2018: The Fort Campbell Buck

2018: The Fort Campbell Buck

By Dale Weddle

When wildlife biologist Brad Wheat and Gene Zirkle, program manager for Fort Campbell Fish and Wildlife, heard that a monstrous buck had been hit and killed by a vehicle on post, they pretty much knew which deer it was from the description.

It didn’t take long to confirm their suspicions.

After all, few whitetails wear between 25 and 30 points and have a nearly 30-inch outside spread.

The Fish and Wildlife folks had been aware of the giant deer’s presence on the installation since 2013. In 2015, when biologists stepped up the intensity of their surveys using spotlights and trail cameras, the buck was a frequent poser for the lights and lenses.

The deer’s home range was between 600 and 700 acres within a 20,000-acre protected area where hunting isn’t allowed except for some special, well-controlled doe harvests.

By 2016, Fish and Wildlife estimated the big deer had reached its prime, with main beams that were approaching 30 inches. It was becoming quite a legend on the installation, and word had gotten out to the hunting public in and around the area.

“The buck was already known when I arrived in 2014, but his fame quickly grew with his antler growth in 2015 and 2016,” Brad said. “One general who had an early encounter with the buck named him Lebron, after Lebron James, the NBA star. At the time, 23 points could be counted on the buck’s rack, and Lebron wears jersey number 23.

“In 2016, when the buck reached the peak of his antler growth, he was dubbed 30-30 because he had 30 points and an estimated 30-inch spread,” Brad continued.

“The buck was staying in an area that has a 10,000-acre training complex on one side and about the same amount of land belonging to the city of Fort Campbell on the other. Both places are off-limits for hunting.

“We had a few reports of the buck being within 300-400 yards of a hunting area, but we never had any record of him actually crossing over into a hunting area,” he said.

Fort Campbell Military Installation covers 105,000 acres and straddles the Kentucky/Tennessee border near the towns of Clarksville, Tennessee, and Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Like many large military installations around the country, it has an active wildlife management plan.

Theirs is focused on maintaining healthy white-tailed deer populations.

In 2014, Fish and Wildlife made several changes to their plan and implemented a white-tailed deer management strategy that mirrors many Quality Deer Management (QDM) practices. The three-phase plan was designed to balance adult sex ratios, increase age structure of harvested bucks, and to maintain those ratios and that age structure.

The installation already had a good program in place that provided managed food plots and other sources of nutrients for the deer herd. QDM practices that were added to help advance the new plan included antler restrictions on the size of bucks, increased doe harvests in areas where the buck-to-doe ratio was skewed, and “earn a buck” regulations where hunters must harvest does in order to earn the privilege to take a buck.

“In addition to raising the average age of bucks, it’s important to the health of the herd and fawn survival rates to have older does,” Brad explained. “They are better at raising their fawns. They know the area, know where good cover is, and are more aware of what’s going on around them.”

One of the elements of a successful strategy is the ability to measure the numbers and characteristics of the overall target population.

“In order to gauge our success, we made extensive use of trail cameras,” Brad said. “We ran 110 over 110 square miles. We also did large spotlight surveys in late summer.”

The following is a description of how those spotlight surveys were conducted, quoting from a deer management plan report.

“Spotlight routes were predetermined (prior to 2014 surveys) and accounted for most training areas, with open areas such as agricultural fields, pastures and grasslands. The five survey routes totaled 86.5 miles (and resulted) in 4,122 surveyed acres.

“Acreage was estimated by using an average distance of visibility on each route. Average visibility was estimated in meters every tenth of a mile.

“Spotlight surveys began 45 minutes after sunset and were conducted through the months of August and September prior to deer season. Surveys were conducted on clear nights with relative humidity (less than 70 percent).

“Deer were counted and summed by sex and age class during each survey. Both male and female fawns were grouped together due to difficulty distinguishing sex from far distances in low-light conditions.”

Adult males were separated into two age classes: Those with antler spreads beyond each ear were considered at least 2 years old. If not, they were considered younger.

“Spotlight surveys were expanded in 2017 to encompass 6,427 surveyed acres on 142.6 miles of survey routes,” the report said.

QDM-type practices at Fort Campbell have been successful in bringing about desired changes in the herd structure, including an increase in the numbers and size of mature bucks. So, what does this all mean to the average deer hunter reading this article, and what are the chances of getting on the installation to hunt and take advantage of the successes of this program?

“We have approximately 40 areas that are hunted on a normal basis,” Brad explains. “The number of open slots fluctuates daily. One day we may be allocated enough areas to open 100 slots, and other days 500 or more.

“The maximum would probably be around 850, and the average somewhere around 400 on weekends. At times, we are forced to close hunting altogether to meet the 101st Airborne Division’s needs,” he added.

Hunters are assigned a specific area to hunt on a daily basis and must not venture beyond that area. You may be hunting one area while troops are on maneuvers in the adjacent area.

There are some pretty serious penalties if a hunter is found in an area where he or she is not supposed to be. The availability to hunt that area may change the next day. That can make for some tricky situations if a hunter wants to focus on a particular buck.

Better come prepared to be flexible and roll with the flow.

The installation also has other strict regulations for hunters, including a “no photos” rule that prohibits the taking of photographs. This, and other rules, are in place for security reasons.

Fort Campbell is open for hunting to both members of the military and the general public. A big game (non-military) permit is $60, or $35 just for deer. The hunter must also possess the appropriate Kentucky or Tennessee hunting license.

Rifle hunting is not permitted on the installation. Only shotguns, muzzleloaders and archery equipment may be used.

If you’re interested in deer hunting on Fort Campbell, make sure you get good information on the application process and read and ask questions so you’re thoroughly knowledgeable on the rules and procedures.

When that vehicle suddenly and unexpectedly ended the life of the monster whitetail on Fort Campbell on July 26, it broke the hearts of a lot of hunters who had dreamed of harvesting the buck.

The big deer was around before the QDM practices were put in place, so he can’t be claimed as a result of that effort. However, the buck’s genes are most certainly present in the herd. That, coupled with the recent successes in raising the overall age and size of bucks could result in some really interesting trophies coming off of the installation in the near future.

When asked if there are any bucks as large as the big roadkill running around Fort Campbell, Gene and Brad just looked at each other and smiled.

Official Score: 254 3/8”

Copyright 2024 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd