feature By: Jim Matthews | May, 19
A day before this issue went to press, word was received that this buck, believed at first to be a magnum Coues’ deer, had been evaluated by two former Arizona deer biologists. Their separate conclusions based on physical markers indicate the deer is a whitetail-muley hybrid. B&C Vice President of Records Division, Eldon Buckner, echoed the biologist’s findings. Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful hunting adventure full of human interest. It remains unknown if the hunter intends to go forward with DNA testing.
Tol Gavett and his longtime friend and hunting buddy Stan McDaniel were celebrating on the top of a knoll in the Arizona desert. It was good to finally have something for the hunters to celebrate, and on the ground some 370 yards away was a buck with whitetail-like antlers that, pending DNA analysis, could be a new record. Two shots from a .270 Winchester Short Magnum had put the buck down for keeps.
The celebration was short-lived. Their guide Duwane Adams hissed, “He’s back up and moving. He’s getting away.” Celebration turned to panic as Gavett scrambled to get back down behind the rifle, and McDaniel started to help adjust the backpack from which the shots were taken. Long-known as a prankster, Adams made eye contact with the young guide working with him on this hunt, Shane Yount.
“He’s gone,” said Adams, and Yount echoed Adams’ words, “Oh no, he’s gone.”
“I thought they were gonna bawl,” laughed Adams later. But he quickly told the two California hunters he was just messing with them.
“That was a doggone dirty trick, that’s what that was,” said McDaniel. When they made their way off the little hill where they had been glassing and down into the broad desert basin and stood over the buck, Adams turned to Gavett and matter-of-factly told him, “You have no idea what you have here.” That was no joke.
“He’s just a monster,” said Adams. “A jumbo.” Later, the buck would green-score with 149-5/8 inches of antler, surpassing the world record of 144-1/8 inches killed in 1953 by Ed Stockwell; again pending DNA testing.
The pair of childhood friends deserved to get back to celebrating, and Adams knew it. Gavett and McDaniel had enough bad luck for one year, and they didn’t need to have this buck get away from them, hybrid or otherwise. The two hunters are from a small California town in Butte County that was in the national news for several days in early November. Nearly the entire town of Paradise burned to the ground in the Camp Fire on November 8, and it took days to assess the real toll exacted by the flames.
Incredibly, neither Gavett nor McDaniel, who live just outside of town, lost their homes in a fire that claimed 86 lives (with three still missing as this is written) and burned over 18,800 structures as it roared across more than 150,000 acres. McDaniel said it was a “horrible thing.” He was in Paradise the day of the fire, and it roared down on the city so quickly that no one really had time to evacuate on the one main road out of town. Smoke made visibility impossible. Gavett’s brother couldn’t see because of the smoke and ran into a fire truck. Injured, he was evacuated in the fire vehicle.
“The fire burned town down around the people,” said McDaniel, explaining that most people were trapped in their vehicles on the jammed roads. He said the heat was so intense that people were driving on melted tires, and the windows of their vehicles were too hot to touch. Some burned to death in their cars.
“Everybody thought they were going to die,” said McDaniel. “It was just devastating – it’s like a bomb went off there.”
Even three months later, little reconstruction has begun. Gavett’s home had serious roof damage, requiring replacement. Gavett also had a rental property he owned that burned to the ground. McDaniel, who is a housing and roofing contractor, had done extensive clearing around his home, and he miraculously did not have any damage. “The fire burned right up to my property line,” he said. In February, he was just beginning to get contracts to work on rebuilding or restoring some of the few standing homes. Gavett was still living in the town of Corning 45 miles from Paradise in a travel trailer. He was not expecting to get back into his home until February. Paradise wasn’t a paradise any longer, and for a lot of residents it never will be again.
“Probably 80 percent of the people [who lived in Paradise] are never coming back. I have a lot of family who lived in town for 60 years, and they are never coming back,” said McDaniel. “It’s hard to imagine how long it’s going to take to clean it up and rebuild it.”
Luck is a funny thing, and Gavett and McDaniel had been on a roller coaster over the past year. When Gavett drew the special Arizona whitetail raffle tag, he called his long-time friend to tell him. McDaniel knew that tag was one of the few issued during the late-season rut for Coues’ deer. It was the best possible tag a hunter could get.
“Stan told me that I had to talk to Duwane Adams. He said this guy was a Coues’-hunting fool and that I might even get a record,” said Gavett. “When he saw the buck, he said, ‘You did it. I think you have the record.’ It’s still sinking in.”
After the fire, Gavett cancelled most plans he’d made, including a cruise and a trip to southern Utah, both with his wife. There was so much going on with insurance claims, adjustors and friends and family burned out of their homes that Gavett just didn’t feel like he should be gone. The hunt in Arizona was almost cancelled, but both Gavett and McDaniel’s wives told them to go on the whitetail hunt, understanding the lightning strike of luck getting that late-season tag. It would be good to leave Paradise behind for a few days.
