Like a lot of Pennsylvania hunters, Dave Zagorski had mixed feelings when the state imposed antler restrictions in 2002. However, after shooting this 5 1/2-year-old monster last season, he Now believes it's worthwhile to let younger bucks grow up!
When the Pennsylvania Game Commission adopted a controversial antler restriction policy beginning with the 2002 deer season, a few critics claimed that the PGC was trying to create a trophy state on par with Illinois or Iowa. For everyone except junior hunters, shooting yearling spikes and forkhorns became history.
They don't come much wider than this! Dave's 11-point monster, taken in western Pennsylvania, sported a 27-inch outside spread. Dave's awesome trophy grossed 174 5/8 inches.
Indeed, the antler restriction policy has in no way made Pennsylvania a "trophy state," because its aim was primarily to give the deer herd more bucks with greater maturity by allowing as many as possible to survive beyond their first set of antlers. Now the buck harvest is no longer overwhelmingly composed of yearlings. Many bucks survive to 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years of age, and with every season those bucks get smarter and harder to kill.
That means older bucks have acquired an aptitude for eluding one of the biggest orange armies in North America. And few have been more impressive than the massive typical buck that Dave Zagorski shot last fall -- a 5 1/2-year-old buck with antlers more than 2 feet wide -- officially taped at 24 5/8 inches inside!
If anyone is tempted to think that's not impressive, consider the numbers. Of the 11,031 whitetails entered in the Boone and Crockett records, fewer than 5 percent have an inside spread of 2 feet or more. And that includes both typical and non-typical racks. Even if Dave's buck wasn't a B&C qualifier, that fact alone puts the deer in an elite class.
We sometimes hear deer camp stories of racks so wide they won't fit between trees, but almost none actually reach such legendary width. And in Pennsylvania we're not talking about a Midwestern corn-fed monster hiding out in some brush-choked river bottom to avoid hunting pressure. We're talking an Eastern state with almost a million hunters!
A FREIGHT TRAIN OF A BUCK
Dave himself had mixed feelings when the state embarked on the new antler restriction policy seven years ago. An avid archer and gun hunter his entire life, he was glad he could consider almost any buck legal -- even if he decided to pass on the yearlings.
Dave hunts in the western part of the state, and he killed his freight train of a buck in Beaver County a few miles from his home in Ellwood City. He knew about the buck because he glimpsed it one day in 2007 while heading to a stand. The huge buck walked out onto a pipeline about 200 yards away, but quickly ran off. Dave never heard of anyone killing it, so at the beginning of the 2008 season he felt confident that there was a good buck running around behind his dad's house.
Dave's confidence was found to be justified one day in early October when his dad, Lou, was walking his Labrador retriever on the hill behind his house and saw the enormous buck stand up 35 yards away. The buck wasn't spooked, but simply looked at him as if to say, "What are you doing here?" before walking off. The fact that the dog never noticed the buck made it seem like a dream to Lou.
"He was so excited he called me at work, and he went on and on about how big this buck was," Dave said.
I told him he was probably exaggerating. Even if Lou was exaggerating, at least Dave knew that a real live dream buck was living there, and he committed to making more time for archery hunting in order to have a chance to score on this wide-racked monster.
A BLESSING IN DISGUISE
Dave isn't a hard-core advocate of using scents, but his wife Lisa has a coworker who raises deer, and Dave got some doe urine from him. He tried making a mock scrape in an area that showed heavy deer use. The spot wasn't suitable for Dave's ladder stand, so he put up a hang-on stand.
"It seemed like every time I was out, I saw either a scrape that was freshened up or a new rub. One tree about 7 to 8 inches in diameter was all torn up, and I knew it wasn't a little buck that did that."
Dave saw quite a few deer, including at least five different bucks. Most were half-racks or had broken racks, a good sign that "something was back there beating up on them."
Pennsylvania's antler restriction rules for the area Dave was hunting require that a buck have at least 4 points on a side. Because so many antlers were busted up, Dave didn't see anything he was sure might be a shooter until the last week of archery season, when a nice 7-pointer walked right under his stand. Thinking his dream buck might never show up, he decided to try for this one. Taking careful aim, he missed the deer clean!
Dave was upset about the miss, but he later found that his sight was off almost a foot. He remembered bumping it one day, and apparently that was the reason. In retrospect, he now says, "That was a blessing in disguise."
Archery season closed with a sense of frustration for Dave, and with gun season approaching, he knew hunting this giant buck was going to be a challenge. By that time, most of the neighbors had either seen the big buck or heard about it, and people were talking about it. To make matters worse, the area was full of reclaimed strip mines, and a natural gas pipeline cutting through the area offered easy access to other hunters.
THE 2008 FIREARMS SEASON
Opening day was windy, with sub-freezing temperatures. Apparently the deer were laying low because of high winds. Dave didn't see a single deer on opening day. Day 2, Dec. 2, started out as a carbon copy of the day before.
At about 10 a.m., Dave's dad called him on the radio. He said he was heading down to the house. Dave knew his day would be shortened too. At midafternoon he had to pick up his daughters, Taylor and Morgan, at their bus stop. By 10:30, he abandoned his tree stand and decided to walk. If the deer weren't moving, maybe he could walk up on something, he thought.
Dave headed toward a wild apple tree, turned up a quad trail to the area where his dad had been hunting, and then cut through some pines. As he approached the gas line, he caught a glimpse of fluorescent orange. He met up with the hunter who said that all he had spotted was a 3-pointer. As Dave listened to the story, he watched the pipeline, alert for any movement.
Suddenly he saw a deer step out into the gas line easement, about
200 yards away. Its head was down and some tree branches blocked Dave's view. At first he thought the deer was a doe. When Dave knelt down for a steadier look, he realized it was a buck, and not just any buck. . . . It was the buck he had been dreaming about!
"For the first time since the installation of the Pennsylvania antler restriction law, I didn't need to count the number of legal points!" he said.
Dave took careful aim and fired a hand-loaded 150-grain Nosler ballistic tip from his .30-06. The deer went down but continued to move. Dave quickly fired another shot and the buck was his.
"This monster was immune to ground shrinkage," Dave said. "The closer I got, the bigger the rack looked!"
A season that began with archery hunting for this giant now turned into a cell phone celebration. The first thing Dave did was take a photo with his cell phone and send it to his wife. Lisa called back within a minute, asking if he was going to get the buck mounted. Then Dave called his father and told him what the buck "he had been exaggerating about since October" actually looked like on the ground.
Lou was on his way to town, but he immediately turned around. He wanted to make sure he gave his son a hand with this buck.
"I made a special effort to see my dad's face as he rode his quad up to the magnificent buck," Dave said. "It was a great moment. I had hunted for 27 years, and while I've been fortunate to have harvested some fine bucks, I knew that I would never top this one."
"See, you thought I was exaggerating!" his dad said for the first of what must have been over a dozen times.
The 5 1/2-year-old buck weighed 168 pounds field dressed, and was estimated to be 215 pounds live weight. The 11-point rack was officially measured by Jeff Kendall, a Pennsylvania wildlife conservation officer. It tallied a gross score of 174 5/8 inches and a net of 167 5/8 inches. Dave's taxidermist, Jeff Lindy, said it was the biggest rack he has seen in 23 years of business.
Without Pennsylvania's antler restriction policy, the odds are that this buck would never have shown his true potential -- and probably wouldn't have made it to his second birthday. What does Dave now think about antler restrictions? He believes it's well worth it to let bucks grow up!