During the summer of 2011 rumors floated on the breeze near one of the properties I am privileged to hunt on. Rumors of a giant Whitetail buck whose shed antlers were found just across the river from where I firearm deer hunt with my family. Stories of big deer always get hunters dreaming of wall mounts and the glory of shooting “da turdy pointer”. For me this was especially true because in the year 2000 I decided to only hunt for deer in a specific category, mainly deer above the 135 Pope and Young score card. In the previous 11 years I had only taken one buck on my quest for trophy whitetails. I must admit that I was primarily self taught in this process and the learning curve can be quite unforgiving. During these buck-less years I filled numerous doe tags for the freezer, but I wanted to give the bucks on the properties I hunted the chance to grow to maturity.
During that time frame I had several close encounters with deer in the 140-180 class range but could never seal the deal. Usually these encounters were with my compound bow and the deer were out of range or I did not have a clear shot. I only take shots that I have a high degree of confidence in. I believe the animal deserves this respect.
Opening weekend of the 2011 firearm deer season I was not able to hunt due to the fact that I was in South Carolina performing an exhibition shooting show with my brother Steve (Gould Brothers Exhibition Shooting). This was the first firearm deer opener I had missed in 18 years. Being gone meant there was no chance to hunt this magnificent deer in 2011. The 2011/2012 Minnesota winter was extremely mild which allowed for nice opportunities to get out in the woods without the usual deep and heavy snow to look for shed antlers. That is exactly what my 11 year old brother-in-law Brandon was doing during the early part of 2012. When I heard from my family that Brandon found a “very nice” shed my interest was instantly focused on seeing this shed. My first inclination was that it probably would be a deer in the 150 to 160 class range, which would have been a great find, but my thoughts changed seeing the shed. There I was looking at half of possibly a 200 inch buck on a property that I firearm hunt on. Putting a tape to the shed I came up with a score of somewhere in the high 190’s. I really didn’t care what the score was. I knew this was a deer worth pursuing. For a couple days it was hard to even sleep, as dreams of getting a chance at this deer some 8 months into the future danced in my mind.
I do not own the majority of the land that I hunt and I have very little control on the hunting practices that take place on these properties. Anytime I can, I try to nudge the others that hunt these lands to follow the QDMA principle of at least selective harvest of bucks. With that in mind, my 14 year old brother-in-law Josh had shown an interest in these principals, so I decided to do a little project with him. I approached him and asked if he would like to start a mineral site not far from his stand and put a trail camera out to see what kind of bucks were in the area. No trail cameras had ever been on this property so I was extremely excited to see what we would find. I knew there would be at least one nice buck, but I had no idea what we were about to find!
A couple weeks later we checked the trail camera and the deer were nailing the salt and mineral site. Over 4000 pictures in just a couple weeks were captured on the Bushnell Trophy Cam. As we scrolled down the pictures we saw age groups from 1 1/2 year old to possibly 3 1/2 year old. It wasn’t until we reached the date of 7/29 that a monster buck appeared. The picture I saw literally brought tears to my eyes. I had never seen a buck so impressive in all my life! Over the next several weeks we captured him 3 additional times on camera, the last of which he was just coming out of velvet. I knew his home range was near where we were getting pictures of him, since we were smack dab in between where his sheds had been found the previous two years. One was found about a half mile north and the other a half mile south of our location. At first I wanted to keep the photos between Josh and I, to not cause hysteria and to guarantee the photos did not start leaking out around the countryside, but ultimately I knew that wouldn’t be the right thing to do. That evening I showed the family members who coordinate the deer hunt on this property.
Over the remaining summer and fall I spent many nights looking at aerial photos of the property and the surrounding properties. Trying to figure out as much as possible about how this buck might move between the properties I knew him to be using. I knew he was calling a part of this property his home, but since he only visited the mineral site once every two or three weeks it was evident he was traveling to neighboring properties as well.
That fall was extremely busy traveling to perform exhibition shooting shows and this unfortunately left almost no time for hunting. As the Minnesota firearm deer season approached I knew I had to do something to increase our odds of seeing this deer, of which I had nicknamed the “Red Willow Buck” because his antlers looked like a red willow and he resided in a river bottom full of red willow swamps. No hunting was taking place for this buck until firearm season, so I took Josh out to his stand about 10 days before season opened and we hung Hunter Specialties drip bags and made a few mock scrapes. We did this at both his stand and mine, which was about 300 yards away. My hope was that this would help keep him nearby and also increase our chances of seeing him during daylight hours.
As opening day approached my anticipation was growing. I secretly hoped Josh would get a chance at the buck since I had worked with him on this special project. Although, I must admit I too was hoping to get a chance at him. Opening day I sat in stand all day and saw does, fawns and one 125 inch 8 pointer that came within 10 yards. The following morning I saw several does, one of which was being trailed by a 1 1/2 year old buck, but still no sign of Red Willow. Our entire hunting party left our stands at 10 a.m. to do a few deer drives which is customary for our group. No one had been seeing much for deer up to that point. My hunch was that peak breeding was going on and that’s why we were not seeing the adult does or bucks.
The first drive produced not even one deer, which was very odd for the property. Next came lunch and planning for the early afternoon drive. The second drive of the afternoon was to be through the swamp my deer stand overlooked. As usual, I was a walker and two people were assigned to the middle of the swamp, which was primarily onion grass on top of floating bog and a few patches of cattails. I had recommended we put someone here from watching deer in the swamp move naturally through this area which provided excellent shooting opportunities once deer were on their feet.
As we approached to within about 150 yards of the standers, I could hear deer moving through the brush in front of the walkers who were in the red willow edge of the swamp to my right. The deer were nervous and could smell the standers upwind and were trying to find their way out when they decided to take a high speed break for it out in front of me. First one buck, then a second, a very nice 8, then a third. The third buck to appear was wearing a large set of antlers and I instantly and unbelievingly knew it was the buck from the trail camera photos. At first there was no clear shot. The deer was between me and a poster on the drive. A few short bounds later Red Willow presented a clear safe shot. I only had about 30 feet to aim and fire before he went behind a pocket of cattails, possibly never to be seen from again. I squeezed the trigger and knew the Winchester Dual Bond slug had found its mark as Red Willow hunched just after I pulled the trigger.
He disappeared behind the cattails and as I ran up to look around the cattails I heard shots fired from several other members of the party to my left. By the time I could see around the cattails I saw the hunt for Red Willow was over! My brother-in-law Josiah had left no need for tracking by adding a second vital hit, taking the deer down about 50 yards after I had shot him.
Over the next hour the hunting party celebrated with taking pictures, high fives and many hugs. Although I prefer to stand hunt for deer in the thick cover of Minnesota, a well executed drive can sometimes pay big dividends. Hats off to the entire hunting party for making this deer drive a great success! Without each person in the drive playing their role I would not be telling this story of a once-in-a-lifetime deer. Although I cannot take sole credit for this deer, who better to share this experience with than close family? We will indeed retell the story and relive the memories for years to come!
Red Willow was officially scored for Boone & Crockett at 240 1/8″, which at the time of scoring was 9th largest all-time in the state of Minnesota.
Next season I look forward to once again enjoy the smell of autumn and chasing Whitetails. I may never see another buck the size of Red Willow again in the wild, but I will always enjoy the time spent afield with friends, family, and in the great outdoors. God has truly blessed me with all three.