Outside the lodge at World Class Whitetails, there's only stillness. Here in Millersburg, among the velvet hills and serenity of Amish country, time slows down. Beyond the high wire fence protecting the grassy ranch, you can make out a few eyes glinting from a patch of woods. The deer are grazing, entirely unconcerned.
Finally, the growl of a motor reaches the lodge. The combination jeep/golf cart that ferries customers around this hunting preserve is returning with a full load. Kevin Smoker drove up from Alabama yesterday to give his two teenage sons their birthday presents: trophy kills. The biggest buck the boys have ever seen is now lying in the back of the cart, a bright froth of blood ringing its mouth.
As a guide named Bud wipes away the crimson, World Class owner Dan Yoder orders the hunters back to the field for pictures. Make it look more natural, he says. So they trundle out to the grass and heave the enormous carcass onto the ground. Bud tells 16-year-old Sage Smoker to pick up the deer's head by its antlers and pose.
"Smile, young man. You got a beautiful deer there."
Forget your grandfather's version of hunting — waking up before dawn, trudging into freezing darkness, trying to cover your scent as you wait hours to spot a buck. This is hunting in the Wii Age, where fast, wall-mount-caliber kills are the goal. If you are willing to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $20,000, you can bag the trophy of a lifetime.
World Class is among 27 licensed hunting preserves in Ohio. Most of these privately owned ranches are concentrated in the southern part of the state, catering to men with money to burn.
In a sense, they're much like conventional farms. Owners raise their own deer or buy the best bucks and semen from other farmers. By the time the deer are released into the fenced-in preserve, they bear more resemblance to purebred horses than wild animals.
The goal is to provide an endless supply of trophy bucks — proud, barrel-chested beasts with crowns of elaborate antlers that can stretch two feet wide and rise in sculptured patterns. Though racks like theirs appear more often in reindeer movies than in the wild, genetic manipulation makes them a common reality on the preserves, producing young deer whose antlers are bigger than any mature buck's naturally grow.
Consider it an equalizing of nature's odds. Young hunters spend their childhoods listening to Dad and his buddies brag of the magnificent creatures they bagged in their day. Having those antlers on your wall serves as testament to your skill and patience as a hunter. But encountering a buck like this in the wild might happen once in 30 years. So some hunters find it's worth the shortcut to hunt on a preserve, where the trophy has no escape.
At World Class Whitetails, a 200-acre ranch that once housed a sawmill, Yoder even guarantees his hunts. Either you take home a deer, or your only cost is a $500 deposit for lodging.
When a new batch of hunters arrives, their first task is picking a target, much as you'd select a dog at the pet store. They ride out to a little shack that smells like freshly cut wood, from which they have a clear view of the landscape. Hunters can spend hours sitting in canvas folding chairs, peering through their binoculars.
The decision is all about price. The width and style of a buck's antlers determine whether he costs $3,000 or $8,000. Sometimes the biggest challenge is just keeping track of the buck you want. If you shoot the wrong one, you can end up paying a lot more than you bargained for.
It helps that there are plenty of people raising deer to support the preserve population. Deer farming began in the Amish community, where farmers accustomed to raising cows and sheep found a new, ripe market. Today, there are more than 500 deer farms in Ohio.
"Just like dog breeding and horse breeding, right now breeding for trophy racks is unbelievably huge," says Dennis Malloy, a field director for the national conservation group Whitetails Unlimited.
Big-antlered bucks can sell for $38,000, a straw of their semen for $4,000, according to Yoder's ads. "It's pretty astounding what you will see people paying," says Lindsay Thomas Jr. of the Quality Deer Management Association in Georgia.
Yet to Steve Garrison, a hunter from Tennessee and loyal customer at World Class, it's all driven by a very simple concept: "Everybody wants to kill a monster deer."
Why this is happening depends on whom you ask. Some will tell you that hunting is slowly returning to its European roots as a province of the rich. In the past, hunters could knock on a farmer's door and ask to hunt his land. But as America's population becomes more suburbanized, fewer hunters know any farmers. And in the Golden Age of Litigation, farmers are reluctant to let strangers shoot up their land.
So if you're from out of town, you may have little choice but to sign up with a guide or pay thousands to lease the opportunity to hunt private land. Some outfits charge $2,500 for five days of meals, lodging, and guided hunting.
"The amount of privately held land where you can hunt easily has dropped significantly," says Jeff Davis, a Wisconsin hunter and spokesman for Whitetails Unlimited. "It's making it real difficult for an average guy to go out and hunt."
Meanwhile, the deer season for gun-hunting on public property in Ohio lasts less than two weeks, and it could take days to stalk a buck that makes the trip worthwhile. And public lands are becoming increasingly crowded.
