My heart sank as two distinct slug gun blasts exploded across the creek. I had just watched a 130-class buck cross the same creek, and the shots came from the woodlot he just entered.
Though I let the deer walk past me only moments before, it sounded like one of my neighbors didn’t see fit to do the same. Another buck cut short of his potential.
Such is the typical fate of most free-ranging bucks in the Midwest. Where I live and hunt in the suburbs of Indianapolis is no exception.
In Indiana, very few urban bucks make it to two-years-old, and even fewer live to the ripe old age of three.
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Besides our obnoxiously long gun seasons to solely benefit unrepentant meat hunters, urban deer have to fend off dogs, traffic, drive-by shootings, hikers and over zealous developers every day. For a trophy deer hunter the challenge is monumental.
But despite all of the hazards, a few bucks find a way to survive every year. The really smart or really lucky ones beat the odds a couple years in a row, and in Indiana, that’s all it takes for most deer to grow to record book proportions.
So when that 130-class buck was taken from the gene pool, I was half frustrated, but half elated. The downside was that the deer had great genetic potential as a two-year-old. The upside was that my neighbor’s buck tag was filled, and I thought a bigger one was still slinking around the area.
In Indiana, and a couple other states, deer hunters are only allowed to kill one buck per year, regardless of the weapon. The results of the plan have been questioned by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, who insist there aren’t more or bigger bucks wandering the Hoosier state as a result of the rule.
Hunters don’t agree. And in this case, as long as my neighbor didn’t break the rules, the one-buck-rule was about to work for me.
Hope and faith
On the half-mile walk home that evening, I quietly grumbled to myself, wondering why meat hunters didn’t just kill does instead of every bone-headed deer they saw. And though it was still only opening day, I was already convincing myself there weren’t any mature bucks left in the area.
As I mumbled my last bit of self-pity, however, I saw a deer at the end of the field that gave me hope.
Despite the quickly fading light, he looked bigger bodied than any I had seen that year. And though it was too dark and too far to see antlers, I could definitely make out some junk on his head.
Though it was opening day of regular firearms season, I had already bowhunted the area hard for 45 days. I had never seen the deer at the end of the field before, and as I squinted to get a better look at him, I felt reinvigorated with new hope.
I had assumed the oversized hoof prints I cut the day before were made by the now deceased 130-class buck, but suddenly, I couldn’t say for sure.
Had he been there all along, existing in the shadows and darkness until the rut finally forced him to move in the open? It was impossible to say, but I felt confident that once he found my field, he would stay for a while.
The field he was exiting is essentially a refuge from humans and dogs in the middle of a lot of other often-disturbed cover. It is an 18-acre oasis, created and maintained all year at great cost and sacrifice just for deer season.
No does are ever killed on the early successional field, and even I don‘t set foot in it unless I am planting a food plot or retrieving a neighbor’s deer. Besides all the seclusion it provides, it’s also the only cover around that remains mostly unmolested throughout gun season.
Getting a shot at the buck exiting the field, however, was going to be a challenge. Very few trees in and around the field were large enough to support an elevated tree stand, and visibility from a ground blind on the perimeter would be marginal at best.
The same five-foot-high thickets, dog-hair thick hardwood saplings and mats of raspberry bushes that attracted the buck, made it nearly impossible to hunt. Like other urban wildlife in the area, this buck had chosen wisely when he decided to take residence there.
When I saw him that first time at a distance, I immediately backed myself into the densely vegetated fence line I was walking. Hoping to go unnoticed, I crouched down until the buck made his way across the field and out of sight. It was dark by then, but I knew the woodlot he was heading toward, and noted the spot where I believed he entered.
I planned to hunt the perimeter of the woodlot the next day on the off chance I would get a closer look at the deer, and that he was as big as I hoped. Getting a shot in the woodlot would be a lot easier than the field.
The next day came and went with no sign of the deer, but shooting in every direction as usual. The rest of the week was just as bad, and was filled with typical urban deer hunting deal-breakers.
One day, I was chased up a tree by a pack of collared dogs. I knew these dogs, and had gotten into a nonsensical shouting match with the pack’s owner the year before. She essentially refused to fence her dogs, saying they were part of nature, and had a right to roam the heavily populated countryside.
Her misguided, selfish attitude resulted in a lot of busted hunts, and probably more native species dying every year than I accounted for in 10 years of hunting. Like too many city folk these days, she was hypocritically very anti-hunting.
As days ticked off the calendar, I continued to pass shots at smaller bucks. It was a gamble all trophy hunters take, but in an urban area, I knew it likely meant I would not kill a deer that year.
Indiana’s 16-day shotgun season came to a close, and though the buck I was waiting for was likely at the processor with someone else’s tag on him, I chose to continue hunting.
On opening day of muzzleloader season, I was tempted to finally fill my tag. A buck I had passed with my bow in October presented me with a 100-yard, broadside shot. He was a respectable 10-pointer that might have scored near 120. I put him in my crosshairs and eased my finger toward the trigger.
But instead of touching the hair-trigger, I lowered the gun and grabbed my camera. I reasoned that he would be a dandy buck next year, and since he had already survived shotgun season, he might have the skills to also survive muzzleloader and late archery seasons.
I had also already made peace with the notion that I wasn’t going to fill a tag. As a city buck hunter, I was just being realistic.
Late deer seasons can be either feast or famine in urban areas.
Some years the poachers take a break and lots of deer come out of hiding a couple weeks after all the shooting stops. Other years, the deer take a real beating and require a couple years to recover. This year seemed to be one where the beatings started early and lasted until the closing bell.
The fat lady sings
Though there wasn’t any science or logic behind it, I couldn’t help myself from obsessing over the spot on the woodlot where I watched the big buck disappear a month earlier. So, as usual, before I left my stand on opening day of muzzleloader season, I scanned the area with my binoculars once again.
Unbelievably, there was a buck standing right where the big boy had entered, and to my delight, he looked like a shooter.
Instead of taking my regular route home that night, I traveled in the opposite direction, leading me as far away from the buck as possible. I planned to sit on that spot the next morning.
I was being excited, but mumbled to myself: “Here we go again!”
Dawn the next day was clear, cold and calm.
From my 20-foot-high tree stand, the trail the buck entered the night before was only 30 yards away. Though I knew the odds were slim, I was still nervous as I stared a hole into the spot, hoping he would reappear.
Only minutes into legal shooting light, I saw movement in the trees. First the head, then the rack emerged from the cover. Unbelievably, he was right where he entered the woodlot a month earlier, and stood the night before. Though I knew better, it was as if the buck had hidden in that spot the entire season.
Cautiously, he eased into the field and looked both ways like a child at a school crossing. When his chest cleared the cover, I raised my gun and fired.
My decade old .50 caliber Knight muzzleloader exploded on cue, hitting the buck exactly where I aimed. He piled up within seconds, only 20 yards from where he exited the cover.
I tooth-aged the deer to be 3 ½-years-old, and he field-dressed 185 pounds. His antlers roughly score in the 150s, gross.
While the deer would not make the record book, and isn’t the biggest buck I have killed, he is about as big as they get around most cities in Indiana. Harvesting him took a combination of patience, strategy and luck. Three things that can tip the scales in any deer hunt, but are required when hunting the free-ranging whitetail trophies of America‘s big city suburbs.
Go to 2013 Deer Camp