Indiana has massive whitetail bucks, and every county in our state holds the potential to grow true monsters.
The first key to finding big bucks is to find great habitat. Deer need quality year-round food sources. Much of Indiana has great food sources in the form of corn and soybeans six months out of 12. While there might be isolated wood lots where deer can hide, they don't provide the quality and quantity of food and cover that the larger contiguous forests of the hilly and broken terrain found elsewhere in Indiana do.
The second step of growing a trophy buck is giving it time to grow. Some think that Indiana doesn't have the genetics to grow quality deer. They're wrong. Indiana's deer have the same genetic potential as do the legendary deer in Pike County, Illinois, or the north woods of Michigan. Tim Beck's monster buck in 2012 proved what biologists have been saying for generations. Indiana has monster deer. But studies have proven most Hoosier hunters drastically underestimate age of a deer and kill them before they reach their true potential.
While location is key to find a trophy, a hunter has to have passion and patience to stay in the woods, no matter the weather, and to take every precaution to keep his contamination minimized. If a big buck feels the slightest pressure or disturbance, he leaves for safer regions.
So, how do we find a trophy buck? That's the $64,000 question, and we went to three hunters who bagged a trophy buck last year to learn their secrets. You'll see recurring themes that are keys to success when these hunters recount the pursuit of some noteworthy bucks.
Antler score: 156 7/8 (net) typical 12-point
Deer Weight: 195 pounds (dressed)
Weather: Sunny — highs in the 50s
Area: 80 acres — a long, narrow, thick, nasty five-acre strip of woods, surrounded by hundreds of acres of farmland on every side.
Jeremiah faces the same issues that most husbands and fathers face: trying to balance time in the woods with his family responsibilities. To maximize his hunting time, he runs many trail cameras in the areas he hunts. Once season opens, he concentrates his efforts on funnels, bedding areas and pinch points. But he limits his scouting trips and only checks his trail cameras in the rain, preferably at dark or in strong winds. He is keenly aware any human intrusion would be noticed.
His tree stand is on a narrow, overgrown strip of woods that is a key funnel point for many of the deer in the area. The terrain around it was predominantly cropland, and the deer use the thicket as a bedding area.
The inability to wait for an ideal wind and the lack of suitable stand sites to accommodate every wind condition, along with the deer's tendency to enter the bedding area from the downwind side, creates no-win situation for the hunter. To combat this, the base of Jeremiah's stand is 32 feet off the ground. This allows him to conceal his movement and noise. It also helps his scent to drift above the deer.
On Nov. 14, 2016, due to family obligations, Jeremiah didn't get into his stand until 11 a.m. This was the last day before the chaos of firearms season, and the weather was less than ideal. It was warm and windy but, he had made a commitment to be in his stand, regardless of weather. With just a few hours left, Jeremiah settled in and waited for the prime movement time, the hour before dusk.
At 3 p.m., Jeremiah noticed movement along the downwind side of the bedding area. It only took a quick glance to see that the deer was a shooter. As the deer made its way toward him, Jeremiah realized if the buck traveled another 20 yards, he would be directly downwind on him. Fortunately, two well-placed Tink's scent bombs pulled the buck into the woods before he ever got directly downwind of Jeremiah.
Within 60 seconds of seeing the buck, Jeremiah had his bow drawn and waiting. As soon as he got a good sight picture he placed an arrow through the buck's vitals.
As the deer staggered away, the blood trail was obvious. After waiting 20 minutes, Jeremiah got down, followed the blood trail and found the deer just 70 yards away.
Several days later, Jeremiah realized this was the same deer that he had captured repeatedly on trail cameras in a separate woodlot more than two miles away.
In another twist, while prepping the hide, the taxidermist found many birdshot pellets under the skin on the deer's face, indicating that someone had attempted to poach the deer in the past.
After 24 years of bowhunting, this buck was a dream come true for Jeremiah. That said, Jeremiah also noted that during the past few seasons he has identified a few other bucks on trail cam that are equal to or larger than his 2016 deer. The challenge of hunting these ghosts will ultimately draw him back to the stand in the coming years.
Antler Score: 155 (net) typical 8-point
Deer Weight: 300 pounds
Weather: Sunny — highs in the 60s
Area: 100 acres of woods
Greg Davis is an avid hunter and is no stranger to local taxidermists. He consistently kills trophy bucks on leased property in Fountain County, but last season was different. He and his hunting partner, Cory Nash, gained deer hunting access to a farm where they previously only hunted turkeys. Like Greg, the farmer actively performed quality deer management. And the farm saw little hunting pressure. The farmer even mentioned that a 190-class buck was showing up on occasion.
