Photo courtesy of Kenn Young.
I’ve been doing the Arkansas Big-Buck Round-Up for Arkansas Sportsman for quite a few years now. It’s an enjoyable piece, mostly because it allows me to meet some of the best people — and some of the best hunters — in the state of Arkansas. Top to bottom, that was certainly the case this year.
I also cannot recall a single year when big buck quality was higher than 2007-08. As of press time, there were seven Natural State bucks from last season that had been officially scored and were eligible for inclusion in the all-time record book of the Boone & Crockett Club. Even beyond those mega-deer, the 2007-2008 season produced many more impressive bucks. Let’s take a look at the “biggest of the big” from the Natural State!
RUGER ESTES’ RECORD-BOOK CROSSBOW BUCK
Twenty-year-old Ruger Estes of Russellville has the perfect name for an outdoorsman, and if last season was any indicator, he’s well on his way to living up to it.
“We had been watching this buck for months,” Estes told us when Erbie Earls green-scored his deer a few days after it was taken. “We had a game (camera) set up overlooking a corn pile on some private property we hunt over west of here, and we got dozens of pictures of him coming in about all times of the day and night.”
With that evidence in hand, Estes hunted on opening day in a ground blind he had set up close to the corn pile. He saw “dozens” of deer, including one really good buck with two drop tines, but the monster non-typical never showed.
“I had actually planned on hunting with a compound,” Estes said, “but when opening day arrived, I just didn’t feel really confident with it. So I took my crossbow those first two days.”
On Oct. 2, Estes hunted during the morning and again spotted quite a few deer moving to and from the corn pile, which was located along the edge of a large grown-over clearing. But the big buck didn’t show again, so that afternoon Estes was back in the blind.
“It was real hot and the mosquitoes were terrible,” he recalled, “but I knew that if I just waited long enough and could keep him from smelling me, the big buck would come in.”
Around 4:30 that afternoon, that’s exactly what happened. But the monster whitetail threw Estes a curve, coming in from the wrong direction.
“He was facing me as he fed on the corn,” Estes said. “For 15 to 20 minutes I sat there waiting for him to turn and give me a shot. Several times he looked right at me, but the wind was right and he never seemed worried.”
Finally, the 200-pounder turned and Estes lifted his Horton crossbow. He triggered the release as the buck paused about 20 yards away. Upon impact of the bolt, the monster whirled and ran about 40 yards before crashing to the ground.
Officially scored by Earls, the 24-point Pope County buck netted 196 5/8 points on the B&C non-typical scale. With 12 points on each side, the surprisingly symmetrical rack is the second-largest ever taken with a crossbow in this state, behind only Randal Harris’ long-time state record, and represents Pope County’s second Booner buck.
“A TRULY GREAT GUY”
Nice guys finish last: Leo Durocher’s caustic cynicism could not apply less aptly to 59-year-old Ron Harp: He’s definitely one of the nice guys.
The 25-year veteran of Edward Jones Co., for whom he acts as a financial advisor, was born and raised in Siloam Springs, in the northwest corner of the state. He is a relative latecomer to deer hunting, having taken it up “seriously” only about 15 years ago.
A week before opening day of the 2007-08 modern gun season, Harp drove onto the “back side” of his 50-acre property to pick up his son, Jeremy, who was bowhunting there. As he skirted a large thicket, a large buck ran across the road ahead of him.
“I didn’t stop,” Harp recalls, “but after I picked up Jeremy, we were coming back out and the same buck was standing there alongside a fence row. He had a doe with him and we couldn’t tell how many points he had since her was facing us, but he was big!”
On opening morning of the modern gun season, Harp was sitting in a tripod stand in that same general area, holding his Browning BAR.
“I had originally planned on hunting with my muzzleloader,” he said, “I’ve never taken a deer with it. But I couldn’t find my sabots, so at the last minute I decided to carry my rifle.
“Jeremy was bowhunting northeast of me, and a friend, David Pitner, was blackpowder hunting on the other side of him. I actually heard David’s truck as I walked in before daylight.”
It was a beautiful day, the sky clear and temperature in the 40s as dawn approached. About 6:30 a.m., Harp caught movement out of the corner of his eye and watched as a doe stepped into the edge of the field. She seemed nervous, so he slowly shifted his rifle in that direction.
“Sure enough, the same buck we had seen before came out behind her,” Harp explained. “I had my gun ready, but they were moving straight in the direction where Jeremy was hunting, so I held off. As they crossed the field, the doe would run in circles, with the buck right behind her. Some of the circles were 50 yards or so. Others were much smaller, and there were times the buck’s antlers actually seemed to touch the ground as he chased her!”
