July 18, 2022
The prairie grass bristled as an angry wind whistled through it. In the darkness I could barely make out the hill I was climbing. It wasn’t particularly steep, but the icy incline offered no firm footing.
At its peak, a ground blind was perched overlooking the ravine below, ratcheted with cables to ensure it remained anchored in the gale-force winds.
It was my first morning whitetail hunt in Oklahoma, and it was inhospitably cold and dreadfully nasty. A 100-year storm had transformed the landscape into a fragile crystal, enshrining it in ice. With a flashlight clenched in my teeth and thickly gloved hands, I chipped away at the accumulation on the blind’s door with my pocketknife. Once it was freed, I shuffled inside, leaning my muzzleloader against the far wall.
Settling into my chair—with the wind howling through the blind’s seams—I fired up the tiny space heater. It burped to life with a hiss, casting a muted crimson glow. These were some of the most miserable conditions I had ever hunted in, yet sitting there I couldn’t help but feel a sense of excitement. I’d finally made it to Oklahoma, a deer mecca overshadowed by more publicized whitetail venues.
After a lifetime spent bowhunting whitetails, I had yet to punch a tag with a rifle or muzzleloader. I hoped to change that during this trip. Little did I know this would be the beginning of a protracted Okie adventure I won’t soon forget.
My hunt took place at Rut-N-Strut Guide Service near Elk City in the far western portion of Beckham County. With a population of around 11,500, Elk City is a quiet, quaint kind of place, located on Interstate 40 just off historic U.S. Route 66, about 110 miles west of Oklahoma City and 150 miles east of Amarillo.
I was there to muzzleloader hunt at the end October. It just so happened to be when Oklahoma was pummeled by its worst ice storm in a century. The entire landscape was ensconced in ice, the ground a frozen, slick mess.
After a dicey drive from the airport to camp, I sat down to a steaming bowl of homemade vegetable soup and a generous slice of buttery cornbread. Todd Rogers runs the outfit, a man of reserved demeanor with little to say, unless of course it needs saying. His two boys, Caden and Cole, help out with the guiding chores. Both are well-worn-cowboy-boot kinds of kids, with a polite "yes, ma’am" and "no, sir" genuineness about them.
As I finished a second bowl of soup, Todd sat with me and scrolled through trail-cam pictures like a kid leafing through his baseball card collection. On occasion he would stop to share his favorite animals with me, as well as a stat or two: "He’s a four-and-a-half, runs over on our 403 parcel. He’ll go 143 or 4, maybe a couple better depending on that left G3."
During our impromptu deer review, one buck caught my eye, a gnarly brute with 10 or so points, lengthy tines and thick, two-fisted mass. I half-jokingly asked Rogers if he could put me on something like that. He chuckled, saying that buck was "The Ghost," a deer they’d only captured on trail cameras at night. Rogers added that no one had ever seen the buck during daylight hours in the six-plus years he’d been on camera. With that, I glibly announced I’d officially scratched him off my big-buck wish list.
FOILED AT FIRST
My first morning I sat overlooking a deep ravine with a feeding station in its bottom. During that initial sit I saw 10 rack bucks pass through, pausing to feed then moving along their way. All were quality deer, mostly 8 points, one a young 10 with tremendous potential, as well as a few scrubby 6s I didn’t count in my rack-buck tally. Four of the 8s were shooters by almost anyone’s measure, but I was willing to wait out a special deer. After a couple morning and evening hunts, I’d seen more shooter bucks with antlers that would measure from 130 to 140 inches than I’d ever encountered in one place.
Rogers’ real estate is littered with fantastic deer. This can be credited to the trophy management program he employs. He encourages hunters to shoot only mature deer, those 4 1/2 years or older, and it has obviously paid off in spades.
After I had passed up several very nice bucks on the previous days, Rogers put me in the "Ghillie Blind" the last morning. The Ghillie was his "go-to spot," a 10-foot-high tower aptly named for its tattered-cloth concealment treatment, which melted into the tangled backdrop. And, lucky for me, it hadn’t been hunted all season.
The big blind overlooked a "green" field, which hadn’t received a smidgeon of rain since its sowing in August. As the sun rose on the barren, brilliant red-dirt parcel, which was now devoid of ice, I thought there was absolutely no way I was going to see a deer there. But, as is the case with all great guides, they always know better.
In about an hour’s time, deer seemed to begin oozing out from under every rock and materializing from every shadow. It was as if someone had kicked an anthill. I saw several great bucks, but opted to once again hold out.