Firearm season had already started when the offer to hunt the farm came. Greg and Cory wasted no time in implementing a hunting strategy. Since they hadn't had an opportunity to post cameras to locate deer, they decided to go back to basic woodsmanship.
The pair had been filming their hunts for years, so they planned to do the same during this excursion for a televised hunting program.
On Monday, Nov. 14, the wind at the time was blowing out of the south, and was going to remain so into the foreseeable future. Coming in from the north so that the wind would not be blowing their scent into the hunting area, the hunters set their stand overlooking trails from feeding areas going to two great-looking bedding areas.
Greg and Cory carefully observe scent control. They use Dead Down Wind soaps and shampoos, clean their clothing in scent control detergents and store them in Scent Crusher ozone generating bags. They also spray down with Dead Down Wind before going into the woods, and they hunt into the wind.
In the pre-dawn darkness, Greg and Cory crept into their stands and waited to see what the day might bring. They didn't have to wait long. As the sun rose, the woods came alive with deer.
"We saw and passed on bucks I normally would shoot," Greg noted. But being new to the property and knowing that even larger deer may be roaming around, Greg waited. His patience was rewarded.
As is often the case, they heard the buck long before they saw it. Low, deep growls filtered through the brush as the buck worked the does in the area.
"I looked at Cory and asked, 'What was that?' It sounded like a bear growling," Greg remarked. As a veteran deer hunter, he had heard many deer growls on past hunts, but never that deep and that loud. Even the does seemed shocked at the buck's vocalization, and snorted back at him. "I knew, based on his vocalization, that he was the dominant buck in the area."
While Greg is an avid bowhunter, he decided to carry his .308 rifle because of the thick cover in the area.
The buck appeared at 35 yards, but trying to film the hunt complicated the process. Greg had to wait for the camera to get a good view before taking the shot.
Greg gave a grunt call, which stopped the buck in his tracks. As the echoes of the Remington 700 faded, the buck ran but piled up 30 yards away.
Once Greg and Cory were on the ground, the magnitude of his size struck them.
"He was 300 pounds live weight, a monster," Greg noted. "My taxidermist ordered the largest (28-inch) neck-size mount that he could get, and he still had to trim excess skin away."
Antler Score: 146 (net) typical 12-point
Deer Weight: 198.4 pounds (dressed)
Weather: Clear — upper 20s
Area: 60 acres of timber
Dustin knows big bucks. After years of being a taxidermist, he has seen lots of trophy animals pass through his shop.
Using his woodsmanship skills, Dustin has taken several trophy bucks with archery equipment and muzzleloaders.
Dustin had seen his 2016 buck before, but only in pictures. He was using a trail camera that sent e-mail images after a five-minute delay. And the evening of Nov. 11, Dustin had received an image of a massive buck with an unusual G2 flyer point checking a scrape near his tree stand.
As he parked his truck the next morning, Dustin was excited for what the day might hold. But before he could head out for his stand, headlights pulled in behind him. It was the county's new Indiana Conservation Officer making his rounds.
After checking Dustin's license, the ICO chatted with Dustin as he got ready. The ICO lived nearby and told Dustin that he had seen a giant deer in the field the night before. Dustin suspected it was the same deer he had seen on the trail camera.
Dustin took his usual precautions to get to his stand. Crossing the field, he dropped down into a drainage ditch that hid his movement from any deer that may be watching in the pre-dawn darkness. Using the ditch as cover, he could get close to his stand. Once in the woods, Dustin covered the last few yards and climbed up to his stand. As he pulled his gear and rifle up, the eastern horizon was growing light and he could hear deer moving around him.
Dustin had chosen his spot wisely. His stand overlooked a transitional edge within the forest where deer regularly filtered through, coming and going to bedding areas. As the morning broke, he watched six smaller bucks, including a 120-inch class buck, and a few does filter by into a bedding thicket.
As the morning progressed, Dustin heard something behind him. It was from the direction that the ICO had seen the giant buck the night before. The area had been logged a few years earlier and was a tangle of briars and young saplings, making it a perfect area for deer to hide. Looking back, Dustin spotted a doe and something else: antlers. Using his binoculars, he was able to pick out the unusual flyer point he had seen in the photo the night before.
The deer were in a thicket, but the doe's path would eventually take her, and the massive buck, into open forest. Biding his time, Dustin waited. Finally, at 70 yards, the buck stepped into the clear. Dustin was ready with his .308 rifle and squeezed the trigger. The buck heaved and took a few steps as Dustin chambered another round. The next shot dropped the buck in his tracks.
As photos of Dustin's massive buck made the rounds, local hunters realized it was the same buck they had been seeing on their trail cameras in the weeks leading up to deer season. While the deer scored well, it would have scored 10 to 15 inches higher, except it had lost part of the main beam and potentially a G5 tine in a fight.