Here are the stories behind these three great Virginia bucks taken last season.
By Bruce Ingram
Every February, I go to the Western Virginia Sports Show at Expoland in Fishersville to meet the hunters who killed some of the biggest bucks from the previous season. The show is always the first chance for state sportsmen to display their trophies.
I asked official scorer Dale Wenger to give an overview of 2016's best bucks and what trophy hunting will likely be like this autumn.
"One of the most interesting things about last season is that we had a number of youngsters bring in big bucks," he said. "Those young people either killed their bucks on the Youth Days or while with a parent later in the season. I think that shows the wisdom of the Virginia Game Department's Youth Days and also of the Apprentice License. Anything the state and hunters can do to introduce more people to hunting is a good thing."
Wenger was also very enthused about the trophy potential for the 2017 season.
"We had two things that happened in 2016 that should be very favorable to having more big bucks around this fall," he said. "First, many areas of the state had a very good acorn crop which should translate into some very good antler growth. Second, January and February were much milder than usual, so the deer made it through the winter in good shape and without having undergone a lot of stress."
THE GIBSON BUCK: STAR OF THE SHOW
Appropriately enough, the buck that Wenger described as one of the stars of the show — a great 172-inch buck — was taken by a young hunter, 13-year-old Tyler Gibson of Esmont, in a very rural part of Albemarle County. Gibson, a student at Walton Middle School, has had the good fortune of his step father Mike Young mentoring the youngster since he was 3 years old when Tyler's mom and Young married. Young began taking Tyler afield not long after that, and by the time he was 7, Tyler was deer hunting with Young. Already in his budding career, Tyler has tagged six whitetails.
Youth Days took place last year on the final weekend of September, which was the 24th and 25th. On Saturday, conditions were not favorable for hunting, but both Tyler and Young felt that Sunday offered great potential. A rainy front was forecast for Saturday evening, and cooler temperatures, relatively speaking, were expected for Sunday. So at 6:45 a.m. the duo left their home and walked across the road to where they usually hunt.
Their destination was a classic deer stand. The first aspect of the site is that a very open hollow hosts a number of red and white oak trees that typically bear well. At the bottom of the hardwood hollow about 100 yards away from the top lies an old fence row which basically serves to end the cove. Intersecting the fence row is an old logging road that extends up the hollow. Adding to the appeal, two creeks meander through the cove. Where Tyler and Mike usually position themselves is inside the hollow, about 17 yards off the logging rod and about 75 yards above the fence row.
Tyler and Mike told me that the deer use this locale in a number of ways. They travel along the bottom fence row, often move up the hollow, either inside it or follow the old logging road. The hollow is such a reliable producer of acorns that numerous deer often spend time there.
"I just wanted to kill a doe that day," said Tyler. "And I thought I had a really good chance to do that."
The morning did not start off auspiciously, however. The twosome spooked five deer on their way inside the hollow, and so much snorting and stomping took place, that they felt their chances irreparably compromised. Eventually, Young and Tyler settled into a stick blind and endured a glum outlook about the youngster even having the possibility of killing a doe.
About 7:50, the two decided to share a drink and were passing a bottle back and forth. And below (about 80 yards distant) walking toward them up the logging road was a monster buck, still partially in velvet.
"He kept walking and walking and getting closer and closer," recalled Tyler. "I put my .270 into shooting position and just let him come. When he was 17 yards, I shot him. The buck only ran about 40 yards and fell."
Young and Tyler quickly walked over to the downed buck, and both were amazed at what they saw — a 14 pointer that eventually scored 172 Boone & Crockett. The rack sports a shred of velvet hanging down from one of the antlers.
"I know I'll probably never kill a buck that big again," said Tyler. "That doesn't bother me one bit. I've been hunting in that hollow since I was a little kid. I'll never forget the excitement that I felt that day."
Young, a plumber and volunteer fireman, is very proud of his stepson and how he handles himself out in the woods.
"I won't let him hunt away from me with his rifle, but when he's through school for the day, I let him go bowhunting up in a ladder stand by himself," said Young. "He's very serious about deer hunting and he knows how to be quiet and to pay attention to his surroundings. He knows the safety rules and how he always has to use a harness when he's in a tree stand. He's a very good shot. All of the deer Tyler has shot with his .270 have dropped very quickly. I'm just very proud of him."
Given all his early success, I had to ask Tyler what his future deer hunting goals are.
"I want to kill a deer with my compound this year," he said. "I missed one last year. I know how to keep my bowhunting clothes scent free and how to use grunt calls to attract a buck. I've killed deer with the .270 and a muzzleloader. I just have to get a deer with that bow."
