Stan Potts’ 11-pointer
Scorable Points: 11
Kill Date: Nov. 21, 1983
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was written by former Peoria Journal Star outdoor writer Jack Ehresman in 1984.
The exciting hunting technique of “rattlin’ up” bucks that originated in the Mexican border country of South Texas is slowly catching on in the upper Midwest. And Stanley Potts, an enthusiastic bowhunter from Clinton in east-central Illinois, has proved the method works as well among corn and soybeans as it does around cactus and thorn brush.
Stanley, who has been hunting deer for 17 years, dropped a magnificent typical white-tailed deer last November 21 that scored 190 2/8 inches. (NOTE: The score was later upgraded to 193 4/8 inches for this buck with 26-inch main beams and a 23-inch inside spread). Potts credits his “Rattlin’ horns” for his success on that unseasonably mild afternoon on the day following the first three-day segment of the state’s shotgun season.
“I probably would never have seen him had I not rattled. I believe in it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the very best way to kill a trophy buck ... it’s the only way when the rut is coming on,” said the 33-year old hunter who also has taken typical bucks of 138 and 160 points.
The Potts buck, aged at 4 1/2 years, will rank among the top five on the typical list of Pope and Young deer and flirts with the top 20 in Boone and Crockett. It also is the second-largest typical whitetail ever measured in Illinois, trailing only the 204 4/8-point Mel Johnson buck that was taken in 1965 and still stands as the world record among bowhunters.
One tine on the left main beam of the 11-point rack was interpreted as abnormal, resulting in a small deduction. The deer was measured by Johnson, an experienced Pope and Young scorer. “That was strictly my opinion. Someone else may see it differently,” said Johnson.
Stanley, who has been “rattlin’” for three years, admits that the private ground he hunts is a whitetail utopia. “I will go as far as to say I think there is nowhere in the country better — nowhere. There might be some places as good, but there’s nowhere any better for big, monster bucks.”
Stanley and his hunting partner, John Piatt, an engineer from Clinton, are the only two allowed to hunt a unique parcel of private ground that virtually is surrounded by refuge, the 10,200-acre Clinton Lake Recreation Area.
“They’ve got a lot of the lake property out there shut off to hunting. It really holds some big bucks. When those bucks get 3 1/2 years old or so, they can’t compete with five and six-year old bucks, so they migrate off to find does during the rut. When they move off, they’re getting killed,” said Stanley.
Two other Pope and Young bucks have been taken from the same tree stand Stanley used to drop his big whitetail. It overlooks a small grain field on one side. Timber, overgrown with a mixture of heavy brush, oak trees, multi-flora rose thickets, and honey locust, is situated on the other. Three stands have been erected in the area.
“We saw a big buck out there two years ago that we called ‘Wally.’ My buck last fall field dressed at 228. I believe ‘Wally’ would have dressed out over 300. He was the biggest, most massive deer I’ve ever seen. He was a monster,” said Stanley. He and Piatt both feel they’ve seen 50 bucks in the last three years that would have qualified for the Pope and Young books.
“But, you’ve got to let ‘em go. In trophy hunting, I think the most important thing — the only thing — is you’ve got to be able to let the 175-pound, eight-pointers walk past. It’s hard,” said Stanley, who has hunted strictly for trophy animals the past three or four years. He failed to bag a deer with a bow in 1982, and it wasn’t until December 21 the previous year that he killed a buck of trophy standards.
Stanley estimates he climbs into a tree stand 100 times a year if he doesn’t bag his deer early. He begins scouting in February, when he also searches for antler sheds. “What I look for is rutting signs. Everything is still dead, and you can see the old scrapes, rubs, and all the November rutting activity that was going on. It’s the best time to look for sign.”
In Illinois, the peak of the whitetail rut begins about November 1, give or take a few days. That’s when the big bucks begin to move and Stanley digs out his “rattlin’ horns.”
He believes that big buck movement is limited until the rut arrives. “They’re strictly nocturnal until then,” he related. “Big bucks don’t use the runs until the rut gets here, and they travel the same route as the does travel and move into the same territory because they’re looking for does.
“I think the big bucks are looking for does just before and just after they pop into heat. But, I believe that during the peak you can’t rattle in these really big bucks because the real dominant bucks are gonna be with a doe. If you rattle just before or just after estrus begins, the bucks hear those horns rattlin’, and they’re gonna come immediately. I mean the big super bucks.”
