North Florida Trophy Buck Roundup

Last season was a bonanza for big bucks in the northern counties of the state. Here's what the action was like and what was harvested!

Mike Pettis holds the rack of the 142 2/8 B&C buck he downed last season in Bay County.

Photo by Silas Crowley

It is amazing how attitudes change. Three decades ago, most hunters in North Florida used dogs to run deer, and if a young buck with 5-inch antlers came by, it was a dead deer. But times are changing.

For one thing, somebody seems to live in every block of woods, and there are not that many places left where deer dogs can run without upsetting people and elicit calls to the local game warden. You can say that the cause is "urban creep" or people simply wanting to be left alone, but deer dog-hunting is difficult to do in many areas now.

Another important factor is that today's hunter is more informed and educated about deer hunting than were hunters at any other time in history. Regardless of where they are in Florida, most hunting clubs or lease holders today practice some form of quality deer management. As a result, deer taken in the northern tier of Sunshine State counties are the product of intentional deer management.

Let's have a look at the results of some of that management by recounting the stories of some of the top bucks from the 2004-05 season and how the hunters took them. In some cases, the hunters used skill and prowess; in other instances, they just happened to be at the right spot at the right time.

Fortunately, finding out about the largest bucks is made easier by looking at deer added to the Florida Buck Registry this past season. If we use the Boone and Crockett score of 120 as our cutoff, which is a fine trophy anywhere in the country, we see that there were 32 bucks added to the FBR last season from the northern counties alone that scored at or above that mark.

THE LEONARD BUCK

Jay Leonard, a Wakulla County hunter, took top honors among all North Florida hunters by downing a tremendous 10-pointer in Hamilton County that scored 145 1/8 B&C. Leonard's deer will likely rank among the top three or four whitetails taken in the state last season. The story chronicling his buck of a lifetime was carried in detail in the July 2005 edition of Florida Game & Fish. Still, the deer is so impressive it calls for brief recounting of the story here as well.

Leonard's story actually began during the 2003-04 season when Leonard was selected to hunt the tiny 1,425-acre Suwannee Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area in Hamilton County. Leonard can hunt the Suwannee Ridge area because of the fact that he's paralyzed from the chest down. Ironically, he was injured in September 1990 while bowhunting with a friend in the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area when his tree stand collapsed.

Not one to feel sorry for himself, Leonard could not wait to return to hunting in the fall of 1990 after finishing a stint at a rehabilitation facility. He is one of a small group of hunters classified as mobility impaired who can apply to hunt a number of quality hunts across North Florida. Suwannee Ridge hosts one of those hunts.

It was on the Suwannee Ridge area during the 2003-04 season that Leonard missed two shots at what would have been his third buck of the season, but that third deer had a phenomenal rack and was bigger than any deer he had ever seen. That same day he zeroed in his rifle and went back into the same area the following morning. He could not believe his luck when the same trophy buck came trotting by. He took aim, fired twice and watched in disbelief as the buck trotted off into a bottom. He fired all the misses using a brand new rifle and scope, but after those four shots he figured out the problem was not the rifle, but a cheap scope that refused to stay zeroed.

"I was so exasperated, I didn't know what to do," he later recounted. "Literally, after the fourth miss I started throwing up."

Leonard was afraid he had seen the last of his big deer when he was not drawn for the mobility-impaired hunts on Suwannee Ridge for the 2004-05 season. His fortune seemed to change, however, when a hunting buddy gave him his permit for the second hunt. Still, a hurricane threat and lots of rain almost cancelled that hunt. Fortunately for him, the hunt went on as scheduled.

Leonard recalls that he came up empty on the first morning, but returned the second morning on his Kawasaki Mule all-terrain vehicle to an area that had lots of fresh sign. It was one of the foggiest days he could remember, but he sat patiently. At 9:50 a.m. and wondering whether it was time to end the morning's hunt, Leonard blew his "tending grunt call." The rut was in progress in the area, and three does and two bucks responded almost immediately to the call.

"I was going to shoot the bigger of the two deer, and out the corner of my eye I saw the big 10-pointer come out. I knew it was the deer I'd missed," he said.

Leonard finally had a scope that stayed true, and he made a perfect shot.

"Two friends came up to check on me, and when they saw the deer, they started yelling 'Monster deer, monster deer!' " he recalled. "When they brought him out, I couldn't believe it."

THE HITTINGER BUCK

Jack Hittinger is a soft-spoken 17-year-old who resides in Tallahassee with his parents. As a junior at Lawton Chiles High School last fall, he did what few of his hunting peers have ever done. He downed a Leon County buck that scored 144 6/8 B&C points with a very symmetrical 10-point rack. As might be expected, it was young Hittinger's largest deer ever.

To provide some perspective about just how impressive his deer is, the rack finished second last season among all typical-scoring bucks taken in the Panhandle. The right and left antler beams measured 24 1/8 and 24 inches in length, respectively. Both brow tines measured 4 2/8 inches, with the second and third points on both sides measuring 7 4/8 inches or greater.

About the only down side to the rack was that the base measurement on the right and left sides were 4 3/8 and 4 2/8 inches. Ordinarily, older trophy bucks in counties with better soils, like that in Leon, have more bulk in their antlers. With a little more mass, the rack likely would have flirted with the 150 B&C range.

Hittinger began hunting doves with his father when he was 6 years old, later progressing to deer hunting and larger firearms. One of his favorite things to do now is sit in a stand on their lease outside of Tallahassee. Like almost all other clubs or leases today, they practice quality deer management. They take some does each season, but protect their young bucks.

