Mark Luster: The Story of 209-Inch Zeus
November 03, 2021
By Mark Luster
Every white-tailed hunter dreams of being able to hunt and harvest a giant buck. As a resident of Illinois, my entire life, in addition to my stint in the Marine Corps, I have seen the quality and size of the deer herd decline rapidly during the mid to late 2000s. Then in 2012, when I had the opportunity to move, I headed to Iowa to pursue my passion for living and constantly hunt giant whitetail. In my opinion, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) should be considered by all DNRs as the guide on how to properly manage a herd of white-tailed deer.
Fast forward to spring 2019. My son, Hunter, and I were combing back roads and looking at aerial photos looking for possible places to ask for permission to hunt. We came across this particularly beautiful property, so I stopped and knocked on the door. The gentleman told me that there were some people looking for the property behind his house, but that he had another piece of land across the road where we could go. I immediately took out my phone and looked at the aerial photo of the property. The owner detailed the property boundaries, gave us a key to the door, and Hunter and I went out to explore and hunt the new property.
The property was 200 acres, but only about 80 had actual coverage, and the rest of the land was farmland. The covered surface had a stream running through it with deep ditch fingers leading into the stream path. It didn’t take long to look at the property and know that there had to be a large deer or two calling this place home!
When the summer of 2019 rolled around, it was time for the tracking cameras to do their exploration. On the second print run of the card, we were looking at the photos and I almost fell! There wasn’t one large deer that called this place home, there were several!
As many hunters do, we decide on names for the big bucks. For this farm, we chose names of Greek gods. There was Hades, Poseidon and Apollo. And then there was Zeus, the king of them all! The cameras not only showed that he dominated the chicken coop, but also showed that he had a huge frame that would raise Boone and Crockett’s scores on the ladder. Zeus was going to be the deer I targeted.
After carefully combing the antennas and putting the boots on the ground, I knew where I wanted to hang our stands. Hunter and I went in to hang up bleachers and trim the shooting tracks. Then we sat back and let those sweltering summer days slowly shorten and fade in the cooler fall weather. We watched the Greek gods and, as usual, when the velvet came off, there was a change. We lost two of them; but two of them stayed home. Fortunately, Zeus was one of them.
I usually don’t get too excited about hunting until the calendar hits later in October. I may hunt some nights on the fringes of a large deer area, but I never push my luck until that first cold front in late October. That is, in my opinion, the best time of year to kill the money you know. You are at home and you are not stretching your legs yet, but the need to start the routine process may be too much for you to stay in bed until dark. So if there is a cold snap and the wind is favorable, late October can be dynamite.
October came and went, and our cameras were taking a fair amount of Zeus pictures, but they were all at night. So, he was hunting in moderation. But then in early November I got pictures of him in daylight.
On November 15, 2019, I had wind from the west-northwest, so I went to my favorite position on the property. It was in the inner corner of one of the small CRP fields. There was also a deep ditch coming up from the bottom that ended about 30 yards downhill from me. All the deer that moved through there were forced to turn around at the end of that ditch, which made it the perfect pinch point.
At 8 am, I heard deer running and looked to my left. There were four males chasing a doe straight at me, and the lead male was Zeus! I grabbed my bow and pulled it back. As is often the case when I am being chased, the doe was not on a trail and was halfway behind my tree. Zeus stopped behind her at 18 yards. This farm is full of honeysuckle and I was struggling to find a clear opportunity. The doe was going directly downwind and was getting nervous. I squatted down and found my hole. I touched the trigger and heard my arrow hit Zeus. He spun, ran 50 yards, and stopped, at which point I could see blood on his side where I hit him. I expected it to fall, but when the doe ran about a minute later, Zeus let out a loud growl and ran after her! He was heartbroken and confused.
I got down and checked the impact visor. My arrow was there, with blood no deeper than the arrowhead. After looking around a bit, I deduced that my arrow had been deflected by an invisible honeysuckle and simply “slapped” Zeus. To say that I felt defeated would be an understatement.
