The Gunbelt Buck
The movements this WMA radio-collared buck made during managed hunts will amaze you.
So you think you have your buck patterned for the year already? You know the area he is using because you scouted in post-season 1989 and pre-season 1990 and saw his fresh sign on both occasions! You could still be hunting a ghost—a trophy animal now 4 or 5 miles from his fresh sign. When we think we have deer figured out, they throw us a monkey wrench.
This is a story of just such a monkey wrench, fondly named The Gunbelt Buck. It’s a true story with a sad ending of a trophy buck in the mountains with a radio collar that had two separate home ranges and finally died in a mountain laurel thicket after being wounded by a careless shot. It’s also a fascinating look at how a trophy buck reacted to hunting pressure on a WMA.
The story began November 10, 1987 on Lake Burton WMA in Rabun County. The Region II Game Management personnel had been involved for about a year in an important deer radio telemetry project designed to determine the importance of food plots and deer movements in the mountains. Leaders of the study were David Carlock and myself with plenty of assistance from others. By this date we had darted several does and a couple of spike bucks. Many long hours of spotlighting deer at night had allowed us to put radio collars on 10 animals to track their movements.
Before Nov. 10, 1987, none of us had seen this magnificent buck. That night Wildlife Technician Don Wofford and myself were spotlighting together trying to dart a deer. When we drove into a clover food plot on north Moccasin Creek, we couldn’t believe our eyes! There he was, unaware of our presence with a fully swollen neck, chasing a doe on the edge of the filed. As our light hit the doe, she stopped running from him and froze. He stopped behind her and stood still for just a moment. I fired the dart gun and saw through the scope that it hit its mark in the big buck’s left hindquarter. We cut the lights and checked our watches. Both deer had run off into thick woods and disappeared.
We waited 10 minutes for the drug to take effect. With flashlights in hand, Don and I struck out toward the last place we had seen the buck. A full 45 minutes later, we met without having found the drugged buck. Time was running out, our drug would wear off shortly.
Ten minutes later, Don yelled, “Here he is!”
There was Don straddling a huge 10-point buck that was struggling to get on his feet! The drug was rapidly wearing off. I ran 150 yards back to the truck, loaded a syringe with another dose of the drug and hurried back to the laurel thicket to inject the drug in the struggling buck’s hip. We could breath deeply now and drop back to a normal pace in putting the radio collar on the deer. But our standard radio collar didn’t fit! The buck was in full rut, and his neck was swollen 2 to 3 inches larger than the last setting on our radio collar.
It was an hour and a half round trip to pick up another collar at the Lake Burton WMA check station. No problem. Area Manager Al Crews and Wildlife Technician Grady Sutton were on the radio, working after 11 p.m. I asked them to go by the check station and bring us the brand new collar. They graciously agreed and 45 minutes later they walked into the laurel thicket with the collar, but it was also 2 inches too short. We were hamstrung! Our biggest collar was too small for the buck’s neck. It was a sinking feeling, catching a buck this big and not having a collar large enough. The 10-point buck with a 16-inch outside spread was too rare to let go with just ear tags. If you think it’s tough to kill one of these, try catching one alive with a dart gun.
“Try Don’s gunbelt,” someone finally suggested.
Don was wearing a new gunbelt buck that held his .357 magnum. By incredible coincidence, the gunbelt was the same width and had the same buckle holes as that of the radio collar. Our pocket knives made quick work of the $30 gunbelt and shortly we had a 3-inch extension which fit perfectly with the radio collar.
With our flashlights, we aged the buck at 3 1/2 years old. A couple of quick pictures later and we left The Gunbelt Buck in the thicket. Little did we know this monster buck wearing a radio collar would only be seen once in the next two years, despite our sophisticated radio telemetry equipment beeping his exact location.
We quickly learned that The Gunbelt Buck was not your normal, predictable buck. In the next two years and two months our team of radio trackers located The Gunbelt Buck more than 160 times. The collection of data represents the most unusual movement ever reported for a white-tailed buck. The buck had two home ranges located approximately 3 miles apart. One range was located on Lake Burton WMA along the South Fork of Moccasin Creek and the other was on Swallow Creek WMA along Mill Creek. In between was the Appalachian Trail and the 3,000-foot Addis Gap. The buck spent virtually all of his time in one range or the other and almost none in between. In 160 locations, only five could be called in between. When he decided to switch, he went from one drainage to another quickly and then settled back down and often stayed for weeks or months before returning to the former range.
