CHEROKEE COUNTY —
"Lord, please don't let me have a wreck."
Those were my thoughts last Friday morning as my pick-up rolled east on FM 225 towards the Nacogdoches County Exposition Center.
Never mind the hot coffee sloshing around in the cup between my legs. I was more concerned about my tall-tined co-pilot and the two monsters riding in the back seat. One of them was "Ol' Ugly," a 195 1/8-inch freak-of-a-whitetail Mike Thomas shot in Trinity County nearly 20 years ago. The other was a nasty looking non-typical Jimmy Phillips blasted in Cherokee County last season.
The buck in the passenger seat belongs to Freddy Wallace of Alto but was killed by Estaban Gonzalez in 2002. It only has eight points, but the daggers are much longer than a butcher knife and its main beams look like a set of goal posts.
With a gross B&C score of 168, the Cherokee County giant ranks as the highest scoring eight pointer ever reported from open range in eastern Texas.
Together the three heads carry more than 540 inches of mangled, twisted bone. Simply put, I was up to my neck in whitetail deer antlers with points sticking out in every possible direction. One wrong move on my part - or somebody else's - and I was sure to get poked. I can see the headlines now: "Williams impaled: Trophy buck trio turns outdoor writer into antlered shish kebob."
AJ Downs had other worries that day as he pointed his pick-up northbound on Highway 59 out of Conroe. He had a 16-foot flatbed in tow with a huge wooden crate strapped to the deck.
Inside the crate was the life-size body mount of largest free ranging whitetail ever taken by a bowhunter in the state of Texas. With 28 scoreable points, the outstanding buck grosses more than 268 Boone and Crockett inches; 256 4/8 after deducts.
The life-size mount is impressive, but it is hardly built for rolling down the highway. Taxidermist Bob Sweisthal of Spring fashioned the deer in a jumping posture with all four feet off well above the ground. The only support is a wooden vine that divides the front legs and secures to the buck's brisket.
Sweisthal beefed-up the vine with a steel rod insert that also runs the length of the deer's body, but it doesn't stop the buck from rocking and swaying at every bump and turn. Downs adds some stability by securing the base to the crate floor using wood screws. He also places cloth cinches under the buck's belly and chin for additional support. Naturally, he carries sizable insurance policy on his trophy just in case something bad happens.
"I'm pretty much puckered up the whole time I'm on the road," Downs said. "Just getting him ready to travel is quite an ordeal. I load the crate on the trailer with a fork lift, then I load the deer into the crate. That alone is an 1 1/2 hour job. You can do it with two people, but ideally you need three."
What gives with the big buck road trips?
In case you missed it, the aforementioned whitetails were among the army of trophy class bucks put on display June 21 as part the first annual Nacogdoches Outdoor and Hunting Extravaganza. The event featured everything from snake handlers to RV, ATV, archery and dealers who came to show their wares.
Fittingly called "East Texas Giants," the invitation-only whitetail display featured 26 of the top scoring bucks ever taken in the Pineywoods and Post Oak regions of the state dating back nearly three decades.
Among them were nearly a dozen Boone and Crockett record book entries, including the state's No. 1 and No. 2 open range archery bucks, the No. 1 and No. 2 bucks taken by youth hunters and a host of county records.
All total, the huge racks represented 15 different counties and accounted for more than 4,600 B&C inches of antler growth. It was by far the largest number of top-shelf East Texas bucks ever assembled under the same roof, and certainly one of the best examples of a team effort that I have ever been part of.
While the initial concept started here, a passel of folks had a huge hand in bringing it altogether and making it happen.
Among them were Tim Boatman, a local tire dealer who went out on a limb to sponsor the deal because of his love for the outdoors, and all the folks at The Daily Sentinel newspaper who worked diligently to promote it.
Also to credit is Micah Poteet, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife biologist who offered some helpful input on building the display walls….. my bride, Jan, who cut lumber on a chop saw for hours….. my new friend, Anthony Doyle, who slung some paint and saw to it the finished products reached the expo in one piece….. and Downs, who lent his expertise when it came time to hang the army of stately heads for display.
Most of all, thanks goes out to all the hunters who accepted the invitation to bring their deer to the show and, more importantly, followed through on the commitment.
While a handful of the bucks were killed locally, most of them weren't. These folks had to travel, some farther than others.
Robert Taylor of Aubrey dragged his wife and four daughters more than 200 miles just so they could see his 254 4/8 inch Grayson County giant sitting side-by-side with the Downs Buck for the very first time.
Bobby Tuttle's melanistic buck didn't score near as high as Taylor's, but he commands some serious applause for getting it here. Tuttle, 66, is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer. Getting his deer to the show meant renting a U-Haul trailer large enough to accommodate the full body mount, then figuring out a way make it road worthy enough to make the trip from Beckville and back.
The list of other hunters who contributed to the cause goes on and on: Makayla Hay, Jeff Capps, Dr. Clyde Weaver, Shelton Booth, Miles Mohnkern, Randy Ivy, Colby Shaw, Aaron English, Kadie Beth Wisener, Kevin Wisener, Butch Sapp, Tyler Fenley, Kayla Risner, D'Ann Adams, Eric Minter, Dillon Chevalier, Dr. James Kroll, Chuck Journee and Juston Bass.
I've written stories each of their deer through the years, but until recently I had not had the opportunity to meet many of the hunters personally. After all these years, it's nice be able to put a face with a name and a buck with a picture.
A tip of the hat to all of you.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, email@example.com.