Photo by Mike Lambeth.
When Michael Crossland was invited on a deer hunt one November afternoon in 2004, he had no idea what lay in store for him. If he’d had an inkling, he might have declined.
By sheer luck, he would kill the top non-typical ever taken in Oklahoma — but then a nightmare unfolded that would leave him wondering if he’d ever hunt deer again!
Crossland’s decision would eventually land him in the crosshairs of a zealous landowner; he’d be demonized by unscrupulous rumors and dogged by legal problems stemming from his hunt.
The 26-year-old Crossland is a farmer from Grandfield, a small community nestling in the southwest Oklahoma county of Tillman. Faced with the arduous task of farming from daylight until dark, Crossland rarely gets to hunt. Though he hadn’t killed many deer in his 13 seasons previous to ’04’s, he did manage to take one bragging buck, a nice 11-pointer.
Nevertheless, he’ll remember the deer that he took on Nov. 23, 2004, for a lifetime, because, for good and ill, it put him square in the unforgiving eye of the public.
TILLMAN COUNTY: BIG-BUCK COUNTRY IT’S NOT
The state’s deer herd is undergoing explosive growth statewide, and the southwest region is currently reporting some of the largest increases in overall numbers. Historically speaking, however, the area hasn’t got much of a reputation for yielding up trophy bucks.
In 1986, Chattanooga’s Kelly Morrison took an exceptional 15-point buck that was scored at 184 7/8. According to the 2005 edition of the Cy Curtis Awards Program Deer Record Book, it rates as the highest-scoring non-typical ever taken in Tillman County. The highest-scoring typical from that county was a 10-pointer carrying a rack that was taped at 159 6/8 inches; it was taken by Dale Mills of Snyder in 1984. It’s not that the area hasn’t surrendered nice deer, but few of them have been standouts.
Invited by a friend and former co-worker to hunt on a ranch on which the pair had previously worked, Crossland accepted, but stipulated that he couldn’t hunt until later that afternoon. Arrangements were accordingly made to pick Crossland up for the evening hunt.
Oklahoma’s 16-day deer gun season opened the previous weekend, and the southwest part of the state had been drenched in showers at that time. Happily, Tuesday’s weather was fair and balmy, but Crossland knew that the rain would have made their hunting spot — a creek-bottom area near the river that the hunters knew usually held decent numbers of deer — incredibly muddy.
Crossland’s ranch-hand associate arrived in mid-afternoon, and the pair optimistically headed for their chosen site. Rumors had been circulating to the effect that a nice buck was in the area, but the two entertained no hopes beyond that of enjoying an afternoon away from their rigorous jobs.
Upon arrival, they surveyed the area and realized that they could gain access to a promising area only with the use of a four-wheeler, and by maneuvering on foot through some knee-deep mud. The boggy landscape that lay ahead was grim enough to get Crossland wondering as to whether he really wanted to mess up his unmarred deer rifle, and after some consideration, he decided to leave the .30/06 autoloader in the truck and reached instead for his rattling horns.
“I didn’t want to get my rifle muddy,” Crossland said in recounting his reasoning, “so I thought I would go and rattle a buck for my friend.”
Crossland’s friend unloaded the ATV, and the duo mounted up to ride a short distance before abandoning their “mud buggy” and going ahead on foot. At a likely spot overlooking a distant creek, Crossland began to clash the antlers together, which only spooked some does. Running toward the creek, the deer were swallowed up by the thick vegetation.
Curious about the whereabouts of the does, Crossland and his friend walked toward the creek and followed the bank out to the road. There was no sign of the vanished females.
When they reached the road, the friend declared that he was off to retrieve the four-wheeler — and handed him his gun, in case he saw deer.
“I told my friend, ‘I would rather you take the gun and shoot a deer. I already have one mounted on my wall at home,'” Crossland recalled. But his companion persuaded him to take the gun and then left to fetch the ATV.
Crossland walked across the road to survey a thicket. Almost immediately, a doe walked out of a clearing into some tall grass. As he watched the doe, which was unaware of his presence, a big buck walked out not far away — and the size of its antlers left no doubt that it was a shooter.
