August 15, 2013 by Matt Williams / Credit: North American Whitetail
Over his years of chasing whitetails, A.J. Downs of Conroe, Texas, has taken a number of big bucks with his bow. But none of the other mounts in his trophy room can match the size, or the meaning, of the freak whitetail that fell to his arrow shortly after daylight on opening day of the 2012 archery season.
I call the deer a “freak” for several reasons, but primarily for what’s atop his head. This magnificent maze of tines, stickers and beams looks like something out of a fairy tale. It’s one of those bizarre “starburst” racks. You know, the type that looks as if someone strapped a stick of dynamite to each main beam and lit the fuse.
This special whitetail grew 28 scorable points, including seven non-typical tines longer than 9 inches. The buck’s inside spread is 19 7/8 inches.
According to official measurements tallied by a Boone and Crockett scoring panel, the 5 1/2-year-old whitetail stacked on 124 inches of abnormal antler off a basic 8-point frame that scores in the mid-140s by itself. The official B&C score sheet stamped the buck with a gross mark of 268 5/8 and a net of 256 4/8.
Adding to the “freakiness” of the Downs buck is where he lived. A.J. killed the deer in San Jacinto County in East Texas, while hunting a 12,000-acre cattle ranching operation he and nine other hunters had begun leasing several years earlier. This low-fenced ranch, which also extends into Liberty County, is bordered on one side by more than 10 miles of the Trinity River.
Located roughly an hour’s drive from the concrete jungles of Houston, San Jacinto County offers some decent whitetail turf, but it is not well known for kicking out bragging-sized bucks. Much less those with all the world-class goodies this one has. That, claims the 40-year-old bowhunter, is part of what makes his deer one of a kind.
“This is by far the most special trophy I have, even compared to dangerous game animals I’ve shot,” A.J. says. “If you could make this deer any more special than it already is, killing it in San Jacinto County did that.
“I’ve hunted lots of places over the years, but the majority of my leases have always been in East Texas. I grew up hunting here and I have killed some good, quality bucks. But to come across a deer of this caliber in this part of the country came as a total surprise,” the bowhunter says.
While A.J. was alone in a ground blind the morning he killed the East Texas warhorse, he wasn’t by himself when he first discovered him. Younger brother Quentin was just as familiar with the bruiser buck as A.J. was.
“He just showed up out of nowhere on our game cameras about five weeks before the season opened on Sept. 29,” Quentin recalls. “He was running with a bachelor group of bucks, bouncing around between two stands we call ‘Big Lake 1’ and ‘Big Lake 2.’ He was coming to our corn feeders twice a day like clockwork.”
More than 90 percent of the images were captured at Big Lake 2, which is about a mile as the crow flies from Big Lake 1. But interestingly, beginning in early September, the brothers lost track of the big buck for nearly two weeks.
“That’s about the same time we started getting a bunch of pictures of feral hogs at Big Lake 2, but nothing of this buck,” Quentin says.
Thinking the pig activity might have spooked the deer out of the area, a week prior to the Sept. 29 opener the brothers crafted a swine-control plan. Their idea was to set up near the stand and try take out as many of the hogs as possible with rifles.
But according to Quentin, the plan was interrupted when they crossed paths with a familiar face while en route to wage war on the hogs.
“We were in our Ranger, about halfway between the between the two stands, when we jumped up a little buck about 100 yards away,” he recalls. “Then this big buck fell in behind the small one. There was no question it was him. It was our first visual of the deer. We turned around immediately and got out of there.”
The brothers returned to the area to swap out camera cards on the afternoon before the season opener. They were encouraged by what they found. The buck had revisited both feeders, more recently the Big Lake 2 site.
“He had been there that morning,” Quentin says. “That encouraged us both, because we knew he was still hanging around.”
The Big Draw
The Downs brothers share everything when it comes to deer hunting, including the 12 deer stands they’ve erected around the lease over the last seven years. While there was no doubt as to which stands they would hunt on opening morning, there was a big question as to who would go to Big Lake 2 (the one the most pictures) and who would go to Big Lake 1.
“We decided to draw for stands, but neither us wanted to draw first,” A.J. chuckles. “One of the other guys in our camp ended up flipping a coin. I lost the toss, so I had to draw.”
They didn’t draw for straws. Instead, the brothers wrote the numbers 1 and 2 on scraps of paper and stuffed them into a bag. A.J. drew Big Lake 1, but Quentin says his brother didn’t feel good about it. “In looking back, it is pretty funny,” Quentin notes. “A.J. thought I had the best spot, and I thought he had the best spot.”
