August 07, 2004
Kevin Miller's enormous Maryland buck was a dream come true -- and not a moment too soon. Here's the story of the East Coast's highest-scoring typical since 1939!
Legal shooting light was still almost an hour away as 26-year-old Maryland farmer Kevin Miller crossed the 15-acre frost-covered alfalfa field en route to his Kent County stand on Nov. 30, 2002.
A few deer were feeding in the field and ran for cover as Kevin slowly approached the same wooden platform he'd hunted from since he was 18 years old. Like all other good stands, this one had a name: "The Hotel." Kevin and his brother, Brad, had nailed 8-foot 2x12s to a big, leaning locust tree to serve as the floor supports. With the flooring and side rails in place, a hunter can walk around the entire tree. "The Hotel" is on a ridge just 30 yards into the woods from the alfalfa field and overlooks a sweeping multiflora rose and hardwood bottom that leads to a beaver dam 100 yards southwest of the stand.
"It's a fun stand to hunt," Kevin notes. "You can watch for movement in the alfalfa field while keeping tabs on action in the drainage and on the far slope. You have a great view." Going into the 2002 gun season, Kevin had taken only one nice buck from his lookout in eight years, but he'd seen a few others out of range.
As daylight crept into the bottom, two-dimensional shadows became well-defined beech, hickory, oak and poplar trees. Kevin could hear and see deer milling around on the far bank. Opening day of gun season was getting off to a good start. But Kevin could never imagine that in about one more hour, good would become great. He was about to rewrite not only Maryland's record book, but also 63 years of East Coast Boone and Crockett record-book history!
In a December 1993 article in North American WHITETAIL, titled "Best Buck Ever on the East Coast," Dick Idol described Maryland's trophy potential. "Mile for mile, this tiny coastal state consistently produces whitetail bucks that can be compared to the best in North America," he claimed.
In that same article, Dick provided details of Jack Poole's 228 4/8-inch non-typical, along with an even bigger one found dead by farmer Rob Saunders in a soybean field. That monster had a gross typical score of 221 7/8 inches as a 5x5, with a net typical frame of 207 7/8. With 26 3/8 inches of abnormal points added in, the buck finished out at 233 7/8.
Probably the most amazing thing about this buck was his main beams: 31 6/8 inches on the left, 33 0/8 on the right. The right antler totaled a staggering 105 inches of typical growth. Not too shabby for an East Coast buck!
Since then, Maryland has continued to rack up impressive entries for the record books. Petey Councell's 10-pointer stands as the archery state record, at 183 3/8 typical. Jay Downes bagged a 173-inch 4x4 with his shotgun. Muzzleloader hunter Bill Shields got a 22-point 199 3/8-inch non-typical. And shotgunner Walt Lachewitz's 185 7/8-inch 5x5 currently stands as the overall state record in the typical category. And to think these bucks all came from a state of only 9,838 square miles!
If you look at entries in the B&C and P&Y record books on a per-square-mile basis, Maryland is faring pretty well. In fact, when I looked at all entries from both books back in 1996, only two states -- Wisconsin and Illinois -- had entered more deer than Maryland, mile for mile. Although I haven't run the numbers lately, I feel certain Maryland still holds its own.
Why do so many big deer come from such a small state? There are a number of reasons:
Maryland, like a lot of the other top trophy producers, has a firearms season that starts after peak rut. And in most of the state's top trophy counties, only slug guns and muzzleloaders and bows are permitted during firearms season. The use of shorter-range weapons means bucks have a better chance of reaching prime age.
Also, food is seldom a limiting factor for Maryland deer. The No. 1 industry is agriculture. And in Kent County, the soils are some of the most fertile in the state, capable of producing not only bumper crops of corn, soybeans, small grains and alfalfa but also outstanding whitetails. The big, blocky-bodied borealis subspecies of whitetail found in many areas of the Midwest is the same one hunted in Maryland. It's not uncommon at check stations to see a prime buck tip the scales at 180-220 pounds field dressed.
A couple of other components play important roles in Maryland's ability to turn out healthy, mature bucks. The first is that there is no shortage of great hiding places. With 6,000 miles of tidal tributaries and shorelines surrounding Chesapeake Bay, Maryland has abundant wetland sanctuaries.
