Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch, nestled in the hardwood forests of central Missouri, is the home of monster bucks. Donald Hill and his staff constantly work to improve the size and mass of the bucks they husband but, whether by luck or design, he has also created a place where all hunters enjoy a hunting experience while passing the non-hunting time with some genuinely nice people.
These are hunters. They love to hunt, they love to talk about hunting, past hunts, future hunts, hunts when they missed the target, hunts when the buck was even bigger up close than it looked through the scope — you get the idea. But the interesting thing is they share this passion with whomever is in the room and most especially, they have passed along their love of the hunt to their family.
Every fall, Lynn and her son Trip, leave Georgia to do what can only be called a hunting tour. The mother/son duo pursue deer in Illinois, deer and ducks in Arkansas, deer in Kentucky and this year they ended their tour with a stop at Oak Creek. Mother and son rib each other in friendly competition on who's going to get the biggest deer this year, but underlying that is evident a strong bond between them.
Then there's Travis who drove up with his son, Grayson, and daughter, Mary Kate, from Arkansas to hunt at Oak Creek. Mary Kate is a Junior in college and was born with Cystic Fibrosis. But that doesn't slow her down in the slightest. Mary Kate is a true Southern girl, able to produce a dazzling smile on cue and the ability to turn Ma’am into a three-syllable word. Travis tells me as an aside that when she was born the treatment for Cystic Fibrosis was still in its infancy and the diagnosis was devastating. “As Mary Kate has grown so have the treatments and prognosis of children with Cystic Fibrosis,” he says. “Every day with her has been a blessing and it is a pleasure to see her excel in life.”
Mary Kate readily admits to a bit of apprehension about how she'll perform on her hunt, even though she has successfully taken deer several times. She is unapologetic about stating that morning hunts are not her cup of tea and will defer her start until the afternoon. Her brother rolls his eyes knowingly and plans his hunt with his guide, but you can see the pride he has in his little sister. Dad is tired from the long drive and dozes in the great room the night before the hunt. Despite his insistence that his daughter hasn't shared whether she kept her grades up (and her rebuttal that in fact she has) his pride in his kids is obvious every time he looks at them.
This is the result of handing down the hunting legacy to the next generation, and what Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch fosters with every hunter who comes through their doors.
Everyone introduces themselves and everyone is treated as an old friend. The guides, the staff and the Hill family all take great pains to make everyone feel comfortable and at ease here.
I thought at first these diverse hunters had been to Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch many times before and was surprised to learn they were all first-timers to the ranch. Their camaraderie and ease with each other and the staff made me think they were all long-time patrons.
Ryan is assigned as my guide for this hunt. We are introduced the night of my arrival and he tells me that we will be heading to the deer stand around first light. On our way to the stand, I ask about his background as his accent indicates he's not from Missouri. He is from South Africa, having had experience in guiding clients in SA with his father's company.
Ryan gives me the rundown on what we're going to be doing. There is a wily buck that he is keen to get me on and the stand we will use is in this buck's territory. As we settle in, we talk about a wide range of subjects — how he met his wife, what life was like growing up in a hunting family in South Africa, how things are different here versus there — two people passing the time while waiting for the buck to make an appearance. Red and grey squirrels dart among the oaks and what may be promising movement in my periphery is just the same two darting back and forth among the trees. Red headed woodpeckers tap out a beat on the surrounding trees and squawk their displeasure at being disturbed.
Just before time to head back to the lodge for brunch, we see first one, then three more does cautiously emerge from the edge of the woods to our right. After a few seconds, a buck follows the does into the food plot, but it is not the buck we have been waiting for. The young four-pointer is laser focused on the does ahead of him and not even a grunt call from Ryan stays his pursuit of the does.
After lunch, Ryan tells me we're heading back to the same stand. All signs indicate my buck is still in the area, so we load up and head back out to the stand.
More waiting, more low voice conversation about who we are, where we're from, what hunting is to us and why the antis just don't and never will understand the part hunters play in maintaining healthy wildlife populations. He speaks with pride about his bride's solo hunt for elk in the mountains of their Denver home and how she packed her prize out by herself.
