IT’S LATE DECEMBER AND AN UNUSUALLY MILD SOUTHWEST wind blows across central Iowa. Renowned bowhunters Gene and Barry Wensel, along with Barry’s son Jason, are in tree stands along a hardwood creek bottom well before daybreak. The late primitive-weapons deer season is almost over, and the Wensels are desperately trying to tag a wide, heavy-beamed whitetail they’ve watched for more than two years. They’ve nicknamed him Woody.
Because time is running out on the season, they’ve decided to try to “nudge,” or slowly move, the buck into bow range. It’s a desperate tactic–akin to a drive more commonly used by firearms hunters–but one the Wensels have used successfully when conditions have called for it.
At dawn, fellow bowhunter Daryl Kempher circles the Wensels’ creek draw tree-stand sites until he is a good distance upwind of them. He then begins to drift toward them slowly and quietly. Nearly a half mile downwind of Daryl, several does and a giant buck catch a whiff of his scent and slip silently away–right toward the Wensels.
The does are in front, headed directly to Jason. Behind the does is Woody. The deer hop a fence, alerting Jason to their approach. The buck ambles by, stopping a scant 18 yards from the hunter, but is facing him. Jason resists shooting at the small target area the frontal shot presents. Before Woody can turn and offer a broadside shot, the does bound away. Woody lopes after them–heading toward Gene, another 100 yards downwind.
By the time they approach Gene, the deer have slowed to a walk. Woody crosses broadside a mere 12 yards from Gene. The 60-year-old hunter draws his custom-made recurve and lets the arrow fly. Halfway to its target, however, the shaft glances off a twig, and the arrow sails harmlessly over Woody’s back.
The deer run through creek drain timber, this time toward Barry, who sits in a tree stand only 50 yards from his twin brother. As the deer bound into range, Barry emits a bleat with his mouth. The whitetails slam on the brakes to determine the source of the sound. Despite standing only 15 yards away, Woody is masked by a thicket that leaves only a small opening through which to shoot. Barry, confident he can make the shot, draws and looses his arrow. It too deflects off a tree limb, and the deer bolts away.
The carefully mapped out plan of “nudging” Woody has worked perfectly. The only problem is that all three Wensels have failed to kill the massive buck. It’s a heart-wrenching morning for the clan, who collectively have spent nearly a century searching for and hunting a buck the size of Woody.
Perfecting the Nudge
The Wensel brothers have shot recurve and long bows their entire lives, harvesting whitetails across America. In 1970 the twin chiropractors moved to Montana, where there were abundant hunting opportunities for oversize, un-pressured whitetails. They pioneered bowhunting deer in the Milk River drainage and for seven years guided hunters there. This is where they perfected their slow, quiet drives for giant bucks–nudges, as they call them.
By strategically placing hunters in tree stands and ground blinds along well-used trails and natural terrain bottlenecks, the Wensels gently pushed deer to within bow range. They didn’t drive animals in headlong flight toward standers. Rather, they eased deer in the direction desired by using wind as their ally. Often one person would slowly walk from upwind into an area where they suspected deer were hidden.
Gene and Barry stopped guiding in 1996 and headed for Iowa, where deer are big and abundant.
After the move, they quickly located several prime hunting properties and formed a bow-only club. The primitive nature of their archery gear limits the Wensels to very close shots, always inside 20 yards, with 10- or 15-yard shots preferred. This ultimately allows many deer to grow older–and bigger.
As they became more familiar with their hunting spots, Gene and Barry began to recognize certain oversize whitetails on their lands. They did this primarily by using remote cameras, which they placed in key locations.
The trail cameras allow the Wensels to monitor spots year-round with little human disturbance. It was such a camera that first alerted them to an unusual buck prowling one of their sites.
“I developed a roll of film from a remote camera in a creek-bottom draw surrounded by soybean fields, and there was this young but very large buck,” says Gene. “That was in November 2002. He had an unusual rack, very wide and heavy. It was obvious, though, that he was a young deer because his body hadn’t filled out. We probably would have taken him that year, because he already was a Boone and Crockett-size buck. But we never targeted him. We knew he was so young, and we figured he’d surely get bigger with age.”
The first time the Wensels actually saw him was September 15 the following year. “We were scouting a farm and I spotted him with binoculars,” says Gene. “He’d just lost his velvet and had two big drop tines. I decided then to call him Woody.”
The hunter still didn’t believe the buck was fully mature, even though he estimated the deer’s rack would measure 200 inches.
Although the Wensels were not specifically targeting Woody in 2003, they were bowhunting the farm he lived on, and Barry came close to getting a chance at the buck that November. It was a cold, icy morning, and when Barry reached his tree stand he realized he’d forgotten his safety belt. So he hunted from a ground blind just 40 yards away instead. Later, he watched Woody walk directly under the tree he would have bowhunted from had he remembered his harness.
That was the last they saw of Woody that year. They never found his shed antlers, and they didn’t see him that spring or summer. He finally reappeared on October 17, 2004, when Barry filmed him in a CRP field, far east of his home creek draw. By then Woody had grown into the kind of deer few hunters will ever see. Although they hoped to get a shot at the trophy, the Wensels are realists, and each took a sizable 160-plus-inch buck in 2004.
“We wanted Woody in the worst way,” says Barry when asked why they didn’t hold out for the spectacular non-typical buck. “But it’s pretty darn hard not to take a gimme shot with a recurve bow at a hundred-sixty-inch buck. And you never know what might happen to a Booner buck like Woody. He could just disappear, or get hit by a car, or even be illegally killed by a poacher.”
