The headlights from the Polaris Ranger created a tunnel of light just ahead of us as we bounced along a narrow fire road. Oaks, hickories and patches of cedar rolled by and drifted back into the evening darkness on our drive from scouting turkey roosting sites.
Joe Hollingshad was at the wheel. He’s the owner of Devil’s Backbone Outfitters (DBO) and was serving as our host for a fall turkey camp organized by Ray Eye. Next to him on the front bench of the vehicle was my buddy and fellow outdoor media guy Bill Cooper.
Over the din of the Ranger’s engine and crunching chert rock, we chatted with Joe and got to know more about his outfitting business. They did lots of spring turkey and firearms deer hunts, but had little bowhunting business on their 1,700 acres of prime managed Ozark property. Most bowhunters think of Iowa, Illinois and northern Missouri when it comes to big bucks, not the Ozarks (which is fine by me).
“What I need is to get a guy down here that knows how to bow hunt and have him kill a good deer on camera.”
I began thinking about what a great experience that would be for someone when Bill responded.
“Heck, Tim’s killed three does already this season and I been runnin’ a camera for years. We’d come down and do that for ya.”
“Really? You guys’d be innerested in that?” We’ll get that setup real soon then.”
Seriously? Did that just happen? It sounded like another version of a frequent and standard outdoor media threat, ‘We should go hunting/fishing together sometime.’ Those sentiments rarely manifest themselves.
We finished out fall turkey camp with Joe’s son Chance (an accomplished turkey guide) and I killing a fall gobbler on the very last day. Before we left, Joe and Chance reiterated their invitation to come back down to bowhunt a whitetail, preferably before gun season. Maybe they were serious about making this happen.
It became clear that the Hollingshads mean what they say because two weeks later on Wednesday, November 2, Bill and I were rolling back into the driveway of the cabin we’d grown to love during fall turkey camp. The Osborn Family Cabin is a two story rough hewn oak cabin perched just above Spring Creek. Its rustic charm on the inside is only rivaled by the raw beauty of the woods and stream just beyond the front porch. It also didn’t hurt that the crystal blue waters of Spring Creek were teeming with broad shouldered rainbow trout. This cabin is used as just one of the lodging options for hunters at DBO.
Joe stopped by to welcome us back that evening and talk about our plans for the hunt. A warm dry spell had put a damper on daytime rutting activity so we discussed setting up over water or a line of scrapes. As is the case when it’s just guys hanging around at camp, the conversation meandered here and there until Joe brought it back around by offering me his own brand of encouragement.
“Okay Tim, you better not miss. It won’t be good if you miss a deer.”
Of course he was joking. Half joking.
And we all half laughed, mostly because the three of us were serious about making this happen. Joe needed compelling footage telling the story of quality bowhunting at DBO. Bill needed solid bowhunting footage and material for an upcoming article. I needed to kill a trophy buck on camera. We were all deeply invested in the mission and the pressure was real.
After a little last minute scouting on Thursday, our first hunt was an evening sit on a ridge with a set of fresh scrapes. Turkeys, squirrels, and raccoons were all around us and a few does passed by down the ridge on a trail in the hollow. No shots, just nature-based entertainment.
Bill and I returned under a starry predawn sky Friday morning and climbed back up into the tree we shared, each in our own climbing stands. Just as daylight began to burn the morning fog away, a four pointer walked towards the trail to check a scrape. A few hours later, a group of does came through but never offered a shot. Before the morning was over, we’d also watch a flock of turkeys foraging just out of range. As the noon hour passed, Bill’s and my stomach started a growling match with each other. His won. We climbed down and headed back to the cabin for lunch.
Since a buck was our primary mission and we didn’t see any shooters back on the ridge, we opted for a new set for the evening sit. Joe took us to an open ridge studded by mature oaks with little understory. It all looked promising, but as a bowhunter, I couldn’t discern just where to setup. There was mast all over. It would have made a great rifle set, but I wasn’t feeling completely confident about it with the bow.
Joe could tell I was conflicted.
“I’d like to find a spot that’s a little tighter, possibly with a trail.”
“Well, I got one spot back up the road, but it’s thick. I’m not even sure there’d be a tree big enough to get your stand up into.”
We backtracked in the Ranger and stopped near a field at the top of a ridge where twisted oaks rattled dry leaves in the fall breeze. Just below the oaks and further down the south facing slope cedars grew thick and green. Bill and I found two oaks about 15 yards apart, climbed them and quickly cleared out a few obstructing branches. It was thick in there with precious few shooting lanes, but it felt familiar as it resembled many of my favorite stand locations back home.
An hour hadn’t passed before the sound of crunching leaves preceded a doe skirting by at 30 yards. Even that close in, with all the branches in the way I didn’t have a clear shot…nor would I have taken it. We were waiting for a buck.
At 5:30 movement near the top of the ridge caught our attention. Multiple deer silhouettes milled on the treeline contrasted by the field. Something was chasing them. One bolted down the hill catching Bill and I off guard as he tried to capture the deer in frame for the camera. Soon another doe was bumped downhill but this time I could see the deer doing the pursuing; a big bodied deer with thick bases. My heart rate began ramping up. This was the very reason we came.
Gradually the buck zig zagged his way down the hill casually following the does that ended up circling our trees, making movement near impossible. As he moved closer I could tell his rack was not only thick, but wide and tall, causing my heart rate to reach a speed I didn’t know possible. They were deep, chest thundering pumps that I had to breathe around.
