January 24, 2011
The story behind one of Ohio's largest non-typicals ever recorded is not that of hunter versus hunted but of a dog's mischievous adventure.
Rich Ewing discovered the massive buck in the woods on his farm after his adopted dog, Sweetie, brought home two huge hoofs. Photo by Connor O'Brien.
The grainy footage opens with the image of a bean field washed in the afterglow of a summer evening in northeastern Ohio. Sunlight glints off the wings of a thousand bugs skittering among the crops, the far treeline slowly fading from definition.
A brief flicker of motion draws attention to the left side of the screen, and a whitetail appears. His neck is arched forward, head buried up to the ears in bean plants. He carries an impressive set of antlers, though his stance obscures the magnitude of his crown. He takes slow steps across the screen, nose and mouth searching for the best bites.
Presumably, Art Kroepel had caught glimpses of this buck on the property around his Ashtabula County home on previous evenings, but tonight he remembered to bring his video camera. It's obvious Kroepel has zoomed in on the buck's profile to get a better picture, but he manages to hold the camera reasonably steady -- until the buck shivers, perhaps attempting to dissuade an overzealous fly. Antlers rise from the leaves and the buck briefly turns his head away from the camera, unveiling the full extent of his rack. The camera bobs up and down, left and right.
"He's a dandy," Kroepel whispers, more to himself than the camera.
On film, it's nearly impossible to count the number of tines protruding from the twisted mass of antler, but in proportion to the deer's body, one thing becomes remarkably clear about this set of antlers -- they are truly world-class. This is not your average buck from Ashtabula County, Ohio, or any county, for that matter.
During the next few weeks, Kroepel keeps the camera rolling. Over the course of three July evenings and one in August, he compiles 20 minutes of footage starring the phenomenal non-typical buck. On each occasion, the buck keeps the company of at least four other male deer, dwarfing them with his massive rack.
Surprisingly, he doesn't seem to mind taking the lead in an open field during daylight, an observation that fuels Kroepel's hopes for the coming deer season. Kroepel keeps the footage under wraps, lest he invite the attention of other hunters.
But an odd thing happens that fall in the forests and fields around Kroepel's home. The giant non-typical buck, which was so visible and consistent during the waning summer months, seemingly disappears when the season begins. The vanishing act continues through October and November, even as the rut approaches, peaks and fades. The entire season passes without a sighting of the buck. It was as if he simply faded away into the woods of Ashtabula County.
AN IDYLLIC SETTING
For Rich and Barb Ewing, the open fields and woodlands of Ashtabula County seemed an idyllic setting for their semi-retirement. Rich's father, George, had farmed a respectable spread of land there for years, and when the property across the road from his homestead became available, the Ewings jumped on it. They cleared the brush-laden land and made room for new home that was completed in 1999.
Between George's farm and Rich and Barb's land, the Ewings controlled roughly 100 acres on which they raised Pinzgauer cattle, a breed of beef cattle known for a tender, sweet meat that was both low in cholesterol and in fat.
The farm was flat, covered mostly in pastures for the cattle, with a few plots reserved for hay, corn, soybeans and wheat.
There, the Ewings set about living the lifestyle they had dreamt of for years. They had selected the perfect location. Just a dozen miles southeast of Lake Erie in Ohio's northeast corner, Ashtabula County has a unique appeal. Known for its 17 covered bridges, apple orchards and vineyards, the county offers among the most distinct seasons in the region. Here, springtime is usually wet, summer is often mild and autumn is always colorful. As for winter, the county has earned its place in the southeastern Lake Erie "Snowbelt," amassing as much as 100 inches of snow in any given winter. The winter of 2006 was no exception.
"It was terrible," Barb recalled. "We had a lot of snow. It was very, very cold, and there was ice on the ground."
So when Barb peered out the window, across the road into the pasture one particularly frigid day that winter, she found it peculiar that there was a puppy digging in the iced-over earth. The pup was small and mangy, with an appearance reminiscent of a German Shepherd, only its ears were drooped over.
"Somebody had just thrown this little German Shepherd puppy out in the middle of winter," Rich said.
The dog appeared in the field each of the next few days until, finally, the Ewings agreed to offer it refuge from the brutal winter. They began feeding the puppy in a pole barn.
"She'd been horribly, horribly abused," Barb said. "When I first put a collar on her, she just crumbled to the ground. She just cowered.
"But she was very smart."
Over time, the puppy, which had been named Sweetie, became a facet in the Ewing household, following Rich wherever he went on the farm.
"She would just follow me everywhere," he said. "If I was in the fields, she would be right there with me, running beside the tractor."
One winter morning in 2010, shortly after a massive storm dumped three feet of snow on the Ewings' property within a single week, Sweetie returned from a solo adventure on the farm with an interesting souvenir -- a deer hoof.
"The hoof was as big as my fist," Rich recalled. "I said, 'Man, that's a big foot.'"
A week later, Sweetie brought home a second deer foot of equally impressive size. Rich's curiosity was piqued.
"A week later, I was fixing fence in the back corner of a pasture, 75 yards from where my father used to hunt," he said. "I had been at it for three or four hours and I was tired, so I took a break. Being retir
ed and a farmer, I can do that.
