As a red headlamp shines at my feet on a foggy morning walk in the dark, I can’t help but be reminded of 12 hours prior,
when that same red light lit my unsuccessful walk out in the dark. The walk was eerily similar to nearly every day for the 2 weeks leading up to that. The anguish of all day sits had already started taking a toll on me the week before. The knot of the tree that is shoved in your back becomes more apparent every day. The slight squeak of the tree stand when shifting a certain way becomes an aggravation that you can’t handle anymore. The hardest time through out the day is lunch. That immediate disappointment when you reach into your bag to pull out the cold meat sandwich, knowing there is so much hot food not far from you. The mental games have started. Some people look at this and say “why! Why would you do this?” But to a hunter the answer is simple. That indescribable feeling of pure adrenalin of looking up and seeing your dream playing out in real life. It’s a feeling as hunters that we chase every year, and think about for months leading up to it.
For me, this particular journey started the year prior. Having scouted this property very frequently and putting out trail cameras, I had high hopes last year. As it turned out, I never even stepped foot on this property to hunt last year. My time was consumed in another property an hour away from home chasing “ The Flyer Buck.” All the while, my cameras remained running and I was pleasantly surprised when I checked them in December. I had a lot of fantastic bucks that were cruising through and spending some time there during the rut including the dagger buck. This particular buck only gave me a glimpse of him twice on camera. Both times almost teasing me to show me what all he had. The first picture was from the middle of the brow tines down, needless to say, enough to get your curiosity going. The second picture he chose to walk into a creek in the exact perfect time that there was a glare on the water. Although that picture had his whole rack, it still left a lot to the imagination. Regardless, without a great picture of him, I knew he was the type of deer that I moved to Iowa for.
Skipping forward to the summer months. Much like most of my evenings, I spent a couple hours driving around country blocks scouting. While I was seeing some great deer around the section I hunt, nothing was the “know it when you see it” type of deer. While driving down the gravel, talking on the phone I look to the right, and boom there he is. The type of rack that you don’t have to think twice about. I literally dropped my phone to free my hands for my binoculars. The sight I got to witness when I pulled them up was one I’ll never forget. Mind you this is in August so the antlers are almost fully developed. One look at the gigantic frame, huge brow tines and big dagger on the front and I immediately knew who he was. Great news, right? I found the buck I’m looking for and while that is great news, the unfortunate part was this deer was living across the road on the neighbors. Let me set the scene for the neighbor’s property. An enclosed 80 acre alfalfa field surrounded by the most beautiful mix of oaks and hardwoods you have ever seen. Ponds scattered throughout the property with corn and bean fields adjoining two sides of it. And to top it off, no hunting pressure inside it. In other words, a giant bucks paradise. Still, my hope remained that he would do what he did last year. The second week in November, he would be looking for does on this long stretch of creek bottom.
Day after day I spent hours driving the same block just waiting for him to make his next appearance. By all indications, this deer had up and vanished. Through out the first part of October, I spent a decent amount of time hunting the edge of the property looking for a few does to fill the freezer. While having some luck and shooting a doe and passing several nice bucks around the 150 mark, I was still keeping an eye on the trail cameras just waiting for him to show up. Sure enough October 24th at 3:00 am, here he is. Walking past the camera placed on video mode and stopping in front to look at it, giving me a good look at what he had. My mind raced at every possibility and situation that could play out trying to kill this deer. Patience was going to be my best friend on this deal. I knew he was still living on the neighbors and if I got stupid and careless he may never even show up.
November 1st rolls around and my good friend had just got in from Ohio to spend some time in the stand with me. With several hundred acres of standing corn butting up to the property I hunt, I knew it would be tough. While we saw a fare amount of deer over the next four days, including some nice bucks, we didn’t see him. Fast forward to the evening of November 11th. Another friend is in town and running the video camera for me. The nice cool weather had a few does on their feet feeding in the freshly cut corn a few hundred yards away. With plenty of light, I look up to see another deer entering the field from further away. Still far out, I knew it was an amazing deer and stood up in hopes he would run a doe my way. It wasn’t until he got almost all the way to the does that he turned his head just right and saw the dagger sticking out of the front. I turned and said “it’s him, the dagger buck is in the field!” With both our jaws dropping out of disbelief, we watched as he chased does around. Still several hundred yards out, I decided to rattle to him. Trying to get his attention off of the does, before they took him to the next county from chasing them. Immediately, I got his attention, but like with most big bucks they go about their business. After a few failed attempts at calling him in, we watched his white rack disappear into the head high crp grass 150 yards away. My heart sank and I wanted to feel discouraged but couldn’t help but think to myself he’s here, He is in my section and he is looking. The next morning was fairly uneventful and with my friend needing to head back to Ohio, we got out mid day. Not wanting to risk bumping deer going back in for the evening, I played it safe and stayed out.
