The Four Year Quest

A four-year quest…Where to begin?

2012

I believe it’s best to start with this trail camera photo that set me on a relentless quest to harvest the Michigan buck of two lifetimes. When I first captured this buck on camera in 2012, to say I became obsessed with hunting this deer would be an understatement. While I was a young hunter with respect to field experience I gave it my all that year. I hunted hard. Not too smart… but I tried to learn as much as I could to harvest this 170” gross animal. I did end up taking a 102” gross 8 point that season, but I never once saw this giant Michigan deer on the hoof.

While I considered the season a success harvesting a 100” deer, I was growing weary hunting the late season to fill my 2nd tag on this 170” buck. For my father in-law that all changed on Dec. 31st when he harvested this giant with a stick and string.

15 Point at Night

While I realized I had little chance of killing that deer, I enjoyed the season we all had pursuing him. To eventually be able to put the tape to a deer of that caliber in the hard-hunted region of southern Michigan was a thrill.

MarkStewartBuck_2012

2013

Transitioning into the 2013 season I wasn’t near as thrilled about the class of mature bucks we had, but there were still some good deer to target. Having spent the previous season chasing a trophy buck, clever and incredibly difficult to pattern, I was determined to learn more about the mighty whitetail. Over time I’ve come to realize such learning is a never-ending process. During that season I was determined to get the job done. Though I quickly began to realize how tough it really is to get the job done in Michigan. Mature Mitten bucks don’t survive for just any reason; they are smart creatures. I do believe these deer are killable, but they require advanced hunting strategies and techniques that aren’t developed in one or even two seasons.

Using the Wired to Hunt resources, watching all of Bill Winke and Grant Woods online hunting shows, reading articles and magazines; I was trying to veraciously learn as much as possible. While I consumed as much content as possible, I came to realize there is nothing that can replace field experience and time spent scouting outside of the season. Familiarizing oneself to a property and dissecting it to the point that you understand the ground close to the way in which the deer understand is critical for in-field success. I did not learn these things from articles or watching content alone. It’s been a collection of both articles and field experience that have taught me a lot about my primary hunting property, not to mention the data garnished from trail cameras as well.

As another season ended, I came to the realization I needed to add more properties to my list of options. In late December, I added an additional property in an urban environment that allowed us to harvest a lot of does. Despite the success on does, mature bucks eluded me throughout this season. I chalked it up as a season of lessons learned.

2014

Determined not to repeat past mistakes and armed with two properties, I was certain this year was going to be a year to remember. I applied my knowledge gained over the two previous seasons. The success was clear, but still I’d leave the season with two Michigan buck tags in my hand. Opening day of gun season a great friend of mine shot a 4-½-year-old Michigan buck that I had my scope on as well. Being that this friend was not 100% certain where I was, he elected to take the shot on this buck before it had turned broadside for me. We were roughly 120 yards apart and the buck was somewhat in between us. With a savage shotgun in hand, it was a shot anyone would take should the chance present itself. While we did not end up recovering that deer I was thrilled that I put us in a situation to encounter a 4-½-year-old deer. There is no one I would have rather had take a shot at a mature buck at my place than Jon. He has always been incredibly generous to me about hunting his farm. Losing an animal is part of hunting and even the best hunters experience it one time or another.

The 2014 season could be described as the season of hunting smart and not overhunting stands. I was incredibly disciplined about this. On November 3rd I had the best hunting day of my life. I had stayed out of my main property and this was one of the first days I had moved in to hunt mature bucks. After a slow start I encountered four bucks pursuing two does on the same exact trail. The tough part was that this trail was 50-60 yards from my stand. Close, but not close enough. I was still excited that one of those bucks was the buck I desired to harvest the most this season. Later that night my father and I moved into two of our best stands. While I didn’t see any mature bucks I saw a couple does and numerous immature bucks. My father on the other hand, a mere 100 yards away, had a nice encounter with another one of our target bucks.

I pushed myself to go further that year. I took my first out of state hunting trip to Ohio. A good buddy and myself hunted public land in Ohio a couple of different weekends. He was able to harvest a mature doe and I was quite happy to have some encounters with both bucks and does.

For the 2014 in particular, I was convinced of the importance and value your first sit holds in a specific stand location. This is and always will be your best chance to arrow a mature buck. While opening day of gun season almost became one of the best hunting days in my memory, I left this season with great memories, but no antlers on the wall.

2015

There is no time like the present. It is these very moments that we define both our current reality and set the course for our future. I made certain that this was going to be the best season of my hunting career. While I made every effort to do that Mother Nature had some surprises in store. What I thought was going to be one of my best seasons was unfolding as one of my worst seasons.

Here’s what I did right: 1) intense summer scouting and incredible trail camera inventory of local bucks; 2) added my list of different properties to hunt to four; 3) made the decision to hunt Pike County, IL with my father.

Here’s what I did wrong: 1) assumed that low pressure would lead to success (I failed to realize that neighboring pressure would greatly affect my mature buck movement); 2) early in the season, I failed to capitalize on putting my wife in a stand over a good 2-½-year-old Michigan buck scrape; 3) hunted my additional properties too hard early in the season, making it more challenging to have time to hunt hard during the rut; 4) got sick during the rut, which prevented me from hunting as much as I should have been during this period.

Good and bad aside I grinded out this season. Throughout the year I made it a priority to hunt smart, using trail camera intelligence to determine hunting locations, and made sure scent control was part of every hunt. I knew I needed to do everything possible not to alert deer that they were being hunted. My resolve to keep these critical details a part of every hunt was unmatched in comparison to past seasons.

