So there I was. Sitting 15' up in a tall old oak tree. The sound of sleet pelting off of the leaves around me like rain off of a rooftop. It was a cool brisk November morning as the sun began to rise and little did I know this morning would become one that I'd never forget.
The story truly starts with my life in the outdoors. From a young age I have been obsessed with the rush of hunting the elusive whitetail deer. Many years of careful management and countless hours of scouting have led me to endless success from year to year. This is one of those stories of success. With the many bucks that were on my property in 2011, there was a handfull of mature deer in the area as well as young bucks that showed promise. Any hunter would be excited to see the progress that those deer would go through in the next year or two to come. One of my target bucks for the next year was a buck I nicknamed "Splits". A few encounters with this buck at 2 1/2 years old showed me that he could grow to be something special. As the season came to a close I already couldn't wait until spring when I could put in the hours to find his sheds. That spring I did just that. Reassured that he made it through winter I was excited for the growth he was about to put on.
Needless to say, in 2012 all hunters took a blow to their whitetail heard. EHD had taken over the Midwest. Hunters had to go through the pain of finding deer after deer who had fallen victim to EHD. This is no different. Early August I decided to put my cameras out in hopes to get Splits and many other corebucks on camera. As the month came and passed only a few had shown their faces. He was not in those few. September slowly passed and as it came to an end I began to worry. After the news of EHD quickly spread, I feared the worst. I walked my property with a sinking stomach after finding five mature hit list bucks who had perished to the disease. I figured that the buck I had been hoping to see soon was one of the bucks who had experienced death in this year. As I worried, October finally brought hope.
It was the first week of October when I finally got Splits on camera. Although he finally showed up, what I saw was not promising. He looked very malnourished and unhealthy. I figured it would only be a matter of time and he as well would expire. To my surprise he began to add weight and I saw him off and on that year. The next year would pass and he began to show that he was going to become what I call now my success story. Trail camera pictures and encounters with this buck were just amazing. He continued to grow as I couldn't wait until he was a hit list buck. In 2014 he was at the age of 5 1/2 years old and I knew this was my year to make this buck my obsession.
That summer he blew up even more than what I was expecting. I was guessing this buck to score at least 170". I was running trail cameras all over the property to get as much information about his movement and feeding habits as I possibly could. Come September, I sat every day that I could. Every sit I felt was going to be my day., yet every time I seemed to be one step behind. After countless hours and days, I didn't give up and I wasn't about to. October came and went and along with the rut, this deer seemed to elude every move I made. For years I tracked this buck's movements. From bedding areas, rub lines, scrape lines, and everywhere he frequented I hunted hoping to get my one shot. My goal however was to take this trophy with my bow before neighbors had a chance to cut me short come rifle season. It seemed I never could succeed day after day, until the last day before gunshots would ring out throughout the county. On the last day I saw this buck for the first time of the year as the sun set over the corn field and broam grass slowly disappearing through the trees. With it I watch him slowly fade over the hill on the tail of a hit doe. My stomach sank and all I could do was hope that come opening morning he didn't become victim to the neighbor hunting right where he was headed. Come opening morning as I sat with all eyes open, the sun began rising with birds chirping and steam rising from the night's frost. Within the peaceful morning the calm was ended. Multiple shots rang out in the last direction I wanted to hear. A few minutes passed. I called my neighbor and all he could get out was that he missed a monster of a buck and he didn't think he hit him. With the thought in my head that with three or more shots he didn't hit this buck, I decided to walk the creek bed in hopes that I either did or didn't find blood or him. I found nothing. Days went by and the deer that I had every morning on select cameras transformed into a ghost.
A week went by and still nothing. I felt as if the deer I had been watching grow for three years had just disappeared. The night of November 18th I decided to do a card pull before I went back off to college and I couldn't have been happier with what I saw. Splits was back, but I noticed something strange. He looked as if he wasn't putting weight on one of his front legs. I knew that this must have been a gunshot wound from days earlier. As I went to bed that night, I knew what I was going to have to do. I skipped school and put my gear on. I woke before the sun rose and made my way to the tree. It was a morning that you just have that feeling. It just felt right. As I sat in that great big oak there was little movement. It was 20 degrees with nasty sleet hitting the snow covered grounds. The sun broke the skyline and I could see a few does feeding out in front of me about 100 yards or so. The steam from their bodies rose into the air. Time went by and nothing. Nothing but cold and the still timber and me with my gun. It was peaceful for sure. I decided to pick up the antlers and my grunt call and make some noise. Without time to even put them down, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked over and I knew exactly who it was. Raising my gun and looking through that scope all I could see was antlers and steam coming from his nose. It was picture perfect and so was my shot. As the smoke cleared I saw nothing. Three years and months of planning came down to seconds on November 19th, 2014. As I walked to the opening in the cedar thicket he lay not 10 yards from where he was last standing. I've shot many bucks that people consider trophies but this was my buck of a lifetime. Moral of the story is that with hunting, there are many ups and downs. Many high and lows. A trophy doesn't have to be a monster. A trophy is a trophy to you because of what that deer means to you. All the hours and strategy that you put in to play. All that you've been through. The decisions to let them pass and to let them grow. Decisions well made. Splits ended up scoring 189 6/8" net. He had made it through EHD and against all odds, he survived being shot. He was a warrior. When it comes down to that moment of truth, it's only you and your story of success.
- Cameron Milke
Bucks of Nebraska Pro Staff