Jackson County's No. 1 Buck of All Time

Jackson County's No. 1 Buck of All Time

Jessie Mahaffey took the biggest buck ever during a time when deer were less common and trophy bucks were as scarce as hens' teeth!

By Bill Cooper

Situated along the Cumberland Plateau, at the edge of the eastern mountains, Jackson County's landscape is a maze of irregular rocky-topped mountain ridges separated by deep, winding hollows. Predominantly forested, like most mountain counties, much of Jackson's land area lies within the boundaries of the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Historically, the region's overall lack of habitat diversity coupled with no significant agricultural acreage had negatively affected the growth rate of local deer populations. Nevertheless, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) early deer restoration efforts, which included several years of total protection, allowed these mountain whitetail populations to eventually reach huntable levels.

In 1979, the KDFWR announced its intention to open Jackson County that fall to deer hunting. While this was welcome news, it really came as no surprise to Ronnie Hurley, a local hunter who lived near Mt. Vernon.

"I had squirrel hunted in the national forest for a number of years and was well aware of how the deer population had grown," Ronnie said. "At that time, there were a number of small-acreage farms scattered along some of the wider hollows and, while the corn and other planted crops were insignificant in terms of size, these areas really attracted deer. Over the years, these old home places were eventually abandoned and much of the area is now included in the Mill Creek Wildlife Management Area."

During the early fall bow season, Ronnie made a number of hunting trips to the national forest, concentrating most of his efforts around a large-acreage pine thicket, where the timber had been clear cut a few years earlier. The hunter spotted a number of different deer on those outings, but one exceptionally big buck completely captured his attention.

Tony Mahaffey stands by the giant buck his grandfather took in 1979. It is the biggest deer ever recorded from Jackson County. Taxidermy by Gerry Wethington. Photo by Bill Cooper

"Without a doubt, the buck carried the biggest set of antlers I had ever seen," Ronnie said. "It was nearly impossible to concentrate on anything but the rack as the deer moved through the woods. From the numerous scrapes and rubs scattered all through the thick cover, there was no doubt the buck was spending a great deal of time in the area. In fact, I actually sighted the big deer from several different stand locations, but unfortunately, the circumstances were never quite right for me to get a shot."

Well before daybreak on opening day of Jackson County's first gun season, Ronnie arrived back at the pine thicket in the national forest. On this occasion, however, his father-in-law, Jessie Mahaffey, accompanied him.

Jessie, having spent most of his 61 years hunting and fishing the surrounding mountains and hollows, when he wasn't busy working at local sawmills or constructing new roads and highways, was by any definition, a true outdoorsman. Unfortunately, recent heart problems and several operations had taken their toll on his health, and many family members believed this season might well be his last opportunity to deer hunt.

After guiding Jessie to one of his earlier bow stand locations, Ronnie continued along the edge of the thicket for several hundred yards, eventually stopping at a rock cliff overlooking a deep hollow. From this position he could spot deer moving out of the thicket or crossing the hollow below.

During the first two hours of daylight, several distant shots were heard, but neither hunter spotted any nearby deer movement. After deciding to change locations, Jessie followed his son-in-law's path along the thicket border, eventually joining the younger hunter at the rock cliff.

"We had been sitting there a short while when I suddenly spotted movement on the far side of the hollow," Ronnie noted. "Amazingly, walking through a gap in the rocky ridge line came the big-antlered buck; even at that distance, there was no mistaking the rack."

Staring past Jessie, who was unaware of the deer due to his sitting position on the rock, Ronnie watched the buck slowly proceed down the opposite hillside, then turn onto a trail that led to a lower ridge just below the rock cliff. As the big whitetail continued its approach up the ridge, the gigantic antlers seemed almost hypnotic, bobbing up and down as the deer walked. Under the most difficult circumstances, Ronnie made a true sportsman's gesture.

Leaning his head slightly toward Jessie, he whispered, "How would you like to shoot the biggest buck you've ever seen?"

Obviously surprised by the statement, Jessie's eyes widened as he whispered back, "Where?"

"Right there," Ronnie responded, nodding downhill toward the buck.

Turning in that direction, Jessie instantly saw the huge deer, now walking broadside through the open timber, approximately 125 yards below the cliff. Quickly raising his rifle into shooting position, the older hunter carefully aimed and squeezed the trigger. The shot dropped the giant buck in its tracks.

"We sat there for a few minutes, discussing what had happened and making sure the deer was down for good," Ronnie said. "Just before we started down the hill, I looked back across the hollow and saw three hunters walking through the same gap where I had first spotted the buck. We continued on down to where the deer was lying and were soon joined by the three men."

One of the hunters quickly explained that he had shot the buck earlier that morning and the three of them had been trailing the deer when they heard Jessie's shot. A quick examination of the buck did reveal a second fresh bullet wound; however, the shot had merely passed through a small section of meat on the deer's hip, causing no internal damage. After considerable discussion, but ultimately realizing such a wound would obviously never have stopped the big deer, the three hunters reluctantly left.

"I had noticed the buck was limping slightly as he came down the hill," Ronnie noted. "However, the deer had no trouble walking and certainly showed no sign of having been shot."

While the buck was big in terms of body size, it was the enormous rack that made both hunters stare in amazement. In addition to the massive rack's impressive spread, the men counted a total of 13 antler points.

"Jessie bragged a good bit about taking the buck, but I don't think he ever fully realized what he had done," Ronnie said.

