Photo by Anthony Campbell
Sam Norton was “horn hunting” last fall, but he never expected to connect on a buck like the one he got. While hunting on the backside of Grant Mountain in Marshall County, he shot a buck that had 15 points and a non-typical score of nearly 170 inches. The beast weighed 212 pounds, and it took four men more than five hours to get it out of the woods.
The big buck, which had a gross score of 167 4/8 Boone and Crockett Club points, fell during a mid-day hunt on Dec. 12. That is something of an oddity in itself. Most big deer in this part of the state are taken either at the very beginning of the season, before a lot of hunting pressure has occurred, or late in January during the rut.
Norton’s buck is considered by locals to be one of the best to ever come from that area. Northern Marshall County produces several nice bucks each season, but a good deer here typically scores in the 120 to 130 range on the B&C system. Bucks with more than 150 inches of antlers are rare.
The kill was not a case of beginner’s luck. When development closed in on Sam Norton in his native state of Florida, he relocated to North Alabama. It then took him awhile to adjust to hunting mountains instead of flat woods, but his diligence finally paid off in a big way.
Sam was hunting a 100-acre tract of property owned by a friend when he got the buck. He likes to get a doe for meat each season and then hunt bucks. At the time he was not feeling any pressure to connect, however, because his daughter Amber had already taken the family’s doe, which was her first deer.
“I’d passed up probably 15 other deer I could’ve killed,” he said.
In early December, Norton had been hunting the late afternoons and early mornings and not seeing much, so he decided to go hunting in the middle of the day instead. He got in the woods around noon.
“I’d been seeing a lot of rubs, so I went deeper down into the bluffs than I’d been before,” he said. “It’s steep and thick, the kind of place no one wants to go. Most fair-weather hunters don’t want to go more than 50 yards from the truck. I went down the mountain a half mile and it paid off.”
Norton saw three other deer an hour before shooting the buck. They were moving fast through the woods, well below his position, and all he could see were “glimpses of hair and horns.”
He also saw a dog and guessed the hound had probably jumped them. He thinks all three of the deer were bucks.
“I said, ‘Well, there goes my chance,’ ” he recalled. “But I decided to stay put. I was gambling a little bit.”
Just at 3:00 o’clock, the big buck came sneaking back in from the opposite direction the others had run in. Norton thinks it was probably easing back to where it had been before the dog came through.
There are “benches,” or “shelves,” on the back of the mountain — sort of natural terraces. This buck was about three benches below the hunter, roughly 140 yards through the woods. Norton was about 35 feet up in his tree stand.
“I could only see part of his antlers, but I felt he was a pretty good buck, so I drew down,” Norton said.
He then had to follow the buck in his scope and wait for an opening. He eventually shot through a hole “about the size of your hat.”
At the shot, the deer ran about 60 yards and stopped. Norton could still see him, so he shot again. The .300 Win. Mag Browning pump did its job, and the deer collapsed.
“I went down to check on him, and I just kept going deeper and deeper,” he said. “When I got to the buck, I grabbed one side of his horns to look at him, and he rolled and slid another 80 feet down the mountain.”
Norton tried to stop the deer, but he could not. He ended up just sitting down and sliding with the critter. When he got the buck stopped, he finally had the chance to really size it up. Norton was looking at the biggest whitetail he had ever laid eyes on in the wild.
Realizing he would never be able to get the deer out by himself, he left the woods and contacted a friend — Grant police officer Chuck Van Etten.
“Chuck and I started dragging, but we realized pretty quickly that we’d never be able to do it by ourselves,” Norton said. “I’m not old. I’m only 33. But we needed some 17- and 18-year-olds on this job.”
They got teens Josh Grimes and Doug Hartman to help with the recovery. It was uphill in rugged, rocky country to get the buck out of the woods.
“We had two four-wheelers, 200 feet of rope and four men, and we moved him three feet at a time,” Sam said. “I’ve been deer hunting for 20 years, and it was the hardest one I’ve ever retrieved.”
Grant is a fairly small community, and word of Sam’s big deer had spread even before he had gotten it out of the woods. A crowd of about 30 people were waiting to see it when Sam and the recovery crew emerged with the brute.
An old cotton scale gave the weight as 212 pounds, but Sam thinks the scales were worn out and that the actual weight was closer to 225.
“It felt like more than 250 by the time we got him out,” he added.
While the body weight was impressive, it is the antlers that catch the eye.
“It’s a unique rack,” he explained. “It has a drop tine and the right side has a couple of points coming off the main beam at an unusual angle. It’s a hard rack to photograph because of the uniqueness.”
The rack is a main-frame 10-pointer, but the extra points give it 15 points total. It’s not particularly wide, at only 15 1/2 inches, but the main beams are 25 inches long. The rack has good mass throughout.
“This is the first good buck I’ve taken in Alabama,” Norton confided.
It is also the best deer by far that he has ever downed. His previous best was an 8-point that grossed around 120 B&C.
Norton said the rugged bluffs o
ff the backside of Grant Mountain are a great place to find a buck that has grown big and old.
“I’m sure there are better bucks there,” he offered. “But you’ve got to go into areas that have never seen a human footprint to find them.”
Although the mountain buck is his best, it is not the deer he is most proud of from last season.
“My daughter, Amber, killed her 120-pound doe on this same property during the youth hunt last Nov. 13,” Sam beamed. “Believe it or not, I’m more proud of that deer than I am this one.”
Amber has been going hunting with her father for years now, but the youth hunt was her first time to carry a gun. She was using a borrowed .223 when she killed the doe. Later she got a .243 for Christmas, and Sam thinks there will be more deer hunts in her future.
Sam Norton is one of those hunters who just enjoy the sights and sounds of being in the woods whether he gets a nice buck or not.
It meant a lot to him to have killed his big deer in a place where the whitetails are wild and the hunting can be difficult.
“I have friends who go to preserves and take trips to true trophy areas,” he said. “They ask me to go with them, but I’d feel that I was buying one rather than earning it. I feel like I earned this one.”