"I walked back into the woods about 20 feet, and the smell hit me as soon as I got back there."
Found dead by a German Shepherd named Sweetie (background) in the middle of winter, the Ewing Buck measured 263 4/8 inches as a non-typical, with 68 inches of abnormal growth. Photo by Connor O'Brien.
Rich spotted what looked like a bush poking out from under the snow, but as he approached, the bush took on a new form.
"The closer I got, the more I realized, 'That's not a bush,'" he said. "'Those are antlers.'"
Buried in the snow were the remains of a whitetail buck. Much of the carcass had been devoured by coyotes, but the antlers were virtually untouched -- and they were immense.
BRINGING HOME A TROPHY
Rich realized that he needed a tag from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, but he was concerned that if he left the antlers, coyotes would carry them off before he returned. He cut off the head, carried it to the barn and immediately had Barb phone Jason Hadsell, the Ashtabula County game warden.
"I called and said, 'My husband found a dead deer that is a very large buck,'" Barb said." I knew we needed a tag to verify there hadn't been any foul play."
Hadsell visited the location of the carcass but could find no sign that the buck had been shot. He tagged the buck as a carcass and turned it over to Rich.
On February 31, the Ewings took the rack to Maple Knoll Taxidermy, a Linesville, Pennsylvania, shop run by Jim Vorisek.
"The rack was so big that we weren't allowed to tell anybody where it was located, and we had to pick it up the day after (Vorisek) was done," Rich said. "He wanted it off the property.
"I hadn't realized it was going to be this big of a deal."
If the Ewings weren't aware of the magnitude of Sweetie's discovery, they would find out soon. Dave Plasky, a scorer for the Buckeye Big Bucks Club, green-scored the buck's antlers at 262 inches net non-typical -- by far the largest score of any buck recorded in the county.
After the mandatory 60-day drying period, scorers Michael Kaufmann and Randy Pepper officially measured the 29-point non-typical at 263 4/8 inches.
"They scored it right on our kitchen table," Rich said. "It took them two-and-a-half hours or better to score it."
AN UNLIKELY FIND
Other than the overwhelming score of the buck's antlers, perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the Ewings' tale is the location. To be certain, Ashtabula County, Ohio, is home to a fair number of whitetail hunters, but it hardly known as a "trophy county" in a state recognized for the caliber of its whitetail bucks.
In fact, Ashtabula County is in the opposite corner of the state from those counties known to produce monster whitetails.
"Over the last five years, the southwest has been the best in terms of producing trophy bucks," said Mike Rex, secretary and treasurer of the Buckeye Big Bucks Club. "Why is it so good? Because access is difficult and there is not a lot of public hunting."
Conversely, Ashtabula County in Ohio's District Three hunting area, is flat and fairly open, covered largely in cropland and forest. According to Ohio DNR records, the county ranked 14th among the state's 88 counties for total whitetail harvest during 2009-2010 season, but it failed to make even the top 20 counties for trophy buck harvest.
True, Ashtabula can claim the 10th largest non-typical buck in Ohio history -- a 242 4/8-inch deer killed with a shotgun in 1957, but according to Mike Tonkovich, deer project coordinator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, it is anything but a big buck bastion.
Tonkovich examined the number of Buckeye Big Buck Club entries per 1,000 antlered bucks harvested for each county -- a statistic he refers to as "trophy potential index" or TPI.
"The last thing I did was simply compute an average for the TPI by county for the period 1980-2005," Tonkovich wrote in an email. "Guess which county was dead last (out of 88 Ohio counties) -- Ashtabula. €¦ I could not believe that."
With a gross typical score of 202 3/8 and 68 inches of abnormal growth, the Ewing Buck is a world-class whitetail with a jaw-dropping frame. The antlers are dominated by curved main beams measuring 26 0/8 and 28 1/8 inches, respectively, and its G2s each extend 12 inches. Both bases top 6 inches, and the inside spread reaches 24 2/8 inches.
At press time, the buck's jawbone was still being analyzed for age, but estimates place the buck between 4 1/2 and 6 1/2 years old. Other than the video footage shot by the Ewings' neighbor, Art Kroepel, no other photos or film of the live buck have turned up.
Adjacent to the Ewings' property is a 200-acre tract of wooded private land where no hunting is allowed. It's likely the buck spent most of his days amid the sanctuary of those woods.
It's virtually impossible to determine how and why the buck died when it did, though the Ewings have a hunch.
"We had three feet of snow in a single week just before we found the buck," Barb said.
"We're hoping that he was so weak from passing on his genes that he died."
Because the Ewing Buck was not killed by a hunter, he will not be included in the Buckeye Big Bucks Club record book. Interestingly, it is not the only buck of world-class proportions to earn this distinction. The legendary "Hole-in-the-Horn Buck," which is listed in Boone & Crockett records as the second-largest non-typical whitetail in history with a score of 328 2/8, was found dead in 1940 in Portage County, Ohio, directly southwest of Ashtabula County.
And as for Sweetie, life is good.
"She has been the talk of the town," Barb said, "being that somebody had just abandoned her."
Rich let his wife of 24 years finish before adding one final comment of his own: "Maybe this was her way of paying us back€¦"