The 2003-04 season saw one Natchez bowhunter set a new state archery record for non-typical whitetails. Here's the story of Tracy Laird's sensational feat!
By Robert H. Cleveland Jr.
It took of an extra cup of coffee to jump-start Tracy Laird's motivation at 4:30 a.m. that Tuesday morning last October. An emergency room director at the Community Hospital in Natchez, Laird had logged an extremely late night, and he had to punch back in for duty at 7:30 a.m.
It would have been really easy for him to roll back over in the bed to get a couple of more hours of sleep. He couldn't, though, because of a mental picture that kept nagging his subconscious, invading his daydreams and disturbing his sleep.
Once the caffeine kicked in, Laird needed nothing more than his memory to push his body out the door, into his truck, through the woods and up a tree stand.
"Before the archery season, I'd done some scouting," the 32-year-old hunter said, "and I saw a couple of good bucks on some private land that I had permission to hunt. One of them was real good - and the other one was a monster."
So on Oct. 22, hoping for a shot at one of the two trophy bucks, Laird forced himself (as he already had done on several mornings early in the 2003 archery season) to fit a hunt in between sleep and his ER duties. This time, it paid off big-time.
By the time he pulled into the hospital parking lot (on time) a few hours later, word of his accomplishment had spread through the Natchez hunting community, and a crowd had formed to see what would become the deer story of Mississippi's 2003-04 season.
"I had called a friend of mine," recounted Laird, "and I told him to meet me at the hospital, and I would show him what the combination of enough caffeine and proper motivation can produce. By the time I drove home, changed clothes and went to work, he had called one friend, and I guess it networked out from there. People were there waiting for me to see my buck."
Scoring an impressive 236 1/8 Pope and Young points, Tracy Laird's buck claimed the state record for non-typical antlers. Photo by Clifford Neames
Here's why: Laird had arrowed a buck that, scoring 236 1/8 points as a non-typical under the Pope and Young club scoring system, broke the existing state archery non-typical record - Denver Eshee's 1996 kill, a Webster County buck scored at 204 P&Y - by a whopping 32 inches.
It's also the second-highest-scoring deer overall in state history. Only Tony Fulton's former Boone and Crockett world-record animal - taken by rifle in Winston County during the 1994-95 season, it garnered 295 6/8 as a non-typical - has scored higher.
Let's go back to that morning - Laird pulling himself out from between the sheets and heading to the woods in Adams County, south of Natchez - and try to understand the motivation that pushed him out of the bed.
"The two bucks I'd seen - I knew they were quality bucks," Laird said. "I'm a native of Columbus in Lowndes County, in the heart of the Black Prairie Region of Mississippi. There're a lot of big deer up there. I've seen a lot of big bucks before, and I had killed a good one in the 150-class with my rifle up there. I know a good buck when I see one."
Hunting is more that just recreation for Laird, whose job as an ER director and trauma nurse creates a lot of stress.
"Deer hunting, especially bow hunting, is my escape," he explained. "Of course, I have my wife and family to help keep me sane - but, honestly, I truly find peace and a lot of answers to world problems when I'm sitting in a tree and enjoying a peaceful morning in the woods.
"It's always been that way, even before I became an ER person. Hunting is my escape. I love it, and I grew up in an area that fosters that love."
Fortunately for Laird, when his career forced a move, he landed smack-dab in the middle of another Magnolia State area celebrated for trophy bucks: Adams County, which, like many neighboring counties along the Mississippi River, has given up a lot of record-book bucks.
The 2003-04 season was Laird's first since his diagonal move across Mississippi to the southwest from the northeast. He scouted around, found a promising piece of land and got permission to hunt it. Then he went scouting for bucks - and found exactly what he hoped he would.
"I've hunted most of my life - the last 17 years with a bow - and I have seen a lot of big bucks," Laird remarked. "I knew the two bucks I'd seen were worth hunting and hunting hard. I was determined that I was going to get one of them, and I hoped it would happen during the archery season. Fortunately, I was in the right place at the right time, and the right one of the two came by. I have to admit that I had no idea just how good this buck was. No way. Not even close."
Laird didn't even know how good it was when the buck first arrived that morning - which was probably a good thing.
"I got in the stand a little before daylight, and hadn't been in the tree 45 minutes when I heard him coming," he recalled. "He was the first deer of the morning. I heard him like he was trotting over on my right. Then he stopped."
Having determined that an oak flat between a feeding area and a big stand of thick hardwoods was the main bedding area for the deer he'd seen, Laird was hunting there. There were a few trails leading past his stand location; this deer was on one of them.
"When I picked up his movement again, he was steadily walking," he said. "He wasn't feeding; he just kept walking like he was going to bed in some big woods."
The buck never stopped - not even when Laird ran out of time and had to chance a walking shot with his 4-year old bow.
"I thought about making a noise to stop him, but I didn't really want to risk spooking him," he said. "He was going so slow, I just decided to take the shot and allow for his moving. He was 20 yards from me and quartering away."
As it turned out, Laird didn't allow for as much movement as he'd wanted to. "The arrow hit back, just ahead of his right hindquarter and it came out behind his left shoulder," he said. "It worked, clipping his liver and his left lung. He didn't go 50 yards."
Laird, excited because he knew he'd shot a deer that was out of the ordinary, fought off the urge to go look immediately for the big buck and waited 20 minutes before beginning the process of descending the tree and taking up the search. He found his arrow, and he found blood - but he didn't really need a trail.
