April 20, 2011
Why are the whitetail record books littered with world-class non-typical entries that have been found dead? And why are so few hunters encountering them on the hoof?
The Minnesota Monarch's
matched sheds are history's largest pair from a wildwhitetail. But the deer himself was a ghost. Photo by David Hendrickson.
On a November evening in 1981, Dave Beckman was driving down a Missouri highway near the junction of the Missouri River with the mighty Mississippi at Columbia Bottoms when he glanced out the window and caught a glimpse of something that would make any avid whitetail hunter stop dead in his tracks -- antlers, and lots of them.
Not far from the road, on the opposite side of a fence, lay the body of a particularly large buck. But presumably it wasn't the body of the dead deer that caught Beckman's attention -- it was the rack. Wide, massive and sweeping, with seemingly as many points angling downward as upward, the buck's majestic rack was the largest Beckman had ever seen.
Beckman contacted the Missouri Department of Conservation to see about retrieving the carcass and antlers, and agent Michael Helland quickly arrived and claimed the deer for the state of Missouri. In the days that followed, biologists examined the deer for clues as to its mysterious death, only to find more questions and precious few answers. With no indication of trauma from a bullet or arrow, and no evidence that the buck had suffered a blow from a passing vehicle, investigators concluded the buck had died of "natural causes."
What was immediately evident, however, was that the buck, soon to be named the "Missouri Monarch," carried a set of antlers that would redefine the idea of what was possible in the deer woods. A year-and-a-half after its discovery, in the spring of 1983, the Missouri Monarch was entered into the Boone & Crockett Club's panel-measuring session, where it turned the whitetail world on its ear with a net non-typical score of 333 7/8 inches -- nearly four feet more than the previous world-record non-typical, a 286-inch buck shot in Brady, Texas, by Jeff Benson nearly 90 years earlier.
Suddenly, the horizon for trophy whitetail hunters had been extended. If a 5 1/2-year-old buck's antlers could eclipse the magical 300-inch mark within 20 miles of downtown St. Louis, then couldn't there exist other bucks of similar -- if not greater -- proportions?
But just as quickly as hunters started to rearrange their perspective on whitetail antlers, they began to question how a deer of world-record proportions could have lived out its life in a state crawling with deer hunters without revealing its presence. In the years since the Missouri Monarch's death, little reliable information has surfaced to suggest that the buck had been hunted -- or perhaps even seen -- by another human being. How was it that a deer could grow antlers this large, yet remain virtually unnoticed throughout its lifetime? And what, exactly, had caused its death?
TOP OF THE LIST
Nearly 30 years after its discovery, the Missouri Monarch still resides atop the Boone & Crockett Club's records for non-typical whitetails, albeit accompanied by a phantom distinction. Because officials concluded that the deer had died of natural causes, rather than hunter-inflicted injuries, it is listed in B&C records as a "pick-up."
Ohio's "Hole in the Horn" buck first was scored as a new world record at 342 3/8 B&C points. The score later was lowered to 328 2/8, making him No. 2 overall.
In that regard, it is not alone. In fact, the No. 2 ranking is held by another legendary buck that was also found dead -- Ohio's "Hole-In-The-Horn Buck." Dick Idol's discovery of the rack in the smoke-filled Kent (Ohio) Canadian Club bar in 1983 led both Idol and North American Whitetail on a twisted, 13-year investigation that ultimately solved the mystery of the buck's whereabouts and explained the cryptic hole in the buck's right antler.
The buck had been found dead by a crew of railroad workers near the Ravenna Arsenal in Portage County, Ohio, in 1940. Its antlers were entangled in a chain-link fence surrounding the arsenal, and one of the wires had worn a hole through the antler, presumably as the buck struggled to free itself. The rack ultimately hung scoreless in the Kent Canadian Club for 40 years, until Idol purchased it. With a final net non-typical score of 328 2/8 inches, the Hole-In-The-Horn Buck earned its place as one of the two most magnificent non-typical bucks ever to be recorded. Separated by hundreds of miles and more than 40 years, both the Hole-In-The-Horn Buck and the Missouri Monarch had been found dead, and no one had stepped forward with knowledge of either deer's existence prior to their inexplicable demises.
