When it comes to the world class deer New England is rather low on the list for trophy bucks. States such as Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and other “corn belt” locales routinely and annually produce some of the largest antlered white-tailed deer in the world.
This is not to say that exceptional deer don’t exist in other states – far from it. In fact, every state where whitetails are found has its state-record bucks in every possible category (rifle, shotgun, archery, crossbow, etc.). The only difference is in the size of the bucks heading those lists. Many states’ biggest bucks barely qualify for recognition in the trophy buck records of the elite states, but this is more a matter of genetics, forage quality and winter severity.
In New England, the standard for big bucks has traditionally been deer weighing over 200 pounds field dressed (with heart, lungs and liver intact). State record books abound with such deer, some weighing more than 300 pounds dressed. However, very few of those heavyweight bucks wore antlers meeting or exceeding today’s minimum score, and in some cases the biggest bucks taken in a given season had little antler growth at all.
Even Vermont’s legendary Benoit family, which was known for tracking down big bucks throughout the region, tagged few bucks with antler scores that would qualify them for the record book. They were big deer with big feet, and certainly were considered trophies to New England’s traditional hunters, but by modern antler score standards they were below average deer at best.
These days inches of antlers have become the standard of measurement for trophy deer nationwide, and New England is slowly gaining ground thanks to the hard work of the Northeast Big Bucks Club (www.bigbuckclub.com), the recognized record-keeping organization for antler score in the region. Most interesting is that trophy-sized deer are being taken in every state every year, and in some surprising places at that.
For example, most antler addicts will be surprised to learn that Massachusetts’ bowhunters have been shattering state records on a regular basis for the last decade. So, it should come as no surprise that the 2016 season produced yet another new record, a 200-class monster non-typical. The Bay State also produced a second monster archery non-typical during the 2016 season, a deer that cracked the top five all-time for this state and marking the first time in history that two bucks grossing over 190 were killed by bowhunters in the same season.
THE SHORT BUCK
For a relatively young guy, John Short is making quite an impression on the local bowhunting brotherhood. In 2016 John turned 30 years old. His first memories of hunting started when he was about 7 years old, acting as “bird dog” for his dad while pheasant hunting. Around the age of 13 he started going up to the Allagash in Maine every third week of November, and these were his first actual hunting experiences where he got to carry a gun. But if you have hunted northern Maine, you know that even experienced hunters are challenged to tag a deer with any sort of consistency. And for Short, it would take him 13 full years of hunting in Maine before he tagged his first Maine deer. Talk about dedication and persistence!
Short knew that Massachusetts held plenty of big deer. Once he was old enough to drive and legally hunt on his own, he hit the local woods at every opportunity, taking his first deer (a 6-point) at just 19 years old. He recalls being so excited that he shot at it three times and finally hit it with a single pellet of 00 buckshot. That experience was something to build on, and it fueled his fire to hunt even more.
In the decade that followed Short shot about a dozen deer, with most of those coming in the last five years. He is now a dedicated bowhunter who now will only pick up a shotgun if his tags are not filled by the end of the bow season.
As his hunting successes increased, Short became more focused on shooting big-bodied, mature bucks. In 2014 he arrowed a 192-pound 9-point, and then, in 2015, he shot a giant 210-pound 13-point non-typical in Berkshire County. This great buck scored a whopping 168 0/8, the fourth-largest gross-scoring archery buck shot in Massachusetts in 2015.
Although Short’s 2015 giant was taken in the western part of Massachusetts, he had exclusive rights to a great hunting property in Essex County, which is on the opposite side of the state. He gave the property owners some deer meat every year for Christmas dinner, and finally got the courage up to ask for permission to hunt. They agreed as long as he would promise to harvest any deer that came across his stand, buck or doe, to help reduce the population. They also asked him to shoot any coyotes he saw.
While only about 40 acres in size, the property abuts hundreds of acres of cattails and tidal estuaries. The deer usually pass through neighboring state land to get to the cattails to bed for the day, so deer movement is typically very early in the morning or near sunset. In the past John had hunted the property often, but in 2015 he did not hunt it even a single time. In 2016 he decided to try it opening day because there had always been does hanging around, and he had agreed to shoot anything that came in range.
After a brief trip up to the property the afternoon before the season opened, to check his stand and make sure his shooting lanes were still open, Short was ready for his first hunt of the season.
The next morning, opening day, he arrived at his stand at about 4 a.m. because it is an extremely noisy trek. That left about two hours for the woods to settle down before sunrise, which is very important because the deer move early. Short hunts only two to three hours at a time for that reason.
His planned time on stand was just about up as the clock reached 8:30, and he began to contemplate getting down in the next 30 minutes or so. About that time he heard what he thought was a squirrel. When he turned to look, all he could see was a leg of a deer. He recalls just being happy to even see a deer on the first day, and certainly was not anticipating what happened next.
The deer took a few more steps and now, instead of seeing only the leg of a deer, Short was staring at a massive rack! The giant was about 45 yards away at this point, and Short’s maximum shooting distance was 30 yards, so he needed the buck to cover some ground. Although it seemed to take forever, the buck slowly closed the distance, walking at a quartering angle. Shaking with excitement, Short had not drawn his bow back yet, but he could see that the giant was going to hit his shooting lane at a little over 30 yards. Short literally had to turn himself away from the deer to prepare to draw, but also in an effort to compose himself.
