Barrett Van Cleave continues to build his reputation as one of the state’s best deer hunters, as his archery successes reported the last few years by Mississippi Sportsman magazine would attest.
One of his giant bucks from last year graced the cover of the magazine in 2015.
Then this year …
“I guess it just goes to show you that if a bow hunter hunts long enough, takes enough shots of big bucks, sooner or later he’s going to screw up and miss or at least make a bad shot,” Van Cleave said. “I’m living proof.”
Just a few days before the Oct. 1 opening of archery season, a cocky Van Cleave wrote this writer that if the weather was right, he’d have another trophy story on opening day.
Van Cleave closely watches his hunting area, which is near his hometown of Woodville in Wilkinson County, and has a good idea of the number of shooter bucks on the property. He targets only mature bucks scoring 150 inches or more.
He was on one that opening afternoon.
“I had pictures of this big buck, starting around the 10th or 12th of September, the week of the Ole Miss-Alabama game,” he said. “This was a deer that we let go last year, which was hard last year because he was a good 140-inch-plus buck then with the potential to get bigger, and he did, adding 20 inches at least.”
Unbeknownst to Van Cleave, however, the deer was living on neighboring property where quality deer hunting and management is just as intense as on his land.
“They were getting pictures of him in the morning in one of their fields and I was getting them in the afternoon on mine,” he said. “I saw a couple of small bucks opening morning and I called my friend Brandon Nettles who hunts that neighboring property to ask if anything was moving over there.
“He responded that he hadn’t seen much but that he was waiting to hear from the landowner’s son, who was hunting a 160-inch deer. That made me sick. I just knew he was going to see him and kill him.”
The hunter did see the buck, but he didn’t kill it.
“Nettles told me that apparently the buck had winded the hunter and had stayed beyond 60 yards,” Van Cleave said. “I felt better, but then I wondered that if he had felt pressured by that hunter then maybe he would be skittish that afternoon, that maybe I shouldn’t go in there and hunt him. I finally decided, you know what, that deer could be skittish but if I let him go somebody else could kill him before I got a chance. So I hunted him.”
Later that afternoon, right where Van Cleave had pattered the buck to come, it came.
“It was in a bachelor group, the second buck of three, and it may have been the best bachelor group ever,” he said. “The first one was a big 8 point in full velvet, then this big 12 and then another big 12, a younger 140-inch buck that needs to add another year. He was not a shooter, but that was a whole lot of antler down there in that group.”
The bigger 12, the one Van Cleave wanted, eventually gave the hunter a shot.
“I had a mask on and when I got to full draw, I went to bury my knuckles under my ear for the shot,” he said. “The mask was preventing me from getting my hand where I needed to be. I was getting nervous and trying to decide if I should risk the shot. This was a deer I wanted, he was at 17 yards and I thought it might be my only shot.
“I decided to shoot, but I hurried the shot and I hit him far back. I found my arrow it didn’t look good. I got a friend with a dog, and we found a little blood but it played out. We jumped the buck when he heard the dog and he ran the creek. We put the dog on him for two hours, and at 2 a.m. we left.”
Then came the agony.
“I regret now going in there that quick on the buck,” Van Cleave said. “I shouldn’t have gone that quick. I was down in the dumps and I had a sleepless night. Friends comforted me, trying to tell me that ‘if he’s alive, you might get another shot.’ It didn’t really work.
“The last six bucks I shot, none of them ran 100 yards. I was due though. It’s bow hunting. I hate it, but it’s going to happen.”
The next few days were not much better.
“I really didn’t feel like hunting that much on Sunday,” he said. “On Monday, I saw two buzzards flying around but couldn’t come up with anything. Brandon was hunting and he killed a pretty good deer that we called Sunday School. I helped him track it and I killed a doe and we got it.”
After finding the deer, Van Cleave checked his cams and what he found had him excited about hunting again.
“I checked the cards, and the deer we call Double Stack had been there Sunday morning,” he said. “He could very well have come Monday morning but I shot the doe at 7:30. He could have seen it. I was sick over it and I stayed out of area that afternoon.
“Tuesday morning, I went back and was getting video of a nice young 8-point, when I heard another buck snort wheezing. I looked up and it was Double Stack, and he was not happy with that other buck. I watched him walk all the way across the field at that younger buck. It was like having a decoy. I felt pretty good.”
But, of course, rarely do things go perfectly, and it didn’t happen easily.
“They got behind some trees, and fought a little bit,” Van Cleave said. “He ran that 8-point buck off, and then he came out, almost perfect for me. I set the pin on his shoulder and made a good shot.”
Van Cleave called Nettles and they searched. They blood trailed for nearly two hours before backing out.
“I could tell he was hit good and was dragging his leg,” he said. “He was heading toward a thicket and had to go up a hill and I could see he needed three or four times to make it up the hill. That was a good sign.”
With the blood getting sparse, the hunters decided to call a friend with a good trailing dog and it didn’t take long for the dog to bay up the buck in the thicket.
“Brandon went in there and grabbed his antlers and I got on his back and finished him with my knife,” Van Cleave said.
The buck, which is not in the 150-inch class that Van Cleave seeks, was mature with a strange rack.
“Last year, this buck had a normal rack, but apparently something happened to its pedestal on one side during the growth period,” he said. “It was kind of weird, like it had a double-stacked main beam on one side. I could hunt the rest of my life and never see one like him again. It will score between 125 an 135, but the taxidermist who has done all my trophies said it is his favorite.”
The story could end there and Van Cleave would be satisfied, but two days later he got a call from a different neighbor.
“He called me on Thursday and told me to stay where I was at,” Van Cleave said. “He was going to bring me something and I thought it was going to be a picture of the 12 point. Instead, he brought me the antlers. He had found my 12-point.
“It was a mainframe 10 with two kickers on the left G2 and one on the right G2, but only two count for scoring. It was another 150-inch deer.”
He had his antlers.
“I hate I didn’t get the meat, or the cape, because he had a double white patch under his chin,” Van Cleave said. “I was sick about that, but not near as sick as never knowing what had happened to him.”
Click here to read other big-buck stories from the 2016-17 season.
And don’t forget to post photos of your bucks in the Mississippi Sportsman Big Buck Photo Contest, which is free and offers great monthly prize packages.