When Kale Churchill was a young boy, he went hunting with his grandfather, but he says those trips afield were largely nature hikes. They filled no tags while pursuing deer and turkeys, but had a fun time anyway.
“That was the last time he hunted — until this year. And what a hunting year it has been for Churchill.”
That year of hunting culminated on Friday — the day before his 23rd birthday — when he bagged a buck with a monstrous rack while hunting in Milford. The deer was his first. So, too, were the bear, moose and wild turkey he shot earlier in 2020.
In Maine, that’s the big game “grand slam,” and relatively few hunters bag all four species in the same calendar year. Limiting the number in that club: In order to shoot a moose in Maine, you’ve got to win a permit through a state-run lottery. This year, just 3,135 hunters received those permits.
Churchill said he went to Milford on Friday to hunt on land owned by his grandfather-in-law, Steven St. Louis. His father-in-law, Richard Lee, lives just across the road. It didn’t take long for him to have some company near his stand.
At about 6:15 a.m., a doe and a fawn walked into view. They stuck around for a while, then left.
Churchill said he could hear a neighbor doing some outdoor work, and could hear a dog barking. Then, the doe and fawn returned.
They were just standing there and they looked like they could hear something,” he said. “So I was just watching them very closely. I heard some rustling, and I got all ready, and my heart was racing and out came a big doe. And I was like, ‘Oh, just the doe.’
But the doe wasn’t alone.
About 20 seconds later, a big buck came out of nowhere. He was chasing her like full speed and he was all riled up,” Churchill said. “I tried to get my gun up, and I was just kind of rushing and was just in utter shock. And my scope was all fogged up. By the time I got him in my sights, he had already crossed the entire clear cut, and he was only about 20 feet away from me.”
The buck was a familiar one — Lee had captured a trail camera photo of it on Oct. 28, and Churchill, Lee and St. Louis had taken to calling it “Big Buck.” When Big Buck arrived, it was not interested in Churchill at all. It was focused on finding a mate.
“He was paying no attention to me. He was just following that doe,” Churchill said.
Before long, the buck turned broadside, giving Churchill the opportunity he needed. Churchill shot twice, and the buck went down. Despite having seen a trail cam photo of the deer, Churchill said he wasn’t prepared to see the rack up close.
“When I walked up to that deer, I was like, ‘Oh, my god,’ and I just kind of was in shock,” he said. “The antlers, I was just blown away. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I got the Big Buck.’ I would have been happy to get a little spikehorn.”
The deer weighed 193 pounds, field dressed, and had a rack that had either nine or 11 points, depending on whether the two front tines, which curl down toward the ground, are counted. The antlers also still had some of the “velvet” still attached. The velvet nourishes the antlers, but the deer typically scrapes it off before November’s hunting season arrives.
Nathan Bieber, the deer biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, looked at a photo of the deer and offered his thoughts on antler growth, velvet and what could have caused the downturned tines.
“This buck has a couple of unusual things going on with it. The dry, peeling velvet is a little unusual but looks pretty cool. Not entirely sure what the cause is, but this could be hormone-related or could be the result of the unusual downturned beam tips making it more difficult to rub and peel off,” Bieber said. “I’ve actually found shed antlers before that had some velvet still peeling. Nature’s full of weird.”
He said a couple things might have contributed to the odd shape of the antlers.
“As for those downturned beam tips, my guess is genetics or an antler injury while in velvet,” Bieber said. “Pedicel injuries and leg injuries can impact antler growth as well, but those types of injuries tend to be one-sided and quite a bit more noticeable than this.”
Churchill said his 1-year-old daughter, Winona, seemed very impressed by the buck: “She saw the deer that morning, she pointed at it and started barking like a dog,” he said.
And Churchill said he was especially grateful to have been led back into hunting by Lee and St. Louis.
“Without my father-in-law and grandfather-in-law, I wouldn’t have had nearly the year I’ve had and may not have gotten back into hunting,” Churchill said. “They have been really kind and generous teachers and I’ve learned a lot from them, they’ve encouraged me, supported me and really made this year possible for me.”
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