The adrenaline-charged hunter shouldered the rifle and pulled the trigger — only to hear a resounding click! In disbelief, Crossland discovered that the rifle had been unloaded! Instantly, he remembered both that his friend’s rifle was a .30/06, the same caliber as his own — and that in his front pocket was a clip of shells for his autoloader.
Alerted by the sound of the misfire that something was amiss, the animal broke into a run. Hands shaking, Crossland fingered a bullet from the clip. Bolting the shell into the rifle, he raised the weapon into position and sighted the animal through the scope. It was 80 yards away.
“When I looked through the scope and found the buck,” Crossland remembered, “I had no idea how big the buck’s rack looked. I felt the buck was a decent one, so I just took steady aim and fired. And the deer dropped in his tracks.”
Crossland walked toward the downed deer. He imagined that his kill might be a 10-pointer, since he saw some prominent tines showing from a distance. However, when he got closer, the closeup view told a different, more exciting story.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ I never dreamed my buck would have been that big. There were points going everywhere, and when I rolled him over, the other antler, buried in the grass and mud, had several points on it also.” In all, the huge rack had a total of 24 points that jutted out in all directions!
Crossland’s friend, who’d heard the report of his rifle, re
turned shortly with the four-wheeler and stared in amazement at the buck’s size. Had those rumors about a king-size deer haunting the area been proved true?
The two hunters loaded the buck on the ATV and headed for their truck. An area farmer driving by stopped to gawk at the huge trophy. After looking on with astonishment for a few minutes, the duly-impressed bystander headed into town to spread the word of Crossland’s accomplishment. By the time the hunters rolled up to the check station, a crowd of about 125 had gathered to greet them.
At that stage of events, Crossland was truly elated to have had an experience that most hunters can only dream of — but little did he know the grief that was brewing.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
The next day, Crossland took the buck’s cape and rack to Hillman’s Taxidermy in Yukon to have the trophy mounted. Gerald Hillman, owner of the shop and a veteran of the taxidermy business, was fully aware that Crossland’s buck was extraordinary. Surmising that the buck was potentially a state record, he agreed to measure the animal. An official score can’t be determined until after the rack dries 60 days, so Hillman tallied up a green score of near 248 inches — almost 8 inches larger than the existing state record. Daunted by the possibility facing them, both men decided to keep quiet until the rack could be scored officially.
Matters soon took a vexing turn. Having heard news of a monster buck being taken on his property as well as related reports of a nationally known outdoor store offering Crossland a substantial amount of money for the antlers, the landowner decided that the deer had been taken without his authorization and sought on that basis to take possession of the rack.
Crossland rejects the allegations to this very day, and vigorously maintains that he was never offered any money for his rack. Such an offer wouldn’t have mattered anyway, he insists, because his once-in-a-lifetime buck was never for sale. Crossland firmly denied the landowner’s accusations — and then the situation started getting really ugly.
A childhood friend and former employer of Crossland’s, the landowner decided to file trespass charges against the hunter. A few days later, Crossland’s rack was confiscated from Hillmans Taxidermy by state game wardens and taken to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s headquarters to be secured as evidence. Knowing he faced losing what he felt was a legally harvested buck, Crossland enlisted the help of Oklahoma City lawyer Joe Carson.
Crossland’s hearing was scheduled for court in January, and the presiding judge set a trial date in July. Meanwhile, nationwide newspapers and Internet chat rooms buzzed with “facts” on the circumstances surrounding the taking of the buck. Some bloggers hailed Crossland as a hero; others accused him of everything from trespassing to spotlighting. The town of Grandfield seemed divided on the issue, with many folks uncertain about the proper response to the controversy.
The court battle seethed with rancor, the bitterness deepened by malicious banter as to whose was the right to possess the gigantic set of antlers. The trial resumed in July, only to be postponed again until Aug. 2. On that fateful day, a Tillman County judge found that Crossland had not been hunting illegally and awarded him possession of the rack.
