Closing The Gap

Closing The Gap

After repeated brushes with the same bruiser whitetail, this Iowa bowhunter finally found himself bearing down on his buck of a lifetime. (August 2008)

Ron Ludwig first encountered his dream buck in October 2006 -- more than a year before he'd take a shot at it.
Photo courtesy of Randy Templeton.

At the beginning of Iowa's 2007 deer season, Ron Ludwig was a man with a mission: He'd had a close encounter with a seriously large deer during the season before, and his sights were set on getting another crack at it. The buck in question sported a mainframe rack with 12 points -- certainly bigger than anything that the Lake City hunter had ever seen before.

The 17-year bowhunting veteran had dreamt of shooting a deer that would qualify for the Boone and Crockett Club record book. But like most avid hunters around Calhoun County, he was painfully aware that bucks of that caliber were few and far between.

Years ago, Ron began looking to the future; he didn't like what he was seeing. A fair amount of the hunting ground around his hometown was either being leased or purchased. As a result, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find -- and retain -- a place to hunt deer. That's when he and his family members got serious about buying a piece of land.

Ron had his eye on 160 acres of rough ground that he had been hunting for several years. When it came up for sale a few years ago, the family snatched it up.

From the start, Ludwig and his family implemented an aggressive Quality Deer Management program on the parcel, with a long-term goal of improving the habitat in such a way that they could grow and hold bigger deer on the property. It took three or fours years, but the improvements paid off with a noticeable difference in the quality of deer they were seeing.

"The first time I ever laid eyes on the big 6x6 was back in October of 2006," the 44-year-old hunter began. "Deer of that size aren't that common around here, so you can only imagine how excited I was after spotting him in the field that night."

Ludwig spotted the same buck on a number of other occasions but never seemed to be in the right place at the right time -- that is, until one morning in mid-November.

"My stand that morning overlooked the bottom of a deep draw," he recalled. "The first three hours after sunrise had been rather slow. By mid-morning only two small bucks and two does had passed through. However, around 10 a.m., I heard the scuffling sounds of a deer walking down the draw behind me. When I turned to look, I was taken by surprise to see the big 12-pointer."

Ludwig grabbed his grunt call and called to the buck twice, hoping to stop the deer and prompt him to turn around. The strategy worked, and, almost instantly, the bruiser whitetail started up the draw at a steady walk.

"When the buck got within 40 yards (of me), he came to a sudden stop," he said. "I'm not sure whether he smelled me or what, but apparently he sensed something wasn't quite right. He never offered a shot but instead turned and walked back the opposite way."

A few days later, a friend, Scott Benz, reported spotting the buck on his property. Benz had set up a tree stand for a friend who was hunting with him that week. As it turned out, Benz's friend had gotten cold and headed to the house minutes before the 12-point walked down the path.

Ludwig saw the deer several more times, but it never came within shooting range. Gun season came and went -- without any reports of anyone taking the deer. Admittedly, Ludwig was banking on the odds that the big boy was still roaming the nearby woods.

Ludwig prefers taking a low-profile approach to scouting, as opposed to an intrusive strategy. In June, he set out trail cameras in known travel corridors with hopes of capturing an image of the buck. As it turned out, he got numerous photos of other deer, but not a single image of the massive whitetail he had spotted the previous season. Ludwig was convinced the deer was either nocturnal or holding up elsewhere.

As luck would have it, Ron got his first visual confirmation of the deer one evening in late August while driving home from work. From the road, he spotted three bucks in a soybean field. A closer look through his binoculars revealed that the biggest was none other than the 12-pointer. Interestingly, the deer was nearly four miles from where Ludwig had seen him the previous fall.

With deer hunting season on the horizon, the stage was set for Ludwig's show-down with what would turn out to be among the largest bucks recorded in Iowa in 2007.

By the first week of November, Ludwig had already gone afield a dozen times and had yet to spot a shooter buck.

