A trophy whitetail becomes a trophy whitetail when the enormity of the harvest buries itself deep within the hunter’s soul.
What does that mean? In all truthfulness, the words mean something a little bit different to each and every hunter who steps afield in the fall in pursuit of North America’s most revered big-game animal — the white-tailed deer. To the novice, the nimrod, this might be their first deer; to the great-grandfather, perhaps, their last deer. It’s the buck taken with a longbow handcrafted of Osage orange and a homespun cedar shaft fletched with primaries taken from last Spring’s gobbler. Or it’s the culmination of a season-long quest for “The One” — the shot, the recovery, the exhilaration, and, yes, the tinge of regret.
To the hunter, every whitetail is special, regardless of what the animal sports — or doesn’t — atop its head. Each is, in a simple phrase, of profound significance. This month, Illinois Game & Fish takes an in-depth look at three significant whitetails taken during the 2017-18 season. You won’t find any world-record-breaking bucks here. No controversy. No grandiose media hype. Just an encapsulation of what deer hunting should be: the pursuit and harvest of an animal that defines who we are as outdoorsmen and women. This is the whitetail deer, and these animals are incredibly significant for eachhunter.
Hunter: Grady Rakestraw
Date of harvest: October 15, 2017
Antler score: 134 inches, typical
Significance — “This was my first time in Illinois. Growing up, I’d always heard of Illinois as the ‘Big Buck State,’ and I always wanted to get there. Thanks to Wounded Warriors in Action, Hero Shot Outfitters, and Charlie Rehor at Bowsite.com, it was possible. As for the buck, we knew he was older when we took the shot. He’s not a monster, but he’s a good, respectable buck. I’d much rather take a 130-class deer that’s 6 or 7 years old than a 3- or 4-year-old that scores 180. Yeah, that 180-inch rack is cool, but the stories behind an old buck like that…. Many guys would call mine a cull buck, but to me, he’s a trophy.”
Story — “When we got to Illinois to start the hunt, it turned out to be hot. Hotter than it normally is, and windy. Really windy. We’d seen some small bucks in the morning and early afternoon, but around 20 minutes before shooting light was gone, the wind laid down a bit. We had some younger bucks — 2-year-olds — coming out to the food plot then, just milling around. With about 10 minutes to go, this buck steps out of the treeline about 100 yards away. He looked up and saw those little bucks and came right to us to run ‘em off. I had one shooting lane that I’d cut a couple branches out of that morning, and I’ll be darned if he didn’t walk right into that shooting lane and give me a perfect broadside shot. Everything worked out perfectly. I thought (the shot) might have been a little far back, but we had good blood so we backed out and went in early the next morning. He was about 75 yards from the stand. (In) western Oklahoma, we have big deer, but body-wise, this was just a monster buck. And he had a really neat rack; an old guy with a great nose. Just a neat buck. I’m all about big deer, but I’m especially happy with this mature deer.”
Hunter: Tim Madden
Date of harvest: December 6, 2017
Antler score: 166 6/8 inches, typical
Significance — “I think this buck emphasizes the fact I could use everything I’d practiced over the years. I had to break down the entire (shot) process in the short time I had. I don’t remember thinking about the process; I just remembered the process. It was instinctual. I would shoot 1,000 arrows each week, just so I’d know the bow. I’d print arrow trajectory charts. I’d build sight tapes, so, when the shot came, I was confident with my yardages. And I was confident knowing the trajectory of that arrow.”
Story — Madden actually saw this buck the night before he arrowed it, while hunting and filming with the gentleman who owns the archery shop where he works.
“We had two 3-year-olds walk under us, but I could look back and see him (my buck). He cut our tracks where we’d walked in that night and just stopped. He stood there for 30 minutes or so, until it was pitch black, and then we heard him walk off. Based on what I saw, I moved that stand. The next morning, I sent Mark, my boss, a note asking him what time he was planning on hunting, but I never heard back. He had, though, given me permission to hunt that farm. I had an incredible morning; a bunch of does and smaller bucks. About 9:30, I look and he’s tending a scrape about 70 yards straight south of me. Finally, he starts walking straight toward me, gets to about 40 yards, and stops. But he’s acting all weird. I figure out the wind’s swirling and coming out of the woods right about where he’s standing. He can smell me, but he doesn’t know where I am. He’s broadside and looking upwind (west). I’ve decided to hang my bow ‘cause I’m not going to get a shot, and he takes another step. I’d forgotten my rangefinder, but I’m estimating him at 40 yards. There’s brush between us, but there’s a little window at 20 yards just over his back. I figured I could draw, put the 40-yard pin on him, and if the 20-yard pin looks good, then the shot should be clear. So I put the 40-yard pin on him, and the 20-yard pin is right in the middle of that window. I squeeze the trigger and watch the arrow float right over all those branches. He drops a foot, and I hit him right in the heart. He went about 50 yards. After the recovery, I ranged the distance: 48 yards.”
Hunter: Ethan Fields
Date of harvest: November 12, 2017
Antler score: 130 inches (estimated), typical
Significance — “This is my biggest buck to date, and one of the greatest moments of my life. It was a special hunt because this was the first deer I’d truly put time and work into (in order to) harvest. This particular deer is actually one of many bucks I’ve shot, but he’s my first self-filmed buck.”
Story — “I first met this buck in a trail camera photo in 2016. It was a perfect picture with the deer broadside and staring at the camera giving us a great look at his antlers. It earned him the name ‘Mr. Perfect.’ The following year, we saw him again, but he hadn’t put on that many inches. We started seeing more and more pictures of this deer on a large field outside of some big timber. I knew he was probably bedding there, so I set up a couple hundred yards away. Sure enough, I had my first encounter with him the first morning (October), but thick brush prevented a shot. The next time I saw him, I was hunting along a creek surrounded by two ridges. It was wet and cloudy with temperatures in the 50s. I played it smart and threw on some Scent Killer GOLD before heading to the stand and walked the creek to the stand. Arriving at the stand, I saw a huge buck on the ridge; the rut was on, and he was checking for does. About 10:30, here comes Mr. Perfect. He crossed the creek and presented me a 15-yard shot. I was nervous and shaking! I accidentally hit my release, but the Whisker Biscuit (rest) caught the arrow. Now he was at 10 yards. I stopped him with a soft ‘merp,’ and hit the release. The shot was a tiny bit (far) back but caught a lung and he only went about 80 yards.”