"For that matter, I guess neither of us was truly aware of how big the deer was. But Jessie wasn't the type of person who cared much about records or trophies; it really didn't matter if he was after grouse, rabbits or deer, he simply enjoyed the hunting."

When the men arrived home with the giant whitetail, several people, including Jessie's 12-year-old grandson, Tony Mahaffey, were there to greet them. It would be an understatement to say that everyone was happy for the elder hunter.

"At that time, I had never been deer hunting," Tony said. "But seeing that big deer sure got me excited. I made my mind up right then that I was going to take a buck like that some day."

Fortunately, despite his serious health problems, Jessie Mahaffey's inner toughness prevailed and he managed to overcome many of his ailments. In fact, his general physical state actually improved to the point that he was able to continue hunting and fishing activities for a number of years.

"Considering his state of health at that time, it is really a miracle that he came through everything like he did," Tony said. "But everyone knew he was tough. Years earlier, during a construction accident, his right hand was injured so severely it was no longer functional. Normally right-handed, Jessie simply learned how to use his left hand to do everything he had done before.

"I was certainly a beneficiary of Jessie's physical turnaround," Tony continued. "Over the following several years, he and I spent a lot of time together hunting and fishing. I consider him a real mentor in my life, not only because of what he taught me about the outdoors, but that he also took the time to emphasize the difference between right and wrong."

During the years following Jessie's successful hunt, the rack remained at his home. The deer was not mounted and the antlers were never officially measured for record book consideration. Later, during the 1990s, the rack was placed on a board and hung in Mahaffey's Sporting Goods, which was owned and operated by Tony's parents in Mount Vernon.

"There were a number of other mounted deer and racks hanging in the store, but Jessie's always got the most comments," Tony noted. "On one occasion, we took the rack to a local deer show, where it won first place, but there was no one there to officially score the deer."

Tony and his grandfather continued hunting together well into Jessie's later years. Although the necessary walking and climbing sometimes became stressful for the old hunter, his enthusiasm never waned.

"One of the last deer hunts we went on was to the Land Between The Lakes area in western Kentucky," Tony remembered. "At that time, Jessie was 66 and he had a pretty rough time getting around. However, he never complained about anything and his interest in hunting was as keen as it ever was."

Not long after that, during an afternoon walk, Jessie informed his grandson that he wanted him to have the huge set of antlers from the buck he had taken in the national forest. A couple of years later, the elder Mahaffey passed away.

"While I was humbled that Jessie gave me the rack from his big whitetail, I was never sure what prompted him to do so," Tony said. "Except for that one afternoon, it was a subject we had never discussed. I have to believe he realized how much I loved to deer hunt and that I would always appreciate his great trophy."

After Jessie's passing, the big rack remained hanging in the sporting goods store until the business was sold a few years later. Tony's desire was to have the antlers placed on a full-sized deer shoulder mount. However, he was unable to locate a deer cape large enough to use for the mount.

"From talking with my grandfather, I knew the deer he had taken was well over 200 pounds," Tony said. "While there are a number of bucks approaching that size taken in this part of the state, securing a cape is hard to do because the hunters almost always have them mounted."

Finally, during a 2002 deer hunt in Canada, Tony managed to obtain the cape of a big northern whitetail. After returning home, he took the cape and antlers to taxidermist Gerry Wethington in Clementsville.

"One of the first things Gerry asked me after seeing the rack was what it had scored," Tony said. "After I explained that it had never been officially measured, he told me that in his opinion the antlers would score very well and he would be glad to make arrangements to have them measured. That really excited me because I knew he had seen and mounted a number of big Boone and Crockett (B&C) class bucks."

The results of the official taping revealed several impressive antler measurements. The rack has a very symmetrical 5x5 typical frame, which includes long sweeping main beams of nearly 27 inches. Tine length is also outstanding, with brow tines (G-1s) of 7 5/8 and 6 3/8 inches, followed by paired G-2s and G-3s that measure between 10 0/8 and 11 6/8 inches. Antler mass is well distributed, with the main beams tapering only slightly from 5 5/8 inches at each base to 4 2/8 inches at the fourth circumference measurement. Spread measurements of 24 7/8 inches outside and 21 4/8 inches inside give the rack a striking appearance in terms of overall width and height.

In regard to scoring, the rack grosses a grand total of 184 0/8. Following deductions for minor asymmetry between the antlers, plus 7 3/8 inches for three abnormal points, the final B&C typical score is 171 7/8. This qualifies the buck for both B&C's Awards and All-Time record books.

Additionally, it stands as the biggest whitetail ever taken in Jackson County. In fact, it is the county's first and only B&C buck ever recorded and only the third deer to place in any record book. Jackson has two bow kills listed in the Pope and Young record book.

It should be noted that Jackson, like many of its neighboring mountain counties, such as Rockcastle, Laurel, Owsley and Lee, cover a rugged portion of the state's land area. There is no doubt that a number of trophy-class whitetails, some probably of record-book class, have been taken in these areas over the last 25 years. Numerous old faded photos and word-of-mouth recollections by other hunters and residents support this theory. Unfortunately, the problem is that many never make it to taxidermists, much less are ever officially measured and recorded. Perhaps, in the years ahead, some of these old trophies, like Jessie's, will turn up.

"I really wish my grandpa would have lived long enough to see his buck finally get the recognition it deserves," Tony said. "Although, he probably wouldn't have thought it was all that big a deal. For Jessie, it was the hunting that really mattered."

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