By now, many GON readers are familiar with the recent controversy that erupted after Lee Ellis killed a giant buck named “Zeus” on Nov. 16 that could end up being Georgia’s best typical buck ever taken with a bow.
Within a few days of killing the big deer in a north Atlanta suburb, a story posted on Facebook claimed Zeus was a pen-raised buck that had been bottle-fed as a fawn, had worn a collar with bells on it for years and had spent nearly all of its 10 years living in the backyard of the man who had raised him.
Since Lee appeared on the cover of GON several years ago with another big buck he killed, and since he had once faced a game-law violation as a teenager, the Facebook post was widely circulated and caused considerable concern among deer hunters and GON readers. Social media can be a great tool for distributing information, but it can also be a dangerous weapon.
Unfortunately, it is a sad reality in today’s world that whenever a trophy buck is killed anywhere, rumors begin to circulate almost immediately from people making accusations and claims about the buck and the hunter who killed it. It happens to virtually every hunter who shoots a record-book buck.
GON contacted me and asked me to write an objective story about this controversy. Was Lee’s deer a tame “pet,” as was claimed, or was it a wild deer that was hunted and killed under fair-chase conditions? In order to obtain these facts, I set out to speak personally with all parties involved: Lee Ellis (the hunter), Daniel Eidson (the man who made the statements on Facebook), and “Mr. D” (the landowner who was feeding Zeus).
From what I learned about the buck named Zeus, it was wild deer that roamed a wide area in north Atlanta. For at least the past four years, his range encompassed nearly 2 square miles. Numerous hunters knew about this deer, numerous hunters had been after him for the past few seasons, and numerous trail-camera photos were taken of the deer.
Lee, along with Drew Carroll and Jay Maxwell, video hunts under their Seek One Productions trademark. They have a large network of friends who hunt bucks in north Atlanta. They talk among themselves often, sharing information and photos. If a collared buck wearing a bell had been roaming the area for years, someone would have heard about it or seen it. Someone would have posted pictures of the collared deer online. The local game wardens would have heard about it because it is illegal to keep a deer in a pen without a special permit.
People frequently rescue orphan fawns. But when those fawns grow up, they easily revert to their wild nature, even if kept in a pen. As soon as “Bambi” reaches the age of about 1 1/2 years, he becomes a different animal. Numerous are the cases where penned bucks have turned on their owners, even killing them, as soon as the deer are old enough to breed. Tame bucks hand-raised by people are dangerous. Furthermore, unless confined to a pen all its life, no free-roaming whitetail buck would ever spend 10 years living in a single woodlot.
A common misconception held by many hunters who have never gone after whitetails in a suburban situation is that they are somehow “tame” animals and therefore easier to kill because they frequently walk through people’s yards, and they are often seen crossing roads or even bedding in backyards. From what I’ve learned reporting on Atlanta’s suburban bucks over the past decade, and hunting them myself in south Fulton County, nothing is further from the truth. The deer found in the suburban counties of Cobb, north Fulton and DeKalb, where only bowhunting is allowed, are as wild as any deer that ever graced this planet, and for many reasons they may even be more difficult to hunt than “country” deer.
Lee first learned about Zeus in 2014 when the buck carried a 170-inch rack. He began trying to pattern the deer along with several other bucks he had targeted. He found a shed from Zeus in early 2016. He hunted the deer without success from September through December 2016, and into January. Last spring, Lee was out knocking on doors and searching for sheds. At one point, he stopped at a wooded 2-acre lot he had seen on an aerial photo where he hoped to get permission to either hunt or look for sheds and put out a camera. The house sat back from the road. As he got out of his truck and started walking down the driveway, the next-door-neighbor saw him and asked him what he was doing. (Out of respect for this man’s privacy, we’ll call this man Mr. D for Mr. Deerman.)
Mr. D lives next door on 3 wooded acres. He keeps a chain-link fence around his property, a gate at the driveway entrance and posted signs all along his fence line. He is a very private individual. Surrounding his property on two sides are several subdivisions containing expensive homes. Some of the homes sit on large lots.
