By Duncan Dobie
For as long as most local deer hunters can remember, several large tracts of land belonging to the Callaway family in Harris County have been synonymous with trophy whitetails. However, much of this privately owned property, which is not part of Ida Cason Callaway Gardens proper, had remained strictly off-limits to all but the luckiest of hunters. One tract in particular, nicknamed Rocky Branch, has become almost legendary for the stories that have circulated about the giant bucks roaming within its borders.
One reason for the continuous stream of rumors is the fact that the Rocky Branch property has long road frontage on State Route (SR) 116 between Interstate I-85 and Hamilton. More than one motorist driving down SR 116 in the pre-dawn darkness of late fall or early winter has witnessed one of these “unattainable” wide-racked monsters crossing that lonely stretch of highway.
Because these sightings were often credible, this property arguably ranks with some of the finest hunting tracts in all of Georgia. Adding to the argument is the fact that in the past Harris County had produced a couple of bucks that made the Boone and Crockett Club (B&C) all-time record book lists.
In 2002, the Rocky Branch property underwent a dramatic change. The Callaway family decided to turn approximately 12,000 acres of this land into a carefully managed commercial hunting operation in which limited deer, turkey and quail hunting would be offered to hunters on a fee basis. Glenn Garner, whose family had long been involved in managing the wildlife on this property for the Callaway family, became the chief operating officer for the brand-new hunting preserve known as Rocky Branch Plantation. Among the innovations to take place here would be a very intensive trophy management program for deer aimed at increasing the size of the already big bucks that lived on this land.
Glenn was the right man for the job. He knew big deer existed on this property because he had seen them with his own eyes. As a teenager working with his father on this land years earlier, he had been given permission to bowhunt on Rocky Branch. As luck would have it, he narrowly missed a giant buck with his bow. It was an experience he never forgot.
“The buck I missed was an exceptionally large 12-pointer,” Glenn remembered. “I’m sure he would have scored over 170. When you miss a buck like that, the image of the rack and those long tines stays with you forever.”
Glenn nicknamed the huge buck “Big Mo,” but he never saw the deer again.
Thus, it came as no surprise to him when Kent Callaway, one of the Callaway grandsons, sighted a giant buck out in a food plot in August of 2002, less than a month before bow season was scheduled to open. It was on a Saturday afternoon, and the young man described the buck as being a very wide 10- or 12-point typical with long tines and several abnormal “sticker” points.
By chance, Glenn saw the same buck the very next morning.
“He was standing on the side of a dirt road within several hundred yards of the spot where Kent had sighted him the day before,” Glenn remembers. “I got a great look at him, and he was unbelievable! He was in full velvet. When he turned his head, I could see that he had at least a 20-inch inside spread. I guessed that he would easily score between 170 and 180 B&C points.”
As a tribute to the trophy buck he had missed years earlier with his bow, Glenn nicknamed this giant “Big Mo.” Although Glenn’s adrenaline was pumping overtime and his enthusiasm for Rocky Branch Plantation probably increased by about 1,000 percent that day, he had no way of knowing that within a few short weeks, Big Mo would be making Peach State history!
Croy heard about the hunting operation being launched at Rocky Branch Plantation, and being no stranger to big bucks in Georgia he knew Harris County had a reputation for producing its fair share of trophy animals. Steve immediately made plans to visit Rocky Branch in person in late July of 2002 so that he could see the operation first-hand. After driving over the property with Glenn Garner and Bill Jordan of Realtree Camouflage fame, who happened to be there on the same day, Steve wasted little time in booking several hunts for himself, Atwell and another business associate, Sonny Bland of Waycross.
After hearing from Croy about the hunts, Atwell looked up the Rocky Branch Plantation Web site on his computer.
“During the summer of 2002, the folks at Rocky Branch were taking a lot of deer photos with trail cameras and posting them on the Web site,” Lauren said. “They changed the photos every Friday, so I started looking them up on a regular ba
sis to see what was new. In early September, they posted a photo of Big Mo. That really got everyone in our group fired up. Although the photo was not the best in the world, we all agreed that Big Mo might easily score as high as 200 B&C points.”
After seeing the photo of Big Mo, Lauren downloaded the picture and used it as his screen-saver. He also e-mailed the photo to several of his friends who knew he would be at Rocky Branch in October.
“I jokingly told several of my friends that I planned to hunt Big Mo exclusively,” Lauren remembered.
Lauren and Sonny arrived at Rocky Branch on Wednesday evening, Oct. 22, during the first week of rifle season. Steve had arrived a day earlier. The three men had booked a four-day hunt. Expectations for seeing Big Mo had been high during the previous four-day period, which included the opening weekend of rifle season, but neither hide nor hair of the huge whitetail was seen by anyone.
One of the hunters who had been there the previous week was comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who knew all about Big Mo. Also in tongue-in-cheek fashion, he had told everyone at Rocky Branch that he, too, planned to hunt Big Mo exclusively. If he had, it was a fruitless pursuit, though Foxworthy had plans to return to Rocky Branch within a week or so and try again for Big Mo during the peak of the rut.
By this time, Big Mo had not been seen in several weeks, with the last confirmed sighting back in early September.
