If there’s one enduring lesson from 2020, it’s that family matters. And for upstate New York bowhunter Phillip Pless, that’s never been more apparent than when it comes to the autumn pursuit of whitetails.
A disabled veteran from Newfane, N.Y. who served in the United States Navy, Pless saw all levels of family become an important cog in his recent hunt for a huge buck on a small farm barely 10 miles from Lake Ontario. From his wife to his extended family to even a late grandfather he never met; all played a key role in Pless’ recent bowhunt for a buck apparently destined for the upper reaches of the record book.
When the smoke had cleared from his recent outing, the 43-year old bowhunter — who has chased deer since he was 16 and has hunted whitetails with a bow since 2010 — had a massive 5 ½-year-old non-typical that could push up toward state-record status in the Pope and Young Club record book for the Empire State.
While he’ll have to wait until the mandatory 60-day drying period is over to find out what the buck’s official score is early next year, the early green numbers on Pless’ Nov. 8 bowkill put it into benchmark territory at 222 6/8 inches gross and 213 7/8 inches net.
If the numbers on the Pless buck hold, it stands to wrestle the top spot away in the archery record book from a 2011 buck taken in Suffolk County by Michael Giarraputo. That whitetail scored 209 6/8 inches net and has been the Pope and Young Club state record non-typical buck ever since.
Until Pless’ recent bowhunt, that is. Not bad for a bowhunter who wasn’t even sure if he would be able to get out into the woods on the fateful Sunday afternoon.
“I was at home watching the kids while my wife ran some errands, and I really had no plans to hunt that day,” said Pless. “Plus, the local fire company was having a raffle gun drawing on Facebook and I kind of wanted to watch that along with the Bills game.”
But when his wife Elizabeth arrived home around mid-afternoon — and with the Bills doing well on the gridiron in their eventual 44-34 win over the Seattle Seahawks — a beautiful fall afternoon in November proved to be too strong a temptation for the enthusiastic bowhunter.
“Since the Bills were winning, I said to my wife, ‘You know what? I’m going to go hunting,’” chuckled Pless.
So he quickly put on his new birthday present, a pair of LaCrosse rubber boots from his wife, and got dressed in his favorite Realtree Edge camouflage. Then Pless made the short 10-minute drive to the small family farm, hiked to his ladder stand, and put on a cover scent he relies heavily upon.
“I’ve tried to access my stands like the pros do,” said Pless. “I watch all of the TV shows and try to watch the wind like the pros do. But I also put on a Conquest scent on the bottom of my boots.”
After doing so, he climbed up to see what the afternoon would bring. Hopefully it would deliver a chance at a bruiser buck that Pless had seen for four years on his Wildgame Innovation trail cameras. But despite hunting the farm regularly, having a couple of the buck’s sheds, and having a growing library of trail camera photos, in the field sightings were all but non-existent for the big non-typical.
With any luck, that would change. But after getting settled in around mid-afternoon, the first hour was uneventful as Pless sat in his stand overlooking the old fruit tree farm that is now a mix of uplands, soybean and corn fields, as well as scattered woods.
As Pless waited, hoping to see the buck that had disappeared from his cameras in recent weeks, the beautiful fall afternoon with mild temperatures and light winds drew his wife to the family farm to walk with the couple’s young children — 3-year-old Grace, 2-year-old Liam, and the couple’s soon-to-be-born son Easton.
“After I had been sitting in the stand for a little bit, my wife had texted and said that she had come to the farm with the kids,” said Pless. “She asked if she could walk back that way with the kids. I told her yes, but not to come too far. When they got to a certain spot, I’d wave at them.”
But as Pless dropped his cell phone back into a pocket, he looked up and had to catch his breath — the giant buck he had watched for four years now was in the scrub field in front of him with a doe.
“I looked at him through my Vortex binoculars — I use the 10×42 Diamondback HD set — to make sure it was him, then I took couple of pics and sent them to my wife and told her not to come back here because he was here.”
While the full details of Pless’ hunt will be saved for a future issue of North American Whitetail magazine, suffice it to say that the bowhunter began a cat-and-mouse game with the giant buck that lasted into the final minutes of sunlight. At first, the buck disappeared into the woods while the original doe remained in the field. A short while later, the buck reappeared with a couple of other does and chased one around briefly as the group slowly advanced in the bowhunter’s direction.
When it seemed like the bruiser would come no closer, Pless decided to trust his long hours of practice work on the shooting range this year as he sought to improve his skills at longer distances. Drawing his Hoyt Maxus 31 back, he steadied the sight pin on his Trophy Ridge sight, touched the release, and let the Easton arrow and Rage broadhead sail downrange towards the buck 40+ yards away.