I hunted the rest of the year with no further sightings or photographs of Zeus. The neighbor had some photos of him, but none after mid-December, so he wasn’t sure if Zeus had survived the winter. In early spring 2020, I hunted hard but found no trace of him.
That summer I turned off my cameras, eager to see if Zeus was still alive and on the property. The first card toss was at the end of June, and there was Zeus! I’m pretty sure people in neighboring states may have heard me scream! At that time, it was all in this deer. No matter what, it was Zeus or no deer.
My road camera footage was very consistent throughout the summer, and Zeus seemed to be bigger than ever! Its length and mass of spikes were out of this world, and it had thrown a G-5 that it didn’t have before. It was a shining example of why I had moved to Iowa.
October 28 dawned icy, with a very weak west wind. Conditions were perfect, so I decided it was time to make my first real play for him. From what my cameras indicated, I thought he had his room practically nailed down. He was looking for a position a few hundred yards from where I shot him the year before.
At 8:30 am, a doe with twin calves arrived. Ten minutes later, I saw a large set of horns approaching along the opposite ridge. A look through my binoculars confirmed it was Zeus. When it became obvious that I wasn’t on a path that would lead him to my post, I grunted. He looked, but then continued his current path.
I scooped up my vibrant antlers, twisted my body to protect my movement, and slapped the horns together for a few seconds. I heard something and looked back in his direction. Zeus was running down the hill and devastating everything in his path!
Before I could hang up the antlers, he had crossed the creek about 40 yards and was looking up the hill in my direction. After pausing for a few seconds to survey the area, he continued in my direction. I hung up the antlers, grabbed my bow and hooked it. And when Zeus ducked under one of those dreaded honeysuckle bushes, I leaned back.
At 25 yards, he crossed where the doe had walked and his nose hit the ground. He immediately turned to his left and shot me. I stopped him with a grunt, but when I pulled the trigger, he started walking again.
As a result, my arrow struck a little further back than I intended, but I instantly saw blood. He knew the shot was back in the ribs, but in the middle. It was surely a lethal blow, but he also knew that patience would be the order of the day.
I sat down to try to compose myself and process what had just happened. Then I took out my phone and told my inner circle that I had just shot Zeus. I packed up my things and lowered my bow, but just as I was about to go down I decided to sit a little longer and pray to the Big Man Upstairs.
As I was sitting there talking to Him, I saw something two edges away. I raised my binoculars and didn’t see anything, so I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. But about five minutes later I saw him again, and this time I was sure I had just seen great antlers shaking. I raised my binoculars just in time to see Zeus get up from his bed, but he wasn’t right. He stumbled backward, tail wagging. At that moment I knew that he would not get far from that place, but I was going to wait 24 hours before tracking him down.
October 29 was cold and windy. I had my son and a couple of our closest hunting buddies join the recovery effort. The plan was to go where I had seen Zeus stand up and then start our search from there. As we were coming out of the ditch, just below where I had seen the deer stand up, my friend alerted me to a good deal of blood. And when I looked at it, I saw Zeus dead only 10 meters away.
In no way was I prepared to get on with that money. With each step closer, Zeus got bigger! I knelt beside him and was completely in awe of him. Of course I knew it was big, but I don’t think anyone is really ready to walk on a typical 209 4/8 inch thick set of antlers!
I took a photo and posted it on Facebook with the caption, “Set the Internet on Fire,” and OMG I did it sometime! I am truly blessed to have even been able to hunt a deer of this magnitude, let alone harvest one. Having my son and some close hunter friends with me during the recovery made it that much better. Today, with all the bad things that happen in the world, being able to hunt deer with my son and some close friends is a nice respite.
Many nights have passed since the faithful days of October 28 and 29. And now, when my head hits the pillow, I fall asleep not because of the dreams of a mythical deer that I have never seen, but because of the vivid memories of a Greek god. hiking a ridge in southeastern Iowa, about to make a 35-year dream come true!
Thanks for sharing this fantastic story Mark