Putman Phantom: Spunky Thornton’s 1983 Record Buck

Duncan Dobie | July 20, 2019

Fate often plays an important role in the outcome of notable happenings in our lives. So much so that when we look back, it sometimes appears as though some strange force has carefully laid out a pre-determined series of events. The end results seem almost predictable.

Despite the mystery of it all, this turned out to be the case when Spunky Thornton, of Stone Mountain, decided to spend the weekend in deer camp in mid November 1983. His timing couldn’t have been better. The peak of the rut was just kicking in, and bucks were chasing does with a fury in the central Piedmont, which was an epicenter of Georgia deer hunting in the early ’80s.

Spunky was president of a club leasing 1,500 acres of timberland in northwestern Putnam County. A large dairy farm bordered one side of the property, and an abundance of agricultural land nearby gave the local deer plenty of protein.

As with many clubs, local rumors had abounded for several years about an unusually large buck being sighted in the area. Although no one in Spunky’s club had ever seen such a deer, some impressive sign had been discovered.

The very year before, one of Spunky’s good hunting buddies, David Mask, of Covington, had located some over-sized rubs and scrapes in a creek bottom about 400 yards from the main highway. Spunky hunted that sign for several weeks toward the end of the ’82 season, but he never saw the “phantom” buck responsible.

Shortly after killing his record buck, Spunky Thornton drove to the General Putnam Motel north of Eatonton to seek help in getting the monster out of the woods. Roy Allen, owner of the motel, volunteered, and the record whitetail was recovered in Roy’s Chevy El Camino. The historic General Putnam, where scenes from the movie My Cousin Vinny were filmed, recently suffered a damaging fire.

“When the ’83 season started, I planned to hunt the same area,” Spunky said. “We never found any fresh sign, but we did see some huge tracks in one of our food plots, and we were sure they were his tracks.

“David began to hunt him hard. He put in more time on that buck than anyone else in our club.”

Early in the season, Spunky hunted some deep hardwood areas in various places around the property. The mast crop was poor that year, and as the rut approached he decided to purchase a new climbing tree stand and go back to the bottom containing last year’s big rubs and scrapes.

On Friday, Nov. 18, Spunky drove to the property with the express intention of hunting all weekend. He decided to place his new Big Buck Climber (a stand in which the seat faced the tree) in a tree he had hunted previously, not far from where all the big sign was located. Around 5 p.m., he heard the unmistakable sound of a deer walking through the woods. All at once he had that “special” feeling.

“I turned around to look and immediately saw a huge set of antlers,” he said. “I knew it was the ‘big boy.’ I was probably 30 feet up that tree, and he was only 15 or 20 yards away when I saw him. He was easing along through some super-thick cover, and I couldn’t get a shot. To make matters worse, he came up behind me on my right side, so I had to reverse my rifle and try to make a left-handed shot. I followed him with my scope for about 20 yards. I was proud of myself for remaining so calm. There was a small opening in the woods just ahead, and when he stepped into that small open spot, I put the scope on his neck and squeezed the trigger.”

Wielding a Remington Model 742 .30-06 topped with a Redfield 3x to 9x scope, Spunky made what he later described as “a fairly easy shot.”

The huge buck dropped in his tracks.

“If he had gone a few steps further, I never would have been able to get off a shot. He was headed into some extremely thick woods.”

Spunky had to sit down and take a few deep breaths when he reached the fallen giant. Before him lay a massive 10-pointer with the most incredible antlers he had ever seen.

“I knew I would need some help getting him out of the woods, so I got in my car and drove down to the General Putnam Motel on the outskirts of Eatonton to call some of the other club members back in Atlanta. I knew some of them were supposed to be coming down for the weekend, but I couldn’t get in touch with a single person.”

Spunky also called his wife, Joan.

“Honey, I just killed the biggest buck I’ve ever seen in my life,” he told her excitedly.

Joan later commented, “He couldn’t keep the smile out of his voice. He was so proud, and I was proud for him.”

Having often stayed at the General Putnam while hunting, Spunky had become friends with the motel’s owner, Roy Allen. Roy and the motel cook, along with two other hunters from Marietta who were staying there, accompanied Spunky back to the spot where his giant buck had gone down.

“We drove Roy’s El Camino within 100 yards of my buck,” Spunky said. “I never thought we could get that close. The two hunters from Marietta were great. They even field-dressed my buck for me. I wish I could remember their names. They kept telling me how lucky I was.”    

“We drove to a nearby cooler and took a few snapshots. The next day I took the buck over to Foster’s Deer Cooler on Highway 44 near Lake Oconee to be weighed, as the other cooler didn’t have a scale. He weighed 172 pounds field-dressed.”

Spunky Thornton made his entire family proud when he brought home this 172 2/8-inch monster from Putnam County in November 1983. Here he poses with the mount of the record-book buck along with his son Bryan. The Putnam Phantom mount will be on display at the 2019 Ag-Pro GON Outdoor Blast in Duluth July 26-28.

Spunky’s extraordinary main-frame 5×5 boasted a very high rack with exceptional mass. One small sticker point grew from the G-2 tine on each side, but only one measured over an inch in length. The buck was believed to have been 5 1/2 years old.

As soon as the 60-day drying period was up, Spunky took his trophy to Bob Monroe, a Game & Fish biologist and official Boone & Crockett measurer in Atlanta, to be scored.

The Putnam Phantom was officially scored at 172 2/8 typical B&C points.

As of 1983, only one other buck from Putnam County had qualified for the all-time record book. That buck was killed by Tom Cooper at B.F. Grant WMA in 1974. Tom’s buck, scoring 215 7/8 non-typical points, had also been a phantom of sorts, and numerous hunters had been chasing it on the refuge for several seasons. (For Tom’s story, see the January 2019 issue of GON.)

Although you could easily argue that David Mask deserved to bring down the “Phantom” if anyone did, Fate had somehow allowed Spunky’s bullet to claim the incredible buck. Spunky was in the right place at the right time under the right circumstances. When his big opportunity presented itself, he made all the right choices, and it paid off. Remember, he was forced to make a left-handed shot.

That same Fate dealt Spunky a hard hand on Dec. 2, 2003, and this time the outcome was anything but joyous. At age 59, with so much life yet to live, Spunky was killed by a drunk driver in a terrible auto accident.

He was a unique and much-loved individual, and the devastating loss is still strongly felt by his family and friends.

Spunky always had a smile on his face and was always happy and cheerful. He was exceedingly proud of his well-deserved trophy, and I was proud to call him a friend. Over the years, I borrowed the mounted head from him many times to put on display at various big buck shows. Spunky was always gracious and generous with his buck of a lifetime. He was a good man. His memory will live on through the ages.

Putnam County Best Bucks Of All-Time

1215 7/8 (NT)Thomas Cooper1974PutnamGunView 
2172 2/8 Spunky Thornton1983PutnamGunView 
3167 5/8 Stuart Nelson1985PutnamGun
4166 5/8 Philip Clark1972PutnamGun
5165 2/8 Don Harris1974PutnamGunView 
6164 4/8 Hank Johnson2007PutnamGunView 
7163 2/8 Jill Brown2015PutnamGunView 
8163 1/8 Mason Smith2011PutnamGunView 
9160 5/8 Jerry Land1962PutnamGun
10160 1/8 Clyde Sales1969PutnamGun

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