Big Shoes To Fill

Big Shoes To Fill

Ryan Venhaus shot a 29-point monster non-typical buck that scored a whopping 224 6/8 inches. He just wishes his late father could have seen it. (August 2008)

Ryan Venhaus with his trophy buck.
Photo by Craig Bobula.

How many times have you had something not turn out the way you wanted? And just when you couldn't feel any lower, something great happened that wouldn't have been possible if the bad thing hadn't happened?

St. Clair County hunter Ryan Venhaus felt those pangs of angst when he missed a nice 8-point buck one morning last gun season. Turns out, if he hadn't missed that buck, he would have never gotten a chance to shoot a 29-point monster non-typical that scored a whopping 224 6/8 inches.

Venhaus' family has hunted together on their property for nearly 20 years, with both bow and gun. Hunting is definitely a family affair, with seven other family members, including Venhaus' brothers Adam and Travis, grandfather Elmer, uncles Larry and Brad and cousins Mark and Chad taking part.

Venhaus' father, Dave, hunted too, but he passed away two years ago.

Now when the family gathers at the "clubhouse," a ramshackle house near their property, there is a void. Although he can't share the deer woods with his father anymore, Venhaus' fond memories of his dad and deer hunting help alleviate the loss.

"When I first started hunting in grade school, my dad would hunt up in the stand with me," Venhaus remembered. "He was up in the stand with me the first time I ever shot a deer. I don't know who was happier, my dad or me. At family or social functions, my dad would tell everybody the story of how I shot my first deer and every time he told the story it would put a smile on my face seeing the pride he had in telling the story time and time again."

Venhaus bowhunted until two years ago, but a bum shoulder he attributes to high school weightlifting and baseball injuries prevented him from drawing a bow. Doctors shaved four centimeters from his clavicle and inserted a screw to anchor a torn bicep tendon, but despite the surgery and six long months of rehab, he still can't draw a bow.

"I'm hoping to give it a try again this year and see how my shoulder responds to pulling back a bow again," Venhaus said. "I'd love to get back out there with a bow and spend more time hunting with my brothers."

The 77-acre parcel has been in the Venhaus family for many years and is adjoined by 20 acres of his Uncle Larry's land. Except for one acre of tillable ground, the entire property is timberland. The land borders St. Clair County land that is closed to hunting because of its proximity to Scott Air Force Base and MidAmerica Airport. Not only is the county land off-limits to hunting, no one is even allowed to enter it, creating a natural sanctuary for bedding deer, as well as a hiding place from hunting pressure on surrounding properties.

"Deer will bed down in the county ground and then come to our timber to feed during the day," Venhaus said.

Although the Venhaus men have taken some nice deer over the years, the last several years have been even better.

"At least six bucks killed on the property within the last several years have scored between 130 and 160 inches," Venhaus said. "My Uncle Larry shot three wallhangers himself, and both my brothers, Adam and Travis, have shot a couple themselves. Up until the 2007 season, I was the only brother who hadn't harvested a giant buck."

Despite the successes of previous seasons, the early part of the 2007 season was nothing to get excited about.

Hunting is a family affair, with seven family members including Venhaus' brothers, grandfather, uncles and cousins taking part. His father hunted too, but he passed away two years ago.

"We had seen a couple of decent bucks over the course of the season, but mostly the buck sightings were few and far between," Venhaus said. "There always seemed to be large quantities of does seen on the property over the course of the season, but we hadn't really had consistent sightings of nice bucks."

Things began to turn around, however, in early November when Travis shot a 10-pointer with his bow. That was an exciting event in itself, but something else happened the same day that would give the hunters reason to be excited the rest of the season.

After they picked up Travis' deer on a four-wheeler, Adam and Travis were driving through timber to return to the truck when they spotted a big-bodied buck tearing through the brush in front of them. The deer had the largest rack they had ever seen in their lives. Their jaws were on the ground as they watched the buck run out of sight.

More than a dozen permanent stands dot the family property, but Venhaus' favorite is a homemade permanent ladder stand bordering a natural clearing in the middle of the woods. The stand is also close to a small creek and the location seems to serve as a funnel for deer.

The stand, built four or five years ago, has been one of the hottest spots to hunt for the last two years. Venhaus killed an 8-pointer from the stand in 2006 and several does and a button buck have also been taken.

Last Nov. 16, opening day of Illinois' gun deer season, Venhaus' brothers picked him up around 5 a.m. and they headed off to the timber.

"I was so excited the night before that I didn't get much sleep, so I ended up sleeping the whole drive," Venhaus remembered.

Arriving at their parking spot, the brothers unloaded their four-wheelers, gathered their gear and set out for their stands. Not wishing to disturb the area, they parked the four-wheelers at the edge of the timber and walked the last couple of hundred yards to their stands.

Venhaus was hunting the ladder stand where he shot the 8-pointer the year before, but he didn't choose the stand based strictly on deer activity.

"It's also close to my brothers' stands and I have to tell one of them in particular where the deer are coming from because he likes to doze off," he joked.

Although he can't share the deer woods with his father anymore, Venhaus' fond memories of his dad and deer hunting helps alleviate the loss.

