Bama's Ford- Tough Bucks

The Harbin Ford dealership up in Scottsboro annually sponsors a big-buck contest. That competition turned up some impressive deer from the 2008 season. Here's a look at the event. (September 2009)

John Hardman's 14-point non-typical from Jackson County grossed 160 1/8 B&C to take first place in the Harbin Ford Big Buck Contest. Photo courtesy of Harbin Ford.

Jackson County in the northeastern corner of the state has a reputation for turning up some outstanding bucks. But someone occasionally says the county is past its prime, that it just doesn't produce the bucks it once did.

The truth is that the county is still a winner when it comes to big deer. A big buck contest sponsored by Harbin Ford in Scottsboro showed that very thing last season.

The contest was limited to bucks taken within 100 miles of the dealership, which pretty much limited it to Jackson County and the edges of a few surrounding counties. They ended up getting too many 130-inch bucks to count and 11 bucks that scored 140 or better.

The top five deer all scored 150 or better and the contest winner went 160 1/8 and ended up being the new state-record non-typical taken with a muzzleloader as recognized by Alabama Whitetail Records.

Brothers Tanner and Win Harbin -- the fourth generation of the family to oversee Harbin Ford -- are avid deer hunters and organized the contest. The scoring was based on gross Boone and Crockett Club system measurements.

The brothers said the contest generated a lot of excitement, not just among the hunters in the Scottsboro area, but also even among dealership employees who don't hunt.

"Someone would pull into the parking lot and you could tell he had a buck in the back of his truck," Win Harbin said. "Everyone would crowd around to see what he had."

The Monster From'Scrub Ridge'

John Hardman, a 31-year-old civil engineer from Scottsboro, checked in the first big buck of the season at Harbin Ford. His buck was a 14-point non-typical that stretched the tape at 160 1/8 inches.

He got his buck with a muzzleloader during the state's early primitive weapons season. Incredibly, that buck hung on to win the first place prize, despite one 150-incher after another being checked in later in the season to challenge him.

"Hardman led the contest from start to finish," Tanner Harbin confirmed. "He would call about once a week to check to see if he was still in the lead."

Hardman has been part of a hunting club near Fackler since 1982. He literally grew up hunting there.

The place hadn't produced a lot of top-end deer previously, and the club members had nicknamed it "Scrub Ridge" as a result. Hardman's previous best bucks were a couple of 100-inchers, one a 6-point and the other an 8.

He had once misfired on a big buck with a muzzleloader and had been distrustful of the weapons afterwards, preferring to stick mostly to rifle hunting.

"My brother, Jere, bought an in-line and that got me thinking about muzzleloader hunting again," Hardman said. "I had borrowed his a couple years ago and hunted with it, but I didn't shoot anything."

The chance to get in an early hunt during the special muzzleloader season was his motivation to get back in the blackpowder game.

Hardman wanted his new gun to have 209 ignition, as he figured that would end any problems with misfiring. Such an ignition system uses a No. 10 cap ordinarily designed for use in a muzzleloading shotgun. According to Dave Meredith of Black Powder Industries -- the parent company of Connecticut Valley Arms -- such a cap delivers 10 times the spark to the load, very seldom misfires and is much more dependable than traditional No. 11 rifle caps.

Hardman eventually settled on a CVA Kodiak Magnum in a .50-caliber rifle. He sighted-in with 245-grain Powerbelt Aerotip bullets and 100 grains of Triple 7 and was ready to hunt.

Robert Clemons' odd-looking non-typical from Sand Mountain finished third in the competition. Photo courtesy of Harbin Ford.

Hardman hunts mostly from climbing tree stands, but had bought a ladder stand a couple years earlier and it had just sat in a box in his garage.

In August before the deer season started, he and his brother put it up in a thick area of the hunting club where a climber really couldn't be used. Hardman credits his brother with helping him find the location for the ladder stand setup.

