Photo by Bryan Hendricks.
Davis Smith was only looking for a place to hunt when he ventured into “The Swamp,” but he came out with the buck of a lifetime.
Not only that, but he also got the biggest buck killed in Arkansas during the 2008-09 deer season. The giant non-typical sported a typical 12×11 frame, but was scored as a non-typical because of an abundance of small kicker points. It netted 209 0/8 Boone and Crockett, but grossed 216 2/8 B&C before the mandatory, 60-day drying period.
And its live weight was a whopping 320 pounds!
Smith, a White Hall resident who works as parts manager at the Ag-Pro dealership in Grady, had no place to hunt for two years after some big-money folks bought the lease out from under his former hunting club. He finally joined a new club in Phillips County last season, but he hadn’t been around long enough to learn the land.
He spent Friday, Nov. 14, exploring, looking for a place to put a stand. He finally arrived at a remote, heavily wooded and lightly used area near the lease boundary known as “The Swamp.” It’s a near-impenetrable citadel of deep mud and cypress trees, with comparatively little firm ground in the form of high ridges running like fingers through the bog. By ridges, we’re talking about little spokes of high ground rising maybe a foot above the mean elevation. Enveloping the “ridges” is a vast expanse of mud and water that’s probably better suited for duck hunting than for deer hunting.
“Years ago, the landowner was going to do some selective (timber) cutting, but the logger had to pull out because he couldn’t keep his equipment on the ground,” Smith said.
Another hunter rode up on an ATV and told Smith he had a stand, but said there was plenty of room for both of them. Smith thanked him but declined the offer.
“I don’t want to get too close to somebody else’s hunting. I know how aggravating that is,” Smith said. “As many acres as we’ve got, there’s no need to set up on top of somebody else.”
The other member insisted that Smith was welcome, so Smith entered the tangled underbrush more or less scouting for a place to erect a stand.
The next day, while easing through the woods, Smith noticed movement in the brush. A stiff breeze blew, and he thought it was a limb moving in the wind until he took a second look. It was a buck, and a substantial one at that!
“He turned his head, and I saw his nose and eye,” Smith said. “He was bedded up, and I thought, Oh, Lord, that’s not a limb!”
With the wind in Smith’s favor, the buck didn’t get his scent. However, it apparently sensed something was amiss because it stood and started walking away. Smith put his scope on the buck and saw that it surpassed camp standards, so he touched off a 7mm Magnum round from his Ruger M77. He found the buck easily and marked it with an orange vest before going back to camp to get help.
Smith returned with five other camp members. That’s when Smith realized just how big his buck really was. Hunters often report disappointing “ground shrinkage” when they approach what they initially thought was a big buck, but not this time. The closer Smith got to it, the bigger its antlers grew.
For the record, the rack’s inside spread measured 23 inches. The main beams measured 29 5/8 inches and 29 7/8 inches. The thickest circumference on the main beams was 5 6/8 inches. The smallest circumference was 4 5/8 inches. It was aged at 7 1/2 years.
“He was probably in the last year of his prime before he started to go downhill,” Smith said.
“He had a lot of what they call ‘trash,’ but I call it character,” Smith added. “I don’t care. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime deer, and I’m real proud of him.”
Although many hunters in the club use motion-triggered trail cameras, Smith said nobody had ever snapped a photo of his buck.
Extricating the buck from The Swamp was the hardest part of all.
“When you got close to the creek, you sank in the mud,” Smith said. “One of the guys that helped me sank all the way to his waist, and it took four of us to pull him out. That made us all kind of paranoid. He had a real good spot to live in.”
Evidently, there was no need to set up anywhere. A mere walk in the woods was all it took to bag the biggest buck killed in Arkansas in years.
“I’ve always said that 95 percent of deer hunting is pure luck,” Smith said. “I bass fish a lot, and there’s more skill to bass fishing than deer hunting. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
As additional reward, Smith’s buck was the overall winner at the 2009 Arkansas Big Buck Classic, one of the South’s premier deer-hunting expositions. Part of the award package was a commemorative Arkansas Big Buck Classic leather jacket, a massive silver cup and a 2008 Can-Am Outlander all-terrain vehicle.
Luck produced the opportunity. Teamwork produced the result. Without all the help from his campmates, Smith said, he wouldn’t have been able to retrieve the buck.
“It was a real camp effort,” said Smith. “The guys in camp have just been wonderful. I think they’re just as happy as I am.”
Although Smith was new to his club last year, his buck was the reward for many years of intensive management. While 200- to 210-class whitetails will probably never be common anywhere in Arkansas, Smith’s buck demonstrates the real potential of selective buck harvest coupled with good habitat and good food. Smith said club members are strongly encouraged to pass on shooting 120- and 130-class bucks, knowing that they’ll grow even bigger in another year or two. Gerald Mitchell, the club’s president, took a 135 B&C whitetail last year, as well.
“My buck would have won the camp pot this year if he (Smith) hadn’t killed this one,” Mitchell said. “We’ll just see if his club dues don’t go up this year!”
“Gerald says, ‘Let the little ones live, and let’s get a good set of standards,’ ” Smith said. “If y
ou let those 120s and 130s walk, this is what happens if you’ve got the feed. We don’t see a whole lot of bucks, but that’s what they told me when I joined the club. We don’t see much quantity, but we see a lot of quality.”
The downside, of course, is that Smith may never see another deer as big as his 2008 monster. His biggest bucks to date were typical Arkansas whitetails, 8-points and such with maximum 15-inch inside spreads.
“I’ve got mixed emotions,” Smith acknowledged. “It’s sad in a way. You know, every deer I see from now on, I’ll judge it against this one. But on the other hand, if I never do anything else, I’ve got this one. He’s my once-in-a-lifetime.”
In many ways, taking this buck was a life-changing experience, Smith said. Every deer hunter in Arkansas fantasizes about winning the Arkansas Big Buck Classic, but there’s a certain prestige that comes with taking a world-class buck, one that compares favorably with any North American whitetail. Smith said fellow hunters call him from all over the country, and every promoter who has a big buck show asks him to enter his buck, knowing it will draw a crowd.
“That’s better than four-wheelers or anything else, just knowing I killed the biggest deer in the state,” Smith said. “That, and the certificate from Boone and Crockett. I expect I’ll make a little shrine for it over my fireplace.”
Considering the age of Smith’s deer, it’s certain a substantial number of young bucks, as well as mature bucks entering their prime, are carrying its genes. Given the nomadic tendencies of whitetail bucks, especially during the rut, it’s also certain that some of his progeny have fanned out across the county and perhaps beyond, to places where others may have a chance to see them. Give them a chance to grow, and some lucky hunter may someday bag an even bigger descendent of Smith’s buck. As Smith’s experience illustrates, though, you won’t likely see that kind of buck nibbling from a corn feeder.
For that, you’re going to have to go for a walk in The Swamp.