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Gregg Eason’s ‘Captain Hook’ is #5 overall

Toward the end of archery season back in 2009 I found myself in a familiar position atop my ladder stand with a compound bow across my lap. I still had about 15 minutes before there would be enough daylight to consider finding a deer in front of the two-pin sight aperture of my bow.

I love this time of the morning – just be-fore the birds begin to sing – as it is a favorite time for leery bucks to sneak back to their bedrooms.

This particular season had already brought blessings our way, and I was determined to put my son on the next deer, as the brother/sister rotation was now in his favor. The only problem was he did not come with me on this particular hunt.

Most hunters know when guiding your children, that if they do not come along, you are guaranteed to see a nice deer. Sure enough, here he came! It was light enough for me to make out a rack on this unfamiliar deer. Although he was very young, he still had a noticeable crab claw and small inward hook at the end of his left main beam.

This buck walked directly below my stand and stopped, pausing a few moments as he contemplated his next step. I remember this moment of indecision being a remarkable time stamp upon my then 25 years of hunting whitetails.

The decision was made to “pass.” I must admit, this had rarely occurred before. The desire for my son to harvest a buck had overridden my own wants, so I watched as he slowly walked back into the thicket.

I went home and told my son about my encounter. I was glad to see his excitement, and now that he was fully rested after sleeping in, Zach was ready for the afternoon hunt. Suddenly, his older sister wanted to know when it would be her turn again!

For the next three months we hunted this deer without so much as a sighting. Then, on Jan. 11, 2010, I found myself once again hunting alone on what was most likely the last hunt of the year.

As the north wind slowly began to relax and the sun began setting behind the large oak trees to my west, I saw not one, but two bucks materialize in the roadway. As they began to feed, I noticed the second buck was the one I passed up during archery season.

Oh, how I wished one of the kids were with me! Then reality sank in, and I decided I would attempt to harvest one of the bucks myself. My intent was to take the buck we had now dubbed “Captain Hook,” but he never presented me with a shot, so I harvested the other buck.

I never dreamed it would be more than a year before I would see “Capt. Hook” again. He obviously spent the 2010-11 hunting season somewhere else, as I never even captured a trail camera photo of him.

At first, I convinced myself his “Houdini Act” was due to the timbering work around me and all the heavy equipment operation. In addition, most of the old growth that makes a deer feel comfortable traveling to and fro was replaced with newly-planted pine trees.

I began wondering if Capt. Hook had wandered unto one of the neighboring dog-hunting clubs or, worse yet, been killed by an automobile. As time passed, I began to convince myself Capt. Hook had learned a valuable lesson witnessing the loud rifle blast which took out his end-of-the-year buddy the previous season. It’s mystifying how a white-tailed deer can overtake one’s imagination, and all the disappearance possibilities become nightmares.

Late in August of 2011, we were in the deer woods pulling camera cards to assess the season’s potential. We conduct this ritual several times a month to keep up with what’s moving on the property and to ensure no two-legged creatures are crawling around.

It’s always exciting as you wait for the computer to warm up and read the newly-ac-quired photos from the game camera. To be honest, I had almost removed Capt. Hook from my memory bank (not really) when to my surprise he appeared on the screen.

I remember shouting, “He’s still alive!” to my family who were standing just over my shoulder. Wow, had he ever grown! He was sporting a newly-rubbed-out rack that was glistening in the night air. I could identify the tell-tale crab claw and the small inward hook which was only visible when he stood broad-side and looked straight ahead.

The small hooks had multiplied and were now on his G-4’s and main beam – however slight. The obsession had begun. Oh, how thrilled I was that he was still running around!

You can only imagine how the 2011- 12 hunting season went. Everything seemed to revolve around the next opportunity to be in the woods. We captured hundreds, if not thousands, of trail photos of Capt. Hook, but not a single one during daylight hours.

Capt. Hook was truly “Mr. Nocturnal,” and all of the long hours of sitting in the stand in anticipation of him showing up never materialized. We did however enjoy watching him via trail cameras. He shed his first antler on Feb. 21 and the next one the following day. We searched hard, but never found them.

