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“For some people, hunting deer is a hobby. For others, the activity is closer to a passion. When you do something all your life with intense eagerness, it becomes more than simply what you do. It becomes who you are.” – Gene Wensel.
I follow the Wensel Brothers’ stories as close as anyone. What Barry and Gene can do on paper is just as impressive as what they’ve accomplished as bow hunters in the Iowa deer woods. So most of the time when I begin to write an article I look to their work for inspiration. This piece was no different. Now maybe it was the intense writer’s block I had trying to begin this chronicle, or maybe it was just that Gene hit the nail on the head with those words. Maybe it was both. Regardless, this quote from “A Buck Named Woody” was a perfect way to begin this story of my journey towards “Hightower.”
Hightower is the name I gave a buck I first laid eyes on back in August of 2015. The buck first appeared on one of our trail cameras overlooking a mineral lick on August 26th. He was still in his summer bachelor group with several other impressive bucks all in full velvet. Boy was he impressive. Despite being the smallest in the group of three, he stood out to me the most. The largest was a four year old with a 20 inch plus spread, the second largest a four year old with a thick frame but shorter points. Hightower hosted the smallest frame of the bunch, but man I could tell he had the most potential to become something within the next year.
The first of many pictures I’d capture of Hightower.
Hightower had very tall tines for a three year old, especially his G3’s, decent brow tines, and was almost a twelve point. The G5’s he was trying to sprout on both sides looked to be just shy of the 1″ minimum requirement to be scored. He had everything for a buck of that age that shows potential of being a “shooter” the following fall. Now obviously my definition of a “shooter” buck is going to be different than everyone else’s. What I call a “shooter” is anything of at least four years of age, or over 140″ of antler. If I see a buck meeting those minimum requirements within bow range during the Ohio archery season, you know an arrow is flying granted an ethical shot opportunity.
As time passed, I continued to closely monitor Hightower along with his two running buddies. Our black bear guide, Shawn Sullivan of Pontiac Lodge was fortunate enough to come down and harvest the largest of the bachelor group, a very respectable eight point with the huge spread that he hauled back to the pines of Quebec. On October 6th, I was fortunate to harvest a 145″ ten point in the neighboring county on a friend’s property while he filmed for me. It was actually the first day I was able to get out and hunt. He was just too good of a buck to pass up.
Fast forward three months to January, and Hightower was still alive and well. He had been staying on our property all season only bedding a few hundred yards in a thicket from crop fields. He’d make his same short journey nearly every evening from the thick cover, passing by my trail camera headed towards food. Even during the rut in November he hardly left the area. From what I captured on our trail cameras he was mainly intercepting does in between the same thick bedding area, and the same CRP and crop fields. He even made it through all the gun seasons Ohio hosts which was my biggest fear. He felt extremely comfortable staying put and that was good.
Sometime in mid-January I was hunting a stand for does with my recurve close to Hightower’s traveling route. During the last half hour I made out his rack peaking around the ridge as he made his same evening walk. He cruised right through my shooting lane at 15 yards. Even though it was a short 30 seconds or so, it was the highlight of the evening. Not because the rest of the hunt was unsuccessful, but because it was such a spectacle to see him for the first time “on-the-hoof” as opposed to just on a trail camera picture.
As winter pushed on, I continued to watch Hightower via trail cam pictures. He kept his routine through the end of archery season and into shed season. I was more than anxious to venture out in search of his antlers. Apparently he had been traveling farther than I had first hypothesized as I found his left side, but failed to find his right after hours and hours of searching our property. I found many others, but I never could find his matching side. Regardless, I was happy to find one. Having a part of him that he used for protection, dominance, and hierarchy only brought more anticipation for the 2016 archery season.
I’d only find Hightower’s left side despite searching the area for his right.
Months would pass before I’d see him again. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t thinking about how I could arrow him. Spring came and as a hunting group, myself, my father, my uncle and our friend from West Virginia decided to plant field corn in a 12 acre plot just a few hundred yards from Hightower’s bedding area. We’d talked for several years about this idea, but with Hightower and several other up-and-coming bucks surviving the 2015 season we thought this was the perfect time to give it a shot.
