Few hunters, even in Iowa, will ever take the deer of their dreams. But Iowa resident Gene Wensel did. Here's the story of his trophy hunt -- and of the magnificent buck that crowned it.
Gene Wensel poses with "Woody." The amazing buck is believed to be one of the largest ever killed by means of a recurve bow.
Photo by Gene Wensel
For some people, hunting deer is a hobby; for others, the activity is closer to a passion. When you do something all your life with intense eagerness, it becomes more than simply what you do. It becomes who you are.
My twin brother, Barry, and I have been passionately hunting whitetails since we were youngsters. We had bows and arrows from childhood and, as many friends have noted, simply never put our toys away. For almost half a century now we've been using simple bows and arrows to hunt whitetail bucks. It is, has been, and always will be what we do and who we are.
We lived in Montana with our families for almost 30 years. In 1999, after experiencing too many severe winterkills and frequent major die-offs from viral epizoÖtic hemorrhagic disease -- a disease that can cause deer to become disoriented and listless -- we decided to pull up stakes and move east. We settled in rural Iowa primarily because of the quality of the deer.
THE BUCK OF SEVERAL LIFETIMES
On the evening of Oct. 17, 2004, Barry was sitting in a stand a mile from me. When I met my brother after dark, I instantly detected excitement. Before dark, a huge animal with double drop tines stepped across a Conservation Reserve Program field. Barry took eight minutes of grainy video footage before low light made him shut the camera down.
We reviewed the footage with several friends who knew what they were looking at. The drop tines were long on both sides, and the rack appeared to be almost 30 inches wide outside. Aerial photos were carefully studied, and three new tree stands were put in place. I named the buck "Woody."
We hunted Woody relentlessly almost every evening with no more sightings. Three cameras had been placed strategically, but for weeks gave no evidence of Woody's presence: He had vanished.
The rut started to kick in the first week of November. I was convinced that Woody was cruising, spreading his seed in the area. With no new sightings, Barry and I speculated that we were pressing him too hard, and started hunting different areas.
I've always been able to sense close encounters on a fairly regular basis. On the evening of Nov. 4, I told my wife that something was going to happen the next morning. The weather radio predicted perfect conditions and the wind was right. Sure enough, at 7 a.m. a 163-inch 6x6 walked past my stand, and I made good my opportunity. He was simply too good of a buck to pass up. Barry tagged a 160-inch beauty a few days later. Our Iowa buck tags were filled.
Since we don't hunt with guns, we wouldn't be able to hunt bucks with our bows until the primitive weapons season kicked in a few days before Christmas. We continued filling doe tags and monitoring our trail cameras.
I developed three rolls of film on Nov. 17, exactly one month after Barry sighted Woody, and there on one roll of film were two pictures of the great buck, both taken on the same scrape. One was exposed after dark as he walked through the scrape, but the second was taken at high noon with the sun shining as Woody had his nose in the overhanging branch.
Just before Thanksgiving, Woody started showing himself directly to us again; Barry and I each saw him several times coming into a remote field of poor soybeans. But he never entered the same place twice, and he always showed up just at last light.
Iowa's gun season opened the first week of December. We could legally hunt with guns, but Iowa doesn't allow people to handicap themselves with bows and arrows during gun season (that law makes no sense to me, and needs to be changed), so we elected to hunt only with video cameras. Multiple loud gunshots caused worried sleeplessness.
Then, on the last day of the first gun season, an hour before dark, Woody entered the bean field with several other deer, coming within 50 yards while I burnt up tape. I got over 40 minutes of video footage of him dominating the field, displaying great posturing threats to another good buck that fed too close. What a magnificent animal.
A HUNT TO REMEMBER
The late primitive weapons season opened a few days before the holidays. I spent Christmas in Indiana with relatives, returning from Indiana on Dec. 26. Barry met me with news that the soybean field was all but depleted of beans by now, with very few deer sightings. They had moved to feed in standing corn on a neighboring property, but were still apparently bedding in the cover we were hunting. When a friend found fresh shed antlers near our hunting area on Christmas Day, we decided it was time to get more aggressive.