Venhaus arrived at the stand shortly before 6 a.m. and wa

ited for shooting light. Just after sunrise, he heard something from the southwest.

"I glanced over to my left and to my amazement an 8-pointer was trotting toward me," he said. "I had to react quickly because I knew I was only going to have one opportunity to get a shot off when the deer passed my shooting lane."

Venhaus shouldered his gun and waited for the deer to reach the clearing. As the buck trotted through the timber 70 yards away, he squeezed the trigger.

"I fired and the deer turned around and took off running through the timber," Venhaus said. "I thought for sure I put a good shot on the animal."

Venhaus sat in his stand nearly an hour thinking the buck was down, but when he searched the area, there was no blood to be found. He started searching the area where the deer ran and still didn't see any sign the animal was hit.

"I started to get frustrated thinking that I missed the buck," Venhaus said. "I kept looking for another 15 minutes, but all I found was hair. I assumed I grazed the animal. I was really discouraged."

Venhaus decided to leave the stand . . . As he unloaded his shotgun, he spotted a doe. . . but she spotted Venhaus and ran. Then his luck changed.

Around midmorning, his brothers met him at the stand. Adam informed them that he shot an 8-pointer and had already recovered it, so the trio looked further for any indication of a hit on Venhaus' buck. After searching for a while, they came up empty. It looked like a grazing shot that only drew hair. They dragged Adam's 8- pointer back to the truck, then headed back home to hang the deer and grab some lunch.

When they returned that afternoon, temperatures had warmed into the low 50s and it was windy.

"Not ideal weather for hunting, since the deer normally bed down at those types of conditions," Venhaus said. "I sat in the same stand for several more hours without seeing one deer. The hopes of getting one were diminishing by the minute. It was getting close to 5 p.m. and the sun was beginning to set, so I figured the hunt was lost."

Venhaus decided to leave the stand and get a head start back to his four-wheeler. As he began unloading his shotgun, he spotted a doe out of the corner of his eye. But the doe spotted Venhaus and ran. Then his luck changed.

"I looked a little closer at the spot where I first spotted the doe and I could make out the antlers of another deer bedded in the brush," he said. "I couldn't see the entire body, but the rack alone made me realize that he was big."

The deer was about 50 yards away and Venhaus slowly loaded a shell into his shotgun, trying not to make too much noise.

"When the chamber closed, it startled the deer and he got up," he said. "I aimed as quickly as possible, but when I went to pull the trigger, wouldn't you know it, the safety was still on. I quickly aimed a second time and slowly pulled the trigger."

The shot knocked the deer down but didn't kill it. Venhaus could hear the animal moving around in the brush, trying to get back up. He loaded another shell and waited to see if the deer would get up. When it did, he fired a second, lethal, shot.

"Who knows how long the two deer were there," Venhaus said. "I guess when I ejected the shells, the doe heard it and took off running. I thought the buck was going to get up and take off, too, but he didn't. He just laid there. I was lucky to get a shot off."

Venhaus waited in his stand for a little bit before getting down. His brothers heard the shooting and came over to see if he had gotten anything.

"All three of us walked over to the brushy area where I shot and saw the full body and rack for the first time," Venhaus remembered. "It was a lot bigger than I expected."

Venhaus knew the buck was big, but he hadn't realized exactly how big.

"The first time I saw the entire rack was when my brothers and I walked up," he said. "My brother, Adam, kept saying, 'Holy (expletive), that is one big damn deer.' It was pretty funny after he said it several times. He started counting the points right away too."

And there were plenty of points to count -- 29 to be exact. The incredible buck sported 17 abnormal points on its 6x6 frame, 42 5/8 inches of extra bone. The mass was pretty incredible too, with each base measuring 6 2/8 inches The buck's final net score was a whopping 224 6/8 inches, good enough for second place in the biggest non-typical gun kill category at the 2008 Illinois Deer & Turkey Classic held in Bloomington in February. The only buck bigger was Marty Sharp's 238 7/8 inch behemoth from Knox County.

Venhaus said he would never forget the moments he shared with his brothers when they walked up to the huge buck.

The buck's final net score was a whopping 224 6/8 inches, good enough for second place in the non-typical gun kill category at the Illinois Deer &Turkey Classic.

"My brothers were so excited for me, I couldn't believe their eyes," he said. "I was soaking up the joy and excitement as well, but I would rather have seen one of my brothers shoot the deer than me. I'm not as avid a hunter as they are."

Although sharing the experience with his brothers was unforgettable, only one thing would have made it better.

"The number one thing I wish I could change would have been for my dad to have been there to see it," he said. "He's the one who taught my brothers and me everything we know about hunting and firearms safety. He's the one who got us started hunting 16 years ago. He always wanted to see us boys shoot a big deer and he would actually pass on bucks hoping they would walk past his boys' stands. He always wanted to see his boys achieve first, then everything else took second course. If it weren't for him, I would have never hunted and never had the opportunity to shoot the buck. He was a great man and I miss him. I hope I can fill half the shoes as my father throughout my life."

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