Photo by Dan Kibler
Ten years ago, if you mentioned Stokes County to a bunch of deer hunters at the Dixie Deer Classic, they might have had to get out a map of North Carolina to figure out where you were talking about.
Not since Stokes County became “Trophy Buck Central.”
The guys at the Wake County Wildlife Club might as well have the plaques standing by to send back on I-40 west to Winston-Salem, then north on U.S. 52 to the place that was previously best known for the outlaws who continue to hunt with dogs 30 years after that became illegal and run up spotlighting convictions faster than a crooked accountant can run up bad numbers on an adding machine.
Somehow, the bad guys are no longer winning. Big, big bucks continue to get checked in on a regular basis at Betty’s Country Grocery out in the country and at other check stations. These bucks are apparently living long enough to grow some mighty impressive headgear.
Over the past four years, bucks from Stokes County have been the biggest taken in North Carolina by bowhunters on two different occasions, the biggest taken with muzzleloaders two different years, and the county has produced the two biggest bucks taken by traditional gun in two of the past three years — including a Boone and Crockett trophy.
Last March, the Dixie Deer Classic’s big-buck contest spit out Randy Armstrong’s fantastic 8-point buck, a Stokes County beast that scored 159 3/8 and won as the biggest typical whitetail taken by traditional gun in 2004. And Reuben Haynes’ tall, narrow 10-point buck, also from Stokes County, scored 154 3/8 and was the biggest killed in North Carolina with a blackpowder weapon in 2004.
Joining those two as winners in the three most important categories last March was Adam Whitt of Mebane, whose 10-point buck from Alamance County scored 150 points and was the largest typical buck taken by a bowhunter in North Carolina in 2004.
Armstrong was “amazed” that an 8-pointer won the big-buck contest in Raleigh. “That’s not gonna happen many times that an 8-pointer beats out 10s and 12s,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that. I’d never had it scored. I just figured that was a good place to get it scored.”
Armstrong, who lives in Walnut Cove, also never expected to kill a buck that big. On the property he was hunting, he had trail cameras out and had hunted several times during bow season. In addition, his 18-year-old son, Austin, and a couple of brothers-in-law had hunted the area. The trail cameras picked up the usual assortment of does and small bucks, including one big cowhorn — but no trophy bucks. And nobody had seen hide or hair of anything that would remotely be considered a trophy.
“I had fixed up a flood plot and built a stand in there, along a creek bottom,” said Armstrong, who works at Reynolds Tobacco Company. “My son had videoed some small bucks out of the stand, but we had no idea this buck was there.”
On Saturday, Nov. 20, the opening day of the four-week gun season in Stokes County, Armstrong gave his son the choice of stands. “He’d hunted this stand so much and hadn’t seen anything worth shooting, so he wanted to go somewhere else,” he said. “It was the first time I’d hunted that stand.”
Armstrong climbed into the box blind, which was built 22 feet off the ground in a pine tree. It was a rainy, foggy morning, and he didn’t want to make noise by opening the windows before daylight, in case a squeaky hinge might spook a deer visiting the food plot of apples and corn that Armstrong had spread on the ground on the edge of the green patch.
“It had been light for about 15 minutes, and I raised one of the windows,” he said. “I had unsnapped it and looked out, and here he came, right down the middle of the food plot. All I could see was horns.”
Armstrong sat back down in his seat and readied his gun. “I wouldn’t look at the deer anymore,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure I didn’t bump any walls or rattle the window. I got the gun out the window, and from the time I saw the deer until I pulled the trigger, it was about a minute.
“He came up the middle of the field, toward the bait pile, and when he stopped and gave me the right angle, I shot.”
The buck was about 65 yards away, in the middle of the one-acre food plot, when Armstrong dropped the hammer on him with a cherished gun, an old Savage Model 99 lever-action gun in .308 with a Tasco scope.