In addition, public and private forest landowners continually provide a never-ending supply of upland hideouts in the form of what I call "black holes." When timber is cut, the harvested site often reverts to a tangled thicket of briars and saplings. These "black holes" seem to suck in pressured whitetails, as well as those with reclusive personalities. Bucks go in but seldom come out, except maybe at night. A mature buck could live his entire life experiencing little contact with man.
I once watched a Maryland doe and her fawn jump into a greenbrier jungle 30 yards in front of my stand just after first light on opening day of the firearms season. They were still there -- in fact, they'd never moved -- when I climbed down six hours later.
One last factor favoring the production of record-book deer in Maryland is that there is a growing trend toward letting younger bucks walk and shooting more does. Sound deer management is catching on in many parts of the state, and nowhere more so than in Maryland's middle and upper Eastern Shore counties. Deer densities well above 30 per square mile are the norm, and on some private lands they might exceed 100 deer per square mile.
Farmers, hunters and wildlife officials recognize that the female component of the herd must be aggressively dealt with to help alleviate crop losses and prevent serious destruction to the habitat. Fortunately, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has been responsive to landowner needs and allows, when conditions warrant, yearlong harvest of antlerless deer via deer management permits. When used as intended, the permits allow landowners and their designated agents (hunters) to take an active role in management. This policy facilitates adequate harvest of does.
Faced with deer densities approaching (and in some cases exceeding) the habitat's capacity, many Maryland landowners and deer hunters have begun to manage the herd. In fact, Kevin Miller and the rest of his hunting group now have had a QDM program on the farm they hunt for several years, as have some of their neighbors.
Kevin's family has been actively involved in agriculture on the Eastern Shore for over 150 years. His dad, Gary, younger brother, Brad, and three uncles, Charlie, Ronnie and Kenneth ("Bunk"), have reputations as honest, hard-working people who care deeply for the land they farm and for the wildlife resources sharing that land. Besides Kevin, the hunting members of the Miller family include Brad, Charlie and Bunk.
The Millers don't own the farm where Kevin found himself on opening day of the 2002 gun season, but they have farmed it since the early 1980s. When the property changed hands in 1999, the Millers' reputation as good stewards of the land made it easy for new owner, Bill D'Alonzo, to ask them to continue tilling and caring for the property.
Bill had a vision for the 500-acre waterfront farm. He wanted to continue the grain-farming operation, as well as develop and enhance the wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities -- not just for himself, but also for his family and friends, along with their kids. Maryland has a one-day deer youth season, and kids hunting on the farm have taken some huge bucks. One lopsided old 8-pointer field dressed at 216 pounds, and an "over the hill" 6-pointer at 187.
Going into the fall of 2002, all of the guys suspected there was a "marsh monster" prowling the farm. In January, Uncle Charlie nearly tripped over a huge shed while crossing the beaver dam. After it was pulled from the dam's muddy surface and cleaned off, it taped out at 82 inches as one half of a 10-point rack. If the other side matched, and giving it a 20-inch spread credit, the buck could be a 184-inch typical: a potential challenger to the current state mark of 185 7/8. Of course, this assumed the buck would continue to grow and that he'd live to see the 2002 season.
There was reason to believe that not only was this buck a survivor, but that he'd lay claim to the beaver dam drainage and the surrounding high ground as his main stomping grounds. The evidence: three other sheds picked up within 200 yards of "The Hotel" stand by Kevin and Brad since 1998. In fact, in 1998 Kevin had found the buck's matched set of sheds from the 1997 growing season, and they had scored approximately 164 inches -- really impressive for a deer believed to have been just 3 1/2 years old when he wore that rack.
The buck didn't stray too far from the security of the swampy bottom, and based on the sheds he could enter the 2002 season as an 8 1/2-year-old. Further evidence of his ability to survive came when he dodged slugs fired by Bill's longtime hunting buddy, Pete MacGaffin. (Pete contends he was practicing his own form of QDM. "I miss them so they can become 'monster' bucks," he later explained.)
And so, thanks to Pete's "management" efforts, the buck made it through another hunting season. He was sighted a few times during the 2000 and 2001 seasons, mud covered up to his belly, but no one had an opportunity for a good shot.
