By T. Edward Nickens The buck is an absolute bruiser: gray-muzzled and heavily muscled, with a battle-broken brow tine on its wide, 11-point rack. It steps into the clearing with a stiff-legged gait meant to intimidate and fluster the 8-pointer that's hooked up with a doe. At this point, any deer hunter who hasn't fallen asleep or died on stand would slip off the safety on his rifle. Instead, James Meadows, who's in a wooden box blind 80 yards away, has work to do. First Meadows reaches down to power up a camcorder that has its lens aimed straight down the shooting lane. Next, he brings up a .270 bolt action and looks through the huge Zeiss 3x12 riflescope. His breath raspy, Meadows forces his gaze away from the headgear and studies the buck's body with coroner's detachment. He looks for a certain sag in the belly. A particular shape of muzzle. An indistinct juncture between the animal's neck and chest. After all, Meadows is a member of South Carolina's Oakland Hunting Club, and pulling the trigger on a deer rifle is an answer to a question he has agreed to take very seriously. Field & Stream Online Editors
Eyeing up bucks the size of railcars is something done with astonishing regularity at the Oakland Hunting Club. Its 12,000 acres sprawl across the South Carolina swamp country between Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, the famous Santee-Cooper reservoirs. The club’s acreage is part of a larger quail hunting plantation that was started by wealthy Philadelphia bird hunters in 1903. But it’s not necessarily the supersized landscape that sets Oakland apart. It’s the way the deer are managed. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s the way the hunters are managed. These days, it seems, “quality deer management” has become a catch-all phrase that means anything from a farmer passing on a forkhorn to statewide antler restrictions to meticulous harvest record keeping on club properties. Even so, the Oakland Hunting Club’s deer management program stands out. Although guidelines vary from year to year based on herd conditions, the typical annual harvest quota per member looks something like this: (1) one buck that is at least 41⁄2 years old, with 9 or more main frame points; (2) one 41⁄2-year-old 8-pointer with a minimum Boone and Crockett score of 120 inches; (3) a “management” 8-pointer with a B&C; score of less than 120; and (4) a “cull buck” defined as a 41⁄2-year-old buck with 7 points or less. Field & Stream Online Editors
Telling the difference between a 31⁄2-year-old 11-pointer and a 41⁄2-year-old 10-pointer during a hunting situation may sound like a certain kind of sorcery, but this is not guesswork-“and that’s where the camcorders come in. Every Oakland Hunting Club member is required to carry a camcorder on every hunt, and just about every buck larger than a forkhorn goes on tape. At night, members crowd around a massive 52-inch TV in the clubhouse, dissecting video of buck after buck after buck. There’s plenty of incentive to get it right. Shoot a buck that doesn’t meet the parameters, and you forfeit your right to hunt on a Saturday during the rut. A corkboard by the clubhouse door sports two categories of photographs. Under the heading Shoot, smiling hunters pose with bucks that definitely make the cut-“bulky, mature deer with presidential rockers on their heads. Next is the Don’t Shoot section, festooned with snapshots of Oakland hunters whose deer, while impressive, ultimately aged out below the harvest guidelines. Field & Stream Online Editors
On the latter side, the faces are taut with forced smiles. The hunters know their trophies are on the edge; they’ll have to wait weeks for the club’s mandatory tooth analysis to return. Jaws are pulled from all bucks shot on the property, and two incisors from each are sent to sepa¿¿rate laboratories (one in Texas and another in Montana) to be aged by cementum annuli analysis. Slivers of the tooth root are stained and placed under a microscope, and layers of material are counted. It’s a hunting version of a taxpayer having his return audited by the IRS. All of this is a part of the club’s philoso¿¿phy that teaches members to break one of the long-standing tenets of trophy deer hunting-“that only antler points matter. Ignore the animal’s rack, they learn, and focus instead on body characteristics. “I am strictly against shooting deer based on the number of antler points,” explains Oakland manager Mark Buxton, a tall, intense Maryland native who arrived at the property in 1989. “That 2-year-old 8-pointer is carrying around your very best genetics-“and he’s the one getting shot. But a 41⁄2-year-old 6-pointer, who will never be anything else, is out there spreading those bad genetics year after year because nobody will shoot him. When you take out the very best deer for too long, you end up with the very worst.” Field & Stream Online Editors
