A Buck Between Friends

By Scott Bestul

 I know some truly good deer hunters. Men who gather a little information about a good buck, let it percolate awhile, come up with a game plan, and then kill the deer. I am not one of these people.

I have a handful of pretty nice whitetail heads on my wall, and they all share a common thread; they are the result of a generous friend or a kindly neighbor who gave me access to their property. Sure I hang my own stands and burn my share of time sitting in them, but when a great buck shows up I am, frankly, a little shocked. I have whiled away too many hours watching empty trails to kid myself about possessing unusual skill or cunning strategy. So that’s the deep background for a hunt on a late-September evening just a couple falls back. The woods were lush and sweet, still smelling of summer, when I heard whitetail hooves, pounding dirt…a distinct thumping that you hear during the rut, but rarely in those precious early weeks of fall that we still call “Indian Summer” here in the Midwest. But there was little doubt; there was more than one deer, coming fast, downhill and right toward me.

Three bucks showed at first, two 6-points that had to be twins, then a tall, thin 8, wearing his second rack and feeling proud. The little guys juked heads when they hit the bottom of the hill, playing like fawns, then feeling macho and squaring off to spar. The two-year old cocked his head and stared at them like a teenager does when he sees a pair of little kids shove each other on the playground. Then something behind him caught his attention. By the time he pointed his nose back uphill I heard it; another deer, trotting like the others.

I gulped hard as soon as the fourth buck hit the bottom of the slope. Buck Four was one of the few I’ve ever had trail cam photos of and, later, recognized instantly in the field. My mouth went paper-dry when I connected the dots. I whispered “the Big 10” and I reached for my bow. I also heard a slight squeak, far below me. The legs of the tripod stand, wobbling. I winced and then grinned. Knocking knees—still a curse after 35 years of bowhunting.

The property I was hunting, tucked in the bottom- right corner of Minnesota, wasn’t large but it was in the right neighborhood. It was also, conveniently, a recent purchase of my neighbor and close friend, Dave Olson. Oddly, Dave invited me to hunt the place for no other reason than my ability to stand around and scratch my head. Shortly after closing on the rugged 80 acres, Dave invited me to “come down and look at things. You know, give me some ideas about stuff to do and how to hunt it.” So we’d drive down to “The 80” walk around, and look at “stuff.” When we’d pause, I’d lift my hat, massage my graying hair, and give my unprofessional two cents about where to stick a stand or plant a food plot.

My neighbor, you see, lives with the delusion that I know something about bowhunting because I write about it for a living. I try to convince my friend that this is like believing a pimple- faced teenager knows something about music because you see him on an album cover. But he remains unmoved.

But by the end of spring we’d already had spent a lot of hours on The 80, making plans for fall. First there was just a lot of walking around and more head-scratching. Dave and I found old rubs, mused about funnels and pondered bedding areas. It was a neat chance to play the role of landowner; looking at a property, deciding its shortcomings, and deciding what to do about them. Many places I hunt you simply play the hand you’re dealt.

So we started with some obvious steps, like hanging stands. Dave had actually hunted the property for many seasons before buying it, so we stuck some platforms up in traditional hotspots. Then we explored new areas and created sets based on two criteria; first, close range bowhunting ambushes, and second, comfy places where Dave could place his three children during firearms season. Dave has three daughters (actually young women) who not only like to deer hunt; but are attractive, smart, and good natured. Sorry, younger readers, they are all currently taken.

Did I mention those girls also grew up on a dairy farm? If you’re familiar with this particular breed of agri-business, you know that no farmer works harder. It also means that when it’s time to clear, plant and maintain food plots, there is no shortage of knowledge or heavy equipment. We’d identified four areas that might grow deer food during our spring walks, and by early summer we had started spraying weeds, clearing brush, and tilling ground. Dave operated the heavy equipment (a John Deere tractor that he drove places where angels fear to tread) while I did menial labor like spraying Roundup from an ATV and picking rocks. By the way, I am something of an expert rock-picker, having swapped that sweaty, spine-crunching task for bowhunting permission for many years.

We used a lot of Whitetail Institute products, and as those little green things started to sprout in our food plots, we decided to stick some trail cameras out. Dave knew that technology is one area where I really shine, as I can identify a AA battery from a D-cell, and have learned that you need to hit the “on” button to optimize the performance of electronic devices. So I helped place surveillance gear, and swapped cards and viewed the photos that might indicate nice deer were about. We didn’t have to scan many to notice a couple shooter bucks, and then one day Dave called to say he had a picture of “a pretty good deer that I think you should see.”

I should be clear on this; Dave’s capacity for understatement is something of a running gag in my family. My friend could hold the title to a NASCAR champion auto and, only if pressed, admit “it’s got a little juice under the hood.” And this is more than simple Minnesota modesty. If Dave sensed you disagreed with him even slightly, he would—not wanting to appear braggy— blush, shrug and retract his statement. When a guy like that says a buck is “pretty good,” you run to look at the photo.