Spring turned to summer and with seed in the ground we began to watch for new antler growth. I believe I have a trail cam picture of Hightower as early as May but I couldn’t say for certain it was him until the pictures I captured in late July. He was still alive and putting on antler fast. I continued to check cameras every few weeks to find he had started back on his old routine.
Things were looking up as the 2016 archery season closed in. As I counted the days, he continued to put on more bone. By mid to late August he had pretty much put on as much as he was going to for the year. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Hightower had grown at least 30″ from last season. He grew giant brows with a split on the right, his tines had put on several inches each, his G5 on his right had grown beyond an inch, but the left had disappeared, and he sprouted a sticker off his left base that was easily over an inch. He was a sight to see. Just a freak of nature that was now without a doubt beyond my minimal requirements for a shooter buck. He was a stud.
It’s amazing what a year’s worth of growth can do to a whitetail’s rack.
September rolled around and the bucks started to shed their velvet uncovering their hard horns underneath. I believe Hightower lost his sometime during the 6th and 7th being that he showed himself on the 8th completely hard-horned while on the 5th I have a picture of him on the same camera still in full velvet, if that tells you anything about how consistent his routine was. Antlers weren’t the only things that had been growing either. By this time our corn had grown to heights of 10-12 feet with cobs on every stock. In addition, in August we had planted three Big Tine food plots tucked into several corners of the corn. It was a recipe for success.
The season came in the 24th of September. My plan started off simple. Set up in the same stand I seen him from last winter. This was the main trail where he traveled to and from his bedding area into the now, lush field of corn, and food plots. It seemed bulletproof as long as I waited for a favorable wind before climbing into the stand. However, there was one thing I did not account for… Acorns, and lots of them.
I could not believe the acorn crop our farm received in 2016. I had figured back in June that our acorn crop would be down that year due to the 17-year cicadas. They had done quite a lot of damage to the trees killing off a lot of smaller branches during the summer. So my thought process was; less branches, less acorns, more easy to pattern deer. I was dead wrong.
Opening weekend I filmed for the same friend who filmed me last year as he harvested a 152″ buck so I was unable to get out myself. It wasn’t a few days later and the acorns began to fall. And they fell hard. Both sides and the top of the ridge Hightower was living on was absolutely littered with acorns. It was like walking on marbles if you ventured anywhere into the timber. It was time to throw Plan A out the window.
Hightower’s consistency was gone. He now had no pattern. There was barely any change to his daily routine and he was happily munching on acorns in his core area for most of the daylight hours . Why go anywhere else? This is where Plan B would kick in. It would have to continue to be a group effort and I would need to be an even more patient bow hunter.
I tried several times to push closer to Hightower’s bedding area without spooking him, but I didn’t want to push too hard and came up empty handed after several tries. I needed to try a different approach. My mind went to trying to hunt one of the food plots we had planted within the standing corn, but I needed something to entice him besides food for he had what seemed like an endless supply of acorns.
While reading one of Gene Wensel’s articles I stumbled upon a new style of mock scrape lures. The brand Gene used in his experiment titled, “Wicked Wicks” was Smokey’s Deer Lures. Smokey, a good ole boy from West Virginia, made his own lures. He bottled them in glass, not plastic, used oil based lures, non-synthetic, and extracted specific glands. He had the pre-orbital gland of a buck, the tarsal glands, and the inter-digital glands. Also, a doe-in-heat lure for mock scrapes.
After talking with Smokey about my situation and finding out more about his lures I decided to give them a try. On October the 13th, I placed the pre-orbital gland lure on an already existing licking branch, and dispensed the inter-digital gland lure within the existing scrape. The scrape sat on the top side of a half-acre food plot on the opposing side of the field from Hightower’s bedding area. I set a Cuddeback overlooking both the scrape and the food plot and left the area alone for a week. I returned a week later to find all sorts of spoils on the camera. The following evening after dispersing the scent, Hightower had come to mark his territory. Only an hour later another new shooter buck appeared at the scrape making his mark as well. He was probably 150″ 11 with a split brow on the same side as Hightower.
One of the many times Hightower would hit the Smokey’s Lure soaked scrape.
