A look back at the 10 1/2-year life of a special wild whitetail.
By Richard P. Smith
Few white-tailed bucks reach the age of 10 1/2 in the wild. If hunters, poachers, parasites, injuries or tough winters don’t claim mature bucks before then, vehicles or predators do. Some bucks manage to beat the odds, though, and I was fortunate to get to know one that lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Although he was a wild whitetail all of his life, “Bucky” developed a close relationship with a human, Bill Mattson, who was also a deer hunter. Bill lived near Rudyard until his death and is very much a part of Bucky’s story.
Bucky was on his own in the wild most of the year, just like any other buck, but managed to elude hunters during three months of bow and gun deer seasons. Every winter, Bucky showed up at Bill Mattson’s home and would accept food right from Bill’s hands. Mattson’s house was surrounded by a swamp where whitetails wintered.
As a hunter, he always was interested in seeing deer and also was concerned about their welfare during long, cold winters that are typical of upper Michigan. It was only natural that Bill started to feed deer at his home during winter months soon after he moved there in 1971.
Only 10 to 20 deer took advantage of the handouts Bill put in his wooded back yard the first winter or two, but the numbers gradually increased. Bucky was born during June of 1974 to a doe that led her offspring to Bill’s feeder late that winter. The young buck showed a preference for bread, eating what he could reach from low-hanging bird feeders. It wasn’t until the following winter, when Bucky returned to Bill’s feedlot as a yearling with a 4-point rack, that the long-lasting relationship between man and deer developed.
Bucky was still fond of bread and followed Bill closely whenever he scattered some with other deer food, eagerly eating any bits thrown his way. Finally, Bill decided to try to feed the buck by hand. He got a handful of bread and started tossing pieces progressively closer to the buck.
When the whitetail got close to Mattson, he stuck his neck out as far as he could to grab the morsels. After the deer’s neck was fully extended, he inched closer to Bill a half-step at a time. Eventually, Bucky got close enough to take the last pieces of bread directly from Bill’s hands. From that point on, the buck didn’t hesitate to approach Bill close enough to obtain bread directly from him.
This had been going on for two years when I heard about Bill and Bucky. Mark Eby from St. Ignace informed me about the unusual situation, and I joined him during a visit to Bill’s deer feeder on March 10, 1978. Bucky was over three years old at the time and had an average 10-point rack. At least, he did until that morning. By the time Mark and I arrived in the afternoon, one beam had dropped.
Michigan bucks usually lose their headgear during December and January, but loss of antlers is related to nutrition. The majority of bucks lose their antlers once winter sets in because the quality of their diet decreases. Male hormone levels also drop because most of the breeding is done by January.
Bucks that have access to a quality food supply and are in good health tend to retain their antlers longer than normal. That was the case with Bucky. The winter rations that Bill provided kept the buck’s nutritional level high enough to prolong the presence of antlers.
By age 4 1/2, Bucky achieved what I consider trophy buck status. He was still a 10-pointer, but beams were wider and heavier and tines longer than the year before. His rack maintained that basic configuration until his last year, although there were some short non-typical points that sprouted in various places as he grew older.
The first non-typical tine appeared on Bucky’s rack during the fall of 1980 when he was 6 1/2 years old. It projected from the middle of the second tine (with the brow tine being number one) on the right beam, pointing forward. Another non-typical point grew in the same place the following year. A pair of nodules grew on the base of the right beam that year, too, one of which was at least an inch long.
Bucky lost one of his antlers, the left one, much earlier than he should have that winter. Another deer accidentally knocked it off. According to Bill, there was a large group of deer on the feedlot at the time, including Bucky, when a stranger drove up and spooked them. As the deer ran for cover, one of them slammed into Bucky’s antler, knocking it off with a loud crack. The force of impact was so great that Bucky fell to his knees. Blood flowed from the pedicle where the antler had been.
At 8 1/2, Bucky had a non-typical point on the second tine of the left beam in the exact same place where the first one had been on the right side. There was something else attached to the left antler by the time I saw Bucky early in 1982, an ornament that didn’t grow there naturally. It was a ring of heavy wire.
Bill speculated that the buck had been caught in a snare and was strong enough to eventually break free. If that was the case, and I can’t think of a better explanation, Bucky was lucky to have survived that winter. Even without the hazard of snares, Bucky had something going for him to make it through eight consecutive hunting seasons as an antlered buck without a hunter-inflicted injury. I suspect it was more than luck.
