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Redemption is Sweet, Especially When Topped with Velvet Antlers

Failure while hunting trophy whitetails is frustrating, but sometimes it's just a step along the road to victory.

Redemption is Sweet, Especially When Topped with Velvet Antlers

The author pushed through a 2018 miss to take this Tennessee freak last year. The deer never shed his rack from year to year. (Photo courtesy of Logan Hanks)

It was a cold morning in the middle of West Tennessee’s 2018 deer season. I was sitting next to a tree, hunting what I hoped would be my biggest buck to date. Not only was he big, he was a freak. A true freak, actually: a cryptorchid buck. That’s the term for the rare buck whose hormonal issues cause his antlers to keep growing until he dies.

I’d been fortunate enough to have this deer on my trail camera consistently. “Crypto” (every big buck needs a nickname) had become famous in the area. He made frequent passes by the public road and was seen behind Walmart, among other in-town spots.

I, along with a couple other avid hunters, was obsessed with the pursuit of Crypto. Unfortunately, so were all the local poachers and road hunters — and there were a lot of those. I owned the farm butting up to the city property Crypto was believed to bed on.

So there I was, waiting patiently, praying and hoping for the buck of a lifetime to step out. Suddenly and silently, a deer eased from the thicket. It looked like a tree atop his head, with large masses of antler jutting out. I sat in momentary disbelief, then came back to reality. A quivering rifle was eased up and rested on a tree branch for support.

I can’t believe this is happening, I thought. I’m about to kill the biggest buck of my life!

I nestled into my rifle and looked through my scope. Crypto was only around 160 yards out, but his body was facing me. Not being particularly comfortable with that shot, I silently begged, Turn! Turn! Turn!

He did. Unfortunately, it was to his left, the only direction in which I didn’t want him to go. He now was about to vanish behind a tree, and panic hit; the buck I’d been dreaming of was about to walk out of sight. So I did what most other men eaten up with buck fever would have done in this situation: I rushed the shot . . . and missed.

The majestic beast turned and darted into the woods, just slowly enough to burn into my brain an image of what could have been.

This pain was all too familiar to me. I’d hunted another giant back in ’15, a multi-drop-tined 200-inch monster I also missed. I was as devastated this time as I had been then. After missing what I thought would be my only shot at Crypto, I felt I was cursed.

Sure enough, ’18 ended without me taking a buck. It was a glorious bowl of tag soup. So checking cameras became my life for the next several weeks. I was dying to get another picture of that buck, just to know he might at least return.

Redemption Is Sweet: Especially When Topped with Velvet Antlers
Thinking Crypto was dead, last fall the author started hunting another local farm. Right away he shot a great 10-pointer that was in hard antler. (Photo courtesy of Logan Hanks)

Fortune favored me, as Crypto showed up on camera in April. It was just for a couple photos, though. Weeks went by again with no further sign of him on camera.

The worst part about hunting an animal like this is that he has no normal reproductive urges, so he doesn’t make scrapes or rubs. Nor does he chase does. While hunting Crypto was the only time a freshly rubbed cedar didn’t excite me. My only chance of knowing he was there was to either physically see him or get him on camera.


That summer he never showed back up. Neighbors with cameras also said he’d gone AWOL. Were they just blowing smoke? Maybe. But I knew I hadn’t seen him in a couple months. At that point, I feared he’d died somewhere. So I pulled the cameras off that farm and focused on another one.

Redemption Is Sweet: Especially When Topped with Velvet Antlers
In 2017, Crypto stayed in velvet but otherwise looked normal. His big rack then began to distort oddly. (Photo courtesy of Logan Hanks)

We’ve worked this secondary farm for several years now. When I first took it on, the poachers were having a heyday on it. It’s over 200 acres of huntable ground, with about 80 that are farmable. The local game warden and I became close friends through this farm, working to crack down on the poachers.

After establishing a presence on that farm, we finally managed to curb most of the trespassing. In the years we’d worked this farm, I’d killed nothing but does. I was comfortable letting the young bucks walk. There were great prospects, but an area of this size I knew could produce giants. Religiously I ran cameras and checked for sign. I passed bucks year after year, and most of the time didn’t even bother to hunt the farm deeply in efforts to make it a sanctuary.

But this year was different. I’d been pursuing Crypto so hard for the past couple years that I actually hadn’t hunted much elsewhere. Since he’d now vanished, I was determined to focus on this other farm.

Redemption Is Sweet: Especially When Topped with Velvet Antlers
In 2019, Crypto had more mass and abnormal points. Some tines also had begun to twist oddly. In full velvet, his score was just over 190 inches. (Photo courtesy of Logan Hanks)

When the 2019 season began, I hunted every chance I could. This typically meant during or after a rain. I continued to check cameras throughout the season and found a beast at this secondary farm. He was a wide, tall 10-pointer with a huge body for here in Tennessee. He also was out during the day on this farm.

