2016 was our first year in operation as an outfitter. I had booked as many hunters as I could with minimal advertising/marketing costs, and I leased my ground in accordance with the hunters and their respective preference points. For archery season 2016, I had nobody in Zone 5... just a couple of gun hunters. In late October, I thought that I might hunt over on my only Zone 5 farm, a 100 +/- acre farm 1/4 mile up from the Missouri line south of Bloomfield, IA. After running mineral and trail cameras, the biggest buck I had on camera was a 145" 3-year-old whom we named "Baby Face" because of the obvious. The oldest deer was a 130" 10pt (of which we killed in late muzzleloader season that year). So, I wasn't losing any sleep about missing out on any mega bucks.... or at least at that specific time.
We get into November, and I have my eyes and mind focused on a 240 +/- acre farm straight east of the Zone 5 farm but in Zone 6, about 15 minutes away. We had a handful of good bucks to pursue here, but one thing lurked in my mind... part of my lease agreement on this Zone 6 farm stated that the manager was allowed to bird hunt (pheasant and quail) on it during the year. He notified me that he wanted to bird hunt it on a particular stretch of days, and I expressed the issue as we were actively after some big deer there. So, I sent him over to the Zone 5 farm, of which was mostly all CRP and hosting a good number of birds including at least two quality quail coveys and at least 3-5 rooster ringneck pheasants.
I was dropping my guys off for their evening sit on the Zone 6 farm, a bit late actually, while the farm's manager was over bird hunting my Zone 5 farm. I just got back into my vehicle at the farm's east entrance when my phone rang. It was the farm manager. I expected him to be upset about something we did like maybe put ruts in the field or the standing corn I bought back needed cut. Heck, I had no idea. I was turning around and pulling onto the gravel road to head to the gas station as I was answering the call. He was yelling but in a whisper tone... soft yelling. I couldn't make out what he was saying, and then I dropped his call, so I hurried up to the top of the hill north of the farm's block, turned off the side of the road, and said, "I can't make out what you're saying.".... He replied, "Matt, there's a magazine cover of a buck here on the farm." For some reason, I thought he meant the farm we were hunting, the farm he managed, and I asked him if that was the farm he was talking about and where at. He said, "No, the CRP farm." He then proceeded to explain to me where he saw the buck, what the buck was doing, where he was heading, and what they were doing, which was backing out really slowly and as quiet as possible. He then told me to get a hunter over there ASAP to try and get on him. I said that I didn't have anyone with the right tag for the farm, so he said I should go hunt him. I never thought of that at this point. Well, not a bad idea. I had a tag and a bow... He hung up and pulled out.
As I sit on the shoulder of the road, I'm thinking that I have a 30 minute drive back to the farm house that I had rented where my bow, release, arrows, backpack, and camo was at. One hour to go there and back to the Zone 5 farm and add 15-30 minutes for packing... Too late to try to get into my stands (20-30 min walk in). I stopped thinking and checked my driver side mirror, turn signal on, and stomped on the gas. Throwing gravel, I got onto the pavement and might have literally flown in that vehicle... I got back to the farm house in 17 minutes. Mind you, the farm manager said "he's a 200-inch buck for sure" or something like that. I'm shaking. I'm breathing heavily. Adrenaline is flowing hard. I run inside the farm house, take my boots off, put my camo on, and then head to the mudroom porch to grab my bow, release, quiver, and take off... My backpack was already in my car. Bow? Check. Quiver? Check. Camo? Check. Release? Release? "Where in the *bleep* is my release?" Oh my goodness, I had no clue where my release was. It wasn't there. I emptied three rubber made totes of gear, supplies, and clothes. Nothing. I checked my bow case. Nothing. I searched the ground. Nothing. Panic sets in. I'm in go mode and kill mode at the same time. Bottom of the 9th. 2 outs. Bases loaded. Full count. I'm at the plate. Down by 3. Need a dinger. I'm ready. Where's my bat? Oh crap... I am an idiot. I don't have time to be an idiot.
I looked at the time on my phone. Knowing how much time I need to get there, get in, and still have enough legal light, I was cutting it to like 5-10 minutes of light. I said to myself, "screw it. I'm going Fred Bear tonight." No release needed. Compound bow. 70lbs. 28" draw. 28" axle to axle. Ouch. When is the last time I practiced this? 5 years ago? Maybe? Ever? I did shoot a recurve a few times. Do I tilt the bow like a recurve? Do I go one finger above and one finger below? Do I do two fingers below and one above? Shoot! I don't know! Oh well. Before I knew it, I was 5 minutes from the farm house and heading back to the Zone 5 farm. My Zone 6 guys haven't texted or called. No arrows flung yet. No impressive sightings yet. I'm in the clear. Oops... I just about went through a curve into an embankment on the gravel road. Matt, clear the mechanism. Let's go.
