No Man’s Land

A GI­ANT BUCK, A BOTCHED SHOT, AND A TINY MID­WEST TOWN WHERE THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF DEER HUNT­ING STILL EN­DURE

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - BY ALEX ROBIN­SON

In this small Kansas town, the ob­ses­sion over gi­ant bucks hasn’t tar­nished the good old days of deer hunt­ing.

The buck we were wait­ing for showed up just be­fore last shoot­ing light. He ma­te­ri­al­ized out of head­high John­son grass just 50 yards away from the blind. I slid off the safety on my cross­bow and tracked the buck as he an­gled to­ward us and into the open, then stopped broad­side. I floated the 40yard dot just at the top of the buck’s vi­tals and squeezed. There was the thwap of the cross­bow string, a hol­low thud of the ar­row hit­ting home, and then the fad­ing rus­tle of the buck run­ning off through the grass. My buddy Matt Arkins, who was in the blind with me film­ing, clapped me on the back, and we had a quiet mo­ment of cel­e­bra­tion. The shot felt good, but we watched the footage just to be sure. In Arkins’ viewfinder, we could see the ar­row hit tight be­hind the buck’s shoul­der, maybe just a tad high. I called the landowner, Brett Cour­son, to re­lay the news: “We got the 18-pointer.”

FOUR DAYS EAR­LIER

I had pulled into Cour­son’s farm town of about 1,000 peo­ple with the ther­mome­ter on my truck dash­board read­ing 98 de­grees—a scorcher of a Septem­ber evening, even for south­ern Kansas. I met up with Cour­son and his wife, Heidi, at a lively lit­tle bar on the edge of town, and we drank Long Is­land iced teas (it was that night’s spe­cial, so what the hell) and talked about the up­com­ing hunt.

Arkins and I had been down ear­lier in the sum­mer to set trail cam­eras, hang stands, and brush in ground blinds with Cour­son (who Arkins had met pre­vi­ously on a video shoot). So for the last two months, he had been send­ing us up­dates and pho­tos of shooter bucks slink­ing by our set­ups.

The most no­table deer was the buck Arkins called the “18pointer.” Re­ally, the buck was a main-frame 13-point with a bunch of kick­ers, but nei­ther Cour­son nor I chal­lenged Arkins’ ov­er­en­thu­si­asm. This was a 170-class deer and worth get­ting ex­cited about.

As I drained an­other drink, I no­ticed that Cour­son—who is the fa­ther of two young, adorable kids—had a pic­ture of the 18-pointer as the screen saver on his phone. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one with that deer on my mind. He could have eas­ily picked up a muz­zleloader or cross­bow and hunted the buck him­self, but in­stead he was let­ting Arkins and me take a crack at him. Cour­son is not an out­fit­ter (in fact, he’s a coop as­sis­tant man­ager).

I asked him why he didn’t lease his prop­er­ties to an out­fit­ter or out-of-state hunters to turn a profit on his bounty of big deer. The an­swer: He knew he had a good thing go­ing and didn’t want to ruin it.

Cour­son and his bud­dies like to hunt (they’re al­most all ri­fle hunters), and they like to shoot big deer. But some­how in this lit­tle pocket of Kansas, an ob­ses­sion with gi­ant antlers hasn’t spoiled the most en­joy­able parts of hunt­ing. So they sit their stands when the wind isn’t per­fect, take out kids, show off trail-cam pho­tos, hunt doves, and pass up lease dol­lars to let their friends and fam­ily hunt.

There’s a skin­ning shed in town that’s a tes­ta­ment to the crew’s hunt­ing phi­los­o­phy. If you hap­pen to kill a deer—whether it’s a Booner or a doe—you haul it to the shed and bring a cooler full of cheap beer with you. With a few text mes­sages, the hunters in town show up to cut meat and hear the story of the hunt. The shed’s back wall is full of 130- and 140-class racks (too small for these guys to shoul­der-mount). Arkins and I ogled the antlers and asked who owned the big­gest sets, but the guys couldn’t re­call who had killed which buck.

Bad Blood

The blood trail turned from splotches of bright red into

oc­ca­sional drips and then dis­ap­peared com­pletely. It was dark now, and our search party—which con­sisted of me, Arkins, Cour­son, and the neigh­bor­ing landowner, John Schup­bach—spread out, cast­ing our head­lamp beams over grass and plum thick­ets.

Even as the blood ran out, I ex­pected to find the buck dead, nes­tled un­der one of the thick­ets. A flash of white hair, a gleam of antler, high­fives and back­slaps, a quick gut­ting job, and then back to the deer shed. “This is the big­gest buck I’ve ever killed,” I would tell the guys.

