Believe it or not, some of our state's finest bucks die of old age, accident or disease. Read on for the stories of three such trophy deer from the Bluegrass State. (August 2009)
This amazing 34-point rack was found by Rick Weatherford during a hunt on the Ft. Campbell military reservation. Taxidermy by Johnny and Tracy Farmer.
Photo by Bill Cooper.
Last September, Rick Weatherford of Somerset traveled to the western end of the state to participate in one of the special shotgun/muzzleloader deer hunts. These affairs are held annually on the Ft. Campbell military reservation. After hunting the first day without success, he moved to a different area on the reservation for the second day.
"The reservation allows for a specific hunt area to be requested, but if the quota on that unit happens to be filled, they then arbitrarily assign you to another location," Weatherford noted. "Occasionally, you get lucky and draw an area you previously have hunted and are somewhat familiar with; generally, that isn't the case. The habitat on the reservation varies from being extremely thick to open fields and scattered timber. Because of this, I usually carry both a muzzleloader and shotgun in my truck, and use whichever one best fits the terrain and habitat."
For day two of the hunt, Weatherford was assigned an area that he had never been before. Being unsure of the exact type of habitat he would be encountering, the hunter walked a short distance into what appeared to be a stand of thick second-growth hardwoods and sat down to wait for daybreak.
"When it was light enough to see, I continued on through the woods about 200 yards and took a position next to an open hardwood bottom," Weatherford said. "A short while later, I spotted a doe walking through the trees on the opposite side of the drain and decided to take a shot. I happened to be using a shotgun that morning, which isn't the best for very long shots and the deer ran off, seemingly untouched."
As a precautionary measure, Weatherford decided to make a quick check to see if there was any sign that the deer had been hit. Moving down through the trees, he began following the course of a dry creek bed that meandered through the bottom. At one point, while passing a high bank bordering the creek bed, the hunter spotted part of a deer antler partially covered by leaves.
"I just assumed it was a shed and grabbed the antler as I walked by," Weatherford said. "When something suddenly hit me in the back of the leg, I immediately stopped to see what happened; that's when I realized that I had picked up an entire rack and skull. Considering the rack's size, which included well over 25 points, I was amazed that the antlers had been almost completely hidden from view by leaves and debris."
The rack was bleached white from weeks of weathering, but fortunately, the antlers exhibited only a few minor signs of gnawing from the local mice and squirrels. After carefully placing the rack in his truck, Weatherford made the long drive back to Pulaski County that afternoon.
"The following day was Sunday and I showed the rack to several people at church," Weatherford said. "That was the first time I heard about needing some type of permit to keep the rack. There was no specific check-out procedure required at the reservation and since I was unaware of any regulation regarding found antlers, I contacted the local conservation officer. He met with me, examined the rack, and was very helpful in explaining the procedure for obtaining the proper permit."
The rack's official measurements are about as remarkable as its discovery. There are 34 scorable points, 12 of which comprise the 6x6 typical frame. While tine length is impressive, it is the unusual antler growth pattern that gives the rack such a striking appearance. There are drop tines originating from the burr and beam, plus several long horizontal drops growing straight backward from the burr, beam and G-2 tine. Additionally, the left beam hooks out and then downward, resembling another drop tine. Antler spread is also impressive, with an outside measurement of 22 6/8 inches, and an inside figure of 19 2/8 inches.
The typical frame grosses 172 1/8 and nets after asymmetry deductions 156 6/8. However, the 22 abnormal points total a whopping 64 4/8 inches, which when added to the net figure, brings the final non-typical Boone and Crockett (B&C) score to 221 2/8. This qualifies the rack for B&C's Awards and All-Time record books. (Note: Found racks are eligible for record book entry; they are listed as "pickup" racks alongside the trophy owner's name). In regard to all-time records of whitetails taken on the Kentucky portion of Ft. Campbell, the rack comes in a close second to Bill McWhirter's giant 26-pointer taken during the 1982 season; the buck scored 221 7/8.
THE JOEY ROBERTS FIND
Amazingly, in late July of last year, just weeks before the discovery of the Ft. Campbell rack, another huge set of antlers was found in northern Kentucky's Bracken County. Much like Weatherford's situation, luck was also the major factor concerning how this rack was discovered.
Last summer, during a countywide alert for a missing girl, one of the agencies that responded was the Augusta Volunteer Fire Department. Joey Roberts, a member of that unit, was involved in a night search of wooded terrain near state Route 9, also known as the Double AA highway.
"We were using flashlights to search out several of the wooded ravines and creek drainages," Roberts noted. "During that process, I was walking through a thick creek bottom when I came across the antlers and skull of a large buck. It was obvious the deer had been there for some time as the rack, skull, and other scattered bones had already begun turning white. Luckily, the rack hadn't been damaged at all."
A couple of weeks later, Roberts carried the antlers to taxidermist Lyle Fryman in Cynthiana. Although Fryman normally sees upwards of 300 or more deer a year, the rack's huge size immediately captured his attention. He assured Roberts that he would contact John Phillips, a retired deer project coordinator with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, to have the antlers officially scored.
The results of that taping session revealed several outstanding antler measurements. The rack's long 25-inch main beams sweep outward, creating an impressive inside spread of 21 4/8 inches. Tine length is exceptional, with brows (G-1s) that tape 9 6/8 and 6 4/8 inches, paired G-2s of 12 2/8 and 11 7/8 inches, followed by G-3s that measure over 11 inches.
