There's a certain mystique associated with the whitetail, and for many hunters it outweighs that of any other game animal. The species has demanded the attention, admiration and infatuation of millions of people across the continent for centuries. From providing natives and early settlers with food to offering modern sportsmen both venison and recreation, the whitetail has interwoven human history with its own.
Since the early days, North America's most recognizable and pursued big-game animal has only grown in popularity. So quite naturally, the elite bucks that have rewritten the record books hold special places in the halls of hunting history. Their stories deserve to be told. And so it is with northern Tennessee's Stephen Tucker buck, which just emerged as a contender for the coveted title of world record among hunter-taken whitetails.
Stephen started hunting at a young age. In fact, he remembers with clarity harvesting a 6-pointer on his first deer hunt, when he was 10 years old. Since then, his passion for the outdoors has expanded to include not only deer but also waterfowl, turkeys and other game animals. Until Nov. 7, 2016, though, he'd never harvested a buck of giant status. Needless to say, that's now changed. As this issue goes to press, the buck awaits official entry scoring, which was scheduled to take place on Jan. 9, 2017.
Anticipation of those results runs high, for if the buck's unofficial "green" score of 308 3/8 net non-typical holds up, he'll tentatively be the world's biggest wild whitetail ever harvested by a hunter. Here follows his unlikely story.
Giant in the Corn Field
Stephen's story begins in a dusty tractor and grain cart leading a roaring combine down endless rows of Tennessee corn. On that September day, 26-year-old Stephen was driving the tractor back to the farm, having just finished a day's work. As he neared the farm, Stephen's phone rang out. Stephen saw it was his uncle, Steve, who was driving the combine directly behind him. None the wiser as to what he was about to hear, Stephen answered.
"Look at this deer! You have to stop and look at this deer!" Steve cried.
Startled by the excitement in his uncle's voice, Stephen started to swing the tractor to the right for a look at the deer.
"No! No!" Steve advised over the phone. "Just keep going straight out of the field. The buck is headed up the drain. You'll see him. He's going to come out right in front of you."
Sure enough, seconds later Stephen spotted the magnificent non-typical.
"I stopped, and when the buck came out it was like looking through tunnel vision," says Stephen. "He stopped for about 15 seconds, and I just couldn't really comprehend all the points on his rack. I was blown away. He was tall and had stuff going everywhere."
Having been totally unaware of the monster buck prior to spotting him that day, Stephen was especially shocked by the experience. He'd never even hunted that particular side of the farm. But now, taken aback by the appearance of the giant whitetail just three days before the archery opener, the hunter knew he'd need to get a plan together fast.
"I had no clue the deer was there until we started shelling corn that day," says Stephen. "As soon as I'd seen him, I went and borrowed my brother-in-law, Morris's, trail camera. I bought myself one, as well."
In hopes of getting trail camera photos of the giant non-typical, Stephen put both of the cameras in locations he hoped the buck would frequent. Not long afterwards, he was looking at photos of a buck he knew would change his life.
"I put both of the cameras out right away," says Stephen. "I immediately started getting pictures of him, but mostly at night. I'd get five days straight of only nighttime photos, and then, boom, he'd show up out of nowhere at 7:30 a.m. Every five or six days, roughly, he'd show up during daylight."
Hunting Something Huge
Little could Stephen have imagined he'd discover a 300-class whitetail living on a 50-acre tract his family has leased for the last 40 years, in a state that never had yielded a deer near that caliber. But when the young farmer did come to this realization, he knew he'd need to hunt wisely to kill the buck.
The first decision to make was whether or not to pursue the deer during archery season. Having bowhunted some over the years, but never for a known giant, Stephen was hesitant to push his luck. Not feeling totally confident in his chances of harvesting the deer with a bow, he elected to play it safe.
"I bowhunted for the buck only twice, but I wasn't hunting even close to where my cameras were," says Stephen. "I chose to hunt him with my crossbow, but I was so scared I was going to run him out of there. After those two trips, I decided to wait until muzzleloader season (opening Nov. 5)."
It's hard to argue with Stephen's logic. Knowing it would take a special kind of resolve to remain calm and collected when faced with an opportunity at a buck of this caliber, Stephen made the ethical call and awaited a chance at the buck during muzzleloader season. Not often is a hunter put in a position to decide whether to hunt or wait for a world-class buck, but Stephen felt his decision was in the best interest of the buck.
"A lot of people gave me grief for not hunting the buck during bow season," he explains. "People couldn't comprehend waiting on a deer like this. But I just didn't feel confident in harvesting him with a bow, so I decided to wait. I was really hoping that the rut would bring him out more consistently during the daytime, where I'd have a better chance."
Electing to forgo any future crossbow hunts for the giant, Stephen could only hope he'd stay close to the farm. During early bow season Stephen wasn't sure to what extent neighboring farmers were hunting, but he suspected the buck had garnered some attention.
"At the time, I didn't know if I was the only person who knew about the buck," says Stephen. "Later, I came to find out that several neighboring farmers had trail camera photos of him. Someone had actually posted a picture of the buck on Facebook, and another guy who was hunting the deer called him immediately to tell him to remove the photo so no one else was aware of the buck.
