Photo by Dan Kibler.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Granville County was one of North Carolina’s best counties when it came to producing trophy whitetail bucks. At the turn of the century, Rockingham County and its neighbor to the west, Stokes County, started spitting out the Tar Heel State’s best bucks on a regular basis.
So, the 2006 season was sort of a meeting between the old and the new.
Two bucks that took home some of the top honors at last spring’s Dixie Deer Classic called Granville and Rockingham home — at least until they made fatal mistakes in mid-November.
Michael Clifton of Reidsville busted a great 21-point non-typical in his home county of Rockingham on Nov. 18. The buck scored an impressive 167 5/8 points and was the biggest non-typical taken in North Carolina in 2006.
Duane Boston of Claremont struck gold on a tiny piece of private property in Granville County two weeks earlier — to the day — when he tagged a big typical 10-pointer with his muzzleloader. The buck carried a near-perfect rack that scored 153 2/8 points, making it the best blackpowder buck taken in North Carolina last season.
And neither hunter was surprised by his kill. Both of them knew a big buck was patrolling the woods in their hunting areas, but neither is quite sure that the buck he killed was “the” big one.
Chronologically, it makes sense to discuss Boston’s buck first. Taken on opening day of blackpowder season in Granville County, the buck was the object of Boston’s attention for almost eight months. Well, maybe.
“This all started in the 2005 season,” said Boston, a 44-year-old furniture builder who hunts almost exclusively with his father, Ronald. “I’ve got 35 acres that this guy lets me hunt, and there are about 18 acres in grass fields, then a thick clearcut with a thin strip of oaks running through it, then a briar thicket.
“I killed a nice 10-point buck in there in 2005 that scored in the 130s. My dad and I were doing some scouting in February after the season, and he picked up a big shed (antler). It was half of an 8-pointer, with a big, long brow tine.
The shed — the right-hand antler of a buck that survived the 2005 season, carried a brow tine about 6 inches long; its next two tines were pushing 8 inches. With a matching left-hand antler, the buck would have probably scored 110 points or better, presumably as a 2 1/2-year-old. It was enough to pique Boston’s interest.
“I went back there in the spring, several times, and got deeper and deeper into the woods, cutting in some places, then I stayed out of there. I love to bowhunt, but I didn’t want to take a chance of going in there with a bow and running him out of there. I didn’t go back until the first day of muzzleloader season.”
Boston has taken many nice bucks on that piece of property, as well as another one in Granville County; he knows the area has the potential to produce nice bucks, even, he said, if “the area gets hunted pretty hard. People are hunting all around, and there’s dog hunting around there. But this place has been good for me.”
So, Boston decided that the way to get to the big buck was to go deeper and deeper into the thick cover on one end of his hunting tract. The area is bordered by an impenetrable briar thicket on one side, with a thin strip of oaks through the center and a dense 10-year-old pine cutover on the other side.
“That’s where all the deer had been coming from. They’re crossing through the oaks, moving between the two thickets. I picked out the tree for my stand when my dad found that shed. I went back the next week and cut shooting lanes out into the little oaks. I could see maybe 200 yards, even if I couldn’t shoot that far.”
Ronald Boston found the shed on the other side of the property, but David knew the buck would be bedding in either the cutover or the briar thicket, so he set up along the funnel of small oaks in between them.
“They love lying in the briar thicket,” David Boston said.
Because he was worried about spooking the deer if he walked into the area in the dark to hunt on opening morning, Boston hunted another area, then showed up at his briar thicket-cutover at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. He slipped his Buckshot climbing stand up the tree he picked out and set up to wait out the rest of the day.
“I saw a button buck and some other little deer earlier,” he said. “Then, later on, I had a doe come out. She must have been in (estrus), and she hung around for a little while. It was about 5 o’clock, and she came out of the briar thicket on the side I was looking at. She was just wandering around, going back and forth.”
A few minutes later, Boston heard a commotion behind him, in the cutover. “It sounded like a freight train,” he said. “I looked back and could see the buck back in the clearcut. He was just thrashing the weeds and trees back and forth with his horns. I think he was just trying to get out and it was so thick. I’ve never seen (a buck) take his horns and beat them like that. But he was coming out of there to get to that doe.”
The buck made a beeline through the cutover toward the doe. He was headed straight for Boston, who was afraid that the buck would scent him, stop, whirl and leave.
“The wind was cutting from the doe to the buck, and I was right on the edge of it,” he said. “I knew he was smelling her, and I was afraid he was going to smell me, but he was still coming to me, at a fast trot, with his head down. I was just praying he wouldn’t smell me.”
Boston didn’t really want to take the buck head on with a muzzleloader.
“I didn’t want to shoot him from the front, and he was coming face to face to me the whole time. Plus, I hadn’t cut a lot of stuff out behind me,” he said.
But when the buck was 20 yards from his stand, Boston realized that he was high enough in the tree to have a good killing shot. He took aim at the spot where the buck’s neck and spine met and let fly.
“He just fell, fell right down,” Boston said. “The doe ran away, but you know, a little while later, she came back with another buck chasing her.”
By that time, however, Boston was interested only in the huge buck on the ground in front of him. The 240-grain, .50-caliber Hornaday slug, fired from a Knight Disc rifle, had taken the buck just to the side of the spine, ranged down through its vitals, pancaking the buck on the spot.
And what a buck he was. He carried a 5×5 typical rack that was 21 inches wide. His rack was tall, heavy and ridiculously symmetrical. At the Dixie Deer Classic, scorers put the tape on him; his gross score was 156, and it netted 153 2/8, with only 2 6/8 inches in deductions.
The body was just as impressive. “I’m 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, and I knew the deer weighed more than I do,” Boston said. “I gutted him, dragged him out, and when I got to my truck, I couldn’t get him up in it.
