December 06, 2022
By Adam Heggenstaller
A freezer full of venison has always been a badge of honor among most deer hunters, and although lately there has been even more emphasis on hunting for meat, I still suspect every whitetail hunter at some point in life wants to kill a big buck. We may proclaim that we can't eat antlers, but our dreams aren't filled with huge hindquarters. I don't know any hunters who have ever regretted shooting a buck because it had too many points or its spread was too wide, tines too tall, rack too heavy. We’ll take as big a buck as we can get, and we either apply skill and effort in an attempt to find a trophy or hope luck puts one in our shooting lanes. Either way, if we're honest, size matters. It may not be the focus of the hunt, but it matters.
The question is, what defines a big buck? The answer varies among hunters, and the assessment can be relative. It can also change depending on experience level, prior success and location. I grew up in Pennsylvania, where during my first 10 years as a hunter I considered any buck with 8 points and a spread as wide as its ears to be big. Just about every one of my friends did, too. It was a straightforward set of measurements, and bucks of that size were not common, at least not to us. Now that we're older (much older, judging by the various shades of gray under our caps) and have taken a few deer in that class, we've gone on to complicate things by considering such details as tine length, antler mass and even estimated Boone & Crockett score.
A 130-inch 8-point still gets my attention, and last fall while one fed 80 yards from the blind in which I sat, I had to convince myself that it didn't qualify as big. I was no longer in Pennsylvania, where I almost surely would have already shouldered my rifle. In southwest Kansas, hunting an area that had produced bucks above the 180-inch mark, I needed to adjust my definition. And to throw a twist into the situation, antler size wasn't the factor that decided whether I should shoot.
When I had pulled into the lodge at Ross Trophy Outfitters near Bucklin the day before, another hunter was unloading a beautiful buck he had just taken that afternoon. With 10 high tines, long, thick beams and a spread that looked better than 20 inches, the buck was a trophy by any standards in any state. The hunter, Austin, had been in the stand for only a short time when the buck appeared, and he didn't hesitate. "I knew he looked big," Austin said, "and I thought he was old enough. But then after I shot, I started to second-guess myself. I didn't have much time to age him."
Turned out Austin was right; the buck was old enough to meet the minimum age requirement set by outfitter Perry Ross. Knowing that bucks can grow to gigantic proportions on the properties that he hunts, Ross wants to give them every chance to reach their full potential and pass on their genetics. To be a shooter, a buck must be at least 5 1/2 years old.
"We want to kill mature deer," Ross told me later at dinner. "Score doesn't matter, as long as the buck is mature, but most old deer are going to be big deer."
Ross cautioned me that it doesn't always work the other way, though. He had seen 3 1/2- and 4 1/2-year-old bucks that scored in the 160s and higher. I would need to consider other factors when evaluating a buck, as rack size wasn't a clear indicator of age. I wouldn't be able to rely on body size, either, as fields of corn, milo, soybeans and other grains stretched to the horizon, providing the deer with plenty of food to bulk up. These Kansas whitetails would be larger in the body than what I was used to seeing in my home state, but Ross assured me there were telltale characteristics of an old buck's body shape that would make him recognizable.
"A mature buck will almost look like he doesn't have a neck," said the outfitter, who had been hunting the area for decades. "His chest is like a big wedge that runs to his head. He'll have a blocky body and his legs will look short. When you see a mature buck, you'll know it."
The next morning as I watched the 8-point through my binocular, I realized the buck didn't have any of the features that Ross had described. There was clear separation between the deer's chest and head, and though he didn't look like a sleek youngster, he wasn't stout, either. I aged him at 3 1/2 years old and sighed. Nice buck, but not a shooter here, and the call wasn't tough to make with less than 100 yards separating me from the deer. It would become more difficult as the week went on.
Mature bucks, even in Kansas farm country on private land where hunting pressure is light, don't just wander around in broad daylight most of the year. Early-season muzzleloader and archery hunters can catch them on a bed-to-feed pattern at dusk or vice-versa at first light, but opportunities are often limited to a window as short as 30 minutes. The rut gets big bucks moving more during the day, but most of that activity is over by the time the regular firearm season kicks off.
