Morken: A giant public-land whitetail slips away
ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — Public land hunts are never the easiest route in deer hunting, but it’s a myth that one can’t find good deer out there and it’s not worth the effort.
I saw that all on a week-long bow hunting trip to Missouri this past week. It’s a trip that included burying our truck and trailer on a mud road trying to check out a new piece of ground, and ended with getting within 20 yards of a shot on the biggest buck I have ever seen in the tree.
That hunt was on the last day of our trip, and it’s a day that encompasses everything that public-land hunting is about. My buddy, Jacob Busiahn of Duluth, and I saw a lot of hunting pressure, but we also saw plenty of big deer.
I had a very detailed plan based off of earlier sits that I felt confident in going into the final day. Observations from two evening hunts on Nov. 10 and 12 helped me identify the exact area that multiple bucks were moving through on a creek bottom where three ridges dropped down. My plan was to be right there on the evening of Nov. 13.
I pulled into the parking lot at about 1 p.m. that day, and the area was filled with trucks. Firearms season in Missouri opened on Nov. 14, and hunters were in camp now putting up stands. I decided to give it a go in that spot anyways, hoping that most of these guys were setting up stands on top of these ridges near the fields.
On my walk out, I came upon a guy I met the day before. He was also hunting the bottom of this ridgeline with another friend, and he informed me that his buddy had shot a buck that morning. They searched for it, had good blood but couldn’t find it. They called in a dog tracker to help with the recovery, so that made my decision for me. It was time to regroup.
I got back to the truck and scoured my onX map trying to figure out where to go. One area I scouted earlier in the day featured multiple ravines that dropped down in a big creek bottom. There was a well-worn pinch point up top where I had bumped a couple of does out in my scouting. Making this area more inviting was that it was surrounded by CRP grasses for bedding and standing corn for food. We knew does were preferring this setting even in spite of all the hunting pressure around it, so this seemed as good as any area to target.
I was settled into a tree over the top of that pinch point when I caught movement to my right with about an hour of daylight left. A huge buck was slowly making his way right toward me.
In all my hours bow hunting, I have never had an encounter with a buck this big — just incredible width and height with tines everywhere.
We were hunting in an antler-point restriction area where a legal buck needed at least four points on one side. I didn’t bother counting. I grabbed my bow off the holder and immediately started talking myself through what I was sure would be a shot in a matter of seconds. Stay calm. Slow down. Go through your shot process.
The sides of this ravine were so steep and full of brush that it felt like his only route was through the pinch point I was sitting over. He got to about 35-40 yards from me and took a step to his right. Down the ravine he went.
I quickly grabbed my grunt tube and let out a deep grunt and snort wheeze. He stopped, stood there for about five seconds before walking the rest of the way into the creek bottom and out of sight. I couldn’t believe it.
I tend to analyze — some would say over analyze — situations when bow hunting, and my mind immediately asked why he did that. Was he intentionally avoiding that pinch point? Maybe. I have listened to very experienced hunters talk about how mature bucks either run through or veer off from pinch points to avoid them too often to be a coincidence.
I also had to live with the fact that he ended up walking 15 yards away from a tree I was halfway set up in. I got into my saddle at about 3 p.m. that day, immediately checked my wind at the top of that ravine and didn’t like it. The south winds weren’t sending my scent over the crest of the ridge, rather swirling back towards the area I figured the deer would come from.
I pulled down, walked a half circle around the area and got two climbing sticks up into a different tree down the ravine. I checked my wind again, and thermals were rising up out of the bottom directly toward that pinch point.
I stood in the tree for five minutes thinking. Should I set up for what the thermals were doing that afternoon or for the last half an hour of light when they should start dropping? I ultimately decided to go back to the original tree I was set up in. That buck ended up walking right by that tree lower on the ravine. That’s the highs and lows of hunting.
We left on Saturday morning still a little defeated from both of us coming so close on big bucks, but ultimately falling short of filling a tag. So often, hunting whitetails is a long game. Scout. Hunt. Fall short. Learn.
Jacob and I both felt we did that on this trip in our first time on this property. We’re excited to go back next November.
Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor for the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minn.