Covington County and the Christmas Buck

Last season this South Alabama area held a Yuletide surprise for one young hunter. Here's a look at his story and the county where it happened.

By Zack Glover

Back in 1983 a movie titled A Christmas Story came out. It was about a bespectacled boy who desperately wrangles for a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. If you have never seen it, go rent it today.

Set in 1940s Indiana, the movie shows how young Ralphie Parker must overcome considerable odds to convince not only his parents, but also seemingly every adult, including Santa, that he won't "shoot his eye out" if he acquires the most-desired item on his Christmas list.

So what does that have to do with Alabama in this new century? Life, it seems, imitates art.

Twenty years after Ralphie's story first flashed across the silver screen to become an instant classic, young Kyle Thornton of Andalusia found himself lobbying for his heart's desire - his own deer rifle. Getting it was not the problem; he had already convinced his parents, Gary and Vickie, that he would not "shoot his eye out."

What Kyle did have to convince his parents of - if he wanted to take full advantage of the gift during the 2003 deer season - was to let him unwrap the gun well before Christmas.

After eight or nine years of tagging along with his dad, the last one ending with a fat doe for the young hunter, Kyle was tired of shooting dad's gun and chomping at the bit to hunt with his own. Not content to wait until Christmas Day, the 13-year-old convinced his parents to let him have and hunt with his brand-new rifle long before St. Nick's visit.

"Vickie kind of didn't want him to get it early at first," Gary said. "But his little sister, Lakin, really wanted an electric scooter - all of her friends had them - so we finally decided to let them both have their gifts early.

"Kyle knew what he was getting. He helped pick it out," Gary continued. "He just kept on asking for it, pointing out that he'd miss half the deer season if we waited until Christmas."

Never mind that the seventh-grader could've hunted with his dad's 20-gauge Remington 1100 - the shotgun with which he had taken his first deer the previous year. Knowing that a scoped .243 was there with his name on it was more than Kyle could bear.

Kyle Thornton poses with the mount of his Covington County buck that tipped the scales at 240 pounds. Photo courtesy of Gary Thornton

The Thorntons succumbed to their son's pleading on Nov. 30. A week later, Kyle got another early Christmas present in the form of his first buck!

Kyle and his dad watched the sunrise on Dec. 7 on 40 acres owned by Gary's parents. The property of the grandparents, Lewis and Jeanette Holcomb, lies near Red Level.

Father and son sat side by side, Kyle cradling the gift Savage .243. He had practiced shooting it with his Uncle Clint, since Gary's recent back surgery prevented him from shouldering the gun to help sight it in.

Shortly after 6 a.m., four does crossed a gap in the tree line about 90 yards distant. Then not one, but two 8-pointers filed along 15 to 20 feet behind them. Kyle was a bundle of raw nerves, but he was going to shoot one of those bucks until his dad nudged him.

"I bumped Kyle and told him not to shoot, to look to his right," Gary recounted.

At the time, Kyle must have thought his dad was crazy - an 8-pointer was in his sights!

When the freckle-faced youngster's bright blue eyes shifted to that new location, they grew as big as coasters.

"It was another buck, a huge one," Kyle said with a big grin. "It looked like a moose! It was real hard keeping my gun steady, and I didn't want to miss."

"I could tell he was nervous," Gary agreed. "I whispered to him, 'Make sure those crosshairs are where daddy told you to put them.' "

As soon as Kyle squeezed the trigger, the buck flinched and then disappeared into a thick block of woods. Yet, when the boy and his dad reached the spot where the deer had been standing, there was no sign whatsoever of a hit.

"I thought I'd missed it. I was scared when we couldn't find blood," Kyle admitted.

Following the path the fleeing whitetail had taken for about 40 yards, they eventually found some red drops. Separating after that, the pair tried to discern which way the wounded buck had run. It was Gary who spotted the downed deer about 20 yards farther into the search and yelled to Kyle.

The shot had been perfectly placed behind the shoulder, despite the trembling young arms in control of the unfamiliar rifle. The moment he saw the deer on the ground, Gary's own arms - and legs - grew every bit as wobbly as his son's had been.

