Within seconds of releasing the string of his compound bow, 16-year-old Brian Andrews thought he might find something special at the end of the blood trail that began near his stand. The buck’s rack was so massive it had been hard for the boy to concentrate on picking a spot behind the deer’s shoulder. But Brian mastered his nerves long enough to hold the sight pin steady, and the sound made by the arrow hitting the buck convinced him that he had made a good shot. He was right. Brian and his father, Randy, recovered the whitetail later that chilly day in November 2003.
Brian’s buck was enormous–big enough to become the new archery non-typical state record for Iowa with a Pope & Young Club score of 253 1/8 points. When the news got out, Brian found himself in the center of a whirlwind of attention. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to see the buck and hear the story of how the young hunter had bagged it.
That was the easy part. Brian handled all the attention with grace. However, the other lesson that Brian learned was tougher: how to maintain faith in humanity’s basic goodness. Last June somebody broke into the Andrews home while the family was visiting friends and stole the mounted head from the living room wall. The case is still under investigation. Every lead has been a dead end.
Giant whitetail antlers can be worth a lot of cash. Wisconsin antler collector Larry Huffman says the normal price tag for a buck sporting a 185-inch typical or 220-inch non-typical rack–sold through legitimate channels–is between $5,000 and $10,000, depending on the configuration of the antlers, the age of the trophy and its history.
Who buys trophy racks? Large sporting-goods retailers like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops purchase them for display in their stores. Private collectors who admire antlers the way some people appreciate rare art also buy trophies. But these are legitimate sales. More problematic is the phenomenon that involves the theft of trophy racks, and the racks’ subsequent disappearance into a black hole from which they seldom, if ever, emerge.
“Trophy theft is a real blight on hunting and our hunting heritage,” says Ryan Hatfield, assistant director of big-game records for the Boone and Crockett Club, based in Missoula, Mont. “It gives hunting a negative connotation, disrespects what the trophy means to the hunter and disrespects the animal itself.”
Money might seem reason enough for people to steal antlers from their rightful owners, but it’s not that simple. Without some proof of ownership, the cloudy provenance of a huge trophy rack is a warning signal to would-be purchasers who want to display it openly and retell the story behind it.
If profit doesn’t drive these thieves, what does? Hoffman, who is widely regarded as the leading expert on trophy deer racks, thinks the primary motives behind most antler thefts are more complicated. Perhaps the thief is a hunter who becomes irrationally jealous of another hunter who has entered the spotlight for killing a trophy animal. Maybe he was hunting the same buck and rationalizes that its rack belongs to him as much as to the fellow who pulled the trigger. Or perhaps, by stealing and even destroying the antlers, the thief is taking revenge on somebody he doesn’t like for reasons of his own. Huffman thinks the latter cause is fairly common.
He says that many burglars destroy the heads they have stolen, or hide them where no one can find them. Sometimes a thief will steal a rack without considering the difficulty he’ll have selling it and will then dump it. Otherwise, Huffman argues, the antlers would surface somewhere. But the sad fact is that a lot of them don’t.
“Some racks, like the Andrews buck, are so unique it’s almost like stealing the Mona Lisa,” says Huffman. “Once you’ve got it, what are you going to do with it? How can you sell it without getting caught? Even if the thief doesn’t fully appreciate the trophy’s worth when he steals it, he finds out soon enough because of the degree of notoriety that follows the theft.”
Anything over the minimum record-book requirements of the Boone and Crockett Club becomes a potential target for a thief; in areas that don’t produce giant bucks, any better-than-average rack could become a target. According to Huffman, the number of stolen trophies recovered and returned to their owners is low, somewhere near 10 percent. Yet occasionally one finds its way back to its rightful owner.
Consider the case of the famous Andrew Daum buck, a Colorado muley taken in 1886 that scored 304 5/8 points and was the first non-typical world record for that species registered under the Boone and Crockett Club’s current scoring system. While on exhibit at New York City’s Bronx Zoo in 1974 as part of the B&C traveling trophy collection, the Daum rack and a dozen others were stolen. Twenty-four years later, in 1998, a taxidermist returned the rack to B&C headquarters. How the taxidermist came across the Daum buck is still a mystery; B&C officials, grateful for the return of one of their heirloom trophies, asked no questions. The Daum rack, which now ranks 17th on the all-time list, is currently on display with much of the B&C collection at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo. The dozen other trophies are still missing.
