Every year, the Wake County Wildlife Club hosts the Dixie Deer Classic at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh during the first week of March. Before the event, rumors and photos of bucks with supersized antlers spread across the Internet, but it is at the Classic where the proof is in the pudding and judges certify the scores of these bucks based on the Boone and Crockett scoring system.
While most award categories are evergreen, including best bucks in typical and non-typical antler formation by a youth, female or male hunter as well as method of take according to modern firearm, muzzleloader, bow and crossbow — some categories may have no entries from any particular hunting season.
The 2017 deer season flushed out 16 award winners. We selected three of the top bucks by hunting weapons categories. Here are their stories.
Rusty Pruitt’s RIFLE BUCK
November 23, 2017, was Thanksgiving Day and Rusty Pruitt was hunting on his farm near Newton Grove. After he left his box stand after dark, he checked his game camera and saw images of a buck with enormous antlers. When that did not provide enough incentive to hunt the same stand the next day, his son’s reaction did.
“I wanted to hunt on another property we own in Kinston with my son, Jimmy,” Pruitt said. “We have a hunting camp on that property, so I drove there to be with him on Thanksgiving Day. When I got there and showed him the photos, he wanted to know what I was doing there if a buck like that was back at home. He said he was going back to Newton Grove to hunt if I didn’t.”
Pruitt is 64 years old and works at Waco Electric Company in Raleigh. He hunts nearly every afternoon. Weekdays, he hunts at his farm. Weekends, he hunts the Kinston property or another property in Northampton County. He has been hunting deer more than 30 years and does not shoot small bucks.
“I grew up in South Carolina and we did not have deer when I was growing up, so I hunted other game,” he said. “But, after I moved to North Carolina where we had a deer season, I started hunting deer.”
Pruitt does not normally hunt in the morning. However, the next morning, he filled a vacuum bottle with coffee. Then he walked to from his house to his box stand with his .270 Win. Browning A-Bolt with a BOSS muzzle brake.
“I settled in, poured some coffee and put the cup on the counter,” he said. “I didn’t even get a swallow. I had a corn and sweet potato pile about 125 yards away on a utility right-of-way. Two does that were already on the corn pile had stayed right there. All of a sudden, 25or 30 yards on the other side of them, the buck stepped out into the left side of the right-of-way, which is only 75 yards wide. It was just getting daylight and I don’t see as well as I used to, so I picked up the binocular and made sure. He took off walking across the right-of-way, so I got my window opened in a hurry. He didn’t look like he was going to stop.”
Pruitt debated on whether to shoot the buck while it was walking, but he stopped just before he entered the woods on the right side of the right-of-way. At the shot, the buck fell in its tracks.
“I drank a little coffee, settled down and waited about 10 minutes,” he said. “I walked down to see him and knew he was the one I wanted because I saw the palmated side of his antlers.”
Pruitt had seen the buck on game camera images for four years. Prior to 2017, his antlers had a normal configuration. However, a right foot injury caused the deformity of the antlers on the left side. The buck was 7 1/2 or 8 1/2 years old and weighed just over 200 pounds. He had a 10-point rack with a double right brow tine.
“I didn’t call my son, but I took some pictures and headed to Kinston to show him,” he said. “He was sleeping and did not even hunt that morning.”
At the 2018 Dixie Deer Classic, Pruitt’s buck scored 175 7/8 net, with a gross score of 188 6/8. It received an award for the best gun non-typical whitetail taken with a gun by an adult male hunter.
Austin Hanks’ Archery Buck
Austin Hanks had an exciting preview of things to come as he sat in his Millennium lock-on stand and watched a huge buck working a scrape 38 yards away. However, it would take another half-dozen hunts, over two weeks in the same stand before he would get another chance at sending an arrow on its way.
“I have been hunting deer as long as I can remember,” Hanks said. “I was hunting on a private farm in Rockingham County. I got a buck on that farm last year, but nothing like this one.”
The 23-year-old lives in Reidsville and works at H&H Painting, where a flexible schedule allows him ample time for his passion, which is bowhunting. When he began hunting deer, he used firearms. However, about five or six years ago, he began hunting deer with a bow exclusively because he said it is more challenging and fun. He was hunting with an Obsession bow set at 70 pounds of draw weight.
The farm he was hunting had some agricultural fields that the farmer had not planted in 2017. Therefore, his stand was back in the woods away from a field. He usually hunts deer for three or four afternoons per week during the season. The biggest buck he had taken in the past was one that scored approximately 145 in 2012. But, he said he wanted to take one that scored higher. He had set up two lock-on stands on the farm and was feeding deer with 50 pounds of shelled corn each week at each stand site.
