Cartwright took his first deer when he was 6 years old, and he has been in love with whitetail hunting ever since. “It’s my passion,” he says. “It truly is. I even introduced my girlfriend to it.” Under Cartwright’s tutelage, Lauren Vincent took her first deer with a bow last year, a 135-inch buck that fell on Labor Day. At that point, only three days into the 2011 Kentucky archery season, Cartwright had yet to lay eyes on the big buck that would become his No. 1 target for that season and the next. “We didn’t start getting trail cam pictures of the buck last year until late September, and they were all at night,” he says. “We had to move the cameras around and try to backtrack this deer to its bedding area.”
By mid-October 2011, Cartwright and his father were ready to hunt the buck. “But it kind of proved true that the October lull seemed to keep this deer from coming out in the daylight,” he says. They’d hung a stand as close to the deer’s bedding area as they could get without bumping it, in a little scrub oak they call “the money tree.” The year before–during the 2010 season–Thad Cartwright had shot a 19-pointer that grossed more than 170 inches. His dad didn’t get a buck, so they decided he’d have first crack in 2011. Thad hunted only occasionally, when his dad was unable to, and both were targeting the big 160. Then the elder Cartwright killed a 140-class 9-pointer out of the money tree in early November. Five days later, just before the beginning of the Kentucky firearms season, the 160 walked in front of Thad at 30 yards.
“When I shot he had already heard me,” Cartwright says. “He must have heard me moving. And I figured out later that I misjudged the distance too–I guessed him at 40 yards.” The buck jumped the string and the arrow sailed a foot over its back. “He was spooked after that, and we didn’t get any daytime trail cam pictures for a while,” Cartwright recalls. “We still got him at night, so we knew he was still in the area. Then he kind of disappeared when the rut came in, and we didn’t see him again on the trail cameras until sometime in December.” What he saw sent his spirits, already down, tumbling even lower. “He had lost a bunch of weight, a whole lot more than a buck normally does during the rut. You could see all his ribs and his neck had shrunk considerably.”
More troubling, close examination of the photos revealed a dark spot on the buck’s side, a foot back from the shoulder, and a corresponding spot lower on its opposite side. “It looked like somebody tried to shoot him during the gun season but didn’t hit his vitals,” Cartwright says. “The deer was really sick and weak looking. We thought he was going to die from infection.” They watched the deer for another three weeks, and it seemed to gain weight. But then it disappeared, and they took their trail cameras down for the season without learning the buck’s fate.
Then came July 2012. The very first trail cam photos revealed the buck to be alive and well and then some. “I was super excited,” Cartwright says. “I called Dad and said, ‘He’s back.’ I tried to explain to him what I was seeing on the trail camera. It was just crazy. Insane. It’s something you don’t think you’ll ever see.” The buck showed up consistently during daylight all through July and half of August. As they continued to monitor the buck via trail cam, its rack continued to sprout; big knots on the buck’s antler tips bloomed into splits and stickers unfurled from bases and beams. “It seemed like he grew a bunch every week.”
Muhlenberg County–famously serenaded in the classic John Prine song as the paradise that Mr. Peabody’s coal train hauled away–is dotted with former strip mine sites. It’s on one of these old mines that Cartwright and his father hunt. Scrubby trees and broom sage are the main cover. “If you take somebody from outside Kentucky and put them in the middle of it, they might think they were in Texas,” Cartwright says of his home county. As Kentucky’s Sept. 1 archery opener approached, they were getting trail cam photos of the buck right at dark nearly every day. They moved their stand to play the prevailing southwest wind, setting up in a scrubby pine near a swamp where the deer was bedding. On opening day, swirling winds from Hurricane Isaac made hunting tough, and Cartwright was winded by several deer. He didn’t hunt on Sunday because the wind was wrong. On Monday, Sept. 3, he finally got his first look at the remarkable buck he’d been watching on his trail cams since July.
“I got set early, clean as I could be, showered, scent killer, everything,” Cartwright says. “A few does came out and fed around and they never winded me. Then 15 minutes before dark, a little 4-pointer came out and he got 15 yards away and winds me. He starts blowing and my hopes kind of got down then. I sat down, facing away from where the deer were coming out of the swamp. Mosquitoes were buzzing me, and I was swatting them away when I looked up and saw the buck standing 18 yards away, broadside. He wasn’t paying any attention to me. I got stood up, got my bow and drew it back. As soon as I settled the pin behind his shoulder I knew it was 18 yards, because I had ranged the spot before. I shot, and I knew I hit him good. He ran back toward the swamp the way he came.” Less than a minute passed between the spot and the shot. “I’m thankful for that, because I would have been super nervous if I’d had to watch him come in,” Cartwright says. “After the shot, I was shaking, a nervous wreck.” He called his father, then recovered the arrow and started following the blood trail. He found the buck 125 yards away, tangled up in vines.
A close examination of the buck revealed entry and exit wound scars where it had been shot the year before. He also says rumors that the deer is a cactus buck are untrue. He believes the gunshot wound combined with the buck’s good genetics explains the crazy rack. “I feel like the deer would have been over 200 inches this year just based on all the junk he had last year,” says Cartwright, who estimated the buck carried about 10 sticker points in addition to his mainframe 10 points in 2011 as a 3 ½-year-old. “Some people who see the rack don’t think it has anything to do with the injury. But usually, when a deer gets injured, his rack on the opposite side turns down or messes up. Maybe because this deer’s body was in repair mode while it was growing its rack, maybe it produced more stuff in its skeletal system that made his rack grow more. That’s a theory I have. Some people disagree with it.”
Cartwright decided to get the buck scored by Buckmasters because their system–unlike Boone and Crockett–accepts velvet bucks. Scorer Steve Lucas tallied a final score of 283 5/8. It is the highest scoring irregular velvet buck ever taken with a compound bow in the Buckmasters record book, beating the previous record by nearly 40 inches. Amazingly, the buck turned out to have 50 scoreable points–just as Cartwright predicted when he first spotted the buck’s 2012 rack back in July. Scored as a mainframe 10, the rack’s inside spread is only 10 inches but the outside spread stretches to 20 inches. The rack doesn’t feature any drop tines, Cartwright says. “He’s got a whole bunch of stickers and what almost looks like extra main beams growing off just above his bases. The way I’d describe it is the rack looks like it has six main beams.” One tine stretches more than 11 inches, and another is 10 5/8. One G2 has five stickers, a couple over 4 inches long.
“When I told Dad it would have 50 points, I think I was just exaggerating a bit because I was so excited about the deer,” Cartwright says. “He didn’t have 50 points then, but he just kept growing. Then he turns out to actually have 50 points, and I thought that was just awesome.” Two years ago when I killed the 170 inch 19 pointer, people told me you’ll never kill another deer like that. It’s a once-in-a lifetime buck. Then two years later I kill a deer that score over 100 inches bigger. It’s a blessing.”
When 20-year-old Thad Cartwright of Browder, Ky., checked his trail cameras in July, he got a shock: The buck that had topped his hit list in 2011 as a 160-class mainframe 10–a buck he’d missed with his bow and then watched waste away after another hunter wounded it during the firearms season–was back. Not only did the deer survive, its distinctive narrow, towering rack had gone wild, sprouting a crazy-straw tangle of kickers and extra beams that was already pushing 200 inches by midsummer.
Calling his father to share the news, the University of Kentucky junior was moved to make a wild prediction. “I said, ‘Dad, I bet he’s going to have close to 50 points.'” Cartwright had no idea how right he was–or that the buck he now had a second chance to hunt would soon become a new Buckmasters world record.