Show Me Tactics for Missouri's Trophy Bucks
September 30, 2010
Deer hunting has never been better in Missouri, and now is the time to start planning this year's outings. Here's how several Show Me State hunters have found success.
By Bryan Hendricks
Though I've hunted deer off and on for 27 years, opening day was always a bust for me. My success has always come late in the season, sometimes with the clock ticking down. That changed last year, when, despite making every imaginable error, I killed my biggest buck ever.
The night before opening day, I got permission to hunt a friend's property in southern Cole County. Having never seen the place, I didn't have time to scout it, and I had only her description to guide me. I only knew how to get there, that it had deer on it, and that her grandson had killed two does there during archery season.
After work, I went to a local shooting range to check my scope zero. I had killed a buck in his tracks the year before with one shot from my .308 at 210 yards, but I had worked up a new load that was different from the one I used the year before. Sighting in at 100 yards, I couldn't get a decent group, and I finally gave up when it got too dark to see.
I arrived at my friend's place well before sunrise and walked to the edge of the woods on a hillside that overlooked a wooded draw. At dawn, gunshots thundered from every direction, but they tapered off dramatically by about 9 a.m.
Meanwhile, I became increasingly worried about my poor shooting the night before. I wasn't sure I could even hit a deer, let alone make a clean kill. Eventually my conscience got to me, so I decided to go back to the shooting range and put it to rest.
It was about 30 miles to the range, and as I pulled into the parking lot, a group of hunters hauled a doe out of the woods nearby. Otherwise, the air was quiet except for the sound of wind and birdsong.
In 2001, Vernon Schmitz of Westphalia bagged the buck of his dreams, a non-typical that scored 161 7/8. Photo by Bryan Hendricks
I set up a target at 25 yards and put my rifle in a vise that I had left in my truck the night before. The first shot was dead on - about 1/4 inch below the middle of the bull's-eye. I clicked once, rapped the scope with my knuckle, and then fired again. That one went right through the center. I fired again. That shot went though the center hole, widening it just a hair.
Satisfied, I went to another conservation area about 40 miles away. I arrived about 11 a.m. and found the parking area deserted. The day was sunny and clear, with a cold, crisp north wind blowing waves of tears down my cheeks. I walked about a half mile before descending into a thickly wooded draw that snaked to my right through a thin, narrow vale. The hill, covered with grass and clumps of cedars, curved to my left.
As I walked slowly along the draw, a doe popped out of the woods about 40 yards in front of me. I froze, but she stopped and looked right at me.
Busted! I thought, as I stood there in the open like a great big hunter-orange neon light. Her ears flicked, and then she whipped her head around to look behind her.
"Oh - your boyfriend's following you, isn't he, sweetheart?" I whispered. "Go on now, honey, and thanks for the tip." She gave me a parting glance, ambled up the hillside and disappeared among the cedars.
I dropped to my knees immediately, and the moment I got settled, a big-bodied 8-point buck trotted out of the draw, his nose stretched way in front and his lips curled back. I smelled him almost at the instant I saw him, but he never even looked my way. He was locked solidly onto that doe.
I shouldered my .308 bolt-action, centered the crosshairs just above and behind the shoulders and fired. He didn't even flinch, so I cycled another round, aimed at the same spot and fired again.
This time, he reared up on his hind legs to bolt, but in that instant, he seemed to lose his steam. He feathered slowly down to all fours and began limping up the hill. After a few steps he started to stagger and sway. He made a semicircle that steered him back downhill. Then he lay down at the base of a cedar tree and died.
I quickly covered the 15 steps between us, and then dropped again to my knees to send a quick prayer of thanksgiving. His rack, though not record-class, was positively regal. One shot had collapsed his lungs; the other had sheared off the bottom of the heart. At that range, neither bullet expanded.
