Photo by Zack Glover.
Knowing that I’m a regular font of information when it comes to Alabama’s most bodacious deer, an antler collector called the other day to inquire about our state record non-typical.
“Gun or bow?” I asked.
“The biggest,” he responded.
“Depends on who you ask.”
“I’m asking you.”
“Well, it’s not a cut-and-dried situation,” I sighed. I went on to explain that, depending on which of three standards you apply, three different bucks could claim top honors. Thus, the Boone and Crockett Club recognizes as biggest the 259 7/8-inch Perry County whitetail that Jon Moss killed in 1989, while the homegrown Alabama Whitetail Records goes with the 1956 buck shot by the late David Melton, which carried 310 inches of antlers without deductions for imperfect symmetry. And Buckmasters — whose scoring system is similar to a B&C gross score without the inside spread added — designates as best Danny Forrer’s 1994 Bullock County buck, which tallied 247 points.
“So which is the biggest?” the collector pressed.
“Take your pick,” I suggested.
“OK: What about a bow kill?” he persisted. “The biggest taken by bow.”
“Oh! That’s easy.”
The answer is: Randy Coffey’s buck from the year 2000. And that holds true regardless of the yardstick used!
Randy has had to wait a while to get his full due, but his name is now etched in each of the three record books, all of which unreservedly accept his Lawrence County deer as a new Alabama state-record non-typical. You can also add to that list the Pope & Young Club list, which deals strictly with bowkilled deer.
The net P&Y score is 222 4/8. In the Alabama Whitetail Records, the 27-pointer is listed as boasting 231 5/8 inches of antler (again, that’s without deductions for asymmetry). And the buck’s photo is on the cover of the most recent edition! Buckmasters lists the score as 206 6/8, even without an inside spread measurement.
It’s clear-cut: The whitetail with the “bloomin’ onion” rack has no equal among Alabama bow bucks.
I’ve actually hunted with Randy Coffey, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a nicer guy. And very few people know as much as he does now about the deer hunting inside the Bankhead National Forest — information, incidentally, that he generously and enthusiastically shares. In fact, the state ought to hire him as a tourism ambassador. Not only did he come forward with the details behind the public-land hunt that resulted in his state record, but he also managed to assemble a half-dozen other guys with splendid Bankhead bucks for a group photo.
A lot of hunters would be far less willing to have the spotlight cast on their hunting grounds, especially since that property is open to all comers. Randy, however, wants the national forest and, specifically, the Black Warrior Wildlife Management Area within it to get the attention that they deserve. That said, here’s the man’s story.
LEMONADE FROM LEMONS
When Randy learned that his employer, a north Alabama paper mill, was shutting down his department — meaning, basically, that he was out of a job until the company could find another place for him — he had to stifle a smile: The “temporary” pink slip was delivered on the eve of Alabama’s 2000 deer season. Career anxiety aside, it would be the first time in more than a decade that Randy could hunt to his heart’s content!
An old adage comes to mind here: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And that’s how the guy from Moulton wound up in a tree stand inside Black Warrior WMA — in the heart of the 180,000-acre Bankhead National Forest — on Tuesday, Dec. 12.
As do many hunters in Lawrence and Winston counties, Randy regards Bankhead NF as a personal playground. The forest might well offer the most diverse habitat of any piece of public ground in the Heart of Dixie, harboring vast tracts of mature hardwoods and pine and dissected by numerous well-maintained roads and horse trails.
The place is a hunter’s paradise, offering easy access for both for those who don’t want to stray far from a road and for people who want to hike deeper into the wilderness by following the long ridges. The hardwoods offer deer a virtual all-you-can-eat mast buffet; the interspersed pine plantations are perfect cover. And the many gorges and creek bottoms, liberally adorned with Bankhead’s famed waterfalls, are choked with honeysuckle. Finally, there’s a different breed of deer dwelling within this forest — literally.