Buxton wants hunters to judge the age of a live buck in real time, down the tube of a scope, and make a decision whether or not to shoot based on the desire to maximize future opportunities at very large deer. In this para¿¿digm, the deer hunter becomes the deer manager. It’s an idea that’s taking root in many hunting clubs. Essentially, hunters look for three to four body characteristics to help determine age. A 21⁄2-year-old deer is, for all intents and purposes, a teenager. Most will have antlers inside the ears, but a few might possess wider headgear. These bucks, however, still retain a noticeable waist just in front of the hindquarters, and a longer face like a doe’s. A year later, they will appear more heavily muscled, but there’s still a distinct juncture between the body and neck. The waist starts to disappear. Many 31⁄2-year-old bucks have impressive antlers, and many are shot. But their racks might have reached only 75 percent of their potential. Field & Stream Online Editors
A 41⁄2-year-old buck will be fully mature, thick and beefy, but without the corded, racehorselike musculature of a buck that’s a year younger. From here on out, deer start to wear their age more obviously. By 51⁄2, a buck during the rut will exhibit little break in the line between the lower neck and chest, and most of these oldsters will have a bit of a sagging belly. Of course, before a hunter can age a deer, he has to see it, in profile, and not with just a fleeting glance. That, Oakland hunters say, requires feeders to draw the deer out of the thick Santee palmetto woods and into shooting lanes and food plots where they are visible. A great divide exists among hunters regarding the issue of baiting deer, with heated debate over whether the practice is a slippery slope-“a pile of apples here, a food plot there-“or an uncrossable chasm over which no ethical hunter would step. During the hunting season at Oakland, feeders are limited to 15 seconds, twice a day, but there is no doubt that they draw deer like a dinner bell. Field & Stream Online Editors
“I can see how there are hunters who think we’re cheating with the corn,” Meadows says when I ask about the club’s reliance on mechanical feeders. “We don’t face that in this part of the country, where so many people feed deer. And we’re talking about a gallon of corn a day. What’s the difference in doing it this way, and hunting over a food plot or 10 acres of corn?” The difference, dissenters would point out, is that an open 10-acre field of corn or clover exudes a primal danger recognized by an animal that has evolved to avoid predation. But deer habituate to the sound of a corn feeder slinging its grain like forbidden fruit, and they learn soon enough to line up at the trough before the feed is gone. But for every hunter who scoffs at this brand of deer management as the ungulate version of growing hydroponic tomatoes and a slap at fair chase, there’s another who figures it for a smart way to manage a deer herd.
Folks at Oakland can’t imagine hunting deer any other way. Field & Stream Online Editors
James Meadows received his first Oakland membership as a college graduation present-“its price of several thousand dollars a year put it beyond the reach of a recent grad-“and another as a wedding gift. “After we bought our first house, it was just too much,” Meadows admits. “I had to drop out. I joined a $500-a-year club and it was nice, but it wasn’t this. After I moped around the house a year, my wife told me, -¿I don’t want to live with you like this. Whatever it takes, go back to Oakland.'” “Horns,” Gene Thomason says, his eyes lighting up in the elevated box blind I’m sharing with him. “I just want to put my hands on ’em. Can’t get enough of ’em. Small, big, who shot it-“I don’t care. I bet I have 75 mounted heads back home.” It’s my first afternoon in the Santee woods (a day before James Meadows will nearly blow a gasket when he sees the biggest deer of his life), and I can make out water glinting through veils of vines and snatches of tangled woods between the trees. For the most part, however, a South Carolina version of Sasquatch could have been standing 3 feet off the shooting lane without my ever knowing it. Field & Stream Online Editors
