There was a riveting and poignant scene in the 1987 movie, “The Untouchables” which starred Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Robert De Niro as the infamous Al Capone. Malone the street-wise beat cop (played by Connery), lay dying on the floor of his apartment in a pool of his own blood after being machine-gunned by Capone’s hit man Frank Nitti. Eliot Ness (Costner) held the dying Malone as he wheezed into Ness’s ear a haunting question:
“What are you…… prepared to do?”
What are you prepared to do? That really is the most important question in almost every human endeavor. Successes are about setting goals and doing whatever it takes to be successful – no matter what that is: be it getting an education, a great job, a successful marriage or, …even harvesting that buck of a lifetime. If you want to succeed you have to do what it takes and great things are not won without great effort….unless you’re ridiculously lucky ……which I am not.
For over four years I had been playing peek-a-boo with a stud-of-a-buck that I had named “The Untouchable”. All I could ever muster was a rare glimpse of this him; never in bow range and never clearly. He was able to avoid all my trail cameras and had never been seen by the local farmers. I knew he existed and knew he was an exceptionally wary and smart deer. There are certainly whitetails that grow bigger in antler …..but he was my Untouchable and I was prepared to do whatever it ethically took to put my tag on him.
Of course simply making that commitment was the easy part…it was just mental at that point. But then came the even bigger question….How was I going to accomplish this? Like every other tree climber I read all articles, I watched all the shows and memorized every fact and theory in the DVDs. That was all fine and good for normal bucks…but I was dealing with The Untouchable.; a deer-mensa sort of genius. About the only thing I could tell for sure was that he was almost 100% nocturnal all year long. I kept my distance and limited my pre-season scouting to over half a mile away though my Leopold binoculars and spotting scope. Weeks and weeks would go by without a sighting and then suddenly I would get a brief glimpse of him always at the very last drop of light before dark and never in the morning. Even then it was just a peek at a broad rump or a piece of thick antler back in the woods and then like a mirage, he would melt away as if he could sense my intrusion even from a great distance.
One thing I could never figure out was where he bedded which I believe is one of the major pieces of the puzzle you need in order to design an ambush for a big buck. I also believe you certainly don’t want to regularly go tramping through his sanctuary or he’ll quickly change zip codes. But I couldn’t even locate his bedding area in the off season. I often wondered if maybe this big boy lived somewhere else and only occasionally made it to these few fields.
Four years of this nonsense came and went and I was still no closer to The Untouchable. But last fall with a little luck I finally made a breakthrough. One cool evening the third week of October, I was sitting on my usual hill glassing a soybean field and a large wood lot about thirty minutes before sunset. Does, fawns and small bucks filtered into the field. Two year-old bucks sparred and the rest gleaned the field for left over beans and greens. I enjoyed watching the deer as usual but I was on the lookout for a big buck and specifically, The Untouchable. Just before I quit for the evening as I put my binoculars down a faint glint of something different caught my eye some 200 yards west of the field. There was a small ditch that was no more than twenty yards wide and thirty yards long full of prairie grass, horse weed and one tree. I had never walked through it but surely and suddenly, there stood my Untouchable! I quickly put the spotting scope on him and for the first time in five years I could make out his thick neck and broad shoulders and his handsome rack just above the tall grass. I had an urge to shout out loud but caught myself; as I realized I had discovered what I knew was his bedroom!
That night I found sleep impossible. I pondered the possibilities and came up with nothing. How was I going to get on this buck when once he checked out of his room after dark, he probably just went straight to the crop fields? I decided the next evening I would be in the same place with spotting scope to confirm the previous night’s findings.
That night I sat on my little hill with the scope trained on that small grassy ditch. For a long time nothing stirred. But eventually, in the very last flicker of light, that big stud materialized in the grass and stood there majestically surveying the fields. I watched his motionless form as long as I could see and he was still standing there when I slid my spotting scope and binoculars into my pack and sneaked back to the truck.
On my drive home I had an epiphany! I’ve heard all epiphanies come suddenly but this was like a thunderclap! It became deadly clear; I had figured out how I might get a chance to tag The Untouchable! The minute I got home I called my boss and requested vacation for the following week. I got the ok and I began preparations for my ambush planned the night before Halloween. That would give me one week to prepare and was one night short of any goblin shenanigans that might spoil my strategy. The clock was ticking and I didn’t have the luxury of waiting…..D-Day was fast approaching.
During that week my first order of business was to reverse my days and nights. I stayed up all night and slept as best I could during the day. The first couple of days were extremely difficult since I am normally wired to be a morning person but I had made up my mind and I was prepared to do what was necessary. After the fourth day I had become accustomed to the change and in the process found some wonderfully awful infomercials at 3:00 a.m. Regardless I also knew that I would probably get one and only one chance at this magnificent buck and so everything had to be perfect.
Halloween eve day I slept like a contented baby with a full tummy and woke at 4:00 pm anxious to get going. I ate a big non-spicy dinner and prepared myself physically with a long soak in the hot tub. At 10:00 pm I backed my Explorer out of the driveway with my kids watching in disbelief as their lunatic father headed towards his deer destiny and by 11:00 pm I had arrived at my parking place. My clothes and rubber boots were perfect - completely scent free, I was also wearing rubber gloves and a particle mask; I felt like a knight dressed for battle and of all the things that I could control, nothing was left to chance.
