Last November, a young hunter from Sumner County took a non-typical whitetail that shattered the Tennessee record and has the potential to be the world record whitetail. Check out Game & Fish's interview with Stephen Tucker.
By Larry Woody
Stephen Tucker steadied the crosshairs of his muzzleloader scope on the shoulder of the biggest buck he had ever seen, took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger. Unfortunately, the firearm misfired.
Most muzzleloader hunters know the sickening feeling of a misfire. However, imagine that misfire happening with a potential world-record buck in the sights.
"It was awful," said Tucker, 26, of Gallatin. "It's hard to describe how I felt."
Tucker was hunting on his Sumner County farm on Nov. 5, opening day of muzzleloader season, when the buck with a rocking-chair rack stepped into a corn stubble-field. At the click of the misfire, the buck bolted.
"If somebody somewhere down the road kills a bigger deer, that's OK. I'll be happy for them. But no matter what happens, I'll always have the thrill and the memories of getting this one. That's what matters." — Stephen Tucker
Tucker saw the deer again later in the day, but it was about 150 yards away — too far for a sure shot.
"I was afraid it was too long a shot for a muzzleloader, and l didn't want to risk crippling him," Tucker said. "The last thing I wanted to do was to be the guy who crippled a deer like that."
Fortunately, two days later, the monster buck appeared around 6 a.m., about 40 yards away, and this time Tucker's muzzleloader didn't misfire. After the smoke cleared, Tucker could see what would end up being the largest non-typical buck every recorded in the Volunteer State, and with its current score of 312 3/8 inches, it will become the world-record hunter-killed non-typical whitetail, pending official scoring at the Boone & Crocket panel scoring in 2019.
Tucker hauled the deer home, where he processed the venison. Realizing he might have a record on his hands, he contacted the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which sent an official to score the buck.
"It's easily a state record for non-typical antlers," said TWRA District 21 Capt. Dale Grandstaff, who measured and scored the massive 47-point rack. "The only question is, will it also be a world record? It'll be right on the edge, one way or the other."
Tucker is a soft-spoken, polite young man who answers "Yes sir" and "No sir" to inquiries — and there have been a lot of inquiries. Tucker has been awed by the response to the deer christened the "Tucker Buck" in his honor by the TWRA.
"If it's a world record, that will be great," Tucker said. "But I would have been satisfied with a state record."
Word of the monster buck spread like wildlife through social media, newspaper stories, a TWRA website posting and area TV coverage.
"My phone started ringing and it has been ringing ever since," Tucker said. "I've been getting calls and messages from everywhere, wanting to know about the buck."
The massive antlers could be worth a lot more than just bragging rights. Some experts believe the rack could command as much as $100,000 on the collector's market — even more if it turns out to be a world record. Endorsements of various outdoor-gear companies, whose equipment and products were used by Tucker during the hunt, could add to the bounty.
In other words, the buck could be a life-changer for the young farmer and his wife, Caitlyn, who grow corn, soybeans and wheat on their modest middle Tennessee farm.
"If it's a world record, that will be great. But I would have been satisfied with a state record." — Stephen Tucker
Antler size — both typical and non-typical — is calculated by an intricate scoring system that tabulates the main beam length, girth at specific junctures and the combined length of all points. Tucker's buck scored 312 3/8. Tennessee's previous record non-typical buck, killed in 2000, scored 244 3/8. It also was taken in Sumner County.
The world-record buck, killed in 2003 in Iowa, scored 307 5/8, which means the rack of the Tucker Buck was bigger when it was felled. However, under Boone & Crockett rules, a rack must dry for 60 days before being officially scored, and then must be scored by a panel of measurers.
Measuring and scoring non-typical antlers is complicated. On a non-typical rack the antlers are gnarled, and the points grow sideways or downward, as opposed to the upward growth of typical antlers. Non-typical antlers usually consist of many more points — 47 in the case of the Tucker buck — and much greater mass than typical racks.
"We don't know for certain what causes non-typical antler growth," Grandstaff said. "It could be something physical that affects the antlers' early development, or it could be something genetic."
Tucker's deer was not weighed, but was estimated to be about 150 pounds — not extraordinarily big. Grandstaff initially judged its age at 3 1/2 years, but further study of the wear of the deer's teeth estimated its age to be 4 1/2 years.
"I've seen lots of big deer, but I have never seen anything close to this one," said Grandstaff. "I was absolutely stunned when I saw those antlers."
It's not coincidental, according to Grandstaff, that the Tucker buck was taken in the same north-middle Tennessee county as the previous state record.
"Sumner County borders Kentucky, and that state produces some huge deer," Grandstaff explained. "Sumner and some surrounding counties are agriculturally suited to growing big deer, and the soil contains the right minerals and nutrients to promote antler growth."
