Joe Franz Buck: 230-Inch Non-Typical Iowa Monster
March 03, 2015
Going into the 2014 deer season I'd been hunting more than 40 years, for much of that span dreaming of the opportunity to harvest a Boone and Crockett whitetail.
There were many peaks and valleys along the way. At one time or another I had permission to hunt on several properties; in fact, my toughest decision sometimes was deciding which farm to hunt. But gradually those opportunities disappeared. The farmer's children or grandchildren reached legal hunting age. In other cases, someone leased the land. In still others, it was sold to someone else.
It didn't take me long to figure out that owning my own property was the only way to guarantee having a place to hunt each year. Of course, this would be easier said than done, from a financial standpoint. Finally, in the early 2000s I was able to purchase my first property. It was a 60-acre farm with tremendous potential.
My overall plan from the beginning was to purchase small tracts I could freshen up and improve, then resell for a profit. By making a profit, my next purchase could be a farm with more acres and greater potential.
I've now bought and sold several farms along the way, each time in search of that "perfect" property. Several of these I originally planned on keeping instead of reselling. However, mitigating factors beyond my control later forced me to keep searching.
The most common disappointment was not having neighbors who shared my hunting beliefs or management values. I found myself investing a lot of time and money in land and herd management, only to benefit a neighbor who'd harvest up-and-coming deer year in and year out. I figured out early on that to be successful in harvesting a Boone & Crockett-class deer, I needed to pass on younger bucks and let them reach maturity.
This is the biggest challenge most of us face today. I'm the first to agree it's hard to let a young buck with a good rack walk, but it only stands to reason that such deer eventually could have larger antlers. The people who always complain about not seeing larger bucks often are the same ones who shoot whatever comes into range. They call it "brown and down."
Perfection at Last
In the summer of 2014, I came across a Marion County property that piqued my interest. It was an 80-acre farm said to be surrounded by like-minded neighbors.
Now, I'm always cautious when a realtor tells me this is the case, because I've heard it before, only to discover it wasn't true. But after contacting my local DNR officer, the current landowner and neighboring landowners, I grew more confident than ever that this could be the perfect property I'd been seeking. The topography, timber, food sources and deer herd were very impressive. The price per acre was higher than comparable land in the area, but the potential was off the charts.
After taking my time, doing my homework and convincing my wife, Julie, we purchased the property. This decision set the stage for that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we all dream of as deer hunters.
When landowner Bruce Hupke accepted my offer, I was truly amazed at what transpired next. Tayler Riggen at Mossy Oak Properties, the listing agent for Bruce, showed me a photo of a huge shed the landowner had picked up last spring. Bruce informed me Rich Lewis, an adjoining neighbor, had found the other shed of this monster rack.
Needless to say, the wheels quickly started turning in my head. I knew I must take the opportunity at hand. I assumed the buck was still alive, as the sheds had been found well after hunting season. This was the largest deer I'd ever seen on any property I'd owned or hunted. He was simply amazing!
Learning the Land
Now that I knew I had the buck of a lifetime on my property, I enlisted the help of Bruce, as well as Derek Wilkerson, my land management specialist, to develop a strategy that would give me my best chance to harvest the animal.
Bruce was very helpful and accommodating. We met at the farm on three occasions so he could explain the history of the property, land and wildlife management practices he and the previous landowner had established, and good stand locations. He even shared details of the deer he called "Palmer." Bruce had nicknamed the buck this because his main beams were significantly palmated, going back several years since he'd first been caught on camera.
I appreciate Bruce's passion for land, wildlife, the great outdoors and his desire to help others. As a case in point, whenever we were driving on the land, he always had a keen eye out for what he calls "purple tops" growing in the CRP. These are the flowers at the top of thistle stalks.
Bruce told me he had unearthed over 15 pickup truck loads of this very invasive weed over the years. If left unchecked, these thistles can take over a healthy farm in a hurry. So we'd stop the truck every time we saw a purple top and Bruce would put on his gloves and pull up the plant, roots and all. I'll always be grateful to him. He's a truly remarkable man.
Derek and I have known each other for several years through my friendship with his father, Dave. Derek graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in forestry and land management practices. He's been instrumental in identifying potential farms to purchase and developing and implementing land and habitat plans.
