When the news broke last fall that Clifton Forge’s John Feazell had killed a new Virginia state-record non-typical buck with a Pope & Young score of 221 2/8, whitetail enthusiasts obviously wanted to know more about this remarkable feat and the individual who accomplished it. Adding to the fascination about this trophy is that the previous state record (Anthony Hodges’ Henry County buck that scored 197 3/8) had been killed just three years ago in 2006. While it’s not unheard of, in modern times it is very unusual that a new state record breaks the old state record by nearly 24 inches.
Feazell, a 35-year-old forest service technician, is not one of those individuals who “lucks” into a trophy. When he was 5 years old he started going afield with his father and began deer hunting when he was 10. He has killed over 100 whitetails in his career, and has been selective about the deer he shoots for the past 8 years or so.
“I won’t call myself a trophy hunter,” says Feazell. “But what I try to do is kill what I call ‘a nice mountain eight,’ that is, a deer that anyone who hunts in the Virginia mountains would call a good one.”
A SERIES OF RANDOM EVENTS
The story begins on Friday, November 6 and involves a series of rather random events that led to a state record. On that Friday, forest service co-worker Jenny Henning contacted Feazell and said that a Michigan friend of hers, who had come to the Old Dominion with the goal of killing a bear with a bow, had shot a Bath County national forest whitetail instead on Thursday evening. The twosome had been unable to find the deer and Henning asked whether Feazell could assist them.
Feazell had planned to take a half-day of vacation on Friday afternoon and head for the Botetourt County property. But he told Henning that when he finished work at noon, he would help the two women try to find the animal. By 2 p.m., the deer was recovered, but Feazell realized that he would not be able to drive to Botetourt in time for an evening outing. So he remained in the Bath County national forest and, since it was muzzleloader season, went afield with his smokepole.
That afternoon, the Clifton Forge resident killed a “nice mountain eight,” and that evening he and his father decided to hunt the Botetourt County land on Saturday with brother-in-law Michael Herwald of Clifton Forge and friend Donnie Bradberry of Botetourt. Feazell’s father, Mike, does not own a muzzleloader, and since Feazell had already tagged a fine buck, he loaned his father the smokepole for the day and decided to go hunting with his compound.
The four men discussed where they would hunt and John Feazell took a “bow stand” because the rest of the group would be hunting with muzzleloaders. The mountainside property is one that the Feazell family has hunted since the 1970s and that Feazell himself has hunted for some 25 years. The land has one house, which has an expansive field, and the property then slopes precipitously upward to the ridgeline.
The ridgeline features two dips (also called gaps or saddles), one of which serves as the main destination for deer that bed in the mountain laurel thicket on the other side of the mountain. The second saddle is much smaller and narrower; both are surrounded by massive rock formations that funnel the deer to those specific areas. As is typical of the entire mountain, chestnut oaks dominate in the poor, rocky soil, and this hardwood produced a fair crop in 2009.
“The typical pattern is for deer to feed in the yard much of the night and then before dawn, start to mosey up the mountain, picking at chestnut oak acorns as they go,” said Feazell. “Then, sometime after sunrise, the deer move through the big gap into the mountain laurel. We have a ladder tree stand below the big gap.
“My favorite way to deer hunt is with a bow. I usually kill one or two every year with my compound, but I hadn’t hunted this particular stand all season.
UNCLE STEVE’S BENCHMARK
“Our family has killed some nice bucks on the mountain. The best one has always been the 16 pointer my Uncle Steve [Feazell] killed around 1985. All the bucks we shoot are compared to Uncle Steve’s.”
Out from the house is a flat (also known as a bench) that lies just below the major funnel and it is on that flat that family members positioned a ladder stand.
On that Saturday morning, John Feazell made a quick 10-minute walk from the house to the ladder stand and was in position well before daylight. From past experience, he knew that does would filter by him sometime after sunrise and that bucks would be hounding does across the bench all morning.
As usual, the highly scent-conscious Feazell was aloft in his Scent Blocker suit, was freshly bathed, and had sprayed with a scent eliminator. The temperature was in the low 40s and a light breeze was blowing — the kind that is just enough to disperse a human’s scent, Feazell recalled. The birds and squirrels were singing and feeding, respectively. It was, he said, a perfect November morning to hunt.
“At 8:45, I see my first deer of the morning behind me about 120 yards away, and I stand up and look,” remembered Feazell. “I can tell that it’s a pretty good size deer, but I can’t tell if it’s a buck. The deer takes five steps, pauses, and looks, takes a few more steps and does the same thing. It’s acting like a deer that has done this type of thing (avoiding humans) before.
“I then catch a glimpse of horns when the deer is about 50 yards away and turns broadside. What a buck! It’s just huge and has two big drop tines. I have never seen a buck this big, even during my hunts out West. But with a bow there’s no way for me to shoot at that distance. And I think, ‘If I only had my muzzleloader.’”
