In nearly five decades of hunting deer I’ve had the good fortune to hunt ten or more Midwestern states; but I’ve never found bigger, heavier racked whitetail bucks than those at Dakota Outfitters in eastern Ohio. Ohio deer hunting continues to top the list of trophy whitetail destinations. The buckeye state has the habitat, diversity of crops and genetics to grow monster bucks. In recognition of what deer hunting means to Ohio, in 1988 the Ohio General Assembly designated the whitetail deer the official state animal.
Jim Moses is the owner of Dakota Outfitters of Ohio. When I met Jim at the Safari Club Hunters’ Convention I was blown away by his whitetail trophies. Jim told me ten years ago he moved his hunting sanctuary from South Dakota to Ohio to take advantage of the temperate climate, abundant hardwood forest and outstanding natural food sources.
While at the SCI Convention, Jim and I made arrangements for an early September hunt in hopes of catching a big buck before he damaged his rack while sparring for dominance in the rut. Bucks in this part of Ohio start to lose their velvet by the first week of September. After three or four days of racking bushes and trees, a buck may peel the remaining velvet with his hoofs. Scientists agree this process is activated by the decrease in light as fall approaches. The buck’s eyes send a message to the pineal gland at the base of the brain to harden the soft velvet into bone. Next comes the rut, the neck swells, sexual glands become active causing the buck to punish trees and bushes while leaving his sent, letting other bucks know this is his territory and he is bad!
Dakota Outfitters is located less than two hours from three major airports: Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Cleveland and Columbus Ohio. I chose Columbus, based on price, and was promptly met by my guide, Joe Sheridan, and his son, Chase. Joe hails from the North Island of New Zealand where they have their own take on the English language; it took me some time to understand his lingo. I soon learned his most frequent statement in his New Zealand accent was “that buck ez Too Bag.”
The weather was cool and clear on our first morning hunt. We hunted a long narrow bottom of lush grass, clover and sowed beets. It was early fall; frost had not yet put its “white bite” on the forest floor. We saw twenty or more wild turkey, lots of does and four huge bucks, two of which were well within flintlock range. Joe said they would score up to 250 SCI, “Too Bag.”
The next day we had four more hunters arrive at the lodge, two from California–Albert Seeno and Albert Jr., along with Jon Clough and Dave Shelby from Benton, Kentucky. As it happens, I graduated from college just nineteen miles south of Benton at Murray State University, so we had a lot to talk about. Kentucky is where I honed my hunting skills and learned first-hand from a pro how to build Long Rifles.
The Californians wanted to pursue monster bucks, and the bigger the better. Albert Jr. hunted Dakota Outfitters the previous season and took a monster buck that scored over 400 SCI. After drying and master scoring, his buck should be the new #1 SCI buck taken with a bow. Albert senior has taken many trophies around the world and hoped to equal his son’s accomplishment here at Dakota Outfitters. The two Kentuckians were also looking for big bucks, setting their bow sights on deer in the 190 to 220 SCI range.
On the first evening hunt, Dave Shelby was fortunate to take a giant buck with his bow that scored 240 SCI–well above his expectations. After midnight the weather abruptly took a down turn, strong winds, lightning and drenching rain prevailed. At daybreak the deer were hunkered down, and we didn’t see anything moving all morning, not even a cottontail.
That evening the big bucks returned–five in all—and Joe said: “Too Bag.” On the third morning we saw a passel of does and seven bucks, two that were in the monster-plus category, two that were still too big, four too small and one shooter that should score well over 180 SCI. I ranged him at 109 yards, too far for me to shoot.
That evening we had a buck I was interested in at 65 yards, but by the time we decided he was a keeper, he had moved out to 95 yards. The evening light was fading but fair, so I decided to take the shot before he put more distance between us. When the smoke cleared, we saw the buck bound into the hardwoods, flag waving and running hard (good sign for the deer, bad for me.) Joe and I looked for blood all along his escape route. With the aid of Joe’s video camera we were able to see his exact exit trail. After much searching and finding no blood we came to the conclusion I missed, shooting high over his back.
Over the next few days, Albert Seeno and Albert Jr. had terrific luck, taking several bucks, all in the 250 to 400 SCI range. When the father and son team departed Dakota Outfitters, they were two happy hunters. On our last day of the hunt with no deer, Jon Clough and I were a little nervous; we didn’t want to go back to our respective homes in Kentucky and Arizona with a “he got away” story. The guides Joe and Dillon were also feeling the pressure since their reputation as guides was at stake.
With no luck in the morning, that evening we headed to a portable ground blind in an area they call “Buck Master” for the big bucks it has produced. Driving the 4X4 Mule to our blind, Joe spotted a heavily antlered buck bedded not more than thirty yards off the trail. He drove on a little farther so as not to spook the buck, but he became nervous and stood for a moment, not long enough for us to tell if he was too big for me to shoot. Joe first said his usual, “Too Bag.” He guessed him at 240 SCI, however, as the buck moved into better light, Joe said “he’s a keeper.”
I was more than ready to hear that. Spot and stalk presented a new challenge we hadn’t faced while hunting high in a stand. I quickly poured a little 4F powder in the pan of my lock and closed the frizzen. We crept through the timber along a dry creek bed downwind with the deer perhaps one hundred yards ahead on the opposite bank. He was moving but in no real hurry. Everything was wet from a light afternoon shower so we were able to move quietly, stopping often to be certain we were not seen.
We gradually closed the distance on the unsuspecting buck. I’ve always contended I have more luck than skill. To our surprise, the buck decided to cross the dry creek bed coming up through the trees to our side only thirty yards in front of us. I uttered a soft grunt, stopping the buck. My flintlock was already on my shoulder and the grunt muffled the sound of the hammer coming to full cock. When the sharp flint shot hot sparks into the pan, the loud “boom” was followed by a cloud of blue smoke. As the smoke cleared, the buck was not running, but had gone down where he stood. My round ball struck high in the spine and he was mine.
Guide Dillon, Dave and Jon had been riding with us, going to their respective blind. When they heard the flintlock report there was a foot race up the creek bed to see if I had made the shot. Picture taking, hand shaking and backslapping took another fifteen minutes before we loaded the buck onto the Mule. He had a big and wide rack, wider than my shoulders. His body was thick; Joe and Dillon estimated his weight at 270 pounds.
The only hunter now who had not scored was Jon Clough. Jon, Dave and Dillon continued on to their blind after taking Joe and me back to the lodge to hang my deer. About 6 p.m. Dillon texted Joe that there were lots of bucks in the field, but all were several hundred yards from the blind. Joe returned the text, cautioning them to be patient; he knew from experience the bucks should keep moving in their direction. Their blind simulates a round bale of hay and rests between two real round bales. They anxiously watched the bucks slowly moving closer over the next ninety minutes. With only fifteen minutes of daylight remaining, the buck Jon wanted to take was the last to approach within bow range. When Jon first spotted him off to the side, he was only eighteen yards away and coming closer. By the time Jon let an arrow fly, he was a mere five yards. The buck turned, ran less than one hundred yards and dropped.
What a hunt. Everyone scored on bucks bigger than they hoped for. Jon’s buck scored in the high 190s. Back at the lodge later that evening I learned my buck scored a remarkable 205 SCI. I planned all along to take a buck that scored in the high 180s. As it turned out my guide Joe was always right, my buck was “Too Bag” . . . but just right.