The Stubblefield Buck: A Whitetail Odyssey

The Stubblefield Buck: A Whitetail Odyssey

Hunted for years, a massive Tennessee whitetail finally gave Dwayne Stubblefield one too many chances.

Dwayne Stubblefield of Franklin used a muzzleloader to take this remarkable 15-point non-typical last year in Robertson County. The buck has a 21-inch inside spread and scores 176 4/8.
Photo by Bill Cooper

In the gray twilight of early morning, a doe slowly meandered along the edge of a narrow hay field, stopping now and then to feed, or occasionally glance backward at her trailing companion. Several yards behind, a heavy-antlered 10-pointer hesitantly followed the doe across the open field. These were uncomfortable surroundings for the big whitetail, especially in daylight, but the time was early November and the lure of the doe was much stronger than the safety of cover.

The deer were not alone; 100 yards away, situated in a tree stand, a hunter watched their progression through the field. This was the first day of Tennessee's 2002 muzzleloading season and, as the deer neared a thicket along the field border, the hunter fired. Until that moment, the opening morning hunt scenario had played out to near perfection, but through the haze of blue smoke, the hunter watched the buck bound off, untouched.

This incident took place on a several hundred acre Robertson County hunting lease, headed up by Dwayne Stubblefield of Franklin. That evening, Stubblefield received a call from the somewhat frustrated hunter.

"Basically, he explained that due to a busy work schedule, he hadn't taken time before the season to check his rifle and make sure it was still properly sighted in," Stubblefield explained. "During our conversation, he accepted an offer to borrow my muzzleloader to hunt with the following morning."

As most avid whitetail hunters will quickly attest, the opportunity to take a trophy-class buck occurs very infrequently, and only on rare occasions does a buck ever give the hunter a second chance. Despite these odds, it is also important to remember that whitetails, especially big whitetails, are extremely unpredictable.

If ever there was a case of déjà vu, the hunter surely experienced it the following morning. Shortly after daybreak, at approximately the same time, a doe appeared in the hay field, with the same big 10-pointer trailing several yards behind.

Not about to question his luck, the hunter readied the borrowed rifle and watched the two deer slowly make their way through the field. Much like the previous morning, as the deer approached a thicket bordering the field, he waited until the buck provided a clear shot opportunity and pulled the trigger.

Once again, smoke from the shot made seeing rather difficult; however, in this instance, the hunter believed the buck reacted as though it had been hit. Unfortunately, an initial search of the site turned up no evidence.

"Later, I joined the search and, eventually, we managed to find a few small flecks of blood, but nothing more," Stubblefield noted. "While there was no doubt the buck had been hit, the nearly total lack of sign made me believe there was little chance of the wound being fatal."

Two weeks later, a trail camera substantiated Stubblefield's theory. The camera, located in a small stand of hardwoods, approximately 200 yards from the hay field, photographed the buck at night. Apparent in the photo, a scab near the elbow of the buck's left front leg was in all likelihood an indication of where the deer had been recently shot.

The buck was not seen again until the following November (2003) muzzleloading season, but this time the deer was not sighted by a hunter. The local conservation officer happened to be in the area and spotted the big whitetail, with a doe, near a pond on the lease, within 500 yards of the wood lot where the photo had been taken.

Later, on opening day of gun season, a hunter on the lease was overlooking a large agricultural field recently planted to a winter cover crop of barley, when he spotted the buck along the opposite woods line. Unfortunately, the distance to the deer was nearly 400 yards and the hunter never attempted a shot.

Although the big deer was not sighted again that fall, an interesting discovery was made on the lease in early 2004. In February, Brent Sykes, a neighboring landowner, was training his bird dogs on the property when he discovered the buck's shed antlers. Surprisingly, while the buck had carried a uniform 10-point rack the previous two years, the sheds revealed the buck's 2003 rack had changed to a 5x4 typical frame. Nevertheless, tine length on both sheds was exceptional.

"Having seen the buck on our lease for three years, we were confident the deer was primarily utilizing a relatively small 'core' area on the property that included an irregular tract of big hardwoods interspersed with dense thickets, and partially surrounded by hay and agricultural fields," Stubblefield said. "This was also the same area where the sheds were found. Although the buck had been sighted on other properties, he seemed to favor this particular location. Even so, the deer was extremely secretive and, except for trail camera photos, usually taken at night, he was spotted very infrequently."

Despite the buck's secretive nature, early November was the one time of year when he was most consistently sighted on the lease. As evident with the previous encounters, there is no question that the approaching rut had much to do with this timing. However, other factors, such as low disturbance and relatively light hunting pressure, also played important roles.

"Regular farming practices at different intervals throughout the year are about the only activities that take place on the land," Stubblefield noted. "Additionally, with only a few members in the lease and stands widely scattered over the property, hunting pressure is insignificant, especially in regard to affecting deer movement."

As the 2004 season approached, Stubblefield committed to putting forth a special hunting effort for the buck. The hunt member that shot the buck two years earlier had dropped out of the lease, so Stubblefield opted to concentrate much of his hunting time in that same general area where the deer had been sighted.

"All of us had purposely stayed out of what we considered to be the buck's main core area for the obvious reason of not disturbing the deer," Stubblefield said. "By hunting only the outer edges of the area, we felt that, with luck, someone would eventually have an opportunity to take the buck; up until that time, it simply hadn't worked out.

"Since muzzleloading season coincided with the time of year when the buck was most often sighted, I

decided to devote most of my hunting time to that season," he continued. "Even though the buck had not been seen during the summer or early fall, I had no reason to believe the deer was not continuing to use the same area of the lease."

On opening morning, Stubblefield was positioned in a tree stand at the edge of a small wood lot along an old fence line. From this location he could see approximately 150 yards through one end of a narrow hay field, and downhill, along the old fence line, to a small food plot that bordered a stand of big hardwoods. This happened to be the same spot where the hunter had shot and wounded the big deer two years earlier.

Not long after daybreak, a small yearling doe appeared in the food plot near the big hardwoods. Normally, the hunter would have welcomed a doe, thinking she might lure a buck into the open, but in this case, the deer was so small, and he assumed she was probably too immature to attract a buck.

"It was a very quiet morning and I was sitting there, relaxed, watching the doe," Stubblefield related. "Suddenly, a buck ran out of the trees and began chasing the small deer around the plot, eventually running her up the hill and across the narrow neck of the hay field. While the buck wasn't the big deer I was hunting, he was a mature 10-pointer and under normal circumstances, I would have been happy to take him, but not that year."

The two deer finally ran into a nearby thicket and disappeared. Later, the hunter sighted two smaller bucks, but nothing else appeared.

Stubblefield did not hunt the following day, which was Sunday, and on Monday and Tuesday he hunted from different stand locations. After observing little activity at the other sites, he decided to return to his opening day stand along the old fence line.

"The weather was unseasonably warm the following morning," Stubblefield noted. "Shortly after daybreak, I was in the process of taking my jacket off, when I happened to glance down toward the food plot just as a doe slipped out of the woods. Because of the deer's small size, I was reasonably sure it was the same doe I had seen on opening day."

Remembering the incident that morning with the buck, the hunter alertly watched the woods line behind the doe for any sign of movement. He did not have to wait long, as seconds later, the big whitetail he had been hunting stepped into the open plot.

"Amazing was the first word that came to mind," Stubblefield said. "Seeing that huge set of antlers suddenly materialize as the buck walked out of the woods was a sight I will never forget."

Instead of chasing after the doe, as the other buck had done on opening morning, the big deer stayed back, watching, moving only when the doe did. After the buck proceeded for several yards in this manner, Stubblefield suddenly noticed another buck, a small 5-pointer, had come out of the woods and was trailing behind the bigger deer.

