Tennessee's Public-Land Trophy Bucks

Tennessee's Public-Land Trophy Bucks

Here are the stories behind four massive bucks taken on Land Between The Lakes and Fort Campbell by public-land hunters.

By Bill Cooper

Having ended their hunting for the day, Junior Nelson and his 11-year-old son, Michael, headed for the check station on Fort Campbell Military Reservation to turn in their permits. It was late October and the weather was unusually warm for a late fall afternoon. Rounding a curve, the hunters were surprised to see an 8-point buck standing in the road ahead. As the truck slowed to a stop, the deer bounded several yards to the nearby woods line and stopped.

"As we sat watching the buck, I turned off the truck's engine and told Michael there were probably additional deer somewhere close by," Nelson said. "The words were barely out of my mouth when I glanced off to the opposite side of the road and spotted a much bigger buck about 40 yards away, standing in a clump of brush and tall broomsedge. The deer's rack was exceptionally tall and massive with several points. I think both of us were slightly in a state of shock to be so close to a whitetail of that size."

After a couple of minutes, the big deer slowly turned and disappeared into the woods. Amazed and excited, the Nelsons continued on to the check station.

"At that time, the particular hunt area where we saw the bucks had not been opened," Nelson noted. "But I told Michael we would definitely be there when it did."

A week later, the reservation opened an adjacent area for a special weekend juvenile hunt and Michael participated. The big buck didn't make an appearance, but the young hunter used his new 50-caliber muzzleloader, purchased with earnings from a summer grass-cutting job, to take a great 7-pointer.

Tennessee's special youth deer season was scheduled for the first weekend in November and the Nelsons had planned a hunting trip to Cookeville. However, a day before leaving, they learned that the area on Fort Campbell where they had seen the two bucks would also be open to hunting for the first time.

Junior Nelson and his 11-year-old son, Michael, stand by the huge buck taken last season on Fort Campbell military reservation. Junior took the impressive 15-pointer, which scored 169Ê7/8 non-typical, with a muzzleloader. Photo by Bill Cooper

"Michael had already filled his buck tag for the base and I didn't want him to miss out on the special youth season, so I decided to not hunt the reservation," Nelson explained. "But Michael insisted that I go ahead and sign up for the hunt area in the event he took a deer the first morning."

The weather on Saturday was very warm and the hunting unproductive. At the end of the day, however, Michael successfully encouraged his dad to return to Clarksville and hunt Fort Campbell on Sunday.

The following morning, well before daybreak, Nelson drove to the hunt area. Michael, initially, was going to accompany him, but at the last minute he decided to stay behind, telling his dad that there would be a greater chance of spooking deer with both of them in the stand.

Nelson had planned to hunt a site very near to where he and Michael had seen the big bucks. However, as he turned onto a reservation road in another section of the hunt area, his truck's headlights illuminated the form of a huge 10- to 12-point buck. As he hit the brakes, the deer whirled around and disappeared in the darkness.

"Seeing that buck really messed my mind up," Nelson said. "I began thinking that I should stop and hunt right there. I continued on to my original destination, but I couldn't get that deer out of my mind. In fact, even after unloading my stand and equipment, I paused to rethink the situation, and then loaded everything back in the truck."

Standing there in the darkness, the hunter's hasty decision suddenly seemed awkwardly surreal. The recent event of Michael and him encountering the bucks, and his son's steadfast insistence that he not miss this hunting opportunity, all seemed to come together.

"I remember thinking to myself, Have you completely lost your mind," Nelson related. "As I unloaded the truck for the second time, I finally realized that I was exactly where I needed to be."

After organizing his equipment and shouldering a rifle and deer stand, Nelson headed down a narrow woods road that he knew would eventually lead to an old broomsedge field. A short way into the woods, a deer, that he believed was a buck, scooted across the trail only a few yards in front of him.

Upon reaching the opening, the hunter selected a big oak, just inside the woods at the corner of the old field, as a stand location. Before climbing into position, he placed a doe decoy in the open broomsedge about 20 yards away.

On this occasion, Nelson had opted to use a .45-caliber Knight muzzleloader. During the regular deer season, Fort Campbell allows the choice of bow, muzzleloader or shotgun with slugs on most hunt areas. Centerfire rifles are sometimes allowed in specific locations.

Shortly after sunrise, a buck appeared in the distance; however, the deer was moving away from Nelson and quickly disappeared. Minutes later, after hearing a faint rustling in the leaves, the hunter turned and spotted a doe heading straight toward him. The deer approached to within five feet of the decoy, stopped and looked back.

"Almost immediately, a pretty decent 8-pointer trotted into view, following the doe's path, and eventually stopped about 15 yards away, staring at the doe and decoy," Nelson related. "At that distance, I instantly recognized the buck as the same 8-pointer Michael and I had seen standing in the road. Naturally, my mind automatically jumped to thinking the bigger buck might also be somewhere nearby."

As Nelson continued to look on, the 8-pointer abruptly snapped its head around and began staring out through the woods. Fully alert, the hair on the buck's back slowly began to stand up.

"At first, I couldn't see what was causing the deer's reaction," the hunter said. "But finally, as I continued to watch, I spotted another buck, about 175 yards away, walking just inside the woods line and heading straight toward the other deer. At that distance, about all I could make out was that the buck appeared to have a very big rack."

Suddenly, the 8-pointer turned and began walking toward the bigger deer. Unsure of what was about to happen, Nelson began to slowly ease his rifle into position.