In early January of this year, the two old friends left to meet Adams in southern Arizona. Adams is known throughout the country as a pioneer – perhaps the pioneer – who perfected glassing for big game at great distances with high-power binoculars mounted on tripods. Adams has proven that quality binoculars of 15x or more are superior to squinting through spotting scopes because of a greater field of view, less eyestrain and better low-light viewing. His success rate as a guide for taking his clients to trophy mule deer and Coues’ deer bucks and giant elk is legendary.
Gavett and McDaniel’s friendship is the California part of the story that started decades earlier when the two 58-year-old men were in 8th grade together. The Arizona part of the story is also based on long friendships. Duwane Adams and the Yount family friendship spans more than three decades. Shane’s dad Dana guided with Duwane for 22 years, and Adams had watched all four of the Yount children grow up and become avid hunters. When Dana died of cancer at 48, his children were all in their 20s. Adams told them that if they ever needed anything, he was there for them. He meant it – and they knew he meant it.
Just a few months after his father’s death eight years ago, Shane asked Duwane if he needed another guide, and the 31-year-old has been guiding with Adams ever since.
So in July last year, Shane Yount was tagging along with his brother Colt to set up a trail camera on a water catchment when the big buck was first spotted – about the same time Gavett was drawn for the raffle tag. Shane just got a glimpse of the buck, but his brother got a good look at the deer as it disappeared into the desert, and knew it was a good buck. Colt almost became obsessed with the deer. He had an October buck tag in the zone for either whitetail or mule deer, and while the area was better-known for its desert mule deer, Colt’s focus became what he believed was a big whitetail.
“Colt hunted that buck the rest of the summer and all through his season and never saw it again after that first time,” said Shane Yount. “It was by far the biggest buck any of us had ever seen.”
And the family knows big whitetails. Colt has a 130-inch buck to his name. Their baby sister Tamera killed a 126-inch buck, and Shane was on a 127-inch buck that another hunter ended up shooting. “That was the biggest buck I’d seen [alive] until Tol’s buck,” said Shane.
Because of the family’s relationship with Adams, he knew about the buck in July but didn’t plan on hunting the deer so Colt could hunt the buck during the January archery season. But a new job was going to keep Colt tied up in January, so he gave his brother and Adams the green light to try to find and kill the big buck. Colt also gave his brother a crucial tip on where to hunt that would bear fruit.
“These deer have a very small range, that’s what most people don’t understand,” said Adams. But the Younts knew that well. Colt had been hunting the area where the buck was first spotted and had never seen it again. So now that the rut was beginning, he suggested Shane take Adams, Gavett and McDaniel a short distance away to where a knoll overlooked a basin that always held does.
Shane couldn’t hunt with Adams the first day the Paradise duo was in Arizona, and the trio glassed a nearby area but didn’t see the big buck. Shane shared his brother’s advice with Adams that evening, and early the next morning the four of them were on the top of the hill glassing the huge basin below them.
“We were glassing for a half hour when Duwane started, ‘psst, psst.’ He was almost shaking as we moved over to him,” said Gavett. A quick look confirmed it was the giant. The buck was ranged at 370 yards, and a makeshift prone rest over a pack was set up. Duwane Adams’ Kyle Craig-custom Model 700 .270 Winchester Short Magnum was set up for Gavett, and he snuggled down behind the gun.
Shane helped get Gavett on the big buck through the scope. It was standing in the shade of a cactus, quartering away and difficult to see. Gavett put crosshairs on hide and squeezed the trigger. There was a whomp that echoed back across the desert, and the buck sat back on its haunches but didn’t go all the way down, so Gavett put a second bullet in the deer and it collapsed.
For the two California hunters, it was a good-news headline in their lives’ newspaper that had been filled with horrors and tragedy for the past few months. “I know this is one of the highlights of my hunting career, just to go down to Arizona and be a part of this hunt,” said McDaniel. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“You don’t even dream of things like this,” said Adams. He also couldn’t have hand picked a better pair of clients to take the big deer. They had lived through the deadliest U.S. wildfire since 1918 – and almost ironically, Gavett is a retired fire captain with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).
“They needed some good news and we got to give it to them. The fire was a horrifying experience. They knew almost everyone who died, and most of the people [who survived] are never coming back,” Adams said.
For the Yount brothers, it was a little bittersweet that one of their family members didn’t hang a tag on the buck, but it was still their buck in a lot of ways. Both Gavett and McDaniel would be the first to say that, and perhaps it will be the cornerstone of Shane Yount’s young guiding career.
“Without Shane, that buck would never have happened. He’s one of the finest young hunters I’ve ever known. Shane has unbelievable ability behind a glass. That kid is going to be something else for a long time to come,” said McDaniel.
If this buck turns out to be a DNA-proven Coues’ deer and breaks the current record after the official drying period for Boone and Crockett and the panel scoring, it will topple a 65-year-old record. But Adams and the Younts believe there are bigger bucks out there. “These big bucks live in spots where they can’t be seen or killed. I think there’s a lot more of them than we think,” said Shane Yount.
Adams was matter-of-fact about it. “A lot of these big bucks die of old age, or mountain lions get them,” said Adams. If the buck turns out to be a hybrid, it’s a dandy deer nonetheless.
For hunters interested in hunting with Adams and Yount, visit azbiggamehunting.com for more information.