September 22, 2010
By Gordon Whittington
Even in a room filled with extraordinary whitetails, Ohio's unique
"Barnacle Buck" still would stand out. One look at him is all it takes to know why!
By Gordon Whittington
Ohio's "Barnacle Buck" has a virtually uncountable number of "points." Photo by Duncan Dobie.
How many points can a whitetail rack possibly have? Based purely on entries in the Boone and Crockett record book, to suggest that any buck could grow 50 points would seem to be optimistic; none with that many ever has been entered. Indeed, since the modern scoring era began in 1950, only a handful of true 40-pointers ever have been documented.
But never mind what official whitetail history suggests. You see, in 1989, an amazing "mystery" buck found dead in Ohio showed that the potential upper limit for antler points and score might be higher than anyone previously had imagined. This bizarre buck certainly raises some interesting questions about the scoring potential of non-typicals, as well as inviting us to wonder what the top end of whitetail antler growth ultimately might turn out to be. And yet, despite all of this, the deer in question doesn't even qualify for the B&C record book!
Late in October 1989, hunter Lionel Crissman was walking through a seasonal marsh in the northeastern part of the Buckeye State when he came upon the bleached and scattered bones of a large buck. There was no sign of why the deer might have died; in fact, it wasn't even easy to say how long the bones had been lying there. All Lionel knew was that the buck's skull was adorned with a huge, knotty mass of antlers, for the most part still covered in a shroud of dried velvet. It was an unusual deer, to say the least, and Lionel carried the skull out of the woods with him. Soon thereafter he acquired from the state a permit allowing him to keep the skull as a pick-up.
That might have been about as far as things ever went, except for a fortunate coincidence. A few weeks after Lionel's discovery, North American Whitetail staff photographer Tom Evans and I were in nearby North Lima, documenting big bucks taken by local hunters during shotgun season. The event was the annual Deer Hunters' Rendezvous, which was being put on by the East Ohio-Northwest Pennsylvania chapter of Safari Club International.
The rendezvous was held on the Sunday following the end of Ohio's six-day slug season, which opened the Monday after Thanksgiving. Because of the great genetic potential northeastern Ohio has - especially for non-typicals - there always was excitement in the air as the annual rendezvous approached. You just never knew which of the many vehicles pulling into the parking lot might be carrying a world-class trophy.
Tom and I were photographing a couple of big bucks in the middle of a snowstorm when local taxidermist Paul Thomas walked up. "This young fellow has a rack I think you'll want to see," Paul said, and when we turned around, Lionel was standing there with a wild-looking deer skull in hand.
My first impression was that it was merely another big "cactus" rack, which is the common term for knotty, gnarled antlers that for whatever reason don't shed their velvet. Very few of these deer have normal racks, but the more closely we examined this one, the more "normal" he appeared. Although he obviously had a lot of extra points jutting in every direction, the great amount of dried velvet hanging on the antlers made it difficult to say just how many points there were.
Most "cactus" racks are just a wad of stunted points. This one has a normal typical frame beneath the non-typical growth. Photo by Duncan Dobie.
"It looks like his rack is covered with barnacles," Tom said, and the more I studied the deer, the more I agreed with that description. The seemingly countless knobs and sharp points certainly did look like jagged barnacles covering a piling. And so, from that moment on, the deer unofficially was dubbed the "Barnacle Buck."
In the weeks following our chance meeting, Lionel stripped off the remaining velvet in small pieces, each time revealing more "points." Once completely stripped, the rack was found to be a basic 7-point typical (brow tines present but flattened and not scorable) that would score in the 140- to 150-point range on its own. Of course, the real question was this: How many of those abnormal points would be scorable?
When Paul Thomas and "Mac" McWilliams rough-scored the rack a few weeks later, they felt it might have the potential to threaten Missouri's 333 7/8-point world record in the non-typical category. Although they stopped far short of claiming it was a new No. 1 non-typical - there were just too many questionable points for them to crawl out on that limb - those of us at North American Whitetail naturally became more curious than ever about the Barnacle Buck. An official scoring session was arranged, to see how this odd buck really would measure up.
Bill Cooper, a highly experienced B&C measurer from Tifton, Georgia, tackled the job of scoring the head - and what a job it was! The entire process took him almost seven hours, due to the extremely complex nature of the deer's abnormal growth. When Bill finally had finished, he'd come up with a net score of 257 4/8 points. While that score was far short of a world record, it did make the deer the world's potential No. 14 non-typical as of the time.
