One Indiana Hunter's Lost & Found Trophy Buck

One Indiana Hunter's Lost & Found Trophy Buck

The honesty of another sportsman prevails in bringing a lost buck back to its rightful owner. Read on for the fascinating story of Chad Hartman's trophy bow kill from last season. (July 2006)

: Chad Hartman stands by the mount of his trophy 10-point typical from Koscuisko County. His big buck scores a fine 175 6/8 and was taken during last year's bow season
Photo by Dean Weimer.

All great stories involve a great setting, and the setting where this one takes place is darn near as interesting as the actual story itself. In the midst of Kosciusko County is the city of Warsaw, also referred to as "Lake City." Winona Lake, just south and east of Warsaw, is actually more than just a lake, it is also a small town. While two distinctly different cities, these two have all but merged into one larger city.

With a population of just over 17,000 combined, you can't really call this a "big-city" situation, but Winona Lake could be considered a suburb of its bigger sister to the northwest. Like many other areas of suburbia, subdivisions have popped up all around the lake

Nestled in between, adjacent to, and intermixed with all the new housing is enough timber and brush to attract and hold a fairly large herd of whitetails, known as one of the most adaptable of all woodland creatures.

While bowhunting is not allowed inside of Warsaw's city limits, it is allowed inside of Winona Lake. It is this phenomenon that sets the stage for a world-class bowhunt for 34-year-old Chad Hartman, who actually lives on Winona Lake in Warsaw.

Hartman got a tip from a co-worker about this huge deer he called "Big Boy" that he had seen around his property. After seeing the somewhat blurry pictures of this giant framed typical, Hartman knew that he was looking at a special buck and was ecstatic at the chance of possibly getting a shot at him. After garnering permission to set up a deer stand and hunt on his friend's property, Hartman realized that he had a golden opportunity.

Soon after the serious planning began, the hunter got down to business. "I researched topographical maps, scouted where the does were bedding, and deer traveling routes, etc. I knew it was only 2 1/2 acres, but doing this does help; this also adds excitement, builds anticipation, and makes me feel much better about my hunting abilities when everything comes together as a plan. This is by far the biggest buck I had ever seen in the wild."

Hartman initially decided to wait for the rut to near before he would try to harvest Big Boy, but after hanging his stand on the day before the bow opener, he decided to try his new spot the next morning.

Legal light finally arrived that morning and Hartman started to see deer -- plenty of deer. "Doe after doe walked by my stand. They walked 50 yards past me and lay down. For the next hour nothing else but does came along and not one deer winded me. I realized then that my first plan to hunt when the rut kicked in was the one I needed to stick with."

Hartman then opted to hunt his grandpa's place until the rut would warm up a few weeks later.

"I ended up hunting Grandpa's and was making the half-hour drive every morning to Fulton County. I would sit there and daydream about Big Boy. There were two nice bucks at Grandpa's that would score between 140 and 150, both were terrific deer, but I knew I would have to pass on them. I knew I'd get my shot at Big Boy if I was patient," he explained.

The end of October arrived and he began to notice that bucks were grunting, and searching for does in his Fulton County spot. After three straight days of watching bucks become more active, all the while becoming more careless, he knew it was time.

He awoke on the morning of Oct. 27 at 5 a.m., and made the five-minute drive to his friend's property across the lake. "You could smell the cool, crisp air that any deer hunter strives for. I hurried and got my clothing on and headed into the woods. I got in position in the tree stand with ample time before daylight. I had only been there a few minutes and deer were already moving around," he recalls.

Soon Chad began to spot several small bucks trotting around the area. He saw a small 6-pointer, and an 8-pointer that would score around 120. And, again, he saw many does and fawns, which ended up bedding in the same spot as they had nearly one month earlier. Then it happened.

Traveling down the same path that the other deer had, Hartman spotted antlers moving toward him. "Four bucks were following each other, and one of them was a 130-class deer. They were putting on a show for the does, but they wouldn't get close to them. It reminded me of a middle school dance."

Then another deer was coming down the same trail through the woods. With heavy, dominant grunts the whole way in, Big Boy was making his entrance in grand style.

"He was letting everyone know he was there. He trotted past them like they weren't even there. To my amazement, another good buck came into view. He immediately saw Big Boy and stopped dead in his tracks. Big Boy raised his head high, stomped once and snorted. The other one took two steps backward and bolted. He bolted so fast that I was waiting for him to run into a tree. It was obvious that they had met before," he mused.