Our good friend Daryl Kempher phoned from Michigan, asking if there were some way he could help. When he arrived, we laid out aerial photos and showed him what we wanted him to do. That same day, Barry's oldest son, Jason, a teacher and coach from Milwaukee, arrived, ready for active duty. Jason had drawn an Iowa tag, but only got to hunt a few days in November, owing to his work schedule.
Our plan was for Daryl to do what we call a "nudge": He was simply to walk the outside property boundary fence far upwind, letting human odor make his presence known. On Dec. 30, Jason, Barry and I slipped into place shortly after dawn. The plan was to sit in our stands until 10 a.m., when Daryl should be moving toward the north end of the property a half-mile away. At that time, Barry would move to another stand a quarter-mile east, I would move to where Barry had been sitting and Jason would shift over to my stand.
Not much happened all morning. Unbeknownst to us, Daryl saw Woody and several other deer move across a CRP field to enter a woodlot in the distance. Using the wind, Daryl skillfully circled wide, gently bumping the deer northeast into one of their favorite thickets. He then let things calm down. The wind was perfect. Woody was in position. So were we.
About 9:45 a.m., I started having second thoughts about moving, weighing and pondering the decision in my mind. Over the years I've learned to pay attention to gut feelings. I decided to play my hunch and stay put.
At 10 o'clock, Barry got down from his stand 50 yards from me and moved off. I waved Jason toward Barry's stand and watched him climb in. At approximately 11:15 a.m., with Daryl a half-mile to the northwest, I saw movement to the north: Sev
eral deer were quartering downwind toward me.
Suddenly, I saw huge antlers, and instantly recognized Woody, walking, along with three other bucks, straight to me. My stand was sandwiched between several oak trees. The tree my platform was on was a huge old oak too big to get my safety belt around, so I hooked my belt around a 10-inch limb just off my right knee.
The deer were headed right for me, with this smaller tree between us. I was suddenly in a situation in which I didn't know on which side of the tree I'd have to shoot on. The tree was close enough to me that it required considerable movement to switch my bow and arrow to the opposite side if I had to.
The first buck was a 150-inch class 5x5. As he came within range, he swung to my left and gave me a perfect 15-yard broadside position. Woody was following, second in line. Apparently too proud to follow a lesser buck, he suddenly turned to the opposite side of the tree. I had to move my bow and arrow quickly around the trunk directly in front of me. My shot would be close, about 7 or 8 yards at a steep downward angle. My platform was at 18 feet, but as it was on the side of a hill, I was probably 25 feet above the deer.
I started to draw as he walked broadside. When I did, I suddenly noticed the lower limb of my bow was hung up in my safety belt rope! By the time I untangled it, Woody was already through my shooting lane and starting to quarter away. Now I had to shoot off the left side of the giant oak my stand was in. As I started my draw, I saw a knob on the side of the tree above me. My upper limb tip would hit it if I canted my bow as I normally do, so I quickly "reverse-canted" the bow, shooting from a very unorthodox position.
My shot was quartering away at about 13 yards; the arrow buried to the fletch. Woody headed south, hit hard but further back than I wanted. Jason saw what happened and immediately left to get Barry. We all eventually met at the stand site.
The timber split into two drainages several hundred yards above us. The plan was for Barry to circle wide to the east and wait at the top of one of the drainages. Jason would cover the second drainage to the west. Daryl and I would wait an hour, and then slowly follow sign. If I had hit the femoral artery I figured he wouldn't make the top of the drainages; if I hadn't, Barry or Jason could well get a second crack at him.
|GENE WENSEL'S "WOODY"|
|Total points||19 (9R, 10L)|
|Greatest spread||27 5/8|
|Inside spread||26 1/8|
|Main beams||21 6/8, 226/8|
|Longest tine||11 5/8|
|Antler bases||4 6/8, 4 7/8|
|Abnormal points||46 1/8|
|Gross typical||180 7/8|
|Net score||222 7/8|
When Jason was getting into position, he discovered where Woody had already passed as he headed toward a big CRP field of tall weeds. We decided to back off several more hours before taking the trail.
