Late last September, Rhett Butler ran into an old friend on his hunting club on the Mississippi River. And the friend, Don Baddhour, had a pointed question for him: “Rhett, are you hunting a specific buck?”
With a ting of reluctance, yet trusting his friend, Rhett replied, “Yes, I am.”
“How big is he?” Don asked.
“A 180-inch deer,” Rhett replied.
“I don’t think you should shoot that deer.”
“Why not?” Rhett asked.
“There is a bigger deer here,” Don explained. “A 200-inch deer.”
Astounded by the words of the trusted friend, Rhett asked the next logical question: “Well, where is he?”
“That I’m not going to tell you,” Don replied. “You’ll have to find him.”
Because of a unique regulation in effect on this 6,000-acre hunting club, there was no way for Don to shoot the huge buck himself. Never mind that the deer was the biggest he had ever seen lay a hoofprint in the black mud of eastern Desha County.
In an effort to manage for trophy bucks, this club has strict antler regulations. Area genetics are such that a high percentage of mature bucks have eight or nine points. In an attempt to produce mature deer with 10-point frames, the rules state that a member can shoot only one deer with at least 10 typical points during any 3-year period. Don had killed one the year before, so he knew he couldn’t hunt this main-frame 10.
As well, the club is enrolled in Arkansas’ Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP). This allows for a customized management plan, including a heavy doe harvest and a “cull buck” program. Strict adherence to the long-term management plan is paying off and reforming the stereotypes of Southern hunting culture. “If it’s brown it’s down” is being replaced by, “Only if it’s mature is it down.”
Rhett is hardly a rookie at killing big deer. Going into last fall, he’d taken eight whitetails ranging from 160 to 180 inches, many of them Arkansas bow kills. As a whitetail hunter, he doesn’t have a casual bone in his body or thought in his mind.
“When I hunt, I give 110 percent all the time,” he says. “I think it is important to have goals,” the hunter notes. “And I have always had a goal to kill a 200-inch deer.” While that’s a huge deer anywhere in North America, to him the goal was realistic.
Rhett has an intimate knowledge of his hunting ground, one acquired through years of hunting the same real estate. He also has the discipline to track the nuances of the land and understand how deer use it. Keeping tabs on feeding patterns is huge.
“If there is a feed tree, persimmon, bean (honeylocust) that consistently produces, I can tell you where it is,” Rhett claims. He uses a GPS to mark what he calls ‘feed trees.’
“My favorite place to hunt a big buck is in a staging area near a feed tree, back in the timber close to where he is bedding,” Rhett says. “These big deer will use these feed trees in the evenings before heading out to bigger feeding areas.”
Rhett also keeps good records of where he gets photos of bucks and a yearly journal recording buck sightings and deer movement patterns. Rhett is extremely mobile when he hunts. He uses tree spikes and hunts out of light lock-on treestands 99 percent of the time. “I can be 25 feet up in a tree and hunting in 5 minutes,” he says. “I rarely leave a stand in a tree. I put it up when I get there and take it down when I leave.”
Immediately after the conversation with Don, Rhett went to work trying to locate the buck somewhere on the club’s 6,000 acres. Unfortunately, he had to leave camp that day, and he wouldn’t be back for over a week. But he proceeded to strategically scatter cameras all over the property, trying to find the deer. Phase one of fulfilling his dream of taking a 200-inch buck was under way: find him.
When Rhett returned to Desha County, he was astounded by some photos one of his cameras had captured. It was Don’s 200-incher!
On Oct. 10, the in middle of the night, the deer had been photographed in a cutover just south of a large alfalfa field. And to Rhett’s surprise, he recognized the deer! The hunter was able to go back into his trail camera archives and find photos of the buck from 2010 and ’11.
No one could have predicted the buck would leap into the 200-inch category, but he had. Two years prior, at the estimated age of 3 1/2, he would have scored in the high 140s. At 4 1/2, he’d moved into the 160-inch range.
Rhett comments, “When you look at this buck’s history, you have to calculate the stress from the 2010 floods and the drought of 2011. He made a 40-inch leap in 2012, but he probably would have been a 170 or 180 in 2011, had it not been for the stress.”
This deer did what all land managers hope theirs will do: he made a quantum leap! The buck was big bodied, heavy antlered and just outright impressive. Rhett and Don began to refer to him as “Hercules.”
Having two years of history with the deer, Rhett was able to track where he had taken pictures of Hercules. The deer seemed to be ranging over 1-1.5 square miles revolving around a 100-acre alfalfa field.
