Story and photos by: Taylor Philpot
The November whitetail rut was in full swing on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
Every field was full of young bucks chasing does with the occasional mature buck sighting along the field edges. It's every whitetail hunter's dream...the one to two week window every season when mature bucks likely appear during daylight hours.
While most hunters were home complaining about the unusual seventy-five-degree November heat, I decided to make the most of my prearranged vacation days and head to the woods.
As I drove toward our Virginia whitetail camp, I remember thinking how beautifully vibrant the fall colors were against the clear fall skies. The variety of reds, yellows and oranges as I drove through the Blue Ridge Mountains reminded me of a fall portrait my grandfather painted of "Fall at the Farm" before he passed away. Fall was in the air as acorns flooded the ground and a soft breeze lifted their fragrance into the air.
Upon arriving at camp, I began to organize and prep my gear for the following morning's hunt. I sighted in my muzzleloader with my best friend and hunting partner, Robbie, while his boys made the usual deer-camp jokes as we leaned on the tailgates of our trucks, talking about the two target deer we had on trail camera.
I shared with them the mistakes I had made the prior season that caused my muzzleloader to malfunction and discussed how I would avoid those mistakes this year. We began to evaluate the weather, check the wind and strategize how I would make the two mile trek back into the swamp to sit atop the "kill zone" we had found in 2019. Last season, I had a beautiful mature eight point come within twelve yards of my hang-on stand in this spot, where I missed the opportunity due to the muzzleloader malfunction. I refused to let history repeat itself. I envisioned every last detail leading up to the harvest of "Dew Drop," a 200 inch double drop tine buck we'd been following for the last two seasons.
The morning came and I executed the plan with perfection. I woke up three hours before daylight in an attempt to prevent deer from being bumped as I made the two mile trek to the swamp. Our scouting and trail cameras showed most deer stayed in the fields above the swamp until about two hours prior to daylight, which provided a good buffer for me to loop around behind them, get in and hang my stand in the kill zone prior to any deer traffic moving through the area. I walked in on a crosswind, and then approached the kill zone with the wind at my face for the last 200 yards. As it was pushing seventy five degrees and high humidity, I walked into the woods in my undergarments to avoid building up sweat, and then dressed in the stand once it was set up.
After sitting in complete darkness for close to an hour and a half, I heard a few does move through prior to sunrise and bound into the swamp. Moments after sunrise, I saw my first buck move along the horizon above me, traveling between fields in a known travel corridor named Saddle Ridge, due to its topography. He wasn't what I was looking for; therefore, I let him continue on his way without an attempt to call him closer for a shot.
The previous year, I noticed a correlation to the deer movement in this specific area based on the moonset. The moonset is similar to the sunset, except it is when the moon sets in the morning as the sun rises. Specific to the moonset, the deer stayed on their feet until midday every time the moonset was later than 7 A.M. This is when you typically will look up and see the moon still in the sky through mid-morning.
With this intel, I began to pull out my call every thirty minutes and perform a sequence of breeding calls. I would perform a doe estrus bleat with a series of buck tending grunts behind it. During the call sequence, I would use a pair of rattling antlers tied on a string and lowered to the ground as a way of mimicking a buck chasing a doe through the leaves and swamp edge to create a more authentic scene for a potential dominant buck's ear.
After I completed the second call sequence, my wife began to blow up my phone because our debit card was put on a freeze, and she needed me to Venmo her money. As I began to transfer money to her Venmo account, I reached to the sky in an attempt to get service. At that exact moment, I heard a limb snap and knew exactly what it was I was hearing. I froze and slowly began to move my head towards the location where the sound originated, where I locked eyes with "Dew Drop" perfectly broadside in my shot window at less than twenty yards. As I slowly moved for my muzzleloader, I couldn't get the damn phone in my pocket which delayed my time on target.
Once I finally freed my second hand, I began to lower the barrel of the gun down from the tree and settle the crosshairs onto the buck. At this exact moment, he finished working his scrape and moved to work the second. I aimed at the second shot window and waited patiently for him to arrive. A few steps away from the opening, he froze, put his nose into the air and bounded diagonally into a thicket where he could later be heard splashing through the swamp. My heart began to sink into the swamp, as I knew this would possibly be the only shot opportunity I would get on "Dew Drop."
I began to replay everything over and over again in my head, becoming frustrated at the phone distraction; then-a LIGHT BULB WENT OFF IN MY HEAD!
I realized it was close to eighty degrees at this point, the wind was pushing out of the swamp and into my face, and "Dew Drop" blew as he splashed across the swamp to let me know his exact travel corridor. I called Robbie and told him, "I may not make it back out, but I am going into the swamp after this deer!"
