Most successful hunting stories are lessons in perseverance. Each hunt is significant whether successful in harvesting an animal or not. The total appreciation of the hunt is realized throughout the journey, not just after arriving at the destination.
In July of 2013, trail camera photos started to come in from several different properties where my brother Steve and I hunt. The first few weeks of our monitoring efforts didn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary. Young bucks and does were plentiful. In mid-August, I got the first picture of a buck that would consume Steve and me for the next two hunting seasons. This buck had it all. He was a typical 10 with tall tines and heavy mass. I knew there were some good bucks using the property, but this one was huge, well above the average 150” deer we had captured in previous years on camera.
The prior year we only ran one camera on this property due to time constraints and the fact that I was totally captivated with a buck on another property. A buck I harvested during the 2012 firearm season nicknamed the Red Willow Buck. His official score was 240 1/8 NT.
As pictures of this new buck started to come in, we pulled most of our cameras off other properties to focus on this one deer. As more and more pictures started rolling in it was clear that this deer liked the camera. Most of the pictures were taken during daylight hours. Perfect, a big deer that is not shy of sunlight. With bow season approaching Steve and I had high expectations.
It is always fun to give bucks that we are monitoring a nickname. One night Steve was showing the pictures from the trail cameras to his three-year-old daughter. Steve asked, what would be a good name for this deer? She replied, “Topsy-he has a lot on his head”. Even a three-year-old could tell this was a special deer. At the end of August, I field judged Topsy as a 190” inch typical.
The Minnesota bow season starts in mid-September and our cameras were showing him very active in the evenings just before sunset. I thought to myself, how much better could it be? We have a buck that is coming out into fields in broad daylight; this is going to be easy. Famous last words. Bow season opened, and Steve drew the first sit with me running a camera to catch the excitement. No Topsy on opening night. As the days and months passed, we started to become discouraged, as we never even had a sighting of Topsy. Our only sighting of Topsy in 2013 was Steve seeing him at several hundred yards deep in the heart of a large swamp.
At the close of the Minnesota deer season, we were still getting pictures of Topsy. Primarily nocturnal throughout the second half of the 2013 deer season, Topsy closed out the season unscathed. Our photos from January showed Topsy to be in good health. Without even a close encounter with Topsy in 2013, we needed to take a new look at our hunting strategies.
2014 brought many changes in my life. I left my job in February at 3M and was now fully self-employed with Steve in Gould Brothers Exhibition Shooting. Being self-employed allowed Steve and I a chance to finally get to a few land improvement projects we had been planning. One of the projects was to clear an area overgrown with prickly ash for many years. The significance of this spot was that it was in a nice location for a staging area that deer could use. The area was out of sight from the agricultural fields and any road traffic. It was also near bedding cover and surrounded by the few oak trees that grow on the property. Our goal in this first year was just to clear the brush and mow the area.
Many often assume that you need heavy machinery to make land improvements. Sure those types of implements are handy and definitely on my purchase list but a lot can be done with sweat equity and rental equipment to keep costs down. In the spring of 2014, I went in to remove all the prickly ash in this location with hand shears, leather gloves, and sweat. Job completed, I looked like I had been in a fight with a bobcat. Step 1 was complete: remove unwanted prickly ash. Being resourceful Steve and I created a ground blind from the prickly ash I had cut on the edge of our newly created staging area.
Step two: Mowing the new clearing. Our plan was to mow the area we had cleared sometime during late July. The intention was to mow late enough in the year that the grass would grow back but not grow so much as to get tough by mid-September. To complete the task, we rented a walk behind brush mower from the local rental shop. Eight hours of mowing later Steve and I emerged wringing wet with sweat and exhausted from our mowing tasks on the property. Bouncing around behind a walk behind brush mower in 90-degree heat has a way of making a person question whether the project was worth the effort exerted. Fortunately, as summer turned to fall it was obvious through the trail camera photos the deer on the property loved the new area we had created.