The average hunter will find a way around this. He'll go to the great woods of Wayne National Forest in southeast Ohio and wait to hear the sloshing of deer feet near a beaver dam. He'll scout the farm of a family friend or a woods he has known since childhood. It's largely the well-to-do, especially those from southern states, who are seeking less traditional options.
In Texas, for example, most of the land is privately owned, so the monied set flocks to hunting ranches, leasing outfits, and private clubs. They'll pay to shoot deer the way others might save up to shoot exotic elk or wild boar. Dick Cheney was quail hunting on the private, 50,000-acre Armstrong Ranch last year when he accidentally shot a friend.
Ronnie Branton, the owner of a South Carolina building company, is a loyal customer of World Class Whitetails. He says that he has to join clubs to hunt where he lives. That means paying a fee, then settling for whatever buck he can find. That doesn't bode well for the trophy collection decorating the walls of his game room. Yoder's ranch provides much better odds.
"You can spend $4,000 to $5,000 quick, just hoping to see one," Branton says of the odds back home. "You can come up here and be guaranteed something you'd be proud of."
This attitude is what separates preserve hunters from the masses. The majority of hunters would never pay to shoot domesticated deer in a pen. It runs afoul of the whole man-against-beast ethic of the sport — not to mention that it lacks the serenity of traversing wild lands. "It gives all hunters a bad perception in the public eye," says Thomas.
In fact, many hunters say the shrinking selection of private land has nothing to do with the rise of these preserves. "You're dealing with people that are lazy. They want instant gratification," says Kevin Hisey, executive secretary of the Pope & Young Club, a national bow-hunting group. "Let's go shoot a critter on a game farm, 'cause it's fast and easy."
Pope & Young, like many traditional hunting institutions, refuses to recognize trophy deer killed in fenced preserves. In some states, such as Montana, hunters have lobbied to make the preserves illegal. The venerable Boone and Crockett Club, founded by Teddy Roosevelt, "condemns the pursuit and killing of any big game animal kept in or released from captivity to be killed in an artificial or bogus 'hunting' situation," its website declares.
Even some groups that refrain from criticizing the practice can't hide their distaste.
"It's our basic feeling that there should be enough space that the animal has a reasonable chance of eluding a hunter," says Anthony Aeschliman of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Yet it's hard to exactly define what constitutes a fair chase. How many acres are enough to give animals free rein? Malloy notes that Ohio releases pheasants in public hunting areas. And many lakes are stocked with fish raised in hatcheries. "When does it cross the line?"
Whitetails Unlimited's position is that "as long as it's legal, then it's OK," says Davis. But to him, hunting is more about pursuit and traditions — like freezing in a cramped shack or cooking meals with your son — than bagging a trophy.
"I think it really gets back to what the individual's hunting ethic is," he says. "If your hunting ethic is to go into the woods and pit yourself against a wild animal . . . it's sort of a humbling experience. Some people don't want to be humbled."
Back in Millersburg, Yoder's customers aren't a modest breed. Most are executive types from places like Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas, where the native deer are much smaller. Yoder estimates he gets around 100 hunters a year.
They come partly because of Ohio's reputation for trophy bucks. Last fall, a deer shot in Adams County became a celebrity in the hunting world when it scored more than 300 on the Boone and Crockett scale — nearing the world record for "non-typical" whitetails, which have elaborate antlers pointing in different directions. That same season, a buck felled in Brush Creek State Forest scored 197, becoming one of the largest "typical" bucks ever entered in the Pope & Young record book. While these animals were killed in Ohio's wilderness, they still serve as a marketing tool to attract southern preserve hunters.
They drive or fly up to World Class for a day or two, shoot their trophies, and go home. Yoder, a red-bearded man with youthful eyes and a shotgun temper, does his best to make them happy. He'll even throw in tours of Amish country.
He's been in business about six years and has acquired some loyal customers. Take Steve Garrison, who found Yoder online and kept coming back. This year, Garrison came up in September, bagged a 170-class buck, and then returned in October simply to help Yoder out around the ranch.
"I just love it so much. I just love being around it," he says, resting in a rocking chair as he waits for the morning's hunters to return.
Being in the wilderness is not part of his daily routine. He manages an industrial-supply company in Chattanooga and has been hunting for more than half his life. He's in awe of the mounted bucks decorating the lodge's walls. "If I hunted my whole lifetime and I had one shot at a deer like that, I would be very, very lucky," he says.
Some customers sound like love-struck schoolgirls when gushing about their kills. "I am so excited about getting the opportunity to get a 180 class with you," writes Rick Lewis in a testimonial posted on the company's website. "Thanks so much for your thoughtfulness in taking care of me!! I'm dreaming about taking one of your wide 180-class monsters, hopefully close to typical. I can hardly wait!!!!!!!"
