Sometimes an accidental find in the deer woods can lead a savvy hunter to the kill of a lifetime - which is just how it happened for sportsman Harry Prather!
By Bill Cooper
The time was early fall 2000, and Harry Prather had just finished listening to neighboring landowner Frank Hunt describe a giant buck he had jumped while bush-hogging a nearby field. An avid whitetail hunter, Prather was very interested to hear about the deer, especially since it had been sighted within a few hundred yards of his home.
However, living on the outskirts of Garrett, a small community in Meade County, presented some special problems from a deer-hunting perspective. Although food and cover were plentiful, with scattered agricultural plantings surrounded by pockets of cedar thickets, hardwood drains and grown-up fields, these same areas were also heavily interspersed with several houses and roads.
"It's common, throughout the year, to see deer from my house, but I generally do my hunting other places," Prather said. "On the other hand, I was definitely intrigued with Frank's big-buck sighting. However, at that particular time, deer season was not very far off and since I had little knowledge of exactly which areas the buck was using, I decided to continue hunting my regular locations. Additionally, since I hadn't actually seen the buck myself, I was still somewhat uncertain as to its actual size."
That particular mystery was graphically answered for Prather a few months later when his two sons, Sam and Tom, decided to search some of the local wood lots for shed antlers.
"It was the first week of March 2001, and one of the first places we decided to check was a 25-acre block of woods and thickets where deer were sighted fairly frequently," Tom noted. "Roads and houses literally surrounded the tract, but we reasoned that it was a big enough block of land for bucks to stay in and feel fairly secluded. To be honest, we were simply looking for antlers. In the back of our minds was the thought of possibly finding a recently dropped shed from the big buck, but realistically, we knew our chances were very remote."
After entering the woods, Sam and Tom split up to search different areas. Only minutes after separating, Tom spotted something white lying in a small opening some distance through the trees.
Harry Prather hunted near his Meade County home to take this giant buck during the December 2001 muzzleloader season. The rack grosses 181 5/8 before netting a final score of 167 4/8. Taxidermy work by Ronnie Ballman. Photo by Bill Cooper
"I really thought it was part of an old cedar root or limb because cedar will often bleach out white after considerable exposure to the sun," Tom explained. "But when I got to within about 30 yards, I could see that I was looking at two huge sheds, one turned up and the other down."
Quickly pulling a walkie-talkie from his pocket, Tom radioed the exciting news to his brother and, within a minute or two, Sam came hurrying through the woods to join him. Together, they examined the massive antlers, almost disbelieving what they were holding in their hands.
"We drove around to Dad's house to show him the sheds," Tom said. "He was working out by the garage, so I took off my jacket and covered the antlers so he couldn't see what I was carrying. When he asked what I had under the jacket, I pulled the sheds out and I thought his eyes were going to pop out. I think from that moment on he decided to devote the entire fall deer season to hunting the buck."
A quick look at measurements of the two sheds, which form a typical 5x5 rack, makes Prather's reaction quite understandable. The left antler beam tapes 27 3/8 inches, longest tines are 10 5/8 and 10 6/8 inches, and all four circumference measurements fall between 5 2/8 and 4 2/8 inches. The shed totals 80 2/8 inches.
The right antler has a slightly longer beam, taping 28 4/8 inches, but otherwise is fairly similar to the left, especially in mass. Its final score is 77 4/8.
Using these totals, plus an inside spread estimate, means that during the fall of 2000, the big whitetail was carrying a 10-point rack that would easily have grossed in the upper 170s. Impressive figures to be sure; however, just looking at the massive sheds was all the incentive Prather needed to pursue the big whitetail.
Figuring out the buck's movement patterns and mapping out a corresponding hunting strategy was not an easy task. Because of scattered houses and numerous small acreage landowners, only a few areas were actually huntable. However, by late October, just in time for the early muzzleloading season, Prather settled on two hunting sites.
"I had a pretty good idea of the general travel corridors most local deer utilized to move between bedding and feeding areas," Prather said. "For a morning location, I selected a small wood lot adjacent to a soybean field that had been combined. The buck had been spotted in the field at least once; plus, it was a site I could quickly reach by ATV from my house. The evening location was literally within sight of my house, directly across a blacktop road at the edge of a dense cedar thicket and another soybean field. Because of my work schedule, I normally am able to hunt only on weekends; however, in this particular instance, the site was so close to my home that I was able to hunt it most afternoons after work."
Prather began hunting the sites during the weekend of early muzzleloading season and while he spotted several deer, the big buck did not make an appearance. Nevertheless, deer movement around the two locations he had selected left him with an encouraged frame of mind for the upcoming gun season.
Two weeks passed and with scattered reports from other hunters of bucks chasing does, Prather was hopeful that the rut would have the big whitetail on the move. However, opening weekend's results were no different than his October hunt. And as the season progressed, the hunter's luck showed no signs of improving.
"I'll have to admit it began to get a little frustrating, because it seemed as though everyone except me was seeing the buck," Prather said. "In fact, during gun season, one morning around 8 a.m., the buck walked across a road in front of a local resident who was driving into Garrett. Then, later in the week, my neighbor Naamon Board, who owns the land where I hunted every afternoon, called one night to say that he had just gotten home and while turning into his driveway, his headlights illuminated the buck standing out in the soybean field."
