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by Kim Ralston a.k.a. KRal Last updated: 2014-03-02 12:52:16
As I stood there watching a 180” Illinois giant tending a doe in the hardwood thicket, my nerves were beginning to unravel! It didn’t make the situation any better, that there were two other big bucks trying to move in on his doe: a 150” ten-point that had walked right under me; and a 150” eight-point with very massive antlers. Both of these huge bucks had been in easy bow range and I would have shot either one at any other time, but I was looking at a GIANT only 30-80 yards away! The show was one I’ll never forget; three mature bucks trying to tend one doe and all were magnificent animals.
I’ve come to regret the decision I made that cold Illinois morning. I passed on two of the biggest bucks I’ve ever had the opportunity to kill, while hoping for a shot at the giant 180”er. The whole time this show was taking place, I was wishing I had my Freedom Arms 454 M83 in my hand. The issue was, it was bow season and that’s what I had in my hand. This scenario has happen more times than I care to think about right now. Although, I’ve killed some very nice bucks in Illinois over the last few years (one being a 145” P&Y eight point) and I’ve seen giants many times, but couldn’t make it happen with the “string music”.
I had never even put in for gun tags, but drew every year I applied for bow. Well, since my real passion is handgun hunting, I decided to put in for a gun tag in the summer of 2012. As luck would have it, I drew an either sex and a doe tag! Now my wish was going to come true; I’m going to be sitting in a tree in Illinois with a handgun in my hand.
I spent the summer preparing for my hunt; working on loads, choosing weapons, practicing, etc… Not that I don’t do that every summer, but all I could think about was that giant 180”er from the previous fall. I chose four revolvers to take along on the trip; Freedom Arms (FA) M83 in 454 Casull, FA M353 Casull in 357 magnum, FA M97 in 45 Colt and a custom 475 Linebaugh by Gary Reeder. The 454 Casull was topped with a 2x8 VX II Leupold and shooting a 260 grain Nosler Partition over a max charge of H110. The 357 magnum was topped with a 4X M8 Leupold and shooting a 180 grain Nosler Partition over a “John Taffin’s” load of H110. Both M83’s sported a 7.5” barrel. The little M97 in 45 Colt was sporting a JPoint red-dot sight, 5.5” tube and shooting a 250 grain Hornady XTP over 20.5 grains of 2400. The 475 Linebaugh was topped with a 2x8 Nikon, 7.5” barrel with a muzzle brake and shooting a 385 grain WFNGC by Montana Bullet Works over a max charge of H110. The 454 and 475 had both been blooded, but the M353 and M97 were virgins, so they would definitely get some stand time. The 454 Casull was to be the primary weapon for the start of the hunt; just because. If and after killing a buck (hopefully that 180”er), I was going to rotate the others; the 475 being on the back burner. Illinois allows handguns during their firearm season; revolvers and specialty pistols with straight walled cartridges or bottleneck cartridges of .30 caliber and up with cases no longer than 1.4”.
My friend, Bob; which I do my annual hunt with, was keeping me posted on buck sightings and trail camera pictures from the property we hunted. Late summer and early fall was a little depressing, due to no sightings or pictures of the giant buck. Hopefully he wasn’t poached, for this area of Illinois is well known for poaching problems. Bob was seeing nice bucks and getting a lot of nice bucks on camera, but no really big bucks. I was a little disheartened, but still optimistic. I was sure of bringing home a 160” class or better buck, because I’d seen them the past six years; why would this year be any different?
Well, the long anticipated time had come! November 15 and I’m headed 6 hours north for the first firearms season of the 2012-13 season in Illinois. The trip was welcomed with beautiful weather and the anticipation of the next morning’s hunt was exhilarating! Once I arrived at Bob’s house, he had the latest trail camera pictures downloaded to his computer and had ready for me to view. After a good supper, we started discussing the next morning’s hunt and the bucks he had pictures of. For whatever reason, the big bucks weren’t moving or just wasn’t around. There were a few respectable buck on camera and I had a good feeling about one in particular. He was a narrow spread, tall-tined nine-point that had showed himself many times on the camera in an area I was very familiar with. I told Bob that if I seen him, I would drop the hammer on him. Although, much bigger bucks roamed the area, this one wasn’t afraid to show himself and all I could think of, was the two huge bucks I had passed on the year before (bird in hand is better than two in the bush; or should I say “buck”). I, by no means, consider myself a “trophy hunter”, but there’s something about a 180” class buck that will make you do abnormal things and make bad decisions.
Opening morning, I found myself in a familiar tree before daylight. I was in a narrow funnel area that joined two larger sections of hardwoods and bordered by a cut corn field and grown up grass field. The light north-west wind was perfect for hunting this spot and it was blowing just hard enough to push my steamy breath past me; a perfect morning! As the sun starter breaking dawn, deer started to pass within view. The morning brought several does and nine different bucks through the area. I was adamant about passing on all does until I got a buck and not just any buck, but the tall-tined nine or one of the three from the previous year.
As noon approached, I got a text from Bob saying he had to go into town to pick up some Rx medicine and was going to eat lunch while there. He asked if I was coming out for lunch or staying in the tree? I told him that I had plenty snacks to get me by till supper or till I killed something. Bob said he’d be back in his stand by 3:00 p.m. I knew if there were any hunters in the woods on the adjoining properties, they would probably leave for lunch and may push a good deer through my area. I’ve had good luck in the past by hunting in the middle of the day, when other hunters are leaving the woods.