“As I drew back, I prayed to God that I wouldn’t miss and then I let the arrow go,” said Pless. “He turned a bit on the shot, but the arrow hit him and went through the shoulder, shattering it, and getting lung. He went about 80 yards, stopped about four times — each time I could see blood coming out — and then I saw him drop.”
Composing himself — Pless admitted he started shaking like a leaf after he cut the shot loose — the archer waited until dark. As he climbed down, the bowhunter ruefully discovered that in his haste to get out of the house and into his stand, he had left his flashlight at home. After using his cell phone light to briefly examine the area, Pless retreated to the farm house for a light and some tracking reinforcements.
“When we got back down in there, he wasn’t too far from where I had last seen him,” said Pless. “My arrow had gone through the right shoulder and gotten lung.”
With the deer now successfully recovered, Pless and his family members couldn’t get over how huge the buck was, both in terms of its antler dimensions and body size.
“He weighed about 250 or 260 before we gutted him,” said Pless. “And he was bigger (antler wise) than he appeared to be in the trail cam photos I had. He looked big in the pictures, but in person, he was just huge.”
Pless admitted that he was a little befuddled as he went about tagging the animal, getting it field dressed, and loaded up for the ride out.
“I couldn’t really concentrate as I tried to soak it all in,” he laughed. “I even asked someone for a pen five times. As it turns out, I had the pen in my hand all along.”
When you’ve just shot a buck that could be a new archery state record — in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, no less — that’s understandable.
Now Pless will sit back and enjoy fresh venison on the family dinner table, look forward to the completion of a pedestal mount of the buck that is being done, and eagerly await the final scoring process in January 2021.
Already, others in his small western New York region are pretty excited to hear the story and see the photos of this great buck.
“Yeah, my brother told me that this thing would go viral,” said Pless. “And I guess it has, because I’ve even had people approach me when I’ve been out and about. One was the other day in the parking lot of a gas station. The guy looked at me and said ‘Hey, is that you?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And then he said, ‘Are you the guy who shot that big deer?’ as he pulled his phone out and showed me a photo of me and my deer. And I said ‘Yeah, that’s me, I’m the guy!’”
In the meantime, as Pless enjoys his brush with local fame, he’s also filled with gratitude as the season of Thanksgiving approaches. First, for his wife and her daily work from home, along with her also trying to help her husband get into the woods to pursue his outdoors passion.
Next Pless is grateful for a host of friends and family members who have taken an interest in his hobby along with helping to drag the buck out, including Kevin Austin, Scott Pipelis, Jason Pless, and Connor Pless.
And finally, he’s thankful for the memory of one of his primary deer-hunting inspirations, the late grandfather that he never met, Clarence Pless. Years ago, the late hunter was passionate about his own pursuit of New York’s big whitetails, even taking a record-book giant with a shotgun.
“My grandpa Pless used to hunt, but I never got to meet him since he passed away before I was born,” said Phillip. “My grandpa was a good deer hunter, and last week, my uncle Glenn gave me some of my grandfather’s stuff because he thought I might like to have it. It included a picture of my grandfather at deer camp with several others.”
In that deer camp photo taken near Greenwood, N.Y., the black and white image shows several proud hunters along with several good bucks hanging from the camp’s sagging meat pole. And the biggest belonged to Clarence, who was also 43 at the time — a huge typical whitetail placing high up in the New York State Big Buck Club.
He’s heard the stories of his grandfather’s love of deer hunting from his dad Bruce, his uncle Glenn, and others — so much so that he felt his grandpa’s presence during his recent hunt for a record book giant.
“You know, I don’t honestly know how to feel about all of this, I guess it really hasn’t all sunk in yet,” said Pless. “But it’s been really exciting, and I’ve been telling others that I think my grandfather was either sitting beside me or was up above watching over me when I shot this deer. He shot his big buck back in 1942 at the age of 43 and I shot mine at 43 — my birthday was just the other day.”
Proving that even in a time of unprecedented health crisis and uncertainty, many of the things that have made our country great still remain, things like hope, family, love, and a desire to get outside to see and experience the great outdoors.
Pless certainly understands, especially this year, a time when the coronavirus has ravaged his home state.
“I know it’s been bad here,” said Pless. “But I don’t know anybody who has gotten it and suffered from it — at least no one in my family, thank the Lord.”
Whatever else people remember the year 2020 for, Pless will always remember it for something wonderful and grand every time he looks in the antlered direction of a certain big buck he dreamed of tagging for several years. In the end, it was a deer that lived up to the hype, in the passionate bowhunter’s mind at least.
“It is the buck of a lifetime,” agreed Pless.
In a year that will never be forgotten. May all of us as hunters be so blessed in the fall of 2020 as we head to the woods with the hope for a big buck, good health, and the love of family and friends tucked away in our back pocket.