So how did things go so right when they started out so horribly wrong? Mainly, I got lucky. But I got lucky because I picked an excellent chunk of deer habitat: a concealed, woody travel corridor offering safe access to plentiful food sources and bedding areas. It also didn't hurt that the buck was in full rut. He was out playing when he should have been in bed.
THE BOX STAND BUCK Right about the same time that day in Lincoln County, Rob Fields of Old Monroe also killed his biggest buck ever, and in equally chance circumstances. This one, a 13-point typical, scored 166 7/8 under Boone and Crockett scoring rules. It fell to a single shot from a 7mm Remington Magnum chamber tipped with a 158-grain bullet at 70 yards.
Fields was hunting on a relatively small property, about 60 acres, from his brother-in-law's stand. Sited on a CRP plot, it was an 8-foot by 12-foot box stand with sliding glass windows, an office chair and a propane heater. The brother-in-law was hunting another property that morning, so he invited Fields to hunt from his blind.
Despite the cold, the heater was off, and the windows were open. Good thing, too - because when Fields saw it, the buck was chasing a doe and running full throttle.
"When I first saw him, he was about 150 yards away," Fields recalled. "It happened so quick. When my brother-in-law hunts, he keeps it closed because he's worried about scent. I had the Scent-Lok suit, so I wasn't worried about that. I had all the windows open. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have killed the deer. It was only about five seconds from the moment I saw the deer to the time I killed him."
A head-on snap shot at a running buck may seem ill advised to some, but practice had made Fields confident. "There's a gun dealer in Ellsberry that glass-bedded my barrel," he said. "We shot four boxes of ammo through it, going from 25 yards to 400 yards. A lot of times we were shooting free-handed - just throwing the gun up to our face and shooting. It made all the difference in the world. We spent a lot of time with different loads, so I was confident with the rifle and the loads I was using."
He knew he had it right when, practicing with his brother-in-law, he shot a five-shot group. Three holes were touching.
Fields got off just one shot, but the deer, never flinching or breaking stride, vanished as quickly as it had appeared. "I thought, 'Gosh dang - missed again!'" he said.
Nevertheless, he left the stand to look for blood, and he found it. He walked about 60 yards to the edge of the woods, and about 10 feet away he saw a pair of does standing over the fallen buck.
"Those does were the reason I found him," Fields said, "but when I got close, I could smell him, too. He was nasty with rut."
Having forgotten to bring the key to the gate, Fields had to drag the deer about an eighth of a mile. Otherwise, he could have driven right to it.
"I shot a really nice one once before, but a guy walked off with my deer," he recalled. "There was no way I was going to let this one out of my sight.
"All I can say is 'Thanks!' to my brother-in-law!"
THE SECOND-CHANCE BUCK A day later, in Pope County, Craig Mashburn of Springfield celebrated his biggest buck ever. This one, a 12-point typical, scored 160 2/8 B&C. Mashburn described it as a basic 10-point with kickers coming off the eye guards.
Like Fields, Mashburn described his encounter with this buck as happenstance. His sons, Dylan, 15 and Catlin, 12, had both killed bucks on opening Saturday. As they were driving to their property on Sunday, Dylan offered to hunt with Catlin so that their father might have a better chance on his own.
"I didn't even sit in my regular stand," Mashburn said. "I was more or less by the house on the farmer's land we were hunting on. This buck came out chasing a doe.
"At first they were about 200 yards and coming toward me," he continued. "I noticed the buck had a big rack, so I was pretty excited. As soon as they appeared, the doe turned, and they were walking away. I was disappointed they didn't offer a shot."
Finally, they turned and offered a good shot, but Mashburn said that he fired too quickly, and the buck ran even farther away.
"I was pretty rattled, because I knew he was big then," he said. "I estimated he was about 300 yards away, and I tried to calm my nerves. I was wondering how high I should hold (the cross hairs), because I knew the bullet would drop at that distance. I told myself 'Just hold it on the deer' - and sure enough, I got him."