Derek and I quickly put our heads together to come up with a strategy for hunting Palmer. We did some mowing of trails, roadways and food plots, trimmed trees, reseeded the clover food plot, mounted trail cameras, made mock scrapes and built and erected two tower blind platforms for my Shadow Hunter blinds. (I like elevated blinds instead of tree stands because I'm an old, beat-up fellow with many sports-related injuries and a fear of heights.)
First 2014 Photos
It was in mid-August that I got my first trail camera photos of Palmer. He was a beast, with many points and kickers visible. I couldn't believe what I was seeing! He'd put on a tremendous amount of additional mass in comparison to his 2013 sheds, which were already massive. I was speechless.
I sent Derek a photo, and he couldn't believe what he was seeing, either. We agreed to keep the photo and Palmer's existence just between us. We also decided it would be in my best interests to videotape the actual hunts, in an attempt to dispel any rumors that might arise as to legality of the kill (should I be fortunate enough to take the deer). We're all aware of the controversy that today seems to surround the harvest of any world-class whitetail.
Several weeks then went by with no pictures of Palmer. I was getting worried that he might have left the area. But then, on Sept. 13, I finally got my next photos. Not on just one camera, but on cameras in four locations on my farm. It was unusual because several photos of him were in the early evening, with the sun still out. This was obviously a fully mature buck, and in my experience, it's rare to see one of those in broad daylight. The photos were unbelievable, and my feelings are hard to put into words.
Our strategy shifted to getting ready for the opening of bow season. Derek and I were becoming somewhat confident in patterning Palmer, as he'd begun regularly grazing in the clover plot before dark. One of the best decisions we made was to develop some mock scrapes under low-hanging branches of an oak next to the food plot. I'll admit it was Derek who developed this strategy; I never would have considered doing it on my own.
An unseasonably cool front approaching Iowa on Oct. 4 made it a perfect day to be afield. Deer movement and activity always seem to increase on the front side of changing weather patterns. It was a cool, sunny day on the farm, and we made it to the Shadow Hunter tower on the edge of my clover plot around 2 p.m.
Deer activity in the plot was immediate. We had several does and bucks grazing in front of us all afternoon. The wind and weather were perfect. All we needed was to have Palmer make his appearance.
There's a large, timbered ditch we call "the sanctuary" on the north side of my farm. It's where Palmer's sheds had been found in the spring, and we had reason to believe he bedded in that area. Neighbor Rich Lewis and I share the sanctuary, and we have a pact to stay out of it at all times. I'll always respect the area by staying a good distance from it when hunting. My stands and blinds are positioned on the south edges of the main fields. I can't stress enough how important it is for deer to have a sanctuary where whitetails can always feel safe — especially mature bucks.
Around 6:30, Derek caught a glimpse of a large rack across the field to the northwest, where Palmer had entered the field many times before. Sure enough, he had arrived. I remember asking Derek, "What are the chances of him coming out right on cue?"
Derek replied, "Slim and none." But we were mistaken.
Palmer was ever so cautious as he worked his way to the southeast. He would graze a bit, look up and scent check the air and proceed toward us very deliberately. It seemed an eternity, but maybe after only 10 minutes he was heading our way.
The buck was out about 70 yards when he turned and headed over to the oak under which Derek had made the mock scrapes. It was totally amazing to watch Palmer thrash and tear up the lower limbs of the tree while urinating on each of those three mock scrapes.
We watched the buck work those scrapes for about 10 minutes before he turned and walked back out into the food plot. Now he was angling to the northeast in front of us. Then the giant stopped and scanned the field from left to right. Some does and a small buck were on high alert.
I've had multiple shoulder surgeries that preclude me from drawing a vertical bow. As a result, I qualify for using a crossbow in archery season. Derek ranged Palmer at a distance of 46 yards and asked me if I felt comfortable with the shot.
After a pause, I said, "No." I wasn't confident; 40 yards was my predetermined personal limit. So we simply watched as the giant cut in front of us, out of range, to get a drink from a waterhole. He then grazed in the field for a while before running off with the spooked does.
