The Taws Buck

The Taws Buck

During a late-season muzzleloader hunt last year, this California hunter "smoked" a huge buck — the largest recorded Rocky Mountain mule deer ever taken in the Golden State with a primitive firearm.

Muzzleloader hunter Shawn Taws had to switch to a secondary plan on the first day of his hunt. It was a fortunate move. He shot this magnum mulie, which scores 177 7/8 points SCI. Photo courtesy of Shawn Taws.

By Bill Lentz

Shawn Taws killed his first buck with a muzzleloading rifle 10 years ago during a late-season hunt in Northern California. That buck, a big-bodied buck with a 150-class 4x3 set of antlers, turned out to be a state-record Rocky Mountain mule deer. But last season he did even better. After again being drawn for the same hunt he shot an even larger buck - the new state-record muzzleloader mule deer!

Taws, who owns Taws Taxidermy in Marysville, is a passionate mule deer hunter and has been using a blackpowder rifle for a decade now. He says it has become his favorite way to hunt these large cervids. He annually applies for muzzleloader hunts throughout the West and has killed mulies in Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada as well as in California.

"It's more challenging," Taws told California Game & Fish. "There are more productive late-season opportunities in California, and less hunting pressure."

Taws knocked down the 4x3 during the 1993 season, so with high hopes he had been applying for the same coveted tag every year since. Of course, he doesn't want us to reveal the name of the unit or specific location of his hunt.

Even though he'd been successful there before, Taws wasn't satisfied, knowing that even bigger bucks live there. He researched the hunt area and came up with two plans, which he dubbed Plan A and Plan B.

With the purchase and study of even more maps, Taws pinpointed a good-looking spot on one of the topographical maps - Plan A. Furthermore, a second-hand story about a rancher that had recently found some trophy shed antlers gave Taws hope that the bucks would be there. If he couldn't find them there he'd go hunt the area where he'd been successful 10 years earlier - Plan B.

He felt confident. Now if only Mother Nature would cooperate and bring much-needed storms or at least some cooler weather.

The hunt area consists of mainly rolling terrain and is mainly forested with ponderosa pine and a few firs scattered within. Sage grows in small openings, and the soil consists of granite and high phosphoric, mineral-rich, red lava rock.


Saturday, Nov. 15 couldn't have started out with better hunting conditions for Taws. There was a break in a storm that had blanketed the hunt area with two inches of fresh snow overnight.

Donning waterproof camo, Taws was excited and optimistic about his chances of seeing game as he drove in the dark of pre-dawn to find a specific access road.

Optimism soon turned to anger, however, as several roads as seen on Shawn's map were found gated and locked.

"I started fuming," Taws recalled. "I couldn't find a road that was open and it was getting light. I was just wasting time, so I headed back to the main highway in disgust," he explained.

So much for Plan A. Taws put Plan B into action and quickly headed for the spot where he had shot the big 4-pointer in 1993.

About an hour after sun-up, Taws guided his 4-wheel-drive vehicle up a rough, snow-covered road and into the hunt zone. Conditions were still favorable, as the weather remained cold and cloudy. However, there was no sign of deer or fresh tracks, which Taws found to be somewhat puzzling. Based on the lack of sign, he recalled being dumbfounded as to the lack of deer in the area. On the other hand, there was no sign of vehicles or other hunters - a good sign that his second plan might go well.

He kept his vehicle creeping along down the road while looking in the snow for fresh sign, and he finally spotted some tracks crossing the road and heading toward the northeast. His earlier anger and anxiety suddenly turned to optimism. He parked his rig and got out to take a closer look.


Unmistakable: Dewclaw marks punched into the snow behind the tracks of long and fat cloven hooves that were spread wide. These were the tracks of a mature deer, probably a buck, Taws surmised. He looked uphill and started glassing, looking for a patch of brownish-gray on white through the timber, or any kind of movement. It wasn't easy.

Taws would have to be extremely observant and focused, as most everything in his view was either gray or white, and the air was dead still. No deer.

He would have to follow the tracks into the timber.


Muzzleloader hunter Shawn Taws uses a .50-caliber inline rifle.

