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Trophy bucks an unexpected vacation sight

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- What I saw a few weeks ago made my jaw drop. Literally.

It might have been the exception to the rule, or it might signify a coming trend. I don't know.

What I do know is that the shock of seeing two white-tailed bucks with gigantic antlers still hasn't worn off, especially when one considers that I saw them in a part of the state where bucks' antlers almost never reach that size.

It was early July. I was on vacation with my wife and son, and we were riding a dinner train that had just passed through The Trough, a remote canyon that slices through the Allegheny Mountains of Hardy and Hampshire counties.

I'd been watching for deer and for bald eagles, and had seen several of each as the train rolled slowly through The Trough. All of the deer were "slickheads" - does or fawns. They also were what I call "suitcase deer," so small of stature they could almost fit into an average-sized piece of luggage.

Imagine my surprise, then, when one of the other passengers pointed out the window and shouted, "Holy cow! Look at that!"

Standing in a farmer's field about 50 yards from the tracks was a pair of bucks with antlers, still growing and still encased in velvet, that surely would qualify for the Division of Natural Resources' Trophy Buck Club.

Both of the racks appeared to have 10-point frames, and one of them appeared to have at least a couple of non-typical points. Judging from the bucks' outspread ears, which average about 15 inches, both racks appeared to have antler spreads in the 18-inch range.

What's more, both sets of antlers had nice, long tines. One buck might have had double brow tines, and both had really tall G2s and G3s.

And before someone calls me out on it, yes, I understand that antlers in velvet always look bigger. In late August and early September, when those bucks rub off the velvet and begin polishing the antlers themselves, the racks will lose quite a bit of mass and a little bit of height.

Still, though.

This was early July. Both bucks' antlers were still growing. I've done a little checking on the Internet, and judging from the growth-rate photos I saw, both bucks' racks should gain another inch or two in height before they max out.

Two or three other guys in the dining car were hunters, too, and they were equally astonished to see two such honking big trophy-class bucks - and in Hardy County, of all places!

"Bucks like that just aren't supposed to be here!" one said.

Now before my friends in Hardy County get bent out of shape and start e-mailing me about the nice bucks they've killed or have seen, let me acknowledge that any West Virginia county can grow trophy bucks.

On average, though, bucks from Eastern Panhandle counties - Hardy included - tend to grow substantially smaller racks than, say, bucks from the state's southern and southwestern counties.

I've photographed and written stories about more than a dozen state-record or near-record bucks.

All of them, save one, were killed south of Interstate 64 and west of Beckley.

If I'd seen the two Hardy County bucks while driving through Wyoming County, I might not have been as surprised but I still would have been impressed. They were that big.

The timely, burning question is whether the Hardy County wall-hangers were a fluke, or if they represent part of the widespread increase in rack size DNR game-checking crews have noted during the past few seasons.

Last year's Trophy Buck Contest honored big-antlered whitetails from a whopping 34 counties, far more than in past years. Don't be surprised if two from Hardy County show up in this year's roster.


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