Big bucks are where you find them, or so Justin Samples can safely say after the buck he brought down last month could prove to be the one of the top-10 largest non-typical whitetail deer of all time.
But it wasn't like he phoned this potential record in, although the coincidence of having received a cell phone just before taking the huge buck is rather remarkable. We'll just name it the "I'll Have To Call You Back Buck."
"The phone happened to ring," the Jackson, Tenn., hunter said of his Dec. 1 experience. "It was one of my buddies. We started talking, but we hadn't even talked 10 seconds when the deer came running up out of the thicket."
He dropped the phone, then promptly dropped what might be the new Tennessee state record non-typical buck, pending completion of the official 60-day drying period for the buck's antlers.
"I had been hunting actually all morning long," said Samples, 20. "I had seen several deer, a few little bucks and does, but that was about it. I was getting down about 10:30 a.m. to call it quits, but I was going to check a field to see if there were any deer in it."
As Samples walked towards the field with his rifle in tow, the hunter heard a muffled noise his cell phone as he moved about on the 450 to 500-acre property that he hunted in Haywood County.
While it all happened so fast, Samples believes that the deer did in fact see him in the brief seconds before his Browning .270 rifle barked its historic shot. But Samples credits his camouflage with breaking up his outline just enough to give him the precious few moments necessary to pull off the shot.
"I think the deer did see me, but I don't know if he realized what I was," he explained. "He sat there and stomped his foot and looked at me, but it is so thick I don't know if he really knew what I was."
If there were a few tense seconds in the Hatchee River bottomland woods, the drama ended quickly as the deer went down in its tracks.
"It dropped and didn't move," Samples recalled. "I went right up to the deer at that point and I went crazy. After I caught my breath, I called my buddy, Jeremy Anderson, back. I told him I killed a big deer with 30 or 40 points, but he didn't believe me."
After completing his phone call with Anderson, Samples realized that he would need a little help in getting the 170-pound field dressed buck out of the woods.
"I was hunting by myself that morning, so I called my girlfriend and her mother to bring me a four-wheeler so I could get it out of the field," he said.
After getting the big buck out of the woods, disbelief began to set in.
"Everybody's mouths were dropping to the ground," Samples said. "Everyone couldn't believe it. I would tell someone about the deer and they would say, 'No, no, you're lying!'"
Samples even wondered himself if the big gnarly Tennessee whitetail was fact or fiction.
"I did that the next morning," Justin said. "I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. I had to go out and look at it to make sure it wasn't a dream."
Fortunately for the hunter, the buck was real and Samples was living out every whitetail hunter's dream killing a world-class buck of a lifetime.
"I dreamed about killing a buck like this, but I really didn't expect to see one like that around here," he said. "Oh, yeah, this is the biggest whitetail I've seen around here."
At the time, Samples had no idea the actual size of the 4½-year-old buck. But after a Dec. 21 scoring session for the Buckmasters Trophy Records system at Buckmaster's headquarters in Montgomery, Ala., he began to realize that he had tagged a special specimen.
BTR scorers Russell Thornberry, Mary Morris, and Brent Osborne put the measuring tape to the irregular buck and came up with some astounding numbers. The Tennessee whitetail has a composite score of 292 4/8 inches, with the inside spread measurement of 15 6/8-inches included. Minus the inside spread credit, the official BTR Irregular category score for the Samples buck is 276 6/8-inches.
Those numbers should make the Samples buck the fourth all-time irregular buck in the BTR record book and the third best BTR buck ever harvested by a hunter. The top hunter-harvested BTR irregular buck is a 321 7/8-inch Mississippi whitetail taken in 1995 by Tony Fulton.
While the Samples buck hasn't been measured yet for the Boone & Crockett scoring system, that should take place by early February.
While there are some differences in the BTR and B & C scoring systems, such as the use of inside spread credit and the treatment of common-based points, Osborne believes he has a ballpark idea of what the Samples buck might score within the Boone & Crockett system.