"It has a quick response and high muzzle velocity," Taws said. "The feet-per-second I get is almost equivalent to most high-powered modern rifles at short distances. It comes with fiber-optic (open) sights that work best in low light conditions. I prefer them over standard steel (sights)."

He chooses to use a sabot slug over other blackpowder projectiles because they "shoot flatter and are more accurate" in his rifle, and they are powered by 100 grains of Goex-ffg.

Taws stresses the importance of target practice. "You usually only get one shot, so practice, practice, practice, then practice some more," he said. "I zero (the gun) in at 100 yards and try not to shoot at anything farther than that distance. At that distance even a large deer looks like a BB through open sights, so for me it would be unethical to shoot at something farther out." He a

dds that it's important to get familiar with accurately judging distances afield.

With a preference for hunting early mornings over late evenings, Taws uses the spot-and-stalk method early and switches to still-hunting late in the day.

Although Taws has had success hunting mule deer in wide-open sage country as well as forestland, he prefers the latter when going after animals with a smoke pole. "Timbered areas offer up mule deer at closer distances; therefore, there are more shot opportunities with a muzzleloader," he says. "Over the years I've found deer densities to be higher in the timber." — Bill Lentz


About 100 yards in, the big tracks met up with many smaller ones. Taws looked around and found where the snow and ground had been torn up.

"It appeared that the deer were milling around there," Taws said. "There was yellow snow. I knew they were close."

Taws noticed that all the tracks, including those of the large deer, headed in one direction. He followed them for about 100 yards, stopping in a semi brushy area of sage and pine thickets where visibility was poor. The deer had stopped there and milled around once again. And there - more yellow snow.

Taws' heart was pounding. The group of tracks headed off again, continuing up over a small rocky knoll. Instinctively, the knowledgeable hunter hunched down and crept to the top of the knoll, slowly gazing over a granite ledge. Movement! "I caught a gray spot in the middle of white," Taws recalled. He had finally found the deer.

He stayed as still as possible while searching through the timber for antlers with his binoculars.

"I saw a small forked-horn through the trees and wondered if it was a shooter," Taws said. He continued with his story, his voice growing in a more excited tone. "The buck was standing broadside about 45 yards away and watching about five or six does."


Finally, the buck took a couple of steps forward, exposing more of his impressive antler points. Taws saw a few more dark forks. That was all he needed. It was indeed a shooter.

Settling the fiber-optic sights of his .50 caliber muzzleloader behind the buck's front shoulder, Taws squeezed the trigger and the rifle roared to life. A 260-grain sabot exploded from the barrel, leaving the blackpowder rifle's telltale thick cloud of smoke lingering in the still air around the hunter.

Seconds passed, and then through the haze Taws was amazed to see the buck still standing. "All my other muzzleloader bucks had dropped immediately," he explained. What was even more surprising to Taws is that the great buck hadn't moved and was still watching the does.

Keeping his eye on the buck as he attempted to reload his rifle, Taws noticed the animal sway just the tiniest bit a few seconds later. He was shaking with excitement.

"The slug fell in the snow and the powder went flying," Taws said.

With the buck's attention still focused on the does, Shawn finally managed to empty the contents of a speed loader into the barrel of his smokepole. Then he aimed and fired again. This time Taws heard a familiar thud as the slug found its mark. When the smoke cleared a trophy Rocky Mountain mule deer was down for the count.

As a relieved Taws walked up to the fallen buck he excitedly said aloud, "Oh, my God!" at the sight of the buck's rack. It was a wide non-typical, with six tines on one side, four on the other. Its beams were dark and heavy, and brow tines extended up from each side. The buck's neck was swollen (a sure sign of a rutting deer) and its beautiful winter coat was heavy and full.

Taws noticed two fatal slug wounds only an inch apart behind the front shoulder. Both shots had been accurate and well placed.

After posing for a few pictures and field-dressing the animal, he began dragging his trophy the 200 yards back to his truck.

SCI SCORE: 177 7/8

The Taws buck was estimated to be 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 years old and dressed out to a weight of 240 pounds. It had an outside spread of 28 inches and scored 177 7/8 points using the Safari Club International scoring system as a non-typical, or 171 5/8 as a typical. It is the new No. 1 buck in the California Records of Big Game's Rocky Mountain mule deer category, muzzleloader division.

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