A Buck Named Woody
By Gene Wensel
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. My brother Barry and I have been passionately hunting deer since we were youngsters. We were blessed with a father who loved to hunt and allowed us the freedom to pursue our interests from a very early age. We had bows and arrows from childhood and, as many friends have noted, simply never put our toys away. Starting out with traditional equipment, we never got caught up in the compound bow craze that hit in the ‘70s. Like fishermen who choose to place self-imposed limitations upon themselves by using only flyrods, hand-tied flies and light tippets while practicing selectivity in what they take home, for many years now we have been using simple bows and arrows to hunt mature whitetail bucks. It is, has been, and always will be what we do and who we are.
We lived in Montana with our families for almost thirty years. In 1999, after experiencing too many severe winter-kills and frequent major die-offs from viral EHD, we decided to pull up stakes and move east. Iowa, Illinois and Kansas have great genetics, no winter kill and minimal gun hunting during the month of November. The Midwest is one big food plot. We settled in rural Iowa primarily because of whitetails.
I chose not to take a buck my first three years as a resident. Then, on a crisp November 6, 2003, I tagged a 166” 5x5 at high noon. He was simply too good of a buck to pass up.
Two months previously, on September 15, 2003, I got up early to do some scouting. Shortly after dawn, I spotted two great bucks in the back corner of a soybean field. One of them was outstanding. He sported a big droptine on his right antler and a shorter one on his left. I judged him as a 200” deer. The next morning, Barry and I positioned ourselves between the bean field and bedding area. I had our video camera. Twenty minutes after daylight, nothing yet came through. With binoculars, I could see my brother waving me up the hill. I wasn’t really quite ready to move but thought maybe he could see something I couldn’t. I took a couple steps toward Barry when the big droptine buck broke from tall weeds just in front of me. By the time my camera kicked into gear, all I got was a few seconds of running footage.
The great buck made himself scarce for the remainder of the 2003 season. I never saw him again. Barry saw him twice more, as did several friends bowhunting the same area. Barry almost had a shot at him during the late season. He slipped into a December treestand, only to discover he left his safety belt in the truck. With heavy ice on the stand, he made a quick ground blind forty yards away. An hour later, the giant buck walked right under the stand while Barry watched from just out of range.
We searched hard for his sheds the following spring but found neither side. He had vanished. Nor did he show himself during summer and early fall scouting.
The 2004 Iowa bow season opened on October 1st. On October 17th, Barry was sitting in a stand near where we first saw the buck in 2003. I was a mile away. When I met my brother after dark, I could instantly detect excitement. Before dark, the double droptine stepped out from across a CRP field. Barry took eight minutes of long range grainy video footage before low light made him shut the camera down. We reviewed the footage with several friends who knew what they were looking at. The droptines were long on both sides now and he appeared to be almost 30” wide outside. I even sent a picture via email to Gordon Whittington.
We intensified our hunt for this buck the very next day. Aerial photos were carefully studied and three new treestands were put in place. I named the buck “Woody.” And it didn’t have anything to do with woodpeckers.
We hunted Woody almost every evening from various stands with no more sightings. Our buddies Mark, David and Mike Mitten called from Illinois almost every night, saying the same few words to start every phone conversation, “Did you get him yet?”
We talked over multiple possibilities and hunting strategies. The encouragement of multiple close friends made our hunts even more relentless. This was going to be a concentrated double-team effort. Three set cameras were placed strategically. For weeks they gave no evidence of Woody’s presence. He had vanished again.
The rut started to kick in the first week of November. I was convinced Woody was cruising, checking doe groups and plotting strategies to spread his seeds in the area. With no new sightings, Barry and I started hunting several other good bucks I had seen in October in different areas.
I’ve always been able to sense close encounters on a fairly regular basis. On the evening of November 4th, I told my wife something was going to happen the next morning. The weather radio predicted perfect conditions. Sure enough, at 7am, a 163” 6x6 walked past my stand and I made good my opportunity. Again, he was simply too good of a buck to pass up. Barry tagged a 160 inch beauty a few days later. Our Iowa buck tags were filled. Since we don’t gun hunt, we now wouldn’t be able to hunt bucks with our bows until the primitive weapons season kicked in a few days before Christmas. We continued filling doe tags and monitoring our trail cameras. I developed three rolls of film on November 17th, exactly one month after we last sighted Woody. There on one roll of film were two pictures of the great buck. Both were taken on the same scrape. One was exposed at night as he walked through the scrape but the second was taken at high noon with the sun shining. Woody had his nose in the overhanging branch and he filled the frame, although the angle made it hard to see all his points. This photo was so good, it looked as if it were taken in a park or preserve, although the camera angle made his rack look smaller than it actually was. Two more stands were erected near that scrape, hoping to get more video footage.
