The Unicorn Buck (An Iowa Whitetail Adventure)
By Dreabon Joiner
IA, Whitetail Deer
This was different than any other hunting trip we had ever gone on. As so often happens when making applications for tags in several states or booking hunts in advance, sometimes there are conflicts. My wife and I are retired and in our upper 60s, but we still love to hunt. We still have desires to hunt species that we have not taken previously and travel to places we have not been. As such, we had booked a trip two years in advance to the Northwest Territories for sheep and moose. Then, as fate would have it, after applying for four years, we both drew Iowa archery deer tags.
Our Northwest Territories hunt was everything we had dreamed it would be, but that is another article. The point for mentioning it here is that the hunt took place in October, and here we were holding two primo archery tags. To be perfectly honest, I would have loved to hire an outfitter where she and I could just show up and hunt with all the advance preparation done for us. Truth of the matter was that we had badly “bent” our budget on the NWT hunt, and on our retirement income, we just could not afford two outfitted hunts that close together. However, I did mention that we are retired and as such have more time than money.
I have hunted whitetail all my life. I took my first archery buck at age 14 with a recurve and cedar arrow. A whitetail is a whitetail whether he lives in Iowa or Texas where I grew up chasing them. All we really needed was a place to hunt. Having a close friend who has hunted Iowa on more than one occasion, I gave him a call and he was gracious enough to give me a couple names and phone numbers of farmers who had allowed him to hunt in the past.
Attempting to optimize our hunt with regard to the impending rut and moon phase, knowing that we would have to do our own scouting and hanging of stands, Halloween day found us headed north with a trailer loaded with our Kubota side-by-side, four brand new lean-up ladder stands, and two pop-up blinds. New moon fell on the 7th of November, and desiring to hunt on a waxing moon leading into the rut, the plan was to allow ourselves a few days to be set up and ready.
We had made arrangements to rent a camp trailer, and the first day was pretty much burned getting our new abode established in the driveway of a vacant rent house owned by the landowner whose property we had trespass rights to. He then gave us a driving tour of the properties of which he owned or had leased. It is unknown how much property was available to us, but it was obvious that it was more than enough acreage for two bowhunters.
onXmaps and Google Earth were a huge help in pre-scouting. With the ability to look at aerial views of the tillable grounds, the drainages, timbered areas, and topography, we already knew or at least had a good idea of the areas we wanted to ground-check upon arrival. One thing we had no way of anticipating was the amount of corn still standing in the fields. The late summer/early fall rains had been such that the farmers had no way to harvest their corn. They were going to have to wait for the ground to freeze so that they could get the harvester into the fields. The downside to standing corn is that it is a huge sanctuary for the deer, providing cover and food. They slip out at night to drink then go right back into hiding during the daylight hours.
With scouting, assembling and setting stands, and doing the necessary trimming, we didn’t really settle into a hunting schedule for about four days. A couple afternoons, we just sat in the truck from high vantage points and glassed just to get a feel for how the deer moved and used the various travel corridors. To this point, the weather had been beautiful, just nice fall weather, cool in the mornings and mild in the afternoons. The first couple hunting days were really pleasant with numerous deer sightings but nothing that we were interested in shooting. The smaller bucks were cruising, responding to grunts and rattling. We saw deer almost every sit. One particular afternoon, I saw 26 deer and called in 7 different bucks. But where was the Iowa giant that you hear about?
Then Mother Nature slammed us with gusts of wind that shook and buffeted the camper in the middle of the night. I was not sure that I wanted to go out and sit in a treestand with 45 mph gusts of wind and subfreezing temps, so I was a bit slow getting around. When I opened the camper door to let our little dogs out to do their business, the wind hit the door with enough force it almost blow me off the steps. To my disbelief, I looked in the field across the road and there was a 160 class buck breeding a doe in sight of the camper. Overnight, it busted loose.
The stand Pam was hunting was a triple-trunk tree with the lean-up against the center tree, which provided excellent cover. It also, unfortunately, created a blind spot on either side. She had just completed a grunt series minutes before when the buck we came after stepped out at 25 yards. He had come to the sound of her grunt and had stopped perfectly quartering away, looking for the sound. His approach had been exactly behind the trunk of the tree to her left. This with her hood up blocking the frigid north wind allowed him to get too close before being detected. As Pam reached for her bow, the deer heard her parka swish and she saw him flinch at the sound. She froze until the buck relaxed. By the time she retrieved her bow, the buck turned his rear to her and slowly walked away. So close but so far away.
Those who hunted the upper Midwest in the fall of 2018 can attest that it was brutal. There were days on end that it didn’t get above freezing. One particular day, it was -3 degrees with 45 mph winds all day. The weather forecasters said that we were experiencing the second coldest November in recorded history. We did not have adequate clothing to sit all day as we had planned, and Pam was pretty much done.
Finally, on the 11th of November, the winds subsided a bit and the temps moderated all the way up to a balmy mid-20s. Pam decided to sleep in and suggested that I go sit her stand to see if the big buck might show again since he was not spooked in the least. Not long after I got on the stand, a coyote crossed the cut-over bean field to my north. Soon after, a small 8-point buck crossed and checked a scrape on the edge of the field. I had been in the stand about half an hour. It was still before sunup, so I did a rattle sequence. Waiting about 20 minutes, I rattled the horns again. The sound really carried well in the cold morning air. I looked over my shoulder to the left, and coming out of the CRP adjacent to the bean field was a set of yellow antlers. There was no doubt in my mind that this was the buck that had given my wife the slip a few days earlier. When the buck dropped off into the small creek that flowed just behind the stand, there was opportunity to stand and be ready for the shot as he entered the field.
The buck stopped broadside at 42 yards as he searched for the sound of the fighting bucks. I wish I could replay the shot sequence to know exactly what happened to my shot. I’m totally confident in my ability to shoot 40 yards, so whether it was adrenaline or just what, I don’t know, but my heart sank when I saw the arrow hit much too far back. I felt certain that as the buck simply turned and walked away that he had walked out of my life forever. I watched him for several minutes at 80 yards as he stood looking back, but there was no way to send another arrow through the brush. He then walked around a bend in the creek and disappeared.
I spent a gut wrenching hour waiting and praying to God for a miracle while I beat myself up for botching the opportunity. When I got to the place he was standing, there was a big glob of hair and then a few spatters of blood. When I got to the creek, there was a considerable amount of blood on the frozen surface. It was a relief to see the amount of blood he was losing, but there was still that nagging fear that the deer might be lost. Upon getting to the spot where he stood for so long, my confidence swelled a bit as there was a lot of blood. I found him just around the bend of the creek just out of sight of my stand. He traveled maybe 100 yards from where he was shot.
As I admired my buck, almost overcome by emotion and relief, I saw emerging from the center of his antlers a third point. A unicorn! The buck unofficially scored 169 3/8" and is by far the heaviest bodied whitetail I have ever killed.