A Dream Fulfilled - American's foremost whitetail expert pursues a magnificent buck
By Larry Weishuhn
The rain slowed from a downpour and then, thankfully, stopped falling altogether. I shifted ever so slightly from under the brushy juniper that provided limited shelter from the rain for guide Barry Hendrix, cameraman Blake Barnett and me. By squirming to my left I could get a better view of a deer trail leading through the dense underbrush. Off in the distance a blue jay squawked his displeasure while only a few feet away a squirrel scampered across rain-soaked leaves. Then all grew quiet, except the splatting of an occasional raindrop on a limb above us.
We’d arrived in central Missouri only a couple hours earlier after a long drive from western Colorado where I’d taken a 32 ½-inch Rocky Mountain mule deer. Sleep-deprived, I struggled to maintain my concentration while gazing at a drop of water on an oak leaf cradled in the bough of a juniper.
Our gray, sodden surroundings were momentarily brightened by a flash of lightning, followed by a sharp, close crack of thunder.
“OK, time to leave!” I heard Barry proclaim before the thunderclap faded.
Neither Blake nor I needed any further encouragement. Soon the three of us were back at the vehicle and on our way to Oak Creek Ranch lodge, where we knew steaming hot coffee awaited. About halfway back the rain began falling as if poured from a bucket and we grew concerned that the creek might be too high to cross.
Suddenly, we spotted movement in the narrow woodland road just ahead. From the front seat I heard Blake gasp, “Oh my God!”
I strained to see what had grabbed his attention and caught just a fleeting glimpse of a monstrous buck. His body huge and his tines looked like baseball bats, both the length and girth. And there, on each side of his main beams, were no doubt the buck would gross, score more than 200 points.
For moments no one uttered a single word, though all three of us were giving each other questioning looks. Had we really seen what we thought?
I was the first to speak. “I know which buck I want to hunt for!”
“He’s definitely as big as he looks,” Barry said, “I saw him four days ago…first time I’d seen him. He was making a scrape close to where we were set up. I think he beds on the ridge just above that. Which is why we set up where we did.”
Before I could reply, Barry continued. “Let’s do this. It’s raining too hard for your camera, right?”
“Let’s go back to the lodge, get some dry clothes and a bite to eat, then head back to where we were. I have a good feeling about that area.”
I have been fortunate to hunt some really outstanding deer country, having worked for many years as a wildlife biologist and researcher specializing in whitetails. And if there is one thing I have learned it is to trust your guide when hunting country that’s unfamiliar to you.
This was my second hunt at Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch. Barry had also guided me on my first trip the year before. Back then, I was immediately impressed with his knowledge of big whitetails and his passion for hunting them. I had truly enjoyed his company.
During my 2008 hunt at Oak Creek, I had seen more big whitetails – bucks scoring close to or more than 200 inches – than I’d ever seen anywhere on the continent, and that included the legendary Brush Country of South Texas. And even through Oak Creek is high-fenced and intensively managed for the biggest whitetails in North America, the property is large enough to sustain top-quality habitat for the animals’ year-round.
There was nothing “easy” about my first hunt at the ranch. Big whitetails, such as those found at Oak Creek, are the same as anywhere else. They are extremely elusive, crafty and difficult to find and take.
I fell in love with Oak Creek, not only because of its huge-antlered bucks, but because of its challenging hunts, its diverse terrain and its spacious, beautifully appointed lodge. Owner Donald Hill and his entire family are involved in the operation, and the chef and guides are unsurpassed. Hunting at Oak Creek was like coming home, only better!
I passed up some unbelievable bucks on that hunt. I rattled in several monster whitetails, then finally set my sights on a buck that we pursued for four days before I finally got a shot and enough footage to showcase the hunt on my Winchester World of Whitetail television show on Versus. If you happened to catch the show, you’ll know that near the end of the hunt I shot a 200-plus typical 12-point with my T/C Encore .308 Win pistol. It was my biggest deer ever, at least at the time. I dreamed of returning to Oak Creek, which came about sooner than I thought it would.
