Lighting struck twice in Texas last season when two hunters each tagged 250-class nontypical bucks. Both deer were contenders for the state record, but when an official Pope and Young scoring panel began reviewing the second rack, things got complicated. So goes the story of a new Texas record…
The Texas deer season was less than an hour old, and A.J. Downs had a 28-point buck on the ground that he’d been watching on his trail camera for a month.
From the moment he spotted the massive deer in late August, the Conroe, Texas, bowhunter knew it was an outlier. It was a freak unlike anything he’d encountered in the seven or eight years that he and his brother, Quentin, have hunted their lease on a 12,000-acre low-fence cattle ranch in San Jacinto County in east Texas.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Downs told the Athens Review in October, “and I probably never will again. Bucks like this don’t come along very often…anywhere. You can’t manage for deer like this.”
Indeed, taxidermist and longtime Pope and Young measurer Bob Sweisthal called Downs’ deer “the most complicated head I’ve seen in my life.”
“It’s basically just tines everywhere,” Sweisthal says. “You can’t just look at it and say, ‘These are the main beams.’ You’ve got to study it awhile.”
Sweisthal and Randy Reeves, a certified Boone and Crockett measurer, studied it and the official net score they came up with after the 60-day drying period shattered the nontypical state record set by Thomas Friedkin in 2010, which scored 229 6/8.
Downs’ east-Texas deer tallied 253 3/8 inches, which would rank ninth in the nation on the Pope and Young list. The Lone Star State, it appeared, had a new record whitetail.
Except for one thing: The Texas deer season was still open. **
On Dec. 29, the same day that credible reports began to surface that Downs’ buck would score well above the state record, Robert Taylor was sitting in a tree stand in Grayson County hoping for one more look at a buck that had been teasing him for years.
Taylor, 50, a homebuilder in Aubrey, Texas, bought a 4.7-acre tract to store equipment, and the longtime gun hunter decided to get serious about bowhunting after spotting a nice buck there three or four years ago.
“He was a little young whippersnapper, but he probably had 30 points on him then,” Taylor recalls. “That will get your attention when you have a big buck running around saying, ‘Well, come get me if you’re good enough.’ And we weren’t good enough the first couple of years.”
Taylor says his son hunted the land more than he did, once missing a long shot at the elusive deer, which showed up mostly on trail cameras in the middle of the night. But Taylor decided this year to focus his hunting time on the Grayson County property instead of a deer lease he held elsewhere in the state. On Dec. 11, he finally spotted the buck during daylight hours. “From then on,” Taylor says, “it was game on for me.”
Taylor hunted every morning and every evening and spotted the buck several times. Once the deer was only 10 yards from his stand, but a tree limb prevented a shot. Mostly the buck gamboled out of Taylor’s range, chasing does and feeding in a greenfield while all Taylor could do was look on–nervously.
“It was exhilarating to watch an animal like that and not get busted. It would make your heart pound like you wouldn’t believe, just an uncontrollable shaking every time,” he says.
Finally, a week before the end of the archery season, the big buck jumped a fence and trotted toward a feeder 10 yards from Taylor’s stand, where a group of does was eating. “He stopped short of the feeder, about 15 yards broadside to me, and I knew this was my one and only chance,” Taylor recalls. “I said, ‘Lord, give me the strength to pull back this bow and not be shaking.’ In 10 seconds it was over.”
Taylor and his son measured the rack and couldn’t believe the numbers they came up with. So they called in two official measurers, Jennifer Barrow and Eric Stanosheck, who tallied a green score of 249 2/8 net nontypical. The 52-point rack had several broken tines, and the scorers counted 42 scoreable points. Neither they nor Taylor had yet heard of the A.J. Downs buck.
Understanding the Record Books
By January, Texas newspapers were reporting that the Downs buck had been certified by Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young with an official net score of 253 3/8 net nontypical. Downs, who declined several requests to be interviewed for this story, citing contractual obligations with North American Whitetail that prohibit him from releasing photos of the deer to similiar media outlets told the Athens Review on Jan. 21: “Knowing it is a state record is awesome, but what really hits home is when Pope and Young tells you it is the No. 9 nontypical of all-time in North America.”
To understand what happened next, it helps to review how the major trophy records programs–namely Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett–operate.
Pope and Young issues a new record book every two years. (Boone and Crockett works on a three-year cycle.) Every animal scored under the Pope and Young system is grouped into a two-year reporting period, called a biennium. At the end of every biennium, the group invites in the top five animals from all 34 categories of North American big game to be panel judged. The panel judging session is usually held in the same city as the group’s biannual convention. This year the convention was held in Dallas, and the panel scoring for the 28th biennium–which officially ended Dec. 31, 2012–was held from Feb. 27 to March 2 in Fort Worth. Because his buck was among the five highest scoring nontypicals taken in the two-year reporting period, Downs was invited to have the rack panel judged.
According to Kevin Hisey, executive secretary at Pope and Young, panel judging brings together the largest (and often most difficult to measure) heads and 21 of the program’s most experienced scorers.
“The purpose is to bring higher scrutiny, another level of scrutiny, to make sure that the top-end animals in the records program are measured absolutely correctly and consistently over a long period of time, as in the 50-plus years we’ve been doing this program,” Hisey says.
Each head is judged by at least two three-man teams, and the chief of judges and support staff can also weigh in. If teams come up with different scores, Pope and Young has a process to resolve discrepancies. Once a final score is agreed upon, that score–be it higher, lower, or the same as the official score the head came in with–goes into the record book.
