September 22, 2010
By Phil Potter
In 1992 Rod Alexander got some devastating news. His lifelong hunting area in Arkansas had been sold as a lumber and pulp investment to a timber consortium. Rod knew this spelled the end for the large second- and third-growth trees that canopied Brandywine Island. Like any hunter who has been evicted from his lifelong area, Rod was depressed. But he clung to the hope that somehow, in the 11th hour, the timber carnage could be averted.
Within weeks, however, the cutting crews arrived and felled trees with reckless abandon. For three years the saws ran non-stop before fate dealt Rod a hole card. After years of haphazard cutting, the investors decided to look for a new cutting and shipping manager. Because Rod had a background in forestry, he applied for the job and got it. Immediately, his goal was to try to save the remaining big-woods timber while still meeting the required cutting quota.
"I had to meet a 20-million-board-foot yearly average, so I concentrated on cottonwood trees and I cut hardwoods sparingly," Rod said. "We were meeting goals, but I knew eventually I'd have to cut some of those bigger hardwoods."
In 1998 the island's owner, Paul Broadhead, sent word that he was coming to check on his investment. Rod decided to gamble on losing his job and the big trees he was trying to save by openly condemning the eventual devastation of such a pristine nature sanctuary.
"I stuck my hand and my neck out when we first met," said Rod. "I figured I could always get another job, but the island couldn't get over the loss of those big trees."
After introductions were made, Rod launched into the island's history and the fact that it was one of the last big tracts of Southern old-growth hardwood timber left in Arkansas. That being said, Mr. Broadhead requested a 30-minute tour of the property to assess what was being done. As they bounced along rutted logging roads, Rod pointed out numerous wildlife species and explained that it would be a shame to destroy this sanctuary because so many animals would have nowhere else to go.
A NEW DAY DAWNING
Mr. Broadhead said little more and left immediately for Florida. Rod assumed that his plea had failed and he expected to be dismissed. To his utter surprise, he received a phone call from the investment group wanting to know how he planned to initiate the proposal he'd made to Mr. Broadhead!
Stunned by the call, Rod asked what they meant. Rod was informed that he was now the full-time property manager. He was told that he should do whatever was necessary to preserve the island. Timber cutting would still continue, but Rod could fulfill the timber quotas in any way he deemed appropriate. He immediately began formulating a plan to cut in areas where tree removal would not detract from the island's ecology.
Rod's goal was to create some open areas for natural forest plants to regenerate. He also wanted to create some food plots to accommodate a larger spectrum of wildlife, and he wanted to make space for some limited agriculture. He knew his ideas were sound. But just to be safe he solicited help from fish and game biologists in Arkansas and Tennessee.
"Brandywine Island is 11,000 acres in size," Rod said. "Most of it lies within the boundaries of Arkansas, but slightly more than 2,000 acres are in Tennessee. I figured with both states cooperating, we might start managing for trophy deer and encourage the bordering areas to do the same."
Rod hoped that Mr. Broadhead would approve of his concept and come hunt whitetails on the property. He made that suggestion but found out that Mr. Broadhead didn't do much hunting. To Rod's surprise, he learned that Mrs. Broadhead had been on several African safaris to hunt the "big five," but she did not have much interest in whitetails. However, the Broadheads soon fell in love with the natural majesty of the island, and Mr. Broadhead occasionally made visits just to commune with nature. Rod was told that whatever he decided to do with the island's wildlife was strictly up to him.
INITIATING A PLAN
Rod knew there was a need for good deer management. He decided right off the bat that no antlered bucks would be taken from the area for several years. This idea was supported by both states' biologists.
Acting upon the biologists' recommendations to reduce the island's total deer population, however, hunting for does started that fall. The idea was to establish a 2-to-1 doe-to-buck ratio. Rod invited family, friends, employees and conservation officers to begin the doe culling. By 2001 it appeared as though that optimum ratio was rapidly being achieved.
Seeing lots of mature bucks was a good sign, but one thing that bothered both Rod and the biologists was the frequent sighting of injured bucks. Since these injuries seemed to be rut-related, Rod knew it was now time to start trimming back buck numbers as well. The same doe shooters were invited to return, but this time they would be shooting selected bucks.