He says deer sign and activity will tell you when the peak of the rut arrives.
Stanley believes the scrapes big bucks use are back in the bush and remote bedding areas. He feels big bucks hang out most of the time in the roughest, deepest, thickest cover available in a countryside.
“There’ll always be a limb above a scrape, and it’ll be broken off. They bite them off — I’ve seen ‘em do it. They won’t break it all the way. They just let it hang there. If they break that limb off or something else happens to it, they’ll move that scrape over 10 feet or where they must to be under an overhanging limb. I personally have never seen a scrape that didn’t have an overhanging limb above it,” he said.
He also has adopted a theory about rubs. “I look for big rubs. The bigger the tree the bigger the deer. I’ve proved it to myself. If you can find a tree 6 to 10 inches in diameter that’s completely rubbed, you know there’s a big buck rubbing that tree. Now, I’m not saying big bucks won’t rub small trees. They will, but little bucks will not rub big trees.”
Stanley will start rattling his horns about November 1 and will continue past Thanksgiving if he hasn’t bagged a deer already. “I’ll do some rattlin’ in December when the second rut comes around. Does will come back in heat again if they haven’t been bred,”
He admits his early “rattlin” days were discouraging. “I started losing confidence in it but stayed with it and started bringing ‘em in,” he said. All the deer he has rattled into range have arrived within five minutes. Many of them came within 30 seconds.
“Sometimes they just come bustin’ in. About a week before I got this big deer, I had a big one come crashin’ through the brush. He wanted every deer in the area to know he was king.
“I’ve watched bucks fight, and when they hit heads together and start pushing back and forth there’s a lot of pounds of pressure. When I rattle, I smack the horns together as hard as I can, and then I grind ‘em,” Stanley explained.
He may pull them apart and crash them together four or five times, but he never continues the sequence longer than one or two minutes.
When a deer walks up a run toward a tree stand erected at this private spot, Potts and Piatt know exactly how far away it is. They have taped the distance and put markers, like sticks or rocks, 10, 20, 30 and 40 yards from each stand.
“I use a release and sights and when that deer steps up near that tree stand, I know exactly how far away he is,” Stanley said. “My shot on the big buck was from 23 yards.”
Stanley had climbed into his blind about 2 p.m. that sunny afternoon; a light southwest wind was blowing. He rattled for the first time about 2:25, then hung up his antlers and waited. Nothing happened. He waited about an hour, then rattled again.
“It wasn’t two minutes after the second rattle that I heard a noise coming in from the side behind me. I turned around, and it was a squirrel. I turned back around, heard something else, and looked again. There he was standing in the wide open. He had already stepped out of the brush. He was standing about 125 yards away in a little waterway that leads up from a pond. He was just looking ... looking for the buck he had heard fighting,” said Stanley.
The waterway leads up a hill to where there is a gap in the trees. A big island of solid brush stood between Stanley and where the big buck would go up the hill, and then he stepped out from around the brushpile, he would have a choice of three runs.
The run at the top of the hill would have put him about 55 yards away; another on the side of the hill would be about 40 yards out; and the one coming down the side of the hill would be 20 yards away. The distance had been marked with a rock.
“I really didn’t know which run he would come out on, but when he came out around the brush, he was on the low run, and I knew I’d at least get a good shot at him,” said Stanley.
“When I first saw him I knew he was world class. There was no mistaking it.” Stanley was sure he had spotted the same buck two years earlier.
The big buck slowly started up the hill and disappeared from sight. Stanley used this opportunity to turn around and get his feet and bow in position so he would be ready when and if the big animal emerged from behind the pile of brush.
“He had his neck stretched out close to the ground and he was looking. He was cautious. He came down the run and went behind a little red hawk brush. That’s when I drew back. When I got to full draw, he started out the other side and stopped. All I could see was his head sticking out,” recalled Stanley.
He finally stepped out. I put the pin right on his lung area and let it go. Evidently, I must have paused when I hit the mechanical release because the arrow hit him just a little far back and a little bit high from where I was aiming. But, it still looked like a pretty decent hit. When the arrow hit, he went straight away from me, bustin’ through the brush as hard as he could go. His neck was stretched out ... his horns bouncing up and down.”
