Each summer whitetail hunters across the United States eagerly wait for the very first trail camera photos of their hunting grounds. There is great anticipation, excitement and in some cases fear for what those photos may reveal. In fact, many of us place the potential success of our seasons on what trail cameras show us. Whether it is a new property or one that we have hunted for decades, it will set the stage for a new journey.
In my case, the card pulls never meant much over the years. The reality is that up until about ten years ago I was just not hunting areas that held many large bucks. You just can’t harvest big bucks if you aren’t hunting areas that hold big bucks. It was a mix of blessings, hunger to find better properties and taking massive action to learn as much as possible that has made the difference since then. My good friend and co-founder of Rooted Outdoors, Dave Ashworth, has been a huge part of my recent success. Together we share a unique bond that drives us to be better, learn from our mistakes and always push one another to serve the Lord as he calls us to do.
Three years ago Dave and I were given the opportunity to hunt a new farm in Central Pennsylvania. I grew up hunting mostly public land in PA with a few small pockets of private but nothing consistent from year to year. This new property happened to be 200 acres of some of the best deer habitat you can imagine. Crops, timber, rolling hills, nasty thick areas and a water source. It has everything a whitetail needs to thrive. At the time, Dave was dating the owner’s daughter who is now his Father In Law. We are extremely blessed to be able to hunt this amazing place and each time I am there I am overwhelmed with gratitude.
Like any new property, we needed to learn the terrain, travel routes, behavior, and what external pressures might exist. That first camera card pull that I was speaking about earlier was just as I explained. The anticipation was high, but to be honest, there weren’t many expectations.
Trail cameras only provide a very small snapshot of the overall picture. Low and behold, we had a very nice mature buck on that first card pull. However, we only had a few more bucks on camera that year and not much success from the stand. For us it was more of an observation and year to gather intel anyway. Year two would prove different in so many ways.
Very early in the summer of 2017 we pulled photos of a giant deer that came to be known as Hercules. This was not just a big buck, this was a potential giant. We watched him grow through the summer and turn into not only a giant but a buck of a lifetime. He became our obsession, having over 20 photos and videos of him. This was a buck that would be a giant not only in PA but anywhere. He was showing up so much towards the end of summer, we thought our chances where best to harvest him over food very early in the season. If he would only stick to his patterns and the beans would hold their own until October 1st. We put a plan together for that first weekend but as many hunts unfold, it was a disaster. Deer were bumped on the way in and the tree we anticipated on hanging a set in just didn’t work. After ending up in another set we got busted due to a swing in the wind direction. The night was just not what we planned and to rub salt in the wound, we pulled a camera card the next day only to find a big ten pointer heading our way only 30 minutes before dark.
We regrouped and hunted hard all year, made mistakes but learned so much. No sightings of Hercules and only one or two photos the rest of the season. Rifle season came and went with no photos and we questioned whether he was alive or maybe on another farm. In late December we captured one photo of him to prove he made it through the season. Dave and I knew it was a long shot, but finding his sheds would be the next step in the journey.
God is so good and we unbelievably found his matching set in the spring of 2018. It’s truly an amazing experience to hold a set of antlers from a deer of that caliber. Dave is keeping them safe and I wouldn’t doubt if they are on his night stand. As I write this article, we have yet to see any sign of him through this summer. We are hopeful that he will show sooner than later but also understand that he is a wild animal and there are too many scenarios to imagine.
Sometimes we get caught up in the moment and forget that it’s God’s plan, not ours. I can very clearly remember a conversation that I had with Dave during the grind last season. Dave was hunting alone for a few days while I caught up on a few work items. It was a brutal few days filled with cold temps, rain and long hours in the stand. I remember Dave telling me that even though it was a grind, that time brought him closer to the Lord and reminded him of what is important. You see, some would call Hercules a trophy. I started to think about that word trophy as it relates to sports and other competitions.
We have been taught through our culture and society that the next step after winning a trophy is to seek a larger, better trophy. The chase for trophies never ends or truly satisfies us. Even if Dave has a chance to harvest Hercules, the satisfaction will not last forever. In fact, it will be much shorter than most would expect. The urge to find a larger deer will set back in, and while the memories of Hercules will be ingrained in our minds, the search will begin again. Whether it is a big game animal, new car, new technology or dream vacation nothing satisfies that urge. There is only one thing that can truly make us feel whole and complete. You have probably at one time or another heard the bible verse from John 6:35- Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger; and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” This is true for all things we hunger or thirst for, including that Booner on your hit list.
I will always be excited to chase the next big buck that is around the corner. In fact, God created those incredible animals for us to harvest. However, I don’t believe it was ever in His plan to create whitetails to only be hunted for their antlers. I believe we honor the animals we harvest by consuming them or providing their meat to others who will. God created us as hunters and for us to eat what we kill. My hope is that God will provide you with many opportunities to not only harvest but learn from these animals and that you will be reminded constantly that God is the ultimate Trophy. You have already won and He has handed you the Trophy, have you accepted it yet? God Bless!
“And there came a voice to him; “Rise, Peter; kill and eat,” -Acts 10:13