“I’m left-handed, and there aren’t many guns out there for me,” he said. “I bought this gun because I’m left-handed, after I was married in 1975. It was used then, but it suited me. It’s got a narrow forearm, and it’s like a brush gun. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Armstrong’s shot took the deer cleanly through the shoulders, and it ran back out of the field, dropping about 30 yards into the woods. Armstrong found him easily after waiting 45 minutes to get out of his stand. When he got to it, he was stunned at the size of the buck, which weighed 210 pounds on the hoof. The buck, judged by jawbone wear by a taxidermist at 5 1/2 years old, had an inside spread of 20 3/4 inches and back tines that measured 14 and 12 inches, plus a second set of tines that both measured 12 inches. The deer’s rack was nearly perfectly symmetrical.
“We’ll never know, but I wonder where he was living,” Armstrong said. “I’d seen some sign — some rubs and scrapes and some good tracks — but I was thinking the big tracks belonged to the big cowhorn, which my brother killed. Its horns were 16 and 15 1/2 inches long.”
Armstrong said that there were plenty of does working his food plot, a mixture of soybeans, Australian winter peas, oats, clover, kale and alfalfa. “We’ve seen as many as seven does in there at a time,” he said. “Once the season got underway, we didn’t do much messing around at the food plot; we knew the does were there. We were just hoping it would pay off.”
Reuben Haynes’ knowledge of the area he was hunting certainly paid off last Nov. 15, the second day of the blackpowder season in Stokes County. He was hunting a big wood lot that was bordered by a corn field.
“I saw the sign, the scrapes and everything; I took some time to scout it out,” said Haynes, a 69-year-old who retired 15 years ago from Reynolds Tobacco Company. “I’ve been a hunter since I was a young guy. I like being in the woods.”
Haynes found a great deer trail that wound its way through this patch of woods, which included a lot of oak trees. He was afraid that most of the deer using it were doing so at night, coming through the woods to the corn field. But that Monday morning, he drove his old Jeep back about 70 yards into the woods, parked it, climbed on top and sat down in a camouflage seat he has attached to the luggage rack — putting him 6 or 7 feet off the ground.
“It’s an old Jeep; I just drive it right in there, knocking down saplings and everything,” he said. “There was a doe in that area. I saw her about an hour before him. She never did get close enough. I saw her off in the distance.
“An hour later, this buck came from the same direction and was browsing around in the woods. I had to watch him for two or three minutes. I was careful not to move until he got to where I thought he might stop, a clear area where I might get a shot at him.
“He went on and stopped right at the edge of the field — there was a scrape right there in the general area,” he said. “I said to myself, That deer’s got horns, and I got the safety off, took aim and dropped him with one shot, right in the chest.”
Haynes’ shot was true, which was another story in itself. “I had a problem with my gun, a CVA, and they recalled it,” he said. “The factory told me that if they sent it back, they’d send me a new one, and they sent me a Hunter Pro Magnum. We zeroed it in three shots; it shot real good. I was really happy with it.”
Haynes had a Tasco scope on the muzzleloader and was shooting a .50-caliber, 240-grain bullet in a sabot. Shot through the shoulders, the buck never moved.
“I waited about 30 minutes before I got down — I said a little prayer while I was up there,” he said. “I couldn’t tell how big he was that far off, but when I got down to him, I could tell he was nice. I’d killed a big 6-pointer before that was about the same size, as far as the weight, but not with those kind of horns.”
To describe the rack on Haynes’ buck as unique might be doing it a disservice. The buck had an extremely tall, 10-point rack that was tremendously symmetrical but very narrow. The inside spread was 14 3/4 inches, but whatever that lacked was more than made up for by extremely tall tines. The back tines on both antlers measured exactly 13 inches, and the next set of tines on both sides measured 10 1/2 inches.
“His horns were just about perfect,” Haynes said. “You see so many horns that don’t register — ones that are broken off — but mine had a perfect set. My son was really enthused. He encouraged me to go on with it.”
It didn’t take much encouragement for Adam Whitt of Mebane to go trophy hunting during archery season last fall. Unlike Hayes and Armstrong, he knew exactly what he was up against and what he was after.
