The two men approached the downed buck cautiously, from different sides. Johnny King’s bullets had dropped the enormous whitetail, but Brad Heisz, who’d answered his cousin’s desperate call for help, had obligingly administered the coup de grace.
Brad reached it first, while Johnny was circling around in front. He knelt, grasped the unbelievably huge rack and lifted the head to admire it. At that moment, the buck propelled itself upward and twisted away from the wide-eyed hunter in a last-ditch effort to regain its footing.
Following a loud crack that would’ve brought a smile to Hank Aaron’s face, Brad was left holding most of the left antler.
Johnny didn’t realize that the buck, which never got its wheels back under it, was responsible. It appeared to him as if his crazed cousin, Bradzilla, had simply walked up and ripped off the antler.
"Brad, what the hell?" he asked, horrified.
Brad was speechless, looking at the rack as if he’d broken an arm off the statue of Venus.
It took a few minutes for the bewildered hunters to literally piece together the story.
Johnny had noticed while walking up to the buck that a significant portion of the left beam appeared to have a whitish fungus growing on it. Turns out, one of the bullets from his .30-30 had smashed into and passed completely through the beam, taking a chip of antler with it and exposing the mottled gray antler beneath the surface. The tug of war, however short and one-sided, was enough to break the remainder.
It was an extraordinary ending to an otherwise ordinary Wisconsin family outing on Nov. 18, 2006.
It began with Johnny King meeting his brother, Jeff, at their mother’s house for breakfast at 5 a.m. Johnny was anxious to get started, and his patience was tested as Jeff seemed to dawdle.
They arrived – late – at their Uncle Pat’s Grant County farm around 6:45 and were met by Uncle Dale Heisz.
"Didn’t I teach you guys nothin’?" he asked, blood dripping down his face.
Dale had already shot a small 5- or 6-point buck. He told Johnny and Jeff the short tale while they were shrugging into their hunting clothes. Another nephew, Brad, was already on his way to help load the deer.
Johnny and Jeff went on to their stands and sat for a couple of overcast hours. At 9:00, they trudged back to the barn to meet Dale, Brad and Uncle Bob Heisz (Brad’s father) to plan the customary man-drive of a 4-acre bluff behind Pat’s house. The execution didn’t take nearly as long as the planning.
"When my family decides to do something, it takes an hour to plan it," Johnny grins. "It didn’t matter that we’d done that same drive, the same way for 22 years, since I was 12 years old."
When the bluff drive failed to put any venison on the ground, the party of five regrouped at 10:30 and drove up the road to another small block of timber. This time, the planning went more smoothly.
Johnny rarely assumes the role of stander, but this was one of the exceptions. Bob pulled off the road, into a field and parked at the first of a line of power poles. Johnny walked across the open ground another 200 yards and settled in beside another. He’d barely backed up to the pole when he happened to glance to his right and saw a buck exiting a thicket on the land abutting the Heisz place.
"It was before the drive had started," Johnny said. "I only saw it for two or three seconds, before it disappeared behind a crown in the field. If I hadn’t turned that way when I did, I’d have missed it altogether.
"It’s weird. That deer had to see me walking across the field. It could see Bob and his truck over there, but it didn’t care. I discovered later that there were two does in the woods on our side, and the buck was going to them," he added.
Bob, meanwhile, was actually lying on his side, on the ground, when he noticed the buck. He took several pokes at it, but the deer managed to cross the field without suffering a single hit. Once it reached the woods, Johnny got several glimpses of it and the two does weaving through the trees. He even got off a 150-yard shot of his own, but apparently missed.
Not content to stay at that range, since he was shooting his open-sighted .30-30, Johnny crawled forward on hands and knees. He wanted to get to a fence line that would afford a better vantage point. It took him between 10 and 15 minutes to reach it, at the cost of dropping a few cartridges en route. He stood, saw the buck and fired again, only to watch it fade back into the timber.
About the time Johnny stopped at the highest point in the field, Jeff and Brad arrived to begin the drive. The plan was for them to walk through the boot-shaped strip of timber. With Johnny covering the boot’s topside, Bob was at the tip and Dale at mid-sole.
As Jeff and Brad entered the woods at 11:00 sharp, the buck decided to break and run.
Johnny threw up and fired his last bullets, and the giant whitetail skidded into the dirt before reaching the fence surrounding the field. Still worried that it might somehow regain its footing, jump the fence and race across to the neighboring property, also because his own rifle was empty, he yelled out for Brad.
When Brad came upon the still-breathing deer, he administered the coup de grace. The antler incident followed.
After everyone assembled, there was some sorting out to do: two hunters, not counting Uncle Bob; multiple shots and hits; and only one very large buck. The matter of ownership was ultimately decided by Uncle Dale, who pointed out that any one of Johnny’s shots would’ve been enough to kill the animal; that Brad’s contribution was merely insurance.
Editor’s Note: Affordable replicas of the King Buck’s extraordinary antlers are available through Big Shot Reproductions. Call Todd Schillinger at (715) 615-2667.