Unfortunately, Prather's luck remained unchanged for the remainder of the 10-day gun season. "No doubt about it, I was disappointed," the hunter remarked. "On the other hand, I was convinced I was hu
nting the right places. I simply hadn't been there at the right time."
On a positive note, the buck was still somewhere nearby; it had not been taken by another hunter, nor, as Prather often feared, had the deer been hit crossing one of the many roads around Garrett. The December blackpowder season would provide the hunter with his last chance in 2001 of taking the buck.
If Prather was looking for some sort of good omen to begin the December hunt, it surely didn't arrive with the rain that began falling well before daybreak on opening morning. "I hated sitting in the house, but I wasn't about to ride out into a steady rain with my muzzleloader," the hunter exclaimed. "After the rain finally let up, around 7:30 a.m., I went ahead and hunted the remainder of the morning, but the deer simply weren't moving."
Although the threat of rain diminished, the weather front continued to provide some unusual changes. By midafternoon, when Prather headed out to his evening stand, southerly winds had pushed temperatures up into the low 60s.
The hunter's stand location was situated just inside the cedar thicket at the base of a large poplar. Approximately 30 yards from his position a well-used deer trail meandered out of the dense undergrowth toward the soybean field.
"The entire afternoon passed without a single deer appearing," Prather said. "As the late evening light began to fade, I decided to move about 10 yards to the edge of the thicket where I had a good view of the entire field. I had been standing there only a minute or two when I happened to look to my left and saw a doe walking toward me along a fencerow."
For Prather, not only were his chances to take the big buck rapidly diminishing, time was also running out on opportunities to put a supply of venison in the freezer. The hunter mentally wrestled with his obvious choices as the doe passed along the fenceline a mere 20 yards away. Seconds later, two more slightly smaller does, probably the first deer's yearlings, followed the same path along the fencerow. Eventually, the three deer regrouped at a distant white oak tree to mill about in search of acorns.
"I was standing there thinking what an idiot I was for not shooting one of the deer, when, suddenly, I spotted another doe coming down the fencerow," Prather related. "Unlike the first three, this one angled out into the field and stopped at a grassy ditch about 45 yards away."
This time, the hunter had no difficulty making a decision to take the doe. Easing a couple of steps to one side in order to utilize the trunk of a nearby tree as a shooting rest, Prather steadied his .50-caliber muzzleloader and carefully aimed at the doe.
"I had already cocked the hammer and was just about to squeeze the trigger," Prather said. "But at the last second, I detected movement off to my left and paused just long enough to glance in that direction."
What the hunter saw not only took his breath away, but dramatically extended the life span of a Meade County doe. Walking up the fencerow, its massive white antlers contrasting strikingly against the dark overcast sky, was the buck Prather had been hunting for some 45 days.
The big whitetail's concentration was completely focused on the doe as it walked out into the field toward her. Still in shooting position, the hunter watched the buck approach; however, he was now suddenly faced with an additional dilemma. On the far side of the field, approximately 100 yards beyond the two deer, Prather could see the roof of a house.
"The buck somehow managed to stay between me and the house and I wasn't about to risk shooting in that direction," Prather said. "This situation seemed to last forever; though, in reality, I'm sure it was probably only a minute or two."
Finally, the doe turned and walked several yards in the opposite direction and, fortunately, the buck followed. This gave Prather the shot opportunity he was looking for. Reminding himself not to rush, he waited until the buck came to a complete stop and pulled the trigger.
"When I shot, the buck took off running straight past the doe, eventually stopping on a slight rise, several yards farther out in the field," Prather related. "I was shocked, because the deer gave no indication of being hit. I kept thinking, I have missed this deer. After waiting all this time, I have blown my chance at this buck."
Finally, the realization hit home that the buck was still standing there in the open field and Prather grabbed his rifle and began to reload. Halfway through the process, the hunter noticed something peculiar was happening with the deer.
"The buck's back end began to shake and, suddenly, just as though someone kicked its back legs out from under it, the deer sat down on its haunches and somersaulted over backward," Prather said. "Up until that point, I really hadn't been nervous, but I'll have to admit I got pretty shook up when the deer went down."
It was now nearly dark and, after taking a quick look at the huge buck, Prather headed for his house to get help and an ATV. While there, his son, Tom, arrived home from work.
"I shot that big buck in the soybean field this evening," Prather told his son.
"No, you didn't," Tom responded in an incredulous tone.
"Yeah, I did," Prather said, smiling. "Come on, I'll show you."
Before Prather could get very far, Tom passed him on the run. He could hear his son hollering before he had gotten halfway to the buck.
After hooking a small trailer to the ATV, Prather, Tom and neighbor Board managed to load the big whitetail. Later, the buck was weighed at 185 pounds field dressed.
The buck's giant 5x5 typical rack is remarkably similar in shape and size to the sheds from the previous year. While there was some antler growth increase reflected in tine length, mass and main beam length remained about the same. There was also one additional abnormal point.
The rack grosses a super total of 181 5/8 and nets, after asymmetry deductions, plus 7 1/8 inches of abnormal points, a final Boone and Crockett (B&C) score of 167 4/8. This qualifies the deer for B&C's awards record book and the Longhunter (muzzleloading) record book. Additionally, it is Meade's top blackpowder whitetail and, overall, ranks as Meade County's No. 4 typical.
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