The buck had now entered Hartman's 30-yard sight window. "I pulled back and was ready for him. I bleated to get him to stop, which didn't affect him. I panicked . . . my eyes kept going from his rack to my pins and back again. I was so nervous that when I released my arrow it ended up flying 2 feet over the buck's back. I knew that both my eyes were on his antlers. He flinched a little, and kept on going like nothing had happened. I know I didn't really spook him and he never seemed to have smelled me."

Hartman had a video camera mounted to his bow, which he had gotten footage of his encounter with the monster typical. Although the footage wasn't the best, he took it to work that night and showed his buddies how close he had gotten.

The next morning he arrived at his stand around 5:35 a.m. It was slightly overcast with a light fog, temperatures in the 40s, and a light wind out of the east. Within minutes of getting into his stand, he once again heard deer all around him being pushed by what Hartman knew was the big buck.

Approximately 20 minutes later, the sun was just starting to come up. Coupled with the light fog, it made a serene scene for this now on-edge hunter. Hartman took a deep breath, gathering it all in and quickly got back to the task at hand.

"I heard deer coming at me zigzagging all over. Soon after, a doe passed to my right about 25 yards away with Big Boy right behind her. This wasn't the ideal lane I had hoped for. It was an open shot, but the deer were going down the trail quartering toward me. He was coming up and stepped out."

Hartman drew his Matthews Legacy bow and waited. "He looked up my way and knew something was up. The day before I took a shot and he never knew it. I knew I wouldn't get the same opportunity. When the arrow hit, it sounded like a two by four hitting up against the side of a tree. After I shot, he sounded like a bulldozer going through the thick brush . . . it was amazing!"

THE SEARCH FOR BIG BOY

Hartman called his good friend, Travis Harmon, to tell him the good news. He excitedly told Travis, "Big Boy, Big Boy . . . I got Big Boy . . . good shot . . . good shot!"

He then drove back home because he needed to get help. About an hour later, the search party arrived back at the scene of the shot. They found a good blood trail immediately and found Hartman's arrow about 30 yards away. Then, after going another 40 yards, they found no blood at all. Hartman then called another buddy, Chuck Oldham, to help in the search.

"I started circling, just looking blindly. I was probably a quarter mile away from where I shot him," he explained. "I was in a small woods, heading down this trail, and found a single drop of blood. The buck then started bleeding again more heavily, went across a creek, and then ran down a paved street. The buck came up to a stop sign, and the blood (trail) stopped," Hartman said.

It was at this point in the tracking job that things took a turn for the worse. There are three adjoining subdivisions adjacent to where Hartman had initially shot the buck. The wounded buck is now literally running in a populated area.

"I scanned the area and about 200 to 300 yards away, I spot a low area. I was getting very nervous. I've never experienced anything like this. At this point I look up and see people walking down the street, kids flying kites. I went over there and find blood everywhere."

Hartman is now down in this low area with brush up over his head when he kicks up the wounded buck just 5 feet ahead of him. "That's when I saw his hind end. He looked like a horse and that's when I see the mass of his rack for the first time. That's when I said, 'Oh, my gosh!' "

He then realized that there are houses all around him. Oldham was walking toward Hartman when Big Boy jumped up out of the low area.

"The sight of Big Boy stunned Chuck. We take off running across this yard, and ran into some elderly women who were walking. We asked them if they had seen a big deer running down the road. The women hadn't seen the buck, and the kite flyers were too busy looking up and didn't see the buck, even though it was only about 40 yards away from them.

"He just vanished. He headed to a swampy ravine. I jumped over that, and the deer were kicking up all over the place."

Hartman heard the sound of a big deer jump up and try to sneak around him. He then realized that this one was his buck as it jumped back across the ditch. After arriving at the scene of the jump, he found blood on the ground where Big Boy had landed on the opposite side.

Now the group had tracked the buck very near a police officer's house. The officer was outside and watching the trackers.

"Have you seen a buck? The officer replied that he hadn't seen the deer. The whole time he was looking at me and talking on his cell phone. At this point, after hearing what the officer said, and after two-plus hours of not finding the buck, I was like, OK, I'm done. I realized what a predicament I was in."

