The Hunt for Pumba

BY TOM MITCHELL

© 2024 by Wild M Brands, LLC.  All rights reserved.

I was confident my plan, to be in my stand before it rained and hunt while it rained, would work. Bowhunting legend Fred Bear’s 6th Commandment is “A rainstorm isn’t a reason to quit the hunt. It’s a reason to stay.” I was taking it a step further: rain was the reason to hunt! After a span of hot, dry, September days, I hoped a cooling rain might help spark some day-light movement by mature bucks using my Missouri hunting land.

The first rain shower that afternoon lasted just 10 minutes. As I hoped, it seemed to trigger immediate deer movement: two 3½-year-old bucks at 25 yards approached from the south. Along with eight does and younger bucks from the north, they fed quickly into a 1-acre food plot shaped like a boomerang. I was in a ladder stand on the southwest corner.

A second rain began a little later. It was harder, darker and colder. The sky opened, and the heavy downpour drove all the deer back into cover. Everything was wet. I was losing confidence.

Suddenly, like a ghost, one of the two majestic bucks I was seeking appeared to my left: Pumba. A massive, 4½-year old, mainframe 8-pointer I had watched grow for three seasons. He stood on the plot edge, turning left and right as if nervous. Finally, he stepped from behind a hackberry tree and offered a broadside shot at 30 yards. When I drew back, I remembered the 2,000 practice shots I took over the summer and prayed for God Almighty to give me the patience to aim and execute the perfect shot. I had to, because there would be no blood trail in this rain. The prayer was lifted. My composure held steady. I let the heavy arrow fly.

THE HISTORY OF PUMBA

Pumba was a special buck, one I had first observed at 2½ years old in 2016. He was a full-time resident on our 300-plus acres and had become an impressive 3½-year-old in 2017, as seen in the photo below.

HOLYFIELD WAS HIS NAME when he showed up on camera in 2017, until Tom matched the notched ear to the 2016 photos of Club. Re-named Pumba, the buck had lost the abnormality on the right antler and jumped significantly in size in one year.

When I first saw Pumba in 2016, I nicknamed him Club. He had an average 4-point left side and a deformed antler on his right side that looked like a “club.” The next year, I started taking summer inventory from my trail camera photos and named one impressive buck “Holyfield” because his left ear was notched. Meanwhile, I looked for a buck with a deformed right antler, but Club had disappeared.

One day when reviewing my 2016 photos of Club, I noticed something. A notched ear! Holyfield was Club! Without the notched ear, I would not have believed it was the same buck, and you probably wouldn’t have believed me either – that’s how much he jumped in antler size in one year.

Because he looked like a pig, my middle son named him Pumba after the warthog from The Lion King. Pumba was immediately placed on the Do Not Shoot list given his potential to get bigger again in 2018, which he did.

There is an old belief among some hunters that we can improve deer genetics by culling “inferior” deer, a belief that is slowly being corrected by scientific research. Looking at Pumba in 2016, with one normal antler and one abnormal club, some hunters might have placed him on the “cull” list. However, time proved this wasn’t a genetic problem. Mild winters, wet springs, lack of major droughts in the summer and an active habitat, food plot and mineral supplement program all contributed to Pumba’s growth. Natural browse in the timber and glades promoted by plenty of rain helped with protein content. We have perennial clovers everywhere and have some alfalfa too.

As a 5½-year-old, Pumba might have grown longer G4s and maybe more sticker points. Another year on top of that, only God will ever know. I decided to hunt him at 4½ because in 2018, at that point in my personal progession as a deer hunter and manager, 4½ was my target age. I’d achieved my previous goal of hunting and killing a nice 3½-year-old, and now I was looking at the next step. Since then, I’ve stepped up again and I’m trying to get them to 5½. Everyone grows as a hunter through time and experience, and I think everyone should follow a similar progression, never jumping farther ahead than their experience justifies. We’ve seen results from this approach.

THE HUNT, CONTINUED

The 2018 early archery season was no different than most others: hot and dry with sporadic cool fronts. Bowhunters are eternal optimists, and every hunt is a new season. I have learned it is not wise to hunt for the sake of hunting in less-than-favorable conditions unless opportunity presents itself. That opportunity was presented on October 4 with a rainy cold front.

