By Cody Altizer
One of my primary hunting goals going into this season was to harvest old, mature deer, particularly a mature buck. I was fortunate to harvest a shooter buck both in the 2010 and 2011 season, so the decision to commit myself to a mature buck was an easy one. If I didn’t tag a buck 4 years old or older, no big deal, but if I did, then it would obviously be worth an offseason of time, hard work, and effort. After all, there’s no better trophy than a buck with giant antlers hanging on your wall, right?
I knew that if I was going to harvest a mature animal this fall, be it with gun or bow, I would naturally have to invest as little time on stand as possible. I know, that sounds backwards, but when you’re hunting mature deer, less is more.
So, when I climbed a tree this past Saturday, October 13th, it felt a little weird seeing as how I had only been in a tree twice, and even more strange that I would be hunting over my favorite food plot for the first time all season. However, it was also a good feeling knowing all that was by choice.
I got into my stand at about 3:30 in the afternoon and settled in. It was an absolutely gorgeous fall afternoon, temperatures in the lower 60s, brilliant sunshine, but a little breezy. I wasn’t worried though. I knew it would settle down as the evening progressed.
The first action of the night came at 4:15 when I saw 15 turkeys enter the food plot to my South. They hung out in the edge cover hunting bugs before making their way out in the clover for a mid-afternoon snack. At first I thought about busting them out of the plot, because in my experience, deer don’t tolerate turkeys very well. Especially in a small, secluded food plot. But, I decided against it and decided I’d rather just watch them do their thing. If they kept deer from entering the plot, so be it. The turkeys didn’t stay long before they went back in the direction from which they came, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that deer could feel comfortable feeding in the food plot.
As the shadows grew longer I noticed the wind calm, and settled in anxious for what might come out. It was mid-October and this was my first hunt on this food plot. A mature deer had to come out to enjoy the clover. I just knew it. Everything was setup perfectly. I had a perfect South wind blowing right in my face; the temperatures were cool enough to get an older deer on its feet a little earlier than normal. The stage was set.
After the turkeys left I didn’t see much action for an hour or so. I just sat comfortably in my stand letting my mind wander in whatever direction it felt like. About 6:30 I heard a rustle and looked to my North to see a couple fawns sprinting through my Egyptian wheat into the food plot. There’s nothing that makes me smile more often while hunting than watching fawns chase each other around in a food plot. Bucking like broncos, sprinting in every direction in pure bliss while their mother just looks at them ashamed and with a distinct look of disapproval.
The doe group consisted of two does and two fawns. One doe was fully mature with a sagging belly (I hoped she would give me a shot), and I guessed the second to be her daughter from previous years. The button buck tried to bully his female cousin while I watched them from 60 yards away. I hoped they would make their way to my stand eventually, but knew it wasn’t likely. I was content with just watching them feeding out in the field.
I continued to watch the doe group feed out into the clover (the button buck was leading them North to South through the plot. Boy, did he think he was something) as light began to fade when I heard footsteps quickly approaching from straight behind me. I turn around and spotted a fawn on a dead sprint ready to have her turn at the clover dinner table. I then throw up my binoculars to try and find its mother. Then, lo and behold, I see one of the deer on my wish list this year. Momma. An old doe that I thought to be at least 8 or 9 years old. She was easy to identify by the white streak down her nose. Behind her was a second fawn that followed her every step. The two slowly made their way towards my stand and eventually hit a trail that would ultimately take them by my stand at 20 yards.
Momma was calm and confident walking through the timber until she got about 20 yards from the food plot. She then went on high alert. I still had the wind in my favor, but Momma had been around for a while, and she knew that food plot wasn’t going anywhere. She’d take a couple steps and look the food plot up and down. She’d take a couple more, and she’d stick her nose straight up, checking her wind. The entire time her ears stayed on a swivel covering 360 degrees to ensure she was clear of danger. It seemed like it took her an eternity to commit to the food plot and with my knees shaking uncontrollably I thought for sure she’d eventually bust me. She finally trusted the senses she’d relied on for many years and decided it was safe to entire the food plot. I drew when she walked behind a double cherry and waited for her to appear in my field of view. I let out a soft bleat and settled my pin on her heart…
I have a tremendous history with Momma. As mentioned, I figured her to be at least 8 or 9 years old. I first started seeing her in 2008 and she was a fully mature deer at the time. She was always the first deer to show up at mineral stations and during the summer of ’08 she got so confident with my presence it almost seemed she would eat out of my hand. Needless to say she got a free pass during the 2008 hunting season. The distinct white streak down her nose kept her safe as I filmed her eating acorns for 3 hours in early October that year. Later in the season she spent an entire morning literally right underneath my brother’s stand. He just didn’t have the heart to shoot her, and I didn’t blame him. I wouldn’t have been able to do it either.