I began to take my stand down from the tree and move into the swamp. I was angry and motivated to hunt this buck down and make a connection. My first step into the swamp and I began to sink all the way to my hips while my boots filled with water. I wanted to back out, but all I could hear in my head was my friend Andrae's voice saying, "Sometimes you have to go in and surgically remove that deer from his bed, you have to stop making excuses and get in there and f##king kill him." As I continued through the swamp like a Navy Seal, with water up to my neck at times, I followed the tracks the buck left behind. Up and over logs, through the cattails and over the main creek channel running through the swamp via a deadfall tree that laid perfectly across like a bridge God placed there for this moment.
At one point, I arrived at a six foot by six foot mound that was raised above the water with every tree around it completely shredded from the buck's antlers. I wasn't just in his bedroom, I was laying in his bed and knew the story was close to its final chapter. I continued for the next fifteen to twenty minutes through the swamp where I found a log laid across the swamp trail with fresh water splashed on it from his recent travels. I stood up on the log and completed the call sequence that brought him to the base of my tree an hour earlier.
Once the call sequence was completed, I immediately heard a loud and aggressive buck grunt and then heard a deer splashing along the opposite edge of the swamp running parallel to my location. At first, I thought it was running away, until I heard it make a j-hook back into the swamp where I heard more water splashing deeper and deeper, and knew this buck would only live a few more minutes of life. It was as if God held the time still and let me soak in the true essence of what it means to be a hunter, conservationist and outdoorsman.
As I stood there on the log, hearing this massive animal run straight to me with the intent to kill what he believed to be his competition for a doe, I threw my grunt tube down in the water and hung my binoculars quickly on a limb. I took my muzzleloader off my back and prayed it would fire after potentially taking in water on the trek through. I slowly squatted down on the log, pointed my barrel in the direction of my shot window nine yards in front of me, and slowly cocked the muzzleloader as I waited to seize the moment.
Every splash in the swamp left me in disbelief, "NO WAY THIS IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN!" Within 30 seconds of the call sequence, I had a mature 150 inch ten point at the end of my barrel and had to make the decision to let him live another day or take him. I remember within milliseconds, having a brief argument with myself on how I should let him walk or take him, and then recalling a prayer asking God to let my next mature buck be a large mainframe ten point. Then, with both eyes open, at point blank, I pulled the trigger and watched the buck turn back into the direction he came from.
I realized the concussion of the gun in combination of the weight of my stand on my back and squatted stance, was causing me to slowly fall backwards, until I landed on my back in the swamp with only enough of my face out of the water to take a breath. I remember how tight the chest clip from my stand straps was across my chest and thinking, "This is how they'll find me." Dead from drowning in the swamp with a mature buck close by...I could only dream of dying this way. What an honor to have the woods I'd killed mature whitetails in my whole life, be the same woods where I would draw my last breath. How poetic. Just kidding. I quickly unclipped my strap and rolled out of the awkward position and rose to my feet ready to track this beautiful animal.
My phone immediately began to ring, where I answered and heard Robbie bolstering with excitement and disbelief that I actually went into the swamp and killed "Dew Drop." I could briefly hear his voice crack when I told him it wasn't "Dew Drop," but instead our number two target, "The Big 10." He couldn't believe it and neither could I! I told him it was too thick in the swamp to see where the deer died, but there was no way I missed him because it felt as if I put the barrel to the "deadly V" and pulled the trigger. I ended the call and began to trail the deer.
In knee deep water, I trekked through the thicket on a shoulder wide trail with the sun shining directly into my eyes. Although difficult to see, I finally discovered a spray of red blood up to six feet high on the cattails along the left side of the trail where the buck sprayed blood out of its exit wound with every leap it took. For a minute, I couldn't find the deer and was worried I had somehow misplaced my shot. As I shielded my eyes from the bright sun, I could see a grove of privet that was split wide open with a buck lying dead in the middle of it.
Although obvious, I still performed a good barrel nudge to ensure the story was officially over...and to my excitement the final chapter was etched into my memory until the day I take my last breath.
To bring closure to everyone wondering about "Dew Drop," I wanted to share that I saw him the next morning in the full moon light working the same scrape as the day before, however, it was 12 minutes before legal shooting light, so I made the ethical and honorable decision to let him continue on his way. A few days later, that following weekend, "Dew Drop" was taken by a gentleman on the neighboring property. Although devastated, I was happy to hear a wonderful man, husband and father was able to take him doing what we all love, hunting.