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LUCKY

If we are lucky in life, we may have an experience that substantially alters our lives in a positive way.  Mine occurred in 1975 when I hunted with Taylor Ellington near the small town of Morehead, Kentucky. 

Taylor was in his mid-seventies and had gained a reputation as a superb builder of Kentucky rifles.  He was eager to pass on his skills to a new generation so the art and knowledge of building Kentucky rifles would not be lost.  Although he was more than twice my age, I quickly gravitated toward Taylor.  I wished to gain all his gun building knowledge and he was a willing teacher.  

Nearly a half-century has passed since I met Taylor.  He passed away in 1992 at the age of 92.  It is not without some trepidation that I find some consider me the Taylor Ellington of today.  Like Taylor, I have an apprentice and am teaching him the gun building tradition.   

Remembering Taylor’s teaching, I have built more than ninety rifles, fowlers and pistols.   My passion for building flintlocks and hunting with them remains strong.  After taking many deer with my flintlock “Sweet Sixteen,” including whitetail, mule deer, elk and moose, it was time to go after a giant whitetail trophy.  

I researched where to find big bucks and found Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch near Bland, Missouri.  I discovered Oak Creek holds records in the Midwest for 33 of the top 35 Safari Club typical whitetail.  They also hold 30 of the top 35 for non-typical whitetail.  Not to be outdone, they have the Number One for typical whitetail rifle, typical and non-typical muzzleloader, typical and non-typical handgun, as well as typical and non-typical archery.  That’s Number One in all these categories!  When I learned this, I knew I had to hunt Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch.  

I met Donald Hill, owner of Oak Creek, several years ago and finally confirmed my desire to hunt Oak Creek at the 2018 Safari Club Convention.  Donald is widely regarded as the most knowledgeable whitetail geneticist and habitat authority in North America.  

He plants beans, clover, alfalfa, corn and wheat in sanctuary (non-hunting) areas.  In this manner deer receive a variety of high quality food in a stress-free environment.  Strong genetics combined with strict conservation management have produced large-bodied, heavily-antlered bucks for the past twenty years.  

Donald manages the ranch with his wife Angi and two sons, Cody and Zach, along with a host of topnotch guides from the local area and as far away as South Africa.  My guide, Shane Boyer, is a big burly local guide.  I soon learned Shane is a man of few words who only speaks when it’s important, like, “Six does to the left, two bucks not shooters.”  I managed to learn Shane is married with three children ranging in age from two to twelve.  His seven-year-old son got his first deer this year.  Everything else was all deer business.   

Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch is located in the Missouri Ozark back country.  The rolling hills, rugged cedar thickets, deep oak forest and secluded meadows provide the finest habitat any deer could desire.  There is ample water in the natural creeks that flow under a canopy of giant oaks into the brushy bottoms and deep hollows.  

The ranch is huge, encompassing eighteen hundred acres of diverse terrain, offering a challenging hunt for these wild and wary bucks.  The well-appointed lodge contains a combined twelve hundred square feet of comfortable lodge living, complete with taxidermy from around the world.  The fulltime chef, Dustin, produces delicious family style meals while specializing in great desserts.  You won’t lose weight on this hunt.  

Oak Creek makes it a practice not to take any buck until he reaches his third or fourth year.  Bucks that are of breeding quality are left to reach four years or older, allowing them to do most of the breeding.  Donald considers culling the herd an important part in maintaining a healthy herd of superior bucks.  

Any buck that fails to achieve 180 SCI points by his second year is removed from the ranch by a cull hunt.  Excess does are also removed to maintain a healthy ratio of 4:1 does to bucks.  This makes for some great calling and rattling situations during the rut.  The majority of fawns are born on the preserve, however occasionally a small number of selectively bred does and fawns are released onto the ranch.  As they mature and breed, they continue to improve Oak Creek genetics.

 On the first day of my hunt it was a frigid 15 degrees Fahrenheit with snow in the forecast.  Donald told me the bucks were in full rut with noses to the ground seeking hot does.  My guide Shane and I arrived at our elevated blind just after daylight so as not to chase deer off the meadow in the dark.  

