LEROY — Few times in life — at least in Ryan Hitsman's experience — do things go exactly according to plan.
One of those serendipitous instances occurred recently for the 29-year-old Grand Haven resident, who was visiting his grandparents in the LeRoy area at the end of October when a neighbor stopped over and invited him to check out some pictures he captured on his trail camera.
That's the first time he saw the deer — a massive buck with a "non-typical" antler rack of seven points on the left side and four on the right.
"This was the buck of a lifetime," Hitsman said. "Unheard of around here, especially free range."
Upon seeing the animal on the trail camera, Hitsman wasted no time identifying a swampy area on his grandparent's property where he believed the deer traveled. This is where he set up his 12-foot ladder stand.
A lifelong hunter who has spent a lot of time in the woods of Osceola and Lake counties, Hitsman said his grandparents have been hoping for many years he would be able to harvest a buck on their 40-acre property off 16 Mile Road.
The day of the hunt, Oct. 31, was the last day of daylight saving time, which meant there was an extra hour of sunlight in the morning, allowing Hitsman position himself in the tree stand quite early.
Before he set out that day, Hitsman said he washed his clothes and took a scent-proof shower to remove as much of the human smell from him as possible. He also refrained from smoking cigarettes for hours before the hunt (anyone who smokes can attest to how large of a sacrifice this is).
"I did everything I was supposed to do," Hitsman said.
Around 8:10 a.m., Hitsman heard what sounded to him like "trees being thrown" — it was the deer, periodically scraping its antlers on trunks as it meandered toward him.
Hitsman noticed that the deer seemed to have a hitch in its walk; later, he learned one of its hind hooves was partially curved, which may have caused the non-typical rack formation.
As the deer drew closer, Hitsman said he was hoping it would turn broadside to allow for a clear shot. Instead, the animal walked directly toward the tree stand and Hitsman.
During past hunts, Hitsman said whenever he saw a buck of this size, the "buck fever" would take hold.
"I would usually be shaking profusely," Hitsman said. "But this time, the sportsman in me took over."
Hitsman waited with Zen-like focus for the animal to present a clear shot but it continued straight toward him and eventually directly underneath the stand.
Fearing he wouldn't get an opportunity to take a shot, Hitsman made a decision: as the deer passed underneath the stand, he drew his bow string back and released, sending a broadhead arrow between the animal's shoulder blades and into its lungs.
The deer leaped away and ran about 20 yards before Hitsman noticed its legs giving way. Within another 20 yards, it had collapsed.
Knowing this was the deer he saw in the trail camera, Hitsman forced himself to remain in the stand another 30 minutes to settle down before he descended.
"I was shaking so bad I couldn't even text on my phone," Hitsman said.
When he finally climbed off the tree stand and approached the deer, he could no longer contain his excitement and joy.
"I just kept shouting, 'I did it! I did it! I did it!,'" Hitsman said.
Although he couldn't find a scale on the day of his hunt, Hitsman estimated the animal weighed in at 240-250 pounds.
"I couldn't go 10 yards without getting winded," Hitsman said.
When he arrived at his grandparents' house, Hitsman played it cool.
"My grandpa said, 'I know you got something, you're never done this early,'" Hitsman said. "I said, 'do you want to call the neighbor?' My grandpa asked why? I said, 'I got him.' My grandpa started shaking and saying 'No!' My grandma came out and started screaming 'You got him?!' Everyone was so excited ... It was amazing."
Hitsman, his grandparents and the neighbor all christened the deer with their own nicknames: Megatron, Mammoth, Junkyard and High Tower.
On Nov. 13, Hitsman took the deer to the meat processor; today he has around 100 pounds of venison, which he plans to make into steak, roasts and jerky.
As for the rest of the animal, Hitsman will be spending a little extra to have it made into a posed pedestal mount.
When the taxidermist measured the antlers, he gave it a rough score of 149 inches (according to Boon and Crockett Club, current non-typical all-time records book minimum entry score is 120, which means generally about three or four abnormal points on the rack).
Chad Stewart, deer, elk, and moose management specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said there are several reasons why deer could develop lopsided points or antler configuration.
"One is that it could simply be hereditary, with genetics playing an important role in the configuration of the antlers," Stewart said. "The other causes are resulting from injury. One type of injury that could cause antler configurations to change is during the growing period when antlers are in velvet. An injury to the antler while it’s still growing can cause alternative growth patterns that cause asymmetrical configurations. Another reason for differing growth patterns is a previous history, typically resulting from an injury to a leg (back leg specifically). A substantial injury to a deer’s leg can cause abnormal growth patterns the following year, typically on the opposite side of where the injury occurred."