Concerning scoring, the rack grosses 184 4/8, and nets a final B&C typical score of 176 1/8. In addition to qualifying for both B&C record books, the deer stands as the biggest typical whitetail ever recorded for B
Obviously, there is no way to determine exactly what caused the deaths of these two great bucks. However, since both racks were fully developed, the deer likely died sometime between September 2007 and the first few months of 2008, when the antlers would have been naturally shed. This falls in the period when the state was experiencing a significant outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) and it is quite possible that this was the culprit.
The disease did cause the death of one additional giant buck during the period, a huge 18-point non-typical from Ohio County scoring 204 4/8. (Please see the October 2008 issue of Kentucky Game & Fish for the story and photo of this great deer.)
One short note of explanation regarding terms commonly used when discussing a disease outbreak of this nature. EHD and bluetongue (BT) are actually two separate diseases caused by genetically distinct viruses. However, since they are very closely related, both occur in the same geographic areas at the same time of year, and infected deer exhibit similar types of symptoms, the collective term generally applied is simply hemorrhagic disease (EHD).
In 2007, the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, headquartered at the University of Georgia, monitored the biggest outbreak of EHD they had ever documented. A total of 812 counties in 31 states reported either confirmed or suspected EHD activity. Hit hardest, were the states of Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. All 11 of these states estimated deer mortality exceeding well over 100 deer per county.
While EHD is endemic to all whitetail populations in the Southeast, outbreaks are usually sporadic with low annual losses and relative little effect to local deer populations.
One possible reason for the intense outbreak in 2007 was the extremely dry weather conditions that prevailed during late summer in many of the states. This forced deer to congregate around isolated watering holes where there were concentrations of small biting gnats, called midges. These small blood-sucking insects are the primary vectors that transmit the EHD virus from deer to deer. Like most diseases, EHD is not selective and infects both bucks and does in all age-classes. This means, in 2007 there was not only the immediate loss of several record-class bucks, such as those just mentioned, but there was also a loss of potential trophies from the younger age-classes.
Certainly, the total number of Bluegrass deer lost in a single year to EHD would have to be called dramatic; however, in terms of the entire state population, long-term affects of the outbreak should be minimal.
It should be noted that disease is only one example of non-hunting mortality that affects the buck segment of a deer population. While passing up young, small-antlered bucks is definitely a sound management practice, hunters should also realize that this is not exactly the same as depositing money in a bank. Regardless of the situation, a fairly high percentage of these bucks will be lost to a variety of mortality factors as they advance through the age-classes. Weather, highways, fighting, parasites, infection and illegal shooting are just a few examples that take their toll on bucks.
In a recent Georgia study, approximately 100 radio-collared bucks (primarily 1 1/2- and 2 1/2-year-olds) were monitored for the purpose of collecting movement and mortality data. The county where the study took place was under quality buck regulations that included antler criteria to effectively protect all 1 1/2-year-old bucks and the majority of 2 1/2-year-olds. Even so, preliminary findings suggested a mortality rate approaching 50 percent, and while there was some illegal shooting, it was not considered a significant factor.
Deer-vehicle collisions on the state's roads and highways take an annual toll of whitetails, not to mention vehicle damage and driver injuries. Latest statistics from the Kentucky State Police shows that almost 15,000 deer were killed during the five-year period of 2003 to 2008. Since this figure only represents those incidents that were actually reported or investigated, the true number of deer killed by vehicles could easily be three to four times that figure.
Nearly half of the deer-vehicle collisions in the state occur during a three-month period running from October to December, with November being the peak month. Not surprisingly, this coincides with the rut when deer activity is at a peak. Anyone who has driven this time of year on the stretch of interstate between Kentucky Lake and Beaver Dam can certainly attest to the amazing numbers of deer that are hit.
Occasionally, a record-class buck gets struck on one of the state's roadways, and unfortunately, in most instances the antlers are damaged beyond repair. However, one exception occurred on a late August morning in 2006, when shortly before daybreak a giant whitetail stepped in front of an 18-wheeler as it traveled along the Double AA highway in Lewis County. The result was quite predictable, except that somehow the buck's huge antlers survived the collision, receiving only a couple of minor scrapes. The massive 17-point rack, covered in dried blood and velvet, required a great deal of tedious cleaning by local taxidermist Floyd Bolander, but the outstanding trophy was well worth all of the effort.
The rack's 6x5 typical frame includes main beams that measure 26 and 25 inches, brow tines (G-1s) that tape 7 and 6 inches, foot-long back tines, and paired G-3s that exceed 9 inches. Antler mass is exceptional, with four of the eight circumference measurements exceeding 5 inches and the remaining four exceeding 4 inches.
The 11-point typical frame grosses 180 2/8 and nets 175 5/8. The additional six abnormal points total 9 6/8 inches, which must either be subtracted or added, depending on whether the antlers go into the typical or non-typical category. Interestingly, this puts the rack into a very unusual and unique situation. By subtracting, the final typical score drops to 165 7/8, and by adding, the final non-typical score climbs to 185 3/8; either way, the rack qualifies for B&C's Awards record book! Very few sets of antlers can make this amazing transition between two distinct classifications of antler growth.
It would be both surprising and frustrating to know exactly how many record-class bucks have lived and died in Kentucky without anyone knowing that they ever even existed. Occasionally, huge shed antlers are found in remote sections of the state; however, in many cases, the bucks that dropped the sheds never materialize . . . these ghost-like deer are truly the state's ultimate "lost" trophies!