Mark Lee Buck: Texas' New No. 3 Non-Typical
February 10, 2015
For decades, the Brush Country of South Texas has been recognized as the state's premier region for big whitetails. And the hunting there is indeed great. But as prime as the prospects are in South Texas, more hunters are beginning to realize the eastern half of the state holds some truly huge non-typicals.
You won't get an argument about that from Mark Lee. Last season, this lifelong hunter from Crosby killed a brute of a whitetail in Houston County in East Texas. The rack tops that of any other free-ranging buck taken since the state's Big Game Awards program began in 1991.
And the accolades don't stop there. Only two Texas deer ever entered into the Boone & Crockett records apparently outscore this one, and both are from way back in the day. One is the legendary 284 3/8-inch McCulloch County giant widely known as the "Brady" buck. This former B&C world record reportedly was shot by an unknown hunter in the 1890s. At No. 2 on the list is the 272 0/8-inch non-typical Fred Mudge found dead near Junction in 1925.
It takes a special deer to approach such numbers, but the Lee buck is one. Due in large part to 43 1/8 inches of mass and 117 7/8 inches of abnormal points, his gross B&C score is a whopping 278 5/8. The rack has 12 points on the right antler and 19 on the left. Although only two points are longer than 10 inches, an additional 11 are between 6 and 10. Despite the freaky nature of the rack, the entry score shows only 10 1/8 inches of deductions for asymmetry. The resulting net entry score of 268 4/8 ranks this buck as the state's highest-scoring whitetail ever shot by a known hunter and perhaps as the world's best of 2013.
While all of that "junk" can add up in a hurry, it also can be tough to score, no matter how handy a guy is with a tape measure. So Mark enlisted veteran B&C measurer Homer Saye of Cypress to tackle the chore. Homer has scored many giants during his long career, twice serving as a B&C panel judge over the years. Still, Homer says this deer ranks among the most challenging he's taped.
"He was definitely a difficult one to score," the measurer notes. "It took some thought. I had to spend a lot of time to make sure I gave him all the credit I could possibly give him and still stay within B&C's guidelines."
Homer kept the rack for a couple of weeks and scored it several times over that period. The toughest part was figuring out exactly how to account for the non-typical growth.
"I spent several hours on it initially," he says. "Once I figured exactly how I needed to score it, I could score it in an hour. It's not the most difficult buck I've ever scored, but definitely one of the most difficult. It's an unusual buck, to say the least."
No Simple Deer Hunt
As hard as the buck was to measure, he was even tougher to hunt. In fact, Mark and then-17-year-old son Cullen invested 15 months and countless hours on stand before Mark was able to seal the deal last fall.
"My intention all along was to do everything I could for my son to have the chance to take this buck with his bow," Mark begins. "We poured a lot of hard work, money, time and effort into this deal. It was definitely a quest. From the very first time we saw him, Cullen and I were bound and determined to do everything possible we could to kill him."
If first impressions are everlasting, the Lees' initial sighting of the non-typical was an event they will replay in their minds from now on. But more on that later. First let's talk about the real estate that grew the world-class buck.
Mark and Cullen first gained access to the 4,100-acre lease in 2010. Their pasture spans about 1,000 acres. It's joined on one side by a 200-acre tract, which is occupied by one hunter.
The Lees always first visit the spread in midsummer to put out corn and set up game cameras at three stand sites. Each setup consists of a box or tower stand, a ladder for Cullen to bowhunt from, a corn pile and a Deer Cane mineral lick. The Lees have one automatic feeder near Mark's 15-foot tower, but it apparently has never attracted anything except does and adolescent bucks.
Three setups with six stands total might not sound like many for 1,000 acres. But on this particular tract, it's about all there's room for. You see, it isn't your typical Pineywoods land with a lot of timber. Most of it is open farm country used for growing corn, wheat, cotton and hay. The Lees' rectangular pasture is bisected by a narrow strip of timber about 40 yards wide and 800 yards long.
Mark's tower is on one end of the woods line and offers a great vantage point for glassing the edge of the woods, as well as the adjacent fields. The rest of the stands belong to Cullen. The setups are scattered throughout the timber strip at spots suited for various wind directions.
The pasture is more of a travel corridor for deer than anything else. It holds few if any resident deer, which tend to scatter like a covey of spooked quail in early fall. Through experience, Mark has learned those deer that do hang around tend to go nocturnal by mid-October.
"They don't do very well with much pressure, either," Mark notes. "Pressure them and they'll leave.
"Our first year on the lease (2010) was pretty dismal, and the second year wasn't much better. We only saw three deer all season long. It's the kind of place that will make a guy quit deer hunting. We've spent many days in the stand without ever seeing a deer, a bird or anything. It can be pretty brutal."
All that kept the Lees' interest up was getting some photos on their game cameras and seeing a fairly decent buck every now and then. For example, in June 2011, when the lease was under the state's Level 2 Managed Land Deer Permits (MLDP) program, they saw a "really nice buck" in a bachelor group. They later got several photos of him, and Cullen nearly had a shot in early bow season.
The photos continued almost until the opening of the general gun season in November. But then, two days before the opener, the Lees learned a farmer had spent much of the past week discing their pasture in preparation to plant winter wheat. The cameras suddenly went blank, as the buck fell off their radar screen. They heard three weeks later he'd been killed a mile away, crushing their hopes for the 2011 season.
The following June is when Lees found the buck that would come to consume their thoughts and dreams.
And it came as a total shock.
The hunters were making their first 2012 visit to the lease, setting up cameras and dumping corn as usual, when they drove up on bachelor group about 50 yards away. Rather than dart into the timber, the deer jumped a cross-fence and raced across a freshly disced field.