In the past, I have used the philosophy if you’re not out in the stand you can’t shoot deer. While that saying has a place and some truth for sure, what needs to accompany that statement is, be smart and limit your pressure on the deer. The reality is the smarter you hunt, the better your chances. Steve and I decided only to hunt this deer and for that reason we would only hunt locations where he was showing up on when the wind was right for those locations. With those criteria and a travel schedule that had us on the road most of the first five weeks of bow season, Steve and I only hunted Topsy four nights during the first weeks of bow season.
With show season winding down and the rut starting to swing in, I finally found I had some time I could dedicate to deer hunting. Rutting activity in MN usually starts to get pretty good around Halloween. I told Steve that we needed to be hunting every day the week before the MN firearms deer season that opened on November 8 in 2014. We hunted hard that week seeing lots of rut action and chasing going on. In that week, I identified six individual bucks from trail cameras and had 26 deer within bow range. It was a great week of hunting. Every night on the stand was exciting and showed the uniqueness of God’s creation. November 7 marked the last day before the firearm season, and we had not even seen one glimpse of Topsy.
As hard as it was to leave a property with such an amazing animal on it I would not be hunting Topsy the first few days of firearms season. I went to enjoy the weekend hunting with my in-laws and spend time with family. On the third day of the 2014 MN firearm season, I awoke to several inches of fluffy white snow. In fact, it snowed all day leaving a fresh 10-12 inches of snow. Up to this point in the season no one had sat near the clearing in the woods we had cleared earlier that spring. From trail camera monitoring, Topsy rarely used this area but since many does did, I thought I might as well give it a shot. That first evening I had 12 does and fawns within the clearing we had made, and some were as close to me as five yards. It was exciting to see all these deer but why were there no bucks chasing all these does during the middle of the rut?
The following evening Steve and I decided where we would sit. I said I would go back to that same ground blind from the night before because with that many does in one area and the date being November 11 there had to be some chasing going on. Only about 30 minutes after I got into my blind I had a 1.5yr old buck chase a fawn past me. Just 5min later a different 1.5yr old came through chasing a doe. For the next 45 minutes, deer running in and out of the clearing entertained me. Buck grunts, doe and fawns bleats filled the air. It was loud from all the vocalizations, which is a rare occurrence. Deer were running and kicking snow, fawns were chasing one another, and I was in the front row to all this action only 25 yards away.
All of the sudden I heard a deep grunt, as deep a grunt as I have ever heard. My senses immediately shot awake, and I told myself “that’s not one of the bucks I have been watching for the past hour.” I slowly and smoothly made my Winchester SX3 ready in my hand as I waited for the deer I had heard just a second before to come into view. Legs came out of the brush to my left,
a doe on a trot angling across my 25yd wide opening. That’s when I saw the buck that made the deep grunt following up the doe. Five yards behind her was Topsy head low and chasing her. I thought to myself “it’s him, it really is him, and he is trotting by me at 35 yards!” I raised my Winchester shotgun put the crosshair just behind his front shoulder and squeezed the trigger. I saw Topsy hunch in the scope, but he didn’t even break stride. I thought, “I know I hit him well, but I’m not taking any chances,” so I fired a second Winchester Dual Bond Slug hitting him in the chest. He continued another 15 yards as if he was not even hit. I started second guessing myself; it was a “gimme” shot but why is he just standing there in the brush with the doe? After two or three seconds that seemed like 10 minutes, I saw him sway and then fall over; positively proving my slugs had found their mark.
Our trail cameras showed Topsy’s antlers were not as big as they had been in 2013. This could have been for many reasons, but nutrition was likely a big part of it. Due to a wet spring, the farm Topsy lived on was not planted in crops that year. Field judging him during the summer of 2014 we estimated him at 175”. Topsy unofficially scored 170”.
Two years, hundreds of trail camera photos and countless hours of work had paid off on a cold, cloudy, and snowy November day in Minnesota. If Steve and I had not completed the project of clearing this area and making it better habitat, I would not be telling this story. Although our resources are small, and we don’t have large tracts of land to practice quality deer management, improving your local hunting is possible and worthwhile. Enjoy the journey and remember a little sweat equity can go a long way.