November 21, 2017
After a multi-year quest for a giant buck, hunter Tim Phillips ignored newer options when he went to the gun safe for opening day of the 2017 Missouri firearms season. Hours later, his late grandpa's Marlin 30.30 lever action rifle had downed one of the biggest non-typicals reported so far this fall.
For most deer hunters, the modern chase of whitetails is all about the latest and the greatest in terms of gear.
From carbon-fiber stocked rifles to blistering fast compound bows to space-age devices that purge modern clothes of unwanted scent, the catalogs, advertisements, and box stores are full of high-tech options designed to bring a big whitetail to the ground.
But sometimes, even in a world full of new school ideas, it pays to flip the page backwards and go old-school, even if that means pulling a weathered rifle from the gun safe that is more than a half-century old.
That's exactly what St. Paul, Mo. resident Tim Phillips did on the opening day of the 2017 Missouri gun deer season, opting for his late grandpa's worn Marlin 30.30 lever action rifle over the newer, bigger calibers staring back at him.
"It's probably about a 50- or 60-year old gun," said Phillips. "I think my grandpa bought it sometime around the early 1970s â€“ my dad thinks he paid about $75 for it. I texted my dad a couple of days before the gun season started and said I was going to go out and shoot it to make sure that it was still on."
When Phillips' father â€“ 62-year old Don Phillips â€“ queried why his son was choosing that gun over the newer .270 and 30.06 rifles he typically used, the younger Phillips had trouble articulating exactly why.
"I don't really know," said Phillips. "My grandfather â€“ his name was Robert Moritz â€“ passed away around 20-years ago. He was a big deer hunter and grew up hunting whitetails on his own ground over in Warren County, Mo. He's killed deer and bears and other stuff with that gun."
Since family is an important part of Phillips' life these days â€“ he and his wife Monica are busy raising three daughters, 10-year old Audrina, four-year old Mariah, and 1 ½ year old Delta â€“ it just made sense to him to reach back in time as he tried to end a multi-year quest for a buck he had dubbed Walter.
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"I first saw the deer back in 2014," said the 32-year old Phillips, a real estate agent in the area. "I got wind of him through a buddy, who had gotten a photo of him on a game camera."
After putting up a couple of his own game cameras on his father-in-law Henry Hoff's land, Phillips was quickly in the game when the buck began appearing on the ground he could hunt.
That led to the set-up of a ground blind as the 2014 Missouri gun season approached. On his first sit in that blind â€“ hours before he had to be at a friend's wedding - Phillips nearly tagged the giant buck that he estimated would have scored in the 180s that year.
"He had run out into the field, but he went behind a couple of trees and I couldn't get my scope on him for more than a second or two before he walked away," he said.
Over the next few years, only tantalizing game camera photos, a sighting once or twice from the road as he pulled into the hunting property, and observations by other hunters kept Phillips going in his quest for a ghost-like buck.
During that span, Walter seemed to have multiple lives as the buck survived a close encounter with a local bowhunter a couple of years ago.
Then last year, Phillips' father Don had the buck at a mere 25-yards, although a clear bowshot opportunity never presented itself.
This season, the elder Phillips again had a close encounter with the buck while archery hunting. When the shot wasn't quite perfect, a lengthy tracking job â€“ including the use of a tracking dog â€“ ensued. Hit with a non-lethal shot, the buck survived and was not recovered.
When Walter began showing up again on Phillips' game cameras a day or two later â€“ and with the knowledge that several other hunters were pursuing the local legend dubbed by some as the "St. Paul Giant" - Phillips knew that time was running out on either himself or his father getting a chance to finally put their tag on Walter.
Perhaps that explained his choice of his grandpa's old lever action gun as the 2017 Missouri firearm season began â€“ he needed a break and to find it, he turned to a weathered gun carried by a man that he had loved dearly.
After a fruitless morning and early afternoon of deer hunting on Saturday, Nov. 11 â€“ where Phillips went most of the day without seeing a deer â€“ the hunter's luck finally changed when he looked up and saw Walter rushing across a hillside.
When the buck disappeared into a honeysuckle patch near where he was bedding, Phillips grunted a few times and then got the family firearm up and ready. When the deer approached to nearly 60-yards in the thick cover, the hunter tried to steady the crosshairs for a shot he had dreamed of for years.
A shot with little margin for error, using a family heirloom rifle known to many as a deer hunter's "brush gun."
"I could see the bottom of his chest by his front shoulder," said Phillips. "I had to lean my body down over the end of my tripod stand to get a shot. There was just a small window I could shoot through. When I got the crosshairs settled, I took the shot."
At the shot, the big whitetails tumbled to the ground and rolled into a small ditch. While he was fairly certain that the first shot was lethal, when the buck tried to get up, Phillips cranked the lever and touched off a final finishing shot as the Missouri woods grew still.
"Given the thick cover he was in, had it been any other gun than that 30.30, I probably wouldn't have been able to do that (pull the shot off)," said Phillips. "I had first used that rifle back when I was 12 or 13 and it had open sights on it then. My dad put a scope on it one year at Christmas for me â€“ I think it is a Tasco Golden Antler â€“ and that's what I used to take Walter."
After collecting his thoughts for a moment, Phillips climbed down out of his Big Game tripod and began making his way towards the deer.
"I texted my dad, my mom, my wife, some friends, and then went and got him," said Phillips. "My dad was hunting about an hour and a half away when I texted him that I had just shot Walter. He texted back really quick that he was climbing down out of his stand and starting to drive my way. When he finally got there, he said he thought he was shaking more than I was!"
For Phillips, the whole experience â€“ from first getting wind of Walter in 2014 to finally tagging him a few days ago â€“ has proven to be almost surreal, the kind of thing he has read about in magazines like North American Whitetail and Missouri Game and Fish.
"I've been deer hunting since I was about 12-years old," said Phillips. "I took my first doe about the time I was probably in the eighth grade and I took my first buck, a seven-pointer, around the time I was 22 and just out of college.
"To be honest, this buck is only my fourth one after that first seven-pointer, a funky 12-pointer a few years ago, and a big trophy nine-pointer I got a couple of years ago that I took at the end of the season."
Now Phillips has taken a buck that has made him the toast of the Missouri deer hunting crowd this fall, a 31-point buck that has been green scored at 237 1/8-inches gross and 228 1/8-inches net, numbers that could make the buck one of the Top 20 non-typicals ever taken in the Show Me State.
Now that his quest for Walter is over with, what will Phillips do? Simple â€“ enjoy his time with the family over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and maybe squeeze in a different kind of hunt or two.
"I always joked around that this deer was going to end up getting me divorced," chuckled Phillips. "My wife Monica, she's been awesome and has stood by me and let me hunt a lot for this buck.
"Now maybe I guess I'll have to start duck hunting a little bit now that my deer season is over."
Somewhere, Grandpa Moritz must be smiling at the success that his grandson has enjoyed this fall.
And who knows? Maybe there's a worn old family shotgun somewhere in that gun safe, waiting to be brought into the field again, this time as a few banded Missouri mallards drop in on a north wind.
In a year that has seen Tim Phillips take a long-sought after buck nicknamed Walter, why not?