When Ken Fobian of central Iowa shot a 170-inch-class 10-pointer more than a decade ago, a similar fate befell his trophy. Fobian took the antlers and cape to local taxidermist George Waters, who was later convicted as the head of one of the largest poaching and antler-selling rings ever uncovered. [See Snap Shots, April 2004, “Busting the Poacher King.”]
Some time after Fobian dropped off the antlers, he received a call from Waters, who told him that the rack had been stolen. Waters asked if Fobian would accept a different set as a replacement. Fobian agreed and soon received the mount of a 150-inch buck.
Then, last winter, someone at the Iowa Deer Classic recognized the antlers on display. It was Fobian’s trophy, but the person didn’t know that. He was familiar with the rack because he had purchased it earlier through what he thought were legal channels before selling it himself and knew it had no business in a big-buck contest. He alerted the show organizers.
LOST AND FOUND
Authorities traced the antlers back to Waters, and that’s when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in. Its agents seized the antlers. Once the issue of ownership is settled, it’s likely that Ken Fobian will get his antlers back from the taxidermist–more than 12 years after he dropped them off.
No such luck for Bruce Guck, a Minnesota bowhunter victimized by trophy thieves of a different sort. In the 1980s, Guck spent a lot of nights dreaming about the huge 6 by 6 typical whitetail he was hunting. Finally, in December 1987, the giant whitetail passed within bow range of Guck, and the bowhunter made a perfect shot.
The buck ran only a short distance into an open field before going down within sight of the archer. That’s where Guck’s dream turned sour. As the excited bowhunter climbed down from his stand, a truck slid to a stop on the road and turned into the field where the buck had fallen. Two men jumped out and quickly loaded the buck into the bed of the pickup. The men waved to Guck and drove off as he shouted in vain for them to stop.
A few years later, Guck saw a replica of the rack at the Minnesota State Fair. The man who owned it told Guck everything he knew about the replica, which wasn’t much. Guck got a photograph of himself with the replica, but that was as close as he ever came to reclaiming what was rightfully his.
Nobody knows for sure how many racks are stolen each year, but among the purloined racks are some–like Brian Andrews’–that are nothing short of spectacular. Generally trophy thefts are reported to local authorities, but such low-priority crimes often go unsolved. Although there is no national clearinghouse where hunters can report stolen trophies, there soon will be. The Boone and Crockett Club, through its Web site (www.booneandcrockettclub.com), is establishing such a registry. The National Taxidermists Association (www.nationaltaxidermists.com) also can help.
There aren’t many things you can take from a hunter that mean more to him than his prized set of antlers. To others, it tells the story of his triumph; to him, it is a reminder that, at least once in his life, everything he hoped for turned out exactly right.
That’s a feeling money can’t buy, regardless of the price tag that thieves might attach to the trophy.
Play It Safe With A Rack Replica
Someday it might be commonplace to implant small transmitters in big-game mounts so they can be tracked if stolen. For now, however, owners of trophy racks will have to rely on old-fashioned common sense to keep their prized possessions secure from burglars.
Those who have such trophies mounted should consider having a replica made. Replicas are expensive, but they’re the best insurance against theft.
Jeff Knapp, who own’s Bucky’s Taxidermy in Grafton, Wisc., and replicates trophy racks of all types, charges about $6 per inch of antler to make a mold and $2 per inch for each casting. The first replica of a 170-inch buck costs $1,360, for example, while subsequent copies cost $340 each.
Knapp says that most people who replicate a deer make multiple casts and might sell a few to local sporting-goods stores to pay for a good share of the costs. The owner can display and show off the replica without fear of theft and keep the original in a secure location.
Provide additional protection for trophy antlers by photographing them from various angles. If someone steals the rack, turn over the photos to the authorities. It could help you recover the trophy.
Keep Your Cool In Trophy Disputes
If a hunter believes another person has taken possession of a trophy-size buck that he has shot, what should he do?
“In Wisconsin, this situation is beyond the reach of the law and falls into the category of ethics,” says that state’s chief conservation officer, Randy Stark. “Hunters should keep their tempers in check and be reasonable. Such situations have the potential to flare up and become dangerous.”
The hunters involved should attempt to determine who made the first fatal shot that would have resulted in recovery, advises Stark. Generally, it’s a good way to identify the deer’s rightful owner. If the dispute remains unresolved, the aggrieved hunter should get some sort of identification–if nothing more than a license-plate number–from the hunter who winds up with the buck. Then he can consult a lawyer and decide whether to take the case to court.