck was going to materialize, when I heard the same grunt again. I decided to give him a snort-wheeze, then quit jacking with him and let it get dark before I slipped out. So I did, with no immediate response. A few minutes later though, as the woods settled into a dead calm, I heard a deer walking my direction and saw a body materialize out of the ravine.
This area, and the entire state for that matter, is covered with bush honeysuckle. It’s a leafy, green, invasive species that I and most others have come to despise. Anyone that’s hunted in the stuff can attest to how hard it is to see deer moving through it. At 40 yards, I raised my binos to get a better look at his rack and, while I still couldn’t tell exactly what he was, I knew he was a shooter. He had a big frame, heavy beams and some kickers. I put the binos down, picked up my bow and started running scenarios in my head of how and where I could get a shot. He needed to walk another 20 yards, come out from under the honeysuckle and clear a shagbark hickory on his way to the field edge for me to get a clear shot. He did exactly that. As he cleared that hickory, I was already anchored and ignoring his rack, trying to pick a spot to get an arrow into him. At 10 yards I released the arrow and the buck let out a loud, guttural bellow as the arrow passed through both lungs, then he bounded back into the honeysuckle. The buck ran 30 yards, stopped out of sight, and then crashed before everything fell silent again.
I waited until dark, snuck out of the tree, grabbed my arrow and headed home to meet dad before looking for blood. I was confident he was laying right there but didn’t want to take a chance. Dad and I returned and didn’t find any blood, but as we walked the trail that I heard him crash on, our bouncing lights simultaneously settled on a massive, gnarly main beam sticking up above the brush. He was huge. Some high fives and shocked expletives later, I retold him the story and we started piecing together details of which deer this could possibly be.
We didn’t have any trail cam pictures of him this fall, but plenty of pics from last winter. He showed up in late November and was a regular on the farm, holding onto his antlers until mid March. Word that he had been shot spread like digital wildfire. iPhones across the township started lighting up with pics of him laying on a tailgate as neighbors and friends stopped by to see him. My buddy Josh even gave me the shed he found off the deer last year planting beans. The buck had absolutely blown up from last season, adding kickers, tine length and tons of mass. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear it wasn’t even the same deer.
That night we took some photos, had a few beers, told some stories and scored him. At over 200”, it was the largest deer I’d ever seen in person, and bigger than anything I’d ever dreamed I would shoot. I woke up at 4:30 the next morning and couldn’t sleep. Still excited and in disbelief over the whole thing, I walked out to the garage just to look at his rack and cape again. He was amazing.
Eventually, the Eastern sky grew light as a new day dawned. I poured myself a fresh cup of coffee and went for a drive around the section to look for deer and reflect on what happened the evening before. I’d driven these roads for years, but this time I had a deeper appreciation for them than ever before.
As I crested a hill on the river bluff, I saw a school bus running the same route it did 30 years ago when I was a kid in grade school. The bus stopped in the middle of a gravel road outside a neighbor’s house, and a little dude clambered on board with his backpack and lunch box, headed for Hamilton Elementary. I pictured him with his forehead pressed against the chill of a bus window as the November sun rises. He wipes the fog off the glass so he can see deer in the fields as the bus bumps along a country road, just like I used to. Over the years, riding the back of that school bus and hunting the back forty will teach him just as much about life as that classroom he’s headed to. And I hope that wherever life takes him, he’ll always remember how special this place is that he calls home.