Having hunted for some 27 years, Mashburn had always hoped that he'd see a big buck, but he's always been happy with the bucks he's taken. Understandably, this one was one of his life's highlights.
"It's not quite like the end of a dream, but it's pretty exciting," he said. "The only thing was that there wasn't anyone to share it with. I was all alone."
KNOW YOUR EFFECTIVE RANGE It was in Daviess County on Nov. 10 that Randy Swope killed what was then his biggest buck ever. Arrowed at 4:45 p.m. with an assist from a cold, fierce wind, the Kearney hunter's 12-point typical scored 154 Pope and Young.
He was hunting from a climbing stand in a thickly wooded creek bottom between two big crop fields. The buck appeared behind Swope, but the wind kept him from detecting the hunter.
"I think it took my scent right over him," Swope said. "I spun around and locked onto it with my sights and double-lunged him."
Though he had to act quickly, Swope never doubted he would take the buck. That's because he had blundered right into Swope's "comfort zone."As much as I practice, I was pretty confident," he explained. "I don't shoot at anything beyond 20 yards, and that's what makes me a successful hunter. I've seen bucks 30 to 40 yards out, and some guys will take that shot, but not me. It's got to be 20 yards or less."
Swope's credentials bespeak this ethic. In addition to the big Missouri whitetail, he also shot a 6x7 bull elk in September. And in December he set his personal bar even higher, arrowing a 164 P&Y whitetail in Texas.
THE D.U. BUCK On opening day of the 2001 season, Vernon Schmitz of Westphalia bagged his biggest buck ever: a magnificent non-typical that scored 161 7/8 B&C. He shot it at 7 a.m. atop an open ridge at 103 yards with a .25-06 Remington shooting a 100-grain soft-point.
Opening day 2001 was clear, cold and still - about 30 degrees. Schmitz had gotten a late start, but he arrived in time to see quite a show before the headline performer came onstage. A 6-point came out first, followed by a forkhorn. However, Schmitz was holding out for a big 12-point he had seen in the past.
"I had done some scouting, but I had never seen that deer before," Schmitz said. "I was sitting on my back ridge behind my barn where there's a 5-acre opening between two woodlines. He was following a doe. The doe came out first, and then he came out. After I shot him, two other bucks - two nice ones - came out - a 6-point and an 8-point."
Gloria Schmitz, Vernon's wife, recalls that when Vernon came home looking rather shaken, she asked him if he had killed a deer. In his characteristically understated fashion, Vernon affirmed that he had.
"I thought he was just cold the way he was shaking," Gloria said. "I asked him how many points it had, and he said he didn't know! I said, 'What do you mean you don't know, Vernon? You just shot a deer and you don't know how many points it had?'
"He said, 'Six, 8 - I don't know. I didn't count 'em. Come on right now: You've got to see him.' I didn't know what to think, but I knew that wasn't like him."
Schmitz acknowledged only that he was nervous. "When I saw him, I thought, 'I'd better get him.' I took a good shot and got him in the neck. The taxidermist cut the bullet out and gave it to me, and it had a nice, even expansion - a nice mushroom pattern.
"I was pretty excited about it," he continued. "I had shot other bucks before, but nothing like that one. I couldn't even get him in the back of the pickup by myself. I was so excited, I didn't even know how many points he had at first."
Vernon's buck had 19 points - 18 of them scorable. There was one big palmated tine on the right side, but on the left side is a tine that looks just like the Ducks Unlimited logo. There's even a small stain to form the duck's eye. He also had a clubfoot, which Schmitz wishes he had saved. "He was limping a little when he came out, so I thought he might have been shot earlier, but he wasn't wounded.
"After I shot him, the doe just stood there beside him," he added. "Finally, she looked bac
k, and a 6-pointer came out and walked past the one lying there and stood by the doe. Another walked by the one I shot. He sniffed him, and they all walked off."
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