“I got out my topo maps and started trying to figure out where this deer was bedding.” Rhett recalls. On this property are areas of mature river-bottom timber, agriculture fields, thick clearcuts, buckbrush thickets and a lot of water. Historically, Rhett has had good success hunting bucks along the edges of the buckbrush.
“I like to hem up a buck along the edge of a thicket,” he says. “They don’t like to travel through the open woods, but they will move through the thick stuff in the daylight.”
Rhett relocated all of his cameras to locations inside what he thought was the buck’s main range, with the intent of getting a daytime photo. However, this proved extremely difficult.
“If I can get a picture of a buck before 7:00 in the morning in October, I know I am within 200 yards of his bedding area,” Rhett points out. “That’s what I was looking for. But this deer never gave me that.”
Rhett was getting a lot of nighttime photos in a cutover on the south side of the alfalfa field and along a buckbrush ridge a half-mile north of the alfalfa. But the early-morning photos never came. It wasn’t until Nov. 5 that he got his first daytime image of the buck along the ridge at 4:30 p.m.
From Oct. 10 until Nov. 10, Rhett bowhunted for Hercules and bounced back and forth between the cutover and the buckbrush ridge, trying not to pressure the deer too much. “I bowhunted this deer hard until rifle season opened up on Nov. 10, but never saw him,” he says. “I had hoped to get him with my bow, but when gun season opened, I picked up my rifle.”
The buck always seemed to be one step ahead of the hunter. Add in that Rhett had abandoned the hunt for a 180-inch buck he had patterned and you can understand his frustration. It is as this point in the hunt that a guy might question his decision to devote an entire season to a particular buck. However, Rhett stuck to the plan. It would be Hercules or nothing.
This frustration had him conversing with his dad about the buck just before Thanksgiving. “Dad said the buck would probably be locked down with a doe soon,” Rhett notes. And that conversation triggered a thought. Rhett remembered that inside the buck’s known range was a buckbrush thicket he hadn’t monitored.
The hunter slipped in and put a camera on a persimmon tree near a trail leading to the alfalfa field. This was a spot he had hunted in years past and really liked. He just hadn’t suspected Hercules was using it much.
“It had been a couple of days since I had hung the camera, and I needed a place to hunt with a north wind, so I decided to go check the camera,” Rhett says. “It was near a buckbrush thicket, which was this buck’s Achilles’ heel.”
When Rhett pulled the card, he was shocked to see a picture of Hercules working a mock scrape directly in front of the camera at 3:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving—the day before! The hunt was on.
The last few days the weather had been warm and balmy, and it rained on the morning of Nov. 23. “The rain cleared up mid-morning and the temperature dropped about 20 degrees,” Rhett says. “It was the kind of day you just know that something is going to die.”
This was the first time in over 20 days of the hunting the buck that Rhett had strong feeling that he was going to kill Hercules. He knew the buck was bedding in the buckbrush thicket, and he knew how he was leaving it. He felt like the buck was locked down on a doe.
Rhett climbed into his tree early that afternoon. At about 3:30 p.m. he saw six does come out the thicket and walk right past the stand. Roughly 20 minutes passed, and then a big, lone doe popped out the thicket. Hercules was right behind her! After 23 days of hunting, this was the first time Rhett had even seen the deer he was after.
“I hate to say I wasn’t nervous when I saw the buck, but to be honest, I wasn’t. The first thing that came to my mind was what a good friend said to me, ‘When you get him in your sights, remember to breathe.’ And I did.”
When the buck stepped out, Rhett put the crosshairs onto the buck’s left shoulder and squeezed the trigger of his Winchester .270 bolt action. At the crack of the rifle the buck dropped in his tracks and never even kicked. The hunt for Hercules was over.
“When I walked up to the deer, I was overwhelmed by his mass,” Rhett recalls. And no wonder—the eight circumference measurements totaled more than 46 inches. Hercules also had a 22 3/8-inch inside spread, over 24-inch main beams and 16 scorable points.
The first person the Rhett texted was his wife. “I was fortunate that I killed this deer the day after Thanksgiving, when so many of my friends and family were in camp, including my wife and kids,” he reflects.
Rhett worked extremely hard for this buck. A diligent, cunning hunter turned a generous tip from a good friend into the deer of a lifetime. It was a fitting ending for Hercules, one of the state’s biggest bucks of 2012.