With about an hour left in the hunt, I saw what appeared to be a really great buck walking on a faint two-track trail cutting through the field. As luck would have it, he was walking directly toward me. I got him in my binocular, sizing him up. The closer he got, the better he looked. At around 100 yards, I decided he would be my Oklahoma deer.
With the buck now at 75 yards, I slipped the gun barrel through the blind’s ragged cloth and tried cocking the hammer, but it wouldn’t budge. It was binding on something. Apparently, when I mounted the scope, I’d positioned it too far back. When sighting in the gun, I had turned the scope all the way up to its highest power. Now, with the scope set on the lowest power, the magnification indicator was blocking the hammer.
As I fumbled with the gun, frantically trying to figure out what had gone so terribly wrong, the big buck closed the gap to just 30 yards. Once I’d solved the binding issue, I dialed the scope to its highest power and cocked the gun. The deer now stood just 20 steps away.
I tried to get him in the scope but couldn’t because the magnification was too high. I knew if I dialed the scope back down, the hammer would not clear. I was left to watch the big deer walk into the woods at arm’s length.
I’d muffed the golden opportunity I’d patiently held out for, and it was no one’s fault but my own. Back at camp, I hesitantly told my story to a group of bewildered hunters who simply couldn’t believe my misfortune and, of course, stupidity. One last evening hunt came and went without fanfare, and I was done. No Oklahoma monster buck, just one more silly deer-hunting story about the big one that got away.
Rarely are hunters offered a second chance. It’s one swing-and-a-miss and you’re out. The hunting gods hardly ever offer mulligans. In my decades of bowhunting, I can’t remember ever being granted a do-over.
Nevertheless, I booked a second hunt with Rogers, returning several weeks later during the rifle season for another at-bat.
This time, the rut was roaring and the ice had retreated, turning the ground to a gelatinous, goopy mud—the kind that tugs at your boots and slathers your pant legs. No matter, I was back.
The third morning found me tucked into a box blind overlooking a great ravine that stretched a considerable distance to my left and right. Directly across the ravine was a gently sloping bench running its length and devoid of any appreciable vegetation or brush.
Soon, the rising sun silhouetted two exceptional 8-points looking into the brushy ravine below. The bucks were at my 12 o’clock, a short chip-shot out. After giving them a good once-over, I decided to pass, again, holding out for something a bit better. As I watched the wide, particularly tall-racked buck to the right waddle away, I couldn’t help but second-guess myself. Had I just made another big mistake?
Several hours had passed when a glint of movement across the ravine caught my eye. On the distant hillside some 300-plus yards away, I spotted a doe with purpose to her trot. She disappeared over the sharp ridge as quickly as she had appeared.
I propped up a bit taller in my chair, craning to see what was sure to be following her. Seconds later, two bucks popped out from the brush below and moved up the hillside, track-for-track with the doe that had been there moments before.
The lead buck was nice, but the one in tow was incredible. He was a thickly muscled specimen, with antlers strewn in all directions. I quickly placed the rifle on the window ledge and settled the reticle on him. I flipped the safety off and readied for the shot … and then a harsh dose of reality washed over me.
The wind was blowing a steady 25 mph, with frequent gusts into the high 30s. It was blowing directly from my left to right, whipping down the ravine then swirling up the hillside. My mind raced trying to calculate a windage hold in this insufferable situation. This was by far the biggest deer I’d ever seen on the hoof, and I was staring at a shot I definitely had no business taking.
As the buck came to a stop and stood broadside, now at 250 yards, I begrudgingly put the safety back on and pulled the rifle into the blind. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do while hunting. Seconds later, I watched the buck’s rump follow that amazing rack over the ridge.
Once I’d quit shaking uncontrollably, I texted my buddy and told him what had just happened. I’d just seen my biggest deer ever and was forced into passing. I was confident I’d never get another chance like the one I just had, but I wasn’t comfortable winging a shot in such conditions.
USER ERROR … AGAIN?
For the next two hours I sat in the blind replaying the situation, second-guessing my decision not to shoot. Doubt had now crept into my mind, and I had devolved into an emotional basket case. After the earlier muzzleloader mishap, I couldn’t stomach this level of failure again.
Then I caught something moving in my periphery to my left, a long poke down the ravine. It was two bucks at what I guesstimated to be at least 400 yards away. I put my bino on them but couldn’t tell what was on their heads for certain.
