I did everything right. I let him grow. I studied his movements. I kept my distance unless conditions were absolutely perfect. I even planted a food plot specifically to harvest this deer over, directly between two of the finger-ridges he consistently liked to bed on. I was even told by multiple people that I had a problem, what you might call a borderline obsession with a buck named High Top.
As a habitat consultant and land manager, harvesting High Top was going to be the feather in my cap for my management techniques. He was a symbol of what the right plan, some sweat equity, and discipline behind the trigger can produce. Instead, High Top taught me lessons I needed but didn’t expect to learn.
The First Two Years
My history with this deer goes back to the summer of 2018, when a ratty-antlered yearling started showing up at the feeder we kept behind the house for wildlife viewing. He was far from special, as he possessed a set of antlers that I joked would make a great set of salad tongs.
It wasn’t until he started showing up as a 2½-year-old that I took note. He was a high-framed 10-pointer with a shared base between his G3 and G4 on his right side, as well as a tiny little kicker flying high on his G2, all on his right side. Like most 2½-year-olds he wasn’t anything spectacular, but he had enough unique character on his right side that he deserved a name. My dad christened him High Top, and a legend was born!
I remember finding his matching set of shed antlers on a cold March day in 2020. One of them was in a first-year stand of native warm-season grasses, and the other was about 100 yards uphill on the south-facing side of one of the aforementioned finger-ridges. This was the first matching set of antlers I had ever found on the family farm in Kentucky. We bought the 365-acre farm in 2016, and we are members of a 1,700-acre QDM Cooperative.
3½ and 4½
When the summer of 2020 arrived, that little yearling hanging out behind the house had turned into something special at 3½ years of age! We had made a commitment to harvest 4½-year-old deer and better on this farm, so High Top received a pass again that season, even though he was the biggest antlered deer on the farm. We had made a commitment to harvest 4½-year-old deer and better on this farm.
I found High Top’s sheds again in March 2021. Again, on the top half of a south-facing slope, this time about half a mile from the set I found the year before. Conservatively estimating the spread at 14 inches, I taped him out at an impressive 157 inches. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, not just for finding his sheds two consecutive years, but having concrete evidence in my hands that this special deer had made it through another deer season and I was going to have the opportunity to hunt him the coming fall.
The summer of 2021, every tree I felled, every camera I placed, every single seed I planted was meticulously chosen with one objective in mind – setting myself up with the best opportunity to stick an arrow in High Top! As the food plots emerged and the bucks began packing on the inches, it became very evident that High Top was starting to blow up.
His rack turned into what I can only describe as a “beautiful mess.” His main beams turned down on both sides, almost resembling drop tines. His right side had stickers and kickers and extra points everywhere you looked, and his mass looked uncomfortable on his head. I figured him to be right around that 185-inch mark. An incredible trophy by any measure, but especially for this region!
Hunting High Top
As opening weekend 2021 turned into late September and then October, sightings of High Top were still fairly consistent, and most of them were from trail-cameras located in the middle of the property. My plan was working! I just needed to bide my time and not booger anything up before his hormones spiked in November.
November 4 found me sitting in an elevated blind on the edge of a large destination plot planted in beans and corn and adjacent to a perennial clover patch. I looked up to see a big-bodied deer cruising across a clover patch 160 yards to my south in an area we call the “Pinch Point.” It was High Top! He was walking assertively the wrong direction, so I reached for a grunt tube and let out an aggressive “Bluuuuughhhh.” Nothing. I reached for the rattling antlers and started to tickle them. Still nothing. He had skirted the corner without even a parting glance my direction. Rude!
I took this as a learning experience and adjusted my game plan to close the distance moving forward. I didn’t see him again that evening, but I could feel it in my bones: tomorrow morning was the day.
A Big Surprise
The next morning did in fact bring an end to my four-year relationship with this deer. But it wasn’t me who put an arrow through High Top. It was the next-door neighbor, Jamie.