Just before Thanksgiving, Woody showed up again. And again. Barry and I each saw him several times coming into a remote field of thin soybeans that hadn’t been harvested. But he never entered the same place twice and he always showed up just at last light. We put up two pop-up blinds and brushed them in along edges in places we saw the deer. One evening I was in one of the blinds when Barry watched Woody walk right behind me during a snowstorm. I never saw him.
Iowa’s gun season opened the first week of December. We could have legally hunted with guns. Since Iowa does not allow people to handicap themselves with bows and arrows during gun season (that law never made sense to me and needs to be changed), we elected to hunt with video cameras only. Multiple loud gun shots coming from close by caused loss of sleep and worry. Then, on the last day of the first gun season, an hour before dark, Woody entered the bean field with several other deer. He came within fifty yards while I burnt up the film. I got over forty minutes of video footage of him dominating the field, displaying great posturing threats to another good buck that fed too close. What a magnificent animal! Our intensity grew even stronger while waiting for the late bow season to open.
The week before Christmas, we were scheduled to fly to Texas to do a television show with the Mossy Oak film crew. A great trip was enjoyed by all and we each harvested good bucks on film.
The late primitive weapons season opened a few days before the holidays. Since I had previously made plans to spend Christmas in Indiana with relatives, Barry started hunting a few days before my return. Two days after Santa left, he was sitting in a stand with bow and camera when he saw movement over his left shoulder. He turned to see a young bobcat stalking a squirrel not ten yards from the tree. By the time he got the camera in gear, he missed the charge but caught on tape the bobcat killing the squirrel, then playing with its prize. I thought it was interesting that the cat killed its prey by grabbing it by the throat rather than by the back of the neck. Incidentally, this was our eleventh bobcat sighting in Iowa during the past five years. When we moved here, we were told there were no bobcats in Iowa. Right.....
I returned from Indiana on December 26th. Barry met me with news that the soybean field was all but depleted of beans by now, with very few deer sightings. The deer had moved to feed in standing corn on a neighboring property but were still apparently bedding in the cover we were hunting. To make matters more stressful, a friend called to tell us he had picked up a fresh set of big sheds a few days before. Just the season before, Barry had a huge buck walk right up to him a few days before Christmas with two big scabs on top of his head. We decided it was time to get more aggressive with Woody.
The Mitten brothers started calling every evening again. Multiple other friends would phone each evening for our report, most realizing we were running out of time but encouraging us with optimism. Several bets were laid on who was going to get the first crack at this deer. Others put the odds heavily in favor of Woody.
Our good friend Daryl Kempher phoned from Michigan. He had some time off work and wanted to come look for shed antlers. That same day, Barry’s oldest son, Jason, a teacher and coach from Milwaukee, arrived ready for active duty. Jason had drawn an Iowa tag but only got to hunt a few days in November due to his work schedule.
Daryl’s presence in the area while he looked for sheds could help or hinder the situation. If he was walking the outside property line far upwind, his human odor might drift down into the bedding areas. We got out aerial photos and showed Daryl exactly where he could search for antlers and where we didn’t want him walking.
Before dawn on December 29th, we slipped into stands already in place. The wind was from the south. Not bad. About the time Daryl should have been about a half mile or more south of us, I looked up to see Woody walking behind three does, coming right down through the woods toward me. When he was still almost a hundred yards from me, the lead doe took a sharp left and headed toward Jason. I couldn’t see my nephew from where I was but later learned that all four deer walked right up on him, Woody bringing up the rear. He offered nothing but a frontal shot from 18 yards. I have to credit my nephew. Most guys would have let an arrow go. He wisely passed up the poor frontal shot. Suddenly, the closest doe spotted Jason. All four deer broke and ran through the woods toward me. I could see Woody coming. I knew he was about to pass through a thicket behind my stand at close range. When he came by, I shot, getting a deflection that caused my arrow to fly over his back. I don’t think he even knew I shot at him. The buck continued toward Barry, ready in his stand only fifty yards from me. When the deer got broadside of Barry, I heard my brother bleat, stopping Woody in his tracks at only fifteen yards broadside. I knew what was coming. What I couldn’t see was that the buck had stopped in the only spot with brush between his chest and my brother’s bow. Barry picked a hole, but he too got a deflection. His arrow buried in a tree behind the deer. Less than a minute later, one of Woody’s girlfriends stopped in the same spot. My brother quickly sent a broadhead through her lungs. I couldn’t believe Barry took a chance on that doe but his shaft flew true and the big doe went down within 25 yards. Shooting at a doe is not something he would normally do in the heat of action with a buck the likes of Woody. Had he wounded the doe, we would have had to trail her in the direction the big buck headed. He later told me he just wanted to prove to himself he could slip one through that same spot. Barry’s last doe tag was filled. We made a wide loop, dragging her out of the woods without disturbing the north end of the property.
