Gary Stevens Buck: 185-Inch Ohio Brute
February 24, 2015
With temperatures hovering below 0 F. and two inches of snow on the ground, the ride up the mountain to a spur off Blackburn Ridge in Shawnee State Forest was no walk in the park. The quarter-mile 4-wheeler trail was frigid, and with over 1,000 feet of elevation change under cover of darkness, seemingly straight up.
A "polar vortex" had settled over the Ohio Valley that day last January, and if in your area it warmed to 10 above, you were lucky. Those hardy souls who hunted opening day of Ohio's late muzzleloader season were tested, and most could only take it for a couple of hours. However, 66-year-old Gary Stevens, who'd driven up from Marion, North Carolina, was dressed for it and determined.
"It was cold, but I had no intention of coming out (that morning)," Gary says. "My dad taught me to hunt. We worked eight hours a day, and you only got X amount of vacation days a year, so you had to hunt hard. If you had all day, you hunted all day — because your time was valuable and precious."
So the hunter was mentally prepared to cope with the conditions he was facing. But as it turned out, he wouldn't need to deal with them all that long.
An Impromptu Plan
"After Christmas I told my wife I had three Ohio tags to fill, so I got on the Internet and contacted five outfitters," Gary says. "About all I got was voicemail, but Larry Baldwin of Riverhills Whitetail answered the phone and told me what he had.
"I said, 'Give me 24 hours to think about it.' I called him back Sunday and told him I'd be there. I left home Friday morning, Jan. 3, and got there around 2:00 that afternoon."
Larry was waiting to greet Gary and his son, Darryl, when they arrived at the cabin where they'd be staying. After introductions, Larry offered to show Gary around.
"I jumped on his 4-wheeler and he took me around the property and showed me the stands," the hunter recalls. "I picked a place to hunt which was on top a ridge. There was a lot of sign. I don't know what made me pick that spot, but I just liked it."
It was a ladder stand on the crest of a steep ridge, and it offered a beautiful view of Kentucky and the nearly frozen Ohio River below. The stand sat just above a south-facing hillside of mixed hardwoods.
"While we were out, Larry pulled the cards out of the trail cameras and brought them back to camp," Gary says. "When he placed the cards in the viewfinder, we saw that deer: the 'big deer,' he called it. We spent the evening looking at the pictures and trying to estimate its size."
Opening day of muzzleloader season was clear but bitterly cold. Two inches of snow covered the forest floor. Still-hunting was out of the question, as every step would have been greeted with the sounds of crunching leaves and icy snow.
"I woke up at 4:00, made coffee, checked the weather and began putting clothes on," Gary remembers. "A total of six layers with an outer layer of Columbia wool. I had gloves, handwarmers, a full face mask and a 2-inch-thick cushion.
"I left the cabin an hour before daylight, went up the mountain, parked out of sight of the stand and climbed into it. While going through my daypack, I dropped the binoculars and decided not to go after them."
Gary had his Knight .50-caliber MK-85 with stainless barrel, synthetic stock and 3x9 Simmons scope.
"I'd loaded the muzzleloader back at the cabin with two Pyrodex 50- grain pellets and a Hornady 250-grain XTP jacketed hollowpoint," he says.
A New Day Dawns
First light came at around 7:20 on the mountain, accompanied by a gentle but frigid breeze from the west. The trees were bare and stark against their frozen background.
"I saw my first movement at 8:15," Gary says. "The doe was moving ever so slow. When it got to the ridge, it stopped and looked back . . . and there came another doe. Then they turned and looked back again, and here came a third, smaller doe. They disappeared into Shawnee Forest."
Not shooting one of those does turned out to be a wise choice. Because three frigid hours later, Gary caught more movement.
"The buck was probably about 75 yards away, walking very slowly from my left to my right at a slight angle," Gary says. "I caught a glimpse of the right side of his rack and within a split-second recognized him as a shooter.
"I shouldered my muzzleloader and said, 'Lord, let my aim be true.' I was looking for an opening to place the shot. He had just crossed the 4-wheeler trail. I brought my foot up to make a rest, and he stopped perfectly broadside. I tried to settle the crosshairs and shot."
At the report, the buck went down.
"I knew he had a good rack," Gary notes, "so I called a close friend back in North Carolina and said, 'Man, I shot something.' I climbed out of the stand and got my possibles bag, put it over my shoulder and walked down to where I'd last seen (the deer) . . . and he wasn't there."
The buck had pulled himself just out of sight, and Gary had to reload.
"I saw the buck, and I went all to pieces," he says. "I started to reload, and it was hard; it was like I had 10 thumbs. I finally got reloaded and walked around to the other side of the buck and fired, and I watched him die."
Gary called his outfitter to report what had happened. While waiting on him to get there, the hunter tagged the deer and began taking photos with his cell phone. The buck was a wide, heavy basic 5x5 with some tines over a foot long.