"No one had hunted it much because there weren't any real good trees to climb," Hardman said. "My brother mentioned that he knew some good bucks had slipped through that area and gotten away from us there in the past."

A couple weeks before the muzzleloader hunt, Hardman went in and bowhunted his ladder.

He saw a few fresh rubs in the area and even saw a buck, but wasn't sure what kind of antlers it had because the area was so thick.

"I really thought I might have messed up by putting it in such a thick area," he pointed out. "I wondered how hard it would be to get a shot opportunity in there."

He took off work on the opening day of muzzleloader season to get in a hunt before everyone else hit the woods with a gun. His father went with him.

"I thought I would just be scouting for opening day of the rifle season," Hardman said.

He doesn't like to use a flashlight in going to his stand and walked in right at daylight. At 8:20, the first deer of the morning -- a button buck -- came by.

"I probably would have shot a doe, but I didn't want to shoot a button buck," Hardman noted.

About 9:20, he caught sight of a buck about 120 yards down the mountain. He could tell it was a buck, but he didn't know just how good it was.

He watched and waited for it to close the distance before he tried a shot. He wasn't nervous at first, but got a little more uptight as the buck closed and he could see just how good it was.

"I knew I didn't want to mess up this opportunity," he said.

The buck was standing at about 30 yards when Hardman touched the trigger of his CVA. There was smoke and then a lot of crashing as the buck tore down the mountain.

Hardman stayed in his tree.

"I was going to wait 30 minutes," he said. "I made it to 25."

His heart sank when he got to where the buck had been standing. There was no blood whatsoever.

"You could see where the buck had gone off the mountain," Hardman described. "I decided to just follow the trail off before I went to get my dad to help me look."

The visible trail stopped, but Hardman eased on in the direction he thought the buck had gone. He was just about to give up and go get his dad when he looked up and saw the buck.

"He was down in a little logging road," Hardman said. "I started counting points and taking pictures with my cell phone. I didn't have any cell service that low on the mountain, but was able to send pictures to my friends when I got higher up on the mountain."

He'd hit the deer forward of where he'd actually been aiming, hitting it more in the shoulder, and that's why it didn't bleed to the outside.

Hardman and his dad were able to get their four-wheeler right to the buck's location on the logging road.

"But I didn't think we were going to be able to load it," Hardman recalled. "It had a live weight of 215 pounds and field dressed 180. It was aged at 4 1/2 years old."

The deer was certified as Alabama Whitetail Records new No. 1 non-typical in February.

For winning the Ford dealership's big buck contest, Hardman received a new Remington .270 deer rifle.

The Best of the Rest

The No. 2 buck in the contest was taken by Steve Williams on Jan. 20, 2009. It was a big, old 9-pointer that looked at first glance as though it would unseat the Hardman buck.

"He pulled that buck out of the truck and it was just like boom," Tanner Harbin said. "Everyone's jaw dropped."

But the buck's final score was 153 1/8. It had an impressive, wider spread than Hardman's buck, but just didn't have enough points to unseat it.

Robert Clemons brought in the No. 3 buck, a non-typical taken in the north Sand Mountain area that sort of had points all over its head.

"It was the deer of a lifetime because of the unusual horns," Win Harbin suggested. "Robert didn't really know what he had. He had been a little disappointed with it and wasn't even going to bring it in to the contest. Then he stopped at a service station and everyone was coming up and taking pictures of it with their phones and stuff and he sort of realized what he had."

Robert Fanning brought in a big, long-tined 10-pointer that taped out at 150 6/8. It was taken in the Hollywood area.

Another buck that was right at 150 was taken by John Paul Willis in the Larkinsville area on Jan. 10, 2009. It went 148 7/8.

A couple of people who work at the Harbin dealership brought in some great bucks too. Anthony Gibson took a 141 6/8 buck in the Aspel community. Lee Bradford killed an unusual buck with a "backscratcher" tine that was rubbing a raw spot in the back of its neck.

