There’s no place like home and home wasn’t Kansas.
Deer hunters with unfilled tags and two days left to fill them aren’t especially eager to see the great state of Kansas in their rearview mirrors. But when I realized southwest Arkansas was about to be hit by a rare southerly breeze, I couldn’t pack for home fast enough.
Not even the allure of a beefy and heavy antlered Kansas buck could keep my mind off a whitetail roaming my own ground, a deer so unique and big that I’d sworn the few people who knew about “Moose” to secrecy. And I needed that south wind!
Rob Engster, the Kansas outfitter and one of my best friends, questioned my sanity. I did, too. But we both know how important it is to play the wind, as well as how rarely hunters get a chance to take such a buck.
Moose was the largest deer I’d ever seen.
My first glimpse of him came in November 2010. A trail camera photo offered only a hint of what he was carrying on his head, but that was enough incentive for me to devote much of the season to the animal.
I hunted from many stands and put out several cameras, but I never saw that unique animal again that year. I concluded the old monarch had either died or relocated.
The following summer was the hottest on record for much of Arkansas, and the severe drought devastated crops and took a toll on the animals. Many of my friends and I suspected deer racks and body weights would be significantly affected.
I forgot all about my predictions, however, after I started running trail cameras near bedding areas.
I worked hard in 2011, convinced that relying on luck was not going to put me in range of Moose or any other great buck. I spent every waking moment trying to pattern and hunt the deer with the unusual rack.
Knowing the deer on my property usually abandon their summertime and early fall bedding areas in mid- to late October, I started out hunting the edges of those with my bow. During the muzzleloading season, I allowed the wind to dictate where I sat.
It came as no surprise when I stopped getting photographs of Moose in late October, though his whereabouts haunted me. I continued to monitor cameras until, finally, I got pictures in an area more than a mile away.
I hunted there religiously with three treestands for different wind directions. I sometimes chose to reach them by boat to avoid any chance of bumping or alerting the deer.
I remember praying the last evening before I took off for Kansas, thankful just to have the opportunity to hunt such a magnificent creature. I’d actually had 27 opportunities to that point.
On Nov. 18, my 28th outing, I thought of how the buck had never shown up in the daytime. Photographs of him always came in the darkest of night, and I began to second guess my decision to leave Kansas in the middle of the rut.
Still, the bluebird day had me hopeful, even if the long drive early that morning had made my eyelids heavy.
I pushed aside thoughts of Kansas and nighttime photographs when I noticed a deer exiting the thickest part of the jungle in front of me. The young doe trotted gingerly along the edge of the thicket. Another deer was about 20 yards behind her.
The second one was significantly larger. I first thought it was the big 8-pointer I had seen so many times, which never hesitated to come out of the thicket and into the woods where I had placed this stand.
Something was different about the deer, however. It stopped in the thick brush and refused to follow the doe into the open. While she continued getting farther from my stand, I bleated. And, to my disbelief, the doe turned and began walking back to me.
The large deer in the thicket remained motionless, and I wondered if it might be Moose, the deer that had cost me many work days and sleep.
When the doe was at 40 yards, the giant gave in and walked out of the thicket. When I saw the rack for the first time in person, I knew I was about to get the chance I’d wanted so badly.
An unusual calm came over me as I steadied my .30-06. When the buck stopped walking 70 yards from me in the thick woods, the doe broke and headed back into the brambles.
The buck then took off at a fast trot with his nose to the ground. That’s when all calmness evaporated as I instinctively knew I had to stop him. After I let out a loud “MAAAHHH,” the buck wheeled and stood slightly facing me. I saw his shoulder between two trees and squeezed the trigger, and the deer lunged forward into the thicket.
The next 12 hours were the longest and most difficult in my life.
After waiting several minutes, I got out of the stand and went to where Moose had been standing. As I looked for sign of a hit, I glanced to the right and saw the animal facing me at 60 yards. When it bolted, I became nauseous.
I went back to the camp and called my closest friends to discuss the recovery. Two hours later, Paul Clay arrived to help me look for the deer. After trailing blood for about 200 yards, I made the decision to back out and return the next morning. The bullet had obviously missed the lungs, and the color and consistency of the blood indicated a liver hit.
There was no sense in pushing the deer or my luck.
After telling all of the club members the story and showing them pictures, I went home to the longest night of my life. I called my brother, Jimmy, who is the best tracker I know, along with good friend and avid hunter Dr. Brian Bowen.
The three of us took up the trail the following morning, and Dr. Bowen confirmed the liver hit — lethal, he said, even if it wasn’t in the heart or lungs. He was more confident than I was.
After about an hour of searching on our hands and knees, I spotted the downed buck’s white belly through the trees and thanked God.
Hunter: Jay Hickey
BTR Score: 262
— Photos Courtesy of Jay Hickey
This article was published in the July 2012 edition of Rack Magazine. Subscribe today to have Rack Magazine delivered to your home.
Read Recent RACK Articles:
• Phoning Ethan: Hunter: Don Vinson | BTR Score: 196 7/8
• No Glasses Required: Hunter: Rusty Thompson | BTR Score: 206 5/8
• The One That Didn’t Get Away: Hunter: Jerrode Jones | BTR Score: 211 6/8