Lee said he told Mr. D he was going to knock on the door of the property owner and ask permission to hunt and look for sheds on his acreage. Mr. D told Lee that the house on the property was vacant, and that he looked after the property for the absentee owner. Then he said, “I hope you don’t find the sheds from the big 15-point buck I’ve been feeding.”
According to Lee, Mr. D said he had been feeding deer in his backyard for years, and a big 15-point buck often came to his feeder with other deer. Lee told Mr. D that he’d been hunting a certain big buck in the area for several years. Lee wondered if it was the same big buck he’d been hunting. Mr. D invited Lee over to his property to look at some of the shed antlers and photos he had collected over the years. Lee asked the landowner if he would consider allowing him to bowhunt on the back of his acreage. Mr. D answered “no,” and said he didn’t allow anyone to hunt “his” deer. He added, “You better not kill my ‘big one.” Mr. D showed Lee the only sheds he had of the big buck that he had found on his property. Lee believed they were from 2014. After they visited a while, Lee asked Mr. D if he could come back and try to get a picture of the big one at the feeder. Mr. D said yes.
During the spring and summer of 2017, Lee said he visited Mr. D eight to 10 times in an attempt to see the big buck. When he finally did see the deer, in velvet, the buck stayed back in the woods and did not come out in the open. According to Lee, the buck’s behavior was typical of any wild mature buck that might come to a corn feeder. Does and smaller bucks frequently came to the feeder during daylight hours in Mr. D’s presence, but none of the deer were tame. They were used to seeing Mr. D fill his small feeder several times a day, and they did not consider him a threat. Mr. D never got any closer to Zeus than about 40 yards when the deer came to eat corn. According to Lee, at no time did Mr. D mention that he had hand-raised any orphaned fawn or that any of “his” deer had ever worn a collar, much less the big 15-point.
Mr. D puts out corn, water and salt for deer. Over the years, he has become very attached to the deer on his property, and he expresses a special affection for all the deer that come to his feeder. To him, they are all “pets.” Even though he considers them to be his deer, in Lee’s mind they are wild deer by every standard. It was Lee’s impression that the first time Mr. D ever took notice of the “big 15-pointer” was when he started growing a large, trophy rack in 2014. The buck definitely stood out, and Mr. D enjoyed seeing him come to the feeder.
Lee said he realized that hunting Zeus was a sensitive subject with Mr. D, and he never brought it up again after their first meeting. However, he assumed that Mr. D knew that he intended to hunt the big buck come September when the 2017 season opened. Mr. D clearly understood that many other hunters in the area were trying to kill this deer. At that time, Lee had no way of looking into a crystal ball or knowing what the outcome of the 2017 season might be. Zeus was one of several big bucks he planned to hunt.
There is no question that Mr. D’s property is a sanctuary for local deer. According to Lee, a bachelor group of four smaller bucks often came to the feeder during the summer of 2017, and Zeus came to the feeder on a regular basis, as well. During the summer, Zeus often bedded in Mr. D’s woods at various times. This sanctuary was no doubt part of his summer range for the past few years.
Fast Forward To November 2017
By early November, things were rapidly coming to a head for Lee. He was hunting a massive 160-inch 8-pointer he named “Bane” after a Batman character, and he was zeroing in on Zeus. On Nov. 5, he arrowed the giant 8-pointer (photo is on page 60 in Truck-Buck coverage). For the next five days, he hunted Zeus morning and afternoon in an area where recent trail-camera photos revealed the deer to be spending much time. Realizing the deer had vacated that area, Lee pulled all eight of his cell cameras and put them out in eight new locations where he had permission within a 2-square-mile area.
“He was incredibly sporadic and was showing up on all of the cameras randomly,” Lee said. “I keyed in on the most central spot, where he was traveling through a pine thicket that always held a bunch of does. Drew and I sat there Nov. 13, 14 and 15 both morning and evening. (Drew was filming the hunt.) On the morning of Nov. 16, we had an encounter with him before shooting light, and he walked away after a doe. Then, on the evening of the 16th, he came cruising by us looking for does right before dark.”
