Texas deer hunting is known across the country for producing trophy bucks in both quantity and quality. And while many folks typically picture the Lone Star State as being a land primarily under high fence, there are huge bucks taken each year on low-fenced lands.
Many of those bucks are taken on tracts that may span only a few hundred acres. That's downright tiny when compared to places like the King Ranch and a few other hunting hotbeds that are larger than some East Coast states.
From the top of Texas to the bottom, there are deer harvested each year that seem almost too good to be true. Here's a look at three such bucks and the tales behind each.
SMITH COUNTY GIANT
Bryan O'Neal and his family hunting story is one for the record books. In fact, O'Neal's deer tale is a prime example that giant whitetail bucks can come from small acreage.
O'Neal, who is still relatively new to hunting, and his kin have hunted their 400-acre family place in Smith County since 2009. His son Nicholas is one of those family members, and this pair has a big-deer story that may never be topped.
"He (Nicholas) has been hunting with me the last couple of years, but did not get the courage up to shoot until last season," O'Neal said.
The pair started their 2016 deer season with an opening-morning sit that would soon reveal a huge buck, though the elder O'Neal wasn't sure just how big the whitetail ultimately shaped up to be.
"I could see it had plenty of points, but it never turned so I could see if it passed the 13-inch inside-spread antler restriction (a longstanding regulation across most of the Pineywoods and portions of the Post Oak Savannah)," he said. "We went back the next day and saw a doe and some smaller bucks early. I told Nicholas to get ready to shoot one of the bucks, and before he could, I looked farther up a hill and saw a bigger buck."
It took nearly an hour for the big deer to get within range, stopping and turning broadside at about 75 yards, O'Neal noted. His boy attempted a rifle shot but missed the buck. The deer, by happenstance, ran even closer. Another round chambered, Nicholas again pulled the trigger, again missing the deer.
"We got out of the blind to check for blood or other sign, but we didn't find anything," Bryan said. "We went to the range afterward to check the rifle, and it was shooting high, which was why he missed him both times."
Even after the misses, O'Neal admitted he didn't know just how big the buck was, and it wasn't until the following weekend that he and Nicholas went back to the family place for another hunt. After helping his wife search for a pig she had shot at, Bryan, his son, and his wife got back into the stand in the late afternoon on Nov. 13.
They saw some smaller bucks, but not the big deer. Around dusk, they spotted a 12-point walking along a treeline toward them. O'Neal was going to take a shot, but before he could, his son said he wanted to shoot again at the deer.
"In the midst of getting the rifle up, he bumped the wall of the blind, but the buck didn't take off," Bryan said. "That sound was pretty loud and actually stopped the deer, and Nicholas took another shot. He missed, but the deer didn't run, so I got the rifle and dropped the buck right there."
The buck was green-scored by a local game warden who also is an official scorer for the Texas Big Game Awards program. The typical frame grossed 186 5/8 Boone & Crockett points and netted 180 4/8. After the 60-day drying period, the official tally came to 184 7/8 gross and 178 net.
"I didn't realize just how big the buck was until I had someone else look at it," O'Neal said.
The 4-year-old buck was easily the largest typical whitetail taken on a low-fenced tract last year in Texas. It also is a historic deer in context, being the largest buck ever taken from Smith County. The Top 5 typical whitetails of all time from low-fenced lands range from 190 to 185 points, B&C, according to TBGA figures.
COLLIN COUNTY BRUISER X 2
Collin County isn't traditionally known as a big-buck hotspot.
County resident Cody Griffin, who up until 2015 had never harvested a deer, knows better. Griffin, who in 2015 arrowed a monstrous non-typical whitetail buck that netted 195 4/8 points, did himself one better in 2016.
Griffin and his relatives own land in Collin County that has been in family hands dating back to the 1850s. That's seven generations if you're counting. However, that property had never been a deer hotbed, until heavy rains in recent years helped push bucks and does up from nearby river and creek bottoms.
The rains also coincided with the reintroduction of deer hunting to Collin County, with its modern season (archery only) beginning in only 2012.
Griffin's account of his 2015 buck centered on hunting hard for two weeks, without the use of any feeders.
"I didn't even have a ground blind set up in that location until that afternoon I killed that buck. I had gotten off work, ran down to Cabela's, picked up my hunting blind, and then went out and set it up about 5:30," he said. "We don't use deer feeders but hand corn instead. I was sitting there playing around on my phone (the wind was blowing 20 mph), not paying any attention, and all of a sudden I look up and here he is at about 15 yards. The wind was in my favor (blowing out of the north), even though the blind smelled like plastic. I stuck him and he only went off about 40 yards."
