More and more truly huge bucks are coming out of the Texas Panhandle. Here's the story behind one that ranked right alongside the best bucks in the entire state last season.
By Lee Leschper
With its rolling plains, wide-open spaces, occasional canyons and creek bottoms, the northeastern Texas Panhandle is turning out to be a great place for taking great bucks.
And we're not just talking "merely" big deer, either! We're talking big - big enough to make the prestigious Boone and Crockett record book. After all, it takes a non-typical whitetail buck with 195 inches of antler - more than 16 feet - to make "the book."
Each year, no more than a half-dozen of the 200,000 or so whitetail bucks taken in Texas will exceed the 200-inch benchmark. Shooting a 200-class whitetail buck on open range is akin to shooting a hole-in-one in golf - 18 times in a row.
But if you're playing the big-buck lottery, perhaps no area in Texas offers better odds of scoring than does that comprising the far northern counties of our Texas Panhandle.
Provided, that is, that you can find a place to hunt there - which is quite difficult. Measured, not in acres, but in dozens or hundreds of sections, most of the ranches are held by just a few landowners, most of whom have little or no interest in leasing for deer hunting. A few outfitters have begun to work the region, but it's tough to build a guiding business for deer there, because the numbers are so low.
Also, the terrain, filled with endless expanses of agriculture and open range, provides only limited patches of deer habitat. Most of the best deer country is concentrated in creek bottoms and canyons.
Big bodies and big racks are common on Texas Panhandle bucks. Weighing about 170 pounds, Tom Isaacs' 223 2/8 gross giant was the top specimen from the region last year. Photo courtesy of TBGA
It's only been in the past few decades, as more and more brush has invaded the region and landowners have grown increasingly knowledgeable about the whitetail's needs, that the whitetail population has expanded.
There's also consensus among both deer hunters and biologists that Panhandle deer are just physically bigger. Whether that's because the deer are the larger Kansas subspecies, or because they're living in pockets of quality habitat with little competition, Panhandle deer weigh substantially more than does the usual Texas deer. An average mature Panhandle buck will field-dress at 130 to 140 pounds; a big boy might push 200. That bigger body size corresponds to bigger antlers, too; it takes a 150-class buck to draw a second look in the Panhandle, and taking a book deer is a realistic expectation.
But before you pack your bags for the Panhandle, remember that the opportunities there are few. No more than a few hundred whitetail bucks fall in this sprawling region each season, and that's probably all that the resource can support. On the other hand, several seasons during the last decade have seen the eastern Panhandle yield up Texas' biggest whitetail buck.
In 1998, C.D. Shackelford was hunting a small wheat field in Gray County, about an hour's drive east of Amarillo, when he shot a huge non-typical buck. That animal, 1998's biggest, was an incredibly symmetrical 21-point that netted 212 6/8 B&C.
In 1994, Larry Pancake was hunting Donley County, which borders Gray County on the south, when he brought down a huge typical whitetail buck; scoring a net 187 4/8 B&C, it was the biggest typical in Texas that year.
In 1999, Amarillo's Barrett Thorne, 13, was on his first deer hunt in Donley County when he took an incredibly wide 11-pointer that "booked" with a 173 7/8 net score. That buck's outside spread was an incredible 31 1/2 inches!
And again, last fall, one of the top bucks in the Lone Star State came from the Top of Texas - more specifically, from open range at the top of the Texas Panhandle. Sixteen-year-old Tom Isaacs of Canadian, in the far northeast corner of the state, killed that giant.
Tom has been deer hunting for almost half his life; the rest of his family are avid hunters as well. While most teenagers are consumed with high school sports or cars, Tom's first love is hunting. Thanks to a wealth of experience gained from time spent in the field, he speaks with a confidence and maturity beyond his age.
"I don't really care about the other stuff," he said. "I just enjoy everything about hunting."
Tom's had quite a bit of success in his short hunting career already. In 2001, he shot a 130-class whitetail and a 170-class mule deer, and he's used a bow to harvest a number of other deer. As for his fateful meeting with the huge whitetail - well, here's how it happened.
In November, Tom was hunting with his father on the family's 20,000-acre ranch - no high-fenced deer farm, but a typical working ranch, its terrain made up of rolling hills and brushy draws. Save for the Isaacs family's activity, it feels little hunting pressure. Both whitetail and mule deer roam the ranch, with the whitetails predominant.
"We've not really managed it for deer, but it has not been hunted much," Tom said. "It's a pretty good chunk of land. We maybe take one deer a year off this."
But there was this one particular whopper buck that they'd been watching for a while. "We had seen this deer for four years. My dad missed him four years ago with a bow. And then we found his sheds the next year."
Tom had been looking for the buck since his dad's first encounter. "But I shot a deer each year about a day before we saw this buck," he said. "And he was never as big as this.
"A creek runs right through our land. There's a lot of brush country, but the area where this buck lived was in the breaks at the Caprock. We really have some really big deer, but nothing else to compare to this."
And this past season, his heart was set on the big buck. "I had been hunting him for two weeks - nearly every day since the beginning of the season - but hadn't found him anywhere," Tom remembered.
"So I went out one morning to the back of our ranch. We didn't know where he lived, but there was one area where we'd always see him during the rut.
"My dad had a spotting scope, and was looking in a different area. He called me about 8 or 9 in the morning saying he'd spotted the buck bedding down with a doe on the side of a hill. I was probably 10 miles away, so it took a while to get there.
"We figured out how to hunt him best. It was really hard to get to him, because he could see two miles all around him, and the wind was coming from the back of the hill. We came at him from behind, and he took off."
Tom took a shot at the fleeing buck, but missed. He and his dad followed the buck for most of a mile up a canyon and then split up. Because the buck was nearing a boundary fence, Tom was concerned that his quarry would cross over onto the ranch of a neighbor. "He's a good friend, and he knew about this buck. But we beat the buck up the canyon."
Following his target's likely travel route, Tom went farther up the canyon, while his dad went back down to look for the buck. It spooked as soon as it detected the senior Isaacs, and, still trailing the doe that was to prove his undoing, ran within 100 yards of Tom.
Although Tom admits that he was pretty pumped up by this time - "I had the shakes when I was still 10 miles away," he said - he didn't let it interfere with his shooting. He dropped the monster deer with a single shot from his .243.
The downed animal he approached in that canyon was nothing short of breathtaking. ("He didn't have any ground shrinkage!" Tom recalled gleefully.) It weighed about 170 pounds, and its age was reckoned at 6 1/2 years - prime time for a buck to reach its potential.
Its antlers are a gigantic mainframe 12-point rack, with 4 substantial additional points, including a forked G-2 on one side, and an 8-inch kicker off the back of the other G-2. The massive rack, 21 6/8 inches wide, its huge beams stretching out 29 and 27 inches, grosses 223 2/8 points and nets 216 1/8; it also nets about 185 as a typical. It ranks high among the largest whitetails harvested in Texas last fall.
Tom and his family are all confident that this was the same buck they'd kept an eye on for several seasons. "He always had that fork on the same side and lived in the same area," Tom noted. "Last year he looked like a really good deer, at least 180. And he's had nothing to eat except what's on the range."
What did Tom's dad think about his son taking the buck that he'd missed years before?
"He was happy," Tom said with a laugh.
Yes - I'll bet he was!
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