Hunting in a Flood
Knowing there was a monster on the prowl, the Downs brothers were understandably pumped about their chances. What they weren’t excited about was opening day’s weather forecast. It called for flooding rains: heavy downpours that could dump as much 10 inches of water on parts of the region by day’s end. And to make matters even worse, the weather system was predicted to push through shortly after daylight.
The brothers checked the radar after a restless night, which confirmed what they already knew. It was raining as far west as Abilene—300 miles to the northwest.
“It was raining when we woke up, but not real heavy,” A.J. remembers. “The radar showed a few gaps in the green, so we had to go. The sky would have had to fall to keep us out of the woods that morning.”
The hunters arrived at their ground blinds well before daylight. Almost immediately, Quentin began getting bad vibes about his setup. No sooner had he taken a seat in the folding chair than he felt its support frame slowly giving way beneath him.
“I felt like I was sinking,” he says. “A pin popped out of the chair frame, and I went to the ground. I managed to get it put back together in the dark, but I knew right then that I probably wasn’t going to kill that deer. Not if my day started off as unlucky as that.”
A.J., meanwhile, says he had one of those unexplainable “feel good” moments the second he got into his pop-up blind.
“It was really weird, but I just knew I was going to kill that deer,” he says. “It’s not that I think I’m a better hunter or anything like that. I just knew in my gut that something good was going to happen.”
Mr. Big Comes Knocking
Shortly after daylight when the magic began to unfold at Big Lake 1, a ground level blind the brothers had constructed years ago at the south end of a 30-acre lake utilized for watering cattle. They’d fashioned the blind using a metal ring built similar to a hay ring, then brushed the outside using oak saplings, yaupon and other brush native to the area.
A.J.’s pop-up blind fit inside the frame with plenty of room to get in and out quietly. It overlooked a corn feeder at the edge of a pasture bordering a thick stand of woods and a brushy draw deer like to follow when entering or exiting the opening.
At about 7:15, the only deer A.J. was to see that morning suddenly appeared outside one of his small shooting windows. Even though the whitetail still lacked two steps giving him an unobstructed view at the close range of 15 yards, the bowhunter knew right away it was the one he’d been waiting for.
Amazingly, A.J. managed to remain as cool as a cucumber despite being within near watermelon seed-spitting distance of the largest free- ranging whitetail he’d ever seen. He was so calm, in fact, that he reached for his video camera before his bow.
“It always try to film my hunts, but I had forgotten my tripod that morning,” he says. “I videoed him for 5-6 seconds, then decided I had better grab my bow and get drawn on him.”
The great deer was is in clear view by now, but was in an awkward position, turning to scratch himself with a rear hoof. Fortunately, a few seconds later the buck turned broadside—unalarmed—and A.J. unleashed the arrow. It was a perfect pass-through, taking out both lungs.
The deer bolted and ran about 30 yards before A.J. lost sight of him in tall grass and brush. Certain he’d made a good shot, the bowhunter elected to wait 30 minutes before exiting the blind and beginning the search for a deer he felt certain was already dead. In the meantime, A.J. sent his brother a message with the news.
“I’m not going to lie,” Quentin says. “When I first saw the text, I was disappointed it wasn’t me. But I didn’t waste any time heading his direction. I knew the rain was coming, and we needed to find that deer before the big stuff hit.”
Quentin’s intuition proved correct. The bottom already had started to fall out before he arrived at Big Lake 1. That’s where he found his brother searching for blood on already waterlogged ground in a pounding rain.
“After about 20 minutes it started raining pretty hard, so I decided to get out and I found my arrow,” A.J. explains. “It had good blood on the fletchings, and I could see his tracks where he took off. But there wasn’t any blood on the ground. With it raining like it was, I just took off on the path to where I’d last seen him, and he wasn’t there. Then I sort of panicked and started second-guessing myself.”
Once Quentin arrived, the brothers split up and searched any likely path. As it turned out, the buck had made a 90-degree turn and fell dead only about 60 yards from where he’d been when A.J. stuck him. Quentin found the deer 10 yards up a dim trail on the opposite side of an old fence line.
“When I hollered, A.J. came in running,” the younger brother recalls. “He almost tackled me and immediately started saying he was sorry that he’d killed the deer and I hadn’t. It was a pretty cool moment between us: one I’ll never forget,” he says.
“The tears were rolling,” A.J. adds. “I was overwhelmed that I had killed this buck, but at the same time I also felt bad for my brother. That’s just how close we are. We were in this deal together from the very start. I just happened to draw the lucky stand that morning.”
Read more: North American Whitetail