By Robert H. Cleveland
Dan Grafton had been searching for his first trophy buck a long time, which makes what happened last Dec. 27, 2002, hard to believe.
A huge, heavy-antlered whitetail walked out into the edge of a field in Madison County and stopped to pose broadside to Grafton’s stand, not more than 100 yards away.
This was no ordinary buck, mind you. It was the kind hunters dream about. At first glance, its antlers were magnificent. They were wide – just less than 27 inches – and they were thick.
“When I first saw him, I estimated his antlers were at least 24 inches across,” said Grafton said. “He was facing me and I could see his ears. The antlers stuck out about 5 inches outside them on both sides. That got my attention.”
As Grafton moved into shooting position, the buck turned and struck the broadside pose. The hunter gasped, for the buck’s mass was also impressive. Both sides were thick with palmation.
“All I could see was antlers,” Grafton recalled. “There was so much of it.”
Here’s a guy who has been deer hunting for 15 years, yet had passed up many big bucks most of us would consider shooters. By his own best guess, it had been “many years” since Grafton had shot a buck.
He had bought his own farm, and worked hard to create a good place to hunt, hoping that one day those 450 acres would produce a trophy-quality animal.
Then, when all this work and planning came to fruition, Grafton reached over and grabbed his – video camera!
That’s right. In his excitement, Grafton never thought about picking up the 7-mm rifle sitting right there beside him. Now he can’t remember exactly why he reached for the digital camera. Perhaps it was out of habit. One thing is for sure, he’s glad he did.
After hearing his story, and watching the three minutes of video, it is easy to understand why. But let’s go back to the beginning: Grafton was sitting alone in the raised shooting house overlooking a 1/2-acre food plot in a 40-acre field in Madison County.
It is no accident that this part of the Big Black River bottoms produces trophy deer. The soil is fertile, which is why for over a century it has been home to huge cotton, soybean and corn operations. Over the past decade as farm prices fell, the land has increased in value for its recreational possibilities.
Sportsmen replaced farmers as stewards of the land. Instead of row crops planted for profit, many fields were reforested with pine plantations in the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Other fields were left to grow wild. Between the thick pines and high sage, a deer factory was created on quality soil.
On most parcels, the only agricultural plantings are wildlife food plots. With such huge investments in money and time, these sportsmen began to practice trophy management. Many neighboring landowners and hunting clubs worked together, instituting harvest strategies on connected parcels for broad-scale deer herd management.
The result has been an explosion of trophy-class bucks, with 140-point bucks on the Boone and Crockett Club (B&C) scoring system common. Even 150- and 160-class deer are not uncommon. Three deer from Madison County have even been added prestigious B&C All-Time record book over the past eight years. This county is among the leaders in placing bucks on the Magnolia Records with seven non-typical listings and 50 typicals.
Many other monster bucks are talked about behind closed doors. Some have even been scored in contests, but never officially registered by landowners who didn’t want publicity, owing to the associated problems of road-hunting and other poaching.
In the last 10 years, the Big Black area has joined the Delta and the Black Belt Prairie, as an equal, when it comes to trophy deer production in Mississippi.
Grafton is among those landowners committed to such deer management.
It was just after the peak of the rut and during the heart of mating last season that he got clear proof that all the work was worth the effort.
It was a cool, clear day. The sunshine hitting the top of his metal shooting house kept it warm for Grafton, who was settled in his seat hoping for a glimpse of the buck that he knew was working the field.
“There were some scrapes around the edge of the field in front of and on the right side of the stand,” he said. “And they were fresh. If you got near them you could smell them, so I knew a buck was busy in the area. From the looks of the tracks, I could tell he was a big boy.”
The hunter found out just how big about 4:30 p.m.
Grafton could see movement in the brush and timber straight in front of his stand and knew something was about to enter the field. When he saw the form of a big deer, with huge antlers, he instinctively reached and grabbed his video camera.