One day in early August 2002, Charlie was working on the farm. The sun was casting long shadows across the alfalfa when he noticed a big deer with its head down feeding. "When that deer lifted its head, I knew I was looking at the biggest buck I had ever seen," Charlie says. "I was pretty sure it was the same buck whose shed I'd found on the beaver dam . . . only now he looked much bigger." As light faded, the big buck drifted out of the alfalfa and into the marsh.
Although the Millers love to hunt, farming comes first, and the operation keeps everyone busy harvesting crops and planting small grain in the fall. But in 2002, the East Coast experienced one of its worst droughts on record. With scant crops to harvest, much of the fall work was completed ahead of schedule. Most good farmers will tell you it's a lot easier to sit in a deer stand after the fieldwork is done, and that's just what Kevin was doing 3 1/2 months after his uncle had spotted the big deer in the field. Opening day was here, and Kevin had checked into "The Hotel."
As dawn broke, enough light filtered into the bottom for the young hunter to see deer milling around on the far slope of the drainage. In the alfalfa field behind Kevin, the frost was slowly surrendering to the rising temperature.
Then Kevin caught a glimpse of a deer moving from a warm-season grass field into the woods. Based on body size, as well as antler mass and width, the buck appeared to be mature. However, he'd apparently drawn the short straw on genetics, as he had only four points.
As the buck meandered through the woods, he suddenly stopped at a big windfall around 70 yards southwest and slightly downhill from the hunter's stand. Then Kevin heard some snorting and leaves rustling. The buck was shoving his head into the downed treetop. Looking through his scope, Kevin saw the right side rack of a huge buck bedded in the windfall. The 4-pointer appeared to be pushing on the big deer's rack!
"It was hard to see through all of the limbs of the treetop to tell what was going on," Kevin remembers. "After a while, the smaller buck just wandered off."
The hunter tried to get a better look at the bedded buck, but all he could see through the branches was occasional movement of the deer's right antler. Finally, after an hour of non-stop monitoring of the windfall, Kevin's attention wandered for only a few seconds . . . and when he looked back, he was shocked to see the big deer quickly walking uphill, angling sharply away from his stand!
Instinct kicked in. Kevin had only a split second to shoulder, sight and trigger the Model 1100 before the buck would vanish into the thick cover of the sidehill. It happened in a blur, but only one shot was necessary; the big buck backpedaled and disappeared into the understory as he fell.
Kevin waited until he was sure the buck was down for good, and then climbed down and walked over to the deer in the brush.
"I was really excited," the hunter says. "I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. I knew this deer was a 'shooter.' "
When Kevin finally saw the deer before him, he just stood and stared -- and then realized it was the monster from the marsh, now far bigger than ever! He was now a massive, perfect, long-beamed 6x6 with one small sticker.
People gathered around the deer at the check station. Strangers took photos. Some proclaimed the deer would be a new state record. The next morning, Kevin and Brad took the deer to Travis Taxidermy in Chestertown. In business nearly 30 years, owner Don Travis and his brother, Mike, have seen and taken their share of big whitetails, but no typical of this size had ever come through their door.
As an official scorer for Pope & Young, Mike "green" scored the buck at a little over 201 inches gross typical, net 193 and change.
After the 60-day drying period, Boone and Crockett scorer Bill Jones from Delaware provided the final score: 201 6/8 gross typical and 194 0/8 net! Not only did that make the Miller buck a record for Maryland, he was also the biggest East Coast typical submitted for entry into the B&C record book since New York's Roosevelt Luckey buck (198 3/8), which was shot way back in 1939!
Incredibly, Kevin's trophy dressed out at only 146 pounds. During caping, the taxidermist noticed an infection around the skull. The condition, generally referred to as a brain abscess, is not all that uncommon and seems to show up more in older bucks. Biologists speculate that a general infection, possibly a result of fighting, somehow moves from the initial infection site to the brain through fissures in the skull plate. (It's not associated with chronic wasting disease and usually doesn't affect the quality of the meat.)
The deer was still mobile when taken; however, his health was fading rapidly. It's doubtful he'd have survived more than another week or two. Kevin is just thankful their paths crossed when they did.