Growing up in the Citrus County area of north Florida, George Brannen spent much of his boyhood outdoors, primarily hunting and fishing. Quail, deer, turkey and waterfowl, Brannen actively pursued whatever was in season, and there was no shortage of excellent locations to hunt
"I simply couldn't imagine a better place to live," Brannen said. "Unfortunately, I wrongly assumed those opportunities would always be around, but over the years, developers gradually transformed much of the countryside into large suburbs, golf courses and strip malls."
With his family's roots firmly planted in north Florida, not to mention an established banking business, there were never any thoughts of relocating. However, in the late 1980s, Brannen made the decision to begin looking for a large tract of quality land that could be specifically managed to provide hunting opportunities for his family and friends.
From a logistical standpoint, the land needed to be within a reasonable driving distance of his home, so Brannen concentrated his search efforts within the plantation country of southwest Georgia and southeast Alabama. What became immediately apparent was the extreme scarcity of land for sale that met his criteria.
Finally, in 1994, Brannen was meeting with a land broker in southwest Georgia when he was told that Mercer Mill Plantation was interested in selling a 4000-acre-plus tract of land along the Flint River. Once Brannen saw the property and the impressive stands of oak timber along the river corridor, he immediately made arrangements to buy the land, which he named Red Oak Plantation.
In terms of sound decision making, second only to the land purchase was Brannen's eventual decision to hire Brian McClure as a full-time manager of Red Oak. McClure, a wildlife professional with more than 11 years of experience managing other plantation properties, was given the task of developing an overall management plan for quail, turkey and deer, with whitetails having high priority.
"Initially, we did some scrambling for a couple of years, trying to determine an accurate estimate of our deer population," McClure said. "We tried a number of census methods, including track counts and spotlight counts, but it quickly became apparent that those were primarily useful to establish trends, not population estimates.
"Eventually, by trial and error, we found that an annual camera survey was the best method for determining population estimates. Basically, the survey involves 27 trail camera locations set up in a grid pattern, with each section of the grid including approximately 160 acres. The survey takes place over a 10-day period in late summer when antler growth is nearly complete. Each camera is usually located near a food source, and the locations remain constant from year to year."
From the beginning, there was never any doubt that Red Oak harbored a substantial deer population. In fact, even prior to the camera survey, the harvest strategy was to take as many antlerless deer as possible.
"I knew we were heading in the right direction when the results of the first camera survey showed that our population was approximately 90 deer per square mile," McClure said. "We further increased our harvest efforts on the antlerless segment of the population, and within a couple of years our population estimate had dropped to a more manageable level of about 75 deer per square mile."
Red Oak can maintain a population of this size because of the high-quality natural habitat, an annual controlled burning management plan and the fact that approximately 10 percent of the total acreage is planted annually. This planted acreage is in the form of wildlife openings, two to 10 acres in size, interspersed throughout the area's upland habitat.
"Our primary summer planting is iron-clay peas, with a few scattered openings of clover," McClure said. "In the fall, we switch to one of the cereal grains, such as wheat or oats, plus clover.
"In the beginning, we did no supplemental feeding and under normal conditions, I really don't believe it's needed. However, after experiencing a severe summer drought and losing all of our summer plantings, we decided that a backup food source was necessary. Now, from March through August, we make available an alternate food supplement, primarily a dry protein pellet that deer can utilize when needed."
Arguably, the most important decision with any intensively managed whitetail population involves the harvest criteria for antlered bucks. At Red Oak, Brannen and McClure were in agreement from day one that the primary criteria should be a buck's age, which can usually be determined by body size and configuration.
"Our general rule is if a buck is at least 3 1/2 years old and has eight points or less, the deer can be taken," McClure said. "I realize that may be a little controversial, but our data indicates that if a buck still has a basic 8-point frame at 3 1/2, there is little chance the deer will eventually turn into a 10- or 12-pointer. Our management goal is not to produce mature 8-pointers.
"Additionally, our fairly intense antlerless harvest has brought the deer population very close to a 1:1 sex ratio. Under these conditions, too many mature bucks will increase fighting, which then increases the incidence of broken antlers and unwanted mortality."