But the most intriguing aspect of this great rack is not what it scores, but what it doesn't. Even a quick examination of the head shows the presence of literally dozens of "points" that don't quite reach 1 inch in length. They're piled on every available inch of the mainframe, and in some cases on top of each other.
If you could shrink yourself to the size of a flea and then walk along the main beams of the Barnacle Buck, it no doubt would seem as though you were wandering the floor of a long, winding canyon, with an amazing array of jagged formations leaning over you at every turn. This rack is a veritable "badlands" of bone, showing both great beauty and gross disfigurement.
Before this deer came along, no known whitetail rack had totaled 50 scorable points. This one has 72! And to determine how many unofficial points the Barnacle Buck has would be an even more daunting task. My own efforts to count "everything you can hang a ring on" yielded far in excess of 500 before I lost count, and I honestly think that as many as 1,000 projections on this rack would hold a ring - provided they were far enough apart to get the ring onto them, that is! Such strange formations aren't unheard
of on whitetail antlers, but this was perhaps the only time anyone had seen them in such numbers.
It's easy to see why the Barnacle Buck is a scorer's nightmare. Many projections appear at first glance to be legal points, but then, after laborious measuring, prove to be not quite an inch in length. As Bill notes, "If you could score points that were three-quarters of an inch long, it would take more than one day to measure this rack. The deer has an incredible number of projections that just aren't quite long enough to be scored officially."
|WHAT MAKES A TRUE POINT?|
In many parts of North America, deer hunters traditionally gauged a rack's size largely on the basis of how many
"points" it carried. The consensus was that if a ring could be hung on an antler projection, it was ruled a "point." But today, no official record book will recognize a point as being less than 1 inch in length.
Although Bill came up with 65 abnormals long enough to measure, far more than 100 additional projections fall into the "almost" category, ranging from 3/4 to 15/16 inch. These are scattered over both main beams and the G-2 and G-3 points on each side, as well as coming off each other. There isn't a single square inch of antler on this rack that doesn't contain at least one "point" of some description!
The world of big typicals is filled with "what if" racks: deer that almost score at the very top of their classification, but which, because of abnormal antler growth, fall short in net score. The Barnacle Buck is one of the few non-typicals which rightly can be called a "what if" deer.
For starters, what if none of his points had been broken off? A quick look at the rack shows that, especially on each antler base and the bottom of each main beam, there are numerous projections sheared off too short to measure. Several of these appear to have been large drop tines or burr points. Of course, it's impossible to say how many extra inches of antler this bizarre buck had grown, but it's easy to imagine an additional 30, 40 or even more inches. Those inches alone could have pushed him toward the thin air of 300 points.
Some additional inches of antler might have been on the rack when Lionel first found it, but we don't know. "I carried the skull out of the woods and threw it into the back of my pickup, then drove home," he recalls. "There was a lot of junk in the truck bed, and the skull was just bouncing around as I drove. It's scary now to think about having done that, and I don't know for sure that none of those points broke off then. But at the time, the rack was still dirty and had velvet all over it, and I really didn't know just what I had."
And then, what if an additional 50 of the rack's too-short projections had grown only a fraction of an inch more? Nudging them up to an inch apiece would have put the Barnacle Buck at better than 300 on his score sheet, even without the broken points being present. And adding "only" 80 additional 1-inchers to his current net score of 257 4/8 would have yielded a potential world-record bottom line of 337 4/8 points.
While we're speculating, it's not out of the question for this buck to have approached the heretofore-unthinkable total of 400 inches! This sounds like an enormous addition to his current rack, and in one way it is. However, we must remember that this type of score wouldn't have required him to grow an additional 150 inches of antler, only to have added slight amounts of bone to what he now has. How ridiculous is that?
Not very, according to noted researcher Dr. James C. Kroll of the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management and Research in Nacogdoches, Texas. As the Barnacle Buck was being measured, Dr. Kroll had an opportunity to check it out firsthand, and he came away with some interesting observations - among them the feeling that this deer hadn't yet finished growing his incredible rack.
"I think that if the buck hadn't died, all of those blunt, rounded points along the beams - I call them 'tubercles' - would have kept growing," the biologist says. "Some of the points are sharp on the tips, as though they had finished growing, but countless others appear to have been capable of reaching an inch or more in length within only a short period of additional time. The buck simply died before they became scorable."
