Deer hunting can be an agonizing sport of missed shots, fleeting encounters and squandered opportunities. Days afield can become weeks and months, and in the case of Barrett Van Cleave, years before the hunt for a certain trophy comes to fruition.
As many hunters do in the modern age of sport hunting, Van Cleave named the bucks he repeatedly saw on trial-camera images. While the buck named “Situation” proved to be an elusive quarry, the hunting process, including the gut-wrenching lows and euphoric highs, allowed Barrett to mature into a world-class whitetail hunter.
“It all started on Sept. 6 of 2011,” Van Cleave said. “It was my birthday, and I was using the day as a typical pre-season scouting excursion on our farm in Wilkinson County. I noticed a very symmetrical 10-point had been showing up with dependable regularity almost every day for the past week.
“Not a giant by any means, but a fine deer and an excellent trophy by bow hunting standards. I showed the images to my dad and others, telling them this would be the shooter I’d be after when season opened.”
Little did Van Cleave know he was setting out on a three-year odyssey that would result in harvesting the deer of his dreams, and forever change him as a hunter.
College, responsibility, life changes and a plethora of things change a man’s life in the formative years. Van Cleave credits the three-year quest to harvest a deer as giving him a deeper appreciation for the outdoors.
“It was Friday, Oct. 7, 2011 when I first laid eyes on Situation, Van Cleave wrote in his Journal. “I was 20 feet up a red oak tree on the edge of a food plot between two bedding areas. Wanting to get all the action on camera, my friend Laneo was filming the hunt from the tree beside mine. Trail camera images had placed the buck near and in this food plot in the days just prior to the hunt.”
A bachelor group approached the food plot about an hour before dark. One-by-one they entered the food plot, each buck being a little bigger than the one before. Situation was the last of the group to emerge from the cover.
“He finally offered me a quartering away shot; my favorite angle in bow hunting,” Van Cleave said. “I stood up, got ready, and drew my bow at the precise time he decided to sneeze. Every deer in the patch, excluding him, exploded in all directions. I checked the peep, the shot felt right, I squeezed the release.”
Having a blue nocturnal nock on the arrow, Van Cleave could immediately see the shot went high. This fear was confirmed when the video was replayed on the TV back at the camp. A high shot, yes, but not a clean miss as he first suspected.
After an agonizing wait, they returned to look for any evidence of blood or hair. His morale was ebbing quickly, as now the best he could hope for was a lung penetration or a major artery severed.
“We followed blood for 400 yards or so before we called it a night and gave up; I was crushed,” Van Cleave said. “I was afraid he had gone off somewhere and died, causing the meat to spoil and the antlers to be lost.”
Van Cleave felt some solace after a friend told him a deer could survive a hit to a non-vital area. However, he was skeptical until a trail camera captured an image of the buck with a patch of hair missing above its back-strap.
Situation had survived. Van Cleave spent every possible hour in a tree for the remainder of the deer season, even passing other “respectable” bucks in the event his chosen one came along. It didn’t happen.
“There were floods of feelings I had to endure,” Van Cleave remarked. “Had another hunter taken him? Did he leave the property? Had he fallen to infection and died? I never saw him again for the remainder of the season until late January when I was in the truck headed to hunt the other side of the property.”
Checking cameras after the season provided evidence that Situation was indeed alive and well having survived the 2011-12 deer hunting season. Relieved that his worst fears had been avoided, Van Cleave felt a renewed connection to the deer that had taught him so much about patience.
The next season
With the 2012-13 deer season approaching, Van Cleave was faced with two challenges. He was transferring from Southwest Community College to Ole Miss, thus making the time he had to scout and hunt come at a premium. Also, Situation was a year older, and more mature. He was becoming more cautious, more nocturnal. The previous season had not been wasted on him.
The day before moving to Oxford, Van Cleave received another of the mixed blessings deer hunters face.
His first picture of Situation in months was of a healthy, heavy antlered 4½-year-old Mississippi brute, none the worse because of the flesh wound the preceding season.
There was joy.
Van Cleave would be in Oxford when archery season opened.
There was sadness.
“I came home at every opportunity to scout and plan the season strategy,” he said. “We decided to hang a lock-on tree stand closer to the bedding area on a big ridge two weeks before season. The ridge was known as ‘Heartbreak Ridge’ because it is where the blood trail went cold the previous year, as well as being the place where an anonymous hunter missed a flock of gobblers the previous April.”
On Oct. 4, 2012, Situation walked by Heartbreak Ridge in the company of a fawn. It was 9 a.m. according to the camera. Van Cleave was in Micro Economics class and had no idea what was happening back in the woods of Wilkinson County. This was probably a good thing.