At first we thought it was an 8-pointer. Dave’s first photos of the giant were from 20 yards out, a long shot for any trail camera, and we couldn’t spot a G-4 on either beam. The rest of the rack, however, did its best to make up for that deficiency. Long, sweeping brows looked like a pair of bananas, the beams were velvet-covered bat handles, and the buck’s torso and shoulders seemed a broad slab. In that first photo the buck is silhouetted by dawn sunlight and almost appears spectral; as if someone had photoshopped it — just to tease a pair of slobbering deer nerds.

Dave and I have monkeyed with trail cams long enough to know a one-shot buck is far more likely than a perpetual poser, so we just chuckled in appreciation. “Probably the last time we see him,” was our consensus. Thankfully we were wrong. In the weeks separating midsummer and the September archery opener, that buck morphed into a runway model. And like so many college football teams, he switched conferences, dropping the Big 8 and defecting to the Big 10 by growing a smallish pair of G-4’s. Another buck—a 3-year old 10-point—liked to run with him, and snuck into most of the pics we gathered. He was a shooter, too, though he looked kind of miserable standing by such a specimen.

But as we learned the Big 10 seemed to be calling The 80 home, my discomfort grew. From the get-go Dave had insisted we’d hunt the spot together, something I was thrilled to do until the Big 10 went Hollywood on us. Our cameras racked up multiple daytime photos of the buck and I knew he was killable, so I wanted my friend to claim honors. It was, after all, his farm and I could think of nothing neater than to see my buddy—who slips in hunts between milking cows and a fall full of hectic field work—put his tag on such a deer.

So when the opener arrived I spent the weekend on another farm. But three days later Dave called. “I’m heading for The 80 this afternoon,” he said. “What time should I pick you up?” I considered making up an excuse, but decided to just come clean. “Well, I’m not sure I should go.” “Too busy with work?” “Well, not really,” I stammered. “I just think you should hunt it alone for awhile. You know, try to kill that big one.”

“That’s silly,” my friend snorted. “What are the chances we’ll even see him? And we both know that if one of us spots him, we’re only gonna get one shot. Whoever gets it better take it, and I’d be mad if you let him walk. I’ll be there in a half hour.”

It was windy enough that Dave had to muscle the steering wheel as we drove to The 80. And it was cold for September, with dark clouds that promised rain later that night. We chit-chatted until we neared the property, then discussed strategy. Dave decided he’d pop up a stand close to where he took the first photo of The Big 10. The buck sign there was as good as I’d seen it less than a month after velvet-shed. I decided to hunt one of the food plots in a tripod stand we’d hauled down a steep logging road and tucked up against an apple tree. The tripod was there for the express purpose of providing comfort for Dave’s daughters, and at the time it seemed the least likely place to shoot any mature deer — much less the mature deer we both had on our minds.

Of course, bowhunting is a sport full of irony. We can spend untold hours and countless days strategizing an encounter with a big buck—any big buck—and eat our tag. I went out of my way to avoid a specific deer and he ran to me like a puppy dog. When I heard, then spotted, The Big 10 gallop down to join the three bucks dorking around on the edge of the food plot, I knew I was witnessing a surreal moment. And it just got funkier after finishing their sparring match, the young bucks walked purposefully toward another food plot, staying well out of bow range. The two-year old followed, and of course I fully expected The Big 10 to assume caboose position in the train. Instead, he watched the youngsters depart. Then he lowered his head, walked into my food plot, and began feeding toward the tripod stand.

I’ve been lucky enough to watch a few dandy bucks approach while I have a bow in hand. My reactions have ranged from outright idiocy to controlled jitters. Thankfully, the Big 10 was ambling so slowly toward me I had time to draw slowly and have a little talk with myself. There was a small island of rock and brush in the middle of the plot that I’d ranged at 35 steps, and when the buck buried his head in brassicas between me and the brush, I buried my sight pin behind his shoulder. Then I let out my breath and touched the release.

On those rare days when I do kill a big whitetail, I have a little tradition. First I take a picture. That’s for me; it captures the hunt better than taxidermy. And then, only because it will make them mad if I don’t do so, I drive the buck around to show a handful of close friends. Of course there is back-slapping and hand-shaking and antler-fondling at each stop. But I always find myself oddly detached during these celebrations, when I look down at a beautiful big deer and wonder “how did that thing get in the back of my truck?”

But this time was different, because this time I knew exactly why the biggest buck I had killed—and perhaps ever would kill—was wearing my tag. The Big 10 was in my truck for no other reason than I was lucky enough to call Dave Olson my friend.