A Public-Land Trophy Buck

A Public-Land Trophy Buck

Sometimes public ground is the only option for many Illinois deer hunters. But that didn't stop John Sondag from arrowing a dandy buck last fall.

John Sondag's Mason County monster had a final score of 185 0/8 typical inches.
Photo by Ron Willmore

John Sondag from Manito began his fourth year of bowhunting with great expectations. During the previous three years and again in 2004, Sondag had focused all of his deer hunting on public ground in west-central Illinois. Although Mason County is not typically known for giant bucks, in reality there is no shortage of deer, and an occasional record-book buck is killed. In 2003, for example, a Mason County buck arrowed by Dave Jones proved to be the new No. 1 bow-killed non-typical for Illinois at 266 4/8 inches.

The only place Sondag has to hunt is on public land. He will, however, be the first to admit there are frequent problems associated with too many bowhunters in a given area. Sondag was off work during the week of Nov. 8, 2004. He had decided to spend as much time as possible in one of the public areas he likes to hunt, such as Sand Ridge State Forest. This particular area is located in a floodplain with sandy soil and planted pines interspersed with hardwoods. The state forest is approximately 6,500 acres, most of which Sondag had either hunted squirrels or deer on during the previous three years.

Sondag had killed 18 does and a couple of decent bucks in the last three years. In 2004, however, he had his sights set on taking a Pope and Young buck. While scouting a certain area, he had found several large scrapes and rubs, and decided to focus his attention on that area.

At the beginning of the week he went into the area and set up his stand. The first morning he hunted the area, only does and small bucks showed up as they moved through on toward their bedding area. Sondag left in the middle of the day for a couple of hours, and when he returned, someone had stolen his tree stand. Needless to say, this put a damper on both his afternoon hunting plans and his attitude toward "hunters" who would take someone else's property.

After reflecting on what had happened, Sondag decided he was not going to let the actions of a low-life thief dictate his attitude or his experience in the woods. He simply procured a new tree stand and was determined to make the most of his remaining week of hunting. Mental attitude is definitely 95 percent of any hunt. Sondag decided at that point he would have a great time hunting that week, even though circumstances were not exactly as planned. On a side note, apparently there were several tree stands stolen last year at the state forest. As a result of that, after Sondag reported his stand stolen, site superintendent Billy Lowe started requiring all bowhunters to remove their stands after each day's hunt.

A couple of days later as Sondag approached the area he had found earlier, he noticed that something was out of place. In the area where he had hunted earlier, with several rubs and scrapes, there was now a bowhunter set up on one side only 30 yards away from his tree, and a ground blind on the other side littered with cigarette butts. The area around the ground blind was suddenly void of any vegetation, with several small trees cut down. Sondag talked to the other bowhunter briefly, said, "enjoy your hunt" and left with no idea where to go next.

It was at this point that Sondag decided the only way to get away from the other hunters was to move farther into the woods. He was a little concerned about getting too close to their bedding area but figured that it was his only hope.

On Nov. 12, Sondag got up at 4 a.m., showered, checked his gear and headed out the door. He picked up his uncle, Dean Wilson, and they headed for the woods. When they arrived at Sand Ridge State Forest, Sondag went with his uncle and helped him get set up. His uncle had found an area while squirrel hunting earlier in the year that he thought would be a great spot for a deer stand.

About 15 to 20 minutes later, Sondag left and headed to his new location -- deeper in the woods -- about 250 yards from his uncle. Sondag was set up by 6 a.m. as he sprayed himself down with scent-control spray.

While waiting for daylight he was reflecting on the activities of earlier in the week. His first thought was "hunting on public ground is really difficult sometimes, but that is all I've got." He thought back to previous encounters with horseback riders, squirrel hunters and other bowhunters. He particularly wonders about the "great deer stalkers," remembering several experiences where deer came running by, followed 10 minutes later by a bowhunter sneaking through the woods. It didn't take but a few minutes of reflection about his seemingly endless encounters on public land before Sondag realized it was time to stop feeling sorry for himself and just enjoy the morning.

Sondag knew he had to get set up early since he was pushing the limits by being so close to a prime bedding area. Daylight arrived and he did not see a deer for the first 45 minutes. It was a nice, quiet morning, and around 6:45 a.m. he heard a deer walking. When he located the origin of the sound, it was a doe moving past him at a trot.

"My first thought was that the doe was probably being pushed by a buck," said Sondag.

By now he could hear other deer moving closer, and noticed a 1 1/2-year-old buck was trailing the doe. At the first sign of movement, Sondag picked up his bow, and now watched as the doe and small buck passed by at 60 to 70 yards. While focusing on the doe and small buck, he suddenly realized there was a larger buck following the other deer. He knew the last buck was a "shooter," and that he somehow had to get the buck closer.

Sondag grabbed his grunt call and grunted two or three times. The buck acted like he did not hear the grunt and disappeared behind some brush. Sondag grunted again and this time the buck reappeared and made a sharp turn away from the doe trail. "The next thing I knew he was coming straight at me," he said.

The buck was at 30 yards and closing as Sondag drew his bow. When he got to full draw, the buck was stopped behind an overhanging branch. "That is when I got my first good look at his antlers," Sondag said. The buck then moved, turning slightly quartering away at 10 yards. "I had to stop looking at his antlers and focus on the shot," Sondag continued. While at full draw, Sondag tried grunting with his mouth to momentarily stop the walking buck, but nothing came out. It was at this point that everything went on automatic pilot, and the next thing Sondag remembered was the buck running off.

"I thought I hit him a little forward and tried to watch him as long as possible as he ran off, while hanging off the side of the tree by m

y safety belt," said Sondag.

At 70 yards, the buck started to go down, and then disappeared. Sondag watched for a couple of minutes, and then when convinced the buck was down, immediately got out of the tree. From the base of his tree he could see antlers sticking up out of the grass. "My first thought was, he is huge. This kind of thing doesn't happen to me." As Sondag approached the buck, he could only stare in disbelief at what a magnificent animal he had been blessed with taking.

Sondag immediately called his uncle on a two-way radio, and told him to meet him at a designated spot -- right now! Later, his uncle Dean said, "John was so excited when he called, I couldn't understand half of what he said."

Neither Sondag nor uncle Dean could believe the size of the buck. The buck not only had great antlers -- grossing 192 2/8 inches and netting 185 inches as a typical -- but he field dressed at 234 pounds. The buck had tremendous main beams (28 6/8 and 28 4/8 inches). Both the right and left G-2s and G-3s were over 11 inches long. With over 36 inches of circumference measurements and only 7 2/8 inches of deductions, it's easy to see how the buck scored so high.

When they finally got the buck to the truck, Sondag's thought was, "I have finally got a nice Pope and Young buck." He had no idea at the time that the buck would also make Boone and Crockett, and would be the highest-scoring typical bow-killed buck at the Illinois Deer Classic in Bloomington this past spring. Also, according to Trophy Whitetails Of Illinois and to P&Y's Bowhunting Records of North America For Whitetail Deer, Sondag's buck is the new No. 10 archery typical for Illinois. Sondag took the buck to his friend Danny Roberts at Roberts Taxidermy. Roberts green-scored the buck, looked at Sondag and said, "You don't know what you've got here."

All Sondag knew was that his week of high and lows concerning the trials and tribulations of public-land hunting had definitely ended on a high note, and provided him with a memory that will last a lifetime.

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