By Thad Cartwright
When my dad, Todd, and I retrieved the first trail camera photograph of a giant buck in Sept. 2011, it was a typical 10-pointer with a considerable amount of junk sprouting from the bases of its antlers. It wasn’t the only decent buck photographed, but it was definitely the most unique.
We put out several Wildgame Innovations cameras alongside trails and creek crossings in hopes of patterning the buck. It took weeks to pinpoint his preferred routes between feeding and bedding areas, but we finally were able to guess where it spent its days.
Most of the photos we collected in October were triggered at night, which had us wishing the rut would begin and stir things up a bit. As the date drew near, the photographs dwindled down to two or three times a week, still mostly after sundown.
We consoled ourselves by considering it the typical October lull. Because our property holds plenty of does, we hoped it was only a matter of time before one of us would get a chance at this magnificent animal.
The stand with the most promise was positioned in a small scrub oak, and we hunted from it only when the wind was favorable.
I had killed a buck the previous year, so Dad had dibs. When he filled his tag with a 140-inch 9-pointer that made the mistake of treading within 20 yards of his setup, it was my time.
A few days later, after letting the area cool off, I was back in the scrub oak, waiting for opportunity to knock. The junk buck had been photographed there the previous afternoon. I was a nervous wreck the whole time, but for naught. The buck never showed.
Another week passed before I was able to return to that scrub oak, which we’d started calling the “Money Tree.” Just like the last time, the buck’s picture had been snapped the previous afternoon.
As soon as I was aloft, I ranged all the trails within an arrow’s reach of my stand. Two hours later, I spotted something moving behind me and turned to see the star of my dreams about 60 yards distant.
As the animal approached one of my shooting lanes, I drew my bow and grunted to stop it at 40 yards. The buck was on full alert when I released the arrow, which sailed about six inches over its back. The deer jumped the string, ducking at just the right moment, and then took off post haste. I was a zombie at that point.
A thousand different emotions rolled through my head.
We continued to monitor our trail cameras. I wasn’t surprised that the buck stopped wandering past the lenses.
When Kentucky’s rifle season opened, I traded my bow for my Model 700. I saw a few 140ish deer, but not the big one. By the time the season ended, I was wondering if the buck had been shot by someone else, or if it had been hit by a car.
My questions were answered when it suddenly appeared again on camera. This time, however, there was something different about the buck. Its ribs were showing, and its thick neck had decreased in size considerably.
After studying a few pictures, Dad and I realized the buck had been shot in the chest during the rifle season, though the bullet had missed the vitals. We could see the wound in the photos.
We were relieved it was still alive, but I wondered how long it could keep on ticking.
Slowly, the buck started filling out again, which gave us hope. But then it disappeared again in mid-December.
Six and a half months later, I again set up my camera. The gnarly buck was still in my heart and mind, but I wasn’t really expecting to see it in a photo. I was just hoping to see something decent, a new buck worthy of pursuing in 2012. If the big one from 2011 showed, I doubted it would be as big.
When I checked the camera two weeks later, I was astonished to see the gnarly buck among the photos. Not only was it alive, but it had also packed on dozens more inches of antler. It was like someone had poured Miracle Gro over its rack.
When I saw that first picture, it was as if I was looking at a magazine ad for a high-fenced property. This buck’s mainframe had grown substantially. Even better, all the junk that was around its bases the previous year had grown tremendously.
I knew at a glance that the rack was going to exceed 200 inches, and that was while it had two more months to grow even larger.
Summer seemed to drag on as we watched the giant we’d nicknamed Bulletproof grow almost daily. Fueled by regular daytime photos, I became obsessed. Dad and I even studied aerial photos to determine the best place to intercept the deer early into the archery season, places best served by the prevailing wind from the southwest.
We ultimately decided to move our stand to a little clump of pines 50 yards east of the Money Tree, which would allow us to stay downwind of Bulletproof’s trail. I just hoped he wouldn’t change his routine before the opening bell, especially since his mugging for the camera was getting later and later during the afternoons.
When the fall semester started at the University of Kentucky, I had to go to Lexington and leave the chore of running trail cameras up to Dad. It was hard for me to switch gears and go back to school, but Dad kept me up to date on Bulletproof’s activities.
The day before the Sept. 1 bow opener, I headed back to Muhlenberg County. I’d dreamt about that weekend for months.
Weather forecasters said Hurricane Isaac was going to play a major role in the wind’s behavior that weekend, but it looked like Saturday afternoon would be perfect for hunting the new stand.
Sticking to my plan, I climbed into it at 3:30 p.m., eager to sit for the rest of the afternoon.
I saw some does approaching about 6:15, but they winded me -- thank you, Isaac. I saw nothing else that day.
I didn’t return to the stand until Monday evening due to the wind. I had to go back to Lexington the next day.
Probably the same group of does I saw on Saturday came through at 6:45. The sun had already started sinking, and I had less than an hour remaining. At 7:30, a forkhorn appeared and began browsing near my stand. After feeding for only a few minutes, the young buck smelled something and left in a hurry.
Devastated and completely convinced that my hunt was over, I sat back down in my stand to mourn the ticking clock and fading light. When I moved slowly to swat at a mosquito buzzing my ear, I realized another deer had come to within 20 yards.
It was Bulletproof, standing broadside.
While I reached for my bow and positioned myself to take the shot, the buck was oblivious. I drew when he lowered his head, floated my pin over his left shoulder, and then let the arrow fly. From seeing to shooting took maybe 30 seconds.
Upon impact, the buck jumped, wheeled and tore off into a nearby thicket.
I was a bundle of nerves when I called Dad. I could barely speak.
I found blood where Bulletproof had been standing at the shot. Thirty minutes later, I found him entangled in some vines. He’s a truly amazing animal, even larger than I had estimated from the hundreds of trail camera pictures we collected.
When I wrapped my hands around his rack for the first time, I felt blessed.