Written by Deidra Outdoors.
“Determined” would best describe the journey that culminated in victory for Florida resident and First Mate, Deidra Bridger. The hundreds of sits in the stand and thousands of miles traveled across our great country in search of the elusive mighty whitetail buck paid off. Here’s her story…
Four years ago, my then boyfriend, now fiance, Capt. Bo Johnson, introduced me to deer hunting. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had hunting in my blood since birth. I left the hospital in a camouflage onesie! Pops was an avid bird hunter. When I heard ‘hunting’, I thought “bird dog and shotgun.”
Some of my first memories included dove retrievals, pulling ticks off our hunting labs, and cock-a-burs off dad’s hunting pants. Dove, quail, pheasant, duck, goose and turkey … I grew to love it all. Nothin’ like your bird dog finding a covey of wild quail and yelling over to your buddy as he smokes a bobwhite before he hits the timber.
Deer hunting solicits a whole other strain of emotions and physical reactions. I’m talking about shaking so hard ya’ rock the tree in complete devastation after a mighty Missouri buck busts you mid-draw and you let down as he prances away, tail high in the air as if to say, “HA! Nice try.”
Ironically, the same shaking occurs in a converse spirit of triumph after watching a tall, thick-tined monster dart 60 yards before taking a dirt nap courtesy of a well placed .270 round — And that is precisely what happened on my Southwest Texas whitetail adventure in the Fall of 2012.
The initial plan was to chase tails on my family’s 3,000-acre farm in North Central Missouri for rifle season. Bo and I had tried our luck the opening week of archery, but spent the majority of the time and efforts doing our homework to lay a solid foundation for the hunting season ahead. Thus, we returned for late archery a month later, where I experienced my most emotional moment with a buck; but that’s another story.
Hoping the third time would be the charm, we were all geared up to hit beginning rifle season when two other opportunities presented themselves, and we couldn’t resist. One of Capt. Bo’s former ESPN RedFish CUP tournament partner invited us to hunt his 500-acre ranch in the Hill Country of Texas, chalked full of exotics (axis, aoudad and sika deer) in addition to whitetails. The other opportunity ironically was 1.5 hours south in the renowned ‘golden triangle,’ which is known for its trophy bucks. The ranch owner is a friend who called for help culling some does and bucks — 3 ½ years and older, 8 points and under. A cull buck for him would be a trophy for me … I’m in.
This trip began with a BANG! Literally — the truck blew up!
Stranded for 36 hours in Dothan, Alabama, in addition to the truck being in the shop three days prior for a wiring harness issue was wrecking havoc on our initial plans. Visions of mighty racks and exotics trumped our exhaustion and we left our Ford and transferred to a Chevy rental truck. We hit the highway at 4 p.m. with 16 hours to go. With an ETA of 10 a.m. Saturday morning, and only 36 hours to hunt, stopping to rest was not an option!
Our weary eyes were rewarded when we hit the Hill Country and feasted upon its beauty. The private ranch home was equally as gorgeous. We were met with camouflage and smiles ready to show us the 500 acres. A quick wardrobe change and we were off on the Kawasaki Mule. Bo decided to bow hunt from a ladder stand surrounded by the tall, cliffy hills roamed by the aoudad sheep. I chose a ground blind set up for bow hunting axis and whitetail. That evening, Bo made a great shot as dusk turned to night and smoked a doe with his Bowtech Invasion and RamCat broad heads, also capturing great footage of an aoudad out of bow range.
I had three small does come in, but one was not fond of my camera set up outside the side window and let all critters in the surrounding area know it! I changed up my strategy for the next morning to a box ladder stand overlooking an assortment of terrain and readied my Savage .270 rifle. The most whitetails I’d ever seen from a stand came to feed. A mixture of small does, yearlings, button bucks and spikes didn’t turn my crank, and then a doe and buck axis appeared. WOW. Gorgeous animals. New to my eyes, I was content in observation. I vacillated whether to take the fork horn, but let him go in anticipation of the 5×5 that had been seen in that location. He never appeared.