Believe it or not, the two big bucks were actually running together at one point in 2015.
"We had game camera pictures of that buck (2016 harvest) from that summer and we were anxious to find out if he'd survive," Griffin said. "We feed a corn/soybean mix and once we saw him actually develop, we knew right there and then what we had."
While Griffin's quest for his 2015 bruiser was nothing short of epic, his 2016 hunting plans were even larger in scope.
"I stuck up three different blinds in three different spots and it was a game of cat-and-mouse. I was in one spot and he was in another. I hunted him hard for six weeks — countless hours spent in a blind," he said. "Most of the game camera pictures of him were nocturnal. He didn't get big by being dumb."
However, one mid-November afternoon, Griffin took a gamble and went for a short two-hour sit.
"I was sitting there and next thing you know he just came crashing through the treeline," he said. "All I saw was the silhouette. Back when my heart came back into my chest, I was able to draw back without being seen and I let an arrow fly. He was at about 18 yards. I purposely aimed for the jugular because of the way he was standing and he was about to get back into the trees. My dad came to help and we had a good blood trail. He went down out in a tall Johnson grass field and when we walked up, all of a sudden he stands back up!"
Griffin knew that of the buck made it another 30 yards and went through the treeline, it would be on someone else's property.
"I had my bow with me and nocked another one and just double-lunged him. He fell right there," Griffin said.
It was surreal because I had seen this deer growing up on camera. I knew he was big, I just didn't know he was this big."
The 23-point buck with a 20 1/2-inch inside spread grossed 241 Boone & Crockett points and netted 230 4/8, making it the largest free-ranging non-typical whitetail entered into the Texas Big Game Awards program last year. It also is a Top 5 all-time non-typical in that category.
WEBB COUNTY'S BIGGEST
South Texas is big-deer country, but even in one of the Muy Grande hotbeds, one buck from 2016 garnered more attention than any other — by a wide margin.
Darell Hoffer knew the buck was a dandy, but until he finally put his hands on the rack, he didn't realize just how big it really was.
"We hunt an old family ranch near the Webb County/Duval County border," he said. "It's rough country, with 90 percent of it being under low fence. There's a small portion with a high fence, but all the neighbors are high-fenced. Some of our hunting group has been on the place for 17 years and I've been on it for the past eight."
Spending that amount of time in the Brush Country, Hoffer knows what big deer look like. He also knows at just what age they hit their maximum on his hunting spot.
"He was a 6 1/2-year-old deer. The place we hunt is a little different when it comes to deer reaching their potential. Some places it might be sooner, but here we've found it to be right at 6 1/2," Hoffer said.
The big buck had been a regular on the lease, with hunters spying him annually.
"We had been watching this particular buck for three years," Hoffer said. "We had actually nicknamed him the 'knot buck' because he had a big cyst on his neck when he was 3 1/2. That cyst went away a couple of years ago when we had seen him again and I didn't find anything there after I shot him and cleaned him."
Hoffer said that the group of hunters on the lease is organized and gentlemanly about their hunting pursuits, which was a lucky break for the El Campo hunter.
"We do a rotation on this place we hunt, so we don't always shoot a trophy deer every year," he said. "We try to maintain the number of good bucks and manage it. Last year was my year to be on the trophy list, so it was a good thing. He came out and I shot him with a 7mm at about 125 yards and the rest is history. He's 30 inches wide on the inside and he was a big deer, too. He field-dressed out at 201 pounds."
A buck with those dimensions is hard to hide, especially after being entered into the Muy Grande deer contest and the Texas Big Game Awards program last season. Hoffer said he is grateful to have had the opportunity to take such a specimen.
"I've gotten to meet a lot of folks who have hunted big deer everywhere, because of the notoriety of this buck," he said. "They all tell me it's truly a buck of a lifetime, and I believe it."
Hoffer's buck ended up grossing 192 1/8 Boone & Crockett points and netting 182 4/8. The buck was the largest typical whitetail from South Texas entered into the Texas Big Game Awards last season, which says something about just how large it really was. It also should be noted that the buck was a Top 10 typical statewide in 2016, taking into account that high-fenced tracts of land almost always will produce larger bucks.
The buck also ranks as the No. 3 typical whitetail of all-time in Webb County, Hoffer noted.
As these hunts clearly demonstrate, the big bucks can come from anywhere in our state. Maybe this will be the season you score on that buck of a lifetime.