The old bucks were holed up and recovering from breeding when I was there during the second week of December, but my guide, Robert, was optimistic. Winter was coming, and the deer needed to feed to replace weight lost while roaming and fighting for does.
"They're lying low, but they have to eat," he said. "This late in the year most of the crops are gone so the deer are looking for leftovers. They'll find some food along the river, and it's also a travel route they use to reach the areas where they're feeding. That's why we put our stands and blinds there."
With food getting scarce and nothing growing to produce more of it, hunting near feeders or scattered bait was the strategy. But while the handout was undoubtedly attractive to the local whitetails, it was far from irresistible to mature bucks. After sitting a full day and half of another within view of a feeder along the shallow river that ran through the area, I had seen only the 8-point and a second buck that didn't meet the age standards either, along with several does.
It was time for a change in location, reasoned Robert, and I couldn't disagree. The guide took me to a huge expanse of grassland between rolling hills and the river bottom, a much more open area that afforded views of nearly a mile in two directions. A couple hundred yards from the river—really more of a marshy slough—the ground rose slightly to form a low ridge, and near the top was thicket of wild plum 4 to 5 feet high. It was the perfect place to hide a pop-up blind. Robert helped me stake and tie it down to guard against the wind, and then he was off to do some more observation of his own.
To my left and right I could glass for more than 1,000 yards, a wide corridor deer would cross when moving from the hills southeast of the blind to the river toward the northwest. Robert said most deer in the afternoon would come out of the hills, but he advised me to keep an eye on the river behind me as well. My head was on a swivel, but it wasn't until the last hour of light when I spotted deer.
A few does were the first to emerge from the hills some 500 yards distant. Soon another group appeared farther away and then a third group materialized from the tall grass closer to the blind. Although the land between the blind and hills looked flat from a distance, it was pocked with shallow depressions. Coupled with the grass, the terrain hid deer well.
Later, I saw two bucks in the grass below the hills. One, a narrow-necked 8-point, clearly wasn't mature. The other I could not be sure about, as I caught just a glimpse of him before he disappeared into a fold about 300 yards from the blind. I realized that I would have to be alert and focused, as I'd need every available second to scrutinize a buck in these conditions.
The Right Call
As I sat in the dark blind the next morning, now facing the river, I could hear deer moving around me. It was calm and clear, and their hooves made the occasional thud as they moved over the uneven ground. As it got light, indistinct shapes became a group of does feeding in my direction. They passed within 30 yards of the blind and made their way into the hills undisturbed.
For the first couple hours I swept hundreds of yards of thicket bordering the river with my binocular, scanning for more deer in the trees and brush growing along the banks. Occasionally I'd train the glass on the hills, and the third or fourth time that I directed my attention to them I was surprised to see a line of a dozen deer along their edge. One buck, two bucks, three bucks—and a pretty good one at that—spurred me to rotate in the blind for a better view. Either they had crossed the grassland without me seeing them, certainly possible given the expanse of land I was trying to cover, or they had come out of the hills instead of the river.
I studied the largest buck carefully, but he was more than 500 yards away. Thick chest, yes, but thick enough? He was blockier than the other two bucks, but even with the aid of the 10X Leupold, I wasn't confident in making the call. It was a moot point anyway; the wind had picked up and I wasn't going to shoot that far. I watched him and the other deer for about a half-hour before they all disappeared into a gap between two hills. A short time later, I saw another group of deer, including a buck, cross the grassland and enter the same gap.
When Robert picked me up around noon, I had a plan to run by him. I trust guides for their knowledge of game patterns earned by constant scouting, but I couldn't ignore what I had witnessed that morning.
"Let's move the blind into the hills by that gap," I suggested after giving Robert the report. "They might come out this afternoon the way they went in this morning. I can't shoot to that spot from here in this wind."
With fresh intel on deer movement and a forecast that called for even more wind in the afternoon, Robert agreed. But we wouldn't move the blind; we'd keep it anchored in case the deer returned to their typical pattern and we'd set up a second one near the gap. It turned out to be quite a chore when we returned a couple hours later, fighting wind gusts that topped 20 mph.