While most of Alabama’s deer are native, the bloodline in this part of the state can be traced to Michigan-born whitetails. While the rut might peak in January in most counties, most of the breeding activity inside the Bankhead occurs in late November and early December; go there in January, and you might not see a deer.
Coffey is all too familiar with the habits of the whitetails in his backyard. As a rule, by the time bow season opens, Bankhead bucks have already started making serious scrapes. In 2000, however, bucks were conspicuous by their absence, and, to make matters worse, so was the acorn crop. Coffey had all the time in the world for scouting, but he simply couldn’t “get on” a buck.
“I didn’t know what the deer were doing, to be honest,” he said. “I couldn’t pattern them, so I had to rely on the trails.”
Well into November, after he’d been hunting and scouting nearly every day, Coffey finally stumbled across the first scrape he’d seen all season. When he found three of them under the same beech tree, he decided that the ridge inside the WMA was his most promising place. And at a range of a couple of hundred yards, he glimpsed a 10-inch-diameter tree completely ravaged by antlers, which went a long way toward setting his theory in stone.
It wasn’t his usual setup, to be sure. Coffey normally hikes a mile or two into the forest in search of less-traveled areas. This beech was on a ridgetop barely 200 yards off a gravel road, the ridge rising above a sea of planted pines.
It’s not uncommon for Coffey to stake out a half-dozen bucks during any given year; his choice of hunting spots can then allow for wind direction. But in 2000, his range of choices weren’t exactly extensive. The scraped-up beech tre
e, the surest sign he’s seen, was his best bet. A huge 8-pointer that he and his brother, Gary, had seen it cross the nearby road one night was responsible, he was convinced.
On Dec. 12, Coffey chose not to be in the woods at first light, since the moon had been full that night — and the air temperature was 18 degrees. Going afield a little after 8 a.m. to confront the assault of a 20-m.p.h. north wind, he shivered for four grueling hours before calling it quits. He went home, ate lunch and fell asleep on the sofa.
When he awoke a couple of hours later, he looked outside at the pine tree in the yard that served as his “wind gauge” and saw that the gusts had ceased, making what was by then a temperature of 26 degrees a little more bearable. By 3:00 in the afternoon, the hunter was sitting in his stand up a white oak overlooking the three scrapes — the only climbable tree within 50 yards of the beech — having spread some estrous-doe urine around before ascending to his perch.
An hour later, the sound of a stick breaking cut through the roar of a nearby waterfall. As he’d suspected, the source was a big-bodied whitetail 90 yards away at the top of the falls. Coffey couldn’t see antlers, but he was almost certain that the deer was a buck. He stood up and attached the release to his bow, reasoning that if the animal got any closer, the likelihood getting away with that kind of movement would be very low.
The deer was heading for the scrapes, keeping its head low. When it was considerably closer, it shook its head from side to side — revealing, for the first time, a massive set of antlers. Big, to be sure — but also … weird. “‘What kind of rack is that?’” the archer recalls wondering.
As stunned as he was confused. Coffey — ever the pessimist — figured that the story was fated to end badly; he was quite sure that the monstrous whitetail would stop just out of range or turn and head off in the opposite direction. “I’m thinking, ‘This ain’t going to work,’” he recounted.
A shot at a deer of that caliber? Too much to hope for, he felt. But the buck kept coming, heading directly for the scrapes.
“He was in a sneak the whole time,” Coffey said. “That’s the best way I can describe it. He wouldn’t lift his head, not even when he stopped to look up at me. Or at least that’s what I think he did. He just sort of rolled his neck to the side, and it looked like he made eye contact. We had a staring match for the longest minute of my life!”
What Coffey didn’t realize at the time was that the rack had a hooked drop tine sprouting from the backside that dug into the buck’s neck whenever it tried to hold its head erect.
Eventually satisfied that nothing was amiss, the buck continued on to one of the scrapes to freshen it; it was 17 yards away from Coffey’s quivering arms and arrow. Two strokes into its pawing, the buck was distracted by a sudden loud gurgling at the waterfall, and when it turned to look towards the sound, the hunter loosed his shaft.
