North Carolina's northern-tier of trophy-belt counties proved again in 2016 they're hot spots for wall-hanger whitetails.
During the 37th Dixie Deer Classic, approximately 40 certified Boone-and-Crockett and Pope & Young scorers from across the country brought their measuring tapes to the event to score hunters' bucks.
Interestingly, 14 of 19 Tar Heel state divisional winners came from counties north of Interstate 40/85. The clear champion was Person County, which supplied six of the highest-scoring racks, including Clyde Watson's 5x4 main-frame muzzleloader monster, which taped 175 gross inches and 161 3/8 net inches.
Chester Townes of Henderson (in Vance County, two counties east of Person) added a nearly perfect 12-point brute that measured a handful of inches shy of two B&C all-time categories.
The 41-year-old downed his big buck Oct. 15, 2016, the first day of the eastern North Carolina gun season. Its rack sported stunning main beams of 29 3/8 and 27 6/8 inches, a 13-inch brow tine (the other was 9 5/8 inches), plus G2s of 11 4/8 and 11 2/8 inches and G3s of 9 3/8 and 10 inches.
Casey Haizlip, a 14-year-old member of Western Alamance High School's dance team, used a Remington .270 to stop a 15-point buck with a gross rack that totaled 166 4/8 non-typical inches and 149 4/8 net non-typical inches.
Dozens of other hunters entered racks extremely close to these category winners, which is normally the case at Raleigh in March.
VANCE COUNTY GIANT
Chester Townes of Cokesbury (Vance County) purchased a Marlin .270 rifle at the 2014 Dixie Deer Classic and hoped one day to use it on a trophy deer.
There must have been some magic in buying a gun at America's oldest big-buck exposition because the hunter drilled the state's highest-scoring typical whitetail at the Classic's Big Buck competition. Its rack totaled 183 gross typical inches and 168 6/8 net inches.
"I'd taken maybe 10 shots with (his rifle)," he said, "enough to zero in the scope at 50 yards."
Opening day (October 15, 2016) of gun season was exactly a week before his 41st birthday and a year to the day his daughter first saw the buck.
"She saw (the deer) on the other side of a small piece of oak woods where me and my sons hunt," Townes said.
After he shot the buck, he figured out the reason he hadn't seen the deer previously — he was driving a four-wheeler to his stand and spooking the buck.
"I woke up my sons — Damian, 17, and Anjuan, 10 — up at 6:30 a.m., then we picked up a 16-year-old neighbor, Tyrae Fuller," said the Glen Raven Mills process specialist. "I dropped them off at their stands with their shotguns."
Normally, Townes would have ridden a four-wheeler to his stand at the opposite side of the wood lot. But this morning he decided to walk to his 15-foot-tall ladder stand instead of riding.
After Townes settled down, two does began to blow and snort, then they stopped. Eight minutes later, he heard a twig snap. Something was walking toward Townes along the four-wheeler trail.
"The buck never saw me, but it took a couple minutes before he walked into a small opening," he said. "I shot just before he took another step. It was about 7:15 a.m."
Hit in the left shoulder, the buck ran about 40 yards and crashed near a creek. Townes sat in his tree stand until 8 a.m., too shaken to move.
"The boys started texting me," he said. "I was so nervous I couldn't text back, so I finally called them."
When the three youngsters arrived, Townes walked to where he'd hit the deer and told the boys to track it.
"I wanted to show them how to blood trail a deer," he said. "My oldest son got in the stand, and they looked for about 15 minutes."
When they found the 12-point typical, Townes walked to the deer and his eyes widened.
"I said, 'Oh, my god,'" he related.
Although the inside spread of the rack wasn't extremely wide (19 inches), the right main beam taped 29 3/8 inches and the left beam 27 6/8. The right brow tine was a ridiculous 13 inches long with the left 9 5/8 inches. The G2s totaled 11 4/8 and 11 2/8 inches, while the G3s were 9 3/8 and 10 0/8 inches and the G4s taped 5 5/8 and 3 4/8 inches.
A 6-inch abnormal point protruding from the right G3 prevented the rack from netting 174 6/8 inches, surpassing B&C's all-time typical minimum score (170 inches). The deer's net typical score (168 6/8 inches) was 1 4/8 inches shy. The rack's net non-typical score of 183 inches was 12 inches short of the non-typical minimum.
Townes had killed a 2016 trophy that nearly qualified in two B&C all-time classifications.
Did he have a premonition that prevented him from riding his four-wheeler to his stand?
"Something told me not to," he said.
30-YEAR QUEST ENDS
Clyde Watson of Roxboro grew up and still lives in Person County, in the middle of North Carolina's trophy deer belt.
On October 31, 2016, he turned 48 and received a Summit Viper aluminum climbing stand as a birthday present. It would prove crucial two days later in downing the state's top muzzleloader buck of the season — a buck with a 5x4 main-frame rack that net-scored 161 3/8 Boone-and-Crockett inches (175 gross).
