I had a tough shot to make. In the fading light, the buck was barely visible through the iron sights on my .50-caliber blackpowder rifle. The firearm was not one of the fancy new inline-style rifles. This was an old Hawken-style rifle that had a range of only 150 yards.
Still, I could see the buck because of its huge size. He had one large drop tine on his left antler and a spread of more than 20 inches. I had already checked the deer and his rack out through my binoculars, which compensated for the low light. If I hadn’t had the binoculars, I never could have determined the buck’s size.
The deer would obviously score as a non-typical because he had antlers going in every direction. I didn’t spend much time studying the antlers, because of the disappearing light. Instead, I had dropped the glasses and snatched up the rifle. With the light fading as fast as ice cubes in water on a hot summer day, I had put the iron sights on the buck. However, I couldn’t identify the part of the buck I was looking at.
I grabbed my binoculars and looked again, wanting to be certain of making a good shot on a buck like this. The deer turned from broadside to a position of looking away from me. While I watched, another buck arrived in the field, and my big buck stepped into thick cover. With no shooting light left, I let the hammer back down to the safe position on my rifle.
I’d missed the chance to take a buck of a lifetime. Making the situation even worse was losing a non-typical trophy rack. Such massive antlers are a sight many hunters never witness in the wild during their entire hunting career. It was a missed opportunity to put a truly interesting mount over the mantle!
Later, a couple of questions about the buck popped into mind: Why are such non-typical racks so rare? Also, what causes the antlers to form in such a way? Fortunately, there are some folks at the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources who have some answers to these questions.
Photo by BillKinney.com
Of course, ideas in hunting can be pointed to as the gossip. That certainly holds true when it comes to what kind of rack a hunter considers the ultimate trophy. For some, that is a 10-point buck with perfectly matched sides to its rack. But for others it is a massive jumble of points piled on the deer’s head in a most untypical manner.
There is, however, even some misunderstanding of deer antlers and what constitutes a non-typical rack, at least in the view of one Cotton State expert. Dr. Keith Causey of Auburn University has made a career of studying white-tailed deer.
“A mature whitetail buck will have 8 points, 4 on each side,” Causey said. “A buck that has more antlers than this, even though he may have a perfect rack, is not a typical whitetail buck. So when you breed or feed for bucks that have more than 8 points, you’re trying to produce an animal that’s unnatural. Non-typical bucks are freaks of nature.”
Needless to say, such a view is not prevalent among hunters. To most sportsmen, a deer’s rack must be asymmetrical to be called non-typical. That is to say, the two sides of the rack do not match. For the purposes of this discussion, that is what is meant when non-typical is mentioned.
According to Keith Guyse, longtime wildlife biologist and the present assistant chief for the Wildlife Section in the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, it is hard to pinpoint exactly why non-typical racks appear in a herd. But to a certain extent it is predictable as to when they appear.
“In a young deer herd that’s just been introduced into an area, the bucks have a strong tendency to have similar formations every time they put on antlers. That’s why you don’t see many non-typicals in young deer herds,” Guyse notes. “However, as a herd matures, you begin to see bucks in the herd with abnormal points.
“Defining a specific reason for the presence of non-typical racks is difficult,” he continued. “These racks can be the results of genetics, a past injury, the health of the deer or the antler material he has growing on his head. Hormone levels of the bucks can also contribute to large non-typical palmated racks.”
Guyse also gravitates to a more traditional view of what is a non-typical rack. He noted that typical racks have main beams that are the primary points. The brow tines and all the other tines emerge from the main beam, growing upward.
“On a non-typical rack, points go in different directions,” he added. “Too, you often see palmation of the rack, rather than the antlers and the main beam being rounded. Also, points coming off other points and webbing are not typical characteristics of whitetail racks.”
Unusual circumstances, such as a drastic reduction of a buck’s food supply or internal injuries that prevent the buck from metabolizing its food, can result in the production of non-typical antlers, including palmation, which is flattening of the antlers to look much like those found on moose.
“An abnormal rack’s points usually originate from the inside or the outside of the beam, as opposed to coming off the top of the beam, which is normal. We have many more typical deer entered in the B&C program than non-typical. For every non-typical that is entered, there will be two to three typical racks.
“We see various rack patterns, both typical and non-typical, in different regions,” Tonkinson stated. “Occasionally a genetic or race situation will determine specific rack patterns. Genetics in certain areas produce specific types of racks.”