But even after seeing him, I couldn’t get Crypto out of my head. I put the camera back out on his farm, and surprisingly, I began to get photos of the freak again. Unfortunately, they were always around 11:30 p.m. So, I’d hunt the 10-pointer at the other farm.

Right before Thanksgiving, I decided to try it. We still had beans up on the secondary farm, so I used a sprayer track to walk in. It was about a mile hike to my stand through the beans.

When I was within about 80 yards of my tree at 3:15 p.m., I glanced to my left — and there he was. The big 10 was cruising a tree line about 120 yards away!

You gotta be kidding me, I uttered to myself. I wasn’t even to my stand yet, and there my target buck was, out in the open in broad daylight.

Fortunately, I had my shooting sticks with me. Propping my Ruger .270 Win.on them, I aimed quickly at the buck, which was quartering away hard and was about to leave the field.

BOOM! I fired. He turned and ran back from where he’d come. I missed him?! Reload. Aim. He stopped just before the woods again: perfectly broadside, but in beans that covered half his body. I guesstimated where a good double-lung shot should be held and again squeezed the trigger. BOOM!

He ran into the woods.

You’ve got to be kidding me! I said to myself. I stood there for about 15 minutes in anger and disappointment before walking over to see if I’d drawn blood. I was confident I’d just missed my biggest buck not once, but twice. I truly began to think I was cursed.

Arriving on the scene, I found no blood anywhere. But then, a quick glance at the woods — and there he was! Dead, maybe five yards into the timber. I’d actually hit him with both shots; the first had angled through one lung, the second straight through both.

The curse has been lifted! I said to myself. That 10-pointer became my biggest buck at the time, scoring 160 6/8. I was on Cloud Nine.

After that I eased back a little on hunting, but I remained vigilant as to what was showing up on camera. Checks revealed Crypto was still coming around, but at roughly 11:30 p.m. Certain I wouldn’t get another buck, I killed a doe.

One day I was somewhat spurred to go check my camera where Crypto was. It was nearing the end of December, and the season was close to ending. The good Lord must have wanted me to check, because I saw Crypto  had showed up a couple times right around 5:00 p.m., still in legal shooting hours. My wife knew this meant I’d be busy hunting him every chance I got until the season closed.

On Jan. 2nd, we had nasty rain. I remember thinking, I really don’t want to go sit in such sorry weather. But as sure as I don’t go, he’ll be there. And so I pulled on my camo and raingear and struck out for the farm.

Sitting in my tree stand as raindrops created shimmering leaves on the ground, all I could think was, What in the world am I doing out here? I’m crazy. Nothing is going to show up in this weather.

Wrong. A doe popped over the ridge, then two more. But the first one quickly pegged me, as they’d come in from my right — not the direction I’d expected.

The next thing I knew, at 5:03, a head appeared on the horizon. Looking like Medusa and her hair of snakes was Crypto. He was just 100 yards out, but my rifle was hanging beside me. And a doe had me pegged. The buck of a lifetime had shown back up, and yet there I was, unprepared to shoot him.

The doe began to stomp and trot, with her head raised high and looking right at me. I just knew she was about to blow out of there and ruin another chance for me to kill the freak. I was kicking myself for not having had my rifle ready.

Finally the doe ran, scattering the others. I grabbed my rifle, and as I looked up, Crypto stopped broadside. With no rest within reach, I felt I had no choice but to take a freehand shot. Heart pounding, adrenaline jacked, I took aim. Breathe. I told myself. Just breathe.

At the crack of my rifle, Crypto dropped. Waiting to wake up from what seemed like a dream, I looked through my scope again. He was dead.

Redemption Is Sweet: Especially When Topped with Velvet Antlers
There's nothing more rewarding than a trip to the taxidermist! (Photo courtesy of Logan Hanks)

The journey from my stand to the buck was done at a pace even Usain Bolt would respect. The antlers were unreal. I reached out to touch them and could feel their heat. And the mass was incredible: over 7 inches in circumference. I’d never seen anything like this deer.

After getting Crypto caped out at the processing plant, I went straight to my taxidermist. I couldn’t wait to get an unofficial score. The mass was comparable to, if not bigger than, a Coke can. Inch by inch they tallied and reached a grand total of 191 inches and change. Using the bottom jaw, my taxidermist aged him to be about 6 1/2 years old. I was blown away. This was truly the buck of a lifetime. Within hours, the county was abuzz with news of the freak.

The way I sum up my entire 2019 season is simply “sweet redemption.” Last season was one I’ll never forget. It taught me that patience, perseverance and blessings go a long way.

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