While he had sat in the same general area probably 50 times, according to his estimation, Hittinger said neither he nor anyone else with their party had ever seen the buck he killed on Dec. 11, 2004. If there was one thing that led to the whitetail's demise, it was that the buck let his guard down during the rut.

"I had found a pretty good scrape line and a lot of tracks along the edge of a field," Hittinger explained. "The scrapes were fresh, and I knew there was a pretty good chance the deer that made them might be back."

He could not have been more right. While watching the edge of a 5-acre food plot and adjacent field, the buck materialized out of nowhere. Intent on checking out his scrape line, the deer walked into Hittinger's crosshairs at 50 yards. The hunter made a perfect neck shot with his 7mm Magnum.

As a student of deer hunting and how deer racks are measured, Hittinger knew his buck would score well. He was right about that.

THE PETTIS BUCK

Seven hunting seasons ago, Mike Pettis of Bay County made the decision to join a local hunting lease where the members aggressively manage their deer. Over the ensuing years, he killed quite a few does and a small number of bucks, but the 9-pointer he shot last season was worth the wait. His deer scored 142 2/8 typical B&C points and placed No. 4 last season among all bucks taken in northwest Florida.

Unlike some clubs in which members are free to hunt wherever they like, on Pettis' lease each member has an area he calls his own. The members can put in food plots, feed the deer and erect shooting houses.

"If there's one thing that's different about our place it's the number of bears we have," said Pettis. "When I use a trail camera to see what deer are using an area, a lot of times I'll have photos of bears. It's amazing how many there are."

The bruins were not all that the camera spotted. Pettis knew the big 9-point was somewhere on their lease. He had captured him three times on his trail camera, and over the two previous years had twice found his shed right antler.

"Last year a friend of mine and I drove up to the lease, and there in the middle of the dirt road I found his shed," Pettis said. "When you hold the rack in your hand and put the right antler shed up against it, there's no question that it's from the same deer."

Pettis hunted an area that basically served as a travel corridor between a large cypress head and a smaller one several hundred feet away. He cleaned out a path about the size of a two-rut road between the heads to give him better visibility and put a shooting house on the pathway.

The big buck almost fell to the bullet of a buddy, however.

"I put a friend there during the 2003-04 season, and the buck crossed the path, but he did it so quickly he couldn't get a shot at him," Pettis noted.

The afternoon of Dec. 28, 2004, Pettis decided to run to his place and try to get a doe. He got to his shooting house about 4 p.m., which left him only an hour of daylight. He had been in his stand only 15 minutes when the 9-pointer walked out. Pettis made his shot count.

The hunter could not help but be amazed at how widely this buck traveled. Ten days earlier, a trail camera had caught him almost two miles away.

"I know the way our property is situated he was spending as much time on the hunting lease next to us as he was on ours. I was just lucky," Pettis mused.

The hunter went on to add that the club's quality deer rules allow the members to take bucks that have eight or more points, or have racks 16 inches wide or greater. His buck's outside spread measured an awesome 21 inches.

Pettis also knows his deer is no fluke and the club rules do work. Not far from his hunting area, a fellow member killed a 12-pointer on opening day of the 2002-03 bow season that measured 138 2/8 typical Pope and Young Club points.

THE ROBERTS BUCK

The region's No. 5 buck last season fell to Josh Roberts, a ninth grade student at Chipley High School. His 10-pointer measured 141 2/8 B&C and was very symmetrical. The 6-foot-2-inch-tall 175-pound Roberts plays baseball, basketball and football, but also hunts every chance he gets with his father and stepbrother.

The threesome and some friends hunt an area not far from their homes in Jackson County. There are a handful of big-buck counties in the state that every year give up a few incredible trophy deer, and Jackson County is high on that list.

The 2004-05 season had been slow for hunting, but Craig Roberts counseled his boys to be patient. He fully expected good things to happen during the rut, and they were not disappointed.

On Jan. 30, 2004, Josh headed to a familiar stand where the day before his father had found plenty of rut activity. At 9 a.m. the youngster killed a big 11-pointer, a deer his father pointedly told him would probably be his deer of a lifetime. The buck's rack later scored 130 1/8 B&C.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Josh went back hunting the following weekend with his father. Craig had hung two "scent bombs" in the area and at daylight on the morning of Feb. 5 dropped his son off for a walk to the stand.

Josh had made it only partway down the edge of the field when in the early morning light he spotted a doe several hundred feet away, and then a heavy-racked buck off to one side. Fortunately for Josh, neither deer had seen him. Wanting to close the distance as much as possible, Josh got down on his hands and knees and crawled 20 yards closer. He was relieved when he looked up and could see that neither deer had spotted him.

Confident of his shooting ability and knowing he risked spooking the deer by trying to move closer, Josh slowly rose to his knees and put the crosshairs of the 7mm-08 rifle just behind the buck's shoulder. He took a breath, let some air out and squeezed the trigger. Even though the shot felt good, the buck gave no indication of being hit. Later, they determined he had taken the shot from 190 steps.

"I couldn't find any sign I'd hit him," Josh recalled. "There wasn't any blood or anything. But I'd watched him run out of the field and into some small pines, and there he was. I just couldn't believe I had killed another big buck."

Neither could his father. Craig was even more proud when he learned Josh had now taken both the No. 5 and No. 14 largest bucks in all of northwest Florida for 2004-05.

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