Outside of one exciting cold front hunt in the middle of October, I consider that month to have pretty much been a bust with regard to mature buck sightings. As November arrived, I snuck in a few good hunts with my wife, but failed to see any shooters. With our Pike County trip approaching, I slowed my hunting down a bit in Michigan to spend some time with family. While in Pike County both my father and I passed on nice 2-½-year-old bucks as we elected to hold out for something bigger. Even though we saw bucks nearly every hunt, we were unable to get the job done on our short trip to Illinois. With no trophy in hand, I still considered this some of the best hunting I had ever experienced. Bucks were everywhere and rattling was quite effective. However, this trip proved to be challenging from start to finish. On our way to Pike County a simple cold turned into a terrible cold. Thankfully, I only skipped one hunt while in Pike County. Upon our return to Michigan I stopped hunting most of the week in an attempt to heal up as quickly as possible. With the gun season nearing my wife and I made it out for a few more hunts the final week of bow season. Sadly it was more of the same. We were seeing deer, but not the bucks we were targeting. This had me second-guessing everything I was doing. Last season staying out of my primary property until the rut had worked so well. This year that was far from true.

The arrival of gun season on November 15th left me disgruntled, as I did not see a single deer. It was the worst opening morning I can remember. Furthermore, I did not see deer on my primary property the rest of the gun season. I did everything possible to hunt smart and even got mobile with the Lone Wolf. Before I knew it the gun season and the rut were beginning to wind down. I made the decision that it was now or never. I told my wife that I had to get it done within the final stretches of the rut or my odds of killing a mature Michigan buck would drastically decrease.

I started hunting morning and evenings for days straight. Sadly that wasn’t changing my luck one bit. By the grace of God, I got a call from my buddy that he’d like to take me out to one of his good spots. This spot does not receive the pressure that a lot of good hunting spots do and the deer herd in the area seems to have incredibly high numbers. With no buck tags left in my buddy’s pocket I was going to be the hunter. Our first night out at his spot we saw nine does and four more walking out. Realizing the doe numbers were so high on this property, I knew there’d be a chance at a mature buck. The arrival of the major snowstorm on the 21st only made me more confident in our hunt on the morning of the 22nd. Boy was I in for a good surprise.

Despite a slow start of seeing only one doe way in the distance at 8:00 am, we kept grinding it out. The temps were cold and the sun was slowly breaking out to warm things up. By 9:00 am I finally spotted three does at 180 yards. The deer were primarily feeding on browse along the hardwoods edge. In time, two more does popped out into the hay field. Shortly thereafter antlers appeared. From what I could tell it was a big 6-point roughly two and a half years old. Finally I had my eyes on a buck during the gun season. After the buck had stepped out two more does entered the field. My buddy was getting excited about this big 6-point, but I told him I had a feeling that something better was on the way. Sure enough minutes after uttering those words out he stepped. With the sun shining on him, there he stood in all his glory amongst a large group of deer. I quickly put the Leupold binoculars on him. My first estimate was a 120” 8-point, then as time ticked by I went down to 110” all the way down to 100”. At 180 yards it was hard to judge his size. One thing I did notice was that he appeared to have a split brow tine.

The minutes passed with the deer feeding on the hay and the woody browse along the woods edge. Eventually the two bucks headed north into the CRP field remaining roughly 180 yards away the entire time. As they had stepped out of sight and the does eventually disappeared as well, I thought it was all but over. Then just when we were beginning to lose focus everything changed in an instant. First a doe stepped out at 15 yards from the CRP field. She worked directly in front of our pop-up tent. I expected more does to follow her. As I waited for the next doe I made the first steps to ready my firearm. Then to my amazement I saw antlers. I knew it was the 8-point from earlier and he was at 15 yards moving from the edge of the CRP into the hay field. The doe was working towards a spot in the hay field where she may be able to wind us and this mature buck was slowly following her a mere 15 yards from us. Thinking through these factors I shouldered my shotgun as quickly as possible and put the crosshairs on his big chest. Upon getting the scope on his body his chest nearly covered my entire scope at 15 yards. At a slow walk he was moving through my first shooting window in the pop-up tent. With the crosshairs somewhat where I wanted them I let one fly. Just like that this giant dropped onto the ground.

The next few moments were intense. He was still kicking on the ground and I was struggling to rack another shell into my Remington 870. My buddy with a knife on his side busted through the front of the pop-up tent and had intentions of keeping this buck down with a knife. Knowing how dangerous that was and also telling myself over and over, “You have to put another one in this deer,” I eventually got another shell into the chamber. Yelling at my buddy to step out of the way I tried to get on the deer, but just like that he was up and running along the edge of the hay field and the CRP.

At this point, I was both in shock of what just happened and quite concerned this buck had just gotten away. We resorted to calling our fathers to get some advice on how to proceed. The consensus was to go after him. Blood was present, but not exactly what I was hoping for having shot him at 15 yards. The snow made the tracking quite easy. Within 100 yards of where he had first dropped from the shot, there he lay. Finally… I had my Michigan trophy. I cannot thank my buddy Kevin enough for the hunt of a lifetime. I am thankful both to him and to the LORD for providing me with the chance to hunt a buck of this caliber.

132 1/8" Buck - 11/22/2015 - 9:45 AM
132 1/8″ Buck – 11/22/2015 – 9:45 AM

Most of us guessed him to be around 3-½ years old, a few of my buddies thought he might be 4-½. The taxidermist agreed with the few, estimating him to be 4-½ years old. I put the tape on him and he came out to 132 1/8”. He obviously crushes my previous buck of 102”. While they get bigger and inches aren’t even close to what it’s all about, I could not be more thankful. Four years ago, a 102” inch buck is exactly what I needed when I was just beginning to learning about this great sport. Today, a 130” buck is exactly what I am after. In Michigan, a 130” buck represents a deer that is at the top of the food chain. Yes there are bigger ones, but those are not easy deer to come by in southern Michigan.

 

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