The following day, with the assistance of my father we set a stand overlooking the food plot along with a ground blind which we tucked into an old barn. The barn was now merely two sides and a few support beams running across the top. The rest had broken down with time, but it still left a perfect place to stick a blind in and the deer would have no clue it was there. We sawed a few boards out to make a shooting window, and taped up the other blind windows with black duct tape to seal in as much scent as possible. We figured this way I could still hunt the plot with the marginal wind. If the wind was in my favor I’d hop in the stand, but if it was a cross wind that blew up the bank I could slip into the blind and go undetected.
I hunted the plot stand several evenings during late October and the first few days of November with no luck. October 22nd my father harvested the other buck from Hightower’s 2015 bachelor group we nicknamed, “Drop.” He sprouted a 3 inch drop tine in 2016 as a 5.5 year old adding to his 140″ 8 point frame. The next week I had seen Hightower once from the stand but he was on a doe busting out of the corn a good 300 yards away. It wouldn’t be until Ohio’s rut where things would really start to pick up with Hightower.
The lush Big Tine plot in early October.
The morning of November 5th came cool and crisp. I was hunting in the blind overlooking the small food plot and scrape Hightower had been visiting, while my uncle Randy was hunting just up the ridge and down the other side on an oak flat. As the morning progressed I saw a few smaller bucks and a couple of does, nothing too exciting.
Around 10:30 I received a text from my father who was at his house preparing lunch for us all stating Randy had shot what he was almost certain was Hightower. Excited and thrilled for my uncle, I told my dad I would wait until 11. If I didn’t see anything I would get out and head back to the house to wait to hear more from Randy in case he needed help. An hour passed and none of us had heard from Randy. By this time my father had drove over to my house along with Chuck who was hunting another property. Finally, my dad gets the call. No luck.
Apparently Randy had watched Hightower for two and a half hours fend off several bucks from a hot doe he had pinned down. As the couple finally started to leave, Hightower presented Randy with his only shot opportunity of the morning at 40 yards through a tight window. As the arrow hit Randy could see a lot of it still sticking out as the buck ran off down the ridge (away from me). He waited a half hour before beginning to look for blood where he found quite a bit the first 100 yards or so. Then it abruptly piddled out to nothing where he began just looking for a body. He gave his best effort to find some sort of sign that led him to believe he was dead but all signs pointed to a shoulder hit. Based off where he seen the arrow hit and how much was sticking out, it appeared to be exactly that which would not kill the buck.
All of our stomachs turned after hearing the news. The uncertainty of whether Hightower was still alive or whether he’d ever come back drove me insane. I felt terrible for Randy. It’s not often as a bow hunter do you get an opportunity at a buck of that caliber. But he felt just as bad for me knowing I’d been watching and hunting this buck for over a year now. You can’t blame him though. Anyone of us at camp would’ve taken that shot, though it was by no means an easy shot to make. He merely missed his mark by an inch or two.
After lunch we all headed back out in the woods. Our friend Chuck went to hunt a stand about 3/4 of a mile from where Randy had shot Hightower on the opposite side from where I had been hunting that morning in the blind. The reason I’m telling you this and yes, I’ll save you the suspense, Chuck had an encounter with him that evening. From 2:30 when Chuck pulled his bow up, until 6:30 at last light, he watched Hightower follow that same hot doe all around him never presenting a shot. Now he had a nasty limp, as well as he should after being smacked with broadhead that morning.
A few days later I checked the trail camera overlooking the scrape where Hightower had visited ever so often. I couldn’t believe my eyes. At 12:30, just an hour and a half after I had left the blind the morning of the 5th, Hightower had been in. With a hole in his shoulder, and blood dripping down his front right leg, Hightower passed right by where I had been hunting that morning before making his way over to the field where Chuck would see him that evening. Hightower had been lucky once again.
Hightower with his blood soaked shoulder moving through the plot.
But his luck wouldn’t run out just yet. As the rut continued, only other bucks started to hit the ground. Chuck was fortunate to take a 130″ class 11 point November 9th while Randy tagged out with a 140″ 10 on the evening of the 15th. That same evening I had got back into the food plot blind. It was a Monday so I slipped in after work around 3:30. I pulled the trail camera card and checked the pics once I stepped in the blind. What I found would again upset my stomach. An hour before I got in, Hightower had again checked the scrape and passed through the food plot. The tension between myself and this buck grew even more.