“I always take it to the stand – we all do,” Grafton said, referring to some of his hunting partners at neighboring camps. “We shoot video and then share it. We compare bucks that we don’t consider shooters and just have fun with it.”
At the end of each hunting season, Grafton and a few other hunters compile their video and make a composite tape to remember the season.
Little did Grafton know that he would soon have three minutes of video that would stand alone as a highlight film-for-the-ages.
When the buck hit the edge of the timber, Grafton aimed the camera and began shooting. The big buck walked out looking straight at the stand.
“I couldn’t believe how wide it was,” Grafton emphasized regarding the rack.
Oddly enough, the width of the antlers didn’t faze the hunter, or at least not to the point that it woul
d have rattled most of us. The camera didn’t shake. It was steady, but that’s not to say Grafton was totally under control.
“No, I was pretty excited,” he pointed out.
The camera was still rolling and still steady when the buck turned to Grafton’s right and struck the broadside pose that exposed the great mass of its antlers.
This is where the story would end for most hunters, who would have put the cross hairs of a scope on the deer’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger. That would have been a big mistake. And a look at Grafton’s tape shows why.
The buck’s pause gave Grafton time to notice a flaw in the antlers. As impressive as they were, Grafton saw that the right main beam was broken about 5 inches from the tip.
“When he turned to my right, the right main beam was on my side and I could see that it was broken,” he said. “The left beam was sticking out a good 5 inches farther than the right one and there was a point missing on the right that was on the left. I think that was why I kept taping and didn’t pick up the rifle.”
Feeling secure, the buck put its head down and begins walking along the edge of the field. Grafton knew the animal was walking the scrape line and the real show was about to start.
“He’d take a few steps, stop, look around, lift his nose, take a few sniffs, and then take a few more before stopping, looking and sniffing,” Grafton recounted. “He was headed right toward the first scrape.”
On video, you can see the buck approach the scrape, hidden by the rich grass of the food plot, and put his nose in it. Then he walks to the other side and stops to paw it, like he’s stirring it up to free any hidden smell left by does. He leans over for another sniff and then straightens back up and takes another reassuring look around.
Grafton was getting his first close-up look, at less than 75 yards, of a buck working a scrape.
“I’d seen it before at a distance and on other videos, but never this close and never the kind of show like he was putting on,” Grafton said.
The buck started pawing the ground again, and then took a step forward before freshening the scrape. The video clearly shows the buck rubbing his tarsal glands together to increase the scent on the urine.
Then comes a moment for which Grafton was not prepared. As the buck finished wetting down the scrape, he backed up and looked up at the overhanging limb.
“Then he just stood up on his hind legs and took a whiff of the branch,” Grafton said.
The video showed the deer rise up and then shuffle his back legs a bit to hold his balance. The buck then rose again, standing even taller and this time staying erect even longer as he rubbed the tip of the branch with his orbital glands. You can hear Grafton murmuring on the video, which he said he was glad cannot be understood. It was, he said, a running commentary – a play-by-play, so to speak.
When the buck returned all four paws to the ground, he took another sniff of the air and shook all over, like he was proud of himself. Then he did an about face and started walking the edge of the field again.
“He was moving to my right, toward the corner and I had to turn a bit to stay with him,” Grafton remembered. “I was being careful not to make any noise, because he was coming closer. He was heading toward another scrape and I wanted to watch him again.”
The buck cut the corner of the field and started heading down the side. His path brought him to another big scrape, this one just 50 yards to Grafton’s right.
The camera zoomed in on the massive buck and his impressive rack. Even with the flawed antler, it was one giant buck. The brow tines are long and measure 8 and 9 inches each, while the G-2s are 9 inches in length, and thick. The main beams are 6 inches in circumference almost to the tips.
Still, even with the buck standing broadside at 50 yards, Grafton kept the camera running. It was trained on the huge deer as it began to work the second scrape. He repeated the entire performance, including rising up on his back legs to rub the overhanging branch.