Bo saw a couple young whitetail bucks and a couple young sika deer (the only two on the property and off limits). We sat in the same spots for a midday hunt. I saw zip and Bo had a repeat. That evening, we swapped — I in hopes of seeing, and hopefully having a shot at, my first aoudad; and Bo, in hopes of taking an axis. A gorgeous 3×3 axis appeared 300 yards away and vanished before Bo had a shot. He was surrounded by the same assortment of whitetails I observed in that stand —does, yearlings, button bucks and spikes. Darkness fell and it was back to the ranch house to pack up. That was the last hunt. So with our one doe in the cooler and nifty footage of aoudad sheep and axis deer, we hit the road for southwest Texas ranch #2 — 5,000 acres in the Golden Triangle, free range.
It was nearly midnight when we arrived to a welcoming bonfire with flames high in the sky. We joined the ranch owner, his brother, brother-in-law, and their boys, 14, 11 and nine. By the time the camp chitter-chatter slowed down, so did my body. I was hurting on minimal sleep. Exhausted, I opted out of the morning hunt.
Meanwhile, Bo smoked two does with his Savage 7mm, adding to the 196-quart cooler that would later fill our bellies. Indeed, it is very hard to pass up a morning sit when you are limited on time, but sometimes you gotta listen to your body. Glad I did. Alert and focused for the afternoon hunt, it was going to be an experience I’d never forget.
The ranch owner had a good feeling the tripod stand on the south plot would be lucky. Before charging off, I did a little due diligence on the rules. To clarify, Bo and I didn’t pay to trophy hunt. We were invited on a ‘cull’ hunt to help the owner manage his deer. Rules were: Take all does. Bucks must be 3 ½ years and older, 8 points and less. I had studied and practiced aging bucks on the hoof quickly and felt confident in my ability. So a quick review of the game-camera on the south food plot revealed some great looking cull bucks and my excitement began to build. In route to my stand, Bo said this was gonna be the day I kill a buck bigger than anything he has on the wall. It sounded incredible, but unfathomable at the same time. Butterflies began to flutter in my tummy. Could it really happen? A good luck kiss secured the possibility and off I marched to the place it would all go down.
I climbed into the tripod stand and decided I’d complicate things with a bow, rifle, backpack and camera. Minimizing movement and sound as best I could, I was finally set. Strong winds from the south threw up dirt, with 40 mph wind gusts making it difficult to see. I pulled my hat down low and tightened my facemask, focusing on the wind’s positives of covering sounds and movement. The vast view was pleasing to the eye, but hard on the heart. He could come from anywhere!
Anxious, I scanned with the binocs in perpetual anticipation, holding my breath in hopes of hearing just that right noise. Where, oh where is my buck?! With every inch that the sun sank into the sendero’s horizon, so did my hopes. As day turned to dusk, I let out a long sigh (and a four letter word mighta’ been uttered). I gazed deeply into the east, lost in the silent thought Mother Nature therapeutically provides to us outdoorsmen and women.
Slowly I turned back west and HELLO! HOLY BUCK!
I could barely catch my breath before processing a functional thought. I had never seen a creature so magnificent. First things first, I had to determine if he was a ‘shooter’. One, two, three, four… One, two, three, four. And again I counted. An 8-point! Now to age him. Before I knew it, he was at 20 yards broadside offering the perfect bow shot. Think D, think — GRAB THE BOW!
Yeah, ok, easier said than done when you have your rifle in your hand and the shooting railing up with the camera wrapped around it! I was clearly anticipating a long-distance rifle shot. I started to maneuver my gear for the bowshot when I perceived the buck becoming suspicious. Ah. The last thing I want to do is spook him off with some nit-noy of a noise or movement. I began to pray he would make his way towards the east where I’d have a solid 100-yard shot. My prayers were answered.