"I had a difficult time moving because the doe was only a few yards below me," he noted. "I was a little concerned the smaller buc

k was going to intercept the big deer and either start a fight or do something that might prevent me from getting a shot. Fortunately, after walking about 30 yards, the 8-pointer turned around and came back to where the doe was standing."

As the big whitetail continued to advance, Nelson picked out an opening directly in the deer's path, about 90 yards away. Braced solidly against the stand, he carefully aimed and, as the buck entered the sight picture, squeezed the trigger.

At the shot, a haze of blue smoke momentarily filled the woods, completely blocking the hunter's view. Taking no chances, Nelson quickly reloaded the muzzleloader and waited for the air to clear.

"Seconds after reloading, I could see the buck was attempting to get up," Nelson said. "I quickly aimed and fired again and this time the deer stayed down."

The sudden release of tension, coupled with nerves and excitement, provided the lucky hunter with a major case of the shakes. After remaining in the stand several minutes to calm down, Nelson carefully made his way to the ground and walked to where the buck was lying.

"At that moment, words aren't really adequate to describe my feelings," Nelson said. "First of all, I knew then the deer was the same big buck we had seen on the road. But I also realized my success that morning was entirely due to my son's encouragement and giving up his last day of hunting - for me, that will always be an important memory."

It would be an understatement to say the buck's dark brown antlers were impressive. A basic 8-pointer, the rack was tall and massive, with 7 additional abnormal points. Most impressive were 24 1/2-inch main beams, brow tines (G-1s) of 7 and 6 inches and paired back tines (G-2s) that exceeded 13 inches.

In scoring, the 8-point frame grossed 155 2/8 and netted 147 6/8. After adding in the total inches of abnormal points (22 1/8), the final non-typical Boone and Crockett (B&C) score was 169 7/8. This qualifies the buck for the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association's Longhunter record book.

Nelson's huge whitetail is just one of many great trophy bucks that have been taken on Fort Campbell over the years. Although the military reservation lies along the Kentucky-Tennessee border, approximately two-thirds of its 105,000 acres are in the Volunteer State. Anyone interested in finding out more about hunting opportunities on the base should contact the Hunting And Fishing Unit, located in Building 6645. They can be reached by calling (270) 798-2175 (76) or (77). Keep in mind, Fort Campbell is a military installation, therefore military personnel are given priority in regard to permit applications and hunt area assignments.

Another great public hunting area, the Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL), is located less than an hour's drive from Fort Campbell. Established in 1963 and operated by the USDA Forest Service, LBL is a long peninsula of land situated between Kentucky and Barkley lakes. Approximately one-third of the area's 170,000 total acres are in Tennessee's Stewart County.

Although most of LBL is forested, about 7 percent of the total acreage is maintained as open land. Some of this is managed as wildlife habitat openings and some is planted to agricultural crops as part of a cooperative agreement between the Forest Service and local farmers. This diverse combination of land use benefits a wide variety of wildlife, but it is especially ideal for the area's whitetail population.

Many years ago, the Stewart County section of LBL established a reputation among western Tennessee hunters as a great area for deer. In addition to impressive harvest figures, the area has also recorded some whopper whitetails. One of the biggest, a giant 10-pointer scoring 172 5/8 B&C, was taken in 1992 by Michael Bowers, a young hunter from White Bluff.

In recent years, LBL has experienced an increase in hunters from the eastern end of the state, especially during bow season. During the 2001 season, Stephen Campbell of Caryville and several companions traveled to the area for a few days of bowhunting.

"We actually began hunting LBL a couple of years earlier," Campbell noted. "We always saw our share of deer, but in spite of hunting areas where there were numerous rubs and very impressive scrapes, we had experienced little luck encountering big deer."

On an early November afternoon, Campbell was positioned in a hardwood flat near a small meandering creek. Not long after getting situated in the stand, he began hearing distant rustlings, as if deer were moving about. Leaves still present on many of the saplings and bushes in the understory prevented the hunter from seeing very far through the woods.

"I continued to occasionally hear the sounds, and I eventually managed to get a glimpse or two of a deer as it moved about near the creek," Campbell said. "Because of the thick undergrowth, I could never see an entire animal and was really unsure how many deer were there or what was going on. A couple of times, the sounds ceased and I assumed the deer had moved on, but several minutes later, I would begin hearing them again."

Finally, the hunter climbed down to the ground and began to slowly work his way along the creek toward the deer. At ground level, seeing through the foliage and brush was even more difficult.

"After approaching to within shooting range, I managed to determine the deer I could see was a buck," Campbell related. "Its head was near the ground, but part of its rack was visible, plus, there was another deer that appeared to be lying down. At that point, I had a shot opportunity and released my arrow."

The buck quickly went down. After cautiously walking to where the deer had fallen, Campbell found that its rack was locked with another buck, an 8-pointer. The second deer was dead, apparently of a broken neck.

"It's really difficult to say, but it didn't appear that the deer had been locked up for a very long time," Campbell noted. "It was an extremely difficult time separating the two sets of antlers."

The big whitetail's rack has 16 points, 10 of which make up the basic typical frame. Long main beams of 24 inches, plus five tines measuring between 13 4/8 and 9 2/8 inches, contribute to a great non-typical Pope and Young score of 174 1/8.

Obviously, not everyone can anticipate a hunting experience like Campbell's, but bowhunters annually take a number of trophy bucks on LBL. Anyone interested in obtaining information regarding hunting on LBL should contact the Forest Service administrative office at Environmental Stewardship Department, Land Between The Lakes, 100 Van Morgan Drive, Golden Pond, KY 42211. The phone number is (270) 924-2065.

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