The light begins to fade and Ryan catches movement ahead. It’s another doe followed closely by a buck but, as before, not the one we’re after. I take pictures and some video as they feed and look in whatever direction the buck is looking as he seems to sense a challenge to his doe. Could my buck be waiting at the edge of the tree line? I suppose it's possible, but we'll never know because he never shows himself. We leave the stand and walk back to the truck. A wasted day? Some would say so, but not Ryan or me. Ryan has told me the buck we're looking for is smart. Smart bucks grow to become trophies. Not so smart bucks become lunch.
Back at the lodge around the supper table, talk is of the day and who scored and who didn't. Trip got the big buck he had spotted earlier in the week and is fairly bursting with pride recounting the details of the shot. Mary Kate is unhappy that she saw only does this afternoon and is rethinking her strategy on morning hunts. Jim saw some big deer but passed on them. He is waiting for a deer he has in his mind's eye and will not shoot until he sees him. He does mention seeing a large number of axis deer pass his stand, as well as some nice-looking mature bucks.
After supper, everyone congregates in the great room where Lynn and her husband, Bobby, regale us with what they call deer stand poetry. It has become a tradition for them to create and text short poems to each other as they sit in their respective stands and wait. Their stories and poems soon have the entire room in laughter.
The next day starts like the first with us up and moving around by 6:00 a.m. I grab a cup of coffee and a granola bar for later so my rumbling stomach won't spook any deer in the vicinity.
Ryan tells me we are going to the same area but a different stand than we used yesterday. As he negotiates the rough road around the food plot to the stand I glimpse the back of a deer bent to graze on the brown grass of the field. As the truck approaches he lifts his head and I see a magnificent buck. Much more mature than the one yesterday. “Stop!” I hiss. “Buck on the right.” “That's your buck,” Ryan says. “Let's take a different route to the stand so we don't spook him.”
We park the truck, gather our gear and make our way to the stand. We climb the steep stairs and, as we settle in, Ryan tells me to chamber a round and be ready to shoot. I get a round chambered, click on the safety and, as I look up, I see the buck slip into the edge of the woods surrounding the food plot and fade into the background.
Ryan is tracking him with his binos and gives me a play-by-play as he observes our quarry. The buck stops behind a small copse of oaks about 15 yards inside the woods. Ryan can see his back and rump, but his head and chest are blocked by the oaks. After standing stock still for what seems an eternity, the buck takes two steps and disappears completely from our view.
We wait and talk. After about an hour a young buck and his doe walk the edge of the woods where my buck disappeared. They walk right through the space where we thought he had bedded down but the buck and doe do not hesitate to walk on. A few minutes later, five does come into the plot from our right. The young buck runs across the field and chases them back into the woods only to have them reappear and begin to feed. Soon there are six or eight does with the young buck enjoying a veritable smorgasbord of graze and working their way down the field. One by one they start to fade into the wood and it's time to head back to the lodge for lunch.
It's 2:00 p.m. and, after a spicy repast of chili and grilled cheese, Ryan and I climb into the truck and are headed back to the stand we shared this morning. Ryan tells me if our quarry does not make an appearance tonight to prepare for an all-out assault tomorrow morning. He asks if I mind getting dirty and hiking a bit. I assure him that hiking is a pleasure for me and if I minded getting dirty I wouldn't be hunting. If the buck we're looking for gives us the slip, the plan is to head out early and hunt hard until we are successful. I admire his dedication to his client and his drive to ensure success for this hunt.
As we approach the stand, an axis doe is feeding in the lot about 50 yards from the blind. She barks angrily at our interruption and runs off. Settling once again in the stand, we are quiet and intensely focused on any movement that might indicate the buck is in the area. Fat red squirrels run up and down the oaks and I can't help but think of the times in woods just like this and not so far from here when I carried home a brace or two of squirrels when I used to hunt them with my .22 in the long ago.
The afternoon wears on and we speculate where our quarry might appear. We will not accept that he will not come, just when and from what direction.
The light begins to fade and the shadows lengthen. Suddenly, Ryan whispers, “Get your rifle ready. He's coming out.”
I cycle the bolt to chamber a round and get ready for the reveal.
The big buck ambles out of the woods at almost the exact spot he entered a few hours ago, striding confidently across the open, grazing as he goes. The rifle is sighted in an inch high at 100 yards, I remind myself. The buck is at around 200 yards so I should be dead on.