"At first, we counted only 10 points. That's what I told mom I'd shot when I called her," Kyle said. "Not until we got it down to Granny's did we see there were 15 points. I called mom back!"

The buck was equally huge in body, too, especially for a Covington County animal.

"It weighed 240 pounds," Kyle gushed. "I only weigh 90 pounds! Me and Daddy together couldn't budge it, so I ran back to get Pawpaw. He has a four-wheeler."

Kyle commandeered the telephone once the chore of dressing the buck was done. He called all his friends to tell them about his buck, though few believed him until he actually took photographs to school.

The 15-pointer's rack grossed in the high 160s on the Boone and Crockett scoring system.

"Nobody's killed anything bigger in our family!" Kyle said, beaming.

That's not hard to believe, since only one hunter - Ricky Gibson of Red Level - has taken a bigger buck in all of Covington County.

THE GIBSON BUCK

Ricky Gibson shot his whitetail on Jan. 8, 2002. He was running late that morning, so he did not reach his shooting house until 7 a.m. Just as he was about to climb into the stand, he looked up and saw a buck hightailing it across a 20-acre field, he

ading straight toward him.

"He was running flat out," said the 37-year-old farmer, "like somebody had spooked him. Either that, or he realized that he'd been caught in the open after sunup."

The buck was at almost 300 yards before it crossed the path that Gibson had taken to get to his stand. And as soon as the panicked deer's nostrils filled with man-scent, it veered sharply - changing course so that Ricky would have just one opportunity to stop it.

Knowing that it was a long shot, but his only one, Gibson leveled his rifle and squeezed off a round. The buck fell, but it regained its footing immediately and managed to jump a fence and disappear onto the neighbor's property. After getting the landowner's permission and a tracking dog, he found his prize. The rack on that monster grossed 185 7/8 inches of antler.

COVINGTON COUNTY

Covington County is known for harboring large numbers of whitetails, but it ranks near the bottom among producers of heavy-antlered bucks.

In fact, a check of the most recent edition of Alabama Whitetail Records reveals 1,034 entries from throughout the state. Yet, only four of those came from Covington County. Besides Ricky Gibson's monster, the other three entries were all archery kills. The most recent of these was an 8-point buck arrowed by Kenneth Eisele in 1996. That rack had a gross measurement of 119 6/8 inches.

A season earlier in 1995 Craig Harrison also got an 8-pointer on a bowhunt in the county. That deer's rack grossed 116 7/8 inches.

Clayton Wood took the final of the three bucks, making his kill in 1994. His 9-pointer had a 4x5 rack that grossed 116 1/8 inches.

As noted, all of these scores are before deductions, which is how deer are accepted for the Alabama Whitetail Records book.

The main reason for the lack of quality racks from Covington County is simply its geography. Located between Escambia and Geneva counties, jammed in against the Florida state border, Covington is as far south as you can get in southeast Alabama. This is a region of sandy soils that hold relatively few nutrients; thus both the body and antler size of bucks suffer.

On the other hand, as noted earlier, this is a region that produces lots of deer. Also, the county is blessed with a wealth of public hunting lands. About two-thirds of the Conecuh National Forest's 83,083 acres of land are located in the southwest quadrant of the county. Of these U.S. Forest Service lands, 23,370 acres are managed by the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries as the Blue Spring Wildlife Management Area. Virtually all of the Forest Service land offers deer hunting for archers, primitive-weapons fans and hunters using modern firearms.

Also in this region is the Covington WMA, located to the east of the national forest and abutting Geneva County. This tract of state-owned land covers 22,490 acres and also provides deer-hunting options.

Blue Spring and Covington WMAs consistently rank among the top 5 in the state for the number of deer they give up. In recent years, they have each yielded between 250 and 300 animals to hunters. Blue Spring has an area where hunting deer with dogs is allowed and it generally is tops among all the public tracts in the Cotton State for yielding deer to dog-hunters.

For more information on these two wildlife management areas or for the hunting regulations in Covington County, visit the Web site of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, at www.dcnr.state.al.us.

Click the link for Hunting and then follow the prompt for Seasons & Bag Limits for the hunting regulations. For WMA information, follow the prompts for Where To Hunt and then Wildlife Management Areas.



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