My eyes feasted upon this mighty buck through my Hawke scope. I revisited all the elements of aging a deer on the hoof in my head and determined this buck was definitely over 3 ½ years old and also an 8-pointer. DONE. It was decided. I was going to take him. Funny how you begin to shake even harder and your heart pounds even louder once that decision is made. With shooting light fading fast, I placed the crosshairs on his shoulder blade as he turned broadside. One, two, three, deep breath and slowly squeeeeeze … Ka-POW!
The custom bullet by Fireline Ammunition flew out my Savage .270 and blew out his heart. Sixty yards later, I watched him take a dirt nap. VICTORY!
I could hardly stand the minutes, which felt like an eternity, before embracing my beautiful buck. I met Bo in the road a quarter mile from my stand, as I wanted to share this moment with him. Ecstatically, I rambled off the replay of events as we drove towards my buck.
“I really hope I didn’t make a mistake. I really think he was a shooter, “I pleaded.
We hopped out of the truck and Bo said, “Baby, that is a 2 ½-year-old 10 point!”
Usually, I fall victim to his jokes, but without hesitation I said, “I can count!”
And with that, laughter and shouts of victory filled the air. Bo swooped me up, spinning me in circles with a congratulatory kiss and dropped me by the magnificent buck’s side. A flood of emotions overwhelmed me. Other than this opportunity in Texas and my family corn and soybean farm where I grew up in Missouri, 90 percent of our hunting is done within an hour of our home in central Florida.
Last year, I sat 43 sits before ever seeing a deer with horns! I’d never hunted with an outfitter or paid my way. This moment was the product of investing time, money, blood, sweat and tears. It took two years to earn this buck. If you want something bad enough, you can make it happen, and I did.
After a short photo shoot, we returned with the buck to celebrate with everyone at camp. The ranch owner was very pleased with my decision to take and successfully harvest this cull buck. He weighed in at 210 lbs. and scored 147 ½ inches. The adults made a “cheers” with celebratory cocktails as the kiddos listened intently to me recap the hunt around the campfire. An incredibly rewarding feeling overcame me to think that sharing my experience excited and motivated them to further pursue our great outdoors. The night rolled on in animated conversations, a delectable feast consisting of oysters, backstrap, stone crabs, bacon wrapped-jalapeño and cheese infused shrimp, and good ’ole Grey Goose.
Needless to say, the next morning no one at camp woke up! Once the crew was up and bouncing, Bo decided he would put on a bow-shooting boot camp. For three straight hours, the dads and their boys worked on their shot with Bo’s instruction. By the time our afternoon hunt rolled around, hearts were being pin wheeled on the 3D buck target and confidence was high. They set off to stalk javelinas while Bo and I hit the sendero. I went back to the same spot, while Bo tried a tactic yet to be executed on this 5,000-acre slab of land. He set up off the road back in the brush overlooking a major crossing. And cross he did! A nice 8-pointer focused in Bo’s Hawke scope as dusk began to vanish. A mile away in my stand, I hadn’t seen anything but I heard the “Ka-Pow” of Bo’s Savage 7mm hit solid. I couldn’t wait to get over and see what he dropped. I slipped out of my stand at dark and walked 800 yards to the truck. When I pulled up to Bo, he was in the thick cactuses looking for the blood trail and hoof prints where the buck kicked out. I joined the search. No blood. Certain of impact, we followed running hoof prints that led away from the kick out prints. In unison we looked up and there he was!
I yelled, “Ya got ’em baby!” Another great 8-point cull buck, slightly smaller than mine with great tine shape and very old; estimated at 7 ½ years. I drug him out by the rack and Bo backed up the truck. A “Heave-Ho” grunt to load up his buck and we returned to camp for another celebratory night.
It wouldn’t have happened without the grace of God, and support of great folks and products. A special thanks to Savage Arms, Mark the Rockin’ 5 ranch owner and, of course, the man who has enhanced my hunting world, indeed my life — my soul mate, Bo Johnson.
The sunshine rays trickling through the blinds the following morning signaled our departure back to Florida. We waved goodbye to the Lonestar state with a 196-quart cooler filled to the top, a couple racks for the wall, and memories that will last forever.
Photos by Deidra Outdoors.