"During the third week of November, however, a big 10-point with striking similarities of the 12-point suddenly appeared from out of nowhere," he said. "The instant I saw the deer, I made up my mind to end the season if the opportunity presented itself. The buck came at a steady walk but stopped directly beneath the overhanging branches of a tree 10 yards away, then began rubbing the tree.

"I couldn't get a clear shot, but, anticipating that would happen, I drew (my) Mathews (bow) and waited with my finger on the release trigger. Wouldn't you know it? About the time he stopped rubbing, a young buck suddenly appeared on the scene, and for whatever reason, the 10-point turned and took off chasing the small buck."

The hunter couldn't help but feel a mixture of emotions at the turn of events; let down because of a missed opportunity, Ludwig was also a bit relieved.

"After spending two years trying to close the gap on the big 12-point," he said, "I'm guessing I wouldn't have been happy settling for anything less.

"It was the third week of November and, from all indications, the rut was on the down slide. We were planning to have a belated Thanksgiving dinner for the family at our house on Saturday, so it left me open to hunt Thanksgiving Day."

That evening, Ludwig hunted a stand in a narrow finger that extended into a cornfield -- an area often used as a staging ground for deer. Two small bucks and two does meandered through early, followed by a lull in the action. With only minutes of light remaining, Ludwig took the opportunity to slip out undetected.

"By the time I reached the truck, there was still

enough light for glassing," he recalled. "The one field I wanted to check out was planted in winter rye and bordered the edges of a deep draw. It's actually the same field where I had spotted the big buck a half-dozen times before. I have a stand in both the upper and lower ends of the draw, but rarely hunt them because the wind seldom cooperates.

"There's an old abandoned barn and corn crib at the top end of the draw. The rye field isn't but a few yards from the buildings. My brother-in-law, Perry, farms the tillable ground and raises a few head of cattle, so the deer are somewhat used to hearing farm machinery and vehicles driving up the lane. That's probably why I was able to drive within 100 yards of the buildings."

Ludwig hadn't been there long when he spotted two deer bedded near the timber edge. One of them was the 12-pointer, and the other was a small doe.

"Although I'm certain the buck saw me drive in, it was apparent he wasn't about to leave the doe's side," he explained. "I assumed she was either in heat or darn close to it.

"That was the closest I'd been to the (buck) since my encounter the season before. And it gave me a good opportunity to really study his rack. He had a basic 12-point main frame, kickers on both the right G-2 and G-3 tines and a split (G-1) brow on the left side. I watched the buck until dark, and then left quietly."

Ludwig woke the following morning with the intention of returning to the sight of the previous evening's encounter, but he quickly realized the wind wasn't cooperating with his plans. The best-case scenario for the set-up was a northwest wind; any other wind direction would allow the deer to catch any hunter's scent long before the human reached the field.

"The wind wasn't any better on Saturday morning, so I stayed home," Ludwig said. "(My) wife and I were having Thanksgiving dinner for the family, so I stayed home in the afternoon as well. Typically, when the family gets together during the holidays we have a routine that we go through. After we've stuffed ourselves on turkey, we cruise around the property the last hour and glass for deer."

Anxious to check out the field again, Ludwig and his brother-in-law headed out across the property after dinner. By the time they arrived, three small bucks and several does had already taken to the rye.

"We had been glassing for only a few minutes, when the 12-point suddenly appeared along the fenceline," he said. "The buck entered the field and began feeding but stayed close to the edge. Eventually, he passed within a few yards of the barn. I didn't think much about it at the time, but just before dark he passed in front of the barn a second time. We watched the deer until dark, and then headed back to the house."

Knowing that Sunday would offer him his last opportunity before the shotgun season opened, Ludwig began making plans. "My biggest problem was the wind." he said. "It was coming out of the west -- not exactly ideal. That's when it occurred to me that I might get by with hunting out of the barn.