After a quick visit with Donald and questions about the “magic beans” he’d planted in several large food plots, we headed back to the woods.
That afternoon, in a hastily set-up GhostBlind (ground blind), we saw some extremely good bucks, including a monster that bedded down not far from us. Unfortunately, it was not the one I had set my sights on that morning.
We moved the GhostBlind to a spot just downwind from a trail meandering toward a food plot deep in the woods.
“The mature bucks tend to hand back from the plot where they can check does headed to the forage,” Barry explained. “Young bucks and does feed primarily in the plot itself. But I’ll be frank with you. We’re into a fabulous acorn year, and when we have this sort of bumper crop, the deer do not use our food plots like they normally do.”
We did not have long to wait before the first does and fawns came by. We were hidden behind the GhostBlind, which perfectly reflected the leaves and underbrush in front of us, so the deer had no idea we were there.
After the does walked past, a buck scoring about 150 or so sauntered by. “Two-year-old,” mouthed Barry. I nodded.
As the afternoon progressed, numerous bucks glided through the woods, among them a three-year-old typical 12-point that would have easily scored in the 170s. On any other property I would have taken that buck, but at Oak Creek, he was safe. Donald and his staff try their best not to shoot bucks until they are at least four years of age and have reached full maturity.
That night I had the opportunity to review some photos of trophy bucks taken at Oak Creek, though from what I’d seen that day, it was hard to believe the ranch had even been hunted before I arrived. One photo in particular caught my attention. It was a Sporting Classics Publisher Chuck Wechsler with the biggest whitetail he’d ever killed. Others were of smiling hunters who’d taken their bucks of a lifetime.
The next day we awoke to the sound of rain falling on the lodge’s roof. As we readied for the morning hunt, the rain slowed.
“Let’s go before it starts again,” Barry suggested. “We’ll head back to the same ridge, but this time we’ll still-hunt. The wet leaves will allow us to move quietly, and the way the wind is blowing out of the southeast, we’ll be walking into it.”
Less than a mile from the lodge we came to the rain-swollen creek, which was now impassable. Reluctantly we turned around and returned to the lodge.
After finishing my coffee, I grabbed my T/C Icon, a box of .300 Win. Mag. Winchester ammo and headed to the range next to the lodge to fine-tune the rifle, if necessary. Two shots touched dead-on at 100 yards. I cased the rifle and headed back to the lodge through the falling rain.
After lunch and reviewing Blake’s footage from our Colorado mule deer hunt, I was beginning to wonder if we’d be able to get into the hunting area due to the flooding. Just then Barry walking in and said, “Gather up the gear. I just checked the creek and we can get across. Same plan as this morning.”
A short time later we parked our vehicle and walked to the northwest corner of the ridge. The wind was blowing out of the southeast at about 10 to 15 miles-per-hour. Perfect. As we started up the ridge, all three of us stopped at the same time when we spotted what appeared to be two antler tines protruding above a small incline. Using hand signals, Barry indicated he would crawl forward to see if he could get a better look.
When Barry returned a few minutes later he was wearing a huge smile. “It’s our buck,” he whispered. “He’s bedded and has no idea we’re here. Let’s move up quietly and slowly. If he looks our way, stop and DO NOT move!”
We slipped to within about 35 yards where I could just make out the deer’s rack and head. I set up my shooting sticks and leveled the rifle at the buck, or at least what I could see of him. Behind me Blake set his camera ever so quietly onto his tripod, and then tapped my shoulder.
When I turned to face him he mouthed, “Can only see his rack and head.” Then he mouthed again, “Don’t shoot until he stands up.”
I nodded back, then settled into as comfortable a kneeling position as possible, knowing the wait might take mere seconds – or forever.
Where the buck was bedded, if he spooked he would be gone before I could get off a shot. We needed him to stand on his own rather than induce him to stand.