Stanley was positive he had made a vital hit by the way the buck took off. “He didn’t leap high or didn’t flag or anything. He was just getting out of there. He was running for his life. But, I was worried because the hit was a little far back,” he added.
Stanley remained in the stand for 20 minutes, then went to his car and drove into town for tracking assistance. He got his hunting partner Piatt, who had taken a 147-point Pope and Young buck from the same tree dour days earlier, and Kirby North, also an experienced trophy hunter.
“We waited about three hours. It was dark then. We all had wheat lights and started tracking from right where I had it. We spread out and John found the first drop of blood,” Stanley said. “He took the trail about 50 or 75 yards and then lost sight of it. We hunted a long time. It had been maybe an hour or more since we had seen the last sign. I was getting nervous ... really getting nervous.”
But, Stanley kept calm and began to scrutinize the situation. The area they had searched went uphill. The other side went downhill. “I got to thinking to myself that a seriously wounded animal would probably go downhill so it wouldn’t extend itself and that it would probably start making a circle,” he said.
So, he proceeded in that direction, going about 150 yards. He continued until reaching a large scrape by a big oak tree. He pointed his light in the brush, and the beam illuminated a set of antlers. The animal had run no more than 250 yards after it had been hit.
“I went to him and I just sat down, picked up his head and counted the points. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve seen a lot of big deer, but to kill one that size and see him lying there, it’s a thrill,” said Stanley.
“I sat there a few minutes and had kind of a private moment to myself with the deer. At first, I really felt bad that he was dead because he was so big. I had never felt that way before about a deer. Then I started to holler. All I could see were their wheat lights bouncing back toward me.”
In looking back, Stanley said he wasn’t nervous after first seeing the big buck nor when he knew it was coming down the run toward him.
“I had too many things going through my mind. I wanted to get my feet in proper position, get my bow ready, have everything ready so when he got there I would not make a peep — would not move. As far as I’m concerned, those big, old bucks are the smartest things there are in North America. If one little thing happens, they will get away. I had too many things to think of. But, after I shot and he ran off, I was a wreck. My leg started jumping. I was a nervous wreck,” he admitted.
Stanley felt the big buck had no doe with him and started coming right after he heard the antlers crash and grind. “He was one of the biggest bucks around, and he knew he could take a doe away from anything. That’s why he didn’t waste any time. He could have been bedded down too, because it’s so thick back from where he came.”
Stanley, who has bagged 11 bucks of eight points, or better, as well as pronghorn, elk, and mule deer while he was living in Wyoming, believes that the “super bucks” are active in the day during the peak of the rut.
“I’ve seen as many big bucks at noon during the peak of the rut as I have any other time. I believe that during rut when bucks are looking for does, the majority of doe activity is in the morning and they then go bed down. That’s when those big bucks start checking scrapes. I figure that during the peak of the rut, they’re really traveling from about nine in the morning ‘til two in the afternoon when the rest of the does are bedded down.”
Yet, Stanley makes it a point to be in his tree stand long before daylight. Many days, he’ll perch there during the legal hunting hours, getting down only to eat a sandwich.
He uses scent pads on his boots when he goes into the woods to his stand. He starts with fox scent early in the year but switches to the attractor-type once rut arrives.
“I also believe that when you go to your tree stand, you should not take the same path. Go in from a different place each time, so you don’t have the same human odor and same tracks day in and day out. And, enter as quietly as possible. Don’t slam the car door, jump over a fence, or step on sticks if you can avoid them. Slip up there as quietly as you can,” he said.
He puts his stands 13 to 14 feet off the ground, believing if they are any higher they could cut down the kill angle. “You gotta set up to get out of their line of vision, especially those big bucks, and you’ve got to draw on them when they’re not looking.”
Late in the season when leaves are off the trees, Stanley doesn’t wear camouflage clothes. He simply slips on coveralls that blend in with the dark, grayish-brown color of the trees around him.
Now that Stanley has bagged his once-in-a-lifetime buck, will his enthusiasm for trophy whitetail hunting be dimmed? Says Stanley, “I’ve had guys tell me, ‘You won’t have anything to go for now. It’ll take some of the drive out of you.’ This doesn’t take anything out of me — no way — not me. I can tell. I’ll hunt those big bucks the rest of my life. They fascinate me.”