The Experiment: A Late-Season Ohio Whitetail Hunt
The plan was laid in August. To mark the launch of Free Range American, we’d give away a world-class whitetail hunt on one of the largest contiguous farms in the Midwest — and swag out two readers with piles of gear and goodies from Black Rifle Coffee Company, Yeti, and Sitka. Now here we were, in the trees, bows on hooks, with a light dust of January snow veiled over the hardwoods. As the sun came up, deer started nosing out of the timber, and I started counting. One, doe. Two, fawn. Three, doe. Four. I stopped counting at 16 as the deer kept streaming out of the pines, crossing the old logging road I was sitting, and filtering into the oaks. Then, from the opposite direction, I spotted a good one.
Ohio is no sleeper state when it comes to giant whitetails. Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas probably take the crown, but Ohio is close behind as a significant player that haunts the dreams of big-deer killers everywhere. Unlike the flat, expansive, monocropped agricultural landscape of the top three, much of Ohio rolls, with hills and valleys and rivers and ravines. This is especially the case in eastern Ohio, where the ground has been favorably compared to Buffalo County, Wisconsin — perhaps the best big-deer county in the US. The landscape reminded me of the Catskills or the rolling almost-mountains of southern Appalachia.
Here, just along the Pennsylvania border, at Latitudes Ohio Whitetail Co., a new operation that manages the largest contiguous private farm in the state, the ground is all hills and hardwoods, rivers and ravines. It’s more than 5,000 acres, about 1,200 in agriculture, but the vast majority in big woods — a 3-mile-wide piece of ground, 1.5 miles long, with meaty fingers that break off east and west, dissected by the confluence of two rivers, ravines, roads, and ridges.
“We were given a gift to manage this place for whitetail,” said Robert Gary, who grew up with the old Ohio newspaper family that still owns the property. “Having one block like this is super unique.” There are outfits in the Midwest that control more ground — 1,000 acres here, 1,500 acres there — but to have it in one piece is rare, indeed.
January can be a great time to kill a mature whitetail. Left unpressured, rut-weary bucks will return to daylight walking, looking to feed early to put on lost weight for the coming cold ahead. Hunting pressured deer this time of year can also be terrible. They have been shot at, one way or another, for three or four months, and can tend to stay nocturnal.
The guys at Latitudes manage this pressure by limiting the number of hunters to 20 per year, in groups of four. And even during gun season, it is an archery-only hunt. A whitetail outfitter with a 25% success rate — that is, 25% of their clients have a shot opportunity on a mature buck — is crushing it. A place batting .500, and there are a few, is next level. This last season, Latitudes ran 21 hunters, and 11 bucks were killed.
“This is our fourth year of managing the farm,” Gary told me. “We take it in small increments. We bring in hunters and groups that really know deer. This is only our second full commercial year, but we’re learning.”
Unlike many whitetail outfitters that have clients sitting on the edges of ag fields, nearly all the stands we sat were deep in the woods at natural pinch points made by topography or water. Ohio is a corn state, so piles were out, but they only seemed to concentrate small does and fawns. The bucks we saw skirted the edges, moving in for a look, then were gone. On that first morning, the deer I saw did just that. Does and fawns were crossing an old logging road 90 yards down near a bend in the ruts. Then at my 7 o’clock, a buck trotted in. I drew and watched him in my peep. Maybe low 140s. Maybe. Probably not. Probably middle-high 130s. Small-bodied, lean. I let him walk.
“That’s Junior,” Owen Murphy, the property manager at Latitudes, said when we got back from the hunt. Then he sort of muttered, “You could have sent it.” Junior, it turns out, is a small-bodied 5- or 6-year-old deer with the face of a fawn — an oddity.
Vince Binder, from Leeton, Missouri, who won this hunt by following Free Range American on Instagram, walked into the lodge and kicked off his boots. “I’ve never seen that many deer in a sit in my life,” he said. He counted 12 deer in the four-hour sit. “I mean, in Missouri, I will, but in a week hunting, not a single morning.”
Jon McCormack, a giveaway winner, also from Missouri, came in vibrating. “I saw a good one,” he said. “A real good one.”
“Maximus?” Murphy asked.
“I think so.”
They huddled around Murphy’s cellphone to scroll trail-camera pictures. Maximus was the biggest deer on the place and had eluded hunters all season. Gary and Murphy are trying to develop this wild, free-range, no-fence herd of deer into something that holds 40 mature bucks a season — giving their 20 to 30 archery hunters a deep network of stands, trail cameras, data, and history to move in on them and make it happen. It’s a way, they hope, to take the 20 or 30 days it takes the best whitetail hunters to find, pattern, and kill a good one on their home spots and compress it down to a five-day trip. That’s a tall order, but they have the ground to make it happen. Getting there is something of an experiment, but back at the lodge that first morning, it all felt possible.
“Yeah,” McCormack said, staring at the phone. “That was him.”
“John Wick is the move,” Murphy said. “You guys are going to hear a lot about John Wick this week.”
“Maximus has been hanging around Wick, then?” McCormack asked.
“Yeah,” Murphy said. “John Wick is your move.”
The stands at Latitudes are named for killers, mostly fictional (or the men who portray them): John Wick, Tommy Shelby, Doc Holliday or Ringo, Bruce Lee, Jason Bourne, Jason Statham, John McClane, John Rambo, Kid Rock, Dirtface, Chuck Norris, Skywalker, Tyler Durden, Wesley Snipes.
“We wanted to name the spots after killers,” Murphy later told me. “Oh, and Mr. Miyagi. That’s a good stand, Mr. Miyagi.”
“Mr. Miyagi wasn’t a killer,” I said.
“He had it in him.”
By the end of the week, we had it in us, too. Two does were killed. If anything, the property is filthy with does, and Gary and Murphy are planning some big swats for 2021. Still, every sit, someone had a chance to shoot something, but mainly we held out for Maximus — or McCormack did. McCormack won the FRA giveaway and brought Binder as his plus-one, so McCormack was in the hot seat and played footsies all week with a legit Boone & Crockett buck.
“It was between him and my brother,” McCormack told me of bringing Binder. “I hunted with my brother since I was a little kid, but Vince is a newer hunter. I think this is his fourth year, so it felt like the right thing to do.”
“Is your brother furious?”
“He’ll get over it.”
As the week unrolled, McCormack had two close calls with Maximus, and on the last day, he took in a tree saddle to push in on him. McCormack is no stranger to big deer, having messed with a Missouri giant all season long. He had a photo of the deer on his phone — a buck approaching that magic number.
Me: “What’s the story on that Missouri buck?”
McCormack: “I don’t want to talk about it.”
McCormack, later, drinking whiskey and eating a homemade jam sandwich: “Even if I don’t shoot something here, this experience is priceless. I’m not a need-to-shoot-a-Booner-to-be-happy kind of person. This is real hunting. They let me move. Take over a block and work it. It’s been real.”
Binder smoked a doe on the second to last day. For this, I was grateful. We had the whole internet of potential FRA giveaway winners and landed on two killers.
“I’ll be back,” McCormack told me as we packed up after the last sit. Clearly, he wanted more. The weather had screwed us all week. We had expected temps in the teens, but it warmed up to the mid-30s. South is the dominant wind, but it blew from the north for five days, too. The two sits where the wind was north and temps dropped below 30, everyone had close encounters. That’s when McCormack saw Maximus, 40 yards out, cruising through a row of 50-year-old planted pines spaced like cornstalks — all that headgear and vitals fast walking behind a tangle of thin-needled branches.
“You’re going to remember that for a minute,” I said.
“I’m gonna remember that shit for the rest of my life.”
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