"The deer were about 125 yards away and slowly moving uphill in my direction," Stubblefield related. "I decided to wait and hope the buck would turn because I really didn't want to take a head-on shot unless there was no other choice."

For several minutes, the strange single-file procession of deer continued toward the hunter's position. The bucks moved only to maintain their distance interval behind the doe.

"The deer were moving so slowly, my nerves finally reached a point where I couldn't wait any longer," Stubblefield said. "By this time, the doe had closed to about 50 yards and the buck was approximately 30 yards behind her. With the rifle braced solidly against my knee, I aimed just below the white patch on the deer's throat and squeezed the trigger."

For several seconds, a cloud of blue smoke entirely blocked the hunter's view. As the air slowly cleared, Stubblefield was shocked to see all three deer still standing in their original positions.

"It was bizarre, to say the least," the hunter remarked. "I couldn't comprehend one deer remaining on the hillside, much less all three. I instantly began to feel terribly sick, realizing I had somehow managed to miss the buck of a lifetime."

Stubblefield still expected the deer to leave any second, but amazingly, the doe suddenly lowered her head and resumed feeding, continuing to move in his direction. As she did, the bucks also continued to follow behind her.

"The entire situation was totally surreal; I still have a hard time believing what took place that morning," Stubblefield said. "Once they started moving, I immediately began reloading the rifle, which was not an easy task since I was in plain view of all three deer."

Once the rifle was reloaded, the hunter waited until the buck walked to within 20 yards before carefully aiming and firing. This time the big deer dropped in its tracks. Surprisingly, as soon as the buck hit the ground, the small 5-pointer ran and stood over the buck, in an aggressive posture, as if wanting to fight.

"At that point, nothing really surprised me any more," Stubblefield remarked. "Finally taking the buck was a little overwhelming and, by then, my nerves were about shot. I remained in the stand for several minutes to calm down and, while there, I used a cell phone to call a couple of friends to tell them the news. As I was talking, I glanced over at the buck and, instead of the 5-pointer, a slightly bigger 7-point buck was aggressively standing over the big deer. Where that buck came from, I have no idea. It's possible the deer was nearby the entire time, but I never spotted him."

After climbing down, Stubblefield walked to where the buck was lying and knelt down to examine the impressive rack. Unlike the previous year's 9-point sheds, the deer had once again grown a very symmetrical 5x5 typical frame. A great combination of antler spread and tine length gives the buck a truly outstanding appearance.

Later, official antler measurements, taken after the required drying period, emphasize the rack's size. The antler spread is 23 inches outside and 21 inches inside. Tine length is exceptional, including brows (G-1s) of 9 and 8 1/8 inches, followed by G-2s of 10 7/8 and 10 2/8 inches, and G-3s of 9 6/8 and 9 5/8 inches. Even the G-4s tape 8 2/8 and 7 inches. Antler mass is also impressive, including basal circumferences of 5 and 4 6/8 inches. The mass measurements continue to exceed 4 inches through the H-3 position, midway out on the beams.

The 10-point typical frame grosses 169 6/8 and nets 164 4/8. After adding in the rack's 5 abnormal points, totaling 12 inches, the final non-typical Boone and Crockett score stands at 176 4/8. This qualifies the buck for the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association's Longhunter record book.

There is one final unique twist to this story. Two weeks after taking the buck, Stubblefield stopped by to pick up the processed meat. While there, the processor handed him a bullet, saying it was embedded just inside the rib cage. Knowing he had shot the deer in the neck, the hunter quest

ioned him further and found out the buck had also been shot in the upper part of the brisket, with the bullet eventually stopping inside the ribs.

"Undoubtedly, my first shot had hit the deer, but since the bullet never exited, we didn't notice the wound," Stubblefield said. "What is really unbelievable is that the buck showed absolutely no reaction to being hit with a 220-grain bullet fired from a distance of 80 yards."

Simply one more amazing fact about an amazing trophy whitetail, that adds to an already remarkable hunting saga.

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