MAXIMUS: For avid Missouri hunter John Murphy, a shattered deer dream was transformed into satisfying victory.
While not related to Edward Murphy, eastern Missouri hunter John Murphy is no stranger to that law--especially as it pertains to a deer called "Maximus."
John first encountered him in early October 2014. The buck approached from an unexpected direction, and even though John was adamant about scent control, the young deer paused 200 yards away, turned and paced the exact trail he'd walked in on. John hurried home that afternoon and scoured I rail camera photos, hoping to get a better look.
"Sure enough, on Aug. 27 one of my cameras captured a great photo of him," John says. Al that time John figured the deer was likely 2 1/2 or 3 1/2 years old at most. He was too young for John to want to shoot, but with good tine length and a 10-point frame, he clearly had excellent potential. All that was left to do was give the deer a nickname and hope he survived.
Maximus was active throughout summer and early fall on John's trail cameras, and he'd grown into his name. He maintained the 10-point frame but had added mass and tine length. John suspected he now surpassed the 150-inch mark. However, it wasn't until Nov. 12 that the hunter would get his second encounter with the deer.
With the gun opener fast approaching and John not having shot anything, he felt the pressure mounting. Opening day turned out to be overcast, bitterly cold and windy.
"I chose a stand near a dry creek bed between an elevated oak flat and a preferred bedding area," John recalls. "I was banking on the overcast skies and cold wind to force the deer to move a bit earlier."
It only took a couple hours in stand to know that he'd made the right choice. Movement clown in the creek bed had caught his eye. It was Maximus, and John recognized him immediately. He also realized this was easily the largest deer on the farm and at just 50 yards away, he was flirting with being the largest deer to ever walk within reasonable range of John's bow.
Maximus was cautious, though, and constantly checked the wind, a wind that was dangerously close to blowing directly from John's location to where the buck was heading. Maximus needed to cover just 20 more yards to offer a comfortable shot at 30 paces--but then, he froze at 40. Just the year before. John had watched him freeze and turn back and walk out of sight with no shot offered. He felt that if he were going to harvest his largest bow buck, it would be now or maybe never.
John drew while sitting down, a posit ion from which he'd practiced, and steadied his shot. He calmed his nerves, settled his 40-yard pin and loosed his arrow. The deer was slightly quartering toward the stand, but John felt the hit was fatal; Maximus turned and ran, carrying his front leg.
John called his father and friends and they waited several hours before tracking but at the end of the night his only souvenir would be a broken broadhead, an arrow shaft and the heartache of losing the biggest deer of his life.
Maximus never returned to the farm in '15, and John had little hope he'd survived until a late-September hunt in '16. There, 100 yards away feeding on fallen acorns, was the deer that haunted John all year. His antlers had again made a tremendous jump in size, and he seemed as healthy as he'd ever been.
"That's when he became my unicorn," John says. "That's when he became the sole subject of my obsession."
Every chance he had for the entire season John pursued Maximus. However, the bucks didn't use the farm that year. As the season came to a close, John decided it was time for some changes on the farm and also in the way he hunted. The latter came by way of a mobile hang-on setup he could pack in and use in a "hang and hunt" style. The former involving a selective harvest of the timber, with special emphasis on leaving entire crowns on the ground for cover. This also allowed sunlight to the forest floor, and John knew it wouldn't take long before the farm had extensive cover and browse in all the right places.
Summer 2017 found John taking the hunt more seriously than ever. He hung his cameras in July and vowed to not check them until after Halloween. He also made each of the areas in which he'd seen Maximus completely off limits through the entirety of early season. Operating on the assumption the buck remained alive, John was taking no chances. He couldn't afford to bump him onto the neighbor's property or push him into becoming nocturnal.
John passed early season hunting with friends on their farms. He did this all the way up to November. He then had an unpressured property, a stash of vacation days and a fire inside that only burned hotter as the weather cooled. The table was set.
Nov. 11, 2017, was opening day of rifle season in Missouri. Opting to trade his bow for the greater effective range of a rifle, John set out for the day with weather conditions he knew from experience would have the deer on their feet. Having been away from the property for most of the season, and not having checked trail cameras since July, John had no idea if the deer he was after was still alive or not. He hadn't seen any hard evidence for either theory thus far. The slightest chance Maximus was still around drove John to keep hunting him.
Shortly after settling into his stand, John watched as a convoy of does traveled by, followed shortly by a coyote. As the woods were about to calm down again, the hunter caught erratic movement through the downed tree tops. He quickly identified another small family group of does, their behavior suggesting something might be dogging them.