With their tags filled, the Wensels had to wait until the gun season ended before they could use a second bow tag during the split season. That didn’t keep them from monitoring Woody’s movements. “We worried he might wander off the property and someone else might shoot him during gun season,” says Barry. “We didn’t want to push him off our land. So we stayed back, hoping he wouldn’t leave until we could use our second tags.”
Devising a Plan
During the second week of November, trail cameras captured shots of the big deer working a scrape along a bean field. The following week Gene got more video footage of the buck not far from the hardwood drain. From the middle of November through mid-December, Gene and Barry spotted Woody a number of times. Woody was living in a 300-acre area where the Wensels had four ground blinds and eight tree stands.
By Christmas, Iowa’s general gun season and the rut were over. That’s when the Wensels returned to hunt.
“Right after Christmas a friend found a big pair of fresh shed antlers near our hunting area, and that got us worried Woody might have shed his rack, too,” remembers Gene. They’d also seen Woody acting aggressively toward a 150-inch buck in a bean field. One morning while bowhunting Woody, Barry watched a B&C-class buck pass under his stand. It was missing one antler and had three broken tines on the other.
“We thought Woody got the better of that giant buck, and we were afraid Woody also might have damaged his rack in the fight,” Gene says. “There were so many things going on that could have worked against us.
“That’s when we called Jason down from his home in Milwaukee, and Daryl came in from Michigan. We needed a couple more good hunters who could help us in a team effort.”
On December 29, 2004, they tried their first nudge, detailed at the beginning of this story. Though they failed to down the wide-beam buck, the Wensels didn’t believe they spooked Woody badly during their morning push.
So the hunters slipped out of the woods and decided to try a similar nudge the following morning.
Overnight the wind shifted out of the northwest, creating a perfect breeze to help Daryl push Woody toward the Wensels. The hunters were all on stands before daybreak. Daryl began his slow-walking nudge shortly after sunrise.
At 11:15 a.m., while sitting in a large, split-limb oak tree stand located in the center of the property, Gene spotted movement. Headed his way were four bucks, all good ones, including a 150-inch-class whitetail. But that deer was dwarfed by Woody, the second buck in the line of four.
They were coming straight to Gene. The first buck passed close, stepping from behind the right side of a thick oak limb that hung in front of the bowhunter. Gene expected Woody to follow for an easy shot, but he didn’t. Woody suddenly went left, so Gene had to move his bow quickly to the opposite side of the limb to attempt a difficult, nearly straight down, 6-yard shot from a height of 25 feet.
As Gene maneuvered his bow around the branch, it got tangled in his safety harness and knocked his arrow from the rest. Somehow the big buck didn’t spook. Gene quickly got his arrow repositioned. He aimed and released.
The shaft penetrated to the feathers, angling forward into Woody’s chest. Gene watched the buck race away 50 yards. He knew the hit was lethal, but rather than immediately follow, he climbed from his stand and gathered the other hunters. It had begun as a group effort, and it would end as one. Together they tracked and found the buck of their dreams.
Although Woody was not especially heavy for an Iowa monarch (190 pounds, field-dressed), his rack was even larger than the hunters had hoped. It was also in perfect condition, with no broken tines from fighting. Woody had a 30-inch outside spread and a 26â¿¿-inch inside spread. There were 9 points on one side, 10 on the other. After the required 60-day drying period, the 5½-year-old non-typical buck officially gross-scored 230â¿¿ inches and netted 222â¿¿ inches.
Gene doesn’t expect ever to kill a buck bigger than this one, but that won’t stop him from trying. He also admits that one of the best things about getting Woody is that it was part of a team effort with his brother Barry, nephew Jason and friend Daryl.
“I’ll enter Woody in both Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett, not for my ego but because he’s such a great deer,” Gene says. “He’s got everything a trophy buck should have–a wide rack, plenty of mass, bladed and drop tines. He’s especially symmetrical for a non-typical whitetail. Taking Woody is the highlight of my bowhunting life.”
Veteran bowhunter Gene Wensel is all smiles as he holds the record buck he and his brother Barry tracked for three years. Gene was finally able to tag the trophy through a well-executed drive that involved (clockwise from center) Gene, Barry, Barry’s son Jason and friend Daryl Kempher. The buck scored 222â¿¿ B&C points.
Blueprint for a Buck
A narrow, wood-lined creek draw wedged between crop fields and CRP land provided the ideal funnel for the Wensels’ strategy of nudging a big buck into bow range.
A Where Gene Wensel shot Woody on Dec. 30, 2004. The buck was moving from north to south, walking just east of a low fence after it and three other bucks were nudged by Daryl Kempher, who was easing in from the far northern end of the creek draw timber.
B Where Barry Wensel missed Woody the day before, and where Jason Wensel was sitting when the big buck was arrowed. He had just moved to the tree stand from a nearby ground blind.
D Where Barry was sitting when Gene shot Woody. Barry had just moved from Stand B an hour before to cover the far side of the overgrown CRP field in case the buck slipped out in that direction.
E Where Gene first spotted Woody on Sept. 15, 2003.
Tale of the Tape
The Wensels carry video recorders in the field and use remote trail cameras to film deer when the hunters are away. The images can then be reviewed to determine the daily habits of the local bucks.
WOODY SIGHTINGS GROUND BLINDS TRAIL CAMERAS TREE STANDS 11.17.04 Woody tangles with a licking branch. 12.10.04 Gene catches Woody on video. 12.10.04 Woody is joined by a smaller buck… 12.10.04 …whose presence isn’t tolerated.