Peach State Locked-Horn Legacy

Peach State Locked-Horn Legacy

Encountering bucks with their antlers tangled from sparring ought to be an unusual occurrence -- but not, apparently, for this Georgia hunting family! (August 2006)

Dillon Sapp poses with a twosome that were locked up when he came upon them; he shot the bigger one. The bucks were mounted by Shannon Little.
Photo by Bill Cooper.

It's not easy to give someone a gift that will last a lifetime, but that's exactly what Jim Sapp of Cordele did last September for his son Dillon's 14th birthday. The gift, a Georgia lifetime hunting license, will in the years ahead no doubt serve as the foundation for many memorable moments afield in the Peach State.

However, it'll be a real accomplishment if any of those future events top what Jim and Dillon experienced on a Crisp County deer hunt a few weeks after the teenager's big day.

At daybreak on the second Saturday of the 2005 gun season, the two were sitting in a box blind situated in the middle of a large cornfield. The corn having already been combined, the hunters had a clear view of the bordering woodsline.

"We hunted the same location the previous weekend, on opening day," Jim recalled. "That also happened to be Dillon's first deer hunt with his own rifle. Understandably, being excited, he was a little fidgety and anxious that morning, but overall he did really well. It just happened to be one of those times when the deer weren't moving."

As the two sat watching the surrounding terrain, Jim thought he saw a flash of white far down the field near the woods' edge and pointed out the spot to Dillon. Neither saw any further movement, however.

"Minutes later, a cloud of dust suddenly appeared at the same location," Jim continued. "Dillon immediately said it was a deer, but even though I knew his eyes were better than mine, I couldn't see anything that even resembled a deer.

"The area we were watching was near a wooded bottom, slightly downhill from the stand and about 300 yards away. I finally told Dillon some turkeys could have come out of the woods and were dusting along the edge of the field.

"About 30 minutes after seeing all the dust, a deer stood up at the exact same spot. Despite the distance, there was no problem determining that it was a buck, but something was obviously wrong; the deer's head was down and it appeared to be stumbling. I told my son the buck was injured and may have been wounded by another hunter."

At his dad's direction, Dillon aimed and fired at the buck, but missed. When his rifle temporarily jammed, Jim hurriedly shot at the deer, but he also missed. Having quickly corrected his gun's problem, Dillon fired a second round; this time the buck dropped.

"After waiting a few minutes to see if the deer might get back up, we started walking across the field," said Jim. "As we cautiously approached the buck, I couldn't believe the pile of antlers I was seeing. Then I spotted a second deer, and realized there were two bucks lying there with their racks locked together."

Still alive, Dillon's buck was promptly dispatched with a final shot; the other buck was already dead. Evidence in the field suggested that the whitetails hadn't been locked together very long -- probably only a few hours, as the second buck's still-limp body indicated that it had just recently died. Interestingly, the main beams on both racks hooked sharply inward, creating a narrow space between the antler tips that probably contributed greatly to the bucks' antlers having gotten entangled while their owners were battling.

The two deer were quite impressive in size: Dillon's kill boasted a very symmetrical 10-point rack, the second animal a 9-point set. Further measurements of the antlers worn by Dillon's buck, which featured 23-inch beams and back G-2 tines measuring nearly 10 inches, yielded a gross score of 136 3/8 B&C. The 9-pointer had 22-inch beams and grossed 125 3/8 B&C.

To say that Dillon was excited would be an understatement. After all, getting two trophy bucks at one time happens about as often as winning the lottery -- not to mention that the young hunter was participating in what was just his second deer hunt.

After loading the bucks on to a trailer, Jim and Dillon took them to Cordele and Shannon Little's taxidermy shop, where all efforts at separating the two bucks failed. Ultimately, Shannon had to skin both deer and cape out the heads by turning the antlers from one side to the other. Only after removal of the racks from the skulls and trimming the skull plates could the antlers be maneuvered into a position making it possible finally to disentangle them.

While caping out the heads, Shannon made a curious discovery: The throat and nasal passages of the buck that died during the fight were completely blocked with dirt. The initial assumption about the predeceased buck's cause of death -- that its neck had been broken by Dillon's animal -- was superseded by the theory that it had in all likelihood suffocated.

The entire affair was a remarkable one for both father and son. However, in Jim's case, the events triggered a feeling of déjà vu -- because, amazingly, an acquaintance, Kevin Nipper, had also been afield in Crisp County exactly 14 years earlier (in 1991, the same year Dillon was born) when he too happened on two locked-antler bucks.

In that particular situation, Kevin had been hunting a tract of land in which he'd found a considerable amount of big-buck sign. After several fruitless trips, he returned to the property one morning with the intention of relocating a couple of stands. While driving down a woods road that bordered a beaver pond in a thickly wooded bottom, the hunter found his attention drawn to something in the water.

After stopping the truck, Kevin determined that the object protruding from the water was an antler tine and part of a deer's body. Unfortunately, while trying to reach the carcass from the bank, the hunter lost his balance and fell into the pond. Thoroughly wet anyway, Kevin decided to pull the deer to the bank in order to examine it -- but to his surprise, it wouldn't budge. While checking to see what the deer was hung up on, he came to the shocked realization that a second, completely submerged deer was locked rack-to-rack to the deer on top.

Grabbing some rope from his truck, Kevin secured one end to the deer and the other to his 4-wheel ATV and tried to haul them out. However, the combined weight of the waterlogged carcasses was simply too much for the small machine to handle. Undaunted, he eventually managed to sidle his truck close enough to the po

nd's edge to drag the bucks up onto the bank.