"My son, Ryan, and girlfriend Debbie gave me the stand," he said. "You can go up small trees with it."
Watson placed the stand near a bedding area he believed was home to a big buck.
"I hadn't seen the deer, but several of my buddies spotted him on the back side of a soybean field," he said. "I'd scouted and found an old farm road with scrapes and rubs that likely belonged to a buck with a 15- to 18-inch inside spread."
The Corning Pharmaceutical employee checked the area October 29, the first day of smoke-pole season. He walked down the road and found a thickly wooded bottom 200 yards from a soybean field at an adjoining farm.
On Monday, November 1, at 3 p.m., Watson walked to the bottom, found a suitable poplar for his climber and ascended 30 feet.
"I figured I might catch a deer slipping to the bean field," he said.
With 30 minutes of shooting light left, he heard then saw a "wobbling" buck walking down a hillside behind his stand.
"I eased up and put the crosshairs of my scope (a 4-power Nikon) on his shoulder," Watson said.
When the buck was 30 yards from him, he pulled the trigger of his Optima Magnum .50 caliber in-line muzzleloader, igniting 80 grains of Pyrodex black powder, and sent a 245-grain Powerbilt bullet into the buck's shoulder.
After climbing down, the hunter walked to the last place he'd seen the deer and spied a white tail on the forest floor a few feet away.
"I dedicated the buck to my dad, who passed away in 2014," Watson said. "He shot a 143-inch buck in 1986 and said, 'Son, let's see how long it takes you to kill one this big.'"
His son's buck had a 20 4/8-inch inside spread, G2s of 10 4/8 and 12 4/8 inches and G3s of 11 0/8 and 10 3/8 inches. The rack had main beams of 29 and 28 2/8 inches and one abnormal point of 1 3/8 inches.
"I looked at dad's photo on the wall at mom's house and said, 'Dad, it might have taken me 30 years, but I did it,'" Watson said.
DANCE TO THE MUSIC
Western Alamance High School sophomore Casey Haizlip was captain of the junior-varsity dance team in 2016 and must be forgiven for an impromptu jig she danced the evening of Nov. 21.
Haizlip wasn't celebrating a Warriors' football victory but instead was ecstatic she'd drilled a 15-point white-tail buck, a trophy pursued by most of her male relatives and community hunters.
The main-frame 5x5 rack, with five abnormal points, gross scored 166 4/8 inches and net scored 149 4/8 inches at the Dixie Deer Classic, good enough to win the Youth Female Gun non-typical award.
"It was my first deer," she said. "A bunch of people were kinda shocked at what I did. A lot of them didn't believe (she'd killed a trophy buck)."
Haizlip's father, Tim Haizlip, introduced her to shooting and deer hunting. In fact, he was seated in a box stand with her that day.
"This was going to be the first nice day Casey could hunt with me, so I was hoping to see that deer and let her take it," he said. "But I wasn't expecting it to happen. We were at the edge of a half-acre food plot. Casey had hunted with me a few times and saw does and small bucks but said she wanted to kill a nice one for her first deer."
"Many people were hunting this buck," her father said. "Somebody had named him the 'Mailbox Buck' because a neighbor had seen the deer off Kerr Chapel Road and crossing near Kerr Chapel (Church)."
Trail cameras images showed the buck only at night.
"We didn't have much daylight left that evening," her dad said. "She didn't say a word about not being able to see."
It approximately 5:15 p.m. with 10 minutes of light left, the buck appeared.
"I had borrowed daddy's Remington .270 (rifle) with a 3x9 variable scope on it," Casey said. "It was right at dark so I couldn't tell how big his rack was, which was probably good."
An eight-pointer first came into the food plot and stayed for 20 minutes, followed by a doe and a spike buck.
While the Haizlips discussed a shot at the eight-pointer, the big buck ran into the field and chased the doe into some nearby woods.
"It got quiet then, and I thought it was over," Casey said. "A minute later, the spike buck ran into the field, and the big buck was chasing it."
Tim Haizlip made sure his daughter checked off her pre-shot routine. With the big deer standing 50 yards from their box stand, she put the crosshairs on its shoulder and pulled the trigger. When the animal bolted into the woods, Casey began to cry.
"I asked her why, and she said she was worried she'd wounded or maybe missed the buck," he said.
Hunting nearby, her uncle heard the shot and hurried to the field where the three of them followed a blood trail 60 yards and found the buck piled up.
At the Dixie Deer Classic the main beams of Haizlip's buck taped 24 3/8 and 24 1/8 inches with G2s of 10 1/8 and 11 6/8 inches and identical G3s of 9 4/8 inches. Its five abnormal points totaled 12 2/8 inches.
Not bad for a first buck.