Despite predictions of poor antler growth for bucks in the region, East Texas turned out some mighty impressive bucks last fall -- as these hunts demonstrate. (September 2007)
Mike Armstrong shot his region's No. 2 non-typical from a ladder stand on a 44-acre lease. When the buck appeared to the hunter from Tyler, it was at the edge of a food plot.
Photo courtesy of Mike Armstrong.
The early forecast made by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Gary Calkins for the 2006-07 deer season painted a picture that was anything but pretty.
Owing primarily to persistent drought conditions across much of the region throughout summer and on into fall, Calkins, working out of Jasper, initially predicted a mediocre season at best for most of the Pineywoods. Lack of rain caused many preferred forage species to wilt prematurely or fail to sprout at all. Many experts believed that poor range conditions would translate to skinny bodies and pencil-thin antlers for our deer.
Surprisingly, that wasn't the case at all. In fact, 2006-07 turned out to be banner year for many hunters -- some of whom brought down the biggest bucks of their lives.
"It definitely made a liar out of me," admitted Calkins. "The deer we saw in our icehouse surveys were in way better shape than we had anticipated. Antler development was good, and body weights were very good. The whole deal stumped us."
The banner season carried over to the Post Oak Savannah too, which didn't really come as a surprise to District 5 wildlife biologist David Sierra, in Tyler, whose pre-season forecast hinted at a good year for mature bucks, primarily as a result of the sparse food supply that the drought caused. The biologist predicted that a lack of natural forage would be a boon for hunters, because it would force deer to check in at corn feeders and other supplemental food sources.
"That is exactly what happened," Sierra said. "The deer had to work for a living, and it paid off nicely for the hunters. We saw a lot of 3 1/2-year-old bucks, quite a few 4 1/2-year-olds and even a sprinkle of 5 1/2-year-old bucks in the harvest."
One of the state herd's elder statesmen showed up in the cross hairs of Michael Armstrong's Ruger .30/06 on the morning of Nov. 9. The 49-year-old Tyler hunter and his wife Cindy were sharing a ladder stand in the heart of a tiny 44-acre lease in Cherokee County when an enormous buck showed up at the edge of a food plot, about 50 yards away.
According to Armstrong, the buck appeared about 10 minutes after a pair of does, one obviously in estrus, had passed through the hunting area. "She was urinating all over the place, so it was pretty easy to tell what was going on," he said. "I told my wife we couldn't ask for a better setup."
Cindy Armstrong spotted the buck first. "She nudged me," her husband recalled, "and whispered, 'Big buck.' When I looked, all I could see were dark, chocolate-colored antlers. He was just standing there, looking around, stomping the ground occasionally." The deer was disposed of with one shot.
Armstrong didn't realize the true size of the animal's rack until he started counting points: 19 in all. Coupled with great mass and beam length, the rack gross-scores 193 7/8 and nets 189 5/8, making it the No. 2 non-typical taken in Region 6 last year. No. 1, Eric Meekins' whopper 22-pointer from San Jacinto County, grosses 202 2/8 and nets 189 6/8.
The story behind the Meekins buck is classic East Texas, its plot involving a pine sapling thicket, a doe in heat and bruiser of a buck.
The 30-year-old hunter was inside his box blind on the morning of Nov. 18 when he saw a doe cross the logging road in front of his stand about 20 yards away. "I looked to the left out the window of my stand to see if there was anything trailing her, and I saw a young 8-pointer standing there about 40 yards away," he said. "I watched him a few seconds and he started acting kind of nervous. Then he turned and took off. That's when this bruiser showed up. It was barreling through the woods tearing up everything in his path."
Approaching the road on the same path that the doe had followed, the big boy was moving at a slow trot. It managed to dart across the road before the hunter was able to shoot. "I knew I had to do something, so I made a bleat call with my mouth," said Meekins. "The buck came to a dead stop. That's when I shot. It wasn't a long shot, either -- 20 yards would be stretching it."
Two great hunts that produced two great bucks -- but they weren't the only ones. Here are the details behind some other top-ranked East Texas bucks entered in the Texas Big Game Awards program last year.
McLEMORE SCORES BIG -- TWICE!
Randy McLemore annually shells out some serious money for a spot on the Hayter Hunting Club in Nacogdoches County -- and he undoubtedly feels that he got his money's worth last season.
McLemore shot the No. 3 and No. 10 TBGA non-typicals from Region 6 last year, and he got them about a month apart. The biggest of the bucks came calling in late October, just a few days into the early Managed Lands Deer Permit season.