Over the last few years, Brannen, his son, Sam, and other family members or friends have taken several exceptional bucks on Red Oak. While the gross antler measurements often exceeded record-book figures, required measuring deductions always managed to drop final scores just below the minimum entry level. Nevertheless, everyone agreed that it was only a matter of time until Red Oak produced a book deer.
During the plantation's 2010 camera census, a number of photos were recorded of one particularly impressive buck. The deer's huge rack included a 6x6 typical mainframe, plus several additional abnormal points.
"I immediately recognized the deer from the previous year's survey," McClure said. "The buck was also a fairly big 12-pointer in 2009, but the right and left antlers didn't match up well. Since we had estimated the deer to be only 3 1/2 years old, the decision was made to not hunt the buck that fall.
"That's always a tough decision to live with because in many cases the end result will be negative. There's no guarantee the deer will still be around the following year, or for that matter, even the following week."
In this instance, the gamble paid off. Not only was the buck still on Red Oak, but it had grown a noticeably larger rack. During early October, the big deer was captured on a trail camera, along with several other bucks and does, feeding at night in a recently planted oat food plot. Since this was the same general area where the buck had previously been photographed, McClure was confident the deer was primarily staying in an adjacent pocket of thick hardwood ravines and bottoms along the river.
Shortly after the opening of gun season in mid-October, Brannen began hunting the location. Positioned in a 12-foot ladder stand along the border of the oat plot and planted pines, the hunter was approximately 100 yards from a hardwood drain on the north end of the opening. Because of the terrain and plot location, the stand could only be hunted when the wind was from an easterly direction.
By the end of the season's first three weeks, Brannen had logged more than 36 hours in the stand. Seeing deer had not been a problem, but the buck he was looking for had yet to make an appearance. Nevertheless, he remained optimistic that the approaching rut would eventually push the big whitetail out of its nocturnal movement pattern.
Around mid-afternoon on November 7, Brannen climbed back into the oat plot stand. The weather was clear and cool with only a slight breeze out of the east.
"By sunset, there were six bucks, including a big, long-tined 8-pointer and several does feeding in the oats," Brannen said. "I was using my binoculars, scanning the surrounding woods when I detected a flicker of movement and saw a flash of antlers off through the trees at the north end of the plot."
Within seconds, the hunter's eyes confirmed what he had been anxiously hoping for. Quickly swapping the binoculars for his rifle, he watched the big deer turn out of the hardwoods and enter a stand of planted pines before finally walking into the field. Eighty yards away, Brannen waited until the buck turned broadside before taking a deep breath and squeezing the trigger. At the shot, the deer bolted forward and began running, but after a short distance, it crashed to the ground.
"Until that moment, I had remained surprisingly calm," Brannen said. "But once the buck went down, I couldn't stop shaking. Everyone had heard me shoot and within minutes, Brian and Sam arrived on the scene; we did some real celebrating."
The biggest surprise of the evening took place after the buck was carried to the plantation's cooler. After recording the weight and other data, McClure removed a jawbone to check the deer's exact age.
"It would be an understatement to say I was stunned when I looked at the tooth wear on the jaw bone," McClure said. "Instead of the buck being 4 1/2 or possibly 5 1/2 years old, as I had expected, the actual age was no less than 7 1/2, and very possibly 8 1/2 years. Never before have I misjudged a buck's age that badly. Had I known the true age in 2009, I certainly wouldn't have gone along with the decision to not hunt the deer."
Official antler measurements, taken after the required drying period, include 18 scorable points, 12 of which comprise the basic typical frame. Exceptionally long main beams that exceed 29 and 28 inches, five tines that tape between 11 and 14 inches in length, and an inside spread of 19 2/8 inches, contribute to an amazing gross typical score of 200 3/8 inches. The rack's final non-typical Boone & Crockett score stands at 209 1/8. The buck stands as the second biggest non-typical ever recorded from south Georgia and ranks 11th on the state's all-time list of non-typical whitetails.
A perfect ending to Red Oak's season occurred on New Year's Eve afternoon when McClure's 19-year-old daughter, Melissa, home from college for the holidays, dropped a massive 10-pointer. The giant whitetail grossed 171 7/8, before netting a final typical B&C score of 161 2/8 -- the plantation's second buck to make the B&C record book!