I consciously avoided counting points on his rack. He was clearly a shooter, there was no sense in adding any more pressure to the situation. My mouth was dry. I thought about Bill in the tree next to me. Was he getting all this? We couldn’t communicate at this point. We were handcuffed by snooping does and this massive Ozark buck that had altered his path directly toward my tree.
A flash of the years I’d spent waiting in a stand crossed my mind. The practice, the equipment, the early mornings and late nights. All the hard work and sacrifice were converging in front of me now at 18 yards. My racing mind was losing focus. I sobered it by thinking about my dead dog and the specter of a Hillary Clinton presidency. It worked. I began thinking only about shot sequence and placement.
The buck was now at 12 yards and nosing through the oak leaves for acorns, but still attentive to the does he’d pushed our way. He was still facing directly towards me though. I drew in the hopes he’d turn and give me a look at his vitals, but he didn’t look like he was going to pivot. In fact, it looked more like he was ready to bolt after the does. In that thick cover, had he moved on, there would have been no way to get another shot.
One of the does shuffled along back behind us, causing the buck to turn ever so slightly to his right. His left front leg raised as his body readied to dart forward after her. I hovered my 20 yard pin just above and behind the shoulder blade and began executing the shot. The bow went off and instantly the white and orange fletchings buried into the brown hair right where the pin had pointed.
In a frantic blur he bucked and tore off down the slope through the cedars. I watched in disbelief as the trophy buck that was once only an imposing profile on the ridge, ran mortally wounded into cover then crashed shortly thereafter. Watch it all unfold in the video below.
Bill and I took our time getting out of the stand. I wanted to play it conservatively and not do anything that would cause that deer to get up again. We climbed down at dark, got the truck and started communicating with Joe about coming to help with the recovery. Chance was in town at an H/O scale model railroad club meeting (I assume), but said he’d come right out to help. We told them it was a big deer, but in the haze of adrenaline, neither Bill nor I knew just how big.
I also wasn’t sure there would be an immediate blood trail. The arrow looked as though it lodged in the buck’s chest cavity, so I doubted there was a lower exit wound. Having four guys would make a body recovery job that much easier.
We scoured the oaks for blood without finding any and began searching into the cedars. Only minutes passed and above the crunching leaves from our boots Chance’s voice carried through the trees and scanning flaslight beams.
“Hey Tim, I got something for you.”
Deer hunters know that animal is not yours until you lay hands on it. There are too many things that can happen between the shot and the recovery that can (and do) go wrong. I pushed through the cedars to find Joe and Chance standing over my buck and grinning ear to ear.
The rest of the evening was a blur. Hero shots, phone calls, an impromptu dinner and near kitchen fire at the Hollingshad residence, caping and field dressing and all the while retelling bits of the story as they struck us. Bill and I returned to our cabin after 2:00 am delirious but happy.
Morning broke chilly and gray as I fired up Bill’s truck to drive out of the valley and onto the ridge to get signal enough to call into Ray’s radio show. He’d seen all the social media commotion the night before about the buck and asked if I’d come on the show to talk about it. I was running on four hours of sleep, but had a great time checking in regardless. You can listen to the segment here.
While I had signal, I uploaded pictures to social media and began making calls to friends and family. The last and hardest call was to my wife. Maybe it was the exhaustion from the night before mingling with the beauty of the sun peeking over the fog draped Ozark mountains, but while telling her about the size of the buck, I began to cry. I had been hunting my entire life, but had begun seriously bowhunting nine years ago. She supported me through the early years of little success but lots of time away in the woods. She agreed to major purchases before my hunting actually contributed to our family’s income. She listened with compassion to some of the heartbreaking close calls. The reality was, she was just as much a factor in killing this deer as I was. This was her deer too.
Bill was already awake and had breakfast ready by the time I returned to the cabin. Before I sat down to eat, I noticed he was looking a little glassy eyed.
“Hey Tim, come here. I got something I want to give you. You know, this was such an incredible hunt and I’m glad I got to share it with you. I want to give you something to remember this hunt.”
In his outstretched hand he produced the fixed blade Buck hunting knife given him by Chuck Buck in the early 2000s. It was a beautiful knife that had served in the field and had significance to Bill…and now me. It’s a treasure I intend to pass along someday too.
We reconnected with Joe and Chance to finish processing the deer, swap media files, get some conversations recorded and say our farewells. The mission was a success. People are quickly learning about the trophy bowhunting Joe and Chance have created at DBO. Bill has enough material for a year’s worth of media and I successfully killed a monster buck on camera. It could not have been a better hunt…
…except that on our drive home, Bill added the cherry on top.
“You know Tim, I’ve got some credit built up at Scenic Rivers Taxidermy from work I’ve done. They’re top notch and don’t cut any corners. If it’s alright, I’d like to take care of the taxidermy for you.”
I didn’t know what to say. Bill had been so great to work with and did such a fine job on camera, and now this. “Thank you” didn’t seem sufficient, but it was one of the most heartfelt ones I’d ever given.
We stopped off at Scenic Rivers where owner Brandon Barton wrote up the order and scored the deer for us…all 19 points. He green scored at 162.5 inches, my biggest deer to date. People are stunned to hear that I shot a 100% wild deer that big in southern Missouri. It’s really no surprise when you know the amount of planning and effort Joe and Chance have put into their ground at DBO. The land is supporting what the deer’s genetics want to do; and that is to grow thick and wide antlers with character you won’t find anywhere else. Hear directly from Chance how they’ve made trophy deer hunting in the Ozarks a reality in our conversation below.
The story of this 19 point Ozark buck isn’t over. The buzz it’s generated is still filtering through the outdoor world. Me? I’m just satisfied to have done my part of the mission with people I respect in a place I love.