Kevin Smoker, a real-estate company owner with a rust-colored beard and twinkling eyes, is accustomed to hunting with his boys in the wild. He only took them here to bag trophies. "They've been hunting since they were old enough to walk," he says proudly.
Sixteen-year-old son Sage killed his first deer when he was six or seven. But he never came close to shooting deer like those at Yoder's ranch. As Dad talks, one of the boys quietly plays with the eyes and nose of Sage's buck, pulling the skin on its face like Silly Putty.
After Sage's success that October morning, letting younger brother Zach go home empty-handed wasn't an option. By the afternoon, Smoker is starting to get anxious. The boys' fall break will be ending the next day, and they need to start the drive home.
Bud offers to bait the deer by spreading feed, so the herd will gather and Zach can shoot from 30 to 40 yards away. He and the Smokers set out, promising to return soon. But more than an hour passes, and they don't come back.
Sometime after 5 p.m., a shot booms, then another. Still, they do not appear. Perhaps it's taking a while for the buck to die. Finally, the crew returns, triumphant. But there's little time to celebrate. A new crop of hunters has arrived from the Carolinas, and they're eager to start scouting.
Yoder knows how all this looks. He knows that a ranch with a 10-foot wire fence and a brochure that advertises discount prices for injured deer might not go over well with the general public.
So he grills Scene's reporter and photographer, trying to make sure their article will be "positive." No photos of the fence, blood, or deer guts are allowed. He says we can witness a hunt, then somehow lets a day pass without it happening. At one point, he drops us off in a wooden scouting shack while he takes a customer to stalk a deer, claiming that too many people tagging along will scare the animal.
Near the end of the day, he announces that he won't invite the media back to his ranch again, because "I don't have control on it." Seeing a reporter writing this comment down doesn't help. "That's bullshit," he says, and stalks off.
He's right. Media reports about hunting preserves are rarely kind. Yoder, at least, allowed a reporter onto his ranch. Other outfitters did not return calls from Scene.
But at least one of his colleagues was unapologetic. Mike Scarbrough runs KG Trophy Whitetail Deer & Elk near Cadiz. His ranch provides both fair-chase hunts — pursuing wild deer on more than 500 acres of farmland — and preserve hunts on a 140-acre fenced area.
He's endured a lot of criticism in the three years he's been in business, but says he's just giving people what they want. "There's people that have more time than money, and people that have more money than time."
Business execs who come from out of state would need a guide to show them where to hunt in Ohio anyway, he reasons. And in a public forest, they probably still wouldn't find the trophy bucks they want. He provides that service.
Scarbrough has been hunting since he was 13, and prefers to do it in the wild. But he never sees wild deer like the ones stocking his preserve.
"To get that opportunity comes once in a lifetime," he says. "It's something people are willing to pay for."
Ronnie Branton and his 20-year-old son, Evan, spent all day driving from South Carolina. Evan's eyes are still burning from staring at the road. Yet he's more than happy to jump behind the wheel of Yoder's cart and head out to scout.
A few dozen deer graze in a clearing in front of the shack. The animals look up and freeze, hooves poised, when they hear a motor.
The Brantons, along with a gray-haired hunter from North Carolina who doesn't want his name printed, settle into the shack's folding chairs, peering through binoculars at bucks that can't be more than two dozen yards away. Their comments, delivered in rolling southern dialects, sound as if they could be describing an entirely different species.
"That one over yonder has got a huge chest," notes North Carolina.
"He got a big ol' rack on 'im," Evan chimes in. Then, turning his attention to a buck that's limping painfully, adds: "He'd be a pretty deer around the house."
Ronnie Branton, the veteran of the group, keeps hauling out his digital camera to show off pictures of his kills. With his capacious girth and khaki pants, he's clearly the money behind the operation. His son is out here for the first time.
"They say it ain't as easy as it looks," Evan says. "I guess we'll find out."
As the sun stains the sky purple and pink, the men squeeze back into the golf cart and tool around the edge of the woods, pausing every few minutes to examine the more hidden animals.
Money — and Yoder's bargaining skills — are never far from their minds. "Song and a dance and a blank check, he'd let you have that thing," Evan says of one prize specimen. "He's got a nice basket on 'im."
Evan says he pays $2,800 to $3,500 to hunt in the wild in Texas. He's planning to keep this hunt in the same price range. It's worth it, if a trophy is guaranteed.
Meanwhile, this is his dad's third trip to World Class. In addition to big deer, he likes being around Amish people, and Yoder happily tours him around the area.
"We just enjoy the hospitality," Ronnie Branton says. The lodge is clean, the food is tasty, and, most important, the owner is a savvy salesman. He keeps his ranch stocked with deer to fit all price ranges. "Whatever you can afford, that's what he's got for you," Branton says.
In this way, Yoder provides a hunting experience that is truly unique for the centuries-old sport: no risk, no disappointment.
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