I was the first person to hear the news, as I ran into Jamie on his drive up the hill to get cell-phone service to tell his family. As he rolled down the window, I could see the trepidation in his face. He didn’t want to tell me. After some small talk and him asking how my morning hunt went, he broke the news.
“I shot High Top.”
As I showered Jamie with manufactured congratulations and cheer, my heart was quickly sinking lower and lower. As he drove away, I told him to call me when he was coming back down the mountain, as I wanted to be there to help recover the deer.
My walk back to the house was a somber one. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. That deer was supposed to end up on MY wall. Hanging above the shed antlers I had from last year. Which are sitting next to the antlers I found from the year before.
Anyone who has hunted deer long enough has, or will soon have, a High Top story of their own. After some self-loathing and self-reflection, I was able to put it in perspective, and move forward, by remembering several important truths.
It’s Not Your Deer
Perhaps easier said than done, but it is important to keep in mind that until you place a tag on that animal, it is not your deer. One of the key pillars of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is “wildlife is held in the public trust.” This means it doesn’t matter how many trail-camera pictures you have of the deer, what you named it, or how many matching sets of antlers you found on your place in years past – your neighbors have just as much claim to that animal as you do until your tag is punched.
We have the freedom to enjoy, manage and take a public resource like whitetails because we share it with our fellow Americans. The fact that no one can own a wild deer until they put their tag on it is a feature, not a failure, of whitetail conservation and wildlife management in America.
It’s Still a Testament to Your Effort
Just because “your” deer is going to be hanging in your neighbor’s man-cave does not detract from the fact that you were able to grow and hold a rare, mature deer that’s in a trophy-class for the region you hunt. It takes a lot to produce the biggest whitetail bucks in any woods. It takes patience, restraint, luck, and usually a fair amount of sweat equity to have the opportunity to target a deer that would make all of your buddies jealous.
Don’t let the fact that someone else pulled the trigger take anything away from your efforts. What you are doing is clearly working! Keep after it, and fine-tune it. More bucks are out there every year, and hopefully the Karma falls in your favor next season!
It’s an Opportunity to Build Relationships
A story like mine is a great opportunity to build relationships with your neighbors! Word spreads fast when a big deer hits the dirt – be the first to congratulate your neighbor. Offer to help track the deer or drag it to the truck. Take pictures and enjoy the moment. Don’t let jealousy overshadow the celebration.
Some of my favorite video I captured all year long was of my neighbor recounting his hunt with his father and son at the back of the food plot where he harvested High Top. It was such a genuine moment, and I felt honored to be a part of the experience. I remember it clear as day, as my neighbor looked at his dad and said “I’ve been waiting 40 years for a deer like this.”
Cherish those moments. If I ever happen to harvest a buck Jamie is after, I know he will gladly return the favor.
It’s a Learning Experience
Immediately after I returned home from helping my neighbor load High Top into the back of his truck, I began second-guessing everything I did the entire season. I babied the property out of fear I would bump High Top onto the neighbor’s property. I stayed out of the timber when I knew he was in there feeding on acorns because I didn’t want to jump him out of his bed. I refused to put up a decoy during times of the year I usually have success with that tactic. I refused to hunt stands when the wind was anything less than absolutely perfect.
My point being, I don’t think I was aggressive enough. I danced around on egg shells all season to avoid having the neighbor kill that deer, only to have the neighbor kill the deer. Next time, I won’t let fear be the driving force behind my hunting strategy. That was my biggest takeaway and something I will surely keep in mind the next time I have an opportunity to target an animal like High Top.
Many of my clients, like many deer hunters, are successful harvesting their target bucks. But every year, I also hear about clients who harvest deer they had never seen before, which very likely were someone else’s “High Tops.” Or they find themselves in the position I was in last fall. So I feel certain many of this article’s readers have stood in my boots at some point in time, and I hope I can influence a shift in mindset. Here’s to a new year and new opportunities!