By: Tom Claycomb
The last article I wrote was a press release on the upcoming 2019 Minnesota Governor’s Deer Opener. It covered the format and all the upcoming festivities surrounding the event. This year, I had a few trials and tribulations making it to the event. Even up until getting on the plane that morning I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make it or not. Boy, am I glad that I did.
I arrived at the banquet Thursday night in time to change clothes before the banquet began. Event coordinator Bri Stacklie introduced me to my guide, Cliff and Phyllis Knutson, and their guests Bob and Pam Johnson, with whom I sat.
There were a lot of guest speakers, and it was an informative fun event. The governor gave a speech and said the hunt Saturday would be special for him because he was going to be hunting with his great-grandfather-in-law’s 1903 Springfield. It was the actual rifle he had used in WWI. What could be cooler than that?
The next morning kicked off at 5:30 with a flurry of radio interviews and a mid-morning brunch. Cliff told me he’d pick me up after the brunch and then he, Bob, and I would go scout his farms and get the lay of the land.
First, we scouted his home farm. Minnesota is called the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and the county we hunted in boasted that they had 1,000. It looked like a fishing/duck hunting haven.
Due to the wet weather, the corn was still standing in the fields until the day before I got there. But now the combines were fired up. There were a lot of cornfields around Cliff’s home place that could have hurt our hunting. But, like I say, they had started cutting.
Below his house was a brushy marsh and corn to the east and south. Cliff said this is where I would hunt opening morning. Bob would hunt southeast of me over the hill in some brush overlooking a marshy pond and corn fields.
If we didn’t do any good Saturday morning, that afternoon we’d go hunt on his land up north. After scouting the home place, we ran up north to scout. Wow, it looked great. It was solid timber and butted up against a big national forest. This looked like primo whitetail country.
After scouting, we got home after dark, and the girls had a huge supper ready for us. We ate like kings and put the finishing touches on our hunting plans. I took off for the motel, threw all my gear together for the morning hunt, and hit the sack.
The next morning we met well before daylight. Bob drove to his blind, and Cliff and I jumped on the four-wheeler. Going in, we bumped two deer off the edge of the marsh. We got to the blind, and I quietly slipped in while Cliff took off.
It was cool but not unbearably cold. I had on some of the new XGO base layers, Irish Setter Vapr Trek LS boots, and Browning socks. I was fine. Now to set quietly and wait for daylight.
I waited 15-20 minutes, and even though it was still pitch dark, with my Riton Optics binoculars, I was able to see well enough to pick up any moving deer. After an eternity and much straining, the sun’s rays peeked over the hilltop promising a new day.
I scanned the marsh and the nearby brush and trees to no avail. They had cut the cornfield to the east and had worked nearly all night on the cornfield past the marsh to the south and southwest. I was sure that the two deer that we had bumped would appear, but they never did. I thought they were large deer, but Cliff, who had a better view, later told me they were small.
Nine o’clock came and went and not hide nor hair of deer had yet been seen. I passed a few minutes watching a black squirrel romp around. Shortly after daylight I decided if I had a shot, it would probably be a close one, since my blind had brush on three sides and a marsh on the other. I turned my Riton Optics 4-16x scope down to 4x.
I’ve hit the Minnesota Governor’s Deer Opener the last two years and had only seen one yearling doe each hunt. This was starting off bad. I turned around, scanning out the windows of the blind, and out of nowhere, a huge buck went bounding straight away from me. He had the largest rack I had ever seen on a whitetail – long tines and thick beams. He couldn’t have been 20 yards away.
He was headed toward the edge of the forest, which went out into the cornfield to the east. I threw up my rifle, and after a few seconds, a doe bounded out into the cornfield. Then another doe and then a third. Where was the big buck?
Suddenly I saw him running across the cornfield 50 yards south of them. I put the crosshairs on him and felt comfortable taking a shot at him right as he crested the hill. I think I could have hit him, but, of course, you can’t take a skyline shot because you never know where the bullet would fly.
Did I spook him? Or had he been running the does and I just happened to turn and see the tail end of the action?
Agghhh, he was the buck of a lifetime. I set there wishing he hadn’t of spooked, wishing I had of seen him two seconds sooner. Wishing he had run across the field right behind the does. But wishing or not, all of that hadn’t happened.
In 30 minutes, I saw a deer coming back from the way the first group had run. I threw up my binoculars. It was a forkhorn. Cliff had suggested that if we saw a buck, we’d better shoot, because he hadn’t been seeing much in the way of bucks. But after seeing the monster buck, I couldn’t bring myself to shoot this one. I watched for a few minutes, and he got to the edge of the field, stopped, and then crossed over into the neighbor’s woods.
Then a big flock of turkeys came across the cornfield on the top of the hill. Bob later told me they had passed him, and there were 17.
About 30 minutes later I turned around, and there was the monster buck coming through the woods not 15 yards from where I had first seen him. I assumed he had crossed the cornfield out of view from the direction that he had run. Who knows?
I just saw him for a split second coming through the trees, but had seen enough of his huge dark rack to know it was him. I never did get a full view of him, only glimpses. He stopped behind three trees. I could see about 10 inches of his rear-end protruding. I threw up my rifle, waiting for him to step out.
After two or three minutes, the tip of his nose stuck out. Then it went back behind the tree. After a minute, some tines stuck out past the maple tree. Then they faded back. Five minutes slowly ticked by. My rifle was getting heavy, despite the fact that I had it leaned against the side of the blind. If only he’d step out. But what if he wheeled around and ran back behind him? I had to be ready to shoot either way in the blink of an eye.
Or what if suddenly he bolted forward? He was in full rut, depicted by his swollen neck that was as large as the mid-section on a 75-pound deer. I was on pins and needles waiting. How long could I hold my rifle steady? Should I try to lean back and see if I could get a shot from another angle? No, why risk it? If I so much as bumped the window, he’d be gone. He wasn’t over 27 yards away now, and everyone knows how sensitive a big whitetail buck is.
I had to be ready. Every time I’ve shot a moving deer, I always hit further back than I meant to. But if you lead them too much, and they stop, you miss. Finally, after an eternity, he stepped out, moving at a normal walk. Wow! what a magnificent buck. I put the crosshair on his shoulder and squeezed the trigger as I moved the rifle along with him.
At the sound of the rifle I thought I saw him drop down somewhat lower as he bolted, but still, he blasted off like a rocket. Oh no, I couldn’t have missed him that close! But then, I didn’t sight in my rifle at 25 yards, either. I waited five minutes and then crawled out of the blind. I went over to the spot that I had shot and found a few drops of blood. I started a slow track.
I later figured out that I was 10 feet east of where he had run. I walked slowly ahead and saw a rack. I ducked over into the brush, and there was an unbelievable blood trail. I walked up to him, checked to make sure he was dead, and then broke out the camera to take a few pics and just sat there and thanked God for such an awesome buck. I called Cliff and told him he might want to come out. Bob showed up, and we gave high-fives and burned up the film. He weighed in at 220 pounds.
Bob ended up shooting a nice, healthy six-pointer that night. We were some happy campers. What a great hunt! Cliff and Phyllis, I can’t thank you enough for your kindness and hospitality.
Tom Claycomb III is a product tester for outdoor manufacturers, hunter, and outdoor writer, writing from Idaho.