His first big move was during the peak of the rut in 1987. Between Nov. 24-27, he moved from Lake Burton due west 3 miles to Swallow Creek. Dec. 2 was the opening day of the Swallow Creek and Lake Burton managed deer hunts. From the four locations we got during the hunt, he appeared to spend all the daylight hours in a mountain laurel thicket near Tripp Branch, about 300 yards behind a big hunt camp. The hunters left in the middle of the hunt complaining of not seeing any deer or sign.
Sometime during the week of Jan. 5, the buck switched back to Lake Burton WMA. There was a big snowstorm on Jan. 7-8, which dropped 18 inches of snow on Burton and Swallow Creek. The snow stayed on the ground for two weeks. With snow chains and a 4WD truck, we found the old boy on Jan. 14. There was an either-sex quota hunt on Lake Burton on Jan. 9. In 18 inches of snow, no hunters reached the buck’s home range.
The buck spent the winter on Lake Burton and switched back to Swallow Creek between May 5-10, 1988. This was well after spring green-up. Between July 12-17, he switched back to Lake Burton. Between Oct. 4-6, it was back to Swallow Creek, this time well before the rut and well before the gun hunts on either area. It was beginning to look like this buck wanted to spend gun hunting season in his favorite mountain laurel thicket on Tripp Branch. And this is exactly what he appeared to do from Nov. 9-12, 1988 during the Swallow Creek buck hunt. No changes occurred during the Dec. 7-10 Swallow Creek hunt. The buck was keeping a different schedule from a year earlier. He didn’t switch back to Lake Burton until the last week in January 1989. It was like he was trying to make absolutely sure he had missed all of the hunts on Lake Burton. He did. Again in 1989, he spent the winter on Lake Burton WMA. Sometime during the last week in April, he switched back to Swallow Creek. Strangely, between May 10-16, he quickly moved to Lake Burton and then back again to Swallow Creek.
During the second week in June 1989, The Gunbelt Buck came back to Burton and spent the rest of the summer and part of the fall. For the first and only time, The Gunbelt Buck was seen on June 30, 1989 by Burton Area Manager Al Crews. Al got a good look at this velvet-covered monster who was traveling with another buck that was obviously much larger. Al counted seven velvet points on The Gunbelt Buck and nine on his traveling buddy. Since it was only late June, both had a lot more antler growing to do.
Between Nov. 3-9, 1989, The Gunbelt Buck moved from Burton to Swallow Creek. This move was especially curious. The Swallow Creek buck hunt was held unusually early from Nov. 1-4. The Burton hunt occurred Nov. 8-11. The buck somehow knew this and switched just right, staying on Burton until the Swallow Creek hunt was over and then switching to Swallow Creek before the Burton hunt started up. He spent the Nov. 22-25 Swallow Creek hunt holed up in his mountain laurel thicket.
There was one more hunt on Swallow Creek, an either-sex hunt held Jan. 6, 1990. This was to be The Gunbelt Buck’s last hunt. We don’t know for sure, but the evidence strongly suggests that he was shot that day, hit hard and ran off to die in his laurel thicket. Luckily, we had two radio locations on him that day. At 10:16 a.m., he was located on Mill Creek between Mill Creek Roughs and Sassafras Branch. At 5:30 p.m., just before dark, he moved to his mountain laurel thicket where he was later found dead. We think he was shot at and died between those two readings Jan. 6. We homed into the laurel thicket in August and recovered his skull, antlers, jawbone and radio collar (still beeping).
These bits and pieces of the magnificent buck revealed several more intriguing facts about his unusual life and movements. First, his antlers were actually slightly poorer than they were two seasons before. The 3 1/2-year-old 10-point with a 16-inch spread had grown into a 5 1/2-year-old 8-point with a 16-inch spread. Though his antler mass appeared slightly greater, his overall rack had declined slightly during what should have been his best years. We can’t explain this. Though some biologists believe that buck antler growth peaks at 3 1/2 years, the majority believe that 5 1/2 to 7 1 /2 years is the peak for most bucks. After the 1987 acorn crop failure and severe snowstorm in Jan. 1988, antlers went downhill, but nobody ever saw his 1988 rack. The fall of 1988 produced an excellent acorn crop and the winter of 1989 was mild and 1989 was not a drought year. Yet, this buck’s antlers never rebounded to their 1987 peak. How often does this happen in Georgia?