Along with a favorable environment, Grandstaff says there is a simple key to producing more big-antlered bucks — allow more bucks more time to grow bigger, which is the goal of the TWRA's Quality Deer Management program. A few years ago the state's season limit on bucks was lowered from three to two, and this past season the definition of "antlerless" deer was changed in an attempt to protect young spike bucks.
In the past, a buck with antlers less than 3 inches long (which includes most yearlings) was classified as antlerless and could be harvested as a doe. In many Tennessee counties, three antlerless deer per day can be harvested during the state's archery/muzzleloader/gun seasons.
"Under the 3-inch antler rule, a lot of young bucks were being killed," Grandstaff said. "In some heavily hunted areas it was hard for a buck to survive more than a couple of seasons. That meant very few had a chance to grow into really mature deer with sizable antlers."
Under the new "antlerless" rule, spike bucks can still be taken, but they now count toward the two-buck season limit. The only exception is "button" bucks — deer with antler nubs that do not protrude above the hairline. They remain classified as antlerless.
According to Grandstaff, the Tucker Buck validates the Quality Deer program as an example of the potential for big bucks, if hunters let more young bucks walk.
Like the Tennessee-record largemouth bass caught in 2015, the record-busting buck has created a tremendous buzz, especially on social media. The white-tailed deer is to hunting what the largemouth bass is to fishing. It's the state's most popular game animal and it has a huge, faithful and fervent following of hunters.
"News of the deer began to spread immediately," Grandstaff said. "Not just statewide but across the country. It was amazing how much attention it attracted. I got a call about it from the Boone & Crockett Club in Missoula, Montana, the day after the story broke."
Some of the response was skeptical, with whispers that the cellphone photo of Tucker posing with the massive-antlered buck had been Photoshopped to produce a trick picture. Others accepted the authenticity of the photo, but questioned the accuracy of the location.
"The reaction from some people was that the deer couldn't possibly have come from Tennessee, that it must have been killed somewhere else, or that it wasn't a true Tennessee whitetail," Grandstaff said. "But that's not the case. There's no question that the deer was killed exactly where it was claimed to have been killed — on a farm in Sumner County — and we've run genetic tests that prove it is a true Tennessee deer, no matter how hard it may be to believe. There is no question that it's a genuine Tennessee whitetail."
Grandstaff says the ongoing big-buck buzz is great for Tennessee, serving notice to in-state hunters that they don't have to travel to Iowa or Kansas or other places to have a chance at killing a really big deer. Deer hunting is big business, and big deer are good for business, especially if more hunters come to Tennessee in hopes of breaking the record, regardless of how unlikely.
"Frankly, I doubt that there's another one like the Tucker Buck," Grandstaff said. "It's probably a once-in-lifetime non-typical deer. But there are lots of big typical racks throughout the state. We're seeing more and more of them every season, and the typical record could be up for grabs. What we know for sure is that the buck has generated a lot of attention and put Tennessee on the map in terms of producing quality deer. It's also a tribute to the work the TWRA has been doing in the area of deer management. If that buck had been killed when it was a little spike, we wouldn't be having this conversation now."
Tucker, a veteran hunter, says he has no idea what caused the initial misfire.
"I took the muzzleloader apart, cleaned it, and replaced the primer," he said. "The next time it fired. Thankfully."
Tucker and his wife were guests at a meeting of the Tennessee Game & Fish Commission in Nashville, where they were invited to display the antlers. Grandstaff made the introduction and discussed the impact of the record buck. Various members of the Commission, as well as TWRA Executive Director Ed Carter, took turns posing with Tucker and the record rack.
Everyone at the meeting was very happy for the young man, including his wife.
"I'm happy for Stephen," she said. "He was so thrilled and excited when he brought the deer home. We knew it was something special, but we never anticipated this kind of attention. It's been amazing."
Tucker killed his first deer at age 10 during a juvenile hunt. It was a 6-pointer. He has killed a few more since then, with his biggest — prior to Nov. 7 — being an 8-pointer. However, he has no plans to stop even though he now is in the record books.
"I'll keep hunting," Tucker said. "I love to deer hunt, whether I get a big buck or not. Killing this one won't make any I get in the future any less special. They're all special."
Meanwhile, the state record is his to enjoy.
"If somebody somewhere down the road kills a bigger deer, that's OK," Tucker said. "I'll be happy for them. But no matter what happens, I'll always have the thrill and the memories of getting this one. That's what matters."
As to whether he has a world record, he'll find out during the panel scoring in 2019. If it happens, it happens. If not, Tucker insists he is content with what he's got. And so he waits. Patiently, like any good deer hunter.