Illinois…Land of this Bowhunter’s Ruination
By: Tim Hunter Martin
Buckmasters Magazine (Aug, 2006)
It was more of a warning than a question, posed by my friend Ken Piper. He figured I’d be spoiled for life after my upcoming bowhunt in Pike County, Ill.
You remember Ken, the guy wit the super-sized grin on the September 2005 Buckmaster cover? I’d be grinning, too, if I’d just arrowed a 206-inch Pike County monster buck like his.
Ken’s sentiments were echoed by Rack editor Mike Handley, who’d been Illinois-smitten after sticking his first-ever bow buck there three seasons ago.
Handley said, “Tim, I’ve hunted a lot of great places, but Illinois is just…well…heh heh…you’ll see.”
My buddies were obviously moves their Land of Lincoln experiences and I hoped I’d be, too. On the three-legged flight and subsequent two-hour drive to the land of m ruination, I remembered their words and got a case of the butterflies. My nerves didn’t improve as the Midwestern scenery whizzed past my rental-car window. Somewhere out in those cornfields and blazing October woodlots were uncountable numbers of trophy bucks. All I wanted was one of them to replace the measly deer mount hanging in my office.
I was going to bowhunt with IMB Outfitters at their beautifully renovated Kinderhook Lodge. I’d be sharing camp with several well-known writers, as well as sponsors from Cabela’s and Hunter’s Specialties, including TV personality Alex Rutledge, who’d be filming that week.
It was dark upon arrival, and I was anxious to see if the airlines had been kind to my bow. I sighted-in by flashlight and was relieved to see the bow was still on target. For months I’d shot daily, preparing to fling arrows skillfully amongst the campful of experts. The last thing I wanted was to miss and have to show off my creative excuse-making abilities.
On the first morning’s pre-dawn drive to the stand, I got a taste of what my friends back in Alabama had been raving about. The truck’s headlights revealed a gauntlet of glowing eyes, gray shapes and glimpses of antler along the roadside fields. Shooter bucks were silhouetted in the moonlight, some jockeying with other bucks, keeping their harems in check. I couldn’t wait to get into a treestand!
For the first two days, I was teamed with Mark Melotik, the managing editor of Bowhunting World. He was familiar with Illinois deer and said the afternoons were usually more productive than the mornings, especially during the pre-rut. Mark’s prediction proved accurate, and although we saw a few deer early that morning, the afternoon was much better.
Our guide, Chris Shores, lead Mark and me to our first evening’s stands in a bitter, spitting rain. Chris pointed me toward my treestand, which was swaying in a narrow finger of trees along a fencerow, sandwiched between two vast cornfields.
An Alabama buck wouldn’t be caught dead out in this weather…bet these Illinois deer are bedded, I thought.
Chris had scarcely driven away before I was shocked to spot a doe feeding across a field facing me.
Within an hour, a buck that I figured would score about 115 inches was making scrapes within easy bow range. Despite the rain, my expectations rose as he pawed away.
Soon I heard the thumping of hooves and a string of does ran across a field behind me. Knowing what was sure to follow, I quickly clipped my release to the string and stood.
A massive, deep chested 8 pointer gave chase, slinging mud as he tried to catch the girls. Like a well-bred racehorse, waves of muscle rippled across his side with each stride. His ridiculously swollen neck looked to be on the verge of splitting open. The image of that 300-pounder chugging across the field will be with me always!
The buck’s entourage never slowed as they blew past at 80 yards, straight toward Mark Melotik’s stand. Mark had similar luck with that “pig” and a couple more shooters, but no arrows were flung that day.
Back at the camp, yarns of the day were being spun by several story-telling professionals. Outdoor writing journeyman Gary Clancy kept our group in stitches with his anecdotes. I can testify that Alex Rutledge should have a second career doing standup comedy.
The hunters were kept fat and happy by the cooking of lodge owner Andy Sprague and his mother, Pat. I scored Miss Pat’s killer potato soup recipe in exchange for my award-winning white chicken chili recipe. This trip was shaping up to be more than just an opportunity to shoot a monster buck.
Who’s arrow is it, anyway?
On the second morning, I pulled a memorable prank on Mark Melotik.
Mark and I were hunting 150 yards apart in a small parcel of woods. About an hour after sunrise, I heard a deer running directly behind me. A nice 8-pointer bounded past at 25 yards, refusing to acknowledge the grunts I made in an attempt to stop him. I noticed that the buck clenched his tail, hobbling slightly. Seconds after the buck topped a small hill, I heard a crash, then silence.
I thought, I bet Melotik shot that buck!
Ninety minutes later, I got down to look for a blood trail, which was easily found. It only took about 30 seconds to follow the swath directly to Mark’s buck.
Recognizing a great joke-playing opportunity, I strategically stuck one of my white-crested arrows underneath Mark’s buck to make it appear as if I’d shot it—a nice surprise for my buddy at the end of his blood trail.