At 2:00 p.m. I pulled out a bottle of water, a pack of Nabs, and a can of Vienna sausage to hold me over till supper. Just as I got started eating, I seen a flash in the sunlight about 100 yards in front of me. I got all my stuff situated and grabbed my binoculars. The flash I seen was antlers, flickering in the sunlight and it was the tall-tined nine-point that was on my hit list! He had his nose to the ground and was just cruising through; looking for does. He was on the same trail that many of the other deer had traveled that morning. I got adjusted; slipped on my Walker’s Quad Muffs, slid down in my seat, crossed my left leg over my right knee and rested the Freedom Arms on my welding glove laying across my leg; for a steady rest. Once he got within 50 yards, I tried grunting to stop him for a shot, but he had his mine elsewhere and kept moving with a purpose. Since grunting wasn’t working, I started whistling at him. Over and over, I whistled and finally he heard me and stopped at 60 yards, broad sided, but with a fallen tree covering his body length-wise and covering all vitals. He quickly lost interest and started cruising again. He was making his way into some thicker stuff and I knew it was now or never! I shouted, “Hey….hey…..HEY!”…and he finally stopped, but behind a blown out tree top. I cranked the 2x8 Leupold from 4x to 6x and pick out a small opening through the limbs that looked to lead a path to the lungs. At 80 yards away, I calmed my breathing and started putting constant pressure on the trigger…BOOM! The 454 bucked and so did he! I knew the shot felt good and quickly grabbed my binoculars, but before I could get them to my eyes, I could see blood gushing from his nose and mouth as he ran his last sprint. He ran to the grown-up grass field and piled up. Shewww….that happened quickly! I didn’t really have time to get nervous.
After texting Bob “BBD” I finished my Vienna’s and crackers, then climbed down to go see my biggest handgunned buck to date. After taking some field photos, I tagged him and went to get the four-wheeler to load him up and call it a day. Now I can’t wait to get back in there the next morning to fill a doe tag; if the wind is right.
The next morning I woke up, got ready and pulled up the weather on my phone to check the predicted winds for the day; North-west again….I know where I’m going. Before daylight, I was in the same tree as the previous day, but this time with a different hammer. I left the FA 454 back in the truck, since it had done its good deed and was now giving the M353 Casull an opportunity. Not long after legal shooting light, I had a nice eight-point walk right under my stand. Then about 20 minutes later a couple small does and four point came through. Both does would’ve been an easy shot, but I was holding out for one of the bigger does I’d seen the day before.
At around 10:00 a.m., a group of six does came down the same trail as the buck from the previous day. While pulling out my 357 magnum, I scanned the group to pick out the biggest of the six does. I wanted to test the 180 grain Nosler Partition on a big candidate and settled the crosshairs on the front shoulder of the biggest doe. I settled into my shooting position with my hearing protection donned. When she stopped, she was smelling the blood from the deer I killed the day before. At 85 yards, I started the slow and steady squeezing process till the M353 barked. The shot broke both front shoulders and the doe dropped straight down and then scooted on her chest approximately 30 yards before expiring. The M353 was now broken in appropriately!
After field photos, tagging and deer retrieval, Bob and I headed into town to eat lunch and get me another doe tag. In Illinois, after you’ve filled you doe tag and called to check it in, you can purchase an additional tag for $25; if any are still available for that county. Well, being I had another Freedom Arms that need christening and a $25 bill in my pocket; it was no questioning what I was going to do.
The next morning was no different than the two previous mornings, so back to the same tree I went. Why not?…. I was seeing plenty deer activity and the wind was out of the North-west again; seemed like the logical thing to do. Again, I was in my stand and settled in before day light. This time my strategy was a bit different. Since I was driving back home that afternoon, I was going to take the first doe that give me a shot; hopefully I was getting a shot. This morning, my little M97 was riding in a Freedom Arms cross-draw holster; maybe it’ll get its turn. Just at first light, I could hear something coming and donned my muffs. I got my M97 skin’t and scanned for movement. I could tell by the way it was walking, it was probably a buck. Sure enough, I could hear him grunting; it was one of the nice eight-points I had seen before. He walked past at 10 yards; just ’a grunting.
At around 9:00 a.m., I heard a gunshot approximately 200 yards to the north. Soon after, I heard a deer running my way. I donned my hearing protection and got the M97 ready. I saw that a young doe was headed straight in my direction. I cocked the M97 and whistled at the doe. She stopped at 20 yards, broad-sided and wide open. The red dot found home behind the front shoulder and before I could think about what was going on, I had squeezed the trigger without hesitation. She jumped straight up and did a high mule kick! We all know what that means! I could see the big hole in her side as she ran into the thicker portion of the woods, then I heard the CRASH! I started climbing down to go find my doe. She made it about 100 yards in a “Dead Run”. The shot was perfect, but I guess her adrenalin was flowing pretty well from being spooked before I shot her. I followed a blood trail a blind man could follow, right to my doe. The 45 Colt Freedom Arms had now been christened. I got my field photos, tagged her and prepared for the drive home.
Although I didn’t kill or even see the 160+” buck I was hoping for. I did have one of the most exciting Illinois hunts I’ve experienced. I got to use three fine revolvers to take three deer; one being my biggest with a handgun (134”). Can’t wait to go back and employ more Freedoms in The Land of Lincoln.
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