Lee made a lethal shot. He and Drew recovered Zeus later on in the dark. The small acreage tract where Zeus was killed was approximately 1 mile from Mr. D’s property.
“We conservatively calculated that in three years of pursuing Zeus, it took a total of around 500 hours to kill him,” Lee said. “That time was invested in off-season homework, running cameras, tending food plots, getting permission, and finally, many hours in a stand actually hunting him.”
The hunts for both of Lee’s 2017 bucks were recorded on video.
After the hunt, Lee felt obliged to tell Mr. D about Zeus because he considered him a friend. Even though Mr. D had mentioned to Lee that Zeus might soon die of old age because he was getting up in years, Lee wasn’t sure how to break the news.
The Facebook Post
Back in late October, a hunter named Daniel Eidson posted several nighttime trail-cam photos of Zeus with some other bucks to a Facebook hunting page. In his original post, Daniel didn’t say anything about the deer being raised in a pen, bottle fed or wearing a collar with bells. The post said, “This is what my friend has in his back yard! He has been feeding them for a while. He thinks the biggest is 10+ year old.”
Lee said, “A friend took a screen shot of the post and sent it to me and said, ‘Uh oh. Someone else knows about him.’ I’m paranoid when word gets out about a deer I’m hunting, so I decided not to reach out to him while I was still hunting the deer. After I killed the deer, I sent him a Facebook message with my phone number, and he called me.”
Lee said he and Daniel talked for about 10 minutes, and he says Daniel never mentioned anything about the buck being tame or hand-raised.
“When he told me he was friends with Mr. D and that’s where the photo had been taken, I decided to ask his advice on how I should best proceed with telling Mr. D if I killed Zeus. I didn’t tell Daniel right away that I had killed Zeus because I had never talked to him before, and I didn’t know how he would react. What I said was, ‘Since I’m hunting the deer, if I were to kill him, how should I handle this with Mr. D?’ Daniel seemed very understanding.”
Lee then told Daniel that he had in fact killed the deer the night before. He asked Daniel not to say anything to Mr. D about Zeus. He wanted to talk to Mr. D himself. The next day, Lee was stunned when a friend called and told him Daniel had posted a story on Facebook about “Lee Ellis the great white hunter and his gang.”
In part, Daniel’s Facebook post stated, “This deer belonged to my friend and was a pen-raised deer. He had taken care of the deer for well over 10 years. Started with a bottle when it was found as a fawn after its mother had been hit by a car. It wore a collar for years that had bells on it, and you could hear him coming. He fed this deer better than he did himself, they were pals. He did not have a permit to keep a deer in captivity, so he just let it run free around his yard. He and his neighbors enjoyed having the deer as a pet. The deer never would leave his property until around mid November when whitetail deer start mating. Between him and his neighbors around him that had lived there all of their lives and would never allow hunting and all other lots within a mile or more being so small, no one ever imagined that someone could hunt on an acre or two.”
Lee said, “This was the first that I or anyone I know had heard anything about Zeus being pen raised. I was shocked. Never once had Mr. D said anything to me about hand-raising the 15-pointer.”
Mr. D saw the post and texted Lee about killing the buck.
“He was understandably very upset,” Lee said. “But after we talked on the phone for a while he seemed to accept it. He knew Zeus was not going to live forever. He even said, ‘I hope you’ll enter him in the GON contest,’ and I told him I would. He seemed to get better after we talked about it.
“In retrospect, I realize I could have handled the situation much better than I did,” Lee said. “The last thing I wanted to do was hurt Mr. D in any way. When I first met him, I told him I was hunting the big deer. When I asked permission to hunt on his land and he said no, nothing more was ever said about the hunting aspect.