"There's usually deer in the field or bedding near the edges in the morning, so it's really tough slipping in without getting picked off. For that reason, I opted not to hunt (that) morning. Instead, I spent the day preparing for the afternoon. Scent control would be critical, so I washed all my camouflage in unscented soap. Unlike those who use commercial cover scents, I prefer using natural scents. In this case, I threw a few cedar clippings into a sealed container along with my clothes. Other than that, I'd wear my Scent-Lok under liner and rubber boots."

That afternoon, Ludwig arrived at the field earlier than normal. After getting dressed, he sneaked around the field, staying clear of the timberline. But as he cleared the hill on the way to the barn, Ludwig spotted the raised white tails of three or four does running back across the draw. Slightly disheartened, the hunter continued on.

"There are two windows in the barn, one facing to the north and the other to the west," he explained. "Figuring the majority of deer would travel from east to west, I set up looking out the north window. I had just (gotten) situated and nocked an arrow when a 3 1/2-year-old 10-point came out of the draw on a steady walk toward the field. It was a nice deer, but not exactly what I was hoping for. Not long after, several more deer filtered out of the draw. Over the course of the first two hours, I'd probably seen over 20 deer.

"It was somewhere around 4:30 p.m. when all the deer scattered and ran off the field. The 10-pointer hadn't gone far. In fact, he was standing in the draw staring up the fenceline. That's when I happened to see the 12-pointer walking down the fence."

As the buck drew closer to the barn, he jumped a fence and approached the younger 10-pointer. "It was interesting to watch how they reacted to each other," Ludwig noted. "They stood nose to nose, taking turns smelling and licking each other like they were best friends. For no apparent reason, however, the 12-point suddenly lowered his head and rammed the 10-pointer. The younger buck ran down the draw. And it wasn't long after the 12-point walked down the draw and disappeared."

Minutes later, the big buck appeared again, this time walking up the draw. When he reached the top, the buck turned and began walking down the fenceline toward Ludwig. At 50 yards, he abruptly turned and slipped back into the timber.

"Shooting light was fading with each passing minute," he said, "and about the time I thought there was absolutely no hope, the buck suddenly appeared a third time. This time, however, he was within range. Unfortunately, by the time I got ready to shoot, the buck had already passed by the shooting lane and disappeared from sight."

Ludwig scrambled to the west window of the barn and spotted the buck walking in the opposite direction, about 80 yards away. "Attempting to stop the deer, I grabbed the grunt call and grunted once," he said. "Much to my surprise, the buck turned around and started back toward the barn on a stiff-legged walk. When he got within 32 yards, I drew the Mathews and grunted. At nearly the same instant the buck stopped, I hit the release trigger. The arrow made a crunch on impact and the buck whirled around and charged back the opposite way.

"He ran maybe 80 yards and stopped. Although I hoped he would go down right away, it never happened; instead, he walked a little further and stopped again. At one time I thought I saw him hunch up and then lay down. That had me somewhat worried, and thinking the arrow might have hit too far back. With that in mind, I stayed in the barn until well after dark, then slipped out quietly."

Charged up by the hunt, Ludwig met that evening with his two brothers-in-law to discuss the circumstances of the hunt. All three agreed to leave the deer alone until morning, a decision that resulted in little rest for Ludwig that night.

At first light, Ludwig and his two brothers-in-law set out in search of the buck. After expanding their search area, the search party discovered Ludwig's arrow, which indicated a solid double-lung hit on the buck.

The three trackers had moved only 50 more yards when Ludwig spotted the buck's rack sticking above the grass in a shallow waterway. The two-year quest had ended.

This past March, Ron Ludwig took his Calhoun County giant to the Iowa Deer Classic in Des Moines. Ron's deer anchored an official net typical score of 176 6/8 inches, placing it among the best typical bucks of the season. Unlike other Iowa counties, Calhoun hasn't been known for producing mega-bucks. If you find that hard to believe, peruse the pages of the record books. You'll find that Ludwig's deer is one of the largest ever taken by a bowhunter.

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