February 22, 2017
Upon hearing Tennessee had yielded a possible world-record hunter-killed buck last fall, the whitetail world fell into a sudden state of awe and disbelief.
The awe was appropriate, given that Stephen Tucker's 312-inch giant is in line to outscore every other whitetail in the history of deer hunting. And the disbelief over it having happened in Tennessee — a state that had never produced a net 250-incher — was just as understandable. Suddenly, folks who'd never considered traveling to the Volunteer State to hunt were thinking about how they might get in on the action.
After more than three decades of covering world-class whitetails professionally, I can assure you this response wasn't unusual. In fact, it's happened every time a 300-incher has turned up, whether as a fresh kill or a long-ago deer found dead. Once the news breaks, antler addicts from all over wonder if lightning might strike in the same place again — the second time perhaps even from their own bullet or broadhead.
The bitter truth is that it never plays out that way. At least, it never has. If taking a 300-inch buck were tied to hunting where one had ever been shot or found dead, we presumably would have seen multiple deer of that size from the same areas. But we haven't.
If the Tucker buck is eventually confirmed by a panel of B&C measurers as netting 300 or higher (quite likely), the world total of such deer, in the wild, now consists of only six deer. Ever. And they've come from six states. Their locations all are included in a big, flat triangle whose western tip is Monroe County, Iowa, whose eastern tip is Portage County, Ohio, and whose southern tip now is Sumner County, Tennessee.
So if you're a trophy hunter living in Champaign, Illinois, in six hours or less you could drive to where any of these deer bred his last doe. But it's worth noting that these giants did so over a span of 76 years, or roughly once every 13 years. Yes, the pace has greatly accelerated; four of these bucks died between November 2001 and November 2016. But still, no one state, much less one county or farm, has yet produced a second confirmed deer of that size.
And it's worth pointing out some of the trophy hotspots where not one wild net 300-incher has ever been confirmed: Texas, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Montana, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, British Columbia, Maryland, Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Yet these states and provinces would be on anyone's list of places with track records of giants.
I should note that, while neither Minnesota nor Kansas is on the above list, each has produced a matched shed antler set netting well over 300. (In fact, over a quarter-century ago, way up near the Ontario border the so-called "Minnesota Monarch" grew a non-typical rack that might have claimed the overall B&C world record, were the antlers still attached to the skull.) But even if we expand our "300 zone" to include the spots where the Minnesota and Kansas sheds were picked up, we've done nothing to narrow down the best place to hunt such a beast.
Obviously, it wouldn't take a deer of anywhere near 300 inches to make even the most ardent trophy hunter happy. Whitetails scoring half that are well above average, even for fully mature specimens, over most of the species' wide range. But there's always going to be special appeal to hunting where history suggests the sky is the limit on antler potential.
So what, if anything, does the Tucker buck really say about the mega-buck prospects in Tennessee? Despite what local real estate agents or lodge owners might want you to think, probably nothing we didn't know already. Tennessee has long been a solid whitetail state. And Sumner County has long been one of its better places for trophy bucks. The state's previous No. 1 non-typical was shot there in 2000, and a B&C-qualifying typical was killed there two days before the Tucker buck fell last fall. (All three of these giants were taken with muzzleloaders, by the way.)
Sumner, like many other counties in the western half of Tennessee, features large areas of good soils and lush crops. Both are key to helping bucks reach their full potential. And in recent years, a reduction of buck bag limits has helped shift the harvest toward older, larger animals. So there likely are a greater number of older bucks available in these fertile locations. That of course has increased the chances of a super deer living long enough, and getting enough of the right things to eat, to show how special he was born to be.
Based on tooth wear and overall body size and appearance, the Tucker buck likely was only 4 ½ years old when taken. That's young for a world-class non-typical, but this obviously was a unique animal for anywhere on earth. At no age would you expect any wild buck to sprout nearly 50 scorable points. He simply had that magical combination of genes to achieve an astronomical score. Such a freak presumably could have lived just about anywhere at any time.
Of course, every area — even one legendary for big deer, such as southern Iowa or northeastern Alberta — has greater trophy potential than it's historically shown. Nowhere do the majority of wild bucks fully get to express their genetic potential. They die before proving what they might have become, face stress from challenging environmental conditions, or both. In some places, drought and/or habitat type constantly keep a lid on antler size and overall health, even for the most promising bucks. In these locations, expectations of mega-giants are misplaced from the get-go.
Obviously, that doesn't mean a single one couldn't eventually pop up. Several times in modern history, one has. But again, it's never been in the same place twice. Chasing the ghost of one deer — no matter how big he was — tends to be little more productive than just continuing to hunt in another area with good habitat and a healthy age structure. Mega-deer are anomalies everywhere. If they weren't, the record book would be much thicker than it now is. Yes, your chances of shooting a big deer are far better in Illinois than in Florida. All else being equal, location clearly matters. But if for some reason your goal is a 300-incher or bust, don't feel you must hunt where one once lived. Illinois has yielded one more such deer than Florida ever has.
So don't follow me to Tennessee. Or anywhere else, for that matter. If I knew where to find one of these giants, I'd already have one on my wall.