According to McLemore, the 13-pointer passed through as it worked a scrape line on the interior of the high-fence portion of the club. "I had gotten several pictures of this buck over the last few years with my game camera, but just about all of them were at night," he said. "I had hunted the scrape line during bow season, but I never saw him. He passed through at about 10 a.m."
The 6 1/2-year-old buck was easy to recognize by its rack sporting long beams, tall tines and gobs of mass. The gross score is 164 2/8, the net 162 4/8.
The Nacogdoches hunter stepped outside the club's high fence to collect his second buck, a 14-pointer that grosses 157 4/8, 152 4/8 net.
A PRAYER IS ANSWERED
A cold front raced across eastern Texas on the afternoon of Nov. 11, and the woods around the Piney Ridge Hunting Club were rocking to the beat of a blustery north wind. It was a crappy afternoon to be in a deer stand. But Chris Ricks of Corrigan, and his 11-year-old son, Kaden, gave it a shot anyway.
And good thing they did: Their hunt culminated in one of those memorable father-son affairs that every dad dreams about.
"A buddy of mine had seen a 7-pointer at this stand earlier in the day and suggested I take Kaden back there in the afternoon to try to get a shot at him," the elder Ricks said. "The wind was terrible, but we decided we might as well
go hunting instead of sitting around at camp."
The younger Ricks didn't last long. The rocking of the blind and the cool air made the youth sleepy. He eventually curled up at his dad's feet for a short power nap. "I told him I would wake him up if I saw something," Ricks said. "It wasn't long before he was out."
Ricks' son slept until about 4 p.m., and then, the boy's father recalled, awoke with a promising suggestion: "Kaden told me, 'Daddy, I'm going to say a prayer and ask God to help us kill a deer this evening.' I told him that was good. I hoped we were able to kill one, too."
Mother Nature went to work 15 minutes later, possibly with the help of the Tink's Doe-In-Heat lure that Chris Ricks had dripped on a bush before he shut the door on the blind. "I heard a noise to my left and when I looked I saw this buck charging full steam about 80 yards out," he said. "He was coming straight toward our stand -- fast. It was almost like someone had set his butt on fire with gasoline."
Ricks first saw the buck about 80 yards out as it emerged from a thicket downwind from the stand. The deer closed the gap to 40 yards within a matter of seconds. "I tried to get Kaden on the deer, but he couldn't get ready in time," he said. "The buck was charging fast, and was about to get past us. I knew he would get by us if I didn't make a move quick."
Shouldering his .270, Ricks aimed at the buck's chest and squeezed the trigger. The buck dropped in its tracks -- and the celebration began. "I high-fived Kaden three times and knocked him down by accident," he recalled with a chuckle. "We were both pretty excited."
Rightly so: The 11-point rack has it all -- great tine and beam length and plenty of mass. TPWD wildlife biologist Sean Willis taped the antlers for Texas Big Game Awards entry. The gross Boone and Crockett score is 171 4/8, 163 7/8 net. It's the No. 1 typical killed in Region 6 last season.
For several years now, deer hunters have been using heat/motion sensitive game cameras to monitor deer stands when they're not present to do it themselves. Pictures collected by hidden cameras can either boost or kill hunter confidence, depending on what shows in the viewfinder.
Scott Willis had a game camera set up around a ground scrape near one of his deer stands at the Stripling Island Hunting Club. Luckily for him, he didn't check the camera's contents until Nov. 18; otherwise, he might not be wearing the title "Mr. Big Buck" at what some believe to be the oldest hunting club in Nacogdoches County.
On Nov. 17, Willis elected to hunt one of his box blinds on the far side of the 3,500-acre lease. He was watching eight does and a young buck milling around in a food plot when the does suddenly got nervous and ran off.
"I had been hearing what sounded like another buck grunting in the woods, but I never saw it until the does ran off," he recalled. "When that happened, the young buck in the food plot ran straight toward me and stopped next to a woodline. He started grunting and pawing the ground. That's when the second buck stepped out."
Knowing right away that the second buck was a shooter, Willis lined up the cross hairs on his scoped .270 Short Mag. and busted the deer behind the shoulder. Amazingly, the buck wheeled around and disappeared in the brush -- but it didn't go far. When the hunter approached the spot, the buck was standing erect and staring him down at 25 yards.
"He was looking right at me, and all I could see was that big ol' rack," he said. "When I threw up to shoot, he took off running."
Willis managed to finish the job before the buck got out of range. His trophy buck -- a basic 9-pointer with a pair of drop tines -- grosses 163 1/8, nets 149 7/8.