A short two days later I slipped in the blind just after work again fighting a marginal wind. The temperature had climbed the past few days so I wasn’t extremely confident I’d see much that evening. But again, Hightower would prove me wrong.
At ten after four the monarch stepped out from the standing corn into the food plot. Again, my eyes couldn’t believe it. He was merely passing through, scent checking the plot for a hot doe. I had to move fast. I flipped on the camera and hit record while panning over onto Hightower. As he walked up towards the scrape I grabbed my bow and clipped on my release. He put his nose to the licking branch for a second, turned, and began to leave. As he turned I came to full draw waiting for him to stop. He took a few steps, the camera still on him and came to a halt at 25 yards.
Everything I had been through with this deer was built up into this one moment. All the anticipation of waiting for an opportunity to harvest this buck was released with the arrow…and I blew it.
With all of what had happened with Hightower to this point on my mind I completely rushed the shot and blew it. To make things worse it wasn’t just a complete miss. As the arrow made its way to the 25 yard mark it connected with the top of the buck’s back sticking in his hide for only a few steps. He ran the first 20 yards before stopping, looking back, and began to just walk away. I scrambled for another arrow, but would never be granted another clean shot opportunity. Hightower walked out of range and out of my life for what I figured to be the last time. My shoulders sank as I finally realized what had just transpired.
The first four stages of grief came and went pretty fast that evening in the blind. In a matter of a few moments I worked through the denial of it even happening, the anger of knowing I’ve made that shot successfully again and again. I tried bargaining with The Lord for another opportunity, and slipped into a mini depression that every bow hunter has either already been through or will someday. It happens to us all. I knew as soon as I released it wasn’t a good shot. Then it was confirmed as the arrow skipped off a vertebra and sliced the bucks back hide rather than passed through his vitals. There were no excuses. I just plain missed my mark.
I don’t think I ever really made it to the acceptance part of grief. There wasn’t time to. What I needed to do was forget about it completely and focus on how I could get another crack at this buck. Obviously he wasn’t too spooked as now he’s been shot twice, and still only just walked away opposed to running. I shot Hightower on a Wednesday. The following weekend was the youth gun season for Ohio where you can still legally hunt with archery tackle as long as you wear the required amount of hunter orange. I let the area settle down until Sunday. Saturday of the youth season had been awful. 40 mph winds and pouring down rain. A front was moving in. That evening we received about an inch of snow, the first snow of the season.
Late Sunday morning I checked the trail cameras in the area and replenished the scrape in the food plot with hot doe pee and tarsal glad secretions from Smokey. After checking the pictures, Hightower was still in the area. He had moved back to his old routine on the opposite ridge from the food plot. He was in both Friday and Saturday nights, but at midnight. So while it wasn’t ideal, at least he was still around and hadn’t fled the area completely.
With temps in the mid 30’s and snow on the ground I decided to head to the food plot yet again Sunday evening. The wind was again very marginal, almost to the point where I questioned going at all. Wind trumps everything when it comes to how I hunt, and where. But something kept telling me to get in the blind and see what happened. So a little after 2 p.m. I snuck in the blind, the snow masking the sound of my boots. With my hunter orange vest on, I sat and waited to see what the evening would bring.
The first several hours were steady. A few younger bucks and several does made their way into the plot, digging through the snow to get to the sweet turnips and brassica underneath. A few of the bucks stopped at the scrape to add their own scents to the mix, then began to spar above the top side of the plot just 40 yards away. I always enjoy watching these rituals as they are quite a spectacle and help the time pass.
At a quarter ’til 5 with about 45 minutes of legal shooting light left the plot was empty. I hadn’t seen any action for the last half hour or so when a huge horse-head doe stepped into my window of sight taking up almost the entire thing. She was only five yards away. She had entered the plot quietly from the corn. As she finally stepped out of sight from right to left I leaned to my left to see if anything was following her. If I didn’t have proof of video, it would be hard for anyone to believe who was on her trail but Hightower himself. For probably the hundredth time over the past two years this buck made me question my eye sight. He began to feed in the plot just a stone’s throw away. By this time he would’ve been dead without my quest of getting the hunt on film. I again flipped the camera on, hit record, and panned over to him grazing on brassica just 15 yards away. I clenched my bow, and clipped on my release. With him in the camera’s view and his head down I came to full draw. Just as I broke over the buck lifted his head, turned, and began to walk swiftly towards the doe. The doe was almost behind me at this point so he was quartering hard to me giving me no shot. Once the buck cleared the window I let my bow down.