When Robert volunteered to sit in the blind with me to hold it in place, I welcomed the help and the second set of eyes. We spotted a few distant does coming out of the hills that afternoon, but with the wind constantly whipping the blind and the deer seeming to hunker down out of the gusts, it was a disappointing sit. I hoped I hadn't made the wrong call.
The gusts subsided overnight to a steady 10 mph and the temperature dropped, giving us hope the following morning that we'd see more deer. Robert and I bundled up and settled into the blind, and just as dawn was starting the break my guide had deer in his bino. It was a group of does, feeding a couple hundred yards from the blind, and a good start. With more light came more does, one and two at a time, and then a pair of young bucks. All were traveling from the river to the hills, but none of them entered the gap where we were positioned.
Everything but the wind died down after the first hour of light, and our faces and fingers were starting to become numb from glassing into the stiff breeze. I remained hopeful, remembering it was close to 9 o’clock when I had seen the deer near the gap the morning before. We had about an hour to go till that time when a horrendous screeching noise pierced the wind, emanating from a farm on the other side of the river. It sounded like a belt on a piece of equipment was loose, and it started a near stampede of deer from the thicket along the riverbank.
Several groups of does and a few bucks headed for the hills to escape the racket. The noise was grating but it sure got the deer moving, although none of the bucks were shooters. Robert and I were watching a 10-point emerge from the river with a doe. There was another deer behind them in the brush, Robert reported, but he couldn't tell what it was.
"OK, get your gun," he said a couple seconds later. "That's a big old buck."
I put the rifle on the shooting sticks and poked its muzzle out the blind window before returning to my bino. The deer were more than 600 yards away, and I wanted to get a good look at what my guide had declared to be a mature Kansas whitetail.
The first thing that stood out, even at that distance, was the buck's mass. He looked twice as heavy as the 10-point. "Look at those bases," Robert said. "He’s built like a bull. Definitely a shooter."
The doe started across the grassland, but the two bucks didn't seem to want to leave the security of the river. They stalled a short distance from the brush, but as the screeching from the farm continued and the doe began to pick up the pace, the bucks broke into a trot. "Get ready," said Robert. "They’re coming."
I was on the gun and watching the big buck through the scope. His antlers grew more massive the closer he came. The bucks were heading directly toward the blind but had gained speed in their flight.
"They’re going to run right in front of us," Robert hissed. "When they start to pass, I'll try to stop them. Shoot whenever you have a good chance."
The bucks were no more than 60 yards away when Robert gave them a quick "hey." The older of the two paused for a couple seconds, and the crosshairs of my scope found his shoulder quickly. My bullet hit him solidly, and he dropped in the grass.
Neither of us could take our eyes from the mass of the buck's rack. When I knelt beside him to raise his head for a better look, my hands wouldn't fit around the antler bases. The mass continued along the main beam and up the tines, one of which, the right G2, was snapped a couple inches from the beam. He was an impressive, mature buck, the kind that I had traveled to Kansas to hunt. I didn't know what the buck would score, and it didn't matter. I only knew that he was big—and old—enough.
Remington Core-Lokt Tipped makes an impact.
Hunting in Kansas gave me an opportunity to test Remington's new Core-Lokt Tipped ammunition, and the bullet performed well on the range and in the field. Core-Lokt Tipped loads feature a new bullet that adds a green polymer tip to the conventional Core-Lokt design. The traditional Core-Lokt is typically a pointed-soft-point bullet, and the polymer tip offers several advantages, particularly at longer ranges. For one, the Core-Lokt Tipped has a higher ballistic coefficient (BC) and experiences less drag as it travels downrange. This reduces bullet drop and wind drift. The 150-grain Core-Lokt Tipped bullet loaded in the .30-06 rounds that I used in Kansas has a BC of .415, while the BC of a Core-Lokt pointed-soft-point of the same weight and caliber is .314. A polymer tip is also more consistent in shape than a lead tip, which aids in accuracy, and the tip helps initiate expansion as velocity slows at extended distances. The .30-06 load I tested averaged sub-MOA groups at the range, and it took only one shot to drop a big Kansas buck.