I studied the buck’s huge antlers. His brow tines were long and massive, his primary tines long and thick. His double drops were equally massive. If I was fortunate enough to take him, the buck would be my highest scoring, widest and most massive whitetail ever.
I waited and waited. My knees ached, my shoulders hurt and my heart raved. My back muscles were screaming for relief, for me to get up and move around.
Still I waited. Mountains rose from flat prairies and crumbled. Great civilizations were created and fell.
I glanced back at Barry and Blake; both just shrugged their shoulders. The rain resumed, yet the buck remained in his bed.
I was seriously contemplating whether to stand so I might get at a shot at his body. But then I thought the better of it. Surely he would rise from his bed soon. Meanwhile, the rain grew more intense.
I was about to shout, ”Get up!” when the buck rose from his bed. At his first movement I had pushed off the safety. By the time he’d risen to his full height, I tugged the trigger then immediately bolted in a second round and shot just as the buck started to run. Then he was gone.
I reloaded and looked back at Blake. “Got it,” was all he needed to say.
I looked at Barry, who said, “Let’s go get him.”
We found him less than 40 yards from his bed. The closer I got to him the bigger he seemed to grow. At his side I said a prayer of thanks, and then reached down for his antlers. His body was huge – at least 300 pounds – and his rack was truly spectacular. One drop-tine measured seven inches and the other five drops were all at least one inch and longer. His greatest outside spread was four inches longer than the Icon’s 26-inch barrel.
I was ecstatic. At my side was the biggest whitetail buck I had taken in over 50 years of hunting. We took a few quick photos before darkness set in: there would be more time for pictures the next morning. Now there were some “TV things” that needed to be taken care of before taking him to camp.
Later that night we celebrated our successful hunt and made plans for my return the following season…and the year after that and the year after that. I’ve finally found my ”Whitetail Hunter’s Heaven,” and I’ll hunt at Oak Creek as long as I’m able.
Headin’ to the Hills
Donald Hill’s Missouri ranch is producing a stunning array of record-breaking bucks
By Chuck Wechsler
Only 11,000 years ago, barely the blink of an eye in geologic time, Ice Age hunters fed and clothed themselves by killing mammoths, woolly rhinos, wild horses, and other herbivores on the vast grasslands of Eurasia. Among their favorite prey was an elk-like creature that stood eight feet at the shoulder and weighed upwards of 1,200 pounds. Now referred to as the Irish Deer, the animal carried an immense set of antlers measuring fully 12 feet wide and weighing more than a hundred pounds.
Ice-Age men hunted the big deer not only for meat, but for their antlers, which they fashioned into knives and spear points, awls, needles and even fish hooks. Ironically, the Irish Deer’s massive antlers were probably its undoing. The animals were unable to run into the forest to escape predators, because their racks were simply too wide to pass through the trees.
Over the ages, hunters have never lost their fascination with big antlers. Indeed, they’re even more treasured and sough-after today, no longer for utilitarian reasons, but rather for their ornate beauty and sheer majesty.
Catering to our obsession with trophy whitetails are hundreds of deer operations scattered throughout the U.S. and Canada. And one of the very best is Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch.
Owner Donald Hill can give you 22 magnificent reasons why more and more sportsmen are heading to his family-operated ranch in south-central Missouri.
“We harvested twenty-two deer last fall that would rank in the top twenty of SCI,” said Hill. “Though final certification is still pending, we placed four typical bucks in the top five of all time, and the biggest, which scored 226, is the pending new number one in SCI’s record book. “The 22 bucks, incidentally, scored between 200 and an incredible 327 total inches!”
Donald Hill grew up in central Arkansas where he killed his first whitetail at age 10. Though passionate about deer hunting from the start, it wasn’t until his 20s that he became obsessed with big antlers. “I found myself letting deer walk so they could grow larger racks. My friends thought I was crazy. You didn’t do that on public ground, especially where I was hunting.
“Nowdays, if I can help a deer reach its full potential and take someone else to harvest it, I am just as happy as if I pulled the trigger myself.”