Coffey was ready to panic — but not the buck: It just calmly loped off with its tail up, as if nothing had happened.
“I about fell out of my tree,” Coffey remembered with a grin. “I just sat down, reminding myself that I’d seen the green-and-white fletching bury behind his shoulder. Although I was confused by his tail being up, I knew that I’d hit him good.
“Then I finally remembered to breathe!”
Not waiting his customary 30 minutes after a shot, the archer hit the ground after only 10, detached his stand, recovered his blood-soaked arrow and went back to the truck. He made it home in record time, the usually 20-minute drive taking barely 10. He was eager to make two telephone calls: one to his brother, the other to a friend, Tony Myers.
“I wanted all the help and experience I could get,” Coffey recalled. “Tony probably knows those woods better than anybody.”
The trio returned later and tracked the deer for 85 yards before Myers’ flashlight beam settled on the fallen monarch. “Tony’s jaw hit the dirt,” observed a laughing Coffey. “And that’s saying something!” True enough: Myers has taken more than his share of bruiser whitetails inside Bankhead NF, two of which listed in the Alabama Whitetail Records.
Coffey still has a hard time believing that he actually arrowed the buck that would later be declared a state record by four scoring organizations. Even more remarkable is the fact that while most years find him three miles deep in the rugged country — so far from a roadway that he usually passes on bucks that would make most hunters salivate — he was almost in sight of his truck this time.
Although Coffey’s well aware that the WMA and the “federal land” surrounding it conceal some beefy bucks sporting above-average antlers, he never expected to cross paths with one this big. Additionally, he had no clue that this buck was roaming the woods. Only one person, a man driving near there at night, reported having seen a plus-sized deer that may have been the 27-pointer that Coffey killed, and two years earlier, a shed that probably came from the same deer was found within a mile of the site of its demise.
When Randy harvested it, the 6 1/2-year-old buck was rut-weary. While it might have easily soared above the 200-pound mark during summer, it was down to about 180 when it fell to the bowhunter’s arrow.
IT WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR
Amazingly, Coffey’s wasn’t the only world-class buck taken from the confines of Bankhead NF during the 2000 season. Three days before Coffey’s triumph, Hartselle rifleman Ronald Laymon shot a giant 21-pointer; gross-scored at 222 5/8 points, it tallied a net score of 205 7/8 that put it at No. 6 in the B&C rankings for Alabama. A week before that, Steven Turner of Falkville, then 19 years old, was afield on the Winston County side of the forest when he downed a 20-pointer that grossed 177 4/8 points. And two days earlier, Shawn Padgett of Moulton took a typical 8-pointer with two small kickers that registered a gross score of 166 6/8 inches.
Actually, the 2000 season was the merely the peak of an outstanding four-year run for trophies from Lawrence and Winston counties. In 1997, Randy Coffey’s buddy Tony Myers arrowed what was then Alabama’s No. 4 non-typical at Black Warrior WMA; it grossed 174 P&Y points. And during a gun hunt there the very next year, Myers took one pushing 160 inches. Also during 1998: Paul Stevens of Decatur and Jamie Rutherford of Moulton were hunting the forest proper when they came upon a 176-inch brute. Both men shot it, and share the credit.
The cream of the crop from the 1999 season came from Winston County. It was taken by Arley bowhunter Brian Dover. What was characterized as “the worst shot he ever made at a deer” netted him a 157-incher.
WANT TO GO?
To hunt inside the forest, you need only a state hunting license. The season dates and regulations affecting private and leased lands apply here. To venture inside the Black Warrior WM
A, however, requires an additional $16 WMA license and a free permit (which includes a map and the regulations). The WMA is split into two zones, each of which has its own hunt dates.
For information about Bankhead National Forest write the U.S. Forest Service, P.O. Box 278, Double Springs, AL 35553, or call (256) 489-5111. For a map of the Black Warrior WMA, write the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, Wildlife Section, 64 N. Union Street, Montgomery, AL 36130, or log onto www.outdooralabama.com.
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