On a warm September morning in the fall of 2014, a forester named Babe McGowan was participating in a timber thinning operation on a tract of land in Dooly County. While in the process of marking trees in a stand of 17-year-old pines, he spotted something that abruptly stopped him in his tracks.
“Lying a short distance in front of me was the entire skull and rack of a very big buck,” Babe said. “In my line of work, finding an occasional shed antler or the scattered skeletal remains of a deer is nothing unusual, but in this case, the size of the rack was far beyond anything I had ever encountered. In spite of the thick vegetative ground cover, I had no problem seeing the skull and antlers.
“It was really fortunate that I happened to make the discovery that morning because the logging crew’s equipment had already made one pass through the stand, missing the skull by less than 10 feet. There’s no doubt it would have been destroyed on their next return trip.
“Although the skull and rack was intact, the antlers exhibited fairly significant damage from weather and gnawing by mice and other critters,” Babe continued. “It had obviously been lying there for several months.”
Later that afternoon, Babe drove to Vienna where he gave the skull and rack to Ronnie Cape. Ronnie, along with partner, Andy Coulter, operates Walton Trophy Bucks, a company that oversees and helps manage several thousand acres of land in Dooly, Crisp and Wilcox counties, including the tract of timber where the buck was found.
“Needless to say, Babe’s discovery was a pretty hot topic of conversation around our office for a couple of days,” Ronnie said. “Interestingly, we had no knowledge of any hunter in that specific area during the prior season having seen or shot at a buck of that size.”
In spite of the considerable rodent damage, the rack’s 5×5 typical frame still tallied some impressive measurements. For example, the main beams exceed 25 inches, the inside spread is 20 inches, and the four longest tines tape between 9 5/8 and 8 inches. Although the rack grosses an impressive score of 167 3/8, this figure would easily have climbed into the mid-170s without the antler damage.
Because of the dense ground vegetation where the rack was picked up, the deer’s lower jaw bones were never found. However, wear on teeth still remaining in the skull, placed the buck in the 4 1/2- to 5 1/2-year-old age class.
A few days following Babe’s discovery, Andy Coulter turned up a copy of a trail camera photo sent to him the previous fall (2013) by one of the individuals that had hunted the property. Although the photo lacks sharpness, there is little doubt it is a picture of the big deer. Not only is the wide 10-point frame clearly visible, a 5-inch abnormal point located near the right brow tine is also quite apparent.
“Unfortunately, after contacting the hunter, it turns out that particular photo, plus one or two additional photos of the deer, has since been erased from the camera’s memory card,” Andy noted. “Even though the trail camera’s location was within several hundred yards of where the skull and rack was eventually found, there was never a confirmed sighting of the buck either before or during the 2013 season.”
Many people find it incredulous that a trophy class whitetail can survive in an area that has some degree of continual hunting pressure throughout the season; particularly when that season includes 12 weeks of firearms hunting. Nevertheless, it not only happens, but the degree of occurrence is probably much higher than many would believe.
Certainly, the continued development and increased use of trail cameras over the last 20 years has been a major factor in documenting the existence of big deer in some surprising places. There are numerous success stories of hunters utilizing camera data to locate, pattern and eventually take a big whitetail. However, there are also many instances of the cameras recording images of large bucks that are never encountered before, during, or after the hunting season. This somewhat frustrating situation has resulted in some hunters referring to these deer as “ghost bucks.” And since the photos are almost always recorded at night, the glowing-eyes images certainly justify the name.
A number of factors, such as human activity, hunting pressure, deer density and the deer’s age can affect the behavioral pattern of bucks. Mature whitetails in particular often choose a more isolated existence, especially following the annual hormonal change that accompanies the fall shedding of antler velvet. Some of these bucks prefer the seclusion of darkness and adjust their movement patterns accordingly, even during the rut. Basically, the only thing predictable about a buck that has advanced into the upper age classes is that they are completely unpredictable.
Obviously, without today’s trail cameras many of these ghost bucks would go undetected, as they surely did in the past. However, there have been a few notable exceptions, one of them occurring in Dooly County in the early 1990s.
In March of 1991, a man was watching his bird dog get some exercise in the brushy ground cover of a young planted pine stand. A few moments after disappearing into a nearby drain, the dog reappeared carrying a very large deer antler in its mouth. It was obvious the antler had been recently shed, and after several minutes of additional searching, he discovered the matching antler lying nearby.
Even to the casual observer, the size of the two shed antlers was amazing, particularly in regard to antler mass. The long 25-inch beams included 18 points, 10 on the left antler and 8 on the right. Perhaps most noteworthy was that all eight circumference measurements exceeded 5 inches. Using an arbitrary inside spread measurement of 20 inches, the rack grossed a tremendous non-typical score of 195 7/8.
Perhaps even more remarkable than antler size was the fact that there were no reported sightings of the buck prior to the sheds being discovered, nor during the years that followed. In other words, had the sheds not been found, no one would have known the record-class whitetail ever existed. Certainly, a ghost buck by any account.
Anyone who has spent a few seasons deer hunting can appreciate the degree of difficulty in taking a trophy class buck, let alone trying to hunt down a ghost. On the other hand, the suspense of never knowing when that magical “right place at the right time” is going to happen is why the whitetail is the number one big game trophy in North America.