November 13th. A day that now sends chills up my spine from just saying the date. Dense fog covered the ground on a chilly morning before light. Just like all the days before, the red headlamp lit my way into a stand on the edge of a creek. A stand I had been spending all my time in. A stand, that by all definitions of a rut and funnel stand was just perfect. Bedding areas of timber on both sides of me, and pinches down to a 20 foot steep bank to the creek and 50 yards of timber. The type of spot that you just know when a big buck is searching, he is cruising through. Seeing a decent number of deer throughout the morning, I had high hopes of seeing something good. Mid day rolls around and I’m sending the usual texts to friends and everyone wanting to keep up with how the hunting is going. One text says “ I hope he’s close. I saw him 2 days ago so I’m hoping he is in this bedding area with a doe and will leave her mid day to find another.” These premonitions couldn’t have been more true and become reality when I look up a little after 11 am to see a giant rack at 50 yards and closing. The memory of the massive, bleach white antlers coming at me as he almost weaved them in and out of the trees to pick his path, is something that I will never forget. Luckily it all happened so fast that I didn’t have a chance to over think or get too nervous. My body went into autopilot as the buck stuck his head behind a tree, blocking his line of sight to me at 15 yards. As the peep sight comes to my eye and my pins settle on his slightly quartered to chest, I remind myself, like always, stay off the shoulder and put it in the lungs. It’s like my mind knew to put this into slow motion. After all, this is the culmination of 19 years and countless hours of hunting all boiled down to 10 seconds and the slightest touch of the trigger on my release. Immediately as I watched the lighted nock bury through his chest right where I wanted it to, I lost my composure. My body shaking so bad I struggled to watch him tip over within 100 yards. My hands hardly worked to send the texts to everyone so that we could all enjoy the moment together.
As I waited for a friend to get there to help me recover him, I had what seemed like an eternity to reflect on what just happened. What filled my head wasn’t that of a giant rack laying in the dirt only 100 yards away. My thoughts turned to the empty tree stand over my right shoulder, which was occupied by friends in the two weeks leading up to this moment. A month prior when I got to sit in a ground blind with my mom during her first time to experience what hunting is about. To the great new friends that I made when meeting them on the gravel road not a ¼ mile away while we were both scouting for deer. My thoughts went back to my many years of guiding and the countless times I have watched a clients dream buck come to life. I thought about the week prior when I got to spend the day in the tree stand with a friend. A friend that drew an Iowa bow tag after a three year wait, and the unbelievable amount of excitement we got to share as he harvested his buck. For a little while I forgot I had a buck on the ground as I relived experiences that had all led up to this point. When you have a tag in your pocket, your thoughts are always on a certain deer or the moment you get to shoot, but the special part to me is the carefree way of thinking knowing your tag is gone. I don’t mean that as being happy to be done, I mean that in the sense that there’s no thoughts of work, money or anything burdening, just pure happiness. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are two types of hunters. Hunters that shoot one and feel the relief to start sleeping in and enjoying hot meals in a house, and hunters that shoot one and feel more excited, motivated and anxious to do it again. I am definitely the last one. The most exciting part of the hunt is also the same part that puts an end to it. That’s a very hard thing for me to wrap my head around. I’ve had a lot of friends and people say “why didn’t you shoot that buck” or “ I would have shot that buck.” A lot of people don’t truly understand my way of thinking. Is it all about inches of antler on his head…. No. But what it is about is setting my goals high so that if I shoot and have to leave the woods for the year, I left experiencing a lot of what it had to offer. Big mature deer don’t make it easy, but that’s the best part, and often lets you measure your season not only in inches of antler, but the hours spent. This year I am fortunate enough to say that along with 192 inches of antler came many hours of happiness with friends and family that were created by hunting.
– Zach Miller
Last modified: December 22, 2017