Two-State Whitetail Rut Hunt Adventure

Two straight weeks with nothing to do but bowhunt rutty whitetail bucks. What could be better? Well, very few things if you ask this particular bowhunter, but these were the cards I was dealt this fall, after one of my previously scheduled week-long hunts required a last-minute date swap, butting it up against another.

by Mark Melotik

HuntStand Pro Contributor MORE FROM Mark

Come along as HuntStand’s Executive Editor Mark Melotik hits the road to chase rutting whitetails in two respected big-buck meccas: Illinois and Kansas.

Two straight weeks with nothing to do but bowhunt rutty whitetail bucks. What could be better? Well, very few things if you ask this particular bowhunter, but these were the cards I was dealt this fall, after one of my previously scheduled week-long hunts required a last-minute date swap, butting it up against another. Then the conundrum. With two 10-year-olds and a newborn at home, this extended hunt would require a “thumbs-up” from my typically very understanding wife, but our recent addition (7-month-old Matty) had definitely upped the homelife responsibilities ante. Despite the extra challenges, Julie signed off. Love you, honey!

mark-ks-11Soon the Jeep was packed and I was blasting off to my first destination: Performance Outdoors in west-central Illinois. After a long day of driving I arrived to find a full camp of eager bowhunters, but luckily, plenty of elbow room in the field. This came courtesy of the 4,000-some acres of leased Performance Outdoors lands scattered across three counties: Hancock, McDonough and Schuyler. I checked my ScentCone and southern winds would prevail early in the hunt. One of my first sits was on this prime-looking clover field—a long, thin strip of tasty greenery with a nicely hidden treestand located about mid-field (it’s in the tall pin oak just right of center).

mark-ks-12Warm and windy conditions might have been keeping most of the bigger bucks from showing themselves early in the hunt, but the little guys were seemingly everywhere. One evening I watched this little spike streak across my clover field to pester a mature doe and her two yearlings beneath me, but the doe would have none of it and quickly fled the scene. Discouraged, the comical youngster trotted back toward the same corner where he’d emerged. You could almost feel the rut tension in the air.

mark-ks-10Here’s just one of the reasons I sat on the narrow clover field multiple times: This fresh, impressive rub that was located near the field’s western edge. One night after pulling an SD card from a game cam trained on a large, fresh scrape on the opposite, eastern edge of the plot, back at the lodge Field Manager/Head Guide Ron Beayon popped the card into his laptop computer and I was treated to a video of a heavy, tall 8-point vigorously working the scrape and its overhanging branch. The action had occurred the previous night at about 2 a.m.

Melotik Photo-600Despite changing stands frequently throughout my hunt, in an attempt to thwart tricky winds, it was nice to be able to enter every one of my (very remote) stand locations in my HuntStand Hunting app, even despite minimal cell coverage. Once logged in, I could see precisely which stands offered the most optimum ScentCone wind conditions; in one case I was able to make a midday stand switch, to a site where the ScentCone was wafting harmlessly away from a prime bedding area, rather than remain in the stand where my ScentCone was covering one of the stand’s main trails. If nothing else, my confidence was soaring.

mark-ks-7Our hunt had begun on a Monday morning; seemingly, by Thursday evening, a switch had been flipped. Three bucks were arrowed that day including a beautiful 8-point (pictured above) by Willi Schmidt, who arrowed the rutty buck while it chased does around a brassica/standing soybean plot. The previous evening, Schmidt had watched four separate shooter bucks ranging in size from 130 to more than 160 inches make brief appearances at the field—a very good sign that had indeed proved prophetic. Thursday also was a fateful day for this reporter, as I was able to call in and arrow a fine 8-point that had suddenly emerged from a vast expanse of CRP, soon after a young spike buck chased a hot doe from view. I was able to lure the 8-point using a combination of a Duel grunt call and Primos Can bleat. Just minutes later, after the buck ran off, I would also arrow a mature doe, and when I heard her crash about 50 yards into the CRP I was feeling pretty good about my chances of filling both of my Illinois tags. My primary concern was what appeared to be a slightly high hit on the buck. To be safe, that evening I snuck quietly out of my stand and out to my pickup point, where Beayon and I discussed the situation in depth.

mark-ks-9Waiting until morning to retrieve a deer you’re almost certain was killed the evening before is never an easy decision, but that was the tough call we had to make Thursday night on my doe. Both Beayon and I had come to the same conclusion: My questionable hit on the buck made waiting until morning to take up the trail for both deer the smartest decision. And then, Friday morning, after a sleepless Thursday night, came a true worst-case scenario: We found the doe had been eaten by coyotes, and the blood trail of the buck had petered out after a few hundred yards. A crushing reality for sure, but we weren’t ready to give up the buck’s trail, even after an intense, full-day search.

