There are stories about a 25-point monster that James Stovall brought out of the Green Swamp West Wildlife Management Area a number of years ago. There are also rumors of another big buck down around Lake Okeechobee, and several more in Green Swamp West; even in Florida, trophy bucks are out there.
A big buck can be dropped any time hunters are in the woods. Sometimes it's a matter of finding them. Other times, it's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
Biologists say the two most important factors in the development of big deer and big antlers are nutrition and age. One reason Florida doesn't produce many really big deer is poor nutrition. Statewide, Florida's relatively infertile soils produce small deer with small antlers because the vegetation the animals feed on is low in minerals. But there are small areas with good soils and good deer numbers, with the potential to produce a trophy buck or two.
The changes that the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission made in the antler rule a couple of years ago may also help provide more opportunities for hunters to see big bucks. By giving deer another year or two to gain antler size, the number of big bucks in the state may have an uptick in the next few years.
Ernie Thompson holds the record for the biggest buck killed with a muzzleloader during the 2016-2017 season. The typical buck scored 137 5/8, making it the 6th biggest buck placed on the Florida Buck Registry for the season, as of the middle of June. Thompson, originally from West Virginia, retired from the Marion County School System, where he worked as a carpenter.
"I've been down here 37 or 38 years, so I feel like a native," Thompson said. "I've been hunting since I came down here, and I love it, but I love fishing, too."
The property Thompson hunts on in Alachua County, which belongs to his wife and her family, is only 12 acres in size. However, it backs up to 80 of state property that doesn't allow hunting.
"We've been hunting on our property about 15 years," Thompson said. "We plant food plots, because that's the only way we can bring deer over onto this 12 acres of property. We plant peas before archery season, and a little bit of rye and oats. We also plant clover and a mix of several different seeds. That keeps the food plots going year 'round."
Thompson hadn't shot a buck for three years, prior to the 2016-2017 season, mainly because he can't "mess up" and shoot one on the state property, but he knows there are some giant bucks over there.
Thompson often hunts from one of two old mobile homes, with the windows removed, on the property. They also have a stand placed in a location, overlooking a good portion of the area, where a hunter can see into one of the mobile homes, and vice versa.
"On the first weekend of muzzleloader season, my son and I went up to hunt," Thompson said. "I climbed up in the tree right around 5 p.m.," Thompson said. "My son was sitting in the mobile home with his bow, and I could see him."
Thompson looked over onto the 80-acre tract and caught just a glimpse of a deer walking on a track that would bring it onto the property.
"I got my gun up and got ready, because I knew if he came over that it was going to be a quick shot," Thompson said. "When he stepped out where I could see him, he was about 70 yards away, but still had to turn and keep walking to get over onto our property. It is so hard to sit there and see a buck at 70 yards and not be able to shoot."
Then the buck turned and started walking toward Thompson. As soon as he stepped over the property line and stopped walking, Thompson shot. Unfortunately, he couldn't see whether it was hit because of the smoke of the muzzleloader. The buck spun and crossed back over to the state property.
"I thought, 'Oh, Lordy,'" Thompson said. "I looked over at my son and said, 'Yeah, I got one.'" Thompson's son asked if it was a good deer, and Thompson replied, "It's a giant."
Thompson's son went out to the truck, and Thompson started zig-zagging back and forth across where the buck had run, looking for some indication that he had hit the deer.
"I walked about 40 yards onto the state property, and walked right up on him," Thompson said. "There was no blood trail. If I hadn't walked up on him, I'd have been there all night looking for him."
Thompson knows that there are other big deer in the area, as he and his brother-in-law have pictures on trail cameras.
"There are probably five or six deer the size of the one I killed," he said. "It's just an awesome little place for deer."
Although the deer only had 8 points, he was huge, with a green score of 140.
"I killed a deer in West Virginia that scored 144, and this buck is bigger than the one I killed in West Virginia," Thompson said.
The distinction of having killed the biggest deer during the 2016-2017 archery season goes to James Farmer. As of early June, his deer was the third biggest on the Florida Buck Registry overall to have been killed with a bow, and the third biggest deer from Sumter County overall.
Farmer is retired from the Florida Department of Corrections and lives in Lake Panasoffkee. He's a Florida native, who has been hunting his entire life. Farmer's father also was a hunter, and put a buck of his own on the Florida Buck Registry. Besides the buck he took during the 2016-2017 season, Farmer has two other bucks on the Registry.
Farmer gives much of the credit for his skill as a hunter to what he learned from Tim Farley.
"He's got the biggest typical buck in Sumter County," Farmer said. "A lot of what I've learned about how to kill big deer is from him. He's taught a lot to a lot of people."
One thing Farmer always tells young hunters is that hunting is about the thrill of the hunt, not the thrill of the kill. Enjoy the time in the woods, watching birds, squirrels and more, and pass on a lot of smaller bucks and wait for a bigger one to show up.
Farmer took his buck on a small (13 acres) piece of property next to Highway 44, which is next to the Lake Panasoffkee WMA. Farmer knew there were big bucks on the property.
"I had a camera out there, and before the season started I had pictures of 10 to 15 different bucks that would be 120 class or bigger," Farmer said. "Then I went out hunting about 20 times and didn't even see a deer. Then the last day of archery season, here he came. I practice all the time, and I was able to make a 50-yard shot on him. The buck that I killed, I never had him on the camera even one time. I don't have even one picture of him, and I haven't seen any of the other bucks that we have on the trail camera."
Farmer's buck was a typical 12-point that scored 140 1/8, and weighed 190 pounds.
Now the biggest buck placed on the Florida Buck Registry for the 2016-2017 season was a non-typical buck taken on Croom WMA that scored 146 7/8. The lucky hunter who brought this buck home was Ronnie Powell from Lakeland.
Powell started hunting when he was nine years old. He has now spent 55 years living in Polk County. Though he has been hunting for many years, this is the first buck Powell has put on the Florida Buck Registry.
"I've killed some big bucks in Texas before, but not one from Florida," Powell said. "I've also hunted in Montana, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, and never killed a buck that size before. It's probably a once in a lifetime buck, because they don't come along that size very often."
Powell had actually seen the buck last season, but couldn't get a shot. In fact, the buck had walked past Powell's son last season — too fast for a shot — before doing the same thing with Powell. Shortly later, Powell heard a shot and assumed someone had taken the buck. He was wrong. That also happened to be the year that the FWC changed the antler rule.
"That year I saw a three-point that was so close to 10 inches that I had to let him go by," Powell said. "A couple of days later, I had a doe come in and a buck was chasing her. I couldn't ever get him to look at me to determine if he was big enough, and I let him go."
On November 17, at 8:55 in the morning, Powell had the opportunity to take the buck every Florida hunter dreams about.
"I hadn't seen any deer and I was thinking about getting down out of my stand," Powell said. "I looked over to my left, and the big buck stepped into view. When that happened, I felt like it was a reward for me letting the smaller ones go. I said 'legal,' and I shot. I knew he was legal and I didn't have to look any more."
Though Powell knew the buck was legal, he didn't realize its true size until he walked up. The mainframe 10 point had two points coming off his brow tines, which made him a 12 point. However, the buck was almost a 14 point, as he had a little point coming off his left beam and a brow tine trying to split.
Powell's buck proves that a big deer can happen anywhere, any time. Croom has a nine-day, early quota period during which Powell did not hunt.
"I killed him the next week after opening week," Powell said. "I didn't get drawn for opening week, so I went up the following week when anybody could go. I've killed several deer the second week up there, but I've never seen a buck that size in the woods before."