Forbidden Fruit: Lessons Learned from a 200" Suburban Monarch
Most deer hunters dream of hunting a 200” buck. I hunted one when I was only 18. I knew everything about him: where he ate, where he slept, and many of the trails he walked. I had multiple encounters with this buck, some even as close as 10 yards. This story doesn’t end with a blood trail though, or even a shot for that matter. This buck of a lifetime was off-limits.
To this day, the two biggest bucks I’ve ever hunted were bucks I could never shoot; not because they were elusive or on a piece of property I couldn’t hunt, but because it was illegal to hunt them, with a weapon anyway. They lived in a suburb of Detroit where I grew up, where all hunting was illegal within the city limits. As a young hunter with a case of buck fever and a lot of free time, this never stopped me from chasing them. I didn’t really know what a big buck was and I definitely had never heard or used the phrase “mature buck.” That would soon change for me and I wouldn’t have to travel far to find out.
My first weapon of choice was a hand-me-down, 1,000,000 candle-watt power spotlight; the kind with about a 10” diameter and powered by a cigarette lighter. The police were always curious what I was doing, but usually joined in on the fun. Driving down a road near a local park one evening in mid-September 2005, I would learn what a “bachelor group” was. It was dusk, and as I scanned an open field, I saw two young bucks making their way out of the timber. I pulled over and watched them browse and size each other up for about an hour. I was mesmerized as more and more bucks piled into the field and I was hooked.
Scouting this particular field became routine for me and my addiction only got worse (or better depending on how you look at it) when I discovered a buck that I would come to call “The King.” I had never thought of naming a buck before, but when he stepped out into a field and the rest of the bucks took notice, “King” only seemed appropriate. He was a typical 10-point, with not a lot of tine length, but he was wide; very wide, and big-bodied. So big-bodied that the other bucks looked like a different species. While the young bucks sparred, he would saunter by and not even acknowledge their presence as if they weren’t worthy of his time. I even witnessed these younger bucks groom him as if tending to his every need. For the next three years, he reigned over this particular area and I too became one of his loyal subjects, observing him, photographing him, and even finding two of his shed antlers.
Like all great kings, he had his challengers. While no other bucks I saw during this time tested his dominance, there were some who were clearly waiting in the wings for their shot at the throne. One buck in particular seemed to know his time was coming. I first saw him in the summer of 2007, when he was likely a three-and-a-half year-old. Even at that age, he had an impressive, however, unique rack. His right side was a typical five points with above average mass, while the main beam of his left side dipped down and curled back up resembling a candelabra, which my dad would identify him by. The “Candelabra Buck” was the heir apparent to the park herd throne.
In 2008, everything seemed to come together for the Candelabra buck. He had blown up into a massive and symmetrical 10-point and “The King” had either finally passed or relocated, leaving a power vacuum waiting to be filled. Herd dynamics, especially among bucks are a fascinating thing. Whitetail bucks are cordial all spring and summer, but come September, all bridges are burned and friendships severed. With the rut right around the corner, a pecking order forms, and each buck carves out his territory. The Candelabra buck would exude his dominance and the herd and an entire community would take notice.
Anyone who lived near his territory or frequented the park system and was mildly interested in deer knew of this buck. He ate from backyard feeders. He watched from a distance as park goers rollerbladed and biked the trails. He was photographed near playscapes and soccer fields, and I too had my share of encounters with him during his reign. One night in particular, after spotting him in a field and armed with nothing but a flashlight, I got out of my car and crept toward him. I assumed he would run away, but he didn’t seemed bothered by my presence. I closed the gap little by little, all the way to about 10 yards. After an intense stare down and a few stomps, he casually trotted off.
I saw him many times over the next two years. In 2009, his right antler was again, a massive five point typical side. However, he must have sustained an injury to his left antler during the growing period. It rose practically straight up and split off into three tines, resembling a chicken’s foot. My most memorable encounter with this buck came that season, in February of 2010. While shed hunting near a bedding area in this park system, I noticed a large deer bedded down, watching me. I could clearly see its large, scabbed up, pedicles from a distance. I slowly approached this buck, with my digital camera in hand.
He eventually stood up and surprisingly, took several slow steps toward me as well. We closed the distance, all the while cautiously staring at one another, as if we were both anticipating some kind of attack or betrayal of this encounter. While I knew bucks weren’t typically aggressive during this time and this buck didn’t have its antlers, my heart was racing just at the sheer size and proximity of this deer. We eventually stood mere feet away from one another, maybe 25 at most, and I stood still and admired this big-bodied, bald buck, as he paced near me. Realizing I wasn’t a threat, he lingered near and around me for about five minutes, before eventually disappearing into a thicket. After comparing photos of this antlerless buck with a photo of the antlered Candelabra buck, I had no doubt it was him.
I saw the Candelabra buck many times in 2010, and took many great photographs of him. His rack was back to normal and more impressive than ever. Little did I know; I wasn’t the only one getting great shots of him. I eventually stumbled across some beautiful photos, taken by a local photographer, as seen in the accompanying photos. 2010 would be the last year I would ever see this buck alive.
In 2011, I saw my responsibilities grow and my free time dwindle. This left little time for my high school hobby of chasing suburban bucks. However, one November afternoon, I received a series of picture messages from a friend of the buck I’d been watching for four years now. It was the Candelabra buck again, and he was bigger than ever, except this time, it wasn’t the type of majestic photos I’d taken or other local fans of his had taken. The photos were on the side of the road and his massive rack and body were lying on the ground. The Candelabra buck was dead. My heart sank. Seeing the photos of the buck’s lifeless body lying on the ground and being held up by a police officer seemed disgraceful. I’d seen countless “grip and grin” photos and taken plenty of my own, I just never thought I’d see this buck in that situation. It seemed like he deserved a better ending.
From this point on, the story is made up of speculation and internet chatter. It was supposedly a hit and run, which I always questioned due to the amount of damage his body must have inflicted on the vehicle. He was taken to a local meat processor where someone put a tape measure to his antlers. This scorer claimed to have come up with a rough score around 197 inches and a gross score of over 200 inches. The buck was still a massive mainframe 10 point with multiple sticker points. There was speculation that the mount would end up in a local nature center, which never came to fruition. The other theory is that a police officer or DPW employee claimed the deer. After doing some digging, it is still a mystery where the Candelabra buck ended up. If one thing is clear, it is that many still remember this buck years later, and still talk about him.
In many ways, this buck, and the others I encountered in the park near my childhood home, helped make me a deer hunter. I tracked and patterned them knowing I would never take a shot. To this day, I have more photos of the Candelabra buck and have dedicated more hours to him than any deer I’ve ever hunted with the intent of harvesting. Those hours taught me deer biology, herd dynamics, woodsmanship, and the tendencies of the truly incredible creature that is a mature whitetail buck. I carry these lessons with me every time I step into the woods. These deer fueled my passion for deer hunting, but more importantly, they fueled my passion for deer. As hunters, we often learn more from unsuccessful hunts than from ones resulting in a kill. And sometimes, the intent is never to kill in the first place, rather it is for the pure love and reverence of an incredible animal.
Dan Amore of Macomb, Michigan is a member of the NDA digital media team, and an avid deer hunter, archery instructor, and conservationist. He earned a master's degree in public administration, and is a middle school history and multimedia teacher.