Opening Day Magic: The story of the East Texas deer
A.J. Downs knew the buck was huge when he first viewed a trail camera picture of him in August.The non-typical, chocolate-horned deer was a freak — not only for San Jacinto County, but really for anywhere in the country. There appeared to be more than 20 points sprouting from an almost unfathomable mass. Had A.J. not recognized his feeder in the photo, this could have easily been a practical joke.
Fast forward weeks later to opening morning of the Texas archery season, Sept. 29. It was 7:15 and it was still raining after a storm blew in overnight. A.J.’s brushed-in ground blind was wet and getting wetter when the only deer of the morning turned out to be the same big deer he and his brother, Quentin, were trying to pattern for the last 5 weeks. And it was making its way to his corn feeder on this 12,000 acre, low-fenced cattle ranch, located between Livingston and Cleveland.
“I was actually very calm,” the 39-year-old said of his first live encounter with the buck, besides a glimpse of him a week before the season began. “I think there is just something inside of me that prevents buck fever. For some reason, I’m able to stay calm, at least until it’s over.” A.J. was even calm enough to get the big deer on his video camera for a few moments before he prepared for the 15-yard shot.
The buck stopped but needed two more steps to give A.J. an unobstructed view. The deer did take those final two steps, but then stopped to scratch himself with his rear leg. Waiting until the shot presented itself, A.J. was zeroed in and finally released his arrow.
“It seemed like a good shot. He ran about thirty yards, but I lost him in some brush. The fletching was red and I found one area on the ground with blood, but the rest was washed away with the rain. It turns out the deer made it another 30-yards and collapsed from a double-lung pass through.”
On the ground, the buck was every bit as big as the photos indicated. “This is a freak deer, there is nothing of this caliber that I have seen on the ranch in the 7 or 8 years we have been on this place,” A.J. said after he was asked if the Lazy M Ranch is known for big deer. “The first year I was on this lease I shot a buck that scored 160. So yes, the Lazy M has some quality deer.”
But it wasn’t always that way. The owners of the ranch, which includes 14-miles of Trinity River border, say there were not many deer on the place decades ago. “It was strictly a cattle operation. We started leasing it out to hunters in 1995,” Jake Landers said of the property that has been in his wife’s family for generations.
“We knew there were some good deer on the place, and one of our neighbors has A.J.’s deer on one of his cameras,” Lazy M Ranch Co-owner Marion Landers said. “But, we had never seen this one. When A.J. was having it measured that morning, it was clear it was hard to do. You can’t even tell what the real main beam is.”
As for the unofficial score, A.J says it’s well over 200. Even with a lot more prying, he would rather wait until the official score comes back. Some have suggested his buck could be the 6th or 7th largest non-typical ever entered into the Texas Big Game Awards Program.
“If entered, it would be the biggest of all time in Region 6,” Justin Dreibelbis, hunting heritage program director of the Texas Wildlife Association, says. “The current number one for the Pineywoods Region is a 201 and 1/8 net non-typical from Houston County in 1999.” To be entered into the Big Game Awards Program, a deer may not have been born or bred in captivity.
So, was this deer a free-ranging, naturally-born wild deer? Perhaps we will never know for sure. But, San Jacinto County Game Warden Aryn Corley thinks this deer is the real thing.
“The likelihood of a deer that size taken in this county is about as good as winning the lottery. It’s definitely a one-in-a-million deer,” Corley says. “The River Monster TV show comes down to the Trinity to film big gar. And now with this deer, it makes you wonder if an alien spaceship crashed and released radiation.”