Apparently Rod's vision for the island was working, because during the fall of 2002 several huge-bodied, big-racked buster bucks were seen prowling the island. Trail cameras were set out and trophy assessment was begun. Rod called Mr. Broadhead and urged him to bring some hunters to take a few trophy bucks as part of the management program.
Based on antler size and the body weight of the bucks tallied after this select hunt took place, the biologists recommended that even more bucks be removed. They also recommended some limited turkey hunting. Rod soon realized that a successful pay-hunting program for trophy whitetails and big gobblers might be a way to eventually eliminate the old-growth-timber harvest altogether. Thus began the trophy hunt concept.
The first hunts to take place were donated hunts to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. This allowed disabled and terminally ill children a chance to bag a dream buck. Rod planned to sell hunts to able-bodied hunters as well.
A WORTHWHILE ENDEAVOR
In 2004 the Make-A-Wish Foundation sent 13-year-old Christopher Reeves, a cancer patient from Jonesboro, Arkansas, to Brandywine Island. The boy had hunted with his father in past years but had yet to bag a buck. The Reeves were provided with lodging and gourmet meals at the newly built Brandywine Island Lodge. A few of their friends also made the trip, along with a video crew that recorded the event for airing on the "Tennessee Outdoors" TV show.
The next day, a parade of bucks pranced past the excited young man. But none made the Brandywine standards, so they were all passed up. The following day Christopher found himself in an elevated box blind overlooking a field that was filled with deer by midafternoon. After some time had passed, a trophy 9-pointer was spotted, and Christopher was given the nod to take him. He did so with a single well-placed shot. And with that shot, the secret of Brandywine Island's trophy whitetails was nationally broadcast!
Immediately after the show aired, Rod began getting inquiries from hunters wanting to book hunts. He decided to allow 15 paying hunters to take 15 trophy bucks that year (2004). Because of strict antler and age standards, each hunter was to be accompanied by an experienced guide to prevent young bucks from being killed.
Although 15 pay hunters were accommodated in 2004, Rod was not among them. In fact, he had not taken a buck or even hunted any whitetails on the island since initiating Brandywine's Island's transformation.
"Even though I didn't do any hunting myself, I did accumulate quite a pile of trophy antlers," Rod said. "They're all sheds that my dogs and I search for each spring. Each one is numbered according to the date it was found and the area it came from. That way, we're able to keep track of where each buck tends to hang out by marking it on a grid. Then, when a visiting hunter bags a buck, we can usually go through the pile and send him home with one or two full sets of previous years' antlers from the buck he killed."
DANG NEAR A LEGEND
During the '04 hunting season, the island maintained a 100 percent success ratio, but one outstanding pair of sheds went unclaimed. They were a pair containing drop tines that caught everyone's attention during that season. They'd been rough-scored in the 200-inch category, making the buck that dropped them a true Southern swamp monster. What's more, these impressive hunks of bone came from the natural gene pool, because no transplanted "Yankee" deer had ever been liberated on Brandywine Island.
Since Rod wanted someone to get the mysterious drop-tined buck, several visiting hunters were put in its home territory. However, the wily buck soon became known as the "Dang Near Deer" because one hunter missed him with an arrow and another with a gun. With two near misses, the buck apparently wised up and became a phantom for the rest of the '04 season.
The following year during one of his visits to the island, Mr. Broadhead heard the stories about how the "Dang Near Deer" had been seen and missed on several occasions. He urged Rod to have a go at the phantom during the 2005 season. For a while Rod skirted the issue. Then he made a decision.
"I thought about it long and hard before I said 'yes,' because to my way of thinking my job was to cultivate our deer and not hunt them myself," Rod said. "But eventually I decided to give it a go. I planned to hunt the big one only when no other paying hunters were in camp."
Since all of the island's 2005 hunts were booked for December and January, Rod had the whole month of November to himself. And since the peak of the rut also occurred during this time, Rod had a few windows of hunting time available, and he took advantage of those "prime time" opportunities.
"I bowhunted the early season sporadically," Rod related. "But as you might imagine, there's always something that needs to be done on a hunting property like Brandywine. Finally I had a full day to myself on Nov. 19 during rifle season. Wouldn't you know it -- I saw no shooter bucks at all that day. The next day was Sunday, and I don't hunt on the Sabbath. On Monday the 21st, the wind was right to try a stand near where the big buck had been captured on a trail cam. But as I was cutting through a cane patch, I jumped him up. It seemed over and done with. I figured I'd blown my chances with him, so I hurried off to a different stand."
