Illinois' Biggest Bow Buck EVER!
August 15, 2003
Tales of giant deer often play out in bizarre fashion, but none like the one about the highest-scoring buck ever killed in the Prairie State.
The stories of world-class bucks often sound too lame to be anything but bad fiction. But if there's one thing I've learned in 20 years of chasing down such tales, it's that the more improbable the "facts" are, the more likely they are to be true.
As proof, I refer you to Exhibit A: Illinois' new No. 1 non-typical buck.
Could the Prairie State's top deer ever - a 36-pointer whose score blows away the overall state record by a margin of nearly 2 feet - really have been by shot a man who wasn't even deer hunting at the time? From a stand set up between a guy who was nailing boards and another who was running a chainsaw?
Believe every word of it.
If you like to stay abreast of giant bucks around the state, odds are you've heard of this one. He's that 291 1/8-inch Fulton County crossbow kill that has been the subject of so many rumors over the past 18 months.
Jerry Bryant, a retired Caterpillar employee from Peoria, got this buck in 2001. However, he chose not to publicize the kill for over a year. This perhaps fueled a belief that the buck wasn't as big as advertised, or that there was some shady reason the deer was being kept out of the limelight.
The delay turned out to have a reasonable explanation. At the time of the kill, Bryant was involved in a difficult divorce, and his now-ex-wife later sued him for half of the rack's perceived cash value. The issue dragged on for months before Bryant prevailed in court, finally clearing the way for him to publicize his deer.
That's something the hunter says he's wanted to do all along.
"I feel I've been blessed to kill this buck, and I want other people to get to enjoy him too," he says.
To that end, Bryant and Illinois Game & Fish hosted the deer's "coming-out party" this past February at the Illinois Deer & Turkey Classic in Bloomington. There, plenty of deer addicts got to meet the hunter and see the new mount, which is the work of Peoria taxidermist Ron Meinders.
The deer is potentially one of the world's top four non-typicals, including those not shot by hunters. He is also the crossbow record by roughly 30 inches over a Wyoming buck shot in 1997. And he blows away Illinois' old non-typical mark of 267 3/8, set by Peoria County shotgun hunter Richard Pauli back in 1983.
That Illinois could grow such a deer is no real shock. Most experts believed it was only a matter of time until the state turned out a 300-class rack. What some people have a harder time fathoming is how the new record could be a crossbow kill.
In reality, several thousand deer hunters legally use crossbows in Illinois. They do so with special permits issued because of medical disabilities.
A right-arm injury Bryant suffered in 1990 led him to his join the crossbow brigade two years later. He tore ligaments in his right forearm, and not even a 6 1/2-hour operation could get the limb back to normal.
"I lost 27 percent of the strength in my right arm and 22 percent of my range of motion," he says. "I'd been shooting a compound bow, and for two years after my surgery I tried to shoot it. But my arm would lock up, and even at 15 yards I couldn't shoot a group smaller than 12 inches. I feared if I shot a deer I would only wound it, and I didn't want to take that chance. I've never lost one."
Luckily for Bryant, in 1992 a co-worker told him of the crossbow option. Bryant had ample documentation of his injury, and his permit application was soon approved.
He hunted a fair bit with his crossbow over the years, taking two does and passing up a fair number of nice bucks in the process. But curiously, when mid-November 2001 rolled around, Bryant had his eye not on a trophy deer, but on a bird.
He had never shot a turkey with his crossbow, and he figured one gobbler roaming that part of Fulton County would be a great way to break the ice. The turkey was huge - "I really think he'd have weighed close to 30 pounds," Bryant says - and walked with a limp, identifying him as a tom local hunters had been after for years. The old bird was a real trophy.
One of the gobbler's hangouts was the farm of Richard Voorhees, Fred's brother. Fred manages the wildlife on that land, as well as on his own, and is allowed to take guests. Knowing Bryant was interested in the big gobbler, he elected to help his friend set up his ladder stand in a creek bottom where the bird had been seen.
On the morning of Nov. 15, the men went to a brushy bottom on Richard's farm. It was an area in which the huge gobbler had been seen. They set up Bryant's 15-foot ladder stand, went to eat lunch and returned at around 2:30 p.m.
While Voorhees drove over to hunt his own farm down the road, Bryant climbed into his own stand, hoping for a feathered encounter. The wind was from the south and the temperature was holding near 50 degrees.
At around 4 p.m., from a half-mile or more to Bryant's right came the droning of a chainsaw. To Bryant's left, someone on another farm was pounding nails, likely to repair a wooden stand before gun season.
Despite these disturbances, at 4:15 Bryant saw five turkeys - among them the huge gobbler - walking his way. But as the hunter slowly reached for his crossbow on its hanger, one of the birds saw him and sounded the alarm. They departed without a shot.
"All of a sudden, on top of a hill about 60 yards to my right, I saw movement," the hunter says. "I took my crossbow and laid it on my lap."
It was a big doe, and she was heading Bryant's way. In fact, she soon was standing 15 yards in front of the hunter, her chest centered in the "V" formed by two trees. But the doe looked behind her three times, and Bryant elected not to take the shot.
The doe finally ran on, crossed the creek and zipped over the hill to the left of the ladder stand. Then there was more noise to the hunter's right.
"I thought somebody was running through the woods," Bryant says. "But it was a buck, and he was on the same trail the doe had taken."
Since 1993 there had been no gun hunting on the farm in an effort to improve buck size and numbers. In addition, only bucks with racks at least as wide as their ear tips (15 inches or so in the "alert" position) were fair game. This rule was firmly in Bryant's mind as he sized up the buck prancing his way.
"I could only see the right side of the rack," Bryant says. "It was way past his ear and huge, as far as thickness goes. But I didn't try to count points. I've never been able to shoot one when I've done that."
Amazingly, the buck stopped right where the doe had - 15 yards in front of the stand, his kill zone perfectly exposed. Bryant aimed and shot, putting his bolt right through the heart. The deer made it only 15 yards.
By the time Voorhees arrived, Bryant had checked out the rack and found that it had far more points than he had imagined. When Tim Walmsley measured it for entry into Boone and Crockett, Bryant also learned that his deer - the only non-typical he says he's ever seen alive - had a world-class score as well.
The main beams have circumferences of up to 8 2/8 inches, and 15 of the points are at least 6 inches long. Total scorable antler is 138 2/8 inches on the right side, 139 7/8 on the left. Adding the inside spread of 23 1/8 yields a gross B&C score of 301 2/8 before 10 1/8 inches of asymmetry deductions on the typical frame drop the net to 291 1/8 inches.
"If anyone deserved to kill this deer, it was Fred," Bryant says. "He's put so much into that land, and he's a good hunter who's shot a lot of big bucks." But as is so often the case, fate cast a different vote.
Yes, tales of giant deer often play out in bizarre fashion, and it's hard to fathom anything much more bizarre than killing a world-class buck on a crossbow turkey hunt. But eventually, the state mark will fall again, and there's a real chance the next hunter's tale will be even harder to believe!
(Editor's note: Interestingly, three of the Bryant buck's shed antlers turned up as this issue was being prepared to go to press. You can see them at www.NorthAmericanWhitetail.com.)