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Deer hunting: Todd County giant

Osakis' Josiah Hetland (left) and Alexandria's Aaron Gould with the giant whitetail they shot on November 4. The non-typical buck green scored 236 6/8 inches and will be officially scored for the Boone and Crocket record books after a 60-day drying period. (Contributed)

The phrase "buck of a lifetime" can get thrown around rather loosely sometimes, but when that buck ends up in the Minnesota record books, it probably really is deserving of that label.

That's what is likely to happen when all is said and done for Alexandria's Aaron Gould after he and his brother-in-law, Josiah Hetland of Osakis, took a buck from Todd County that green scored 236 6/8 inches on the first weekend of firearms season.

"As soon as he came out of the brush, I could tell it was him," Gould said, "even though it was just a second and a half or so that I had to shoot. When we got up to him, it was, 'I can't believe we actually did it.' I dreamed about it, but you never really know if it's going to happen."

By "him," Gould means a deer he had nicknamed the "Red Willow Buck." A huge shed found by Gould's 11-year-old brother-in-law in early 2012 started a journey to find out everything he could about this buck.

A game camera was set up on his in-laws' property near the Long Prairie River outside of Osakis. It took just a couple weeks to collect more than 4,000 photos of deer that were coming in to a salt and mineral site. Finally on July 29, a monster buck showed up on camera.

The Red Willow Buck was as easy to pick out of a crowd as any deer a hunter will ever see. If the mass and the points going everywhere weren't enough, there was a lone drop-tine off the main beam of his right side that made him impossible to miss.

"It weighed on my mind," Gould said. "Every day I thought about shooting that deer from the time that I first saw it."

Gould decided in 2000 that he was only going to take bucks that were above the 135 Pope and Young score card. That limited his opportunities over the next 11 years as he took just one buck. That strategy paid off this year after passing up a nice eight pointer that came within 10 yards of his stand on opening morning.

No one saw much deer movement the following day when the entire hunting party left their stands around 10 a.m. to do a few deer drives. The first push delivered no results before the group had lunch and came up with a game plan on how to approach the large cattail slough that Gould's stand overlooked.

"I knew it would be a good drive," he said. "I thought if we get him, this is where it's going to be."

Gould was one of the hunters pushing when deer started moving through the brush. Two bucks shot out in front of him before he easily recognized a third buck that followed the same path.

The Red Willow Buck was between him and another hunter who was posting when Gould first saw him. A few bounds later, the deer presented him with a clear and safe shot. Gould had just a tiny opening between the cattails but made his lone shot count with a well-placed slug.

The deer kept running as more shots rang out from the hunting party. Hetland saw the deer almost 25 yards away when he fired off three shots. The last of those put the deer down as Hetland ran up to the buck in disbelief.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I was surprised that we got the deer that we've been watching. I didn't know at that point that Aaron had hit it first, so I thought it was all my deer."

Their hunting party has a rule that the first hunter to make a shot through the vitals is the one who gets the deer. Hetland knew Aaron had made a good shot after looking him over. That doesn't mean it was easy giving up a deer of this magnitude.

"I think it would be a difficult decision for anybody to make," Gould said. "But Josiah has always shown himself to be an honest and good-hearted person. He knew what the standard was and he held true to that. No one wants to necessarily give away the chance at a deer of a lifetime. Josiah and I came to an understanding with the whole deer, and I have to tip my hat to him."

It wasn't necessarily how either of them envisioned taking the giant. Gould spent many hours learning everything he could about this particular deer. He looked at aerial photos of the land and the surrounding properties, trying to figure out as much as possible about the areas he was moving between.

Gould hoped all of that homework would pay off on opening morning. He would take care of everything within his control - the scents, the stand location, playing the wind right. That would leave only the deer walking out in front of him to chance.

"I get great satisfaction out of that," he said. "Doing drives, there's a lot less in your control. I like to primarily hunt where I have the most control and can say I put myself in the right situation. In this case, I was blessed that the deer came in front of me first. And so, it is a little bittersweet, but I'm not going to complain."

Not when he has a deer that will place him in the record books and the memory of a hunt that he shared with friends and family. According to the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, the biggest non-typical whitetail on the Boone and Crocket books in Minnesota was shot with a firearm in 1974 in Norman County and measured 268 5/8 inches.

Gould said the Red Willow Buck has 22 scoreable points and weighed 215 pounds field dressed. The deer will be officially scored for Boone and Crockett after the required 60-day drying period. Gould expects the green score of 236 6/8 to drop a little bit after drying but feels confident that it will be right in that area.

If the record book stands as it currently is, anything above 234 1/8 would put it in the top 15 of the biggest bucks ever taken in Minnesota. The biggest buck ever recorded in Todd County measured 230 2/8 inches and was taken by John Berscheit in 1976.

No matter what happens with the final measurements, Gould can say with confidence that this really is the buck of a lifetime. But that won't stop him from going after another one next fall.

"Obviously, everyone would love to shoot the state record," he said. "But few, if anybody in our lifetime will get that chance. I have personal limits that I have set on myself, 135 with a bow, a little higher with a gun. If a deer gets your heart going and you enjoy the chase, that's what it's all about. If a deer in the 150-inch class comes by next year, and I have my bow, I will gladly take that deer and be just as proud."

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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