Boone and Crockett measurer Bill Cooper figures up the Barnacle Buck's score. The total came to 257 4/8 net points. But a club rule barring "cactus" racks makes the deer ineligible for B&C at any score. Photo by Tom Evans.
Without a carcass to examine, of course, determining what killed the buck will be difficult at best. Likewise, we'll never know for sure exactly when he died. Lionel says he thinks the buck could have been lying in that swamp since the previous hunting season, even though there was little sign of rodent damage to the rack. (Incidentally, nobody in the area apparently ever saw the buck while he was alive, and it seems unlikely that a hunter killed him.)
Another amazing point is that Ohio Division of Wildlife biologists who examined the lower jawbone of the Barnacle Buck believe he was only 3 1/2 years old at the time of death! Dr. Kroll, however, estimates that the deer was 4 1/2. Either way, the animal obviously didn't die of "old age." A normal whitetail buck generally reaches maximum antler growth at age 6 1/2 or so. How big might this deer have been in his prime?
If the buck really did expire in the fall or winter of 1988, as Lionel says he suspects, the skeleton was around a year old when found. The deer must have been in velvet far later in the year than he should have been. And of course, if the skeleton was fresher - say, spring or early summer of 1989 - it's undeniable that the buck was experiencing an abnormally timed cycle of antler growth. There's pretty strong circumstantial evidence that no matter when the buck died, he was growing antlers at a time he shouldn't have been.
In determining the cause of this abnormal antler growth, it would be most helpful to know whether or not the deer was sexually virile. For the most part, the antler growth cycle is regulated by increases and decreases in the flow of the male hormone testosterone, which in turn is controlled by the varying amounts of
daylight as seasons change.
Of course, a normal buck starts growing his rack in early to mid-spring and finishes in late summer, whether he's a tiny spike or a world-class monster. Occasionally, though, something goes haywire in the buck's system. Instead of coming to a halt in late summer, antler growth may continue on into the colder months.
Most often, this abnormality is attributed to dysfunction of the testes (either physical injury to them or perhaps the effects of some disease). Without functioning testes, the buck's flow of testosterone is shut off or severely restricted, giving him no way to control the antler cycle. His system literally doesn't know when to stop or start growing a rack.
It's tempting to say this is what happened to the Barnacle Buck. However, Dr. Kroll has his doubts. "It appears to me that this deer might have suffered some sort of genetically triggered abnormality in the growth cycle," he says, "rather than castration or other such factors. The growth obviously got out of control, much like a form of bone cancer. One of the reasons the National Institutes of Health continue to fund research on deer antler growth is that the growth rate of these bone cells is approximately as fast as the growth rate of tumors. This buck might have suffered from something similar to a type of bone cancer.
"I'd love to know just what killed this deer," the biologist adds, "because it might give us some clues as to what made his antlers grow the way they did. It's interesting that the bones in the skull itself are very thin, as if the antlers pulled an excessive amount of calcium out of the skeleton."
While the record books were set up to document the most noteworthy of trophy animals, some of the oddest monster deer have had difficulty making it into the listings. So it is with the Barnacle Buck.
Because it's assumed that this deer didn't grow his rack in the course of a normal antler cycle, there must be some question as to whether or not he should compete for ranking against bucks that did. And what if he'd kept growing his rack for another six months? Would it be fair to call him the world record at, say, 350 points, outranking bucks that were comparatively "normal?"
Because the Barnacle Buck didn't turn out to challenge for the world record, the answer to that question is moot. But other "cactus" racks have turned up on occasion, so it's possible we'll eventually see one with enough antler to break B&C's non-typical record.
In hopes of heading off any such potentially sticky situations, not long after the discovery of the Barnacle Buck, B&C officials voted not to accept this trophy or any other "cactus" racks for entry. Thus, despite his size, Lionel's amazing whitetail doesn't grace the pages of the club's record book.
Ohio continues to amaze with its ability to turn out huge non-typicals. The state's trophy list is topped by the 328 2/8-point "Hole in the Horn" buck, found dead near Ravenna in 1940. This rack ranks No. 2 in the world, trailing only the 333 7/8-point Missouri Monarch (found dead near St. Louis in 1981). And Ohio apparently produced its second 300-incher in 2000. On Nov. 8 of that year, bowhunter Mike Beatty arrowed a Greene County giant that has been entered into B&C at 304 6/8 net points, making him potentially the world's top hunter-taken buck of all time.
No other geographic area of similar size can match Ohio for cranking out memorable non-typicals. And it's safe to say that the Barnacle Buck is about as memorable as they come!