On Thursday morning, the first day of the hunt, Lauren and his companions were greeted with torrential rains. Despite the adverse weather, the three men pulled on their rain gear and headed out to brave the elements. During the morning session, Lauren hunted out of a ladder stand overlooking one of the property’s numerous food plots. Because of the rain, he got quite cold, and the only animals he spotted were 13 turkeys that paraded out into the opening.
The three hunters went back out about 4 p.m. Glenn Garner dropped off Steve first, then Sonny. Lauren was the last man to be put out.
“We pulled up right in the edge of a different food plot from where I had hunted that morning,” Lauren recalled. “We had actually driven through this food plot on our way back in for lunch. We could see fresh deer tracks in the truck tracks that had been made at lunchtime. Glenn and I got out of the truck and started examining some of the deer tracks. At one point, as Glenn was walking back toward the truck, I happened to look up and saw a huge buck running dead away from us. It was Big Mo. Before I could get my gun up, though, he dropped over a little rise and disappeared from view.”
Lauren was so excited that he could hardly speak. When he finally got Glenn’s attention, he whispered, “He was huge! He was huge!”
At that same instant, a doe ran out across the food plot.
“Don’t panic,” Glenn told the excited hunter. “If that was Big Mo, he’ll probably come back looking for that doe.”
Glenn had no way of knowing how prophetic his words would be. Lauren climbed up in a ladder stand on the edge of the 8-acre plot planted in rye. He sat quietly for the next 1 1/2 hours without incident. Ironically, Steve Croy had hunted this very stand the afternoon before at Garner’s suggestion. He had considered hunting it again on this soon-to-be-memorable Thursday afternoon, but had opted to try another location instead.
“She kept looking back over her shoulder into the woods,” Atwell said. “All at once, a 3-point buck came charging out of the woods and chased her back into the trees. A few minutes later she came back out into the open. This time, she was being chased by a slightly larger 4-pointer. She ran back into the woods again, and I could see at least four or five deer milling around in the shadows.”
A few minutes later, two 8-pointers appeared. Then Lauren saw a nice 10-pointer.
“The 10-pointer was all alone,” Lauren recalled. “He was about 70 yards straight out in front of me. I had a rest for my rifle, and I was considering taking a shot. Then I was distracted by a doe at the far end of the food plot about 175 yards away. She ran back into the woods, and I refocused my attention on the 10-pointer. I watched him for several minutes. Then I saw yet another buck down at the far end.”
It was around 6:45 p.m. Unbeknownst to Lauren, the new buck he had just sighted was Big Mo.
“There was a little finger of woods that came out into the food plot where the buck had appeared, and he was walking parallel to that,” Lauren remembered. “When he finally got out into the open, I realized that he was much bigger than the 10-pointer I had been watching. I got my scope on him, but I didn’t have a good rest to shoot from. He was walking broadside to me and I could tell that he was a fine trophy. I still had no idea that I was looking at Big Mo.”
Lauren aimed as carefully as he could with his Ruger 7mm Magnum. He squeezed off a round.
“Apparently I missed,” Lauren said. “He ran about 30 yards and stopped. Fortunately, he was still broadside to me. I jacked another shell into the chamber as quickly as I could and fired again. This time he went down.”
Lauren bolted a third round into the chamber of his rifle and sat watching the buck for 10 to 15 minutes. Finally, the excitement was more than he could bear. He packed all of his loose gear into a knapsack, climbed down from his stand and started walking toward the fallen trophy. The 10-pointer he had been watching earlier, along with a second, somewhat smaller 10-pointer, had come back into the food plot. Lauren patiently waited for them to leave the field. Then he walked over to the spot where his buck had gone down.
“I couldn’t believe how big he was,” Lauren said. “I started giving myself some high-fives!”
Glenn Garner drove up to get him about 20 minutes after dark. Lauren walked out to the road to meet him.
“I got a monster,” Lauren told Glenn excitedly, still unaware that the buck he had just shot was Big Mo.
The two men got into Glenn’s truck and drove across the field. When they were about 30 yards from the deer, Glenn could see a set of giant antlers rising up from the ground in the headlights.
“My gosh!” he yelled. “That’s Big Mo! You just shot Big Mo!”
“I had no idea I had killed Big Mo until that moment,” Lauren stated. “In the photos taken with the trail camera, his antlers appeared to be very white. The antlers of the buck I shot were very brown. In the excitement of the moment, I never put two and two together until Glenn realized what I had done.”
Not only would the
huge whitetail easily qualify for the Boone and Crockett Club record book and become Georgia’s largest buck of the 2002 season, it would also carry another unusual distinction. With roughly 85 B&C record-book bucks taken in Georgia, Lauren Atwell is the first out-of-state deer hunter to get his name on the list.
With a 20-inch-plus inside spread, Big Mo sported a 6×5 main-frame rack with five additional abnormal points totaling nearly 20 inches. The buck’s gross non-typical score tallied an impressive 214 B&C points. Despite about 10 inches in deductions for non-symmetry, the net non-typical B&C entry score was recorded at 204 6/8 B&C points.
“Taking a buck like Big Mo is something that every hunter dreams about,” Lauren said. “I really owe it all to my good friend Steve Croy. Steve set up the hunt and told me that Rocky Branch Plantation would be a great place to go. He certainly knew what he was talking about!”
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