Stephen McHugh's journey toward killing the biggest buck of his life began October 25, 2014, when he got a trail camera photo of a big-bodied 10-point he nicknamed Heavy 10. In 2015, McHugh started using a mineral called Lucky Buck. The first deer he ever got on camera while using that mineral was Heavy 10. That prompted a name change and Heavy 10 soon became known, quite simply, as Lucky.
"The first picture I have of him, he's walking right past my ladder stand in the middle of the afternoon," says McHugh. "He had a huge body and I knew he just needed time to grow the rack. You could tell in a year or two the rack would explode."
McHugh, 31, of Salem, OH, is married and has six children. "Things are very busy around the house," he says. "It's hard to find time to get away. Hunting is really my out. It's what I love to do and I stay involved by running 13 trail cameras and mineral sites year round. Checking them is a fun way for me to get out and relax and have fun."
Stephen McHugh with his 18-point bruiser, he had named ‘Lucky’ before putting an arrow in him in late October. McHugh green scored the buck at 185. It weighed 275 pounds. Photo courtesy of Stephen McHugh
The benefit of running so many cameras year round, of course, is that McHugh knows pretty much every buck in his neck of the woods. Despite that, though, catching up with Lucky proved to be quite the challenge.
"The first two seasons I hunted mostly the 40 acres behind my house," he says. "I knew he didn't live there and was just passing through. I got quite a few pictures of the deer that first year but they were sporadic, mostly during the rut when he was cruising through."
McHugh made a point not to press too hard and over pressure the deer. He hunted only when conditions were favorable and was careful to minimize his impact and presence in the area. The only deer he saw that first year, though, were small bucks.
At first light, a dandy 140-class buck he'd nicknamed Crazy came into the decoy, but McHugh laid off the trigger. He had only one buck on his mind.
At the end of the 2014 season, McHugh and his neighbor dumped out a pile of corn hoping to get a picture of the deer, which he did. The following spring he made a mineral lick at the site using Lucky Buck and got more pictures. Similar to 2014, McHugh was very cautious when hunting in 2015. "I did everything right and hunted only the best wind," he says, "but I still lost him from the tail end of November until the end of the season. I kept checking newspapers and Runzo's page on Facebook to see if anyone shot him, but as far as I knew nobody had."
When preparing for the 2016 hunting season, McHugh decided to change things up a little bit. Rather than wait for the deer to come onto his property, he decided to go to the deer. He poured over maps on Google Earth and checked surrounding properties until he settled on one particular creek bottom that he thought nobody was hunting. He figured that was probably where the giant buck was living.
Determined not to over pressure the deer, McHugh decided against actually hunting in the creek bottom. Instead, he got permission to hunt on a farm that bordered the bottom. He then relocated all of his trail cameras to the edge of the property closest to the creek bottom. Even with all those cameras, McHugh's first sighting of the deer came while leaving the property one evening. The buck was feeding in a bean field and McHugh snapped a photo of it with his cell phone.
Eventually the buck started showing up regularly on his trail cameras. "On the south side of the farm I started getting pictures of him," he says. "I didn't have permission to go into the bottom, so I was forced to stick to the edges. The bottom had a number of big, mature trees and a creek running up through the middle of it. It was maybe a hundred yards wide and about 600 yards long. Everything the deer needed was in that bottom, and it was completely secluded with corn and bean fields on both sides.
"Even when I got pictures, it was sporadic, at the tail end of light. I started writing down the wind direction for every day and then I pulled my cards and compared wind direction to where the buck was and wasn't. I noticed that when I had a south, southeast, or southwest wind, I didn't have pictures of the buck. But when I had a north, northeast, or northwest wind, I did.
"On the east side of the bottom, there are two hedgerows that kind of pinch together and I set up on the hedgerow heading north. Any wind would blow into the pasture behind me."
McHugh got pictures of the huge buck working through that pinch point on the mornings of October 9th, 10th, and 11th. Soon after, McHugh placed a wireless trail camera in that location so that he'd have real time updates on when the buck might be there. On the evening of October 27th, the buck finally returned and the picture appeared on McHugh's cell phone. He knew he had to be in his treestand the next morning if he wanted a chance at the deer of a lifetime.
Next morning, McHugh set up a doe decoy with some Tinks 69 and then climbed into his stand. At first light, a dandy 140-class buck he'd nicknamed Crazy came into the decoy, but McHugh laid off the trigger. He had only one buck on his mind.
After some rattling and grunting, McHugh waited in silence. About 20 minutes later, he heard a twig snap in the hedgerow and saw movement in the brush. He got his Parker crossbow ready as Lucky stepped into the open.
"I figured he'd be coming from the bottom but instead he came from dead downwind of me," McHugh says. "He was facing straight at me, heading straight for the decoy, but I was worried that, because he was an old deer, he'd circle around and bust me. So I took the shot. He ran about 35 yards and piled up right there in the field."
McHugh, of course, was ecstatic. It had been a long journey in the pursuit of one giant deer. He couldn't even believe it was Lucky until he actually walked up to it.
"It was a lot of fun chasing him," says McHugh. "Killing this buck was kind of a somber moment. After so much time spent trying to get this deer, it's hard knowing it's over. It was just as fun hunting for it as it was actually killing it. The whole experience, checking cameras and putting out the mineral sites, that's what it was all about for me."
Stephen McHugh's Columbiana County buck green scores 185 inches and has 18 scorable points. The buck was killed October 28, 2016, and its estimated weight was a whopping 275 pounds.