But we didn’t find the buck within 100 yards of the last blood drop, so we backed out to take up the search again in the morn­ing. Arkins and I watched the footage of the shot a few more times back at our ho­tel room. Then I stared at the ceil­ing un­til sun­rise.

If you are track­ing a well­hit deer, day­light an­swers all your ques­tions. The puzzle that seemed im­pos­si­ble in the dark be­comes ob­vi­ous within the first min­utes of dawn. But if you are track­ing a poorly hit deer, day­light brings only more ques­tions. Why isn’t there more blood? Was the shot worse than I thought?

Soon we were on hands and knees, look­ing for flecks of red among the grass, sand, and brier. Schup­bach and Cour­son had to get to their jobs, so Arkins and I set off and made big cir­cles, check­ing the thick­est cover. By noon, the tem­per­a­ture was in the high 80s.

While we were crawl­ing down deer trails, Cour­son called his buddy (the town mayor) who pilots a small plane out of a grass run­way. When the mayor heard our story, he of­fered to take us up to search by air. So we flew loops like a gi­ant mo­tor­ized vul­ture, hop­ing to find a brown de­pres­sion or spot of white in the bean fields be­low. Af­ter two hours of cir­cles, we gave up and put the plane back in the hangar.

A Shot in the Dark

But still, I be­lieved. My last hope was Scott Beavin and his young blood­hound, Fudge.

I had found Beavin on the United Blood Track­ers web­site (unit­ed­blood­track­ers.org) and told him about the buck. The track­ers on the site vol­un­teer to find lost deer for noth­ing more than the chal­leng­ing dog work, the sat­is­fac­tion of help­ing other hunters, and some cov­er­age of their gas money, so they want as many de­tails as pos­si­ble.

Beavin made the drive up from Ok­la­homa to meet us at 9 p.m. that night, and right away the jowly, good-na­tured Fudge got to work. He plod­ded his way through the grass, and I held my breath when he charged against his lead and pulled Beavin at a trot into heav­ier cover. Fudge had his nose down, and he was work­ing back and forth like an ex­cited bird dog. I was cer­tain he would dig out the buck in some pocket of cover we had over­looked.

But 200 yards later, Fudge got turned around. Beavin worked him in ev­ery di­rec­tion, but we could both tell he was off the track.

Un­will­ing to give up, Fudge, Beavin, and I picked through dead­falls and wil­lows. I searched the thorni­est patches—partly look­ing for the buck, and partly hop­ing to pay my penance. By 1 a.m. we had done noth­ing but bump dozens of deer off Schup­bach’s land. The buck, Beavin de­clared, must still be alive.

The next morn­ing, with my hunt over, I pulled into the town’s only gas sta­tion, and the girl at the counter asked, “Did you guys find your deer?” Word trav­els fast here. I told her no, we did not.

“Well, there’s plenty more of them,” she said. “I al­most hit three on the way in this morn­ing. You’ll get an­other one.”

I smiled and said thanks. And meant it more than she knew.

End of the Trail

That De­cem­ber I got a text from Cour­son—“the 18”—with a photo of a kid hold­ing the rack of a gi­ant buck in the town’s skin­ning shed. I zoomed in, and sure enough, it was the 18-pointer, though his G2 and G3 were busted off on the left side. But the kid in the photo, who turned out to be John Schup­bach’s 15-year-old son, Tyler, didn’t seem to mind at all.

Schup­bach had put on a one-man deer drive for his son, try­ing to force some ac­tion. It was a cool, quiet evening, and Schup­bach made a push through the river­bot­tom while Tyler sat with his back to a cot­ton­wood tree on a well-worn deer trail. Push­ing a prime bed­ding area (the “sanc­tu­ary”) would be taboo for most pri­vate-land tro­phy-white­tail hunters, but these guys don’t worry too much about bump­ing deer. Be­fore long, a few does and a young buck bounded down the trail past Tyler.

Then a heavy-racked buck ap­peared out of the bot­tom, 30 yards away, fac­ing straight on. With­out hes­i­tat­ing, Tyler raised his ri­fle and shot, hit­ting the buck square in the chest. He fired twice more as the buck crashed through the tim­ber. This time there was no track­ing job. Tyler walked up to the 18-pointer and ran his hands over all those tines and kick­ers.

At the shed, they skinned the buck and found a scar be­hind its shoul­der blade. My ar­row had passed through, hit­ting too high to pen­e­trate the lungs and too low to strike the spine. The buck had shrugged off the in­jury to fight his way through the rut.

Af­ter the crew had taken care of the meat, Tyler posed for a few pic­tures with the rack and cape. It was the young hunter’s 15th deer, and the big­gest buck he’s ever killed.

From top: A trail-cam­era shot of the 18-pointer in mid­sum­mer vel­vet; butcher­ing a deer in the town’s skin­ning shed.

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