2019 Deer
Travis Smola

Reflecting on Deer Season: The Story of My Michigan Buck

My most successful seasons seem to happen when I least expect it.

I did not expect to get a deer this year.

I truly didn't. Between new responsibilities here at Wide Open Spaces and a packed schedule that included doctor's appointments and a glut of high school sporting events I had to report on for my other job, I just did not have the time to hunt.

But my most successful seasons always seem to happen when I'm not expecting it.

Here's how the hunt for my 2019 Michigan whitetail went down and it's a lesson on why you should never just throw in the towel due to a lack of time.

The buck first appears

2019 Deer

Travis Smola

I first had this big 7-point whitetail deer show up on one of my trail cameras in early September.

He stood perfectly in front of the camera for several minutes and I ended up getting a shot of every angle of his rack with one of my Wildgame Innovations trail cams. While I could see he was a nice buck, I didn't think too much of him going into the 2019 Michigan firearms season because he had only appeared on camera one other time: a month later a few days after archery deer season had begun.

2019 Deer

Travis Smola

The fact that none of my three other cams had caught him led me to believe he was a wanderer, which isn't uncommon in this part of Michigan.

My uncle and I have shot plenty of bucks we've never seen before they appeared in front of us during the season. Several times we've found out later the buck had cruised miles out of his core area looking for does. That's just how the game goes in our hunting area.

A severe lack of time

I had an extremely packed schedule for the first week of firearms season with work and a medical appointment. I decided I'd be happy if I was able to pull off an all-day sit on the opener, November 15.

For this hunt, I decided to hunt one of my new ladder stands about 100 yards off a food plot smack in the middle of a crossroads of heavy deer trails.

For clarity, I haven't hunted archery season in close to decade, simply because I've focused solely on my writing career at this time. When you make outdoor writing the primary focus of your career, your busiest time of year is in the fall. I'd like to get back into bowhunting eventually, but it's just not in the cards right now.

Nevertheless, I eagerly got my hunting gear ready about a month before the season. This was my second year using a locally-made product, the Airlocker, to store my clothing outside where it wouldn't be contaminated by inside smells. It did seem to play a part in my success on this hunt. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

I managed to get out for the entire day opening morning and the Saturday and Sunday after that. But there were no shooter buck sightings.

I went into the next week knowing hunting opportunities would be limited. My odds of filling my deer tag weren't looking good.

A chance sighting

2019 Deer

Travis Smola

For five long days, my hunting area sat idle. I didn't get the chance to go out hunting again until November 23. For that sit, I didn't do anything fancy. I simply took a folding chair out and sat on the edge of the foot plot. I ended up passing up a couple spikes and another smaller buck that evening, but the big guy never showed.

The next morning, I went back to the treestand I hunted on the opener. I try to never sit in the same spot two days in a row and this spot had a good cool down period. I had high hopes as I made my way to the stand in darkness.

However, a few hours later I was feeling more frustration. The two spikes and the other smaller buck I'd passed up the night before showed up about 100 yards out in front of me. They were even sparring a little bit.

You'd think action like that would bring in a big boy ready to fight, but once again no big boys showed up to crash the party.

The way this stand is situated, I'm facing Northwest. The food plot I'd sat in the night before is back and to my east a bit. But I don't tend to watch that field when I'm sitting there. Only because no smart buck is going to walk into that field at any time other than right before dark. Or so I thought.

At 9:45 a.m., deer movement had stopped, and I was getting cold. I stood up to stretch and start getting my stuff ready to head in.

As I looked to the edge of the food plot some 150-200 yards away, I caught movement. A deer. I brought my binoculars up and realized it was a shooter buck.

Then, to my absolute amazement, the buck hit the field edge and then proceeded to cross the open field! If I had not stood up, I never would have known he was there!

If you live in Michigan, you understand how rare it is to see a buck in the deer herd older than 1.5 make a mistake like that, especially during firearms deer hunting season!

It doesn't matter if it's public land or private land. This was a gut-wrenching moment.

The buck crossed the food plot within 20 yards of where I had been sitting the night before! I couldn't believe my bad luck.

Change of plans

I honestly had no intentions of hunting that evening. I was tired after a long work week and my afternoon plans were to watch my Chicago Bears struggle to win another game with my folks. But the sighting of the buck in the morning intrigued me and got me to reconsider my plans.

I knew from the direction the buck went where he was likely spending the afternoon. He probably headed back into the thick stuff to bed down, but if he broke daylight once today, I realized there was a chance he could do it again.

At the start of the third quarter of the game, I abandoned my team. I loaded up and said goodbye to my parents. As I left, my mom commented: "I've got a good feeling about tonight for you."

I later found out that the old saying is true: Mother knows best!

The hunt

2019 Deer

The wind was blowing northeast as I headed back to the food plot. As I've already mentioned, I hate sitting in the same spot twice in a row, but that wind meant there was only one spot on the whole field that would work based on where I thought the deer would come out.

So, I plunked my chair down in the same spot as the night before and settled in. I didn't have to wait long.