A TREND WORTH NOTING
Expand your review of the B&C record book beyond the top two non-typical entries, and the trend becomes even more intriguing. Based on the 12th Edition of "Records of North American Big Game," our review of the top 503 non-typical B&C entries reveals that 52 of them -- or nearly 10 percent -- were found dead.
By comparison, of the top 504 typical entries in the B&C record book, 34 -- or about 6.75 percent -- were listed as pick-ups.
The latest published B&C records do not include bucks killed within the last few years, so there are certainly more huge non-typical bucks that have been found dead but have yet to make it into the record book. In the last two years alone, no fewer than the following three world-class non-typicals were discovered dead:
€¢ Jordison Buck: During the 2008 season, Iowa hunter Adam Jordison discovered the remains of a 272 3/8-inch non-typical buck in Dallas County.
€¢ Waldron Buck: A month after the last season ended in Michigan in 2009, Sharon Weidmayer was walking her dog on her property when she stumbled upon the carcass of a buck that carried a massive set of antlers. The rack netted 246 2/8 inches -- enough to make it the highest scoring non-typical in Michigan history.
€¢ Ewing Buck: Following a brutal snowstorm in Ashtabula County, Ohio, during the 2010 winter, Rich and Barb Ewing's dog, Sweetie, returned to their farmhouse with a massive deer hoof in its mouth. Days later, Rich found the body of the buck in the woods surrounding his farm. The buck tallied a net non-typical score of 263 4/8 inches.
Non-typical entries are far less common in B&C records overall than are typical entries. While the 12th Edition of B&C's Records of North American Big Game maintains nearly 3,400 typical whitetail entries, it includes just under 2,400 non-typical entries. To put it succinctly, typical entries are nearly 40 percent more common than non-typical bucks. So why are substantially more non-typical bucks of world-class proportions found dead than typical bucks of comparable proportions?
INSIDE THE ANTLERS
The answer, it would appear, lies inside the very antlers that attract so much attention.
Antler growth requires a substantial amount of calcium and phosphorous, two vital minerals employed in a number of physiological processes and, particularly, in developing bone density throughout the skeletal system. During the peak period of antler development, it is not uncommon for an "average" whitetail buck to utilize a significant percentage of its calcium supply for antler growth alone.
The legendary Hole-In-The-Horn buck was found dead in Portage County, Ohio, and ranks second among all non-typical whitetails, behind the Missouri Monarch. Staff Photo.
"The normal whitetail will use about a third of what it brings in," said Dr. James Kroll, a renowned whitetail expert and regular contributor to North American Whitetail. "An animal like a moose has a whole lot tied up in its antlers. He's running at about 50 percent (of calcium levels)."
According to Kroll, recent modeling studies of the now-extinct Irish elk -- the largest deer known to man -- indicate that it required at least 70 percent of its calcium for its antlers.
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"Because we have a lot of Irish elk skeletons, there is tons of evidence of spontaneous fractures, which tells us that these animals were living on the edge," Kroll explained. "They had a huge nutritional demand to grow antlers that produced not only spontaneous fractures but also put their whole physiology at risk."
|VIDEO: Whitetail Antler Growth
In the case of whitetails -- and especially those with exceptional non-typical racks -- the demand for calcium is even greater that that placed on an "average" buck.
"They're growing so much bone," said Charlie DeYoung, a deer researcher at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. "When deer grow antlers, they steal minerals and so forth from the skeleton. It doesn't necessarily come from their diet.
"It's got to be something of a drain on their system."
BIGGER THEY ARE, HARDER THEY FALL
That drain can be manifested in any number of ways, according to whitetail experts, but among the most obvious are osteoporosis, or a loss of bone density that can lead to breakage, along with problems in nerve conduction, muscle contraction, blood clotting and immune response.
