Forsaken trophy: the story of one of North America's finest whitetails of the 2009 season might be tainted by the illegal and cowardly acts of a poacher, but the magnificence of the buck is still undeniable.
For more than 30 years, I've been refining a strategy for putting myself within bow range of the best bucks that inhabit the area that I hunt. The cornerstone of my approach is the simple fact that to kill a big buck, you have to hunt where big bucks live. Or, to be more specific, hunt where bucks have the best chance to reach maturity. Sound simple enough?
For many years, I hunted various properties that contained isolated agricultural fields that were easily viewed or accessed by just about anyone. All summer long, I would glass fields scouting and observing mature buck movements in hopes of tagging an early-season trophy still on a summer feeding pattern. Just knowing a big buck was in the area made my anticipation of the coming fall hunting season more intense.
Over a period of years, I began to notice a disturbing trend. Once a buck reached about three or four years of age in the rural Appalachian fields I was monitoring, it would mysteriously vanish in the early fall just after shedding velvet and usually never return. Initially, I convinced myself that it was the falling acorns that led them away or maybe something about the angle of the sun or changing hours of daylight that made them more nocturnal. And in some cases, this might have been true.
Once the realization hit me that at least some of these bucks where being poached, I abandoned my efforts of hunting these areas. It just seemed impossible for a deer to reach its full potential or maturity, and I had had my heart broken too many times.
In the early summer of 2009, Ian Obenshain and hunting buddy Brad Bailey from Adams County, Ohio, began observing a giant whitetail of epic proportions feeding in a soybean field that bordered a well-traveled highway. The two men had permission to hunt the farm and immediately started videotaping and documenting the buck's rapid growth. Their ultimate goal was for Brad to film Ian harvesting the buck during the upcoming fall archery season.
Knowing the deer was of world-class proportions and anticipating the attention it would draw when taken to the local check station, the two men contacted their local county wildlife officer to make him aware of the buck they hoped to pursue in the fall. This was also an effort to head off what would be the full blown "firestorm" of rumors that can follow the taking of a giant buck.
I have firsthand experience with this phenomenon. I was fortunate enough to kill the buck of a lifetime a few years ago. I had a couple years of history with the buck I was hunting and had plenty of time to think about what I would do if I was successful taking him. I had my county wildlife officer accompany me on the track after the buck was hit. He actually assisted with the drag back to the truck. And it still wasn't enough to squelch the rumors that followed. But that's another story.
Over the course of the summer, Obenshain and Bailey amassed a virtual library of "Big Boy" trail camera photos and video footage. But around September 6, the buck went "missing in action." Just as I would have suspected years before, the hunters assumed the buck had just switched preferred food sources and they would have their chance when the archery season came around In a few weeks.
As the season progressed, with no sighting or physical evidence of the deer, their confidence began to wane. However, this didn't stop Ian from passing on what may have been the largest buck of his hunting career, still hoping for an opportunity at the monster typical.
On the evening of March 20, 2010, Adams County wildlife officer Chris Gilkey and I were helping staff the booth of the Buckeye Big Buck Club at the annual Ohio Deer and Turkey Expo when Brad Bailey approached us with an obvious look of distress. Officer Gilkey excused himself and the two men walked off to privately discuss whatever was bothering Bailey. The next morning I would learn that "Big Boy" was on display at a vendor booth a few rows behind us.
Ten-time convicted wildlife offender Johnny B. Clay of Minford, Kentucky, had the buck at the Ohio Expo and was claiming to have killed the supposed new Kentucky state-record typical across the Ohio River more than 60 miles from the Adams County, Ohio, bean field where the photos and video had been taken.
After a short interview with Officer Gilkey and Officer Chris Rice, complete with pictures and documentation, Clay admitted to poaching the world-class deer. At an April 30, 2010, court hearing, he pleaded guilty to four of seven charges leveled against him. This included $1,634 in fines and court costs. Clay now has a lifetime hunting revocation in 34 states thanks to the reciprocity act. His weapon, a bow, and the mount were forfeited to the state of Ohio.
In addition to the fines, the state is filing for restitution. This section of Ohio law is referred to as the "restitution bill." This formally allows the state to take civil action to recover possession or the value of a wild animal. It is listed under Ohio laws as ORC 1531.201. A value is assigned using a calculation derived from a gross Boone & Crocket score. The state is seeking $23,502 based on the size and value of the trophy. Restitution may be ordered by the court or the Chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife. To date, the Chief of the DOW has ordered restitution for six separate deer.
Obviously, in the case of "Big Boy," frequenting a highly visible agricultural field led to his demise. In recent years, I have taken measures on property I hunt to minimize visibility or access to unauthorized users. I've become an expert gate builder.
I've purchased round hay bails and stacked them along a long field edges to obstruct the view. One of my hunting buddies plants several rows of corn in front of food plots that border public roads on his property. There are several creative ways to deter a poacher, and limiting visibility should be at the top of the list.
Had he been taken legally, "Big Boy" would have scored 197 2/8 inches as a typical--enough to rank fourth all-time in Ohio's Buckeye Big Buck Club record book. In my opinion, stories like this one are a black eye to the entire deer hunting community and especially to clubs like the BBBC that chronicle trophy bucks. It is fortunate that Clay was caught, but it might also add some legitimacy to the claims of those who believe that some of the largest bucks on record were taken illegally.