Donald and his wife, Angi, were running a rental houseboat company when he set out to acquire his own whitetail property. “I looked at ranches for sale in every state and even a few that were not for sale, including Oak Creek,” Donald recalled.
“When I first visited here, I fell in love with the place, because it was the best out there, hands down. It had a beautiful 6,000-square-foot lodge and everything I needed to grow big deer – the habitat, great whitetail genetics, and the facilities and equipment to make it all happen – and right away. Fortunately, the owner agreed to accept my offer.”
Donald and Angi hosted their first hunters on September 14, 2004, the day before closing on the property. Since then the Hills have produced an astonishing number of trophy whitetails.
Last year, for example, I was among some 60 hunters who killed their best-ever whitetails at Oak Creek. My buck, which had 23 measurable tines, gross-scored 194 7/8 inches.
So how can an 1,800-acre ranch produce such a stunning array of top-quality bucks? The answer, Hill explained, lies primarily in selective breeding and intensive management, both of the deer herd and its habitat.
“Whitetail management techniques vary for every piece of land, no matter if it’s halfway across the country or a hundred yards down the road,” Hill told me. “Obviously, you also have to keep your deer fat and healthy. We also go through about seven tons of feed every other week in sanctuary areas strategically placed throughout the preserve. That way, our deer do not have to travel far to get a variety of high-quality, stress-free foods.”
Over the past six years Oak Creek’s innovative program of selective breeding has paid unsurpassed dividends. One of their earliest breeder bucks was a 190-inch 8-pointer that sired about 20 bucks; all scored at least 200 inches.
“What’s surprising is that breeder buck only had eight points, yet nearly all of his progeny had many more points,” Donald said. “And two of them exceeded 250 inches.”
Oak Creek’s selective breeding has proven so successful that in 2009 Hill and his guides counted at least ten, 2 ½-year-old deer that topped 200 inches, some in the 230 range! Most of the racks were typical, characterized by wide, heavy main beams and long tines.
Augmenting Oak Creek’s breeding program is a carefully controlled system of culling. Any buck that fails to grow at least 140 inches of antler by age three is removed from the preserve. And beginning this fall, Hill and his guides may drop the age limit to two-year-olds.
“Another factor consistent to each and every whitetail property is the number of does it carries,” he pointed out. “Our philosophy is that you can never shoot enough of them.”
Obviously, intensive management techniques like these could not be accomplished without the 13-mile-long high fence that encompasses the ranch.
“I was a strong critic of high-fence hunting when I was younger,” Hill said. “Then I was invited to a fenced ranch in East Texas where I learned more about whitetails in three days than I’d learned over my entire hunting career.
“Now, after spending 365 days a year with our deer, I find myself more amazed than ever by their behavior. For example, most people don’t realize how social and vocal deer are. Their body language and vocalizations will tell you everything going on in their lives, from being sick to the presence of a dominant buck close by. They talk…we just don’t know how to listen.”
Most of Oak Creek’s fawns are born within the preserve, but a small number of selectively bred fawns are released onto the ranch, where for the next few years they learn how to both avoid and evade hunters. “More importantly, these animals go on to breed and improve our herd’s genetics,” said Hill.
On my late-November hunt I was amazed at the beauty of Oak Creek’s rolling countryside. Rather than appearing over-browsed, an eyesore that plagues many high-fenced operations, the ranch’s ancient oaks provided a lofty canopy over brushy hardwood hollows and winding creek-bottoms.
“Our goal at Oak Creek is to make sure every guest has a hunt of a lifetime,” said Donald. “My family and my staff try to cater to every need, with great meals and camaraderie so that everyone has a life-altering experience.”
Providing each and every hunter with his best-ever buck is not only a possibility, but regular fare at Oak Creek thanks to its large herd of magnificent whitetails. And if Donald Hill and his staff continue to refine their already innovative breeding and management efforts, it may not be long before we find whitetails the size of Irish Deer grazing in the fields of south-central Missouri.
IF YOU WANT TO GO
Reprinted with permission from Larry Weishuhn