The 2012-13 hunting season arrived, and I watched as Capt. Hook grew his antlers covered in velvet, rubbed out in late August and dawned his new, darker and more impressive rack.

It was not until Jan. 6, 2013 (a Sunday morning) that I got the first daytime photo-graph of Capt. Hook. By now he must have been stalking me, as he somehow knew I was attending church as he stood broadside 70 yards from my stand as if posing for the camera! But, that was all we saw of him for another hunting season. No shot, no sightings, only photos taken at night.

We had to endure months of waiting on end, knowing this deer was now at least 5-1/2 years old – maybe even older – and time was running out.

The 2013 season was the same story as the year before, except we got our next daytime photograph earlier in the form of a present on Christmas Day.

Capt. Hook appeared alongside two does at 5:40 p.m., according to my trusty trail camera, while I was at home celebrating the birth of Christ with my family. When I saw the daytime photograph two days later, I was actually disappointed, as I knew the odds of Capt. Hook showing himself again this season were heavily against me.

The first weekend of January 2014 was one that brought exceptionally-low temperatures to north central Florida (called the “Polar Vortex”). I remember hearing the forecast-ed low temperatures reaching the low 20’s. For a seventh-generation Floridian, that’s really, really cold!

I was spent and had actually considered throwing in the towel. I had hunted 44 previous “sets” (as we like to call them) that season, and the 45th did not seem very inviting.

On Jan. 6, the good Lord shined His blessings upon me. The afternoon work schedule cleared up, and I began feeling the rush and excitement of one more hunt.

I called my best buddy in the whole world, Big John, to discuss my plans. He’s one of a kind and always offers a word of encouragement. He said, “If you’re ever going to get him, today will be the day.” Big John was one of the few outside my immediate family that I shared my secret with. I made my way to the woods around 3 p.m. and slipped into the ground blind. The added cover helped me to stay slightly warmer, but it was really cold.

My grandfather’s rifle (a Browning .30- 06 I inherited) was leaned up against the corner of the blind. At 5:30 p.m. the first deer appeared as a flash across my blind window. She had sprinted across the road from my left to right. A few moments later I learned why she was running.

Mrs. Matriarch doe was pushing her away from the area, as she wanted it all to herself, going as far as to kick her with her front hooves. I had watched this doe as long as I had watched Capt. Hook. She had a small white patch on her side – as her grand-mother was piebald and her mother was colored normally.

When I saw her, my heart began beating much faster than normal because the Christmas photo showed Capt. Hook along-side of her, and I believed he had to be close by. Seconds seemed like minutes as I sat on total alert trying to gather my senses. Finally, at 5:42 p.m., Capt. Hook appeared.

He looked liked a monster! His rack seemed even larger, as his skinny, late-season frame had dropped enough weight to reveal his hips and ribs.

I could not believe it. After all these years, there he finally was! But, then he disappeared into the woods!

Fervent prayer followed. From the years of trail camera photos, I knew he was probably circling around to see if I was in the blind. Capt. Hook did this often – many times just moments after I would leave my stand. I knew if he did it now, I would be busted.

I could not even entertain the dismay I would feel. When I opened my eyes, there he was standing broadside at 70 yards. I quickly leveled my rifle and tried hard to control my breathing, focus and get a good sight picture - all the things I learned in the Marines, but it didn’t work. I was beside myself.

I had to start all over, get my gun back up and try again. As I pulled the trigger, I remembered my friend’s encouragement, my grandfather’s smile and all the countless hours we spent hunting Capt. Hook. It was a fitting end as I watched the big buck fall in his tracks.

This all took place within 30 yards of the first-ever encounter I had with Capt. Hook in 2009 – about 10 yards from where I had shot a buck directly in front of him in 2010 –and exactly a year from the day I captured his second daytime picture ever in 2013.

Some will read this and not believe a wild deer in Florida could live this long, especially when you throw in the hunting pressure from surrounding clubs.

If I had not seen it myself, I would not believe it either. It’s remarkably true, and I feel really blessed to have harvested such a trophy – which is a trophy as much as a result of the pursuit of him as it is from anything else. Happy Hunting!