"I knew where he went, and I walked right to him," Laird said. "He was right where I figured, or at least hoped, he would be. He just didn't make it as far as I thought he probably would have."
Once he got to the buck, Laird was lucky that he didn't need cardiac resuscitation. What he found was shocking - made him weak in the knees: There was so much antler. More than he'd ever imagined. More than he'd ever seen, except in a few pictures in magazines. Heck, most of the trophy deer he'd seen in magazines weren't in this buck's class.
"I had to sit down," Laird said, smiling. "I sat down next to him and caught my breath. I couldn't believe it. I mean I knew that it was a good buck when I shot - but this: I had no idea."
In hindsight, he thinks that it's probably best that he never got a chance to study the antlers at close range either during his scouting trips or in the moments prior to the shot that morning.
"You know, I always thought that I wouldn't get nervous or panic or suffer from buck fever," he said. "Think about it: With all the things we see in an emergency room, all the stress and all the trauma, I thought nothing would shake me up. But when I got to that deer - man, I tell you: My knees buckled, and I could hardly breathe. Now I have to wonder what would have happened had I been that shook up before I shot."
As his pulse and respiration slowed, Laird started counting points - and counting, and counting, and counting.
"I counted 18 the first time, and then 23 the second - and it was 27 the third time," he recalled. "Every time I picked him up and turned his head, I found more points. I counted 27, but I wasn't sure how many of them were officially scorable points. All I can tell you is that there were a lot of points, and they were everywhere."
"There are 30 'deer-camp' points, but only 24 that can be scored," noted P&Y official scorer Randy Breland, who serves as the manager of the St. Catherine's Creek National Wildlife Refuge near Natchez. He explained that P&Y rules require a point to be a minimum of 1 inch in length and be longer than its width at its base.
"The 24 points include a lot of long ones, and that's what non-typical antlers need to build an incredible score. Laird's deer had over 70 inches in non-typical points.
"But when you see these antlers," Breland continued, "it's not the number of points that gets your attention - it's the mass: It's incredible. The right beam is palmated a lot, but both sides are amazingly thick, and carry that mass from the bases to the tips."
Laird agrees. "Man! It's really massive!" he said. "You can't get your hand halfway around the palmation on the right bream. I think it measured out at 13 inches at the thickest point. Both beams are thick though, and they're thick all the way out to the end. I have never seen anything like it."
Breland, who had scored two other state-record bucks in the past, said that the buck grossed 252 3/8 inches, but lost over 16 inches to deductions in the rack's main frame. There were 16 non-typical points, which averaged just less than 5 inches each.
When Breland finished his scoring after the mandatory 60-day drying period, he called Laird to give him the news. Speaking of the unofficial measurement taken prior to the drying period, Laird said, "I had the buck green-scored back in October by a friend, and he scored it at just over 204 inches. I thought that sounded a little low, seeing as how it had all that mass and all those points. With that projected score, all I was hoping for was that it would somehow make it past the state record. I really thought it would, but I wasn't sure. Of course, I wanted the record, but I really wasn't that concerned about it. Everybody else was making a bigger deal out of it than I was.
"Then Randy called and told me what it had officially scored. I couldn't believe it; I never dreamed it would measure 236 inches."
It was great news for Laird - and badly needed news, as it turns out: The two months separating the two milestone measurements had worn him out.
"You wouldn't believe the stuff I've had to put up with," he remarked. "I wasn't talking a lot about the deer, because this was kind of new to me, and I darn sure wasn't going to tell people exactly where I killed it. So people were making up their own stories, and a lot of them were outrageous. People were saying I baited the deer; people said I poached it; people said I hunted it inside the city limits. You name it, they said I had done it. If you had put 50 deer hunters in the room from Natchez, you'd have gotten 50 different stories, and not a single one of them would have been close to the truth."
The bottom line, according to Laird, is that he scouted the area and found the bucks. He was able to put together a pattern that placed him in the right location at the right time to enable him to make a shot that, though it wasn't perfect, could kill a 250-plus-pound buck.
"I'm not so foolish as to think that a lot of it isn't luck," he said. "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time when he came by. I am lucky that I had this place to hunt."
But Laird added that he also knows that his drive, his preseason work and his love of the sport deserve a lot of the credit, too. A lot of hunters who'd just wrapped up a late night at work and were facing an early workday would never have set an alarm clock for 4:30 a.m. for the purpose of trying to fit in a deer hunt; many others still would just have hit the snooze button a bunch of times, or simply reset the clock for another hour or two of sleep.
"I guess I just had the right motivation," Laird offered in summation. "I sure am glad I had it, and I'm glad I had enough of it to get out of bed that morning."
There would be other mornings to sleep, and one less buck to haunt his dreams. Still, the hunter doubted that his life would return to normal any time soon; it surely hadn't by the time this story was written.
"I still get calls all the time, and I've been asked to bring the head to different outdoor shows and bow hunting banquets," he said. "It's been strange. The rumors got out of hand, but I learned to deal with that. I did my best to keep my sense of humor and enjoy what I had accomplished. I had taken a record-book buck. I worked hard for it and I got it - so why shouldn't I enjoy it?
le say that it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience - but I sure hope it isn't. I'd like to get a bigger one."
That won't be easy. Another buck like this one won't come around very often - that's for sure. "It is a freaky-looking set of antlers," Breland said.
So freaky, in fact, that as word of the deer spread, it got associated with a completely different big-game animal.
"A couple of days later, when I went to work one morning, I pulled into the hospital parking lot, and they had changed the sign on my parking place," Laird said. "It said: 'Reserved for Moose Killer.'"
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