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Magnolia State monsters

10/23/2008

William North found a corner of his hunting club's land, in Mississippi hill country, that no one had touched in about six years. It was an area near a lake, rich with persimmon trees, near an overgrown, untended food plot. When he scouted it, he found no boot tracks, no four-wheeler tracks — but deer tracks in abundance.

He set up in a tree, clouded himself in "enough mosquito spray to drown Godzilla," and in dim light noticed a flash of white. At first, he thought it was a bird. Then he began counting antler tines. There were so many, the old buck couldn't maneuver through the trees without clattering against branches.

By the time North counted a 10th tine, he thought, "If I don't shoot this thing, I'm going to jump out of this tree." He stood, pulled back an arrow, and fired.

The deer bounded away. It was too dark to follow the blood, but he found a single white hair on the arrow — a sign that his aim hadn't been quite true. He feared the deer could take a while to die, so he didn't press it then. Instead, he returned at light with a friend skilled at tracking. They followed drop to drop, heads fixed on the ground.

About 60 yards away, they found the animal. It was dead. Blooming from its head was a rack of antlers like some crude farm implement: 16 points, with a 21-inch spread and 22 3/4-inch main beams.

"When he saw it," North recalled, "he turned to me and just tackled me right there, over the deer. He said, 'The only reason I came down here is you said you shot at antlers. But you didn't tell me he was that big.'

"I said, 'If I'd have known he was that big, I'd have shaken out of the tree and never gotten an arrow off.'"

The 23-year-old medical student from Jackson, Miss., wasn't the only Mississippian to take a trophy buck this archery season. Chad Dacus, the deer program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, engaged in a bit of understatement and unintentional punning recently when he said: "We started off the season with a bang."

Coming off a banner year for bucks, Mississippi's bowhunters already have killed at least three massive deer:

  • North's deer, which green-scored a net 163 inches, non-typical.

  • The 15-point buck taken by Michael Burkley, of Natchez, Miss. It earned a non-typical net score of 188, and was almost a marvel as a typical. If not for deductions — "the non-typical stuff," as Dacus put it — the deer would have been a state archery record.

  • And although it hasn't yet been verified by MDWFP biologists, Jay Mitchell's 18-point non-typical with a preliminary green score of 184 inches deserves mention.

After the mandatory 60-day drying period, Burkley and Mitchell could qualify for Boone and Crockett award inclusion. ("I have a feeling they'll get them scored on the 60th day," Dacus said.) These early results are still promising on the heels of a year in which Mississippi produced nine B&C qualifiers, after never before producing more than four.

"I've been bowhunting for about 10 years," North said. "I never remember this many large deer being taken this early in the year."

Dacus offered three possible explanations for recent big buck boom.

  • The aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina. Three years ago, the storm cleared out old timber — offering the equivalent of a clear-cut in some places — and made room for deer browse to flourish. It also kept hunters out of the woods, allowing the bucks that were 3 at the time to grow into the strapping 6-year-olds hunters are marveling at today.

  • The recent drought in the southeast. Lack of rain has had a couple of effects. It may have made food scarce enough that the more mature bucks "dominated food sources," in Dacus' words. Last year it also sent the oaks into a panic. The trees dropped oodles of acorns, likely providing an unusually well-fed winter for the deer now being harvested.

  • Simple selectivity. More hunters are abiding by Quality Deer Management criteria and letting younger bucks live. "They have started to realize that we don't need to be shooting 2- and 3-year-old bucks," Dacus said. "They've realized that age is one of the keys to having larger antlers during the hunting season."