During late summer 2011, Ryan Provance put out numerous trail cameras on his hunting club in Jefferson County, Mississippi. Like so many others scouting for deer, he hoped to get an idea of the size bucks present. And he certainly wasn't disappointed to discover a large, full-velvet 10-pointer with two stickers.
Strangely, in every photo the buck was with a group of does. At that time of year bucks normally are still traveling in bachelor groups, desiring very little contact with the fairer sex. But regardless of the reason for this behavior, Ryan knew this buck was something special; in fact, he was like no other whitetail the hunter had ever seen.
With tall tines, a good inside spread, heavy mass and looking to be at least 5 1/2 years old, the deer easily surpassed all of Ryan's harvest criteria! The excited hunter made up his mind that if need be, he'd spend all of the upcoming season hunting this particular buck.
Most of us realize huge bucks aren't behind every tree in the woods. Across the whitetail's range, age, nutrition and genetics all play vital roles in producing trophy bucks. Ryan's 2,100-acre hunting club has all three ingredients.
"We place most of our emphasis on age, trying not to shoot bucks until they're at least 5 1/2 years old," he says. "We've placed over 100 trail cameras across the property to allow us to get a good idea of the age structure of the buck population. This helps us determine which bucks we target for harvest each year. We also shoot a lot of does to maintain a tight buck-to-doe ratio and to keep the herd in balance with the habitat. There are plenty of agricultural fields in the area planted with soybeans and corn, providing the bucks with high-nutrition forage during the antler-growing period."
The last part of the antler equation — genetics — needs no help from Ryan or his fellow club members. A look at Magnolia Records (Mississippi's official trophy deer records program) shows every county in the western part of the state — especially those along the Mississippi River — has the stuff it takes to consistently produce trophy-class whitetails.
For the archery opener on Oct. 1, Ryan's strategy was to hunt around a corn field where most of the trail camera photos of the buck were coming from. But despite numerous bowhunts there, Ryan failed to get a single sighting of him. Photos continued to show up until Oct. 22, when he disappeared.
Throughout archery and even firearms season the buck never reappeared. "I honestly thought he'd come out of hiding during the peak of the rut, which occurs down here in late December and early January," Ryan says. "I finally gave up on him. At some point, you realize you're fighting a losing battle."
As mysteriously as the buck disappeared, he briefly showed back up in late January (2012), toward the end of the late primitive-weapons season. But he got a pass.
"Another member of the club got a good look at the buck but decided to let him go, in hopes he'd get even bigger the next year," Ryan notes.
Later that spring, the Mississippi River spilled out of its banks, putting most of the property under water for the second year in a row. The local herd was displaced by the rising water. Ryan estimates this buck had to move at least eight miles to reach ground that remained above the floodwaters.
For some hunters, that could cause serious concern. Any deer moving that far away might possibly like its new surroundings better and decide not to return home. However, that's usually not the case. According to Dr. Steve Demarais, researcher at Mississippi State University Deer Lab, deer herds that live near large rivers that periodically flood have adapted by becoming extremely mobile, sometimes moving long distances when these conditions occur.
"Our research has shown that they almost always return to their home area after the water goes down," Steve points out.
When the floodwaters receded in June, Ryan and several other members of his hunting club decided to search for shed antlers. It wasn't long before Brian Burkley, Ryan's brother-in-law, found a large matched set lying in the corn field. And guess what? They were from the same buck Ryan had been after!
"This Mississippi monster was the product of serious management and serious hunting effort. But the fateful hunt still involved good fortune — and good shooting."
It was obvious the buck had been hanging out there in March, during antler drop time. It was now also apparent the buck had a strong affinity for the area around that corn field; the trail camera photos, sightings and shed antlers all had come from within a 200-yard radius. Giving the shed antlers a modest inside spread of 18 inches, the 5 1/2-year-old's rack would have had a gross score in the mid-170s.
Opening day of the Mississippi dove season in September 2012 found Ryan and his wife, Hannah, shooting the feathered rockets over the cut corn field. Out of nowhere, a large velvet-antlered buck emerged from the woodsline and began walking across the opening. The buck was so big he took their breath away.
"It was the most unbelievable buck either of us had ever seen," Ryan says. "I instantly recognized him as the one I'd been after the previous year. Hannah started screaming and hollering that the buck was so huge it looked like an army tank. We quickly grabbed our binoculars and watched the buck as it bounded out of sight. She immediately nicknamed him 'Frank the Tank.'"
After that, "Frank" started showing up regularly on trail camera photos around the corn field, as he had the previous year. And he continued to be in the company of females: four does, to be exact.