"This buck couldn't raise its head because of that unusual tine," Win Harbin said.

Other top bucks in the contest were taken by Dennis Smith on Dec. 5 on Sand Mountain, scoring 147 7/8; David Christopher on Jan. 10 and measuring 145 5/8; Jared Lemaster on Jan. 27 with a 143 5/8-inch rack; Tim Sullivan on Dec. 7 and scoring 140 4/8; and Mike Sisk with a 140-inch buck.

Hotspots & When To Hunt

Hosting the big buck contest has given Win and Tanner Harbin some insight into where the best bucks are coming from in Jackson County and what is involved in hunting the area's whitetails.

Jackson County is known as a "big woods" place, with some properties that are almost entirely wooded. But the big deer aren't really coming from those forests. The biggest bucks are being taken in areas where big woods join agricultural areas.

Farming for beans, corn and wheat is still big business in Jackson County, and areas that have strong agriculture yield the groceries that bucks need to produce top-end headwear.

"The Hollywood/Fackler area is a really good one," Win Harbin offered. "A lot of local people refer to it as Hollywood Bottoms. There's a lot of agriculture there."

That region includes a couple miles of backwaters from the Tennessee River, along with crop plantings and plenty of thick, wooded ridges that provide great bedding areas for bucks.

The Paint Rock Valley continues to be a good region of Jackson County and Harbin said anywhere near the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant is good.

The Aspel community, which joins North Sauty Refuge, produces its share of big bucks, too.

"The thing that I think helps Jackson County is that we're in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains," Win Harbin added. "Our deer are like goats. They relate to the edges of bluffs and to cedar thickets. It's rugged terrain and it can be very difficult to hunt. These bucks can just lay up in these thickets and they don't have to leave the cover to scent check for does."

When the bucks do venture off the mountains into the crop fields in the bottoms below, it's often after dark.

The timing of the rut in Jackson County depends on where you are hunting. Stevenson in the north end of Jackson County is known for a Christmas rut. The Hollywood Bottoms have a mid-December rut. Elsewhere, at Skyline, Aspel and in the Paint Rock Valley, the rut is more of a typical January affair.

You don't have to belong to an exclusive hunting club to hunt Jackson County. The Martin-Skyline Wildlife Management Area offers approximately 45,000 acres of public hunting. Bowhunting is allowed from Oct. 15 to Jan. 31 each year and several weekends of gun hunting are scheduled throughout the season.

David Christopher's 145-incher that was entered into the Harbin contest came off the WMA.

The Skyline WMA includes several distinct areas that range from hardwood coves to big woods mountains to a working farm.

The Jackson County waterfowl management areas -- North Sauty, Mud Creek, Crow Creek and Raccoon Creek WMAs, plus the Crow Creek Refuge -- offer a one-week a

rchery-only season in early November each year. The waterfowl areas have the kind of mixture of big woods, backwaters and agriculture that tend to grow the biggest bucks in Jackson County. The archery hunt is extremely popular and hunting conditions can be crowded on the first day of the hunt.

The Harbin brothers contend that the terrain and other factors make Jackson County bucks among the hardest to hunt in the whole state. But knowing there are big animals out there makes the chase fun.

"The mountains make it easy for a big buck to slip through the cracks," Tanner Harbin emphasized. "And these deer roam. A buck that was on one place one day might be five miles down the road the next. John Hardman's 14-pointer is a great example. No one on that hunting club had any idea there was a buck that nice on that property. He probably had not always been there, but came in from somewhere else."

As for the Harbin brothers themselves, they, too, had a good season last year. They hunt the Hollywood Bottoms region and together they took five bucks scoring from 120 to 130.

They plan to hold their contest next year to once again see just what Jackson County can produce.

Grasping the rack of the Hardman buck, Tanner said it's easy to see why hunters keep coming back to Jackson County.

"I look at this buck and dream of the time it will be my turn to be that hunter who got one like this," he said.

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