After a time, Feazell’s nerves settled and he rationalized that the day would be a long one, and the mossyhorn might eventually come closer.
Feazell is comfortable taking bow shots out to 30 yards, but he prefers to shoot whitetails inside 20 yards.
Frustratingly, the buck headed away from Feazell’s stand below the major gap to the small one. Hardly any deer ever exit the mountainside through the small saddle, and the Clifton Forge archer felt that no one would ever believe he observed a buck that gigantic, an animal that far eclipsed “Uncle Steve’s deer.” But this buck squeezed through the small gap and disappeared, leaving Feazell with little expectation of seeing the bruiser again that day. After all, he had never viewed the buck before that Saturday.
Feazell then began mentally making plans about how he would hunt this specific buck during the last week of the muzzleloader season and the first one of the general firearms season — a period during which he had already arranged to take two weeks of vacation.
During that fortnight, he planned to be aloft in a climber and armed with a muzzleloader and rifle at the appropriate times.
“I decide I’m going to sit on the flat until I kill that buck,” Feazell said.
Around 9:30, a steady progression of whitetails began to meander across the bench. A six- and an eight-pointer came by first, followed by several does dining on chestnut oak acorns. At 9:50, three does ambled by directly below the stand and continued across the bench, just below the mountain crest. A four-pointer arrived on the flat, and chased the doe trio in circles. Finally all of the deer wandered out of sight. The action lagged until close to 10 a.m., when a one-sided four-pointer made an appearance on the flat.
CALLING ALL BUCKS
“I catch movement out of the corner of my eye,” recalled Feazell. “It’s the big buck and a doe. He’s returned and is within 30 yards. I can’t see his body, just those horns. I start shaking and my adrenaline pumps. The buck then beds down within 30 yards directly behind me, but I can’t shoot because I can only see those horns but no body.
“So I just sit back down. There’s nothing else to do.”
For some 30 minutes, Feazell had the buck of a lifetime within 30 yards and the sportsman could do nothing about the situation. Then, the four pointer rose from his bed and began to forage for acorns. The broadbeam paid no attention to the upstart.
“It’s then that I remember that I had brought the new Flextone Buck Collector grunt call that can make the snort-wheeze sound,” said the forest service technician. “And I think the snort-wheeze should work on a buck that size. I make the sound, pause a second, and do it again. The big buck goes on alert (and) jumps straight up. His hair bristles. He becomes stiff legged, turns toward the little four-pointer, waddles five, six steps toward him, false charges about 10 yards, and that little buck is out of there!
“The big buck calms down, his hair returns to normal, and he looks over at ‘his doe.’ I am getting my bow ready. The buck is 30 yards away, and I see my opportunity — a small opening in the woods. But when I shoot, the arrow doesn’t come close — it must have hit a twig. There’s just enough wind that the buck isn’t scared by the arrow hitting the ground. He just hops a little and looks around.”
Feazell silently berated himself, angry that he had missed the buck of a lifetime.
Meanwhile, the buck began to forage on acorns, progressing away from the tree stand.
The doe also started to feed and Feazell pondered what his next move should be.
“I decide to make a doe bleat with the Primos Can,” continued Feazell. “At the second bleat, the doe turns around and heads toward me. The buck then throws his head up in the air, trying to spot her. He sees her and starts walking toward her through some laurel. But the angle he is taking is making him go farther away from me.
“I hit the Flextone snort-wheeze, and the buck stops and looks. I do the snort-wheeze again. He stops again, his hair bristles, and he turns toward me, stiff-legs a little while, then stops broadside about 18 yards away. That’s when I shoot.”
Feazell was very confident that the arrow hit the buck but was concerned that his shot may not have been of the pass through variety. He quickly descended from the stand and saw the buck loping away for about 100 yards, hit the ground, and start to roll down the mountain.
“I know all about the 30-minute rule where you are supposed to wait even after a fatal hit,” Feazell said. “But I saw the buck fall, and I just knew that he was dead.”
Feazell sprinted toward the buck and sure enough, the whitetail was dead. For the first time, Feazell perceived the true magnificence of the creature’s antlers. The buck’s rack had 25 points with 22 of them meeting the one-inch minimum standard.
Feazell called his brother-in-law, Michael Herwald, whose first question — “Is he bigger than Uncle Steve’s?” — was met with a resounding “Yes.” Later his dad asked the same question. Feazell put his hands above his head, spread them far apart to mimic the buck’s rack and replied, “I beat Steve.”
OFFICIAL SCORE AND MORE
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries deer project coordinator Matt Knox officially scored the Feazell buck, awarding it a Pope & Young tally of 221 2/8, non-typical. The broadbeam features an inside spread of 19.375 inches and 22 points (See sidebar for complete measurements).
“If deer hunters want the chance to hunt for big mature deer (like this one), then they need to pass up young, small-antlered bucks,” said Knox.