“I was able to make it home that weekend to hunt but never saw my nemesis, the buck that was so often the center of my thoughts,” Van Cleave said. “I had a shot on a mature 10-point with a pair of drop-tine kickers, but passed on him. My friends said I was crazy, that it was a great trophy, especially with a bow. As the weekend passed I was beginning to agree with them. But it was not the deer I was hunting.”
Sunday afternoon, Oct. 14, was a cool, crisp kind of day and Barrett felt positive about the possibility of seeing Situation. Hunting with Van Cleave was his friend Marvin Parnell.
“The woods were alive that evening and just before dark I heard a deer sneeze in the hardwood bottom below me,” Van Cleave said. “The hair on the back of my neck stood up, goose bumps covered my skin, because I knew who had sneezed. I had heard the same sound the previous year.”
Van Cleave would not be disappointed. A tall eight-point came up the trail first, and behind him was Situation. Light was fading fast as the behemoth made his way into shooting range and offered a shot.
“I didn’t take my time, I rushed the shot. I saw the red streak of the nocturnal nock sail over its back and land in the dirt,” Van Cleave said. “Suddenly I was cold, all over from the inside, all the way to my toes. The deer jumped, but were not terribly spooked. The arrow was clean, no blood, no hair.
“As much as I wanted to take the shot back and get another chance, it wasn’t going to happen. Round 2 went to the buck.”
Humans are the apex predator. It is natural, part of our DNA, our very psyche. Hunting and gathering is natural, almost central to our primal existence. The drive back home and subsequently to Oxford was a time of pondering for Van Cleave. In the end he proofed his mistake, accepted the consequences, and, as a wise old sage once said, “an event is only a mistake, if you find no lesson in the experience.”
“I hunted more that season and saw Situation three more times before the season ended,” Van Cleave said. “I considered taking him with a rifle, something I could have done, but that wouldn’t have been a level playing field. I had started this relationship with a bow; it was only fitting to end it as it had started.
“The last time I was the buck I ranged him at 50 yards. It was a doable shot with my equipment, but not a clean, perfect opportunity. It was at this point I knew the deer deserved better.”
Van Cleave was the last person to hunt the property, so he had a secure knowledge the buck would survive to the next season. As the buck became mature for a deer, the man became mature as a hunter. He would never make another iffy shot and risk harming the prey he had gained so much respect for in the past years.
Van Cleave found his heart was not in a Business Administration degree and before the fall re-enrolled in SWCC to take the required courses he would need to transfer to LSU and pursue a degree in Forestry. This would also place him closer to home and allow him more time to hunt Situation. The buck had hung around, and became the biggest buck Van Cleave and his family had ever gotten on camera.
Several seasons of allowing other bucks to grow older had been another lesson for Barrett. Older bucks have greater mass, becoming more impressive. As hunting pressure weighs against these mature bucks they become more difficult to predict. That may be just the clue to the final chapter of the Situation saga.
“Hogs and deer just don’t mix,” Van Cleave said. “So it was on an early season afternoon when I watched a line of does and bucks enter a food plot. In the rear, like a bull elk tending his herd, Situation watched with abject caution. Then the pigs arrived, following a fence line and doing what those black devils do — rooting, grunting, squealing and putting all the deer on alert.”
So this was how it was going to end today. At the sight of the hogs the deer started leaving the field, some back the same way they had come, others on their intended route. The big mature buck called Situation chose the path leading straight to Van Cleave’s stand. The hunter was true to his promise; he released his arrow only when the shot was right. After three years of planning, the dream came true.
“There was relief and sadness at the same time,” Van Cleave said. “On the one hand the battle was over; on the other was the loss of a worthy adversary. Other bucks would now take his place. Since the time I first saw Situation there had been another buck we dubbed Horseshoe. He would become the next of my pursuits.”
Over the next season (2014-15) many of the bucks Van Cleave passed in previous seasons were sporting impressive headgear. One was a 10-point that had never been seen by man or camera in daylight. It was something of a surprise when the heavy-antlered deer presented himself. The buck, aged at over 8 years, was named “Bottlecap” — so named because a shed from the deer was used around the deer camp as a bottle opener.
In the same season a monster buck scoring 158 and change named Split G-2 became the biggest buck ever to fall to Van Cleave’s bow.
That could change in the coming weeks as he has a buck chosen to hunt for the 2015-16 season. He has a backup and a backup-backup as well. Like much of the state, his green patches have suffered during the hot, dry summer. The iron clay peas and rape that support his resident herd during the critical development period weren’t as lush as desired.
“I’m committed to the sport of ethical hunting with a bow, and the conservation of our natural resources,” Van Cleave said. “If I can impress just one thing on the readers it is this: Allowing bucks to age, seeing that they are managed for the best genetics, keeping the herd balanced to a proper buck-doe ratio, and hunting smart will make anyone a better hunter.”