"I couldn't believe it," Gary says. "I couldn't take my eyes off him. I'd never seen anything that big in my life. I called my wife and several of my buddies, and they were just overjoyed. Then I heard the 4-wheeler coming with Darryl and Larry. Darryl ran down to the deer and said 'Dad, this is a monster.'"
Local Buckeye Big Buck Club (BBBC) scorer Brian Smalley ran a tape on the deer the day before Gary returned home to North Carolina, coming up with 202 1/8 gross typical. I also snapped some photos of the hunter with his trophy.
By Jan. 11, the first of my photos were appearing on social media. Talk of a potential state-record typical began to circulate there and via other media. The fact the deer was by then back in North Carolina only fueled more curiosity about this giant.
The back of Gary's pickup truck got a lot of looks on the way south. By the time he and Darryl reached Marion, a crowd of well-wishers had gathered at the Stevens home.
"My buddies started showing up. My neighbors were showing up. And they started taking pictures," Gary recalls. "It was hours before I could tell my wife the whole story about the deer."
An Innocent Mistake
Although Gary has a huge freezer, the rack and cape wouldn't fit into it. So the next day, he took them to his taxidermist.
A day later, I called Gary and inquired about the possibility of him bringing that rack back to Adams County to have it officially scored by a panel of Buckeye Big Buck Club measurers after the 60-day drying period had ended. Upon hearing the deer was at the taxidermist, I suggested he retrieve the rack for safekeeping once the deer had been caped out.
And that Gary did. But in the meantime, his taxidermist had decided to do what he could to help preserve the deer's score: He'd applied a turnbuckle to stop spread shrinkage.
"I went back to the taxidermist's shop the next day and picked up my rack, and that's when he had the turnbuckle on it," Gary notes. "I stopped at a sporting goods store afterwards, which I regret, and they took pictures of the rack with the turnbuckle."
A day later, Gary says, a local measurer "green" scored the rack (removing the turnbuckle and then replacing it once the scoring was done). He came up with a gross score of 209 4/8. And according to Gary, the measurer made no mention of the turnbuckle being problematic for scoring.
They took photos that day too, and shortly thereafter one of those turned up on the Web. It showed Gary proudly holding the rack with the turnbuckle between the beams. He had no idea as to the potential consequences.
"I didn't know I was doing anything foolish," he says. "I didn't have a clue."
In short order one of the photos had been widely circulated online, prompting speculation from Ohio hunters that the buck well could be disqualified from entry.
Coincidentally, as this was happening, out came the 2013 winter issue of B&C's publication, Fair Chase. It contained an article about how altering antler spread is taboo under the club's entry rules. Big Game Records Director Jack Reneau was addressing the issue in response to a product (called the Rack Jack) that had just come onto the market.
The product is an adjustable bar that can be wedged between antlers, helping them maintain their inside spread. While the product's packaging expressly states it isn't to be used on any rack that will be officially scored, Reneau wanted to make sure there was no confusion.
"Whether someone uses this product (Rack Jack) or a piece of lumber or a branch to increase or maintain a spread measurement, their trophy would be disqualified from entry in B&C," the records director wrote.
When photos of the Stevens buck with the turnbuckle start circulating, an old friend sent Gary a Facebook message: "You need to take that off, because you could be disqualified."
The hunter was shocked. "Man, I was all in pieces," he says. "So I took it right off and took the bar back to the taxidermist. He didn't know he was doing anything wrong. I didn't know."
While the rack now was drying naturally, in accordance with the rules, the photos circulating around the Internet couldn't be called back. And so, the explaining had to begin.
I spoke with BBBC's Gary Trent about the situation, and he indicated the state book would accept the deer as long as the tip-to-tip spread didn't exceed what Brian Smalley had measured it to be right after the kill.
I passed this info on to Gary and suggested he not get the rack mounted before the official scoring. That way, the measurers could examine and photograph the skullcap to allay any fears the rack had been tampered with.
Supervising BBBC measurer for southwest Ohio, Mike Wendel, contacted B&C and explained the situation. Reneau had seen the photo and was aware of the circumstances surrounding the rack.
"Jack said as long as the turnbuckle was removed 60 days prior to measuring, Boone & Crockett would accept it," Mike recalls.
Scored at Last
Just prior to the Ohio Deer and Turkey Expo in mid-March — and 60 days after the turnbuckle had been removed — Mike and Dave Haynes met Gary at Larry's log cabin near Sandy Springs, Ohio, to officially score the deer.
The monster 11-pointer has an inside spread of 22 7/8 inches, with a longest tine of 13 0/8. Each main beams measures better than 29 inches, while the bases are 5 5/8 and 5 7/8 inches in circumference.
An 8 6/8-inch split off the back of the left brow tine is a typical deduction. Taking off another 6 3/8 inches for asymmetry knocks the deer out of contention for Ohio's typical muzzleloader record. The official gross score is 200 6/8 inches, so the 15 1/8 inches of deductions drop the net to 185 5/8. Even so, he's one of the most impressive muzzleloader typicals ever.
And B&C now has accepted the deer at that score, bringing a happy conclusion to a story that quite innocently had taken a turn in the wrong direction.