"There are five or six houses down the road with farms behind them, and some of those fellas were hunting for him," Stephen continues. "They said early in the year the buck was crossing the road onto our farm, and once we cut the corn he pretty much stayed on our side."
The 50-acre tract on which Stephen would hunt the buck, and where neighbors had spotted him, had roughly 30 acres of corn, with the remainder a dense thicket. The thicket proved to be a popular haunt for the massive buck, as Stephen regularly got trail cameras photos of him traveling through the area. Stephen felt confident that the buck was living in the thicket, especially since the cut corn field seemed to be holding a good concentration of does. With muzzleloader season fast approaching, Stephen had high hopes for opening weekend.
Closing the Distance
It's safe to say that when opening day arrived, no other Tennessee hunter was as excited or hopeful as Stephen was. With his family's full support and encouragement, he readied himself for opening weekend of muzzleloader season. The chance this patient hunter had been waiting on was knocking at the door, and his anticipation was redlined.
Arriving at his ground blind over an hour before the break of daylight, Stephen made a conscious effort to settle in before the buck showed up.
"You'll probably make fun of me, but on opening morning I was in my blind, set up, by 4:30," he says. "I knew I'd better go early. I wanted to make sure that if I spooked anything walking on the field edge, they'd have more than an hour to calm back down."
Awaiting daylight, Stephen had ample time to imagine what it would be like to see this massive buck on the hoof in a hunting situation. Hopeful the giant would be on his feet checking scrapes or looking for does, Stephen mentally prepared himself for an encounter.
"I could barely take the excitement," he explains. "I kept thinking back to that day when I spotted him from the tractor, and all the trail camera photos were replaying in my head. I knew this buck was huge, but I didn't know how huge — until I saw him."
Stephen's morning hunt accelerated from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye when the giant walked out at a mere 30 yards. Stephen had placed his Ameristep ground blind in the right spot, as the buck appeared within bow range of a heavily used scrape. The buck had been frequenting the scrape, which Stephen had continually freshened with doe urine to keep him coming back.
Stephen knew he had to act quickly but quietly to get into position for a shot without spooking the buck. And that wasn't going to be easy. The deer had no intention of hanging around long, and he started walking toward the nearby woods line. Stephen fought the shakes as he tried to find the deer in the crosshairs of his Leupold scope.
"When I finally got the buck in my scope, I knew it was my last chance before he was gone," says Stephen. "I squeezed the trigger, and all that went off was my primer. I dry-fired on the biggest buck I've ever seen. He looked right at the ground blind, and then eased off. That was horrible. Horrible."
Stephen feared, of course, that he'd never see the monster again. Luckily, though, the buck didn't appear to have been badly spooked. He'd definitely heard the noise, as he'd looked in the direction of Stephen's ground blind, but he hadn't blown or run away. Instead, he'd acted as if he were still interested in checking the scrape. Hoping the buck would give him another chance, Stephen decided to return to the spot after lunch.
"I saw him again that afternoon," the hunter explains. "He came out of the thicket at the top of the field and was looking at a group of 10 does that were standing right in front of my ground blind within 40 yards. I thought for sure that he was going to come right in and check those does out, but he just stood there, looking. I ranged him at 162 yards, and I put my gun up on the shooting sticks and aimed at him. I'd never taken a shot that far, and I'd never even practiced shooting that far. I passed him, because I didn't feel confident in the shot. A few minutes later, he walked back into the thicket."
After waiting all bow season for a chance to hunt this monster buck with his Knight muzzleloader, Stephen had seen the giant on both the morning and afternoon of opening day. Unfortunately, neither encounter had ended with a bullet heading in the deer's direction. However, Stephen had again proved his strong sense of ethics. Not wanting to risk injuring a buck of such grandeur, he'd made the difficult decision to pass the giant in hopes of getting a shot at closer range.
"Again, a lot of people couldn't believe I passed an opportunity at the deer," claims Stephen. "When I got home that night, my buddies were saying things like, 'Oh, man, you should have taken that shot; you could have just aimed high!' But I knew that if I'd missed a shot at that buck I'd have risked never seeing him again. Or worse, I might have crippled him. I didn't want to do that."
Stephen was naturally unsure if he'd see the buck again. And his hopes dwindled even more after his Sunday morning hunt. After again setting up early in his ground blind, he spent the morning on pins and needles with spooky does. Not wanting to risk over-pressuring the area, the hunter let the spot rest on Sunday evening. The next morning, however, it was back on.
"On Monday morning I set up in the blind that I had placed about 25 yards from one of his scrapes," says Stephen. "I was on an island right in the middle of the corn field. Before daylight, I heard a deer behind me, and that deer walked right in front of my blind. I couldn't tell for sure, but I have a feeling it was him. That deer walked right over toward the scrape."