Bucky wasn’t enormous as far as white-tailed bucks go, but he certainly was big. Bill and I estimated he weighed approximately 250 pounds on the hoof. We tried to be conservative, so if we erred, it was on the light side. However, I don’t think the buck could have weighed more than 300 pounds.
After several years of photographing Bucky, he accepted my presence almost as much as Bill’s. Although I could take great liberties when photographing Bucky from the ground, he proved to be a skittish and uncooperative subject on a couple of occasions when I tried to photograph him from a treestand. Perhaps the buck had a bad experience or two with hunters in stands during his years in the woods. The hunters occupying those stands might not have seen Bucky, but the deer certainly detected them. There is also a possibility that a bowhunter or two actually got shots at the trophy whitetail, but missed.
Bucky seemed to know when hunting seasons ended, perhaps by the amount of human activity in the woods. Whatever means he used, it was accurate. The buck customarily arrived at Bill’s home a few days after deer season ended, and that date wasn’t always the same. However, Bucky’s timing was off in 1983 and ’84.
Perhaps he was slipping in his old age, or maybe he simply felt so secure near Bill’s home that he wasn’t as cautious as he had been when younger. Whatever the reason, there was still about three weeks of deer hunting remaining when Bucky arrived at Bill’s place during December of 1983. Bill called me the day Bucky arrived – Dec. 8. There were still a few days of muzzleloader deer season remaining and bowhunting was legal the rest of the month.
I visited Bill the next day, and Bucky arrived about 4:30 p.m., trailing several does. Though I’m an avid deer hunter and the season was open, I had no more interest in shooting that buck than Bill did. I knew the whitetail too well, and he had grown to trust me, as long as I stayed out of trees. There’s no way I would violate that trust. Nor did I want to violate Bill’s trust that I wouldn’t harm the deer.
Bill fed Bucky some bread by hand, and I maneuvered to within 10 feet of the special deer to record his image on film. I was content to “shoot” the whitetail in a way that did him no harm.
Bucky’s rack carried 14 or 15 points that year, the most he ever had. There were three short non-typical points on the right side and two on the left. The matching projections pointing forward from the second tine on both beams were there, plus points at the base of each beam, although I don’t know if the one on the left was an inch long. The right brow tine was forked for the first time, forming the fifth non-typical point.
Just before dark, a muzzleloader discharged not far away. Bucky was still in sight, so he was safe. Either a hunter took a shot at another buck or was simply emptying his rifle at the end of the day. Whatever the purpose of that particular shot, Bucky appeared to understand its meaning as well as Bill and I did. There were hunters nearby.
Bucky came to full alert, staring in the direction the shot came from like a statue. Seconds later, he trotted into a swamp with his tail up, accompanied by does. It was almost a week before Bucky showed himself at Bill’s again. Muzzleloader season was over by then, and he made it through the remainder of bow season with no apparent problems.
He wasn’t as lucky in 1984. Bill saw Bucky for the last time on Dec. 24; then the old-timer disappeared. It wasn’t until two or three weeks later that Bill and I found out why.
A bowhunter shot Bucky on Christmas Day. The hunter knew about Bill and Bucky and paid Bill a visit in January to tell him what happened, then called me.
As it turned out, the quality of Bucky’s rack deteriorated significantly during his last year. There were only eight major points, instead of 10, and some of them were broken. Nonetheless, the hunter has a trophy that goes beyond the bounds of antler size. Local taxidermist Randy Desormeau of Northland Taxidermy mounted the head, preserving a life-like model of Bucky for the future.
Although the quality of Bucky’s rack went downhill, the antlers were still large enough to qualify for the Pope and Young Record Book. They scored 127 4/8. The buck’s antlers were never large enough to qualify for Boone and Crockett records, with a minimum score of 170 required, but I’ll bet they would have scored in the 140s at their best.
Former Michigan DNR Deer Researcher John Ozoga said the broken tines on Bucky’s antlers in his last year are typical of bucks that have done a lot of fighting. It’s possible the buck’s dominance was seriously challenged during the fall of 1984. He might have lost to a bigger, stronger, younger whitetail.
This article was published in the August 2004 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.