“I had seen him the previous year, twice during gun season,” said Whitt, a 25-year-old building materials salesman. “The first time I saw him was on a rainy, ugly day, and I was pulling into a farm I’ve got leased. I was in the truck, and I saw what I thought was a deer on the edge of the woods, but I decided it was unbelievable — it couldn’t be a deer. But about the time I got 100 yards from him, he jumped back in the woods and took off.
“Then, I saw him a second time, in about the same spot, when I was in a tree stand almost at the end of the season, in late December. He came out, chasing a doe, showing every sign of rutting. He was chasing the fire out of that doe, and I didn’t really want to risk a shot at him 150 to 200 yards away.”
Instead, Whitt got ready for the opening of the 2004 archery season. “I had seen some big deer from past years, so I know about where they come out in this field during bow season, and I set up a stand up there,” he said. “I had a climbing stand, and I had it up about 20 feet in a small hardwood tree on the edge of the field with pines all around, so I had some good cover.
The afternoon of opening day, Sept. 11, Whitt got to his stand in plenty of time and got up. With about 20 minutes of legal shooting light left, Whitt noticed three deer entering the field, a long distance away.
“He came out with two other bucks, about 200 or 250 yards away from me, into the field,” Whitt said. “There was standing corn still in the field that the farmer hadn’t cut yet, and the other two bucks made their way across to the corn.
“As soon as the big buck came out, he turned like he knew where I was. It was just my day.”
The buck, Whitt said, covered the 200 yards that separated them in about five minutes. “I didn’t do any grunting or anything; he just came right to me,” he said.
Whitt put his rangefinder on various clumps of grass and vegetation out in the field at different ranges around places he thought the buck might arrive. On key, the buck walked directly in front of Whitt and stopped at 23 yards, quartering slightly toward him, but very slightly.
“He was between 20 and 25 yards, and he stopped almost broadside and gave me the shot,” Whitt said. “It seemed like it all happened within a minute, and I never got nervous — at least not until after I shot.”
Whitt raised his Reflex bow and let fly. He knew it was a clean hit and not a pass-through. The buck took off and left the field, and Whitt thought he heard him crash to the ground back in the woods. “It took forever for me to get down out of the tree because I was shaking so much,” he said. “I had another buddy hunting with me, Aaron Shanklin, and I called him on the two-way radios we carry. I told him, ‘I’ll tell you what, I just shot a deer that I’ll guarantee was 22 inches wide.’ “
Whitt trailed the deer about 30 yards out of the field and found the last 6 inches of the carbon shaft of his arrow — the rest of which, including the 100-grain Thunderhead broadhead, was still in the deer.
Whitt, who is colorblind to red, knows better than to try and blood trail a buck by himself. “I’m the guy who stands holding the flashlight at the last spot of blood, while everybody goes out in front looking for more,” he said, laughing. “I waited an hour and called my dad. He’s like a bloodhound. I showed him where I shot the deer, and he looked around. He may have walked 10 yards, and he picked up a blood trail. It was pretty steady; we walked right to him.”
The big buck had made it 70 yards with the rest of Whitt’s arrow in his chest cavity.
Whitt took the big 11-point buck to Harlan Hall, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission who is a certified Boone and Crockett Club scorer. Hall put his tape on the buck and came up with a prel
iminary score of 150 6/8 points. “He told me that I might lose about an inch,” Whitt said.
When he took the buck to the Dixie Deer Classic, the buck scored 150 even, with a 22 3/4-inch inside spread — beating the 22-inch guarantee that he gave his hunting partner.
The rack could have been even better.
The buck had beams that measured 25 6/8 and 26 4/8 inches. The first points on its beams after the brow tines were both 6 inches long. The next point on its left beam measured 10 1/2 inches, but the matching point on the right beam was broken off at 5 4/8 inches. The next tines were 9 2/8 and 8 4/8 inches long. The right beam had a 1 1/8-inch point close to the end of the beam. The buck’s gross score was around 157. If the third point on its right beam hadn’t been broken off — if it had matched the one on the left beam — the buck would have scored in the low 160s.