Barrett Van Cleave has proven his skills as a bow hunter consistently over the past five years, working hard to not only produce massive mature bucks but then hunting them hard until they adorn his trophy wall.
But even he couldn’t believe the great opportunity he was facing on opening day of the 2018-19 deer season on Oct. 1.
To say it was perfect, well …
Within 30 minutes of legal hours at sunrise that first morning, Van Cleave put down a 157 5/8-inch buck on private land near Woodville in Southwest Mississippi.
It was a 5½-year-old buck nicknamed Footloose, like the movie, and the deer’s actions seemingly were following a script.
“In all my years, I’ve never had a situation so perfect that I had confidence going to the stand that I was going to be successful,” said Van Cleave. “I knew where he was sleeping. I knew where he was eating. I knew the trail he was using. He was consistent. I had the (trail cam) photos documenting his life and it was the same day after day.”
So confident was the hunter that he did something he rarely does early in the archery season — he hunted in the morning.
“That’s something I just don’t usually do,” Van Cleave said. “Hunting in the morning in October, it’s just easy to mess up and when you mess up a buck, he gets nearly impossible to find. But this buck, Footloose, it was too perfect.
“He was walking a trail to a field that allowed us to put up a double-stick lock-on stand just off a logging road, so I knew I could get to the stand and up in it with minimal sound. I was hunting with my friend Slade Priest who was going to video the hunt (for an upcoming TV show) from the same tree. We were so close to the stand that by the time we had gotten in place in the tree, we could still hear the truck crunching gravel. That was more than enough noise to cover any sound we may have made.”
Within a few minutes of sunrise, Priest saw the buck exactly where it was expected to appear, traveling the same trail and walking right toward the trap that Van Cleave had set.
“Slade whispered to me, ‘there he is,’” Van Cleave said. “Footloose was coming up a rolling ridge that passes bow range from my tree to a hardwood bottom near his bedding area. A large cherry bark oak was blocking my view of his final daybreak stroll towards my lock-on.
“When he finally emerged from behind the tree I was already standing in position, bow in hand, slightly shaking and breathing heavily.”
Adding to the perfect set up — the scripted walk, an ideal southeast wind that blew away from the deer — were two deer already feeding in the small food plot where Footloose was headed.
“Two doe had entered the food plot from the northwest corner and luckily didn’t get downwind and bust us,” Van Cleave said. “They took his full attention for the most part allowing me to shift my feet and get ready to come to full draw. I heard Slade whisper ‘29’ (yardage range). I drew the bow and settled the pin on his heart and just as I was applying tension to the trigger on my release Footloose picked his head up and turned to walk away.
“By not letting down immediately I was stuck at full draw for 90 seconds waiting on him to swing back around and give me a clear shot at his vitals. Those 90 seconds felt like 10 minutes. I took my head off of the string and tried to relax as best as possible at full draw.”
Van Cleave had time to reminisce, thinking back to years of watching Footloose mature and the encounters they’d shared. All the deer management planning, hundreds of hours of brutally hot summer preparations, all of it, came down to the next few seconds.
“He finally turned and worked his way back to me, and I settled my face back on the string,” he said. “Slade whispered ‘27’ and I buried the pin on the bottom of his heart and squeezed the release.”
The shot was perfect, right through the heart. The buck bolted out of the field but didn’t go far. The recovery was a closing scene that Van Cleave won’t soon forget.
“Walking up to Footloose I noticed he was perfectly resting underneath a holly tree similar to a holly tree three ridges over, under which I had knelt in prayer at the end of a 3-year quest with a deer I called Situation,” he said. “It was Situation that taught me so much about bow hunting and life in general, and he was the reason I started letting bucks get to be 5 years old before we hunt them. It was a full-circle humbling experience.
“Finding Footloose, there was absolutely no ground shrinkage, his massive rack grossed 157 5/8 inches and was sporting a G2 that stood 11 5/8 inches with three kickers. It was 19¾ inches wide inside and both bases were over 5½ inches.”
Be sure to keep checking our Deer of the Year page for all of the latest big buck kills.