I release the safety, settle the crosshairs where I think the bullet will hit and squeeze the trigger. The rifle speaks and I hear Ryan say “Good hit! We got him!” I look up to see the buck run about ten yards and then begin running in a circle before he drops. “Congratulations!” Ryan says and shakes my hand. The adrenaline is kicking in and my only thought is getting up to the buck and ensuring he's really still there.
We climb down from the stand and take Ryan's truck to the site where we saw him drop. This deer is magnificent! Large, non-typical branches on his left side. Big body and thick neck. And a third mini antler on the top of his head.
We take pictures with my camera, my cell phone and Ryan's cell phone and get the buck loaded up and head back to the lodge and the skinning shed.
No one is around at the moment; most of the other hunters are heading back from their hunts. I help Ryan move the buck into the skinning shed and as we are finishing, the other hunters and owner Donald Hill are returning. Everyone comes to the shed first thing to check out my deer. All are congratulatory and as the other guides return they all shake my hand and congratulate me on a job well done.
I accept their praise and reflect on the fact that while it may have been my finger on the trigger, this was truly a team effort and none of it would have been possible without well trained guides who know their deer and their habits, Donald and his family who treat every guest as a member of that family and most importantly fellow hunters who know the excitement coupled with stretches of boredom that is the nature of hunting.
It turns out I was not the only successful hunter today. Grayson bagged a very nice eight pointer just as the sun was setting and I joined the others congratulating him on his success as our deer lay side by side in the skinning shed.
Mary Kate decided that tomorrow her hunt will start early.
Wednesday morning dawns and while I have the opportunity to sleep in, doing so is impossible. As the remaining hunters load up and head out to their stands, I enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee and wish them luck. I get the opportunity to talk with Donald Hill one-on-one as he tells me about the ranch.
Travis and Grayson return. It seems Mary Kate got her buck and is now freshening up before the photos are taken. I asked Grayson if she was happy about her buck. “Yes, she’s very happy,” he replies. “She cried, but then she cries every time.”
Meantime, Jim comes back in the UTV with his guide, James. “Do any good?” I ask. I can tell by the smile on his face the answer is yes. “We’re getting ready to go up and get some pics and bring him back,” says Jim. “Want to come along?” How can I pass that up?
We hop in James’ truck and head up the road to where Jim’s buck awaits. After pictures and video, James and Shawn load up Jim’s buck and bring him down to the skinning shed. As the guides unload his buck, Ryan, Shawn and a couple of the other guides round up Mary Kate and me to go out and get more photos of our deer in the field.
Mary Kate is first up, and she poses proudly with the beautiful cinnamon-colored buck she harvested earlier. After the still shots, she’s asked to do a quick video with her guide, her Dad and brother. Despite her protestations to the contrary, once the video is going she chimes in like a pro. We take pics of my buck with me and then video with Ryan and me talking about the hunt and then we go back to the lodge for lunch.
Travis, Grayson and Mary Kate are heading back to Arkansas in the afternoon and after handshakes and good wishes all around they drive down the driveway to the main road and back to their regular routine. The party is ending, and no one really wants it to.
Later that afternoon, Ryan takes me out to get some additional photos of the deer before sundown. We shoot pictures of scrapes and rubs, does eating the green fodder and general shots of the surrounding hills and hollers.
Back at the lodge, the last group of hunters for the season are arriving. Supper is served and it is very much like the first night I arrived. New faces around the table, but the conversation and the familiarity are the same. There are two fathers from Indiana with their sons, all four looking for the perfect buck. There’s a young man and his girlfriend from Wyoming who purchased an Oak Creek hunt at the 2018 SCI Convention and presented it to her as a present.
Later in the great room after supper, the guides go over the rules of the house and get all the necessary paperwork signed. Conversation is lively and the young woman begs my pardon and sits in a chair next to me. She asks if I am just arriving and I explain that I am leaving in the morning. She asks to see pictures of my buck and of course I am more than happy to share them with her and her boyfriend.
As I am driving down the road back to my regular routine, I reflect on what I have just experienced. Although everyone at the lodge was by all other methods of measure strangers, at Oak Creek Ranch we were all family. A family of hunters. People who speak the same language and know what the hunt means and how it impacts our lives and the lives of so many others. Proud hunters who know the value of the animals we hunt and the need to do so responsibly and with respect.–Randy Gibbs