If you like good deer hunting stories, you’re going to love the one Mark Lee of Crosby finally shared with me a couple of weeks back. It’s one of those fascinating cat and mouse tales built around a tireless father/son team, Friday night lights and a host of foiled opportunities born smack in the middle of a 1,000-acre row crop field somewhere in Houston County. At the epicenter of it all was a freak-of-a-whitetail buck that was just as evasive as he was captivating to look at.
Lee should know. He and his son, Cullen, dedicated the better part of two years to killing the world class buck, which is truly one for the ages.
I say that in a literal sense, because there is nothing common about this spectacular animal. In fact, the buck is so enormous that it crushed all the previous Texas Big Game Awards Program records and now ranks as highest scoring non-typical ever taken on open range in Texas by rifle or bow since the program began logging records in 1991-92. It also is the biggest free ranging Texas whitetail reported statewide in nearly a century.
The amazing set of antlers tally an official Boone and Crockett gross score of 278 5/8 and a net score of 268 4/8. A main frame 10 pointer, the buck grew 31 scoreable points, 117 7/8 inches of abnormal bone and carried more than 43 inches of mass atop main beams measuring 18 7/8 and 20 2/8 inches, respectfully. The inside spread on the rack measures 20 1/8 inches, according to official B&C scorer Homer Saye of Cypress.
There have been a couple of larger free range bucks reported in Texas in the past, both recorded by B&C long before the inception of TBGA. Those deer, as listed in the B&C record book, include the 284 3/8 inch “Brady Buck” taken in 1892 in McCulloch County by an “unknown hunter” and a 272 inch whitetail that was found dead near Junction in 1925.
So, what gives with a breaking story on Texas’ biggest-ever whitetail during the dog days of August?
In a nutshell, that’s the way the hunter wanted it.
Lee, who killed the deer a year ago this Sept. 28, says he elected to keep his story close to the vest until now because he wanted to protect his interest on the 4,100-acre lease as well as the rest of the hunters who pay annual dues to hunt there.
“No doubt I was excited about what happened — I still am,” Lee said. “But I also know that news of a big deer travels fast and I knew this one would get a lot of attention if word got out. My intent all along was to not put it out there so fast that it brought a lot of focus to the ranch and jeopardize the other members. I limited who I shared the pictures with and I asked them to keep it quiet. How I managed to keep it quiet for as long as I did I’ll never know.”
I initially learned about the deer last February, soon after Lee’s name suddenly showed up at the top of the Region 6 leaderboard on the TBGA website. I tried reaching out to the hunter through TBGA, but was unsuccessful because the program can’t give out contact information without the hunter’s permission.
TBGA passed along my contact information to Lee, along with an open invitation to share the story when he was ready. The return call finally came in late-July, and the conversation quickly shifted to a hot, sultry day in June 2012. That’s when the two men first laid eyes on a buck that would ultimately consume their lives for next 15 months.
The Initial Sighting
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw him,” recalls Lee. “Cullen and I were out setting cameras and putting out corn when a bachelor group of bucks jumped a fence about 50 yards in front of us and took off across a freshly disced field. They were’t messing around, either. Their heads were down and there was nothing but a smoke trail behind them.”
As the bucks sped away, Lee said his son commented about the antler spreads on a couple of the bucks, and how tall one of the others was. Lee, meanwhile, was more interested in the buck that was bringing up the rear.
“I told Cullen, ‘dude, look at the other deer,’ and I handed him my binoculars,” Lee said. “He said, dang, dad, he looks like he’s got a big knot on his head.”
A life-long deer hunter, Lee, 51, said he knew right away the buck he was looking was way more special than any he had ever seen.
“We watched them run for probably 2,000 yards and maybe 2-3 minutes,” Lee said. “I couldn’t tell exactly what he was, but guessed he had probably 18-20 points. His rack looked like a big crown on top of his head. That’s when I nicknamed him “King.”
Coming To Corn
During the weeks that followed, King became a fixture at the Lee’s three bait sites. Each site consisted of a corn pile and a Deer Cane mineral lick.
The bait sites were placed at strategic locations in relation to three different stand set-ups. Each set-up consisted of an enclosed rifle stand, a bow stand and a game camera. Lee’s preferred stand, a 15-foot tower, also has an automatic feeder nearby.
“King was all over us that summer,” Lee recalled. “We had hundreds of pictures of him, but never at the feeder. We’ve never gotten a picture of a mature buck at that feeder, but they are very comfortable around our baited spots.”
Three stand set-ups on a 1,000 pasture may not sound like many until you consider the geography. According to Lee, their pasture and much of the surrounding land is wide open and used for growing cotton, wheat, hay, corn and other crops.
The rectangle-shaped pasture is dissected by a dry creek bed and a narrow belt of timber about 40 yards wide and 880 yards long. He estimates the woods cover about 50 acres. It’s basically a travel corridor with stand/bait sites scattered throughout.
“We do the very best with what we have,” Lee said. “Under the right conditions we have a pretty good scenario, but overall it has always been tough hunting since we got on this ranch in 2010. It’s the kind of a place that will make you quit deer hunting. We’ve spent many days on the stand without seeing an animal. Our trail cameras are what kept our interest up. Cullen I knew King was out there, and he was our target buck.”
