Whitetail bucks often are judged solely by a number in a record book. Right or wrong, that's been the norm for a while now. However, defining what constitutes a trophy isn't always as easy as adding up with an official score.
Once in a while, along comes a buck that doesn't put up a big number but still manages to be an absolute "jaw dropper" in anybody's book. In 2010, Heath Buchanan got his first hint that he might be onto just such a deer.
Heath hunts private farms in and around Trimble County, Kentucky. Like a lot of other serious deer hunters, he puts a premium on scouting, both firsthand and through the use of trail cameras. He really wasn't prepared for the deer he caught a glimpse of on one of his early-season bowhunts in 2010.
"The first time I saw the buck was in early October," Heath relates. "He was about 60 yards away, and it was almost dark. I couldn't see a lot of detail, but I could tell he just had a mess on his head. That's about the only way to describe it. The buck was still in velvet.
"I didn't see him any more that year. And then, in 2011, I didn't hunt in that area. So it was almost two years before I laid eyes on him again. In 2012, I went back in to the area where I'd seen the crazy-racked deer, and I saw him again! This time he was out in a field during good light, and I got a better look at him. The velvet rack was much larger on one side than the other and just grew in a crazy fashion. That was the only time I saw him in 2012."
ONE OF A KIND
As the 2013 season was approaching, Heath couldn't get the freaky buck off his mind. If the deer was still in the area, Heath was determined to concentrate on harvesting him. The big question was: Is the deer still alive?
"My friend Craig Hughes and I were walking along the edge of this soybean field in August of 2013," Heath recalls. "We were glassing the field when, all of a sudden, we spotted the crazy-looking buck. He had made it through another year and still had the wild-looking rack!
"The deer was about 400 yards away, and we got a really good look at him through the binoculars. The right side of his rack didn't seem to have a main beam and was much shorter than the left. The left was the really crazy-looking side; it came up and then drooped back over and hung down, sort of like one of those joker hats. Right away we started calling him 'Joker.' He had also grown a drop tine that added even more to his character."
Heath set up some trail cameras on corn and on mineral licks. He got a few photos of Joker and was able to evaluate the rack even more. It was like nothing he'd ever seen or even heard of.
The first week of Kentucky's 2013 archery season found Heath bear hunting in Idaho, but with Joker never far from his mind.
"When I got back, he was nowhere to be found," the bowhunter says. "He just disappeared for the rest of the year. I walked every inch of the area after season, looking for sheds, but found no evidence of him. Several people gun hunt the area, and I finally just assumed someone had shot him. I knew one thing for sure: he was a wild-looking deer."
ALL IN ON JOKER
As Heath started his preparation for the 2014 season, he had no evidence the odd buck even was still around. But then, suddenly, everything changed.
"I had several trail cameras out, and on June 17 Joker showed back up on one of them," Heath says. "He was still alive and still sporting the crazy-looking headgear! I decided right then and there I was going to hold out until I shot that buck."
Heath made plans to hunt Joker, with assistance from Craig. They were going to try to take the target buck on video, with Craig running the camera.
As the Sept. 6 bow opener approached, things were looking promising; Joker was showing up on trail camera almost every day, though just before daylight. The friends suspected he was bedding close to his food source — a large soybean field — as deer often do in early season. The trick was going to be getting into a stand without disturbing him, and then to catch him moving in daylight.
Heath made several preparations before season. He put portable tree stands near the perimeter of the bean field he believed Joker to be frequenting. He also had mineral attractant out, along with corn at several locations within the deer's home range. (Baiting is legal in Kentucky.)
But for the most part, Heath just stayed away from the area, except to change out trail camera cards or glass from a distance.
"The first weekend of bow season, I had to work and didn't get to hunt," Heath remembers. "Then, I had a buddy, Drew Romans, who had never killed a deer with a bow, and I went with him on Monday and Tuesday to help him out and to film his hunt. Drew took a nice 8-point buck on Tuesday.
"I had to work again on Wednesday and Thursday, so it was actually Friday before I had a chance to go after Joker. Drew was returning the favor and filming for me. We hunted most of the day and saw seven different bucks, but Joker wasn't among them. I was still hunting back a little ways from where I thought he was at. I wanted to try to see him first, then move in closer, being careful not to spook him.
"On Saturday morning I didn't hunt," Heath recalls. "I went out that afternoon and climbed a tree. Drew had set up above me. We were hunting a staging area by the soybeans. As the Saturday hunt came to a close we'd probably seen 40 or 50 deer those two afternoons, but not the one I came for.
"Sunday and Monday I had to work," Heath says. "I'd been reluctant to hunt mornings, because of the difficulty of getting into the area where the deer were without disturbing them, so I skipped Tuesday morning.
"Craig was getting off work between 5:00 and 5:30 Tuesday afternoon, and he called me and said, 'Let's go.' At first I didn't want to go, because I thought it was too late. But we'd have 2 1/2 hours of shooting light left if we got set up by 6:30, so we decided to go for it. Craig got home by 6 o'clock, and we were in the woods a short time later," Heath says.
"We went about a hundred yards up out of the field and looked around for trees to climb. Deer were already on the move, and we flushed six does. I finally picked out a walnut tree and climbed about 35 feet up. Craig climbed a tree next to me to about the same height. It was 6:30. We were about a hundred yards from one of my mineral licks.
"Just as we got settled, in a yearling doe came out under us. I started dropping walnuts close to her until she ran off."
As twilight approached, the woods came alive with deer. By 7:30, Heath and Craig had seen 25 to 30 and were watching three bucks about 70 yards away. One of them was pretty good.
"Craig whispered, 'There's another 8-point at 30 yards,'" Heath says. "But none of the deer in sight was the one we came for. I was standing up and slowly turned my head and looked to the right. About 70 or 80 yards out in the woods I saw a buck shake his head. There was white on his rack. I knew it was Joker!"
"Craig couldn't see him," Heath recalls. "I whispered, 'It's Joker.' I reached to get my bow and set the sight pin at 30 yards. I was facing the buck. He started walking straight at me. Craig still couldn't see him through the trees. The buck reached 30 yards but was still walking directly toward me.
"He finally turned and stopped and was quartering slightly toward me. Craig was on him and filming now. I ranged him at 22 yards, slowly and carefully reset my pin at 20, drew my bow and shot. When the arrow hit, he blasted out of there and was quickly out of sight.
"We sat there for a few minutes to calm down, but it wasn't happening. So we climbed down and walked over to where the buck was standing when I shot him. There was no blood. I found the back half of the arrow with the nock, and it had blood on it. I called my friend, Austin, and my fiancée, Chelsea, and told them what had happened.
"Craig and I discussed what to do next and finally decided to go back to the house and wait a while," Heath continues. "Around 10 o'clock we went back and found a slight blood trail. The buck had gone only about 40 yards."
So ended the hunt for one of the most unusual "cactus bucks" to be harvested in a while. According to Kyle Sams, a deer biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, "The 'cactus buck' condition, also known as 'cryptorchidism,' is rare in Kentucky's deer herd but does occur from time to time. It's usually a condition deer are born with, in which one or both testicles fail to descend into the scrotum. The same result can occur due to testicular injury at some point after birth. The result is a rack that continues to grow and cannot shed.
"A buck with this condition is more likely to sustain an injury to the antler, causing a portion to break off," Kyle continues. "This may explain why this particular buck's antlers differed slightly from year to year."
However Joker developed his bizarre 12-point rack, Heath Buchanan now has one of the more interesting whitetail mounts around. The buck didn't qualify for the Pope & Young records, but he certainly scores high in terms of uniqueness. And that makes him every bit as much a trophy as many that score far more.