That is generally not the case with most non-typical whitetails.
“Most often, the animal has had some kind of virus, illness or deformity of some kind,” Tonkinson pointed o
ut. “Sometimes if the deer is damaged in a fight, some type of non-typical feature will result, even though he’s growing new antlers each year.”
Tonkinson concluded by noting that even if a rack has non-typical features it can be entered in the Boone and Crockett Club’s scoring system as either typical or non-typical. The hunter can make that decision based on which way it scores higher. But the buck can receive only one official score, as either a typical or a non-typical rack.
Those statistics are not surprising to anyone who pays close attention to white-tailed deer hunting in the Cotton State.
“Eighty-five percent of all trophy whitetails come from the Black Belt, even though this region only comprises 3.5 percent of the land area in Alabama,” explained David Campbell, who compiled “Alabama Whitetail Records” in cooperation with the Alabama Wildlife Federation.
My first encounter with a really big non-typical whitetail from the Cotton State, a deer taken by James Huckbay, is indelibly imprinted on my memory. It was in 1973 and I had just gotten home from my taxidermy shop after a long day.
“Mr. Phillips, I’ve got a really big deer that I want you to mount,” he said.
“Okay, I have a refrigerator on the front porch of my taxidermy shop,” I replied. “Just put the deer in there, and I’ll skin it in the morning.”
“I tried that, Mr. Phillips, but the deer won’t fit in the refrigerator,” Huckbay countered.
A little irritated, I asked why the deer wouldn’t fit in the refrigerator.
“His antlers are too wide,” Huckbay answered.
I didn’t really want to go back to my shop that night, so I suggested that he put the deer head in the trunk of his car, since the temperature had dipped way below freezing.
“It won’t fit,” he told me.
I couldn’t imagine a deer that wouldn’t fit in the trunk of a car.
“Where do you have the deer now?”
He said it was in the back seat of his car.
“You’ve got the entire deer in the backseat of your car?”
“No, sir,” Huckbay replied. “Just the head.”
Finally relenting, I drove back to the shop to see the deer head. Needless to say, the Winston County buck’s massive rack took me by surprise. Antlers were going everywhere! I had never seen such big Alabama whitetail.
The next day I called the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which at that time had no official Alabama whitetail records. Next I contacted the president of the Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF), and that organization decided to hold the first-ever Alabama Big Buck Contest. Boone and Crockett Club scorers officially ranked all the bucks entered that year. On top of the list was the Huckbay buck, which officially scored 199 2/8 B&C points. The AWF declared him Alabama’s first official state record non-typical buck.
At the time the buck was harvested, there were all kinds of rumors and stories flying around about it, including some not-so-flattering lies. Then I got the opportunity to get the story of the buck from Moss himself, which helped set the record straight. “Although I was from Mississippi,” he recalled, “I had a valid Alabama hunting license and had permission to hunt on the land. It met all the requirements of fair chase.
“The worst story I heard was when I arrived back home in Mississippi. I went to the bank I had used for years, and the teller who waited on me asked if I’d heard about the big buck that someone from Mississippi had killed. I said that I had.
“She responded, ‘Well, I’ve got the truth about the whole deal. I know for certain that the man who killed that deer was parked on a dirt road in the woods late at night with another man’s wife. They were in the back seat of his car. When they got ready to leave, he climbed out of the back seat, turned on the lights and saw this monster buck. He retrieved his rifle out of the back of the car, shot the deer, loaded it in his trunk and took the woman home. The next day he started showing the deer off.’
“I looked at the lady, smiled and asked, ‘Are you sure that’s exactly how it happened?’ She looked back at me and replied, ‘I’m absolutely sure.’ Then I said, ‘Lady, I’m the man who shot the big deer in Alabama, and I promise you, you are 100 percent wrong.’ “
Moss also said that he had to call the police twice because people threatened to steal his deer or burn down his house because they knew for sure he’d poached the deer off their properties and not taken it where he said he had.
“The deer was nothing but a nightmare to me,” Moss emphasized. “If I’d known how many lies would be told about me and this deer, I would never have pulled the trigger.”
To ensure the safety of his mounted trophy, Moss finally hung the deer head in the bank where he had challenged the teller’s story. That way it is safe and other hunters have the chance to view the great whitetail rack.
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