Crossland gives the credit for the victory to Carson, who modestly deflected the praise, saying, “The facts are what win cases,” he said, “and in this case, the facts were on our side” — so much so, apparently, that the attorney called not a single witness in defense of Crossland’s claim.
A NEW STATE RECORD
After the judge awarded Crossland his antlers, the rack was released to Carson by the ODWC, and soon returned to Mike Shaw of the ODWC for an official scoring. The gnarly non-typical was scored by ODWC scorers Mike Shaw and Richard Hatcher. Officially scored at the Oklahoma Wildlife Expo in Guthrie on Aug. 27, 2005, the gargantuan rack netted 248 6/8, easily surpassing the recent record, shot by David Lambert, which scored 240 3/8.
Crossland’s huge non-typical was then declared the new No. 1 Cy Curtis entry as well as a state record before a standing-room-only crowd of several thousand onlookers.
THE STATE-RECORD JINX
As stated, Crossland’s buck edged out the state’s No. 1 non-typical spot held briefly by David Lambert. Interestingly, Lambert’s buck was, like Crossland’s, plagued by contention.
The Lambert buck presented a problem for the ODWC’s scorers by reason of the mass of one of the antler main beams, which was such as to render accurate measurement of that circumference almost impossible. The ODWC panel of Boone and Crockett scorers unanimously agreed that Lambert’s buck was unscorable.
With confidence and perseverance, Lambert appealed to the Boone and Crockett Club. After sending photos to document his case, the young man was invited to come to New Orleans to have the buck panel-scored. After a lengthy session, Lambert’s buck was deemed scorable, and tallied up a final score of 240 3/8, besting the state’s previous top non-typical score of 238 7/8, that of a buck taken by Ronnie Green in 1999. Lambert’s record buck was finally recognized nearly 18 months after the brute was harvested near Holdenville — and held on to that eminence for a mere four months!
Another case of ill-starred benchmarks involves a non-typical buck that Bill Foster took near Tishomingo in 1970. Scored at 247 2/8 inches and was recorded in the B&C books, it was taken before Oklahoma began its Cy Curtis Awards Program (named in honor of an ODWC employee who was instrumental in the state’s deer restocking program). As Foster’s buck was killed before the inception of the program, the buck was never officially recognized as a state record, but aficionados should take note of it as the largest non-typical taken prior to Crossland’s.
CROSSLAND’S FUTURE HUNTING PLANS
Crossland has characterized the taking of the controversial state-record buck, as “a literal hell on me and my family.” Still, the humble hunter admits that if another state record walked across his path — assuming it was during the legal hunting season — he’d probably shoot it.
Last season, Crossland admits, his hunting was dismal, offering no opportunities for taking a nice buck. Nevertheless, when the farmer from Grandfield’s riding on his tractor during the dog days of summer, he surely daydreams of a bigger buck that someday may grace his living room wall. However, if that day never comes, Crossland will take consolation from being ranked among the elite few who will ever know the prestige of taking one of the state’s all-time best whitetails.
STATE-RECORD CONSIDERATIONS: WHAT TO DO IF YOU BAG A BIG BUCK
If you’re ever fortunate enough to take a state-record buck, or a potential record buck, understand that what you’ve accomplished will probably change your life — and possibly not for the better. You may become the subject of idle gossip and be scorned by some hunters while being idolized by others. The rumor mill could churn with allegati
ons that you poached your buck out of season or even with the aid of a spotlight.
Document the kill with photos, and notify your area game warden to help substantiate your story. Remember: In the court of public opinion, you’re guilty until proven innocent.
To kill a record deer is to accomplish a feat that few hunters will ever match, but unless that buck is a world record, the lucky deerslayer isn’t going to get rich in the process. Otherwise, signing endorsement deals guaranteeing celebrity status and making of the record-setter a headliner at the most prestigious outdoor shows in the country is virtually out of the question.
Face it: The best thing you’ll probably get out of it all will be the satisfaction of knowing that, on one particular day, your being in the right place at the right time was rewarded with a magnificent animal.
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