10/30/09 — A stroke of good luck leads to trophy deer

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A stroke of good luck leads to trophy deer

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on October 30, 2009 1:46 PM

Like most deer hunters, I'm addicted to the outdoors. I joke with my hunting buddies about "deer farming" or "deer watching" in these days when "quality deer management" and "trophy management" are watchwords for the activities we once called "hunting."

Across the landscapes of many hunting territories, I have asked landowners or managers about their deer hunting rules. Rules range from farmers saying, "Please shoot all you can," to trophy hunters saying "don't shoot little bucks."

At a Mississippi deer club, I was once coached in assessing minimum size antlers that qualified a buck as a "shooter." Never had I seen such impressive deer mounts. But none of them, which all had at least 130 inches of antler under Boone and Crockett Club scoring methods, qualified for taking home.

The result of that hunt was that after 10 hunters had hunted two days, no one had a buck on the ground for a photo shoot. I had allowed one buck to walk away that probably scored above the club's minimum. But I didn't want to chance wearing out my welcome because of a woefully out-of-kilter Carolina coastal antler-scoring mindset.

When I was a kid I bought a bolt-action .30-06, which the counter man at the hardware store thought was odd. I was well under age 18, but back then I could still buy a rifle with after-school jobs money. There were no deer in Guilford County to hunt. Nevertheless, I dreamed of taking a single deer in my lifetime. Shooting the big-bore rifle stoked my fire. My first deer, a spike buck, was taken with that rifle from the Uwharrie Mountains when I was 20.

I became proficient with a recurve bow, taking a two-deer limit annually comprised of the first two deer that came close enough for an arrow. When I moved to the coastal plain, the deer limit was four and I took my limit with gun or bow each season.

I did a stint in a club that was under the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's Deer Management Assistance Program, where the club rules stated anything without antlers was legal as well as a buck with a rack of more than six points. This protected young bucks, weeded out surplus deer and increased my harvests to more than a dozen annually. It was remarkable how North Carolina's deer herd had grown. A single deer taken with an arrow when I was young earned a year's fame. Now, it takes a really big buck to raise anyone's eyebrow.

After seeing impressive results of DMAP on properties where I hunt, I adhere to quality management principals. This consists of enhancing habitat through controlled burns and planting wildlife-friendly foods, as well as taking large numbers of antlerless deer and allowing any buck with hard headgear that doesn't meet my definition of a trophy grow older and, hopefully, longer in the antler.

This season I had been "weeding my garden" again, using bonus antlerless tags. From a favorite tree stand where I have hunted for more than two decades, I had taken two antlerless deer with the old recurve and another with a muzzleloading rifle. On the second day of eastern gun season, I was perched in the same tree stand.

A doe fed into the open, then tiptoed nervously back into the forest. She kept looking backward over her shoulder, so I decided to pass up the shot. My hunter sense was tingling. My finger felt for the safety as I pondered what made her so skittish. A button buck fed into a food plot at a much shorter range before he also nervously melted back into cover.

I was thinking about being a kid again, badly longing to take a single deer and now allowing two deer to live that I probably should have taken to improve habitat quality. But I had seen a nice buck last year, as I had so many nice bucks over so many years and let him walk away. I hoped if I allowed enough young bucks that exhibited expanded antler potential to survive, sooner or later one of them would return as fully mature buck despite heavy hunting pressure with varied management schemes on surrounding properties.

A buck materialized on the track of the doe, head down as he trailed her scent. His neck was thick and dark as an oak tree trunk. When he turned away, antlers extended well beyond either side of his body. With a hastily taken shot from a .30-06 rifle at a moving buck 175 yards away, a lot can go wrong.

But it didn't.

I had acted instinctively, so I had no true idea of the actual size of the buck until I tracked him 30 yards to his final rest. His majestic head was high, its crown of antlers resting against a tree. The moment he came into view through the briers, that little boy who had once dreamed of taking a single deer in his lifetime fell to his knees.

On that tract of land in Mississippi, the buck wouldn't have qualified for the taking. But in the nitrogen-starved soils of a Carolina bay, where even plants eat insects to survive, the best management plan needs all the help it can get to produce a buck with antlers as impressive as those I was now touching.

Nothing helps a hunter take a trophy buck like the one I knelt to examine, hands shaking as they traced each curve of his magnificent antlers, as being struck by a bolt of good luck.