December 05, 2014
When pondering Midwest whitetail hunting, brutish bucks of Illinois, Kansas and Missouri typically come to mind. Perhaps, maybe the heavy-horned beasts of Ohio or Iowa pop into your head. After spending three days at a deer camp for the opening of the Indiana rifle season, I am baffled that the Hoosier state is lost in this conversation.
This past summer, I was invited to join Phil Hunt, owner of PH Custom Lures, for an Indiana whitetail experience.
“Dude, you aren’t going to believe how crazy the hunting is in Indiana. I don’t know why nobody really talks about it, but it’s every bit as good as Illinois … and I think even better,” Hunt said.
With that kind of testimony, I couldn’t pass up the invitation. David Jones, assistant editor of BassTimes Magazine, and I headed from Birmingham, Ala., to Connersville, Ind., the day before rifle season started. Our goal was to get there in time for Hunt to show us around the property and identify the stands we’d be sitting in the first morning.
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The farm was gorgeous and several does milling around the 400-acre parcel greeted us. Large fields were bisected by deep draws and fields of turnips and clover were planted throughout the property. Adjacent were recently cut corn fields and slender strips of oak-filled bottoms.
“We saw some real studs during bow season,” Hunt said as he pointed out a shooting house I’d be sitting in the next morning. “One of my hunters saw a 170-inch deer, and multiple 150s and 160s were seen but never got into bow range.”
Hunt stopped the truck and walked Jones into the woods to show him his perch for the first hunt, and then we headed to the house. We’d be staying with Hunt for the next three nights, sleeping in his daughters’ beds. His kids would be staying at their grandparents’ house for the next couple of days.
So, Hunt’s house became a man-cave for the next 72 hours. The TV was never turned off Outdoor Channel and the dining room table became a rifle holding station. What’s more, Hunt builds, paints and packs all of his balsa baits in a shop behind the house, giving us even more toys to play with throughout the weekend.
After getting our gear ready, we decided to hit the local Mexican food joint, one of only three restaurants in the area. Joining us was Bassmaster Elite Series pro Bill Lowen and his family, who live just down the road from Hunt. Lowen is a frequent companion on Hunt’s lease and the pair fish together often. After a healthy serving of carne asada, a pitcher of margaritas and more Hoosier State deer stories than we could consider, we headed to the house.
Day One dawned in the teens. It was cold, really cold. Like, 16 degrees cold. I had very little action at my shooting house but heard the loud crack of a rifle from Jones’ direction. I got a text from Jones.
And then I got another one.
And finally, “I just shot a big one.”
I could hear his heart beating through the little blue text bubble. He was jacked up. Just one hour into his hunt he killed the biggest deer of his whitetail career: a heavy horned 10-pointer.
More rifle shots rang in the distance, but not as many as Hunt had predicted. He said it likely would sound “like World War III.” Instead, there were only a handful of shots by noon. Then I got a text from Phil.
“There’s a big one between you and I.”
We were hunting about 400 yards apart from each other with a hill between us. Then I heard his rifle report.
“He freakin’ ran right to me!” Hunt texted.
Half a day into our three-day hunt and two buck tags were filled. Hunt’s buck was a nice 10-pointer, with one G2 broken off in a fight.
After another couple hours of seeing very little from the shooting house (two small 6-pointers had meandered across the field) Hunt recommended I move.
He grabbed me and we walked to a wooded point overlooking a ridge. There, we sat at the base of a tree and watched the opposite hillside, which was a 100-yard shot at the farthest point.
Not long into the sit we heard leaves crunch behind us, then the deer blew hard. We sat motionless until it trotted 20 yards to our left and then down the ridge. It was a buck … a sleek 8-point frame with a G2 broken. The main beams almost touched at its nose. But, it was young and lacked mass so I decided to pass. The sun set and we headed to the truck to collect the two bucks.
After loading the deer, we drove to restaurant number two and celebrated with a smattering of country fried chicken, breaded pork loin sandwich, fried okra, green beans and pie. Possibly one of the best parts of hunting small rural towns is the small rural diners. The three-person feast cost $31!
We hung the deer at Lowen’s place and chatted.
“This was the worst rifle opener ever,” Hunt said. “Usually there are 150 or so deer checked in at the station. This morning there were only eight.”
“Uh, that was the best hunt of my life,” Jones replied. He had seen a total of four bucks and six does in the little time he was in his stand.
“It’s usually a lot better,” Lowen chimed in. “The big deer just didn’t move today. We should have all seen shooters.”
And that was the case the following day, as well. I got on stand at 6:30 a.m. before the sun rose, and climbed down after dark. I saw three bucks and six does, but nothing big. Lowen also saw plenty of deer, but no shooters.
Of course, as Jones was trying to fill his doe tags, a 140-class 10-pointer cruised by in easy rifle range chasing a doe. He killed the doe. And Hunt was doe hunting on the edge of a field when a wide-racked, heavy-horned 8-pointer crossed a couple hundred yards distant … he watched it walk, his buck tag already filled.
The final day of our hunt was to feature brutal weather. Lowen and I would head to a different farm to try and change our luck while Jones and Hunt would play in the lure-building shop and process the deer they harvested.
Giant, wet snowflakes were blowing sideways as I settled into my ladder stand. I had a brief encounter with a 130-class 8-pointer, but he didn’t stick around long enough for me to even consider a shot, not that I could have cleared the snow out of my scope without getting busted. All told, Lowen and I saw over 60 deer, but only a few small bucks were in the mix.
When we arrived back at Hunt’s house, the smell of taco soup filled the kitchen. His wife had made a crock-pot full of it. The chili-like mixture over Fritos covered with cheese was like hand warmers to the soul. I thawed from the inside out before we loaded the truck and made an overnight journey back to Birmingham.
“Man, I feel horrible that you didn’t get your buck. Usually, it’s not if you get one, but how big,” Hunt said.
“This was incredible,” I replied, and not in the don’t-feel-bad way, but in the this-was-an-awesome-hunt way. “I saw at least 12 bucks and over 30 deer from the stand in three days. If I had to choose between Indiana and Illinois or Ohio next year … I stick with freakin’ Indiana!”