In one motion Short turned back toward the buck and drew his bow while turning, to see that the buck was in the shooting lane exactly where Short thought he would be. Without hesitating, Short released his arrow the moment his second pin settled on the big buck’s chest. He watched as the arrow went clean through the vitals and stuck in the ground behind the startled buck. The giant kicked up his hind legs and then bull rushed full speed with his head down for about 35 yards and piled up.
In shock and disbelief, Short watched the buck go down. It took a solid 15 minutes before he could even think about climbing down because his whole body was shaking. When he finally composed himself enough to get down, Short headed toward the dead buck excited to see exactly how big he was.
“I really didn’t think the buck was that big,” Short admitted.
He wondered if this was the big 12-pointer he had seen a few years earlier, but would never be sure. The brute dressed out at 220 pounds, Short’s heaviest buck ever.
Short doesn’t like to draw a lot of attention to himself; he didn’t even think about having the buck scored because he never had anything scored before. However, a friend knew Eric Lowe, a Northeast Big Bucks Club (www.bigbuckclub.com) scorer and suggested contacting him. Even so, Short really didn’t care about scoring, and didn’t give it much thought. But, with encouragement from other hunters, he decided to see how the buck would score.
As Lowe put the tape to the antlers, he told Short it might just be a Massachusetts record. Then things really started to get interesting for Short, who now realized that this was a buck he just could not keep to himself. He’d shot a buck with a 201-inch rack.
By NBBC rules, any buck that challenges a state record must be scored by a panel of experienced scorers, so after Lowe taped it the first time, he made arrangements to have the buck panel scored during the Springfield Sportsman’s Show. Lowe, along with Lonnie Desmarais, the NBBC’s Massachusetts regional director and several other NBBC scorers put the tape to the buck, the results were, in a word, historic!
THE HOFPGARTEN BUCK
Jonathan Hopfgarten had more than his share of aggravation prior to the 2016 deer season. While checking on one of his favorite wooden stands he discovered that it had been cut down by someone using a saw! Later, when he returned to build a new stand the irate saw user showed up and began harassing him. Hopfgarten decided to find another area to hunt.
Unfortunately, his luck was no better at the second site because the landowners had suddenly decided that they did not want any more hunters “hanging around” on the property. He switched to a new area and, after many hours on stand, finally took a shot at a nice 8-pointer that, unfortunately, only grazed the animal.
Hopfgarten continued to hunt despite his streak of bad luck. Finally, on Nov. 18, his luck changed for the better – although not entirely and not immediately. First, a nice 8-pointer came into view but did not offer a shot. Next, a small spike buck wandered into range, but Hopfgarten’s arrow fell short. Discouraged, disgusted and disheartened, Hopfgarten considered getting out of his stand and giving it up for the day but for some reason he decided to stick around to see what else might develop.
Hopfgarten heard a clattering in the brush and suddenly saw the spike buck return without offering a shot. Then a second, larger deer appeared but was in such dense cover that the hunter decided not to chance a shot. The larger deer finally moved into an open shooting lane and Hopfgarten’s arrow at last flew true.
While following the deer’s heavy blood trail, Hopfgarten was sure he had shot the 8-pointer he had seen earlier. It wasn’t till he reached the end of the trail that he realized the buck he’d shot was not only much bigger, it turned out to be one of the biggest bucks ever taken in New England.
During any other Massachusetts’ season, Jonathan Hopfgarten’s great Plymouth County non-typical would be getting all the attention. But, as luck would have it, this monster was “only” New England’s second-best non-typical buck of 2016.
Hopfgarten’s impressive non-typical grossed 193 7/8 and netted 186 0/8. The typical 12-point frame grosses 178 2/8. Mass was simply amazing, with a total of just under 44 inches, and all eight circumference measurements were between 5 and 5 7/8 inches.
The buck’s 12-point typical frame was complemented by four abnormal points (three on right and one on left) that added total abnormal growth of 15 5/8.
Hopfgarten’s archery non-typical ranks No. 4 all-time in that category for the Bay State, behind the Short buck; the Scioli buck and Dan Daigle’s Worcester County 16-point from 2012 that grossed 197 0/8. It is also the tenth-largest hunter-harvested non-typical buck ever killed in the state.
JEFFREY SIMMONS BUCK
It’s not often that a buck from Maine ranks in the Top Three New England deer taken in any season or category, but Jeffrey Simmons’ unusual non-typical taken in Somerset County is definitely an exception, coming in as the No. 2 buck in New England in 2016.
Simmons non-typical 17-pointer scored 198 5/8 gross and was taken during the November firearms season. The accompanying photo shows how thick and massive Simmons’ buck is, truly an exceptional buck by any standard of measure.
(All information provided is excerpted from the Northeast Big Buck Club’s 8th Record Book, Northeast Trophy Whitetails VIII, published in July of 2017. This book contains nearly 14,000 of the Northeast’s best bucks, and represents all deer scored and entered to the NBBC through April of 2017. For information about their latest record book, visit www.bigbuckclub.com. Hunters who know of or have taken exceptional bucks in New England and would like to have them officially scored, e-mail Jeff Brown, club president, at firstname.lastname@example.org.