Stephen had no way to tell whether or not the deer he saw in the early morning hour was the giant, but intuition told him it was. As the buck worked his way out of sight, Stephen started to worry. Had he just missed getting yet another opportunity at the monster buck he'd been hunting? As it turns out, his question would soon be rendered moot.
"Not much later, after it turned daylight, I saw him headed my way," says Stephen. "I spotted the buck coming back towards me from the scrape, and there was no doubt about it this time. It was him. I had closed the back windows of my blind to hide my movement, so I was able to get my gun up and prepare for a shot. That's when my heart started racing. This was the third time I'd seen the buck, and I knew I'd have to close the deal — especially after he'd already given me two opportunities."
With a world-class whitetail 40 yards in front of him, Stephen readied himself for the occasion. It's obviously ultra-rare to get a crack at a deer of this caliber, and Stephen knew he'd already had two chances. As he raised his gun, he was hoping the third time would in fact be the charm.
"I couldn't get the mesh down from the ground blind window," Stephen recalls. "I didn't have time, and I was too afraid he'd spot me if I tried to slide the window down. So I steadied my gun and aimed right through the mesh. When I was on him, I dropped the hammer.
"Now, let me tell you: A muzzleloader going off inside a ground blind without the barrel sticking out of the window is something else. It was so smoky, and I was just trying to see through all the smoke if I'd hit the deer."
Through that cloud of Triple Seven smoke, Stephen caught a fleeting glimpse of the monster buck running, tail tucked, into the thicket. After that, the hunter's emotions totally took over. The quest for the giant had just taken a serious turn in the right direction.
"The first thing I did after I shot the buck was text my wife, Caitlyn," says Stephen. "She was on her way to work in Nashville, and I texted her: 'I just shot him.' Then I called Morris, and he knew exactly what was happening when he answered the phone. I was hyperventilating so badly I couldn't even make words. He told me later that I could barely say anything, and I could hardly even function I was so excited. I was torn all to pieces, and my legs were jackhammering."
Morris called Stephen back a few minutes later and asked him if he'd reloaded his muzzleloader. Stephen said he hadn't. Morris told him to go ahead and reload, just in case he might need to take another shot.
"Reloading that muzzleloader was one of the hardest things I've ever done," laughs Stephen. "I was so beside myself. It took me forever, and Morris was making fun of me, joking for me to just calm down."
Not long afterwards, Morris arrived at the farm. Stephen eased out of the field, and the two men sat together in the truck. As Stephen's excitement grew, he told Morris about the hunt and about the shot. After a little more than an hour, they decided to take a look.
"When we got to the spot where I shot the buck, there was no blood on the ground, just hair," explains Stephen. "We finally found one speck of blood on a trail so beaten down it looked like cows had been in there. Another 50 yards in or so, we found another small bit of blood. After a while, we'd found so little blood that we decided to stop for fear of jumping him. I knew if we jumped the buck, he might run miles before we found him.
"As we were about to back out, Morris decided we should walk up a split in the trail to check one more spot before waiting until after lunch," Stephen continues. "We walked a few feet up that fork, and the blood trail really opened up. After that it was a good blood trail, and we felt confident to keep going. As I worked my way forward, I looked ahead of me and to the right, and there he was. I just couldn't believe it. I felt so blessed."
It's hard to imagine what it must have felt like to lay hands on this giant whitetail. Stephen recalls that he was so excited, his memory of it is basically a blur.
"I was in shock all day," the hunter explains. "I was very, very excited to have harvested this deer. We took some great field photos with friends and family, and then Mr. Dale Grandstaff came over that evening to score the buck."
Dale is a captain with the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency and a certified Boone & Crockett measurer. As the tape measure told, the 47-point rack gross scored an astounding 313 2/8 inches, with a net of 308 3/8 inches. With these measurements, the Tucker buck stands to best the current Tennessee record non-typical: a deer harvested in Sumner County by avid hunter David Wachtel. The Wachtel buck scored 244 3/8 inches net and was killed in 2000, also with a muzzleloader. (See sidebar on page 26.)
It's critical to note that the score on the Tucker buck is unofficial. As this issue goes to press, the mandatory 60-day drying period hasn't yet passed. However, as soon as possible we'll know the official entry score. We also anticipate getting an update on the deer's age, which Dale estimated from tooth wear to be not over 4 1/2.
As mentioned, if the Tucker buck remains at 308 3/8 net or higher, he'll best Tony Lovstuen's 307 5/8-inch hunter-killed world record, which was taken with a muzzleloader in Iowa in 2003. Barring an even bigger buck showing up, that would make the Tucker buck the world's No. 1 hunter-taken whitetail. Regardless, he clearly ranks among history's greatest, and quite likely the best ever from the South. Tony Fulton's 295 6/8-inch Mississippi rifle kill from 1995 now holds that unofficial title.
"I've never experienced any kind of hunting that has given me the rush I felt when I killed this big deer," says Stephen. "I don't know how to explain it, but nothing else even compares. Not turkeys, ducks or anything else. I mean, it was special. I was blessed."
Blessed indeed. Congratulations, Stephen, on taking this tremendous whitetail. And thanks for sharing your story with our readers!