When the duo was about 60 yards from Jeremy’s stand, the doe suddenly turned and ran back toward Harp, the buck right behind her.
“I saw him coming and got my rifle up,” Harp recalled, “then shot when he was about 60 yards away. Through the scope I saw blood shoot out of his neck when I shot, and then he stopped and just laid down!”
The Benton County rack outwardly looks typical, but a long drop tine on the left side and several abnormal points dictate that it be scored as a non-typical. At the Arkansas Big Buck Classic in Little Rock, it was given an official total of 195 1/8, making Harp’s buck eligible for the B&C all-time record book. It will be the first buck from Benton County to make that prestigious list.
This nice guy didn’t finish last!
BULL BY THE HORNS
Unofficially, 2007 was the “year of the crossbow” in the Natural State. In addition to B&C bucks taken by Ruger Estes and Greg McKnight, a third potential B&C crossbow buck was taken by 46-year-old Tommy Bull of Aplin about 10 miles southwest of Perryville in Perry County.
Bull, who works for Tim Hubbard Logging, spends nearly all of his time in the woods. In addition to his job, he hunts, fishes and traps, all pastimes that let him see nature up close and personal.
On Oct. 29, Bull was hunting on the side of Cedar Mountain, located seven or eight miles south of Aplin inside Winona Wildlife Management Area. Winona is one of those huge WMAs lying within the Ozarks and Ouachitas, consisting of some 160,000 acres stretching through Garland, Perry and Saline counties.
Bull spent the early part of the morning in a tree stand along a hillside, but a little after 9 a.m., he decided to get down and take a look around. Moving slowly into the wind, Bull had gone less than 100 yards from his stand when he jumped a buck — a big buck — from his bed.
“I had taken my Horton crossbow that day because I knew I would be moving around, and it’s easier to carry in brush than a regular bow.” Bull said. “When that buck came up, he ran a little ways then stopped. He was looking right at me and I figured he would break and run, but instead he just stood there!”
As Bull raised the Horton to his shoulder, disaster seemingly struck.
“I was trying to keep my eye on the buck and flip the safety off at the same time, and I hit the pin that raises the sight up and down,” he recalled. “When I got it to my shoulder, I knew it was going to be off, but the buck wasn’t that far away and the bolt actually hit just a few inches high. He ran less than 200 yards and then went down.”
The long-tined 6-by-6 grossed 180 1/8 and netted 173 4/8 B&C typical points. The buck ranks as the first B&C whitetail from Perry County, and as far as anyone knows, it is the largest buck ever taken on Winona WMA It is also graphic evidence that even though trophy opportunity on public lands may be limited, it is still possible to take a buck of a lifetime there. Just ask Tommy Bull!
A TRUE 8-POINT TROPHY
Larry Heavner is a 61-year-old garage owner from Little Rock. Like many Arkansans, he is a life-long deer hunter, having taken more than 100 deer during a career that now stretches back some 48 years.
On Oct. 13, opening day of the state’s blackpowder deer season, Heavner was hunting on a tract of property he co-owns near Clarendon in Monroe County. As the sun broke over the trees, he was 16 feet up in a climbing stand, watching a well-used scrape some distance away.
“About 9:30 a.m., I heard a deer antler hit a limb behind me,” Heavner said, “and as I turned my head in that direction this buck walked out of some brush maybe 12 steps away.”
Naturally, the buck came out on the wrong side, and he was also so close that Heavner was afraid to move. With his Remington muzzleloader on his lap, all he could do was wait while the buck stared at the scrape.
“Finally, he walked toward the pawed spot, and while he was making noise moving I was able to get my gun up,” Heavner said. “When he got there, he turned broadside and I centered the crosshairs on his shoulder, then pulled the trigger.”
The big buck went down on the spot. Moments later, Heavner lowered his weapon and climbed down, but when he reached the ground, the buck was gone.
“My shot had gone through both shoulders,” Larry said, “but somehow he had made it up and disappeared.”
Before the ordeal ended, Larry and his son Glen spent four hours looking for the wounded animal, which had managed to flee for nearly a quarter mile.
Make no mistake — this buck was worth their effort! The beautiful rack is a clean 4-by-4 typical, with long brow tines and 12-inch G-2s. It was scored at the Big Buck Classic at 167 2/8 net typical points. That figure makes Heavner’s muzzleloader monster the largest main-frame 8-point ever killed in the Natural State!