Another shocking problem cropped up. A careful examination of his lower jaw by several deer biologists revealed his age at only 3 1/2 years! Wait a minute, he was 5 1/2 wasn’t he? Yes, but he had the tooth wear of a deer two years younger than he really was. If this buck had not worn our radio collar for two years, we would have called him 3 1/2 years old. How many bucks are mis-aged like this, unbeknownst to biologists?
The third interesting fact was The Gunbelt Buck’s collar itself. The collar had held up amazingly well despite a huge dent in the transmitter package, which bent the bracing and almost tore it loose from its base. What happened? It appeared to us that this was done by an antler tine during a fight with another buck.
While we are talking about fighting, it’s time to fit another piece into the puzzle. On the Dec. 1989 Lake Burton hunt, a monster buck was killed by Michael Long, of Chatsworth. The 10-pointer with a 22-inch spread scored 144 4/8 inches. This likely made him the biggest buck killed in the northeast Georgia mountains in 15 years. The buck was killed near Pigpen Mountain, only about 1 mile east of The Gunbelt Buck’s Burton range. Was this the same buck Al Crews had seen in the summer of 1989 traveling with our buck? It seems very likely. This may have been the buck that dented our radio collar. Also, this may have been the buck that caused The Gunbelt Buck to pack his bags and leave for Swallow Creek every fall. Seems plausible, but we’ll never know for sure. To me, it seems like he left too late every year to be run off by his bigger competitor. Besides, we caught him in full rut and running a doe in the monster buck’s range in 1987. I think that the reason he switched to Swallow Creek was to hole up in his mountain laurel thicket during hunting season. How did he know when to leave? Probably the scent, sight and sounds of increased human activity in his Burton range.
Could there have been another reason, such as habitat differences? Not likely. First of all, his Swallow Creek and Burton ranges were virtually the same size and shape. Each was about 400 acres and each was elliptical with the longest axis running from northwest to southeast. Both were closely tied to creek drainages, branches and mountain laurel thickets. His Burton range was basically around 3,000 feet in elevation, and his Swallow Creek range was 2,200 to 2,600 feet. In both ranges, his favorite slopes faced north, probably because they had more mountain laurel. His Burton range has a thicket, 12-year-old clearcut and two high-quality clover grass food plots very close by. Though he was only seen once, we felt he used these food plots at night on Burton. On Swallow Creek, he had no clearcuts and one food plot nearby which we could never document him using. Overall, I would rate his Burton range as better quality deer range. We had 100 location on him in two years on his Burton range and 60 on his Swallow Creek range. He switched back and forth at least 11 times in two years.
Months of switching were November, January, May, July and August. The most important switches, of course, were in November and January. If anyone post-hunt scouted or pre-hunt scouted this buck and located his sign—rubs, scrapes, tracks or whatever—the sign was probably on Burton while he was 3 miles away on Swallow Creek! As a matter of fact, there was a prominent line of rubs along South Moccasin Creek within 100 yards of where we caught him. Probably his, but we can’t be sure. We don’t know that in any of his six hunting seasons that he even spent a hunt on Lake Burton. At least he didn’t while we were tracking him. On the flip side, we don’t know where, when or if he made any sign on Swallow Creek.
The moral of the story is simple. The words “never” and “always” don’t seem to apply when it comes to buck movements. While I’m sure there are some classic 640-acre buck home ranges in the mountains, we now know there are some not-so-classic 2,500-acre home ranges there, also. While there are some classic bucks that move a lot during the rut (and consequently during hunting season), The Gunbelt Buck quickly moved a long distance and then confined his movements to a small area with very thick cover. He lived 5 1/2 years by staying out of sight and not moving much, at least in daylight hours during the hunts.
A mountain laurel thicket was his haven. While he was alive, he broke all the rules. After he died, he made a new set of rules for all non-conformist bucks and hunters alike. If a mysterious buck you’ve never seen before shows up in your hunting area in mid season, he probably didn’t read the book—and neither did The Gunbelt Buck.
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