It was unbelievable: Lying on the ground within 30 yards of the hunter's stand were two whitetails much bigger than any that he'd ever managed to bring down in the countless hours of hunting time he'd logged. Nipper could only stare down at the dead beasts and shake his head.

Both of the whitetails were huge in both body and antler size. In fact, the combined live weight of the two deer was 510 pounds -- over a quarter- ton. Both bucks were mature typical 10-pointers, aged at 5 1/2 and 4 1/2 years.

The rack of the younger buck exhibited exceptional tine length -- including individual points measuring 15 1/8, 14 2/8, 12 1/8, and 11 6/8 inches -- and, gross-scoring 169 3/8, sufficed to qualify the deer for the Boone and Crockett record book as a picked-up rack with a final net score of 161. The older buck's rack, though exceptionally massive, lacked outstanding tine length, and was scored at 145 B&C. To say the least, both whitetails were substantial trophies.

"Those bucks literally stopped traffic in downtown Cordele," Jim said. "Later, I acquired the deer from Kevin -- had them mounted. And for several years they hung in a small grocery I operated on the northeast side of town. Never in a thousand years would I have believed I'd be involved in a similar scenario with my own son -- but it certainly has been a gratifying experience."

After getting out of the grocery business, Jim passed the mounts on to Jeff Taunton, a trooper with the Georgia State Patrol. Jeff, an avid whitetail enthusiast and hunter, now owns the land on which the bucks were found.

* * *

Although accounts of the discovery of locked-antler whitetails filter into the news, the actual incidence of these ill-fated hookups could hardly be considered common. By and large, hunters have little chance of encountering a pair of locked bucks, simply because the deer involved are usually large, mature bucks, and in heavily hunted areas, older age-class bucks are generally scarce, in some cases completely absent from a herd.

Additionally, whitetails bucks are in truth very social animals -- for much of the year, at least. The males may actually spend more time in unisex groups than do does, it being not unusual to see so-called "bachelor groups" feeding together throughout the spring and summer months. And despite the pronounced role played in these groups by hierarchy, usually correlated with size and maturity, very little aggression is demonstrated -- until fall approaches.

Autumn brings diminishing periods of daylight that trigger hormonal changes in deer, which in turn begin to alter their behaviors. The initial and most obvious change in bucks is the loss of velvet from their antlers, which is succeeded by intense antler rubbing on bushes, trees, and other inanimate objects. In farm country, fences provide a handy rubbing option; some harvested bucks have strands of barbed wire entangled in their racks.

Prior to the fall, the short sparring matches that break out from time to time between bucks within a bachelor groups seldom escalate into serious aggression, usually amounting to nothing more than brief episodes of pushing and shoving. But later, as the rut nears, bucks gradually become more solitary, and less tolerant of one another, and the groups dissolve. A few young deer may stick together, but the mature bucks will move on to search solo for does to breed.

During the rut, a smaller buck will almost always give ground to a larger, more mature male, the former trailing several yards behind the latter even when actively pursuing a "hot" doe. In certain cases, this sort of relation mirrors status arrangements extant in a summertime bachelor group, but generally, size and age are the determining factors.

A problem arises when two bucks of approximately the same age and size cross paths during courtship of a doe. If in those instances neither deer will back down, a fight often ensues. These altercations are always intense, but usually very brief; it's sometimes only a matter of seconds before one of the two retires. Bucks weighing 200 pounds or more have incredible strength, and it's not unheard of for these antler-to-antler clashes to result in broken racks.

In the worst-case scenario, the two combatants' racks lock up in the course of battle. Occasionally, the bucks manage to break free, but in most situations, the deer continue to struggle until they collapse from exhaustion, and since neither can eat or drink, death is virtually inevitable. Sometimes the trapped bucks are discovered while they're still alive and freed by sawing off one of the antlers, but even then, the whole business ordinarily so utterly depletes and stresses the animals involved in the incident that they rarely make it.

Whitetails, however, are proverbially tough creatures, and exceptional instances of survival are known. Several documented accounts tell of hunters killing deer in whose racks were still carried macabre relics of a second, long-deceased buck. Just such an incident took place in Turner County during the 1993 season.

On a morning hunt in mid-December, Rhonda Weeks and Ricky Johnson, both of Tifton, were walking along an old woods road when they noticed several unusual drag marks crossing the trail. Closer inspection revealed a generous amount of deer hair scattered in the leaves, but no human footprints indicated that another hunter had dragged out a deer.

The hunters began following the drag marks, eventually coming to a low flat with scattered pines and very high weeds and bushes. The thick ground vegetation made it impossible to continue following the trail, so they started circling the area. The two had discussed the idea of what might be big enough to drag a deer through the woods; neither liked the possibilities.

Approximately an hour after Weeks and Johnson initiated their investigation, a large buck suddenly stood up directly in front of Ricky and began shaking its head; the hunter promptly shot it. As he approached the fallen animal, the source of the drag marks quickly became evident: Tangled grotesquely in the rack of the 12-pointer he'd shot were the head and antlers of a 10-pointer. All that remained of the other deer's body were the front feet, some hide and the backbone.

Exactly how long the bucks had been locked together was difficult to say; however, the buck that Ricky shot was badly emaciated, its ribs and hipbones plainly visible under the hide. Whether or not it could have contrived to live much longer is anyone's guess.

No doubt the buck that Dillon Sapp shot would have faced the same low odds of survival that were sure to have been the undoing of the Turner County whitetail. Fortunately, the Crisp County deer didn't have to endure that long ordeal, and Dillon got to experience the hunting spectacle of a lifetime -- and to acquire a couple of remarkable trophy whitetails to hang on his bedroom wall.

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