We let the area calm down for the remainder of the day. That night, we discussed plans for the next morning. The weatherman predicted winds from the WNW, which was perfect for what we had in mind. We assumed the deer would calm down after an entire afternoon and night undisturbed. We suspected they would again work their way south to feed in the standing corn but return to the security cover on our side of the fence before dawn. Once more, Daryl was given a route where his scent might drift toward the deer from long range.
On December 30th, Jason, Barry and I slipped into place shortly after dawn. The plan was to sit our stands until 10am, when Daryl might be toward the north end of the property over a half mile away. At that time, Barry would move to another stand a quarter mile east, I would move to where Barry was sitting and Jason would shift over to my stand. Not much happened all morning. Unbeknownst to us, Daryl saw Woody and several other deer move across a CRP field to enter a woodlot in the distance. Using the wind, Daryl circled wide so as not to disturb the deer. He then let things calm down just in case. The wind was perfect. Little did we know, Woody was in position upwind of us.
About 9:45 am, I started having second thoughts about moving. I weighed and pondered the decision in my mind. I really don’t know why, but over the years I’ve learned to pay attention to gut feelings. At 10 o’clock, Barry got down from his stand fifty yards from me and moved off. I decided to sit tight. Something told me to stay put. When Jason came into view, I waved him toward Barry’s stand and watched him climb in.
At approximately 11:15am, with Daryl somewhere over a half mile to the northwest, I saw movement to the north. Several deer were quartering downwind directly toward me. Suddenly I saw huge antlers and instantly recognized Woody. He and three other mature bucks were walking straight to me.
My stand was sandwiched between several oak trees. The tree my platform was on was a huge old oak, too big to get my safety belt around, so I had hooked my belt around a ten inch oak just off of my right knee. The deer were headed right toward me with the smaller tree between us. I was suddenly in one of those situations where I didn’t know which side of the tree I’d have to shoot from. The tree was close enough to me that it required considerable movement to switch my bow and arrow to the opposite side if I had to. The first buck was a 150” class 5x5. As he came within range, he swung to my left and gave me a perfect fifteen yard broadside position. Woody was following, second in line. Apparently too proud to follow a lesser buck, he suddenly turned to the opposite side of the tree. I had to quickly move my bow and arrow around the trunk directly in front of me. My shot would be about seven or eight yards at a steep downward angle. My platform was at 18 feet, but since it was on the side of a hill, I was probably 25 feet above the deer. I started to draw as Woody walked broadside. When I did, I suddenly noticed the lower limb of my bow was hung up in my safety belt rope! By the time I untangled it, Woody was already through my shooting lane and starting to quarter away from me. Now I had to shoot off the left side of the giant oak my stand was in. Starting my draw, I saw a knob on the side of the tree above me. My upper limb tip would hit it if I canted my bow like I normally do, so I quickly “reverse canted” the bow, shooting from a very unorthodox position. My shot was quartering away at about 13 yards. When I released, the arrow sunk to the feathers in his right hip, angling forward into the paunch. While I was worrying about my upper limb, my reverse cant caused my lower limb to hit the left side of the tree, throwing my shot off! I instantly saw blood and thought I might have cut the femoral artery. Woody was hit hard, still headed south.
Jason saw what happened and immediately went to get Barry. They went to look for Daryl far to the northwest and we eventually all met at the stand site.
The timber split into two drainages several hundred yards above us. The plan was for Barry to circle wide to the east and wait at the top of one drainage. Jason would cover the second drainage to the west. I would wait an hour, then slowly follow sign. If I hit the femoral artery, I figured the buck wouldn’t make the top of the drainages. If I didn’t, hopefully Barry or Jason would get a second crack at him. While Jason was getting into position, he discovered where Woody had already passed, headed toward a big CRP field of tall weeds. We decided to back off several more hours before taking the trail.