"I'm going to say that it's going to be in the 270s," Osborne said. "They count spread, but they'll deduct some points out of it under the B & C system. The way that that deer is, it was a nightmare to score. But I think that it will be the Tennessee state record with no problem."
If the Samples buck official B & C score proves to be in the 270-inch range on the Boone & Crockett scale after the 60-day drying period is complete, the deer would appear to be poised to become the new Tennessee state record non-typical. The current Tennessee B & C non-typical record mark is a 244 3/8-inch Sumner County buck killed by Dave Wachtel on the opening day of the 2000 Tennessee muzzleloader season.
Pending the official B & C numbers, the Samples buck might rank not only as the Volunteer State's best non-typical buck, it could also be one of the biggest non-typical whitetails of all-time.
A check of the ESPN Outdoors 2001-2002 Whitetail Forecast summaries indicates that only nine non-typical whitetails have ever been entered into the record system with B & C scores of 270-inches or better.
Those deer include the current B & C world record, a 333 7/8-inch buck found dead near St. Louis, Mo., in 1981 (B & C allows pick-up entries into its record system). The No. 2 all-time B & C non-typical the 328 2/8-inch "Hole in the Horn" buck from Ohio also was found dead, in 1940.
For the record, the biggest non-typical whitetail ever taken by a hunter is the 304 6/8-inch non-typical arrowed by Ohio deer hunter Mike Beatty on Nov. 8, 2000. Other states with non-typical record book bucks exceeding the 270 mark include: Mississippi (295 6/8-inches); Texas (286 0/8); Louisiana (281 6/8); Kansas (280 4/8); Nebraska (279 7/8); and Iowa (272 0/8).
Regardless of what the final B & C score of the Tennessee whitetail turns out to be, Samples is pleased with his buck of a lifetime.
"It's a big deer, but it isn't going to matter to me what it scores. He's going to look good on my wall, and I'm happy with him."
Still, the Samples buck has caused quite a stir among deer camps in the Southeastern states.
While Tennessee sports a growing deer herd of 990,000 whitetails and has instituted Quality Deer Management practices in recent years, the state is still not widely known as a trophy buck hotspot. That's particularly true in the region between Jackson and Memphis, where Samples harvested his world-class whitetail.
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency deer and turkey biologist Alan Peterson admits that deer densities in the Hatchee River region are low, relatively speaking. But the biologist for Western Tennessee also indicates that it is obviously not impossible for the Haywood County river bottoms to produce an occasional monster buck.
"The ones that are there in the Mississippi River floodplain, they can grow to trophy size because of the nutrients in the soil and the agricultural crops in the region," Peterson said.
"That's why a state like Illinois grows the deer like the ones that they grow. The three main ingredients for big bucks are genetics, age, and nutrition. Nutrition is easy to affect and we've got that with some of our crops being grown and the rising popularity of food plots."
Regardless of why the Haywood County buck grew to be so big, Samples is just glad to have been able to help turn the glare of the big buck spotlight onto the mid-South where he lives and hunts.
"It makes me feel pretty good," Samples said. "Most of the big deer seem to come from out west in Texas or up north. But for this deer to come from a little old southern state like Tennessee, well, this helps put us on the map."
While Samples would seem to have decades of deer hunting left in front of him, he concedes that it is unlikely that he'll ever again find himself staring through a scope at a buck of this magnitude.
"It will never be topped," he said. "I got my buck of a lifetime. I'm not even going to try and top this because seriously, it will not ever happen again. I just happened to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time."
Right place or not, Samples received the Christmas present from old St. Nick last month that every deer hunter dreams of the white-tailed buck of a lifetime. But unlike many gifts left under the tree last month by the jolly old elf, Justin has no plans to try and exchange this gift or ask for a different size. Nope, Santa did well a 276 6/8-inch BTR buck is just right for one Tennessee deer hunter.
"This is one Christmas present that isn't going back," Samples said.