For whitetail bucks, nerve conduction and muscle contraction play pivotal roles in their ability to evade and escape predators. Strong bones enhance mobility and
help mitigate the physical stress created when fighting other bucks for dominance. Immune response clearly aids a deer in fighting off viral and bacterial threats. Ultimately, healthy levels of calcium and other minerals are crucial to a whitetail's survival.
"These mega-antlered (whitetail) bucks are in serious calcium deficiencies," Kroll said. "The result is obvious."
Unfortunately, little physiological data exists about the world-class non-typical whitetails that have been "picked up" and entered into the scorebooks. In many cases, the deer are tagged and only their antlers are kept for posterity's sake. Most of the time, even the age of the buck is not established.
"Autopsies would be useful," said George Bubenik, a professor of zoology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and an expert on antler growth. "I would say that the death of these animals probably has some relationship to calcium levels. The removal of calcium from the body to support large antlers can lead to several important conditions such as coagulation problems or weak bones -- especially vertebrae -- which can lead to the breakage of bones. And that can, of course, lead to the death of the animal."
In at least one case, however, some physiological data does exist. Despite failing to produce any evidence of hunter-inflicted or vehicle-inflicted trauma, the examination of the Missouri Monarch's carcass did produce one particularly interesting finding.
"Apparently a hematoma was found on the neck and some evidence of injury to a cervical vertebra," Lonnie Hansen, a deer biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, wrote in an email. "It was found along a fence and best guess is that it killed itself running into the fence. €¦ It may have been hit by a car, (but) the fact that it was on the side of the fence opposite the road suggests this isn't likely."
David Wissehr, a retired MDC wildlife management biologist who performed the initial examination of the Missouri Monarch, confirmed Hansen's assertion. Though nearly 30 years have passed since Wissehr first encountered the Missouri Monarch, his recollections are detailed and vivid.
"My first opportunity to see the deer was on the evening it was found, at the check station in St. Louis County," Wissehr recalled. "He had been dead a couple days, and the first thing we did was weigh him. Without being field-dressed, he weighed 250 pounds."
Wissehr then set about carefully skinning the buck, beginning at the hocks and working toward the chest, searching for clues of arrow or bullet penetration.
"We found nothing," Wissehr said. "But in the process of doing that, starting on his left shoulder and going up his neck on the left side, we found a hematoma. It came to within four or five inches of the base of his skull."
Wissehr carefully examined the hematoma, removing one layer of muscle tissue at a time.
Three years after discovering an incredible set of non-typical sheds, Adam Jordison brought home his world-class Iowa trophy after finding the massive deer dead from natural causes.
"The hematoma went deeper as you got up between the third and fourth vertebrae," he said, "and there was evidence of separation of the vertebra, of a broken neck.
"I'm not a veterinarian, but I wonder about whether he hooked an antler while he was running along the fence €¦ and injured his neck. That's kind of my unprofessional opinion."
Could it be that the Missouri Monarch, the largest non-typical whitetail ever recorded, suffered from a severe calcium deficiency thanks to its immense rack and that an encounter with a fence was all it took to break a vertebral bone? It's unlikely we'll ever know for sure, but the possibility certainly exists.
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"What we're seeing is natural selection at work," Kroll said. "The whitetail deer wants to have eight points, it wants to score about 130 inches, and it wants to be typical. That is the standard.
"Anything beyond that standard puts the animal at risk. Nature has a tendency to select against those exceptional individuals."
The question of why these record-book non-typical whitetails are dying is only part of the equation. How they are able to carry such magnificent crowns -- often in states where deer hunting is extremely popular -- without being killed by hunters or, in a number of cases, without being seen by human eyes is another matter entirely.
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.
What is it about the huge non-typicals that seems to associate them with clandestine lifestyles? How can they remain so elusive carrying the very trait that trophy whitetail hunters so fervently desire?
At first glance, it might seem plausible that these bucks are simply sub-dominant in their disposition, that they are not as driven as other b
ucks to assert authority during the rut and, as a result, spend more time in hiding. Perhaps they even conserve more energy and nutrition than dominant, or "alpha" bucks, which allows them to grow larger antlers. Not so, say the experts.