At 4:30pm, Woody stood from his bed in the CRP in front of us and moved east. Jason took off to keep him in sight. He watched as the weak buck walked into another patch of timber and brush. Since we were quickly running out of daylight, it was my call. I elected to back off until morning, in hopes he would bed down in the security of the new cover.
It was a long night. I took a sleeping pill at midnight but still woke up by 3am. The plan was for me to watch the most likely escape route while Barry took the blood trail. Jason would flank. Shortly after dawn, we moved into position.
Twenty minutes later, I heard my brother yell. You probably heard me holler too if you were within a hundred miles. Words cannot describe the emotion that swept over me. I’ll leave that part up to your imagination.
Many of you know I’ve been at this game for many years. I’ve been fortunate enough to tag some outstanding animals. Everything I’ve ever accomplished in the outdoors shrunk in comparison to the feeling of walking up to Woody. A flood of emotion swept over us. These were very special moments. I had said more prayers in that last 24 hours than I had in months. The fact I got to share it with family made it even better. My companions were every bit as happy as me. Woody had apparently died shortly after we last saw him. My broadhead had indeed done its job. I started phoning close friends right there at his side.
Woody’s antlers are magnificent. He has it all. 19 long points, width, mass, bladed tines, a calcified foramen on the end of the right main beam, long brow tines, good color, symmetry, no broken points, no “cheap” (short) non-typical points, four droptines and a dark forehead. Scars on his muzzle from fighting other bucks whose racks could fit inside his main beams gave him lots of character. I couldn’t have built a prettier set of antlers. And anyone has my permission to xray the rack anytime they want. With a 26 1/8” inside spread, nearly 30” outside spread and bilateral droptines, his antlers are unusually symmetrical for a non-typical. He has one of those rare sets of antlers that show off all his best characteristics from a direct frontal view. I’ve been told he is one of the biggest whitetails in history taken with a recurve bow. His body was big but not huge. In fact, the big buck I tagged in November probably outweighed him by 40 pounds. I never weighed either buck. We aged him at 5 ½ years. His teeth were sent to a lab for cementum analysis to confirm that he was in fact 5 ½ years old.
Our good friend David Mitten immediately drove over from Illinois to capture footage to add to our new DVD. The Mitten brothers, Barry and I have been working on our new DVD entitled Primal Dreams for several years now. The footage of Woody pretty much completed this part of the project. That night, David went through some of my shed antler collection and discovered a right shed from Woody we had picked up in February of 2003. He had just started to grow his droptines. We also discovered a third trail camera picture of the buck taken on a scrape in November 2002.
A pedestal mount was done by master taxidermist, Joe Meder, of Solon, Iowa.
When a person loves this sort of stuff and spends a good portion of his life pondering choices, one can’t help but respect individual deer, wonder about people as individuals and ask oneself why we are driven to do what we do. Hunting is not a sport nor a game. Yes, it was termed “sport hunting” over a century ago to differentiate it from market hunting. But hunting is not a sport. What is it then? Hunting is a basic human instinct, no different than eating, breathing, sleeping or reproducing. Every human is born with an instinct to hunt. I heard someone say if they harvested a giant nontypical they would give up hunting because they had “done it all.” I know others who have in fact given up hunting for whatever reasons. I can’t help but wonder if they ever really loved it in the first place.
I’m fairly certain I’ve now taken the biggest buck of my life. At 60 years old, I’m down past a quarter of a tank. Many people have referred to Woody as “the buck of a lifetime,” whereas in reality he is probably the buck of fifty or a hundred lifetimes. I’m not only grateful for the opportunity and outcome, but thankful for close friends who share the passion, an understanding wife and family and a twin brother who shares my love of the outdoors with me. I’m a lucky and blessed guy.
It has been very special to see my dream unfold into reality. Some dreams do come true. To know I accomplished it “my way” is just icing on the cake. You know that feeling of hunter’s remorse and sadness that sets in after the fact? It ain’t happened yet with Woody. And I don’t think it’s ever going to happen this time. I feel great! I hope each reader gets to meet their own Woody someday.
Side bar info: Live footage of Woody taken in the field can be seen on the brand new DVD entitled Primal Dreams, now available. World renowned wildlife artist Andrew Warrington of England has just completed a limited edition print featuring Woody, also currently available.