“I saw the buck on a game camera during the daylight hours back in September, but then he disappeared in October,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden, there he was again, making a scrape near a corn pile. But, I could not get a shot at him because there were too many limbs in the way.”
Hanks began taking more time off and hunting more frequently on successive days. He hoped that the buck would return and offer a better opportunity for a shot. On November 10th, he climbed into his stand at 3:30 p.m.
About 20 to 30 minutes later, he saw a doe, which began eating some grass at the edge of the woods. Thinking the doe was acting odd, he kept watching for the buck and hoping it would be following the doe now that the rut was in full swing. Suddenly, the buck materialized in the woods on Hanks’ right side. Since Hanks shoots his bow with a right-handed draw, he carefully stood up, so he could turn to face the buck.
“I was about 25 feet up the tree and his attention was on the doe,” he said. “The arrow hit him right behind his shoulder and the Rage Extreme broadhead went in about 8 or 10 inches deep. He broke the arrow off when he kicked and he ran about 75 yards and fell behind a tree.”
Hanks waited about 45 minutes before he headed to the house to get some help. By the time he returned with his father, Kimmy, it was nearly dark.
“We were looking for the buck and I saw it first,” he said. “I took off running and, when I got to him, I almost could not believe the size of his antlers.”
Hanks estimated the buck’s weight to be 175 pounds. Its rack was a typical 10-point with three extra stickers. At the 2018 Dixie Deer Classic, the buck scored 163 net, with a gross score of 168. It received an award for the best typical whitetail taken with a bow by an adult male.
Jimmy Cockman’s Muzzleloader Buck
Jimmy Cockman has so little vacation time, he rations hunting days carefully. While he hunts on weekends, he plans his vacation days long before the season. “I decided to hunt three vacation days,” he said. “I took off Nov. 3rd, the opening day of black powder season, and Nov. 9th and 10th because the rut is on.”
Cockman shoots a Savage Model 10 ML with a 3x9 Leupold scope. Now age 40, he took his first deer when he was 10. He works for Lewis Systems air compressor service and lives in Asheboro.
Cockman hunts private property in Guilford County with his friend, Kris Copeland. He also hunts private property in Montgomery County. “Kris and I have been hunting together 27 years,” he said. “We run trail cameras and set up stands together. He got a picture of the buck on a camera at his stand on Jan. 5, 2016. After that, we didn’t see him again.”
On Nov. 3rd, while Cockman was hunting in Montgomery County, Copeland texted to say he was in the wrong spot because his camera had taken another photo of the buck. They hunted the Guilford County property on Nov. 4th, although their stands were just 200 yards apart, the buck only showed on Copeland’s camera.
On Nov. 9th, the hunters sat in a downpour until giving up at 2 p.m. Checking their game cameras did not show the buck at their corn piles. On Nov. 10th, Cockman hunted his stationary stand until lunchtime then headed to a utility right-of-way to try his luck in a climber. He hoped to see the buck and determine his movement patterns.
“I could see 200 yards along the right-of-way,” he said.”I settled in at 2 p.m. About 45 minutes before last light, I saw a doe come out of some pines to my right. She walked into the wind along the edge of the right-of-way to within 25 yards, turned left toward a logging road and stood like a statue four or five minutes.”
The doe finally moved out of sight, into the woods on the left. Cockman watched to his right, where the doe came from, then looked to his left and saw the buck had circled around him.
“They had bedded together,” he said. “He got by me and was crossing the logging road and I could not see antlers, but saw his swollen neck.”
Cockman made three doe bleats with a Primos bleat can. The doe came back into the right-of-way. However, she was out of sight most of the time, obscured by thick pines growing between Cockman and the right-of-way. He picked open spots where he could shoot the buck if it followed the same path as the doe. One spot being only 25 yards away.
“She crossed the right-of-way and went into the woods and I looked back to the left and the buck was crossing 60 yards away, mostly hidden by the cover. He got near the opening 25 yards away where I had a shot and when I heard the safety go off, I wondered if the gun would fire since I had not reloaded it after being in the rain the day before.”
He bleated with his mouth to stop the buck. At the shot, the deer bounded down the right-of-way until it was out of sight. Cockman called Copeland and together they found the big buck just 80 yards from where it was shot.
The buck had a 7x7 rack with split G2s and G3s. At the Dixie Deer Classic, it scored 173 5/8 and received an award for the best buck taken by a male hunter using a muzzleloader.