THE NICHOLS BLACK-ANTLERED BUCK
Dale Wenger told me that one of the most interesting bucks he has ever scored was the one killed by Jim Nichols of Elkton in the Shenandoah Valley. The broadbeam features the blackest antlers I've ever seen. The construction company operator explains how they became that way. The story begins the Saturday after Thanksgiving during the general firearms season.
At 3 p.m., Nichols reached his favorite ladder stand on his Rockingham County property. Jim is an enthusiastic land manager, and the site had been chosen with great care. It lies about 100 yards from Shenandoah National Park land, which sports a thicket that is regenerating from a forest fire several years ago. Adjacent to the burn is a fairly open stand of hardwoods which apparently is the site of a former settlement. The SNP land, in short, proffers the classic cover and food situation.
Not far behind the ladder stand lies a four-acre food plot brimming with clover, alfalfa, and chicory. Adding to its appeal, the ladder stand lies within a funnel that the deer can travel through on their way to and from the food plot or on their way from or toward the burned area, which at this stage of re-growth is now a bedding hotspot.
Not much happened the first two hours Nichols was on stand, although he did spot two small bucks and five does. Come twilight, that all changed.
"Right before dark, I noticed a big buck up in the park working his way through the burned area toward me," Nichols recalled. "I first had seen that buck and his black antlers two years ago when he was 2 1/2. It was obvious that he had been rubbing his antlers on the burned trees in the park.
"I let the buck continue on his way until he was about 50 yards inside my property. And that's about as far as he went. He only ran about 20 feet after I shot him."
The typical eight pointer scores 153 and is one of some 100 whitetails (four of which are trophies) the 69-year-old Nichols has killed since he began hunting when he was 12. As impressive as Nichols' hunting resume is, what I found most illuminating was his land management philosophy.
"Every year, I have trappers come to my land and have them try to eliminate as many coyotes and bobcats as possible," he said "I have been doing this for the past three years, and I am definitely seeing more does with fawns on my trail cams now. Every year, my wife and I try to kill a black bear off the place because bears also can prey on fawns."
Nichols also is hard at work on improving his property.
"The last few years, I've planted apples, pears, and Dunstan chestnuts," he said. "I've thinned out around a lot of my white and red oaks. I've planted a 400-yard strip with clover and chicory. I've even planted clover in my yard. It takes time and effort to make a property hospitable to deer.
"It also takes time for a buck to become a trophy. I'm a big believer in letting the smaller bucks walk so that they will grow larger. The 'burn' buck is a good example of that philosophy."
STEVE COLEY'S THREE-ANTLERED BUCK
With the Fishersville show featuring a trophy buck in velvet and a buck with ebony antlers this year, it should come as no surprise that one of the most talked about bucks there was one with three antlers. This brings me to the story of Steve Coley, a 64-year-old mechanic from Amherst who has killed some 100 deer since he began hunting at the age of 12. Last November during the second Sunday of the general firearms season, Coley was afield with his 270 on private land in Amherst County.
"Around 2 o'clock I left my house," he recalled. "The wind was blowing like crazy, so I was in no hurry to reach my stand. I knew I had dead batteries at one of my trail cam stations, so I stopped there first to replace them. When I left there and was coming back across a ridge top, I saw a doe running full blast down below me. I figured a buck must have been chasing her."
The mechanic had figured right. He walked about 30 yards up the logging load along the ridge, set up, and waited patiently for several minutes.
"All of a sudden, this buck burst out of a thicket and stopped right in front of me," said Coley. "When he saw me, he turned to go back into the thicket. For some reason, right before he was to re-enter the thicket, he turned around and stood broadside. And I shot him. I was really surprised when I stood over that buck."
Surprised would be the normal reaction to such a buck. The deer only weighed about 120 pounds field dressed and is just 3 1/2 years old, certainly a mature buck but not the 4 1/2- or 5 1/2-year-olds that often dominate the Fishersville show. What the three antlers feature is a 146 4/8 score and 14 total points. Obviously, this is a non-typical buck if there ever was one. Coley's philosophy?
"Picking a good stand and staying there is the way to go," he said. "People that move around all the time accomplish only one thing. They disturb all the wildlife. I also believe that during the gun seasons, using a grunt call about every 30 minutes is a good strategy. Doing that will enable you to see deer that you normally never would have."
The annual Fishersville show is always populated by successful Virginia deer hunters who have great stories to tell. And this year was certainly no exception as these three unusual bucks indicate.
Read more articles by Bruce Ingram