The first antlerless deer filtered into the field about 30 minutes later and started feeding. To my chagrin, one of the larger does cut across the field and walked to within about 30 yards of me.

Those old, smart ones drive me crazy and sure enough, at that distance, she quickly spotted me sitting there on the edge of the woods.

But this showdown went a little differently than most doe showdowns I've had in the past. She didn't blow or stamp her feet much at all. Normally, if I spook a deer in this field, every other animal knows about it. Not with this doe; she didn't make a fuss.

Instead, she circled into the woods downwind where I couldn't see her and then I heard her quickly leave the scene.

I was stunned. By leaving quietly, that doe had just saved my hunt. A few other does in the field did follow the older deer's lead and left, but it was in the same manner.

About 10 minutes after the doe left, a 5-point stepped out to the south of me and cut north while feeding. Sure enough, he walked right in front of me at only 10 yards.

Fortunately, these young bucks are a lot dumber than the old does. A good 20 or 30 minutes went by before he suddenly spotted me too.

To my amazement, that young buck did the EXACT same thing as the old doe earlier. He circled downwind and then left without a fuss.

I credit the Airlocker scent unit I mentioned earlier, because I think both deer did get a whiff of human scent. Apparently, it wasn't enough for them to go on full-blown red alert.

I didn't realize it at the time, but the actions of those deer saved my hunt.

Last light approaching

As the last 20 minutes of light was approaching, most of the deer had already left the field. Just one lone doe was out there feeding.

Then, with about 15 minutes of light left, I looked to the south end of the field where two does suddenly cut across in a big hurry. Right on their tail was the 5-point I had passed up earlier in the evening.

At that point I figured my evening was done. It didn't make sense that a little buck would be running does like that with a nice buck around.

Another five minutes went by and another doe stepped out in the field about 40 yards from me.

A minute later, another dark shape appeared on the field edge.

There he was. I don't know for sure it was the same buck I saw that morning, but based on the location, I believe it was.

Luck was on my side as the buck turned and started walking northwest, a path that would have him walk only 30 yards from me. I took one look at the spread, which was out to the ears, and I knew he was a shooter.

Fortunately, I had a couple big trees on my left side that blocked his view as I raised my Remington 870. He was taking his sweet time and I didn't want to spook him at such a close range, so I didn't even stop him.

I took the shot as he eased into the shooting lane I had picked out.

He did a high, stiff-legged hop and tore his way across the field. It looked like he would go down at any second.

To my disbelief, he ran straight across the field to the opening I had watched him cross earlier that morning, and kept going. I felt good about the shot and knew he was hit hard, so I alerted my uncle and folks to come meet me and help me track.

The recovery

2019 Deer

There was still a decent amount of light left after the shot. I waited about five minutes and gathered my stuff. I couldn't find the exact spot the buck was standing when I shot, but I easily found blood on the field's edge where the buck fled. Bright red blood was sprayed everywhere.

I waited roughly 35 minutes for my uncle to arrive and he brought a specialty blood trailing light. That thing lit up the heavy blood trail like a Christmas tree.

When it comes to shooting deer, I always have the worst luck on recovery. I've only had two easy recoveries in my whole hunting career. They were both does that ended with the deer dropping in a field for easy access with a tractor.

However, every buck I've ever shot has made me work for it, usually by fleeing into the thickest stuff possible.

This buck was no exception. It took a while to find him, and he wasn't easy to get to once we did.

Nonetheless, I had recovered my buck, the first for me in years of hunting in Michigan.

What I learned this year

The shot was a little further back and lower than I wanted, but I had clipped the back of the lungs. He STILL made it 150 yards into some of the thickest, nastiest cover on the property before we located him!

Upon recovery, I saw it was the exact buck I thought it was. It was the big 7-point that had only shown up on camera twice all year. He was a lot nicer than even I realized.

He had a 19-inch outside spread, 19-inch main beams and 7-inch G2s.

I rough scored him the next day with trophy tape and got 110 4/8 inches. I'm guessing he'd net around 100 on the nose.

He's not a monster buck by any means. He's not even in my top three biggest. But I'm more than happy with him.

It's worth mentioning I had a six-year buck-less drought before this deer. My freezer was empty and it was about time I filled it!

Deer Taxidermy Options

Travis Smola

All told, this year was my 20th season of big game hunting. I always try to take something away from each season that helps me in the future. So, what did I learn this year?

For one, I realized I don't have to be discouraged by a lack of time. I'm sure there are plenty of you out there reading this who have the same problem. Don't let that stop you from hunting completely, because you just never know when things are going to come together for you.

The second thing I learned was to not be afraid to take chances. Sitting in the same spot two nights in a row went totally against everything I've done in hunting strategies in the last few years. But it paid off with a nice set of antlers and a freezer full of venison.

I only bought one deer permit, so this buck meant I hit my bag limit for Michigan this year. I can only hope everyone else out there had a great deer season, or at least one filled with valuable lessons.

Good luck to those still hunting, and I look forward to seeing what deer season brings for me in the coming years!

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis Youtube channels