“Zeus was not a tame buck, and he would not walk up to people. The several times I saw him on Mr. D’s property he always stayed back in the heavy cover like any mature buck would do. He often came to the feeder at night. He did not live on the property every day, although he did spend more time there in the summer. When fall came, he changed his range to a different location, as big bucks often do. There is no doubt that Mr. D had a special relationship with Zeus, but the deer was not a tame deer. Several times when I stopped by Mr. D’s place during the summer, we actually had to sneak around in the woods looking for Zeus as if we were hunting because he would run off the moment he saw us step into those woods.”
Wanting to talk to all parties concerned, I contacted Daniel Eidson by phone. I told him I was writing a story for GON about the big deer Lee had killed and wanted to talk to him about his Facebook post. I asked him about the deer wearing a collar and being pen raised. He said he had heard that the deer had been bottle fed in a pen, and he had heard that it once wore a collar. He said everyone in the area knew about the collared deer, and he assumed all the things he had heard to be true.
Daniel went on to tell me that he would never hunt on small lots like Mr. D’s property or on even smaller homeowner lots in subdivisions with a bow or crossbow because it’s too dangerous, saying a deflected arrow might go into the next yard and hurt someone.
The mystery and intrigue surrounding Zeus was finally resolved when I talked to Mr. D on the phone. Mr. D told me he had been feeding deer on his property since about 2003. He very definitely has a special affection with all of the deer that come to his property, especially the deer he referred to as the “big one,” (Zeus). These deer are a huge part of his life. Over the years he has had some exceptional bucks come to his feeder. One huge buck that used to come regularly, he believes, may have been the father of Zeus. I asked Mr. D if Zeus was a hand-raised, bottle-fed buck. He sort of chuckled into the phone and said, “No, I only told Daniel and other people that because I didn’t want any harm to come to my ‘big one.’ I told a lot of people that story. Who would want to harm a hand-raised baby?”
It’s often been said that whitetails are the most emotion-stirring animals on the planet to hunters and non-hunters alike. This story certainly seems to bear that out.
Lee’s buck is a possible archery state record. It’s a shame such a cloud has been cast over such a great animal. Interestingly, Drew Carroll arrowed a mature 175-inch giant in early November. A week or so after killing his big buck, Drew learned that one of the homeowners in the area where it was killed had been taking pictures of the deer in his backyard for the past three years. Apparently the man’s backyard (a large lot) had been a safety haven for this deer and several of his running mates. This is very typical of wild suburban bucks. Many literally have no habitat other than corridors of backyards and small woodlots.
The 2017 season turned out to be phenomenal for Lee. To bring down one monster buck during the course of a season is an amazing feat in itself, but to do it twice within a two-week period is extraordinary.
In closing, Lee wanted to share these words with GON readers:
“People wonder how we consistently harvest the caliber of bucks we do year after year. The pure and simple truth is that our season never ends. We pour a huge amount of time and effort into suburban hunting. It takes hundreds of hours and a 365-day-a-year effort to learn as much as we can about the behavior of a particular buck. We literally have more than 100 properties where we have written permission to either hunt or put out cameras. We run about 50 cameras at all times in order to try to locate a buck’s core area. That dream buck is always out there. And it’s our passion to find him.
“I obtained permission on eight properties just to hunt Zeus. I never knew which place he might be. Gathering years of history on a specific buck tells you a lot about his tendencies; where he likes to go at certain times of the year and how much time he spends there, but it takes an immeasurable amount of time to put yourself in the right place at the right time. Contrary to belief, these bucks travel for miles. Several years ago, I hunted a buck that often showed up on two cameras during the same night. The cameras were 7 miles apart. It’s a different environment in the suburbs, but white-tailed deer are resilient, and they find a way to survive.
“I don’t consider myself to be any super buck hunter, and I won’t ever pretend to be. As soon as I lay eyes on the animal I’ve been chasing, I get as shaken up as anyone. I am a mediocre shot at best in that moment, even though I practice year-round. I simply just can’t help being passionate about what I do. And when everything comes together, there’s nothing else on this planet that compares to the rush and elation that the love of hunting gives you. We live for that one moment.”
Lee has every reason to be proud of his achievement. I believe he did everything by the letter of the law while hunting both bucks, and he owes no one any apologies.