By Dan Long
Last fall, Ashtabula County crept into the Ohio deer-hunting spotlight by producing the second-largest deer killed in 2001: Jeff Clemson’s 214-inch non-typical brute that was taken during bow season. Only Jonathan Hale’s 222-inch southwest Ohio buck scored higher.
Northeast Ohio has always held its own when it comes to producing monster deer, and when my good friend Mike Clark reported another 200-class buck taken in Ashtabula County last season, I wasn’t surprised, having lived and hunted in this unique county for many years. The region is full of ravines and overgrown apple thickets, and recent Ohio Division of Wildlife deer management practices have helped put the Ashtabula County back on Ohio’s big buck list.
Rick Hildebrand’s passion for hunting white-tailed deer is a family tradition passed down from his father, Dick, and includes his brother, cousin and nephew. Through years of hunting experience, Hildebrand and his friends have adopted a philosophy for hunting their local block of deer habitat in northeast Ohio.
“We let the little bucks walk and shoot only those with an 18-inch inside spread or better,” was Hildebrand’s response regarding his family’s deer-hunting philosophy.
The Hildebrand family loves deer hunting so much they even have a heated pole building out back that becomes the local social stop for area hunters.
Chasing big bucks has become Hildebrand’s obsession, and his friends and family are now focusing on managing their buck herd, although they still harvest an occasional doe.
To keep track of deer movements, Hildebrand and his hunting companions drive the roads during summer and early fall, looking for big bucks.
“When I saw this buck come into the field and stop, I was in awe. The deer stared for a second and then took off like a jet engine was tied to his rear end,” he said.
Ohio Division of Wildlife biologists predict peak breeding to occur on or about Nov. 14, and Ohio’s 2002 November rut was right on time. Hildebrand and his family, like many Ohio hunters, dedicated more of their time to the woods during this time of the year due to the odds of increased deer movement during the rut.
On Nov. 9, Hildebrand and his father decided to spend some time with grandson Greg in a tree stand. The morning’s hunt was very exciting as the trio saw several deer, and young Greg passed on a small 6-point buck.
Their patience paid off, however, as 11-year-old Greg finally zipped and took a nice 120-class, 8-point buck at 30 yards with a crossbow.
The next day, Hildebrand’s shift at work ended early and he raced home to get into his stand. Hildebrand planned to hunt another hot stand, but his dad was already hunting it. Hildebrand checked the wind and realized the stand out back was in a better position for the current breeze that blew in from the northwest.
Seconds later a huge buck bolted in along a clear-cut path, coming to an abrupt halt 30 yards away. The buck put his nose to the ground and began staring right at Hildebrand. The buck stopped for a few seconds and took off.
Hildebrand sat in his stand in wonder at the buck that had came out of nowhere and then was gone as fast as he had appeared. Hildebrand decided he had nothing to lose and called again, this time with bow in hand. The bleat sounded weak in the quiet of the maple and beech-clustered forest.
Many hunters spend countless hours in their stands, bleating, grunting, rattling and spraying deer scent in all directions in hopes of seeing a big buck. Hildebrand’s pitiful, quavering bleat produced the same amazing results it had the first time! The same huge buck came racing in on the same path at the same speed to the same spot and stared at the hunter again!
No one knows what makes a rutting buck do what he does, but if this monster was looking for a fight, he picked the wrong hunter.
This time, Hildebrand was ready. The deer lowered its head and Hildebrand decided to draw, and then he held the 30-yard pin right on the buck’s head. Hildebrand held his draw, waiting for the buck to turn in either direction. The buck simply lifted his head, still staring. Hildebrand knew his odds for a broadside or quartering shot were slim. He knew he had to act fast.
Hildebrand decided to try to slip an arrow below the buck’s white throat patch into his vitals. As he released, the buck jumped the shot and began to wheel around. Hildebrand heard the arrow smash into the buck, but due to the sudden quickness of the event, he couldn’t be sure where he had hit the deer.
Hildebrand sat for a few minutes, disbelieving what had just happened, and realized he might need help looking for this deer, so he climbed down from the stand and walked back to the house.
He knew his cousin Jimmy was hunting down the road and decided to go get him. Even though there was still daylight left and he may interrupt Jimmy’s hunt, Hildebrand figured he would be happy to assist in tracking what could be one of the family’s biggest deer ever.
The cousins headed back to the stand site, approached the spot where the deer was standing began heading off in the direction the deer had exited.
“Within 10 yards we found a blood trail a blind man could follow,” Hildebrand recalled.
The two hunters followed the easy blood trail over 50 yards when Hildebrand finally spotted the white belly of a downed deer. Jimmy quickly ran over to the deer and immediately started counting points.
Hildebrand stared at the deer in disbelief, and then tossed his bow to the ground and ran over to look at the deer.
l points, netting 206 3/8 Pope and Young points. The deer weighed in at 285 pounds before field dressing. Only one neighbor had reported seeing such a deer in the area!
When the elder Hildebrand came in from his stand, he couldn’t believe what he saw. It turned out that he had hunted that stand all morning, took a short break, and went back out until 2 p.m. Having seen nothing all day, he decided to move across the road to another stand. Little more than an hour separated the time one hunter had left the stand and another entered it for the evening!
Since 1998, curtailed harvest regulations have created an increase in deer numbers in northeastern Ohio, and doe hunting has been limited. This practice has allowed many button bucks that are often mistaken for does to survive and grow into older age classes.
If you don’t believe this concept works, just ask Rick Hildebrand what it’s like to have a 200-class buck fall victim to a doe bleat twice within 15 minutes.
Hildebrand’s theory is that the need for older bucks to control the breeding process by driving away younger bucks is making Ohio’s northeastern corner a goldmine for hunters.
And it looks like he’s right!
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