Mark Hahr couldn’t believe his eyes when he walked up to the big whitetail he’d put to the ground just minutes into his first Maryland gun hunt. Expecting to get his hands on the tall, gnarly rack he’d spotted just after daybreak in his scope, Hahr instead saw a curious sight: A raw, bloody spot where the left antler should be. Thinking he’d shot the antler off, he quickly scanned the buck. The entry wound was right where he’d put the crosshairs, just behind the buck’s shoulder. His bullet didn’t separate the antler from the deer’s skull, so what did?
Hahr and his brother, Paul (right), were in a five-hunter group on a special suburban management hunt conducted on Dec. 3 by landowners in Accokeek, Md., just across the Potomac from Mount Vernon. The goal, Hahr says, was to shoot does–two or three if possible–but no young bucks. Several big, mature whitetails had been taken on the hunt in years past, Paul told him, and they also hoped that Mark would get a shot at a trophy buck during the once-a-year outing.
Fifteen minutes before first light, Mark Hahr heard rustling sounds among the leaves near a small creek that crossed directly in front of his stand 70 yards away. As the light came up, he started to gradually make out the dark outlines of deer in an oak flat on the far side of the creek. Before long, he was able to count a group of 10 does and yearlings feeding from left to right in front of his stand.
Hahr centered the last doe in his crosshairs, hoping the remaining deer would run toward his brother’s stand after the shot. But before he could pull the shotgun’s trigger, the does snapped their heads up and stared hard toward the thick woods that lay ahead of them. In a moment, they all spun and headed back the way they’d come, fleeing down the creek without giving Hahr a shot.
“I was dejected, because I thought I’d missed my best chance,” Hahr recalls. “I started scanning the area for a sign of whatever it was that scared them.” It took a minute before he spotted tall, dark and thick antlers steadily moving from his right. “I could see long brow tines and antlers shooting in every direction. I knew right away he was a shooter buck. A very unique shooter buck.”
As the buck moved steadily in the direction the does had fled, Hahr tracked him with his scope. “I kept hoping he’d stop, but it became clear he had no intention of stopping. I knew it was now or never. I hollered at him three times–hey, hey, hey!–and he finally stopped and stood staring straight ahead. He was probably five to ten yards from being gone for good.”
Hahr had to stand up and lean forward in his stand to find a narrow opening that put the buck’s vitals in his shooting lane. “I had to reposition a couple of times, but I finally got him lined up and pulled the trigger.”
“I could see it was a good hit. He ran about 20 yards, jumped the creek and tumbled down a ravine. I could see him where he fell, but try as I might I couldn’t get a look at his antlers in my scope.”
Hahr and the other hunters in his group had agreed to sit until 10 a.m. before meeting up. It was currently 7 a.m. so Hahr sat patiently for three hours, replaying the scene in his mind: The big, crazy rack. The shot. The headlong tumble down the ravine. Even though he could see that the buck was down, he sat tight, not wanting to foul up anyone else’s hunt.
“I texted my brother, saying I had a big buck down. I told him, ‘This is a big buck, a unique buck, there’s something crazy about him.'” He didn’t yet know how true those words were.
When 10 a.m. finally rolled around, Mark and his brother went to check out his buck, with the rest of their group close behind. “I guess I was feeling some pressure, because in the past I’ve been know to get buck fever, and there have been some bucks I’ve seen and even shot that turned out to be not as big as I thought,” Mark says. He was already stressed as he approached the deer, and his nervousness increased when they got closer and saw no sign of a big rack. From the way the deer fell, one antler was buried under brush. The other was missing entirely. “I was feeling kind of sick. For three hours I’d been telling my brother how big this deer was. But when we got closer, I finally saw the right antler, and it was big. I thought, ‘Thank God.’ And then I turned the deer over and where the left antler should be all I see is this bloody lump. My heart just sank again. I thought I’d somehow made a bad shot and blown the antler off.”
But the entry and exit wounds suggested otherwise. So Hahr set off to try and solve this mystery. He found his first clue in the grass a few yards away: an entirely intact left antler that was hollowed out at the base. And when he pressed it onto the bloody pedicle, it fit perfectly.
Hahr says everyone was stunned and confused by the find, until a retired biologist in the group offered an explanation. The bloody pedicle and hollowed antler (which apparently came off when the buck tumbled down the hill) pointed to one thing: A brain abscess, a fatal bacterial infection that eats away at the animal’s brain and skull cap.
Brian Eyler, deer project leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says the condition is fairly common in the state, and seems to be more prominent on the eastern shore and in southern Maryland. “Three or four times a year I get a call from a hunter who says, ‘I shot a deer, grabbed the antler and it came off in my hand.'”
The problem starts when a buck injures its antlers while rubbing or fighting, which gives bacteria an easy entry point. (Hahr noted that his buck had a big scar on its forehead.) The most common bacterial culprit is arcano bacterium pyogenes. “Basically it’s in the environment–cows and other animals can carry it–but it’s not a problem unless it enters the brain,” Eyler says.
Research has shown that brain abscesses affect bucks more than does, but data is mixed on the question of whether mature bucks are affected at a higher rate than young bucks. Some studies show that mature bucks–which fight more and are therefore more susceptible to head injuries–may have higher rates of brain abscess. One thing is certain: When big bucks are felled by a bacterial infection, people notice. “We’ve been aware of brain abscesses for 20-plus years, but they’ve only recently started to get some recognition, and that’s partly due to the quality deer management movement,” Eyler says. “Deer management has increased to a whole new level, and when hunters are not shooting these deer to let them mature, but they reach four years old and die of a brain abscess, that can be frustrating.”
Eyler rates the impact on the overall deer population in Maryland on a par with Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, a fatal viral disease that causes extensive bleeding. “Because it doesn’t often affect does, it’s not going to effect population growth. It’s a source of mortality that we are well aware of and there’s really nothing we can do about it.” A research project at Chesapeake Farms, a 3,300-acre research area maintained by DuPont, showed that as much as 25 percent of bucks had brain abscesses. But the prevalence statewide is thought to be far lower.
A deer in the final stages of the disease will display obvious neurological problems. It may walk in circles and show no fear of humans. But Eyler says many bucks, like the one Hahr shot, will display no symptoms that would be evident to a hunter from a distance.
“A lot of the time you can’t tell from looking at the animal, because the infection will be under the skull plate, although sometimes there will be pus oozing from the antler base.” But remove the skull plate and it quickly will be obvious there’s a problem. The bacteria eat away the skull and brain tissue and leave behind blood and pus. “The smell will get you every time,” Eyler says. “It’s the worst thing ever.” He recommends that hunters do not eat the meat of any deer with a brain abscess.
For Hahr, the hunt turned out to be the best thing ever. A preliminary green score puts the 23-pointer in the 180s. “You see deer like this on the cover of magazines,” says the avid Field & Stream reader, “and you think, ‘Man, that’s a crazy buck, I’d love to get a chance at something like that.’ But you realize you probably never will get a chance. And then, somehow, everything lines up and the opportunity presents itself. It’s something I’ll probably never top.”
_Mark Hahr could not believe his eyes when he walked up to the big whitetail he’d put to the ground just minutes into his first Maryland gun hunt. Expecting to get his hands on the tall, gnarly rack he’d spotted just after daybreak in his scope, Hahr instead saw a curious sight: A raw, bloody spot where the left antler should be. Thinking he’d shot the antler off, he quickly scanned the buck.
The entry wound was right where he’d put the crosshairs, just behind the buck’s shoulder. His bullet didn’t separate the antler from the deer’s skull, so what did?_