TAKING ON A RUTTING GIANT
Rod climbed into his second-choice stand and glanced at his watch. The time was exactly 3 p.m. Somehow, even after the mishap of jumping the buck, everything seemed right. Within 10 minutes he spotted two does and a wide-racked 12-pointer of trophy proportions. But Rod had his sights set on a bigger prize, so he sat and watched as the trio walked into another cane thicket.
It was then that a second buck came nosing after the does. This one was a heavy-beamed B&C-class 10-point typical with an attitude. However, immediately after entering the cane thicket the 10-pointer lost his bravado and beat a hasty retreat. Rod assumed that the 12-pointer had squelched that buck's amorous advances. But he was dead wrong. Shortly after watching the 10-pointer vacate the area, Rod watched as the 12-pointer also fled the scene. This put Rod on full alert.
A second set of does materialized and sauntered in. Apparently at least one was in heat, although the tarsal glands of both glistened black in the afternoon sun. The two does abruptly paused outside the cane and cocked their ears toward it. Within seconds, the thicket resounded with crashing cane and guttural grunts. With full authority, a slobbering, bug-eyed brute stepped out. The phantom drop-tined "Dang Near" megabuck had inexplicably returned!
The old boy seemed to instinctively know not to pause too long in the open. So after a quick sneak peek, he disappeared into the dense cover cane and grunted coaxingly in an attempt to encourage the does to follow.
Apparently the does weren't impressed by his macho maneuvers. They soon started drifting back toward Rod's stand as Rod uttered the hunter's eternal prayer: If the opportunity for a shot occurs, please let it be a clean shot. It seemed that the prayer was instantly answered, because the huge buck drifted out of the cane and stepped partially into a small opening. At 75 yards, it was likely a sure shot. Yet Rod held off.
OLD "DANG NEAR'S" DEMISE
"I would never forgive myself if I shot and wounded such a magnificent creature," he explained. "We have a coyote patrol that waits for just such an opportunity, and I wasn't going to give those coyotes the chance."
The buck took two more steps forward, presenting a clear shoulder shot. Rod barely remembers squeezing the trigger. At the sound of the shot, the massive buck dropped in his tracks. Totally overwhelmed, Rod sent a prayer of thanks upwards and then developed an acute case of buck fever. He was too shaken to call the clubhouse on his radiophone to tell them he'd taken the "Dang Near" phantom buck.
"I finally keyed the mike and gasped, 'I got him.' Then I just sat there -- a mass of shaking jelly. I was proud of my trophy, but I knew it wasn't due to my expertise. Call it what you will, but I believe bucks like the one I had just taken truly are gifts from God."
When help arrived, Rod received the usual backslapping and congratulatory remarks, but he remained very low key.
"I had to get back and compare trail camera pictures," he said. "I wanted to find a picture that I knew about showing two drop-tined bucks together
in an area far from where I had shot the big one."
Rod eventually found the picture and began comparing the antlers of both bucks in the photo to those of the fallen monarch. With glee he shouted, "Look at those drop tines. They match pretty closely. These are his sons, so we've still got part of him with us!"
This claim was reinforced in March 2006 when Rod and his dogs found five different sheds containing drop tines. The genetics clearly had been passed on. So does this mean that Rod will ever try to top his biggie?
"Those deer are for somebody else," he said happily. "If I never hunt again, the deer I shot was enough reward."
How good is Rod's buck? He was aged at 7 1/2 and he scores 196 2/8 non-typical points, qualifying for the all-time B&C record book. This is surefire proof that Rod's management plan is really working. Best of all, it's working not only on the island but several miles up and down the Mississippi River as well. Apparently several trophy bucks left the island and migrated to nearby President's Island near Memphis and Shelby Forest's public hunting area, because the buck size there, as well as in some neighboring areas, has jumped dramatically in the last five years.
Thanks to Rod Alexander's dream and the blessings of Paul Broadhead, the massive "boneheads" of Brandywine Island are changing the idea that Southern bucks never amount to much. And like the lyrics in the song that say "the South's gonna rise again," these words are especially appropriate for entries in the Arkansas record book!
(Editor's Note: For information about booking a Brandywine Island deer or turkey hunt, call Rod or Brenda Alexander at 901-835-4575.)