I always said I was not a big antler addict. I know a big rack sticks out past the ears. Once it gets to estimating inches I get lost really fast. I had gone through the first four days of Kentucky Rifle Season watching doe and spikes, little forkers and some small baskets. It had been entertaining, but I was looking for something more. I especially did not want the season to end as precipitously as it had the year before. Less than an hour into the previous season I had waxed a buck that was bigger than me, and after all the hoo-haw of gutting and transport, I was virtually benched. If it was going to end fast, it had better be for a good reason.
My general rule anymore is to hold out for a deer that is bigger than last year’s. That was going to be hard to do. My deer last year had gone 270 lbs live and had a rack in the 165-170 range. There was going to be a lot of hard work and long waiting to see something bigger than that. There were deer out there like that. The state record had come from the next county over, but it had taken 26 years to get the first one in my sights.
The weather had turned nasty mid-week, and I had gone home to do laundry, stock up on food, and do some business. After the rain let up, I was back out. The roads were still wet as I drove back into camp. I had about 24 hours before the next blast of icky weather.
Midway is a stand in a tree line between two pastures that I planted last year in wheat and clover. After the first mowing this summer, the deer had taken to these food plots in a big way. We had a spare buddy stand at the end of the summer, so I put it up to watch the action. I have never really hunted the way I always see on TV– big open vistas with herds of deer milling about.
This one looked like a TV show come to real life. I had 200 yards going both directions, with about 6 feet of visibility in front and behind. From the far end of each plot, the stand was indiscernible from the cedars and oaks.
There is one rifle in my arsenal that seemed made for Midway. It is an old Winchester Model 670 in 30-06. The scope is a 4-12X variable Bushnell Banner. It has been mine for 20 years. I bought it in a parking lot at a gun show really cheap. The fellow told me it had been shared between his brothers for several years, and they had decided to buy a new one.
“It may look all beat-up, but it shoots real good.” he said. He was right. After one trip to the range, I knew I had found a gem. I stripped off the old finish, ironed out the dings and put a nice oil finish back on it. I shoot Hornady 165 grain Interlock SP over a moderate load of H4895– very little kick but still a potent load. Despite all this, the Winny had been sort of closet queen most of its life. My stands have all been fairly intimate affairs in the past. I am always hard pressed to find a shot longer than 50 yards. The Winny, with its big honkin’ scope with adjustments out to 1000 yards always seemed pretentious. All the other rifles could probably do a great job at Midway, but the Winny just seemed to fit right in.
The wind was a bit less than when I left. We get a lot of wind at the farm, our ridge has nothing to the South and West except the curvature of the Earth. It gets stiff pretty often. Usually it does not bother the deer. They just go about their business. It helps me, because the wind seems to carry my scent away and dissipate it. I seldom get busted. This was a steady 10-15 MPH WSW coming right across my left front. If deer were in the south plot, they would never get a chance to smell me. In the northern plot, deer more than 50 yards away would be outside of my scent shadow.
I had just settled in when a doe showed up in the right-hand plot about 100 yards out. At first, I thought she was alone, and I thought about knocking her off. I had two tags, but only one for a buck. Opening Weekend had already come and gone, so now I was beginning to think about getting on the board. Both my sons were already tagged out for the season. I put the scope on her and caught her eying her back trail. I lifted my face off the stock and watched. Presently three more doe came out into the field, then the buck came out.
If you were to look at his rack, you would probably think about passing. I would, at least most years. He was a large-bodied 8 pointer. He was obviously deeply into the rut. At first, I thought he was panting or lip curling. I put the scope on him and could not believe what I was seeing. There was a stub of a lower jaw and huge tongue lolling about from side to side.
A lot went through my mind. I thought about the big chandelier buck we had seen before season, the one that had been the topic of all the chatter on the neighbor’s walkie-talkies. A few folks had taken shots, but they had all missed. I thought about waiting. I thought about my earlier attempt at sacrificing my buck tag back in 2005, over a 3-legged buck. I had thought he was wounded, but it had turned out to be a withered forelimb from a birth defect. I was amazed that this fellow before me was so robust, and showing no signs of infirmity. The does were coming my way now, and he was following them. From 100 yards, they got down to under fifty, and were starting to make for the fence line to my front and right. I had to take make a decision.
I had heard a guy on the scanner on Opening Day, bloviating about his 8-point buck with a bad case of ground-shrinkage. He had shot it, and then not bothered to get down, preferring to see what else might show up. He finally climbed down to examine his prize, been somewhat underwhelmed and had gone back to his stand. He left the carcass un-gutted. I had thought the fellow was a real crud. How he was going to cover a second buck was beyond me; you only get one buck per year in Kentucky. However, one thing he said to his friends stuck in my head: “I figured, if I did not take the shot, I was never going to know for sure, and I knew that was going to bother me.”
He was right. If I left this 8-pointer go, I was not going to know if he really was missing a lower jaw. At about 40 yards, the crosshairs found the front leg and I tilted up slightly as I squeezed. At first, the buck looked unfazed. He and the does jumped the barbed wire and started down into a small ravine. However, the does took off up the holler, and a few seconds later I heard a crash from the direction the buck had gone.
It did not take long to find him. He had gone about halfway down the hill and piled up in a gully. It appeared he had turned back around to see what was behind him and lost consciousness. He was a big deer– 204 lb live/ 155 dressed. My first thought was to see how bad the jaw was. I had to laugh. This guy just had the worst overbite I had ever seen. The jaw was not missing; it was just really short. His front teeth were intact, but had lot of bare palate stretching out in front, and a tongue that was way too long for the jaw. I had just shot a deer for being nothing more than horrendously ugly.
In seriousness, he must have had a hard go of it. I cannot imagine what life had been like suckling as a fawn or trying to eat with all that extra snout sticking out. However, he had done it. He was big and muscular and had plenty of fat on him.
I was alone, and I was far enough down in the ravine that I knew that I was going to have to gut him and schlep him out by hand. It was only 4:30 in the afternoon, but if I did not get onto things right away, I was going to lose light. I had only my knife with me; the rest of the kit was back at camp. This was my first unassisted field dressing since 1992. By the time it was over, I was fondly remembering my block and tackle, my saw, my meat pole, and all the rest.
A lot kept rolling around in my head. Here I was with not the biggest 8-pointer around, but I was happy and satisfied. The big technical part of Season was over. From here on out, I would be shooting for freezer filler and sizing deer up for how easy it would be to get the truck to them more than anything else. In some ways I had wasted my tag trying to save a buck that did not need saving. However, in doing so, it had saved me. I was no longer agonizing about how big a set of antlers I was going to hold out for. I was no longer in the existential quandary of what to do the season after I bag the Big One. It was over. I had made a full-minded choice. I had sacrificed my tag out of mercy, and been rewarded with mercy in return. The big antler monkey was off my back, and I could go back to the side of deer hunting that makes me happy.