Luckily, they were making their way toward me, this time along the ridge on my side of the ravine. Both bucks were slipping in and out of the ravine, each time just a bit closer. At about 200 yards, I recognized one of the racks. It was him, the same buck I had to pass up earlier. I opened the front blind window and readied my rifle.
Several minutes later he had walked to 80 yards and was now at my 12 o’clock. Just as I went to slide the rifle through the window, a wind gust blew it shut, the noise echoing throughout the ravine like a car door slamming. The buck’s head snapped, and he looked right at me. I froze, but he trotted quickly into a ravine finger to my immediate right, disappearing into the thicket.
I felt sick to my stomach, and I knew I had just blown yet another chance at what would have been my biggest deer ever. I fixed my stare on where he had dropped into the ravine, hoping if I stared hard and long enough, he would magically reappear.
Lo and behold, he did just that.
A minute later I saw the tips of his antlers coming up the side of the ravine, three paces to the east of where he’d vanished. I opened the right-side blind window and got my gun ready. As he topped the ravine’s crest, I put the crosshair on him and pulled the trigger. Nothing. Instinctively, I squeezed with all my might. Still nothing but horrid silence.
I cycled another 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge into the chamber, its predecessor flying out and ricocheting off the fiberglass blind wall. The commotion again drew the buck’s stare and concern. As he turned to leave, I settled the scope on him and nervously yanked the trigger with reckless abandon.
This time there was plenty of boom, but it resulted in a clean whiff.
Unscathed and confused, the buck trotted several yards and stopped, still looking at the blind. I settled on him again and triggered another shot. This time I hit him, though evidently not where I was aiming. The impact crumpled him; he was definitely down but not done. I knew I had better give it another go.
I frantically worked the bolt, but the gun was now empty. I’d brought only three cartridges with me (I surely wouldn’t need more than one), so I had to find the first round I’d ejected. I slid my chair back and started digging around for it. Somehow I found it quickly, shoved it into the gun and chambered it. My only shot was at the buck’s neck. The crosshair was bouncing around like I was trying to aim while on a dead sprint. I gulped for a breath then tried to exhale, but it didn’t help. My mind said to pull the trigger smoothly, but I was a mess. Miraculously, my last bullet hit its mark, and the ordeal was over.
I flopped back into my chair and couldn’t help but wonder why the first round didn’t fire. After some thought, the best I could come up with was I had failed to fully close the bolt when I chambered that first round. With the deer down, I texted Rogers and told him I’d finally gotten my buck. Per the camp rule, I remained in the blind until he and his sons arrived.
When we walked up to the deer, Rogers and his boys each kind of half-shook their heads. Kneeling over the buck, Rogers looked up at me and asked if I knew which deer it was, referring to the trail-cam photos he had shown me. Well of course I did.
"Yes, the biggest one I’ve ever seen," I quipped.
"Nope," said Rogers, glancing back at the buck. "It’s him. It’s The Ghost."
Standing on a windblown, muddy hillside in Oklahoma, with three fellow hunters emotionally invested in this deer, I couldn’t help but feel lucky, or blessed, or maybe a little of both. A second chance at any buck is rare enough, let alone a buck like The Ghost.
A new high-performance rifle load saves the day.
Fiocchi may be best known for its shotshells and rimfire ammunition, but the company recently spent considerable time reengineering and reimagining every aspect of its centerfire rifle cartridge lineup. The Fiocchi team devoted millions of developmental dollars, as well as countless research hours, in labs and on the range, to perfecting its centerfire offerings. This effort has led to the new Hyperformance Hunting centerfire line.
Fiocchi’s R&D team forged advances in propellent formulations to offer increased performance across all centerfire cartridges in the line. Manufacturing processes were also perfected, specifically for Fiocchi’s new Polymer-Tipped Copper Solid bullets. These are CNC-machined with longitudinal skives, or cuts, to produce dramatic petaling upon impact. The skives offer repeatable expansion to predictably increase both the bullet’s frontal diameter and the diameter of the wound channels produced during penetration.
In Oklahoma I used the 130-grain 6.5 Creedmoor Hyperformance Hunting Polymer-Tipped Copper Solid load, which has an advertised muzzle velocity of 2,815 fps. My first shot was poor at best, hitting the buck well off my intended point of impact. However, the bullet’s petaling action and subsequent controlled expansion produced a wound cavity that incapacitated the large-bodied deer, allowing me to place a follow-up shot.
I credit the design features of the Polymer-Tipped Copper Solid with grounding the buck. I am not sure this would have been the case with ammunition of lesser quality or performance.