Something else Lee has learned over time is their deer are prone to scatter during the pre-rut and tend to go nocturnal by mid-October. They also do not respond well to pressure, as evidenced by what happened two weeks prior to opening day of the 2012 archery season. A drilling rig along set up the their fence line and stayed in place for two months, spoiling Lee’s hopes that his son might get the opportunity take the buck with his bow.
“My intention all along was to put Cullen in position to have the chance to take that deer with his bow,” Lee said. “I honestly think he would have gotten that chance if the conditions had been right on opening day in 2012. We had King patterned really well, but he left when that drilling rig moved in.”
King eventually showed back up, but it wasn’t until late December when Lee saw him running a doe on an adjacent pasture, about 800 yards away.
Interestingly, the Lees had a similar train wreck in 2011, when they had a different buck patterned prior to rifle season. Then a farmer spent most of the week before opening day discing the pasture for winter wheat. That buck left, too, but never returned. He got killed about a mile away.
“Honestly, when King left us in Sept. 2012, we figured the same thing would happen to him,” Lee said. “We kept waiting to hear that he’d been killed, but we never did. It was a huge relief when he showed back up in December.”
Coming Home Party
Shift to June 2013. The Lees were back at their lease setting cameras and dumping corn when they experienced some real life déjà vu. They jumped a bachelor group of four bucks in almost the exact spot as the summer before, and King was among them.
As the summer wore on, it was obvious that his antlers had become much larger, too.
“It was amazing to watch him grow,” Lee said. “He probably grew 20 more inches than the summer before. We knew he was truly a special deer, and he was comfortable. We were very excited about the possibility of him staying there.”
The Lees played it smart and didn’t tell many people about the buck, either. Only two other people on the ranch knew about the buck — the ranch manager and a close friend who hunted a 200-acre pasture adjacent to theirs.
“I think some of the other members suspected we had a good deer, but they didn’t know for sure,” Lee said.
Going MLD III
For years the property had been under Level II MLD management, but Lee got word from the ranch manager in mid-August saying they had been approved been approved for Level 3 permits. That provided the option to rifle hunt beginning on Sept. 28 (opening day of archery season), which Lee felt might be their best chance yet to take the buck before bachelor groups busted up.
“He told us to go kill that buck, and we were excited about our chances,” Lee said. “Then, about two weeks before opening day, we quit getting pictures. King moved on us, but I wasn’t sure why. I knew he hadn’t been pressured. I had a hunch he’d just moved into the little motte of trees next to our pasture — that maybe there was a little pre-rut going on.”
Friday Night Lights
His hunch was right.
The father/son made it to their lease well before daylight on opening morning following a long night of high school football that saw Cullen’s Crosby Cougars lose a heart breaker to Summer Creek. The 17-year-old wide receiver was admittedly bummed about the loss, but pumped about thought of crossing paths with King at first light.
“He didn’t get to bed until after midnight and we were back up 2:30 a.m., so we could get there and be on the stand by 5:15 a.m.,” Lee said. “Cullen slept on the way, but I knew he was still tired. He wanted to bow hunt, but I was worried he might go to sleep and fall out his ladder stand. I suggested he take his rifle to his box blind and get some rest. I also told him he had better be ready at first light. If King came through there, I felt like it was going to be during the first 20 minutes of daylight.”
The King Comes Calling
The game plan was to set up at opposite ends of travel corridor and wait. Cullen set up at the funnel point were the buck was most likely to enter the pasture, while Mark manned the tower stand so he might get a shot in case the deer slipped by his son.
It was just after dawn – with barely light enough to see – when Cullen heard a noise from the nearby creek bed.
“I knew it was a deer coming under the fence, so I put my gun out the window and got ready,” he said. “I saw movement in the ditch about 40 yards out but I couldn’t tell it was him until I caught a glimpse of all those points in a patch of sunlight. By then it was too late. I wasn’t going to take the chance of wounding that buck. He was headed straight for my dad, so I let him go.”
Moments later, the elder Lee spotted movement about 400 yards down the tree line.
“I was able to make out the legs of a deer and that’s it,” he said. “Then he went back inside the tree line and I lost him for a few minutes until he stepped out at 175 yards.”
There was no mistaking that rack, so Lee squeezed the trigger on his Ruger No. 1-300 Win-Mag. The shot was a good one and King went down, but not before Lee’s phone started to ring. Not surprisingly, the caller was Cullen
“Please tell me you got him… please tell me you got him!!” he said.
“Yes, King is down,” Lee said. “It’s over, son. Finally.”
KING’S KEY STATS
Hunter Name: Mark Lee, Crosby, Tx.
County of Harvest: Houston Co.
Gross Score: 278 5/8
Net Score: 268 4/8
No. of Points: 31
Abnormal Growth: 117 7/8 inches
Mass: 43 1/8 inches
Main Beams: 18 7/8 and 20 2/8 inches
Official Scorer: Homer Saye, Cypress, Tx.