The next day, a Winona Lake resident, Andy Lewis, discovered a dead buck in his yard. An area conservation officer told Lewis to just dispose of the carcass. Lewis, however, isn't a hunter and didn't have any experience with deer of any kind. An acquaintance of Lewis then told him to call Chris Dawson, a local serious deer hunter who he worked with.

Lewis called Dawson, and told him about the buck. Dawson decided to go check it out and recalls, "Nobody was interested in doing much with it. I just drove over, but when I saw the deer I couldn't believe what I was looking at."

Dawson had grown up hunting the big woods of northern Michigan, but now calls Indiana home. "I've seen some big deer, but I knew this was something special."

After taking the buck back to his house outside of Warsaw that Saturday evening, Dawson debated whether he should even tell anyone. "I knew if this got out, it would bring up the possibility that I'd have to give the deer back to someone. I could keep it to myself and put it above the fireplace; but you know what, I'd rather have my own 120-class buck than someone else's 180-class buck. This is somebody's trophy; it's worth a billion dollars to the person who shot it."

WORD SPREADS

In the next few days, news of the buck had traveled around the community like a wild brushfire. Meanwhile, a picture of the buck had been posted on a Web site and people all around the county became aware of the buck, and the story of how it came to be.

"There were all kinds of people claiming that they had shot the buck. Unbelievably, a friend of mine came forward and claimed to have trail camera pictures of this buck. I go over to his house and he pulled out a picture from Oct. 6," Dawson said. "There was no mistaking that this is the same buck because it showed the distinct characteristics of the buck's slightly curled-in right main beam."

THE REUNION

Dawson had heard the name Chad Hartman for the first time as someone who possibly had shot the deer. Hartman's name continued to resurface amidst all the other stories for the next few days, at which point Dawson decided to take the rack back to Michigan to make sure it wouldn't be stolen.

Finally, Hartman contacted a local resident who had told someone else about Andy Lewis finding this big buck in his yard. Dawson went over to Lewis' house to tell him all the details of his hunt. As it turned out, Hartman and his buddies were within 30 yards of finding the big buck when they quit the search.

Lewis then called Dawson to tell him that he was sure that Hartman was the hunter who had shot the buck. Lewis gave Dawson all the details, including that it had been shot on the right side, that it was a huge 10-pointer, and was shot on Friday the 28th, etc. Although still skeptical, Dawson decided that it would take more than just a picture of the buck to convince him who was the rightful owner. Hartman explained to Dawson that he had video footage of the buck, too.

They decided to go back to Hartman's house to review the tape. After two hours of discussion, there was no doubt in Chris Dawson's mind that Chad Hartman was the guy.

"He didn't give me any inkling that he believed me; he hid it that well. He wanted all the details, and it wasn't until the very end that he said, 'Congratulations, Chad!' "

Chris Dawson's dad would bring the rack back with him when he came down to Indiana to hunt the firearms opener with Chris on his property on the weekend of Nov. 12.

Hartman was finally reunited with his rack. A local conservation officer, Lyle Enyart, told Hartman to go to a nearby check-in station in Mentone, where a tag awaited him. "There were a tremendous amount of ups and downs," Chad Hartman said.

PUTTING THE TAPE ON BIG BOY

Chad Hartman's tremendous 10-pointer is a huge framed typical, which has an excellent combination of symmetry, mass, tine length and inside spread that pushes the net score well past the Boone and Crockett Club's (B&C) minimum entry score of 170 inches.

The buck's main beams are both above average in length. The right antler is 28 0/8, while the left is 27 2/8. The inside spread of 20 2/8 is also above average. The brow (G-1) tines are long at 7 6/8 on the right and 7 4/8 on the left. The G-2s are very long at 12 0/8 on the right and 11 7/8 on the left side, and the G-3s are also good at 10 1/8 left and 8 6/8 on the right.

This "clean" typical sports no non-typical tines at all. After adding all of the measurements together, Big Boy gross scores 181 2/8, and after subtracting the 5 4/8 inches for side-to-side differences, it nets in at 175 6/8. Big Boy is a new Kosciusko County typical record.

This is no doubt a unique story that involves many twists and turns. Dawson explained: "I don't want to take any credit for this. God gave this buck back to Chad. I was just the one who delivered it."

Although Dawson didn't want to garner any attention from the whole situation, Hartman wanted to make it very clear how awesome it was for Dawson to be such a good person for allowing him to have his buck back. And that, my friends, makes for one heck of a great buck story!

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