I didn’t think the phone number I dialed sounded familiar, and when the man I had called answered I found out why. Jim Puckett lives in Fenton, Mich.
So how did a Michigan resident kill the largest non-typical blackpowder buck in Arkansas last season?
“I used to work with a fellow from down there,” Puckett explained, “and one year he invited me down to do some deer hunting. I liked the country, became friends with the other guys in the hunt club and have been coming down there since 1993.”
A union electrician with IBW, Puckett went on to say that he was a life-long deer hunter who hunted every chance he had “back home.” Over the past 30 years, Puckett has taken several nice whitetails, but none of those compare to the Yell County bruiser he took on Oct. 14, the second day of the Arkansas early blackpowder season.
“I was hunting from the ground along the edge of a small clearing within an overgrown clearcut,” Puckett said. “I had actually seen the buck the year before on a nearby food plot, and the other guys in the club had lots of trail cam photos of him.
“Looking back, that clearcut was so grown up that I guess he felt perfectly safe in it. But that day, along about 20 minutes before dark, he came slipping along the edge of that little opening I was watching. I got my T/C Encore up and shot when he was about 50 yards away. He went down in his tracks!”
Jim’s high-racked 17-point, with 11 points on the right and 6 on the left, was officially scored at the Big Buck Classic at 187 2/8 net non-typical points. That makes it the state’s new No. 2 all-time non-typical killed with blackpowder.
THE FUTURE OF HUNTING
“My brother Stuart and I scouted a 60-acre property my folks own in Van Buren County,” said Paige Gilmore. “We found some tracks in one place (that) were big enough that a .30-06 shell would fit inside them. We thought it might be a buck.”
Gilmore is a 16-year-old who attends high school at North Little Rock Old Main, where she does all the things that high school girls do, but she and her older brother also head to the woods at every opportunity. The 2007-2008 season was her first year to deer hunt, and she already had taken a “small 8-point” during gun season.
“We put up a pop-up blind at a spot where there was a funnel, a place deer passed through on their way to feed in some fields,” Gilmore recalled. “We put limbs on top of it to make it look more natural.”
On Christmas Day, the brother and sister team hunted their stand in the morning but didn’t see anything. After taking a break for Christmas dinner, they got back to their stand about 2 p.m.
“I guess it was about 4:30 p.m. when we heard a rustling behind us,” Gilmore said. “At first all we saw was a deer’s nose, then his antlers. He was huge!”
He was also looking right at them. With thudding hearts, Gilmore and her brother waited until the buck started moving. Then she lifted her crossbow and fired when the unwary animal was about 20 yards away.
“He ran — a long ways,” Gilmore said. “It was getting dark, so we went home to let my mother know we weren’t lost, then we went back to look for him. I wasn’t about to let my buck get eaten by coyotes, so we kept looking until we finally found him about 1 o’clock in the morning.”
Two young people looking doggedly for a deer in the dark and cold after midnight — I have to think that most youths would have given up and gone home, but these two didn’t. Gilmore’s buck was a beautiful 10-point that scored 158 6/8 B&C typical points, making it the largest typical taken by a woman in the state last year.
But there’s more to like about this young person.
“I just love being in the woods,” Gilmore said. As she spoke, there was an exhilaration in her voice that left no doubt. “I love getting up early in the morning, stumbling around in the dark, trying to be quiet, then sitting there while everything around you slowly wakes up. I love that first breath of cold air. I can’t explain it, but you just get the feeling that somehow you’re part of it all.”
With young people like Paige Gilmore heading afield, the future of hunting would seem to be in good hands!
* * *
On that high note, I conclude this look at the largest bucks taken last season. As impressive as those highlighted here may be, there are numerous other deer — and deer hunters –deserving of recognition. Dana Smith of Mineral Springs took a big typical buck that scored 158 1/8, while Sandra Wright of Judsonia took another that netted 157 2/8. Ted Selby of Portland killed a 191 5/8 non-typical in Ashley County and Jeremy King of McGehee took a wide-racked buck in St. Francis County. King’s buck scored 188 1/8. Blake Hughes of Bismarck took a 155 4/8 typical buck in Hot Spring County and Drew Griffin harvested a 172 1/8 non-typical in Clark, the best bucks taken by youths in 2007-08.
All of those deer in any other year might have made this Big Buck Round-up, and they graphically illustrate the overall quality of the Arkansas deer herd today.
Hope to see you here next year!