The close-up view of the buck’s courting ritual is some of the best and clearest video you will find. From Grafton’s raised stand, he had a perfect viewpoint, and his star performer was a ham on camera.
“It was like he knew he was the star of a show and was milking it for everything he was worth,” said Joe Watts of Canton as he watched the tape for the third time.
At a screening, Watts pointed around the barn of the deer camp, where the video was being played on a big-screen TV, and laughed. Every jaw in the house was hanging. Mouths were wide open, in spite of some of the hunters having already seen the footage.
The video is that good and was occasionally interrupted by the same question.
“Dang, Dan,” someone would shout. “How could you keep shooting with a camera and not get your gun?”
They said it when the buck first stepped out. They said it when he first turned broadside. They said it after he worked the first scrape. They said it when he turned the corner at the edge of the field. They said it when he stopped broadside at the second scrape, so close, it seemed that Grafton could have harvested him with a knife.
Grafton would answer each the same way.
“Just watch and you’ll see. It gets better.”
After each scene, Grafton’s smile grew a little wider and his shoulders got a little broader. This was the look of a proud man. Proud that he had not taken the deer when it first stepped out. Proud that the youngsters around the room were learning a good lesson in that there is a reward for patience and taking the time to study the buck before shooting. Proud that indeed he had taken the time to be sure that his buck, even with its broken beam, was the deer of his dreams, explaining why the final few seconds of the video are hilarious.
After the big buck finished working the second scrape, he turned and continued down the edge of the field to Grafton’s right. The camera followed him as he passed even closer to the stand and was soon even with it and about to leave the field.
All of a sudden the video goes from the buck to the trees, to the sky to the top of the inside of the stand before it goes blank. As the video ended, the hunters gathered in the barn turn toward Grafton who winked and said one word.
That was his way of telling everyone that he realized at the final second that he had forgotten one important aspect of harvesting his dream buck. He ha
d not yet shot it, which he did in the nick of time.
“After seeing the broken tine, I was kind of indecisive about whether I should let him walk or not,” Grafton said. “Then, as I filmed him, I was so enthralled at watching and videoing the buck that I didn’t think about it again for a while.”
Grafton kept filming until the last second when he realized that despite the broken beam, this was by far the biggest buck he ever had a chance to harvest in his 15 years of hunting and maybe the biggest he would ever have a chance to take. He remembered the term “once in a lifetime” and decided he had better take the shot. It was almost too late.
“The buck was only a few feet from leaving the field when I hurried to turn the camera off, put it down and picked up the rifle,” Grafton recounted. “I’m not kidding you, had he taken one more step before I got the scope on him, he’d have been gone. It was that close. His head was in the woods when I shot, and it was only four seconds between the time I stopped filming and pulled the trigger.”
At the time this article was written, the buck has not been officially scored for the Boone and Crockett records, due to its broken tine. Had it not been for that flaw, however, it is likely that it would have qualified as a typical B&C all-time record buck. A gross score of the full left beam, plus half the inside spread, produced over 95 inches.
If the right beam maintained symmetry beyond the break as it had from the break back to the base, there would be another full point, another sticker point, another circumference measurement and 5 more inches of main beam to score.
The total gross from the green- scoring still produced 167 4/8 inches, and one circumference measurement on each side was overlooked. By adding in the 12 inches of circumference that were missed and estimating the inches of the missing point and broken beam, a typical gross score of close to 190 B&C was probable. A net score over the typical minimum of 170 was also likely. The existing deductions were in the 10-inch range.
Fortunately, Grafton could give a rat’s you-know-what about records. He has his trophy, and it is not the huge mount that now adorns the wall of his office. His trophy is the three minutes of footage he has on video!
A 45-second clip of the video was offered over the Web site of the state’s largest newspaper, and it was downloaded by thousands of hunters across the country during a two-week period, creating a domino effect.
“I get a kick out of it every time I watch it, but I get a bigger kick out of the comments I get,” Grafton said. “I go places, and it never fails that somebody will have seen it. I love that.”
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