Wow, what excitement — and what an amazing animal! His rack was huge, and he had to be over 300 pounds. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and it was difficult to breathe. It was a strange mix of emotions. On one hand, I felt honored and thankful even to have seen Palmer in the flesh. Then there was the utter disappointment of him not coming quite close enough. As disappointed as I was, though, I was glad I hadn't given in to temptation and taken a risky shot.
After regrouping that evening, we decided my best opportunity would be during early muzzleloader season, which would start the following weekend. We felt it necessary to stay after Palmer before the rut, when he might venture off my property in search of a mate. So I went through the critical process of getting my muzzleloader dialed in.
On Oct. 11, we ventured out to my tower blind around 2 p.m. It was 62 degrees and sunny. The wind was stiff and not in our favor, blowing and swirling straight out from behind us into the field we were hunting. Deer would come out to graze and go on alert, then blow out of the field. This went on for most of the day, even though we sprayed the blind's interior and ourselves with scent-elimination spray. We never saw Palmer.
Back for More
On our way home we checked the weather and wind conditions for the next day. The winds were going to be of similar strength, but there would be a small cold front passing through overnight, dropping the temperature to a low of around 35 degrees with light rain possible. I was instantly pumped up, because I'd had a lot of success on overcast days.
Sunday came around, and it was the perfect hunting day, in my opinion: cool, damp and overcast, with low visibility and a high temperature of 56. Derek and I were on the road by noon, heading to my farm.
As we were driving, I had a really good feeling about things. "I'm going to take Palmer today," I said.
"I hope so," Derek replied.
The Wait Begins
It was around 2 p.m. when we reached the Shadow Hunter. The wind was stronger and swirling even more than it had the day before. To compound the issues, there was light rain at times blowing horizontally.
As on Saturday, deer came out and immediately went on high alert. Several times they would blow the alarm call and the field would clear. This went on most of the afternoon. They came out to graze a bit and then ran off, only to return a bit later and do the same thing again.
Derek and I grew frustrated with how the wind was affecting the deer. In fact, at around 6 p.m. we started gathering our gear for leaving the blind. But as we made a final scan of the far fence line near the sanctuary, Derek caught an antler reflection. We both grabbed our binoculars. We could see the large body of a deer with its head down standing in the tall grass along the fence line near a scrape tree.
Then the head came up, and we couldn't believe what we were seeing. We both whispered, "It's him!" It all happened so quickly.
With head up and massive rack on full display, Palmer instantly started walking toward us at a slight angle, heading to a timbered ditch line to the northeast of the blind. Keep in mind that when we first spotted him along the fence line, he was probably only 90 yards away and coming in quickly. I still needed to open the window of the blind, grab my muzzleloader and find him in the scope.
Palmer came out of the tall grass to a mowed lane. He was about 70 yards from me, standing broadside, maybe angling away slightly. I put the barrel out the window while resting my left wrist on the window frame and leaned my right shoulder into the butt off the gun while moving my head forward to find him in the crosshairs.
When he was at 65 yards, Derek said, "Shoot him, Joe. Shoot him, Joe."
Sounds easy, doesn't it? Well, not so fast. Please keep in mind that it was around dusk, and I was in a dark box blind with black walls with the windows behind me closed. It helps to have some light traveling down the scope from back to front. I looked through it and couldn't see Palmer because of the low light. Derek literally had to set the video camera down to help me move my seat closer to the window, so I could extend the gun farther to pick up more light.
During this process, I bumped the window seal with the gun. Palmer's head came up, and he stared directly at us. I thought I'd blown it!
I lowered my head again to take aim, and now I could see him perfectly in the scope. I picked my location on his massive body and squeezed the trigger while letting the recoil come straight back against my shoulder instead of letting the gun recoil upward.
As the smoke cleared, I felt really good about the shot — until Derek asked me if I'd hit him. Thankfully, he was only asking because he couldn't see very well through the smoke either. My emotions were through the roof; I was in shock! I couldn't believe what had just happened and how quickly it all had transpired. I was wondering if I had even hit Palmer, based on how quickly he'd run off into the timbered ditch.