John scanned the area carefully. Then, out of nowhere appeared a giant of a deer. One quick glance at the rack was all the hunter needed. The white-tail's sagging stomach and swaying brisket made him easily identifiable as a mature animal.
John found himself looking through the scope of a .30-30 at what he assumed from initial glance was a 200-inch deer or better. He calmed himself enough to think about letting out a bleat loud enough to stop the buck. As Murphy's law would have it, his bleat did stop the massive animal--but directly behind a leafy branch, shielding most of the deer's body and offering no shot opportunity. And just as quickly as he'd appeared, the buck disappeared, following the does that had captured his attention.
John's heart sank, and doubt crept into his mind. Will I ever see that deer again? Should I have taken the shot through the leaves?
But before he could cycle through all the questions he had for himself, the non-typical reappeared! John quickly readied his rifle and clicked off the safety. Another loud bleat and the deer was broadside. The hunter steadied his crosshairs and squeezed the trigger until a shot rang out.
Immediately the buck bolted directly away from the stand, running for 50 yards or before crashing. That's when John knew his shot had hit its mark.
The struggle to stay in the stand afterward was like nothing John had experienced. He leaned on the tree hard, one hand gripping his lifeline and the other dialing his father's phone number. Desperately, John tried to tell him he'd shot a giant deer, but his father only heard, "I shot a steer." (It's something they laugh at to this day.)
John eventually relayed the real story. He then called his fiance in hopes of sharing the rest of the day with his closest family alongside him. While waiting for his family, John calmed himself and climbed down the tree. No blood trail was needed; as his boots hit the ground, he hurriedly paced toward the last place in which he'd seen his buck after the shot.
From 30 yards away, John's first focused view of the antlers revealed points everywhere! But when he lifted the deer's head, he realized Murphy's Law had played one final nasty trick on him.
"I noticed something horribly wrong," John says. "The whole right antler was gone right after the brow tine. I was devastated. No way I would ever shoot a deer with only one intact antler. I could have sworn he had both sides!"
His only explanation was that the buck's left antler sporting a double main beam and 13 points had fooled him into thinking there was a right antler, as well. So when John's family showed up, together they backtracked the path of the deer. But despite their searching until well after dark, no part of the missing antler was found.
The next day John went back into the area to pull the cards on his trail cameras. He was hoping he might find a picture of his deer on one, Sure enough, a photo showed the deer just the day before--with two full sides to his rack.
"Just like that, my vacation turned from deer to some sort of high-stakes shed hunt," John says.
With a 33-hour window between having a right antler and not, John knew the antler probably wasn't far. He grid searched day in and day out but found nothing. He went back to work and when he would clock out or had a day off, he's again look for the antler.
Nov. 23 came, and John decided to search the vicinity yet again. His pace was painfully slow, and his eyes scanned every inch of ground in his immediate area. He was 40 feet or more from the path the deer had taken while crashing away through the woods. John stepped up on to a stump for a better vantage point, and that's when he saw it. Nestled a full 30 feet from the trail was the antler, lying in the most unlikely of places.
"The deer must have struck a tree so hard that when the antler broke, it flew all the way over to this stump!" John explains. The break matched perfectly, and the rack was sent off to Iowa for full repair.
When it came back John couldn't believe the job that had been done. "There was no way to tell a break ever happened!" the hunter says. He rushed to get the rack to Randy Hamilton at Hamilton Taxidermy in Mexico, Missouri, for mounting.
On May 19, 2018, John was set to marry his fiance, Kelly. The biggest of days got bigger for John when Randy delivered the mount just in time to display beautifully in the couple's rustic, out-door-themed ceremony.
But there was still one surprise left. Randy also handed John a tiny glass jar. Inside it was a broken piece of broadhead. The taxidermist explained that the piece had been found as he was caping the brisket area of John's deer.
Later, the hunter compared the broken piece to the one found in '15, after he'd shot Maximus with his bow. It was a perfect match. And so, the chapter on a phenomenal buck finally was closed. It really had been Maximus all along.
BY CHANCE GAGLIANO
FYI | SAME ISSUE, DIFFERENT STORY |
Coincidenially, Luke Brewster's magnificent 2018 Illinois archery non-typical also suffered antler breakage on his death run. However, that giant is expected to qualify for entry into the Boone & Crockett record book, even without including the recovered antler. See pg. 18 for that story.
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|Publication:||North American Whitetail|
|Date:||Feb 20, 2019|
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