I had about a mile to hike across a disked field that was on the backside of his small “bedroom”. It was a clear and comfortable night and I made my way slowly and stealthily so as not to get hot and to be as quiet as possible. I had planned on taking at least an hour to cover the distance and it actually took 75 minutes; things were on schedule! When I got within 100 yards of the tiny ditch, I could distinctly see the one lone tree silhouetted against the clear starry sky. My plan was to take my climbing stand up that tree and sit there all night. I wasn’t sure when The Untouchable came home each morning but I certainly didn’t want to bump him out by arriving too late; timing is everything and it’s better to be hours early than a minute too late.
I was confident that if I beat him home, I could comfortably wait there and surprise him at first light. I had practiced all week getting my stand off my back and up a tree in absolute darkness and in total silence. When you attempt to do something this crazy, you don’t want to tell many people about it before you have to. I had a couple neighbors shake their heads in pity watching me practice after dark in the back yard. But my rehearsals paid off and I made it 20’ up the tree without a flashlight and just a slight whisper of noise. I strapped myself in and waited patiently for sunrise. Believe it or not, since I had changed my body clock, the wait was easy and time went faster than you might imagine. I actually enjoyed the wait and watched in fascination as the night sky changed over the hours and listened intently as night critters scurried and stirred below. As my eyes and ears explored the Iowa night so did my nose. I could distinctly make out the strong musk of the big boy’s bed as well as all those familiar smells that make it uniquely autumn in Iowa.
About an hour before official sunrise I thought I heard the footfalls of a large whitetail buck…..and then …….nothing. You can never be totally sure of your ears or eyes in the dark so I kept my vigil ever so silent. For the next thirty minutes my breathing was deathly shallow. I didn’t make a move. I didn’t make a sound and I prayed this tree didn’t hold a squirrel that would scold my intrusion. My eyes strained to make definition out of the inky black shapes below and visibility stealthily crept into the darkness at its own slow pace. Pre-dawn eyes can play tricks; branches become antlers, blow downs become bedded bucks. But surely and eventually, as it has done repeatedly from the beginning, night began its slow soft surrender to daylight. As the pink fingers of dawn began to scratch the morning sky I could finally make out the prize of my pursuit lying in his bed not 15 yards from my perch. He was quartering and facing away from me and appeared totally calm and content.
They say the darkest and coldest hour is just before the dawn. In the last thrity minutes it seemed as if the temperature had dropped 20 degrees, but it may have just been my nerves. I tried to focus my thoughts to the task at hand but as I looked him over, I couldn’t believe the sheer immensity of his body. It’s been said far too often, but he literally looked like as big as a steer. Cobwebs of frost had settled on his brawny back and wispy clouds of condensation escaped from his contented nostrils. I knew there was no hurry as he had checked in for the day and as the morning warmed my scent should rise. The air was dead still. All I could hear was an occasional pheasant crowing and the far off sounds of a lazy freight train. But it was too quiet; too still. Any movement on my part could betray my presence. Wits were still in attendance so I decided to wait for some little puff of breeze to make my move. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long.
About fifteen minutes later a breeze ever so slight came up and began to sift its way through the area. The long grass slowly began to wave and leaves and old corn husks stirred and skittered creating thankful noise and distractions.
It was time to make my move.
It momentarily flashed across my mind, that after these many months and all this preparation it had come down to what was going to happen in the next 15 seconds……I focused my concentration and drew my Mathews bow, settled my 20 yard pin low behind his last rib and released my Thunderhead tipped arrow. The Untouchable had spent so many days in his sanctuary I imagined he would be reluctant to leave in broad daylight but his departure was explosive and immediate! As he bolted from his bed and raced across the bean field I could see my hit was good. He stopped short of the big timber and looked back towards his sanctuary before he peacefully lay down for the last time.
For several long minutes I couldn’t move. Of course I was stiff and sore from my long vigil in the tree but it was more than that. I was replaying the last few minutes over in my head hardly believing what had just happened. Many will know the feeling without being able to completely describe it. That confusing blend of joy, regret, reverence and honor flooded through me. I could clearly see my trophy across the field and his great rack reflecting in the morning sun. But I could also still see him in my mind in the last glimmer of day regally surveying his domain.
As I slowly made my way over to him I was awestruck. I was anxious to finally lay my hands on the one that had never been touched. He was an extremely handsome and symmetrical 10-pointer that scored 166”, but the size of his body was stunning. Later that morning, I was able to weigh him at a local locker; his dressed weight was an incredible #347!
This is a story from Iowa; a place where sometimes a buck can grow old and large. Iowa is a place where many are led to believe there is a trophy buck behind every tree and herds of does and skippers fill every field and meadow. Well at 57 years old, I can assure you that certainly isn’t true. Nice bucks are hard to come by and the real brutes are not only extremely difficult to find, but at times, almost impossible to harvest. But like everything in life, it all boils down to choices and paying the price. It’s about being able to answer the question:
“What are you…… prepared to do?”
I grant permission to place the story on their website for viewing.
Gary R. Shields