The front had passed overnight with no rain, but the temperature dropped 28° in 24 hours. I was seeking one of two mature bucks which had used this area frequently: a massive 5½-year old 10-pointer named Carl, estimated to gross 165 inches; and a 4½-year old mainframe 8-pointer named Pumba, estimated at 150 inches with exceptional mass. Pumba especially was making this plot his evening destination. A week prior, the two bucks had fought each other in an alfalfa plot 375 yards south. I decided to hunt a ladder stand we call Lick.

TOM’S HIT-LIST BUCKS, Pumba (left) and Carl, got into a heated battle that was caught on trail- camera on September 28, 2018. Pumba was estimated at 4½, Carl at 5½.

Lick is on the south end of a boomerang-shaped food plot set back about 30 yards into the tree line. It has bedding cover to the southwest where I expected Carl or Pumba to be bedded. More bedding cover is located to the northwest and northeast. I learned over the years to hunt this stand with a northwest wind and approach it from the south-southeast. The bucks feel comfortable approaching the plot with this wind, and I could get in undetected.

Today, though, the wind was marginally from the southwest and forecast to shift west-northwest later in the afternoon. Still, I went for it.

The weatherman had been right about the cold front. Temps had dropped but there was no rain. I had been in the stand about 90 minutes when it finally started to rain lightly around 5:30 p.m. for 10 minutes and then stopped abruptly. Within three minutes, two majestic 3½-year-olds entered the plot from the south, 25 yards from me. I knew these two bucks as RWP (Runs with Pumba) and Carl’s Jr. because one was always with Pumba and the other looks like he shares Carl’s antler genetics. Then, seven does and fawns entered from the northwest and fed their way into the plot. The raindrops on the food plot forage were probably welcome after the stretch of hot, dry weather.

A 2½-year-old buck also entered, and after about 20 minutes it started raining again more steadily. The rain got heavier, the wind shifted and started coming from the northeast, blowing down the ridge into the area where I figured Pumba was bed-dead.

All the deer exited the plot, choosing to take cover from the heavy rain in the timber. I was not sure what to think, as normally I do not bowhunt in heavy rain. The sky grew darker, clouds lower and I could feel the temperature falling. I figured I had about 20 minutes of shooting light left. The plot was empty. I could not hear anything but falling rain.

Suddenly I looked to my left at the edge of the plot and saw a large-bodied, wide, heavy-racked buck at 30 yards. It was Pumba! He had snuck behind me, 20 yards away, downwind, but he did not scent me on his approach. Somehow the heavy rain must have suppressed or redirected my scent. He was alone and nervous. I knew that if I was going to take a shot on this buck, it had to be a perfect double-lung because rain would wash away any blood trail immediately. He was behind a tree and not at the best angle for a shot. He kept fully turning his body each direction. Not feeding. Just looking. I do not think he scented me, because by then he was upwind. Either the rain made him nervous because it dulled his natural senses, or he was looking for Carl to do battle.

Finally, he stepped to his right and emerged from behind the hackberry tree. Pumba was on my hit list because he was 4½ years old, but when he stepped out and stood broadside, there was another reason I was going to shoot: It felt right. That feeling transcends management. It’s when you know the time is good and the shot is there. This is the right time to take this animal.

I drew back and placed my 30-yard pin on his shoulder crease, said a prayer for God to give me patience in my aim. I squeezed my release and let the 484-grain arrow fly. The fixed broadhead and illuminated nock disappeared into his shoulder crease and out the other side. I knew I had done my duty! The rain was pouring now, but it no longer mattered. The shot was perfect.

I waited 45 minutes in the steady rain, and then I found my arrow, which had been mostly washed clean by the rain. There was no blood trail, so I just walked where Pumba ran, and there he was lying in the thicket to the northwest of the stand just 60 yards from where I shot him.

His bases were 5½ inches in circumference. He weighed 182 pounds field dressed and green-scored 146 inches gross.

I encourage bowhunters to be patient with “resident” bucks that spend a lot of their time on your hunting area. And, as Pumba proved, “culling” a young buck with weird antlers is a mistake. I have shown myself and others that patience and discipline pay off more times than not.

Pumba had more to give and might have added another 15 inches of antler or more as a 5½-year-old, but when you’ve got a mature hit-list buck where you want him, you may not get a second chance.

The reward of observation often transcends that of a kill: watching them year-over-year become more majestic, spectacular, more challenging to scout and pursue. I learn more from each buck and extend the joy and memory that buck provides to me and my family, even if he did not end up on our wall. In the case of Pumba, though, it did.

TOM SAID HE LEARNED that patience and discipline pay off when hunting a mature buck, especially a buck that spends a lot of his time in your own hunting area.

 

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