Our 5th Biggest Buck Ever!

Our 5th Biggest Buck Ever!

Greenville city police officer and marksman Mark Huntington didn't get buck fever when the 5th biggest buck ever taken in South Carolina came his way - not until after he killed it.

By Scott Keepfer

Buck fever - that age-old affliction of jitters that affects most all deer hunters at one time or another - has never posed much of a problem for Mark Huntington.

As a longtime Greenville City police officer and sniper with the force's SWAT team, Huntington is well schooled in the art of precision shooting and remaining calm under pressure.

But once he's squeezed his trigger, all bets are off.

"I guess you could say I get 'buck fever' after I take the shot," Huntington said.

Such was the case on Halloween morning of the 2002 South Carolina deer season. Huntington was hunting on private property in deer-rich Anderson County when the 7 a.m. silence of the woods was broken by the distinct sound of splashing water.

Huntington, who was standing up in his tree stand at the time, peeked around the left side of the tree in front of him just in time to see several ripples dispersing in a small creek about 35 yards away. He quietly leaned over to glance around the right side of the tree and was fairly stunned to see a huge buck step out of the creek and head his way.

"I couldn't get a count of his antlers, but I was guessing 8 (points), maybe even 12," Huntington said.

Mark Huntington holds up the mount of his huge non-typical buck, one of the largest ever taken in South Carolina. Photo by Scott Keepfer

Huntington quickly drew a bead on the animal with his .30/06, then waited as the deer made its way directly toward his tree stand. At about 30 feet, the buck turned slightly to the left, giving Huntington the angle he'd been waiting for.

"He turned and gave me a neck shot," Huntington said. "Then he tipped over like a statue."

That's when Huntington became afflicted with his version of "buck fever."

"I was shaking so bad. I stayed in that tree for 15 minutes before I felt I was calm enough to climb down," Huntington said. Huntington called the wife of the property owner on his cell phone. "I was so excited that when I told her I needed some help, she thought I was hanging upside down by my foot from the tree stand or something."

The fever passed quickly once Huntington strode to the animal to get a closer look. He began to count the points on the rack. "I had hit 12 before I let go of the first side of the rack," Huntington said. "It was beginning to dawn on me that I had killed a true buck of a lifetime.

"That's when I first said to myself, What have I done?"

What Huntington had done was bag the No. 5 all-time non-typical rack in South Carolina's deer-hunting annals.

The buck wasn't overly impressive weight-wise, but you won't hear Huntington complaining.

"A lot of hunters, when they think 'big deer,' they think of a deer that weighs over 200 pounds," Huntington said. "This buck was only 175 pounds. Body-wise that's not really huge, but for what it lacked in weight, it more than made up for in antlers."

The buck's palmated antlers were a conglomeration of impressive growth, featuring forked points and drop tines. There were 12 scorable points on one side, 10 on the other. The rack's inside spread was 21 inches.

The final Boone and Crockett score sheet totaled 180 7/8 points, ranking the rack fifth all-time, No. 1 all-time in Anderson County and No. 1 in Huntington's heart.

"It's still difficult to believe," Huntington said.

Mark Huntington will be the first to tell you that he doesn't profess to be a deer-hunting expert.

Although he grew up in prime hunting area in Berkeley County, near Charleston, success never followed him afield. Then again, Huntington never took hunting too seriously in his younger years.

"I'd go back in the soybean fields behind the house, but I never had any luck," said Huntington, a graduate of The Citadel in Charleston. "I would just grab a shotgun, sit down on the edge of the field until dark, then go in and eat supper."

Huntington moved to Greenville to join the city police force in 1985 and quickly befriended fellow officers who took him hunting. But again, trophy deer remained an unthinkable proposition.

"I still didn't really know what I was doing," he said. "It seemed like I always went where the deer weren't. For years, the only deer I saw were running at full sprint or were too far away (to take a shot)."

It was a long time coming, but things finally began to take an upswing for Huntington.

In 1997, he bagged his first deer - a trio of does that helped boost his confidence.

He failed to get a deer the following season, but made amends in 1999 by bagging a 200-pound, 7-pointer while on a Lowcountry hunt. His SWAT training came into play on that day as he used his calm shooting approach to take the animal with a perfect 250-yard shot.

That success only fueled Huntington's deer-hunting fire.

About this same time, Lt. Keith Crocker, one of Huntington's primary hunting partners, took him into the woods and "began showing me what I should look for," Huntington said.

"Not so long ago I didn't even know what a rub or a scrape was." All the while, Huntington kept busy by helping his friends track and drag their deer. It helped him to learn about deer habitat and the post-shot reactions of deer.

"I've always been good at tracking deer," Huntington said. "I hate to lose a deer in the woods, so I'm real persistent. I've tracked deer on my hands and knees and gone 200 yards between blood drops. I just hate to give up."

Huntington never gave up when it came to his own hunting, either. Although he still considers himself little more than "an occasional weekend hunter," his personal learning curve has taken a sharp upswing recently. He reads all that he can, and is forever gleaning tips and suggestions from any and all knowledgeable sources on deer and their behavior.

Now the 40-year-old Hunting

ton is content that he earned his trophy of a lifetime.

"I picked this area," he said. "I had hunted from that stand three times before, and each time had seen at least one deer, so I knew it was an active area.

"It had everything you could hope for - food sources, cover, and rubs and scrapes in the vicinity."

It was indeed the perfect recipe for success. There were large fields not far behind his tree stand location, and a mixed hardwood forest with some patches of thick undergrowth sprawled out before him. Throw in a small creek, and one can readily understand why Huntington felt good about his position.

"The area didn't have any one thing that just jumped out at you, but it was a good combination," Huntington said. "My goal was to catch them moving to food or moving back to bedding areas. This stand was right in the middle of all of that."

Huntington has learned enough that he now knows to target those productive deer "intersections" at every opportunity.

"I look for the presence of enough well-traveled trails to be able to say, 'OK, this is an intersection that goes to all of the buck's spots - I may catch him going to the field, going to his scrapes or going to bed,' " Huntington said.

Huntington, too, now finds himself at a crossroads. He says he's opting for the less-traveled path - bowhunting - to provide the impetus for his future hunts.

"My standards have changed completely," he said. "Pretty much all I'm going to do next season is bowhunt.

"I've now made a sniper-quality shot and a trophy shot with a rifle. All that's left is to take a big buck with an arrow. That would be my personal hat trick."

He advises that all hunters could benefit from practicing the methods used by snipers.

"Snipers are very big on consistency - we want to do the same thing the same way every time," Huntington said.

"We call it being in 'the bubble,' " Huntington said. "When you're in the bubble, you tune out all distractions. The only thing you're aware of is what's in your scope.

"I've never really thought that much about it - about how important that could be when hunting. I've done it so many thousands of times that it's just second nature."

First, Huntington locates the spot he wants to shoot.

Secondly, he places his cross hairs on the spot.

Then, while controlling his breathing, he shifts his focus from the spot to the cross hairs.

Finally, with a smooth motion he squeezes the trigger - "anything but a jerk or pull," he says.

It is a process that is inherent in his career, but also has paid handsome dividends in the realm of hunting.

Now if he could just control his breathing during his post-shot "buck fever" episodes, Huntington would have it made.

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