Panel judging is intended to do two things. First, it ensures the toughest judgment calls are made by multiple, experienced judges. Scoring is as much an art as a science. “There are principals, there are rules, but we’re dealing with a natural phenomenon,” Hisey points out. “They grow very unique and very diverse, so you can’t have a precise rule for every single thing.” Second, it ensures that animals today are judged by the same standards by which animals were judged 50 years ago. “There are strong principals that apply,” Hisey says, “and the consistent application of those principals over time is one of the greatest attributes of the panel judging process.”
The Downs buck came into the panel judging with an official net score of 253 3/8. “During the verification process that is panel judging, we detected that the official measurer did not interpret something correctly,” Hisey says. He believes the discrepancy was a matter of exaggerated lengths on some of the abnormal points. “Thus we adjusted the score to a proper final number, which, from what I understand, did go down a little bit.”
Downs’ score dropped to 245 4/8–the second largest nontypical entered into the Pope and Young program in the 28th biennium and, at the time, the largest P&Y buck in Texas.
Robert Taylor, meanwhile, was waiting to get his buck officially scored, and by March 2, the last day of the 28th biennium panel judging in Fort Worth, he thought he had his 60-day drying period completed. He says he was invited to bring his buck to that scoring session.
The panel had already begun the scoring process when someone raised an objection, saying Taylor’s buck hadn’t completed the required 60-day drying period.
“Six or eight guys were hovering over the horns, slapping tape on it, finding the main beams,” Taylor recalls. “They were mapping out a different direction than the measurers took on the green score. They had it all taped off and were getting ready to lay tape on it when a man stood up and said, ‘That deer hasn’t had it’s drying time, and I can prove it.’ Everybody stood back, kind of shocked.”
Taylor hadn’t removed the skullcap and antlers from the skull right away. He believes this was the reason the drying time was questioned. “It wasn’t eligible for dry scoring because it hadn’t had 60 days of drying without brain fragments under the skullcap,” he says.
But Hisey says that’s not what the rules state. “The antlers have to be at room temperature, at room humidity, in an unaltered state for 60 days after the date of harvest,” Hisey says. “It can’t be in a freezer. It can’t have a two-by-four shoved between the main beams. But it doesn’t have to be removed from the skull.”
In any case, the measurers aborted the scoring session, but not before taking several photos of the deer to document the judgment calls already made on how to score the rack. Taylor took photos, too, and gave them to the measurers who did his green score.
Because his 60-day drying period was determined to fall in the 29th biennium (the two-year period that runs from Jan. 1, 2013, to Dec. 31, 2014) the rack isn’t eligible for panel scoring until 2015. So, any score Taylor received on March 2 would be an official score, but not a panel score.
“I was told you’re not allowed to score-shop, so I went back to Jennifer and Eric and said, ‘You did the green score, so I want you to do the official score,'” Taylor says.
Starting from scratch and using the photos as a guide, they re-measured the buck a week later and recorded an official dry score of 254 4/8. Forty-four points were judged scoreable.
In the space of a week, Downs’ buck had lost eight inches, Taylor’s had gained five, and the Texas whitetail record book had experienced another freakish twist.
So, Who Is No. 1?
Texas Big Game Awards, a joint effort between the Texas Wildlife Association and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, bills itself as the state’s official hunting program and record database. The program is not affiliated with Pope and Young or Boone and Crockett, but it uses their official net scores (and ignores panel scores) when ranking low-fence bucks taken in the state. (The program also recognizes high-fence deer, but splits them out into a separate category.) According to Justin Dreibelbis, hunting heritage program director for the TWA, the Texas Big Game Awards lists the Taylor buck as the top low-fence nontypical whitetail at 254 4/8, and the Downs buck as the No. 2 low-fence nontypical at 253 3/8.
“To have two low-fence bucks like this in one year only an inch apart is unbelievable,” Dreibelbis says. “It says a lot for Texas’ big-game management. Having two bucks in one year that gets people excited and talking about hunting is great.”
Pope and Young does not crown state-record deer. But because their database records where a deer was killed, it’s possible to identify the top-scoring bucks from each state. As of May 1, A.J. Downs’ buck, listed at its panel score of 245 4/8, is the highest-scoring Texas buck in the Pope and Young database. Robert Taylor’s official score entry had been received by Pope and Young administrators with a score of 254 4/8 and was still being processed. If accepted, as widely expected, it will be the highest-scoring Pope and Young buck in Texas.
Downs’ score will not change. What happens with Taylor’s score remains to be determined. If at the end of the current two-year recording period, which began Jan. 1 and ends Dec. 31, 2014, the Grayson County giant is one of the five largest nontypicals killed nationwide during the 29th biennium, it will be invited to the panel scoring that will take place sometime in early 2015. If it’s not in the top five, the current official score will be recorded in the 2015 record book.
When reached for comment, Downs would say only, “It’s not over yet.”
That’s true–to a point. Pope and Young’s Hisey says that about 10 percent of animals that undergo panel scoring see their scores drop. “But in the big picture, the majority of heads that come in to panel judging stay the same, and about 10 percent actually go up.”
Once accepted by Pope and Young, the official score determined after the 60-day drying period is just that: official, not provisional. “It is indeed an official score once it has been accepted into the scoring system,” Hisey says. “But it could be subject to additional evaluation if it lands in the top five for the two-year biennium.”
So Robert Taylor can claim the Texas state record. For now. If five bigger bucks than his fall in the next two years, his score won’t be revisited. If by the end of 2014 his buck is still among the highest scoring nontypicals entered in the Pope and Young database, then he’ll get his invitation to panel. Either way, Taylor isn’t sweating.
“All my life I’ve chased big deer all over the country; I’ve traveled thousands of miles looking for that big one,” he says. “But sometimes if you slow down and wait, the big one will come to you.”