It was hard to keep a straight face when the blood searching Mark finally appeared. I feigned excitement, pointing out MY well-placed arrow protruding from MY buck.
With eyebrows raised, Mark mumbled, “What the freak…did you shoot it, too?”
The look on his face was far too priceless for me to contain laughter any longer. Mark didn’t think it was too funny, judging by the names he called me.
We spent the remainder of the day taking pictures, recounting the prank and celebrating Mark’s beautiful 8-pointer, his best ever with a recurve bow.
“Dear Lord, I’ve missed!”
On the following afternoon, IMB guide Tyler Bradley brought me to a smoking-hot location.
The treestand was situated in a wooded ditch, with a cornfield on one side and an old orchard on the other. I noticed fresh scrapes and big tree rubs everywhere. There were those butterflies again.
I settled into the stand, and a deer parade soon filed onto the field. Two gangly forkhorns provided entertainment with a head-butting contest while I ranged 30-yard markers.
I choked back a laugh when a sleepy-looking possum emerged stiffly from its den. It yawned, stretched, and licked something nasty that was all over its fur. It looked like Rod Stewart on a really bad hair day.
SNAPPP!!!! A stick cracked sharply behind me in the orchard. I slowly turned to see a mature buck raking his antlers on a shrub some 90 yards distant.
The first things I noticed were the stickers on his tall, chalky rack. I didn’t need binoculars to see that this buck would look great in Mr. Measly’s spot over my desk.
The buck sniffed scrapes along-side the ditch, meandering closer, but on a path that would put it 60 yards away as he passed. I had to try to bring him closer.
It was time to a test a H.S. True Talker grunt call that Alex Rutledge had given me.
I tooted on it twice and the buck paused, searching curiously in my direction. I froze.
The buck eventually flicked his tail, continued pawing and approaching in a much more favorable path…I was going to get a shot!
I silently coached myself as the deer approached. Okay, I ranged this side of the briar patch 30 yards, but looks like he’s taking that far side…Dummy, don’t reach for the range-finder now…he’s looking.
Of course, the buck chose the far side of the briar patch to pass, stopping to make a scrape at an unknown yardage.
I’m guessing he’s 35 yards…better hold high on the shoulder with this pendulum sight, I thought.
Knowing the buck wouldn’t come any closer. I drew and held the pin at the top of his shoulder and released. The arrow flew perfectly toward the vitals, but 2 inches beneath his brisket…I’D MISSED!
The buck snorted and bounded away.
Immediately, I grunted with the True Talker and the deer stopped to peer suspiciously in my direction. Surprisingly, he began to make scrapes again about 70 yards away.
Watching the now-calm but out-of-range buck was agonizing. If I’d known a Jedi mind trick to bring him back, I’d surely have used it. Eventually the buck remembered his original agenda and sauntered off, disappearing into the briars.
With the buck gone, it was safer to reach for the range-finder and check the distance where I’d missed.
I groaned, “Forty-two yards? No dang wonder!”
What would I tell the panel of experts back at the lodge?
The plotting began. If I get down now and wash the dirt off my arrow, those clowns will never know I missed. Maybe I’ll just tell ’em my fletch must have hit a branch!
With a poor track record for keeping a straight face, I knew I could never do that. So, I opted for humility and one of the most earnest prayers I’ve ever prayed.
“Dear Lord, please let me have another chance at that buck…and how ’bout guiding my aim this time?”
For the next 40 minutes I stared hopefully into the patch of briars where the buck disappeared. Nothing moved.
Suddenly, on the opposite side of the ditch, I heard antlers raking a bush and I perked up. When a young basket-racked 8-pointer bounced onto the field, I became dejected.
“Oh no, somebody shrunk my buck!” I half-heartedly chuckled.
Then I saw more motion in the briars. Legs, a tail-flick, looks like antlers…antlers with stickers…my buck! It had chased the yearling out and was going to return!
I prepared for my second chance and mentally whispered, Thank, God. Please keep him coming!
The buck steadily plodded closer. When he came within 32 yards, I stopped him with a grunt, since he was about to become shielded by branches. The shot angle was quartering slightly toward me, but I took what I could’ get.
This time the arrow struck well, burying to the chest. The buck wheeled into the cornfield, grunting profanely with each bound until he vanished into the woods. I heard a crash and knew that my taxidermist was about to get a little richer.
After a rebel yell and an impressive display of treestand disco dancing, I suddenly couldn’t wait to see the kangaroo court I had dreaded only moments before.
Looking back, I think that’s the best part of hunting. Not just the wrapping of a tag around the biggest set of antlers possible, but sharing excuses, funny stories, moments of sheer humility and personal triumph with fellow hunters, like the great guys I met at Kinderhook Lodge.
On the flight home, I remembered the words of my buddies back in Alabama – they were right. After this Illinois trip, deer hunting won’t be the same for me again.