Trophy bucks don't often give hunters second chances, but the most remarkable buck taken in 2023 offered Clay Tanner of Corning a rare exception.
Tanner, 27, shot a buck sporting a massive rack of velvet-coated antlers with a crossbow in 2022. Tanner appeared to have made a perfect shot. He found the blood-coated arrow in the ground, and the buck left a big blood trail. However, the blood eventually stanched, and Tanner did not recover the buck.
"It was a complete loss," Tanner said. "We hired a tracking dog for two days and couldn't find him. Nothing. No trail cam pictures, no nothing.
"It was clean pass-through," Tanner continued, voice quickening with excitement. "I found the arrow. Good blood, everything."
Usually, that deer will feed coyotes and vultures for a few days, but this buck was survived.
"My cousin that lives down the road called me and said, 'Hey, I seen your deer!'" Tanner said. "That was like November the third. And I ended up going where he told me he'd seen him. I guess that was about Nov. 10, and I seen the deer, but that was it."
Like a ghost, the buck reappeared in August 2023. There was no doubt it was the same buck, Tanner said. It limped, and there was evidence of a healed wound precisely where Tanner had shot it.
"In August I went into a green field where normally they're hanging out, and he was the fifth deer to run across the field," Tanner said. "I had kept cameras out from July 7, and there was no deer, no nothing. No bucks. Well, not anything worth shooting."
A cold front passed through on Sept. 15, and the buck appeared in daylight a second time.
"He was the first deer of any size I saw," Tanner said.
On Oct. 6, the buck appeared in daylight a third time. Hunters have a saying. If a game animal does something twice, make it pay the third time.
"The next day was going be even colder," Tanner said. "I was like, 'I gotta do it! Strike three!"
The non-typical rack had a gross Boone and Crockett score of 187 5/8 and netted 179 2/8. It does not qualify for all-time recognition from the Boone and Crockett Club, and it scored ninth overall at the Arkansas Big Buck Classic. However, it is the largest velvet rack ever taken with a crossbow. Bolt and Quarrel, the recognition organization for North American big-game animals harvested with a crossbow, recognizes Tanner's buck as its world record for a whitetail buck in velvet.
When a buck grows a new set of antlers in the summer, they are soft and enmeshed in a dense web of blood vessels that look like velvet. As the antlers harden, the velvet dries and withers. Bucks remove the velvet by rubbing their antlers against trees. The velvet is usually gone by late August, or early September at the latest.
For a buck to retain velvet in October is extremely unusual. Bucks that retain their velvet are called "cactus bucks." According to the National Deer Association, the condition -- cryptorchidism -- is the result of very low testosterone production or testicular trauma. Tanner said the buck had a deformed testicle.
Incapable of reproducing, cactus bucks don't participate in normal rutting activities, including fighting or otherwise exhibiting dominance. Cactus bucks do not rub their antlers, but they also don't shed their antlers. They grow continually, year round.
"He had actually grown from when I saw him in August," Tanner said.
In old age, cactus bucks will sprout a lot of abnormal points and "sticker" points. Covered in velvet, they look like cacti, hence the name.
The hunt was not without complications. First, Tanner's damaged crossbow was out of commission. He had to find another one quickly.
"The bow that I normally shoot was tore up," Tanner said. "I didn't have a bow, and this deer was on camera. I didn't even take my bow to a bow shop because I didn't plan on hunting, but all of a sudden I needed a bow. A kid at work had a bow for sale. I ended up giving him $150 for that bow, and I went and shot that deer with that bow two days later."
Expecting the buck to follow its morning pattern, Tanner got on his stand on Oct. 7 at 4 a.m., but the buck did not appear.
"I really expected to kill him in the morning because the past two 'daylights' was in the morning," Tanner said. "It was 20 degrees colder that Saturday. I was like, 'Today's the day!' It was a bust. I told my dad he didn't come by today, but I told him I'll get him this afternoon."
The end of legal shooting hours on Oct. 7 was 7:06 p.m. At 7:01, Tanner said, the buck entered the field at 40 yards among a herd totaling 16 animals. He was to Tanner's side and approaching.
"I thought, 'I got six minutes to make this happen,'" Tanner said. "Sure enough, at 7:05 he was at 23 yards in front of me, and I got to shoot him," Tanner said.
To Tanner's horror, the second chance looked as if it would play out as badly as the first attempt a year before.
"I stuck it through his front shoulder that time," Tanner said. "I done messed it up once. I wasn't gonna mess it up twice!"
And yet ...
"He ran quite a ways," Tanner said. "He went in to where I lost blood last year. He took the same bedding area, took the same trail, ran past the same sapling, the same everything. And we got in there and lost blood. No deer. I'm like, 'I did not do this twice.' There's no way! I couldn't believe it!"
One of Tanner's companions glimpsed a dark mass in the darkness. It was Tanner's buck.
"We gave him an hour and a half before we started looking for him," Tanner said. "He gurgled and died right then. We walked up on him with his last breath."
Tanner's biggest buck to that point scored about 120 Boone and Crockett. He might well encounter one with a bigger score, but he will probably never encounter one that's more magnificent.
"Finding out I had killed a word record deer was something of a dream," Tanner said. "This is something I can hold onto forever, though it will probably be something I won't ever be able to top. It is great to know that Bolt and Quarrel was able to recognize my deer for what he was worth."