Here at Oak Creek only about twenty percent of bucks are taken on morning hunts, with the bulk taken on evening hunts.  This morning skies were overcast with a fifteen mile-per-hour wind making me wish I had worn one more layer.  By eight o’clock fifteen does were grazing in the meadow, all out of range of my flintlock.  

I can take a deer out to one hundred ten yards with my iron sights if conditions are good, but I’m much more confident with an eighty-yard shot. We observed four small bucks chasing doe but none big enough to pique my interest.  About nine o’clock a big antlered buck appeared from nowhere just west of our stand.  When Shane blew his grunt tube the buck stopped at fewer than thirty yards.  I quickly judge him to be in the 160 to 170 range.  

I was looking for something closer to 200 with a typical rack.  Before I had time for a second thought the buck turned and ran straight away.  That deer would have been a trophy on any other hunt, but this was Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch.  That evening the wind picked up and the temperature dropped to 12 degrees.  Shane brought along a propane heater for the evening hunt and it was much appreciated.  We saw fifteen or more does and five bucks but no shooters.  

Back at the lodge the fireplace was roaring and the aroma of freshly grilled pork chops filled the air.  Two hunters had scored that evening with the big bucks of their dreams.  The dinner was delicious and the stories of the day’s hunts were entertaining. However, we were all tired from long hours in the cold.  

By nine we were all in the sack to be ready for the next day’s hunt.  Before each morning’s hunt here at Oak Creek, they do a light breakfast of rolls and fruit, the real breakfast is served about ten thirty when all hunters have returned to the lodge.   Early next morning after a quick breakfast snack and fresh brewed coffee, Shane and I mounted the snow-covered stairs to our blind. 

The weather forecast had been correct: four inches of wet snow covered the ground.  Every twig and branch had grown to three times its previous size.  The morning hunt was a repeat of the previous day, with a few does at two-hundred yards, pawing through snow to reach hidden clover.  

Two heavily antlered bucks appeared, but none within range of my smoke pole.  One particular buck caught my attention. I guessed him at 180 SCI.  If he had come closer, I would have had a quick decision to make, “Shoot or wait.”  

Back at the lodge Dustin had prepared huge platters of bacon, eggs, biscuits and milk gravy as well as a variety of sweet rolls and steaming hot coffee.    After a little rest and some TV time, we were eager to get back to the hunt.  

That evening the snow had let up. Shane picked a new elevated blind with a fantastic view out to three hundred yards in three directions.  It wasn’t as cold but the heater felt good, keeping us comfortable in the persistent north wind.  

About four o’clock Shane said, “buck keeper.” I peered over his right shoulder. At a hundred yards I could see a wide-racked buck making his way up the ridge through the oaks.  He was just inside the tree line along the edge our meadow.   A rush of adrenaline flooded over me as the buck moved closer. 

Shane tried to keep me calm, whispering, “Wait ‘till he starts to cross the field.”  Hammer at full cock and iron sights on him . . . at forty yards he turned into the meadow.  When I touched the hair trigger, a quarter-size crimson spot appeared squarely behind his right shoulder.  Smoke from the touch hole of my rifle filled our stand as the buck stumbled twenty yards before teetering to the ground.  I immediately asked Shane if I should reload. He grasped my hand in a hearty handshake, saying, “Congratulations. That buck ain’t going nowhere.” 

There was no ground shrinkage as we crunched through the snow toward the buck.  Due to the large bodies of these Oak Creek deer, as you get closer the antlers seem to grow.  A quick measurement showed the outside antler span exceeded two feet.  The main beams were long, 26 and 28 inches respectively.  I was hunting for a buck in the 190 to 210 range.  The buck green scored just over 198 inches. Was I happy? You bet I was!  

There were six hunters at the lodge and every hunter got the buck of his dreams.  As I said at the beginning of this piece, some of us are just lucky in life!–Ken Shelton

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