“I finally tied all four of his legs together, then I got down and put my arms under him and just kind of scooped him up, stood up and fell forward with him onto the tailgate.”
Then, after some further examination, Boston realized that his buck wasn’t likely a grown-up version of the one whose shed his father had found. First of all, the main beam on the shed curved well back in front of where the buck’s nose would have been, giving the deer almost no space between the tips of his antlers. And the third point on the beam of the shed curved inward.
Those characteristics are not shared by Boston’s trophy buck. His long, heavy beams curve inward only slightly at the tips. The tines stick up mostly straight. The only thing it shares with the shed is that its third tine on each beam is longer than its second.
“The one I killed looks nothing like the shed,” he said. “The shed looks like one buck I killed there a couple of years before, but not like this one.”
There’s no way that Michael Clifton could have imagined that the buck of his dreams wound up looking the way it did on the second Saturday of gun season in Rockingham County.
“Over the years, I’ve killed some nice deer that day; it’s always the same day as the Reidsville Christmas Parade,” said Clifton, a 26-year-old employee of Dow-Corning in Greensboro who makes sure he has enough vacation to hunt at what he believes to be the peak of the rut.
“I was hunting a small farm I hadn’t hunted in a few years. It’s a small tract of land. I had hunted it a few times last season; I try to hunt it by the wind,” Clifton said. “I’ve got a couple of friends, and we plan for hunting season; we scout year ’round and stay abreast of what’s going on where we hunt.”
At one location, Clifton felt sure he had a big buck working along the edge of a field of orchard grass. There were two main trails, one along the edge of the field, running parallel, and one about 50 yards back in the woods that Clifton felt sure was used only by bucks.
A buck had broken the branches off trees, especially pines, along the edge of the field. The branches, Clifton said, were as far off the ground as ribcage high. “I knew a 1 1/2- or 2 1/2-year-old (buck) didn’t do that.”
Clifton affixed a portable Climax stand to a red oak about 40 yards off the edge of the field, where he could look out of the woods into the field. He had two good openings where he could get clean shots at any deer strolling along the edge of the woods, out in the field.
“I had been seeing a few decent deer in there,” Clifton said. “I passed up one nice 8-pointer, about 16 inches (wide), and there was another 16-inch deer, a 4-pointer. I was seeing them fairly regularly. And there were some huge rubs along the edge of the field; he was breaking off some huge pine limbs.
“Plus, it was a pretty good funnel. The does were coming in there, and there was a pretty good acorn crop. They were coming through there, feeding on the acorns, working their way to the orchard grass in the field.
“I had a 3-pointer running a doe in there — I hadn’t been in my stand 10 or 15 minutes that afternoon,” he said. “Then, the big 4-pointer came in with his nose on the ground. I could tell the rut was wide open.”
The woods quieted down for a while, then Clifton heard some limbs breaking behind him. He turned and saw the same 4-pointer; this time, the buck eased to the edge of the field, lifted his nose and scent-checked the field, then headed back into the woods.
“Ten or 15 minutes later, I saw one doe come out; she worked her way down to the edge of the orchard grass,” Clifton said. “She was eating along — one time she raised her head and she had a piece of orchard grass at least 2 feet long hanging out of her mouth. Then all of the sudden, she looked back over her shoulder — the way she’d come from. I sat and watched her for five minutes; I knew she had some more deer with her. Then she moved on.”
About five minutes later, Clifton saw movement along the edge of the field and was able to recognize the silhouette of a big deer. “I knew right away he was bigger than the two bucks I’d seen,” Clifton said. “He came out of the pines to the edge of the orchard grass, and I said, ‘Oh Lord, what a deer.’ He was a big non-typical; you could see all the stuff on his head.
“There were two places I could shoot along the edge of the field, and he got past the first place. He was about five minutes behind the doe; he could probably see her from where he was.
“I got my rifle up as he worked his way down the edge of the field. He was probably 50 yards away. I had the one opening left, and when he got to it, I grunted with my mouth, and that stopped him. I already had the cross hairs on his shoulder, so I shot, and he bucked up and ran off.”
Clifton said he wasn’t nervous at first — only when he sat in his stand for a few minutes and thought about it did he start to feel jelly-legged.
“I said, ‘Lord, you’ve got to get me down out of this tree,’ ” Clifton said.
Calmed enough to climb down, he made his way to the edge of the field, where he searched fruitlessly for sign of a hit. “I didn’t find any blood at first, but then I backtracked and came across a spot,” said Clifton, who was shooting a Kimber .30/06 with a 165-grain Hornaday bullet. “I trailed him across a little hedgerow, and there was this little draw that ran through the field. When I got there, I could see the white part of his backside — then I saw that rack.”
What a rack!
The buck’s antlers look like they’ve been injected with a plastic explosive, then had the charge set off, with sticker points going in every direction from both beams. The left beam has 10 points, nine of them scoreable, and the left beam has 11 points, 10 of them scoreable — and a drop tine on each beam was broken off at the base of each point.
The rack is 17 inches wide inside. The right beam has two drop tines and four other sticker points. The left has a single drop tin
e and a sticker point that splits into a perfect fork. The buck grossed 174 inches and netted 167 5/8, with more than 27 inches of sticker points.
“I knew there was a good deer in there, but I didn’t expect to see something like him,” Clifton said. “All the years I’ve hunted, I’ve never seen a non-typical like that. But the guy who owns the property said, ‘I hope you killed the big one that’s around here.’ Then he saw him and he said, ‘Mike, that’s not the big one.’ He’d seen a bigger deer one night after dark when he was coming in.”
So typical or not, Clifton has something to look forward to this fall.