“Some men are obsessed with good guns, fine wine and beautiful women. I am consumed with shooting a drop-tine buck.”
I wrote that on January 1, 2008, the day I launched my Big Deer blog. But the obsession had taken me years ago, decades ago, though I am not exactly sure when or even why.
It is not because I went out one day and saw a dropper skulking through the woods and thought: That is the most awesome buck I have ever seen; I won’t be complete until I shoot one. No, in 25 years of serious whitetail hunting in 20-plus states and four Canadian provinces I have seen exactly one. I will tell you about him in a bit. (Hint: This is strange, but you might even have seen it on TV.)
I don’t know, maybe I saw a picture of a huge drop buck in Field & Stream long ago and was hooked for life … Or, maybe I heard some guys in my dad’s camp talking about a legendary buck running around in the swamps with a weird tine sticking down off his rack …
Whatever, my desire to kill a dropper has so consumed me that it defines who I am as a hunter.
Beggars should not be choosers, but not just any drop will do. I am not looking for a rack with a little down-shooting sticker; in fact I hope I don’t see one of those. Then I would have to decide whether or not to shoot that buck. I don’t think I would. I hope I would not — a 2- or 3- inch drop is pretty cool, but it would not fulfill my desire.
No, for a drop to count, it must shoot down from a main beam at least 6 inches — 7 to 10 inches is better, for then it becomes what I have deemed the highly regarded “drop club,” a term which is finding its way more and more into the deer-hunting vernacular. Also, the thicker and more massive the tine or club the better.
The crowning glory is a couple inches of black, hardened velvet on the bottom of the club. You see that on many of the big drop tines and on ALL the most impressive ones. The bucks can’t or don’t rub the velvet off the bottom tips. It gives them more character, as if they need it.
The Holy Grail would be a rack with double drops (one on each side), or even three or four that randomly adorn the beams. Racks like this are out there, but they are even rarer and more unattainable than a single dropper. I am not a greedy person. I never expect to achieve one of those in my lifetime. I am having enough trouble getting a buck with just one. Just one. Lord, that is all I ask.
By the way, have you ever wondered what causes a buck to grow a drop tine(s)? Of course I have, and I have researched it. Occasionally a big deer will get injured, and the following summer he will sprout a drop (and other junk) on the antler opposite of the body injury.
But as famous Missouri biologist Dr. Grant Woods told me, it is much more an age/nutrition/genetic thing: “Most whitetails have non-typical characteristics (like drop tines) in their genes. It’s rare for a 5- to 7-year-old buck to be a straight up typical these days, especially on private land where there’s lots of nutritious food.”
Finally, there is no rhyme or reason to drop tines, they are just random. One year a 5-year-old buck might be a clean, typical 10; the next year he might be framed up the same way with a gaudy, 7-inch drop on one side. You never know, and that makes the quest more mysterious and fun.
My Drop-Tine Encounter
On prime Iowa farmland four years ago, I had my one and only encounter with a drop.
It was early December, and the afternoon temperature was in the low 20s, perfect for deer movement in the post-rut. My cameraman, Randy, and I snuck toward a patch of soybeans and set up on the ground in some trees.
The first doe popped out of the timber at 3:30. She was huge, corn-and-bean fed with a wide, boxy head, probably 3 years old. I eased up my shooting sticks and readied my Remington 12-gauge.
Five more does and a couple of so-so bucks slipped out into the field, lowered their heads and started stripping beans. I caught a flash in the far dark corner of the woods and raised my binoculars. I sucked a breath and shivered. Felt a surge of adrenaline, then numbness. For all those years I had fixated on a drop-tine monster. Now I was about to shoot one for an episode of Whitetail Revolution on Versus!
The dream buck walked toward the other deer and the beans, his head slung low and his brassy rack glinting in the twilight. He was high and heavy, with at least 10 points, 170-class minimum, pushing 180. The closer he came the bigger the drop on his left side became, until it was one of those glorious clubs, thick and bulbous and black on the bottom.
I rubbed my eyes and looked back through the scope. The beast was still there and coming closer!
At once the does jumped, trotted out of the field and looked my way. Oh no! Drop didn’t bolt, but he veered off into the edge of the woods and looked too. Another buck close I bet … Before I could finish the thought, I saw 10 white tines bobbing in the grass 80 yards to my right.
The 160-incher was strikingly clean — with just a quick peek I could see that his typical rack didn’t have 5 inches of deductions, and it sure as heck didn’t have a drop. The intruder into my life-changing moment strode out into the field like he owned the joint. I glanced nervously at Drop Club — he was older by a year or two, but the 10-pointer, probably 4½, was more vigorous and aggressive. By his body language, he was the dominant stud in these parts.
Instinct took over, and I was all over the big 10, crosshairs locked on his lungs. Remember, I had the 12-gauge up and in the sticks, and all I had to do was shift 10 inches to cover his shoulder. Lesson here: A big deer can and will pop up on you anywhere and at anytime, so be ready.
The 10-pointer turned, looked at me, twitched his head and flicked his tail. He was fixing to get out of Dodge, man, and fast. I cut my eyes to Drop Club. He was stunning, standing stock-still and tall and magnificent in the fringe of woods 150 yards away. It might as well have been a mile. Too far for comfort with a shotgun — especially with a killer 10-pointer 70 yards away and a TV show on the line!
The gun roared and 10 jumped, kicked and shot off low. I watched him gallop and stumble through the field toward the timber where Drop Club stood frozen and watching. I swear he looked at me one last time before flagging off into the woods. I walked over and found the 160-inch buck lying less than 30 yards from where Drop had stood. Surreal. But I had a spectacular deer, and I was very happy.
I have talked to the landowner and the boys that hunt that Iowa farm, and to this day nobody has seen Drop Club again. They are certain nobody ever killed him because word of a monster drop travels fast. If it weren’t for our video tape, he might have been an apparition.
In the minutes after that episode aired, dozens of friends and acquaintances called my cell: “Dude, are you crazy?” My inbox blew up with emails (I paraphrase and clean the language): “Hanback you dummy, you should have tried for the drop, he might be the only one you’ll ever see, and for sure the biggest!”
To this day, people see a rerun of that episode and write me. One day last fall a hunter in the Denver airport came up to me and said, “Aren’t you the guy that passed up that big drop tine on TV? Man, you’re crazy, I’d have tried him.”
Believe me, I have thought about it a lot. I have second-guessed, triple-guessed … Should I have taken a shot at him? Nah. I can think of only one thing worse than never killing a drop tine before I die: wounding the only one I ever saw. I can sleep well at night and keep dreaming.
Since that December day in Iowa, I have hunted at least 80 days each fall without a whiff of another dropper.
Will this be the year? Can I handle my nerves and fire an arrow or bullet or straight if I do see one of the glorious beasts? I try not to think about it too much, though it is always there in my heart, mind and soul. I do admit to getting a little more anxious as the seasons fly by. I have hunted more years than I have left on this rock. I am on the downside of the drop-tine obsession. Still, I hunt as hard as ever, and I hope.