That particular drive was 1 minute shorter than the last. Good time! 5-7 minutes left of light. I'm on the south end of the farm on a dead end road. I can overlook the CRP and see my 3-acre bean plot where my blind is. I can easily make the stalk in the clear to about 60 yards from the blind before having to either go prone and crawl or go prone and wait. No way could I risk getting to the blind... maybe. I don't see any deer in the plot. I don't notice any tines in the CRP bordering the plot. Do I risk it? "This is not a time to be indecisive, Matt," I thought to myself. Time to make a decision.
I got my bino's out and glassed harder than I have ever glassed in my life. Nothing. Eventually, 5 minutes later, it was past legal light. I was still at the vehicle. I thought, I need to get going and go get my guys who are walking out in about 20-30 minutes. This is my time to think about my next move. So, I got out of there with my headlights off, got to the main road, headlights on, and headed over to the Zone 6 farm. My guys saw some deer, but nothing in particular of interest. I told them the story of my evening. I felt bad. They didn't have the encounter or even chance like I did. They knew it was in Zone 5 and that they couldn't go hunt it. They told me to go back and kill him tomorrow. I felt guilty. My attention should be on them but my mind is focused on mega giant. Well, I relaxed knowing I had a Browning trail camera in the plot on video mode. If he makes it there, I should catch him during the night.
I dropped them off for dinner, drove to town, bought a new release, shot in the headlights at the farmhouse, hung out before bedtime, and then planned my approach in the morning. I knew that I would be pushing it getting into the stand I wanted with both time and wind. I only had one tree stand on this farm and one blind. I need to get to the stand. He won't feed in the beans in the morning. So, I got them into their stands, hit the road hard, and got to the farm, got loaded up, and headed in. I walk into a covey of the loudest quail ever heard. I almost pissed myself. I had 150yds left in my walk. I got to the tree, got up quietly. I waited...
Around 9:00am, I had seen nothing. Not a single deer. Not a doe. Not a button buck. Not a spike. Not my regular Baby Face 3-year-old. Hmmmm... Why have I not seen a single deer? Did I bump everything getting in? Did that mega giant run all the little young bucks off and push he does out. I can see everything in this entire bottom. Nothing. I got down quick and headed out. Didn't bump anything getting out. I thought this is so weird not to see a deer here. I was let down. I went back to guiding/outfitting for the rest of the morning into the early afternoon.
I had an idea. My guide, Chad, could go sit in that blind. Scout it for me. I told him to shoot the old 130" if he sees him, but do NOT shoot the mega. He has killed a 200"+ buck before. He knows that they look like on the hoof. So, that's what we did. We got the hunters set for the evening, and I stayed and scouted for them. Chad went to the farm early, got into the blind, and waited. I'm texting him like crazy the last 30-60 minutes. Hasn't seen a deer. With about 15 minutes or less of light, he sees some does coming into the plot on a line. I'm anxious. No sign of him or any other buck. Then legal light passes. The does are in the plot. Chad is stuck. He asked if he should get out to come help with hunters. I said no. Wait for them to feed off. 5 minutes later, he texts me, "he's here." I about crapped my pants. Mind you, this particular night was perfectly clear and well-lit. You could easily have shot about 10 minutes after legal light (visually able)... one of those nights. Chad texts me, he's at 40yds at the top of the plot just in the edge CRP. The buck is sky-lined completely. Chad is texting me something along the lines of "yes 200+ typical:, "clean typical", "height", "width", "mass" everything.... even symmetrical. "He's huge!" from Chad. He asks when he should leave. I said, "not until he leaves and the does leave." About 15-20 minutes later, the deer all fed/pushed off. He got out safely.
He never appeared on that trail camera (debatably)... I had one video of a buck that night in the plot... Fogged up, a buck facing directly into the camera licking/sniffing it and walking straight behind it... I could barely see the first 1/2" of his left beam. It was him. I knew it. No other buck was seen on that farm in those 2 sits. My other camera didn't have a buck there either over that stretch. Still, not definitive. I never laid eyes on him. Chad and the farm manager were the only people to see him on the hoof. He disappeared. No more sightings. No more anything. He was gone. A ghost. A hair in the wind. Gone.
This was the last time that I bought a bow tag and owned a bow. I sold my bow that off-season because I was so discouraged about trying to hunt him versus being an outfitter and focusing on my clients. That buck still haunts me. That's the last 200" typical that I'll probably have a chance to kill in this century. Regardless, I'd much rather have a hunter kill one like that. I'm not greedy. I love what I do, and I love my clients. As time as gone by, the urge remains, but the logic prevails. Clients > Me. Everyday. The ghost will haunt me for the rest of my hunting days, but the story will always remain... and the trail camera video below of what I believe is the Ghost...
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the story as much as I do every time I think about it when I hear the phrase "200-inch buck"... The Ghost. The photos below are as follows (L-R): (L)The blind in the soybeans with me in it looking at Baby Face... the same plot the Ghost was spotted by Chad in November. (C) Eric Hamann with Working Class Bowhunter Podcast (friend of mine), who helped me on this farm, looking at the 3-acre bean plot in July. (R) Baby Face the following summer at 4-years-old estimated at 160"... 40" smaller than the Ghost.