Twelve years ago, Buxton drove Thomason and four other men from Dallas, Georgia, around the Oakland Club, and explained to them his ideas about managing big deer for age and letting antler size follow the genetics. At first, Thomason recalls, it sounded like crazy talk. “Aging deer on the hoof?” he says, shaking his head. “Back home, you saw something you wanted, you just shot it. But it made sense. That young buck could have a 140-class head on him and still be 2 years old.” Which could be the case with the 10-point buck we’re watching cross a logging road in front of our blind. “Oh, he’s purty,” Thomason purrs. “Pu-r-r-rty. But he’s not the one I want.” The deer Thomason wants is actually an 8-point buck, wide-racked, with very tall brow tines. Thomason has seen that particular deer before, several times. He’s watched him, filmed him. Now he’s waiting for him. “There’s bigger deer down here,” Thomason says. “But there’s none any purtier. Field & Stream Online Editors
“Don’t get me wrong,” he cautions, nodding down the lane. “That deer right there makes my heart beat. That is a beautiful animal, and I could watch him all day. But I want him to grow another couple years. See what he becomes.” An hour later, I plop down on an old sofa as a group of Oakland hunters gather around a massive screen, bowls of elk stew in hand. Video-camera wires snake across the clubhouse floor, and all eyes are on the screen. Field & Stream Online Editors
“Look. Look there,” Mark Buxton says, pointing with a spoon, pausing the tape, as animated as a TV preacher. “See how that deer’s neck looks like it’s almost an extension of his chest? See how short his face looks, because his neck is so swollen? Now look at that one behind him. That’s a very nice deer, too, but you can see the difference in the line of the chest. He’s got no belly on him at all. Twenty-two, maybe 23-inch spread, and just about anybody would want to shoot him. But he’s only 31⁄2 years old. In two years, oh my, that’s going to be a deer.” Antler mass, the lines of white belly hair, the way muscles ripple under hide-“the attributes that separate one age class from another are parsed and assessed. Buck after buck after buck parades across the screen, tearing brush up, licking branches, chasing does, horning trees. Keith Butler is transfixed. “I’m like a lot of guys,” he says. “I used to shoot so soon that I’d never see a couple of big bucks fight, or chase does for half an hour. That’s what a lot of the fun in this club is about-“getting to know these animals in a way that you just can’t do in a lot of places.” Field & Stream Online Editors
In fact, filming deer and analyzing video is the most important part of Oakland’s management program, and it’s paying off. When Buxton first came on board, the average harvested buck was 21⁄2 years old, dressed out at 1211⁄2 pounds, and had 4.8 points. Today the average deer is more than 50 pounds heavier. Bucks that score 140 points or more are not uncommon, and 24-inch antler spreads are a distinct possibility each season. “These guys are at the leading edge of deer management,” says Brian Murphy, executive director of the nonprofit, 50,000-member Quality Deer Management Association. “More and more clubs are intensively managing their deer. What they’re doing at Oakland is not unheard of, but it’s still rare. The good-news part of this is that these guys have accomplished in South Carolina-“not necessarily known as a big-deer state-“what was once thought impossible.” Field & Stream Online Editors
Meadows’ breath comes quickly now. “Please,” he croons to himself. “Don’t stop. Don’t stop.” The deer is very, very big, but the rules are very, very strict. “One more step. Pleeeeze.” Field & Stream Online Editors
The buck turns another notch toward broadside and Meadows pulls the trigger. The buck falls in its tracks, the rack rising above the grass like an overturned chair. After the shot, Meadows sits still, stunned. “Oh, man,” he says, buzzing with adrenaline. “Oh, man. We should give it a few minutes. We should give it a few minutes.” Twenty seconds later he’s out of the blind. He walks 10 feet, then breaks into a run. When he reaches the deer he goes down on one knee. “I have worked so hard for this deer, you will never know. The crap I’ve taken from my friends. They kill a 3-pointer and give me grief for not killing a buck all year. They say, -¿All you do is work in the woods.’ It’s so hard to explain…” Field & Stream Online Editors
He doesn’t finish the thought. He’s on the phone, speed-dialing his dad. “I just can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.” Before his father answers he gives a quick whoop of jubilation. He turns to me. “Would you look at that animal!” he says. “I can’t believe it. Would you just look at that deer!” Field & Stream Online Editors
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