He chased the doe down into a dip just 20 yards to my left but well out of my shooting window. With the other windows taped shut to help with scent, I could do nothing but pray Hightower would somehow chase the doe back into the plot. Finally after what seemed like hours, he did what I had thought. The doe scurried up the bank back into the plot this time at the far end, walking through the scrape as she made her way back to feeding. A few moments later the buck followed suit. He walked back up the small bank and circled around the right side of the doe. He was now standing in the same spot where I had shot him just a few days prior. But he was facing me with his head down, eliminating any sort of shot opportunity. I would have to wait until he turned.
With the camera already on him and recording, the wind began to swirl. A hunter’s worst nightmare, especially with a buck of this caliber just 25 yards away. As the wind continued, Hightower became nervous, lifting his head and stomping the ground. He was leaving. He turned to leave and I came to full draw once again waiting patiently this time for my shot, not his. The buck circled around at 30 yards and stopped at a quartering away angle. It was then or never. This time as the arrow left my bow it felt good. I watched the arrow’s flight as it finally smacked into buck’s shoulder. Hightower’s front legs dropped as he pushed his body like a sled with his back legs down the bank to the left and out of sight with the doe following.
I couldn’t tell if I had hit the front facing shoulder or the opposite side shoulder. There was a lot of arrow sticking out when I reviewed the footage but I shoot long arrows. It was too close to tell. I immediately called my father to tell him what had happened. As I’m talking to him I hear about a five second noise which sounded like a groan. I told dad and thought to myself what could it have been? Somewhere in my brain I thought maybe it was Hightower releasing the last breath from his lungs, but my realistic bow hunter mind told me it was probably just a tree creaking from the wind. At this point in my journey towards Hightower I wasn’t exactly the most optimistic hunter.
After talking it over with dad we decided that I would wait for him in the blind. He would drive over from his place along with the camera light and a flashlight since it was going to be after legal shooting light by the time he would get there, and we’d begin to track him. By the time we hit the trail head it had been a good 45 minutes since I had shot Hightower. The arrow had broken off just a few yards from where I had shot him. As I held it up in comparison to the arrows in my quiver I got a little glimmer of hope. The arrow had went in about 10 inches, plenty far enough to kill him.
We followed his tracks in the snow and referenced where I had seen him run down the steep bank to find first blood just 10 yards from arrow impact. It wasn’t much, but enough to go on. We followed the trail down the bank and into a small dried up creek bed. The buck had gone under some fallen trees with just very tiny drops of blood showing up on the snow covered ground. We came out the other side of the trees still just 25 yards from where I had shot Hightower. The trail now ran into some tall iron weeds that spread across the open timber ridge side.
Heading up the trail with dad running the camera behind me, my eyes had one last surprise for me. Just 15 yards into the iron weeds laid a body, long and brown with Hightower’s rack attached to the head. With all the twists and turns this buck had gave me it took a good 10 seconds before my brain processed what I was looking at. My journey towards Hightower was over. The buck didn’t make it 40 yards from arrow impact and laid only 25 yards to the left of the blind. It was in fact his final breath I had heard earlier while talking with my father. I was in complete and total shock. I turned to my dad for a celebratory hug. With tears in our eyes, we basked in the glory of Hightower. His beauty and awesomeness was even more powerful up close and personal. And unbelievably he hadn’t broke a single point off in all his adventures of the rut making him stretch the tape at 160 0/8″ Gross B&C. Everything I had been through with this deer came full circle and began to run through my head. This deer was tough, smart, but his long streak of luck had just run out. He sent me on one heck of a roller coaster these past two years, and I thank him for every twist and turn. Because I’m a better bow hunter for it now. Bow hunting is a learning process that never stops. When you have a deep passion for it such as myself, my father, my uncle, our friend Chuck, and the Wensel Brothers, “it becomes more than simply what you do.” It becomes who you are.