According to Bubenik, antler growth is in many cases related to the amount of testosterone produced by a buck during the rut, suggesting that sub-dominant deer would be unlikely to grow massive racks -- non-typical or otherwise -- because of suppressed testosterone levels.
"You're touching on an interesting point about 'alpha' and 'omega' bucks," said Bubenik. "From my experience, the bucks that were superior in the fall during the rutting period showed greater antler growth during the following spring. The size of the antlers in the spring is directly tied to the amount of testosterone produced during the fall rutting period.
"The buck that did not participate successfully in the rut will have lower testosterone levels and, as a result, show less antler growth in the following spring."
Ron Waldron (rt.) and Washtenaw County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Monsell admire the rack after Waldron received his tag. The buck died of unknown causes about a month after the end of the last deer season for 2009 and was found dead by Sharon Weidmayer, a nonhunting friend of Ron's.
Kroll asserts that the uncanny ability of deer with huge non-typical antlers to remain undetected lies more in their age than their "personality." But because the vast majority of record-book non-typicals that are found dead are not examined for physiological clues as to their age or cause of death, it is nearly impossible to find conclusive evidence.
"I wish we knew the ages of these deer," Kroll said. "A deer doesn't mature until he's 4 1/2 years old, and a lot of times, these strange non-typical antlers don't show up until late in the wild. That's a physiological phenomenon, a hormonal problem."
The whitetail buck is known to reach its prime during their fourth or fifth year, on average. After that, he begins to decline on a number of fronts, including his hormonal activity.
"A 5-year-old buck is a 60-year-old man," Kroll explained. "Essentially, he's going into retirement. What we end up with an animal that is more secretive, that is on a better diet, that doesn't take part in breeding and, as a result, doesn't wear itself down -- but he's still growing huge antlers."
Also contributing to the equation is the fact that mature deer are much more likely to operate under the cover of darkness, allowing them to avoid hunting pressure.
"Once a buck gets to 4 1/2 (years old), I don't care what he's got on his head, he's 95 percent nocturnal," Kroll said. "That's why the rut saves hunters.
"But if you've got a buck that is 95 percent nocturnal and he's not interested in breeding, a hunter is not going to kill him."
Though it's virtually impossible to say with certainty why there exists in the record books such a confluence of world-class non-typicals that have been found dead rather than killed, it is reasonable to assume that, in most cases, there are two factors in play.
First, their massive racks have drained the rest of their physiological system of vital nutrients, and especially calcium. As a result, these deer are more susceptible to potentially fatal health problems such as osteoporosis, cardiomyopathy and immunodeficiency. Behavior that would, under normal physical conditions, have little impact on the health of a buck -- sparring with other deer or evading and escaping predators -- can have lethal consequences in exceptional non-typical bucks.
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Second, most huge non-typical deer in the wild are fully mature bucks. They are almost entirely nocturnal and their hormone levels are beginning to decrease, meaning they are not as driven to participate in the breeding cycle. As a result, their presence often goes undetected by hunters and other humans.
"Bottom line, between physiological instability that comes from growing huge antlers and aging and changes in hormones," Kroll said, "the probability increases that these deer will be found dead rather than killed."
THEY ARE OUT THERE
In the deer woods, as in life, it is often the faint flicker of possibility that fuels the fire of persistence, patience and dedication so common in the minds and hearts of hard-core whitetail hunters.
It is the proven -- yet inexplicable -- that convinces hunters young and old, expert and inexperienced alike, that this is the season, this is the morning when lightning will strike, when the buck of a lifetime will provide your moment of truth.
And in the deer woods, as in life, there is no need for a guarantee. The simple belief that anything is possible can provide enough motivation to endure the heat, the cold, the rain and snow, the hours of boredom and the seconds of heart-pounding adrenaline.
For many hunters, myself included, that belief stems from the proven -- yet enigmatic -- existence of a world-class whitetail buck right beneath our noses, in the thicket just beyond your property line or the bottomland marsh bordering the highway you drive to work every morning. It's the belief that your trophy is out there, somewhere. All you have to do is find him.
And if you need convincing, take a look at the record book.