While Cullen commented on the width of the racks on a couple of the bucks, Mark was captivated by the one bringing up the rear.
"I told Cullen, 'Dude, look at the other deer,' and I handed him my binoculars. He said, 'Dang, Dad, he looks like he's got a big knot on his head.'"
Mark knew right away the buck was by far the biggest he'd ever seen.
"We watched them run probably 2,000 yards and maybe 2-3 minutes," he remembers. "I couldn't tell exactly what he was, but guessed he had probably 18-20 points. His rack looked like a big crown on top of his head. That's when I nicknamed him 'King.'"
A Creature of Habit
Mark and Cullen spent much of the next three months crafting a plan to kill the magnificent whitetail, which became a regular at their feeding stations by day and night.
"King was all over us that summer," Mark remembers. "We had hundreds of pictures of him, but never at the feeder. He was most comfortable at our baited spots."
One or the other hunter made the 2-hour drive to the lease every couple of weeks all summer to dump corn and swap camera cards. Whoever went would be on the ground for only about 90 minutes total.
"We always got in and out quick," Mark says. "And we always went during the middle of the day."
As the 2012 bow season neared, Mark began to feel more confident his son might get a shot on opening day. The deer was totally patterned. But then the unbelievable happened: In mid-September, an oil-drilling rig set up about 800 yards away. King disappeared.
"He left the area, and we quit getting pictures of him," Mark says. "When that happened, we honestly figured he'd go off and get shot the way the other buck had."
Frustrated, all the Lees could do was hope the buck eventually would resurface. And he did.
"I saw him running a doe about 800 yards away in a different pasture," Mark says. "That was a relief, because we knew he was still alive."
There was more good news in January, when one of the ranch hands told Mark he'd seen a giant buck crossing one of the ranch roads. Confident it was King, Mark rested easy knowing the buck had made it through another season.
When the Lees returned to their lease in June 2013, what they witnessed was almost an instant replay from the previous summer. They were in their Ranger when they jumped a bachelor group in nearly the identical spot. King was among them, and it was clear his antlers had exploded.
"He was with two of the bucks from the year before," Mark says. "Cullen yelled, 'Look, it's him! It's King!'"
During the months that followed, the Lees chronicled the buck's growth with their scouting cameras. By August it appeared he had stacked on 20 or more inches over 2012.
"We got ton of pictures of him, day and night," Mark says. "We were very excited about the possibility of him staying there. He was comfortable."
And there was even better news: In August, Mark learned the ranch would be in the Level 3 MLD program for the upcoming season. That meant the Lees could hunt with rifles from the start of what otherwise would be bow-only season. That greatly boosted their confidence in being able to get King before the urge to breed put the giant on the move again.
But the plan took an unexpected hit in mid-September. The cameras started shooting blanks about two weeks before opening day.
"Cullen got pretty frustrated," Mark says. "He was like, 'Here we go again.' I wasn't sure why the buck had moved, because I knew nothing had happened to pressure him."
Suspecting the buck had relocated to a motte of trees at the center of the adjoining 200-acre pasture, Mark graciously alerted the man hunting it. Mark pointed out it might be a good idea for him to plan his opening-day strategy accordingly.
That hunch about the deer's new hiding spot proved to be dead on.
Here Comes King
After arriving at their lease before daylight on Sept. 28, the Lees made the usual 600-yard hike to their stands. Cullen elected to man a rifle blind at one end of the timber, near the edge of a dry creek. Mark took a seat in his tower at the opposite end of the woods strip.
"I told Cullen he'd better be ready at first light," Mark recalls. "If King came through there, I felt like it was going to be during the first 20 minutes of daylight."
Sure enough, as dawn broke, Cullen heard a noise from the nearby creek bed. In the low light, he eased his gun out one of the windows.
"I knew it was a deer coming under the fence, but I couldn't see very well at all," he says. "I was able to see movement in the ditch about 40 yards out, but I couldn't tell it was King until I caught a glimpse of all those points in a patch of sunlight as he went up the creek bank. He was with a smaller buck."
Through the scope, Cullen could tell his shot was obstructed by brush.
"There was no way I was going to take the chance of wounding that buck," the young hunter says. "He was headed straight for my dad, so I let him go."
Mark, glassing the tree line from the far end, briefly saw what looked to be deer legs moving through the woods about 400 yards away. The animal tucked back into cover for several minutes before stepping out in plain view, roughly 175 yards out.
Mark instantly knew it was the buck he'd be waiting for. Without hesitation, he centered the Swarovski scope's crosshairs on King's shoulder and touched the trigger on his Ruger No. 1, which is chambered in .300 Win. Mag.
"The shot was a surprise, and when it went off I knew I'd made a good shot," Mark recalls. "I watched as King ran a short distance across the cotton field and eventually went down right next to the road.
"It was unexplainable," the hunter says. "Up until that point, I'd shown no emotion. My son called immediately after the shot, and all I heard was, 'Tell me you got him!' That's when it really hit me. I told Cullen I was about to get out and go look at him. As I got closer, he just kept getting bigger. The pictures we had didn't do him justice."
Cullen soon arrived on the scene, and the family celebration began.
"The experience of him being there and the excitement that he showed about me taking King was as much of a thrill for me as actually pulling the trigger," Mark says. "It was indeed a very special moment, one I'll treasure for the rest of my life. Cullen and I had spent so much time and effort in trying to harvest this deer. It was something we'd done together, and here we were, together, seeing the reward for all of that effort."