I would have never thought that on Dec. 26, of all days, I would come face to face with my nemesis. The buck I'd been hunting for the last 90 days shows up at one o’clock in the afternoon, broadside, without a care in the world. Only one problem ... he had broken off a portion of the left side of his head gear. I couldn't believe it!
The pain really began to set in when I reflected on the Cuddeback pictures from the week prior at 12:42 in broad daylight. His entire 160-inch frame was still intact. I was in awe as I watched the largest whitetail of my 2011 season browsing eyes deep in the snow at 15 yards, and I knew I couldn't take the shot.
For a half-hour, the four-year-old deer lumbered under my stand searching for acorns, care-free. I’ll never forget the calming effect that overcame me. I lost a whole year’s anticipation and nerves in less time than it took to hang my bow.
That night, I was able to reflect on my fondest memories of my youth when my family and I hunted at Wexford County Swamp. At that time, we weren't looking for world-class animals, but instead were seeking to share unforgettable life experiences.
Many of us were fortunate to have mentors who made sure we were exposed to what the outdoors had to offer. For me, hunting revolved around family bonding and values.
These few years in a child's life are critical. They need to see beyond video games and find a path to their primal instincts that, in turn, will make them better equipped for life.
In my mid-teens, I was on a mission to figure out the ways of the quarry I pursued. My friends and I focused on waterfowl for more than a decade, sharpening our skills on small flying targets. We spent a quarter of the year in their habitat, which, without doubt, honed our overall predator and marksmanship skills.
My twenties led me to some of Michigan's finest whitetail habitats, as well as journeys throughout the Cascade and Rocky Mountain ranges, all the while soaking up information that heightened my skills even more. During that time, I realized that our planet’s amazing ecosystems had more to offer than could be found in one lifetime.
Throughout the years, my friends and I began a friendly competition on who would harvest the largest buck of the year. All of us had harvested countless animals and took on the challenge with a vengeance. During this period, the Quality Deer Management movement was introduced. Television began broadcasting this newly researched phenomenon. In my opinion, this was the tool to use in order to produce every hunter’s dreams.
We learned that by taking subordinate animals, we would end all opportunity for mature bucks with filled tags. This lesson took us to the next level. Looking back, I can’t even imagine how many mature bucks my friends and I simply did not know existed.
Time spent researching where to be in order to intercept a trophy animal means the difference between harvesting the intended trophy or another fruitless season. I've found that going into it blind is worse than not hunting at all.
If I had a dollar for every time I was asked how I find the properties I hunt, I’d be hunting heavy horned sheep in Kazakhstan. The simple answer is networking. There is not a day that goes by that I do not throw hints to newly met people, almost subconsciously, picking their brain for any information leading to my next trophy. Hunters as a whole are a very friendly group. Sharing experiences with new people can create lifelong relationships, and that can lead to endless opportunities.
Every hunter has a wealth of information at his or her fingertips. A serious hunter can research the best areas to find any species of game on the planet. A simple click of the computer mouse can produce statistics, trophy areas, planning and all the information needed to get the hunt started.
One of the most recent additions to the hunter's arsenal is the cellphone app, such as Google Earth, which gives you a bird’s-eye view of any spot on the planet. The GPS has evolved into a hunter’s guide to his own destiny. While hunting with my grandfather, he trusted his compass to negotiate his stomping grounds. We can now pinpoint our exact location via satellite photos and see what's over the next ridge without even climbing it.
Trail cameras have replaced the need to spend countless hours in the field scouting. This innovation is the mainstay of the trophy hunter. At any one time throughout the year, I have a half dozen or more cameras working for me, documenting every animal that crosses their path. I've been able to track antler development, travel corridors, pinch points, bedding and feeding areas and, ultimately, find the largest bucks with little disturbance to my hunting properties.
Hunters have to choose their path, realize what they can do economically and research the opportunities within their grasp. No matter where you live, there are mature animals to be hunted. Time may not be on your side, but technology can maximize your time and fulfill your dreams. Hunting smart will line your walls faster than just depending on dumb luck.
As I try to portray my experiences in this article, I'm reflecting on my own life and trying to decode my own efforts to share. During a recent seminar, I was asked if I believe I'm a better hunter than others. My answer was no. I've just spent the time and energy in the wild environment to realize that nature has a plan for everything. We make our own destiny. After all, we are the ultimate predator.
I’ve seen what our nation’s mountains, hard woods, river bottoms, thickets and farmlands have to offer. Years of trial and error have molded me into what I am. I've done my share of missing, wounding and killing. Because of that, I know that, when presented with an opportunity, I will follow through and harvest the animal. But, I would let a trophy animal pass if he presents no shot rather than wounding him.
Today, we have generations of people who have not been exposed to what we, as hunters, take for granted. It's up to us to take the time to involve as many kids as possible. Realizing this, I've made it an annual mission to donate a youth hunt and take a new hunter out to harvest his or her first animal in order to help save our heritage. It’s a rewarding and humbling experience.
The buck I mentioned at the beginning of the article was no ordinary animal for the State of Michigan. It was a world-class animal that I followed with my trail cameras for the last three years. I knew he would become an animal of epic proportions and elected to let him pass last season … not an easy task.
Twenty years ago, I would have never seen a buck of that stature. I would have been tagged out and happy. Who would have figured that, decades later, I would spend hundreds of hours hanging in a tree waiting for a certain buck to cross my path and ultimately let him go?
On Oct. 23 of the 2012 season, I harvested that very same buck. If I had taken him last December, he would not have evolved in to this 183 6/8 giant!
by Dave Lee
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