Interestingly, the presence of double drop tines wasn't the only unique feature of the buck's rack: It also sported some jewelry -- a 4-foot strand of steel cable. After educated eyes gave it a look, it was determined that the alien object entangled in the antlers was a snare used for catching and holding wild hogs.
The story gets better: The next day, Willis went to his other stand to look for deer sign and noticed that his game camera had been activated multiple times. Naturally, he took the film to have it developed.
The 33-year-old hunter was shocked when he thumbed through the prints and came across a picture of the incredible whitetail that he'd shot a day earlier. The picture dated Nov. 6, 2006 -- 11 days earlier -- displayed a full body shot of the buck as it passed by the ground scrape during the wee hours of the night.
"I am very thankful I didn't check that camera until I did," Willis said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to leave that other stand alone. I would have been 1,500 yards away when he stepped out in my oat patch."
KIMBERLIN'S GIANT FROM GRAYSON COUNTY
Something in the black soil of Grayson County in far northeast Texas spurs superior antler growth in whitetail bucks. Numerous book deer have been taken in this archery/crossbow-only county in recent times, and chiropractor Keith Kimberlin narrowly missed joining the list last Dec. 1, when he arrowed a remarkable 22-pointer that nets 192 3/8. "He had 6 points broken off that probably robbed me of at least 30 inches of antler," the Pottsboro deerslayer noted.
Interestingly, the tract that Kimberlin hunts, which spans a meager 96 acres, is roughly 10 miles from the Hagerman Wildlife Refuge, one of the top-ranked archery hotspots in the entire South.
Kimberlin was hunting a woodsline adjacent to an old stock tank when the big buck came sneaking in. The rut being in full swing, the hunter had already passed up shots on several deer in the 140 class. "I saw 14 different bucks that afternoon and had several of them in shooting range," he recalled. "It was one of those rare days when the deer were running everywhere."
The hunt turned magical at about 5 p.m., when Kimberlin saw a large buck approaching about 30 yards away. For some reason, however, the buck changed course and began walking straight away from Kimberlin's tree stand.
Certain that the big buck was about to leave the area, Kimberlin used his mouth to simulate a grunt-wheeze call; the trick worked beautifully. "He came unglued when I did that," he said. "He came stomping across the tank dam and tore up about 15 trees over the next 30 minutes. Then he walked about 8 yards from my stand."
Kimberlin drilled the buck through the heart; it took three steps and dropped within seconds. The buck ranks No. 2 among Region 5 non-typicals behind Jack Brittingham's 202 3/8 net Anderson County monster.
LITTLE KID, BIG BUCK
Bradley Chapin of Conroe had quite a tale to tell his fourth-grade buddies at the Woodlands Academy following the Oct. 28-29 youth-only hunting weekend in Anderson County: Afield in the company of his father (also Bradle
y), the 9-year-old bagged the No. 3 Region 5 TBGA non-typical reported in 2006-07.
It was dark-thirty -- the bewitching time for white-tailed deer -- when the buck stepped into the freshly planted food plot. "Bradley had missed a big deer at about 225 yards earlier in the day and he was about ready to take a shot at a big 9-pointer we'd been seeing," the senior Chapin said. "I told him he should wait, because we knew there was a bigger deer in the area.
"He's glad he waited now."
The buck stepped out at about 150 yards and was heading away. The youngster shouldered his .243 and waited patiently for the buck to turn broadside.
"He squeezed off the second the buck turned and made a perfect shot," Chapin said. "It was a really neat experience seeing my son shoot the biggest buck of his life."
Chapin's buck, an 18-pointer, grosses 179 1/8 and nets 177 1/8.
THE REST OF THE BEST
Region 5 Typical
Here's some stats on big typicals shot in Region 5 last season: Robert Corson, Robertson County, 173 7/8 gross, 164 3/8 net; Scott Joyce, Hunt County, 166 4/8 gross, 160 6/8 net; Ken Buchheit, Burleson County, 174 5/8 gross, 160 1/8 net; Darlene Killough, Anderson County, 159 2/8 gross, 158 1/8 net; Kris Gachassin, Henderson County, 163 5/8 gross, 157 2/8 net.
The non-typical lineup went like this: Mike Chance, Hunt County, 183 6/8 gross, 172 5/8 net; Carroll Moran, Navarro County, 179 6/8 gross, 168 net; Region 6 Typical; Steve Coulter, San Augustine County, 158 gross, 155 net; Margie Seaman, Angelina County, 153 3/8 gross, 151 7/8 net; Dana Day, Cherokee County, 157 3/8 gross, 151 5/8 net; Brian Vickery, Marion County, 155 2/8 gross, 151 2/8 net.