We never saw her during the 2009 or 2010 season, and assumed she had been shot by another hunter. She hung close to a bedding area that borders one of our trigger happy neighbors, and we were saddened by the fact that the sloppy hunter had shot Momma. She’d always come up in discussions between my brother and I and we often asked the other, “I wonder what happened to Momma?” We found out on November 10, 2011.
My brother had agreed to film me one afternoon and we were hunting over one of our food plots, and I had just finished hanging his camera stand when he told me there were three does quickly coming down the opposite side ridge. I hurried down, and he hurried back up as I followed him, praying the deer wouldn’t see us. Magically, we got set up safely in our stands just as the deer came into view. Strapping the camera arm to the tree was out of the question at this point as the doe and her twin fawns were at 40 yards and closing. The twins got a free pass as they sprinted in the food plot chasing each other back and forth excited for an afternoon of feasting on oats and clover.
I refocused on the doe and recognized her as Momma. My first thought was, “do I shoot her?” Then I remembered how old she had to be, and how she had disappeared completely the last two years and realized she would be a great trophy.
She was at 15 yards when I drew my bow and at 7 yards when I settled the pin, there was only one problem: a small branch protected her vitals from my arrow. She stood there for close to 20 seconds completely unaware of my brother and me sitting 20 feet above her. I could have shot her in the scapula, and I know I would have gotten enough penetration that she wouldn’t make it far, but I couldn’t do it. I could have shot through the small branches and, at just 7 yards, the arrow wouldn’t deflect enough to make much of a difference, but I’m not that type of hunter. Momma deserved more than that.
After scanning the field for danger she took the final step I needed to clear her vitals, and when she did I tried to stop her. I was going for a subtle bleat, but instead a loud boisterous grunt erupted from my mouth. To this day, I don’t know how that happened. She didn’t think twice about stopping and looking up, and she bolted immediately back in the direction from which she came. I had no choice but shake my head and smile while my brother laughed at me. I guess my subconscious simply wouldn’t let me kill Momma.
I saw Momma twice during the rest of the season, but she never came within 100 yards. She’d either wind me or pick me out in the stand. The deer that was once completely unafraid of me now couldn’t stand my existence.
Now back to my 2012 hunt… I bleated, and Momma stopped immediately and threw her head up in my direction, but it was too late. I had already touched the trigger. I watched my arrow bury itself behind her shoulder and she tore off into the timber. I tried to follow her in my binoculars, but got mixed up and picked up her fawn instead. My heart sank when the deer I was following stopped and started casually walking off. I saw my arrow zip right through her. “Wait, I only hear one deer walking,” I thought to myself. I scanned the area with my binoculars and saw a white belly sticking up on the forest floor. Momma was down!
It was an incredibly humbling feeling walking up on Momma. My arrow zipped through both lungs and she had died quickly and humanely, a fitting ending for such an old deer. She was a beautiful deer with which I shared an incredible history and I’m extremely proud of her.
Anxious to hear some opinions on her exact age I emailed photos of her jawbone to Lindsay Thomas Jr. of the Quality Deer Management Association asking for opinion. He passed them on to Brian Murphy, CEO of the QDMA, and he guessed Momma to be in her early teens. I was amazed.
It just blows my mind. Momma was born when I was still playing Little League baseball. She was older than the kids my mom teaches at elementary school and, if you cut her age in half, she’s still an old deer. I’m very fortunate, and very thankful to have harvested such a special deer and a true, true trophy. Because, after all, who says bucks have to be the only trophies on a hunter’s wall?
– Cody Altizer