After I reloaded, we walked over to search for blood. I can't explain the mixed emotions I was feeling. I realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I hoped I hadn't blown it. As we neared the spot where Palmer had stood, we immediately noticed a good blood pool on the ground. In the blood were kernels of corn and what we thought were liver parts. We took a few more steps toward where he'd entered the timber and spotted good blood sprayed on the grass. Blood clearly was coming out of both sides of his body.
This was a great sign, but we were concerned with the corn in the blood pile. This would clearly indicate that my shot also went through his gut. Deer hit there take longer to expire, and the last thing you ever want to do is go in too quickly; you run the risk of jumping and losing him.
Derek's knowledge of deer hunting is second to none. And his calm, even-keeled demeanor was just what I needed. I'm passionate and emotional by nature. I wanted to wait only a bit, then retrieve my trophy. But Derek gathered his thoughts and laid out two scenarios. The first was that we could look for the deer that evening and run the risk of jumping him — or we could wait until morning to almost guarantee finding him. What a decision!
Derek and I decided to go chill out for a bit and grab some dinner with Chris from Trophy Pursuit and his wife. We would make our final retrieval decision after watching the video and consulting with Chris.
From the video we were confident I'd hit Palmer well, because he'd "mule kicked." It was difficult to see where the shot had hit, though, because of the smoke. We decided to err on the side of caution and go back the next morning.
Can you imagine how difficult a decision this was? Plus, it was raining; blood was being washed away with every drop. I knew this would make it more difficult trailing in the morning. Then the doubt started creeping back into my head. Had I really hit him well? How far had he run? Was he still on my land? Would coyotes jump him during the night? A host of bad scenarios played out in my head. Needless to say, I could sleep for only a few minutes at a time. But I prayed a lot and tried to remain positive.
The next morning, it was raining pretty hard: not good! Joining me in my search were Derek, Chris and Mark from Trophy Pursuit, and Matt Bollman, my attorney and hunting partner. We walked over to where the buck last had stood. Some blood was still evident in the grass. Derek and I headed into the timber, following the trail Palmer most likely had taken. It was hard, because most of the blood had washed away by then.
We'd walked about 20 yards, scouring the timber floor, when Derek raised his arms. The buck was lying dead another 30 yards down the hill.
As we approached the deer I froze, overcome by emotions. I was in utter shock and disbelief. I walked up to Palmer and just stood there, staring at him. I was speechless for the first time in my life as I took it all in. I really didn't know how to act. I knew I should be overjoyed, but I was sad at the same time. It was so bittersweet. Yes, I was the luckiest guy in the world for my success, but I also was sad to see the life of such an amazing animal come to an end.
I've been criticized by some in online forums, simply because I didn't show more emotion in the video clips that have been shared. But that's fine. I equate my experience to that of a warrior battling a rival to the bitter end. Out of pure respect for Palmer, I didn't want to go over the top with my emotions. I have no regrets about my reaction on camera. I have many photos and video clips to cherish for the rest of my life. In fact, I'm naming my farm after Palmer to honor his legacy.
We estimate he was 7 1/2 years old. That's based on photos from 2010, when he clearly wasn't over 3 1/2. When I got him he weighed over 300 pounds on the hoof, as suspected.
Official B&C measurer Glen Salow came up with a "green" gross score of 258 7/8 inches. After the 60-day drying period, he again taped the rack. This time he got a gross non-typical score of 261 3/8, with a net of 230 7/8. The gross score evidently makes this the highest-scoring wild whitetail ever harvested on professional video.
We all take a lot for granted every day of our lives. I look at hunting as a privilege, not a right. My hope is that Palmer and I can inspire others in their quest to make their dreams come true. You don't need to be part of a rock band or own a tour bus to have the chance to harvest a world-class deer. Keep the faith.
I continue to thank God and everyone else who made this experience possible. That includes my family, who always supported me as I chased my trophy dream over the years. I feel blessed to have accomplished it, for I know how rare such a feat is. Moments like this happen only once in a lifetime.
As huge as this stunning rack is, it's easy to see how it could have scored even more. The 13 0/8-inch inside spread is abnormally tight. Were the buck 21 inches inside, he'd have the highest gross typical score of any wild whitetail on record. Brian Damery's 1993 Illinois shotgun kill currently has the unofficial mark, at 231 1/8 gross typical. That basic 6x6 has an inside spread of 28 3/8 inches.