"It really puzzled me that he always seemed to hang around does so early in the year," Ryan says. "It crossed my mind that maybe he was a coward and stayed away from other bucks to avoid fighting."
That year the deer's rack put on an additional 7 inches of growth. Also, both kicker points disappeared, which was surprising; most bucks tend to grow more "trash" as they get older. A mature buck with a clean 5x5 rack of record proportions is almost as rare as hen's teeth. There was no doubt in Ryan's mind that Frank the Tank would be the talk of the town — assuming the hunter could catch him moving during daylight hours.
It didn't take long for Ryan to get another look. On the archery season opener, Frank the Tank — still in full velvet — came to within 75 yards of the archer's stand. But he'd walk no closer.
"He stood broadside for several minutes before moving away," Ryan remembers. "I decided not to take the shot, because even though I'd practiced shooting at that distance, it was too big of a risk. I'd never forgive myself if I had wounded and lost an animal as beautiful as that."
A couple days later, the huge whitetail came out again. And he closed the gap a bit, now coming within 62 yards. But once more, Ryan held fast against a temptation that might have proved too much for some other hunters.
After that, the elusive buck again mysteriously disappeared; there were no sightings, trail camera photos or identifiable sign of him. And this despite the fact that in both archery encounters, Ryan was certain the buck had no idea he was being hunted.
"I was always downwind of him, and he never acted nervous or as if he got my scent," the hunter notes. So what caused the deer to change his pattern?
"The farmers cut the soybeans early that year," Ryan says. "I really believe that activity was just enough to spook him and cause him to leave the immediate area."
For the second year in a row, Frank the Tank remained a ghost until late primitive-weapons season.
"On Jan. 23 (2013), I was hunting in a box stand about a mile away from the corn field when I spotted Frank the Tank chasing a doe," Ryan says. "I was too far away for a good shot, but there was no mistaking it was him. On a hunch, I decided to go back to his core area around the corn field the next day. I hunted there all day and didn't see anything."
The following day, Jan. 25, was the beginning of the last weekend of the Mississippi deer and duck season. "All the members show up for the last hunt of the year," Ryan says. "We usually duck hunt in the morning and then deer hunt the rest of the day."
That afternoon the weather turned out to be unseasonably warm, with a south wind blowing: the absolute worst conditions for deer movement.
"I honestly didn't expect to see him," Ryan admits. "However, I decided to give the corn field another shot. I got my hunting buddy, Craig Gilbert, to go with me this time.
"We were sitting in the box stand, talking to each other, when Frank the Tank came out 160 yards away, chasing a yearling doe."
The buck was so obsessed with the doe that he at first ignored Craig's efforts to get him to stop for Ryan. Finally, After the third shout, the giant halted just long enough for Ryan to line up the crosshairs and squeeze off a round from his Thompson/Center Encore .35 Whelen. The 180-grain Barnes Triple Shock bullet center-punched the buck through the lungs at 212 yards.
Frank the Tank ran 50 yards, started wobbling and collapsed. Amazingly, the buck's final resting place was within 50 yards of where he'd dropped his sheds the previous year!
The two-year saga finally over, Ryan happily approached the fallen giant. And as he did, the first thing he noticed was the animal's coat.
"Most deer in our area are grayish-brown in color during the winter," Ryan notes. "Frank the Tank was unusually red. His body size was also smaller than that of most of the mature bucks we kill. I didn't put him on a scale, but I'm certain his live weight was well under 200 pounds."
Tale of the Tape
After the required 60-day drying period, Boone & Crockett official measurer George Wilson put his tape to the rack and got a net score of 180 0/8 typical. The 6 1/2-year-old buck had 10 nearly perfect matched points.
Symmetry is the most spectacular feature of this great rack. With a total of only 2 3/8 inches of side-to-side deductions, each antler almost mirrors the other. And nearly as impressive is the mass, with over 40 inches in total circumference measurements. In fact, of all typicals in Magnolia Records with net scores exceeding 170, this buck's H-1 measurements of 6 0/8 on each side rank third and fourth, respectively.
Ryan's Jefferson County giant joins an elite group of typicals from the Deep South. A search of B&C's online records indicates only nine bucks in the Magnolia State have eclipsed 180 net. Meanwhile, of the states bordering Mississippi, Arkansas leads the way with 15 such entries, while Louisiana has six, Tennessee four and Alabama two.
It's special ever to run across a deer of this magnitude, and especially in the Deep South. When Ryan did, a combination of persistence and attention to detail finally allowed him to take the trophy of a lifetime.
"It was tough, and my patience was tried on many occasions," he says. "But it was worth the wait. And I wouldn't have had it any other way!"