mark-ks-4On Saturday, the search for my buck took a new twist. We were able to call in the help of a skilled tracker by the name of John Engelken, known locally as “John the Dog Man.” As his moniker suggests, he was accompanied by Jessie, an 11-year-old pure-bred bloodhound. As we were soon to see, a better deer tracking machine might not exist anywhere.

mark-ks-5With John and Jessie leading the way, Ron and I trailed behind in the thick CRP where the buck had fled, but it was soon apparent that Jessie had found the scent. Hundreds of yards after we had lost the trail, Jessie was on it, a trail we would confirm with newfound, though minimal, traces of blood. Much has been written about the amazing tracking abilities of native Africans—skills I have seen in person while on a bowhunt to that exotic continent—but if you’ve never seen a bloodhound do it’s thing, well, it’s hard to find the words to do it justice. Once Jessie was “locked on” to the scent she was focused, relentless and confident. And all this, gentle readers, while on a trail that was nearly two full days old. Engelken said his dog can decipher trails up to three full days old. Unfortunately, the story did not end happily, as John and Jessie eventually tracked the deer off the property, where we did not have permission to continue searching. Better news, is that deer had made it a long way. Despite the gut-punch of leaving the trail, the buck appeared it would survive.

mark-ks-6Back at camp, Willi was caping his buck and and preparing the meat for travel; like me, he was in the process of moving on to another rut hunt. My next stop was north-central Kansas, or, more precisely, Rader Lodge. Mentally, I wasn’t yet prepared to climb into another tree, but I would have 8 hours to refocus. Helping the process was recalling the many great hunts I’ve had at Rader, which is owned and operated by good friend Jeff Rader. The avid sportsman offers deer, pheasant and duck-hunting trips, as well as guided fishing trips on nearby, sprawling Lake Wauconda. But I come for the plentiful deer, as incredible as any you’ll find across the Midwest. Another long day of driving and I would be in camp, ready to continue my rut adventure.

mark-ks-3Once in Kansas, the unusual warm temps continued, but did not seem to significantly alter deer movement, and several nice bucks were taken my first few days in camp. Still, you could see an obvious pattern to the successful hunters: most were hanging in stands near waterways, especially creeks and rivers, where the local deer seemed to concentrate. This was obviously no coincidence. Easily the best “feel good” story of the week came courtesy of longtime hunter Rudy Sylvaggio. Sylvaggio, 76, had been traveling from Las Vegas to Kansas the past 3 years to hunt with Jeff Rader in an attempt to realize one of his life goals: arrow a bruiser Kansas buck. Sylvaggio (pictured above) did just that on the third evening of his hunt, after using some of his 50 years of hard-earned hunting savvy. He had climbed into his river-bottom evening stand relatively early, but noticed the tricky winds were swirling and switching, forcing him to rethink his strategy. He got down from his stand in favor of hunkering near the base of a big cottonwood atop a steep riverbank. Sylvaggio was second-guessing his move when he spotted a large buck in the distance; a bleat call soon brought the buck running, and Sylvaggio shot it with his crossbow as it crossed the river 37 yards away, some 30 feet below him. Sylvaggio was ecstatic, and rightly so. His mission had been accomplished.

mark-ks-2This side profile of Sylvaggio’s Kansas buck shows off some of its unique character, including its forked left G2, as well as stickers and serious mass. “After the shot, the buck ran right up the bank and to the right, into a small strip of woods,” Sylvaggio said. “The shot felt good, but when I walked over there, there was no blood. That had me second-guessing the shot, but then we went only a few more yards and found him. He only made it about 40 yards.”

mark-ks-1Still another Kansas giant fell along a waterway during the week. The evening of Nov. 9, Wisconsin’s Bruce Thomaeo was sitting in his riverside stand when he heard splashing and soon glimpsed a large buck that appeared to be “bathing” in the river, but well out of bow range. For several minutes the buck simply stood mid-river, in water that reached to its neck. With several other large bucks chasing does near his stand that evening, Thomaeo soon lost sight of the large water-loving buck, but as night fell no arrows had been launched from his PSE compound. The next morning would be different.

Shortly after first light the next day, from the same stand, Thomaeo heard a vicious buck battle. From the sounds, Thomaeo figured the two battlers were mature bucks, and it wasn’t long before his theory was confirmed. Soon, a large buck was limping his way, obviously hurt, and angling right under his stand. After the shot and recovery, Thomaeo and outfitter Jeff Rader examined the buck to find it had a broken leg—complete with a three-blade cut that was the obvious work of a broadhead. The two correctly deduced the big 11-point (shown caped above) had been previously shot, and was almost assuredly the buck Thomaeo had seen soaking the wound in the river the previous evening. Not only a beautiful Kansas buck, but quite a unique backstory to boot.



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