A DREAM COME TRUE
At 4:30 p.m., the wounded animal rose from his bed and moved east. Jason took off to keep him in sight. He watched as the weak buck walked into another patch of timber and brush. Since we were quickly running out of daylight, I elected to back off until morning in hopes he would bed up in the security of the new cover.
It was a long night. I took a sleeping pill at midnight, but still awoke by 3 a.m. The plan was for me to watch the most likely escape route while Barry took the blood trail. Jason and Daryl would flank. Shortly after dawn, we moved into position. Twenty minutes later, I heard Barry yell. Words can't describe the emotion that swept over me; I'll leave that part to your imagination.
I've been at this game for many years, and I've been fortunate enough to tag some outstanding animals. But everything I'd ever accomplished in the outdoors shrank in comparison to the feeling of walking up to Woody. A flood of emotion swept over all four of us in those very special moments. I had said more prayers in that last 24 hours than I had in months. That I got to share it with family and friends made it even better. My companions were every bit as happy as was I. I couldn't have done it without the help of the three men with me.
Woody had apparently expired shortly after we last saw him. My broadhead had indeed done its job. I started phoning close friends right there at his side.
Woody's antlers are magnificent. He has it all -- 19 long points, width, mass, bladed tines, a calcified foramen on the end of the right main beam, long brow tines, good color, symmetry, no broken points, no "cheap" (short) non-typical points, four drop tines and a dark forehead. Scars on his muzzle from fighting other bucks whose racks could fit inside his main beams gave him lots of character.
I couldn't have built a prettier set of antlers. With a 26 1/8-inch inside spread, almost a 30-inch outside spread and bilateral drop tines, his antlers are unusually symmetrical for a non-typical. I'm told he is one of the biggest whitetails in history taken by means of a recurve bow. His body was big, but not huge; in fact, the big buck I tagged in November probably outweighed him by 40 pounds. We aged him at 5 1/2 years. He was, in every sense, a dream come true.
Our good friend David Mitten immediately drove over from Illinois to capture footage to add to our new DVD. The Mitten brothers, Barry and I have been working on a new DVD titled Primal Dreams for several years now, and the footage of Woody pretty much completed this part of the project. That night, David went through some of my shed-antler collection and discovered a right shed from Woody that my nephew had picked up in February 2003. He had just started to grow drop tines. We also discovered that we had a third trail camera picture taken on a scrape in November 2002.
A pedestal mount was done by master taxidermist Joe Meder of Solon. When a person loves this sort of stuff and spends a good portion of his life pondering choic
es, one can't help but respect individual deer, wonder about people as individuals and ask oneself why we are driven to do what we do. Hunting is really neither a sport nor a game. Yes, it was termed "sport hunting" over a century ago to differentiate it from market hunting. But if hunting isn't a sport, what is it, then?
Hunting is a basic human instinct no different from eating, breathing, sleeping or reproducing. Every human is born with an instinct to hunt. I heard someone say that if he harvested a giant non-typical, he would give up hunting because he would have "done it all." I know others who have in fact given up hunting for whatever reason. I can't help but wonder if they ever really loved it in the first place.
I'm fairly certain I've now taken the biggest buck of my life. At 60 years old, I'm down past a quarter of a tank. Many people have referred to Woody as "the buck of a lifetime," whereas in reality he is probably the buck of 50 or 100 lifetimes. I'm not only grateful for the opportunity and outcome, but also thankful for close friends who share the passion, an understanding wife and family, and a twin brother who shares my love of the outdoors with me. I'm a lucky and blessed guy.
It has been very special to see my dream unfold into reality. Some dreams do come true. To realize I accomplished it "my way" is just icing on the cake. You know that feeling of hunter's remorse and sadness that sets in after the fact? It hasn't happened yet with Woody. And I don't think it's ever going to happen this time. I feel great! I hope each reader gets to meet his or her own Woody someday.
(Editor's Note: Live footage of Woody taken in the field can be seen on the brand-new DVD Primal Dreams, available online from