British Columbia resident Michael Swyers and a couple of buddies had been planning a late-season goat hunt in the fall of 2015. At the last minute his buddies had to drop out. Swyers asked everyone he knew—and, on an internet blog, a lot of people he didn’t know—to come along. Unable to find a partner, and understanding the risks, he decided to go alone. His only safety net: A local hunter he’d never met agreed to check in every evening and make sure he was OK. A lot of things went wrong, but toward the end of the hunt everything went right. Swyers took an all-time Top Ten Rocky Mountain goat.
During the Boone and Crockett Club’s 29th Big Game Awards period (2013–2015), Swyers’s goat was not the largest. Marvin McCloud III’s goat was bigger by two-eighths in B&C score and earned McCloud the First Award for the species. Swyers’s goat received the Second Award, but the nature of his hunt—the length, the timing, the perseverance and determination—earned Swyers the Hunt Fair Chase Award. This special recognition is presented just once in any awards period, not just for a great animal but for a great animal taken under circumstances that epitomize fair chase hunting—a concept that was created, literally, by the Boone and Crockett Club.
THE BIG GAME AWARDS
B&C’s current system of measuring big-game animals was finalized in 1949 and copyrighted in 1950. B&C’s system of keeping records recognizes 38 categories of North American big game. Note that this does not reflect species, since there are Typical and Non-Typical categories for all deer and American elk. The long tradition of three-year awards periods predates the current system. What it means is that all animals officially measured and entered during the awards period are considered; the owners of top animals in each category are invited to the triennial gathering, where scores are verified by a panel of judges, with the actual awards presentation the final event.
The majority of the trophies invited to the 29th Big Game Awards in Springfield, Missouri, were taken in 2013, 2014, or 2015. But with the time lag in getting animals measured and entered there was a scattering of animals taken in 2011 and 2012. Also, in every Awards there are always a handful of much older animals that were recently discovered. Notable in the 29th Awards was John Wigton’s huge non-typical mule deer. Scoring 265, it was taken in Eagle County, Colorado, in 1938. And Larry Sapp’s non-typical Columbia blacktail, taken in Lincoln County, Oregon, in 1937. Scoring 187 6/8, it’s the fourth-largest non-typical blacktail known. Both hunters are long gone, but Wigton’s grandson now has the big mule deer and Sapp’s son has his dad’s big blacktail, which has survived a fire and is now remounted in its fourth cape!
Such finds are important because B&C’s philosophy is to honor the animal at least as much as the lucky hunter and because the records are an invaluable source of data on population trends. The hunter, living or deceased, will receive recognition for an animal taken legally in fair chase, but where and when the big ones come from is important to the database, so Certificates of Merit are given to current owners of animals that were found dead or are of unverified origin. In this fashion the Alaska-Yukon moose now owned by Tony Nogy received a Certificate of Merit and was crowned as the new World’s Record. Amazingly, a Yukon moose now owned by Bass Pro Shops also received a Certificate of Merit and was verified as the all-time No. 2 Alaska-Yukon moose.
Most of the animals recognized, however, are of recent origin and were brought to Springfield by the hunters who harvested them. This is the fun part! Lucky hunters come from all corners of the continent, men and women, of all ages, in all shapes and sizes. Some of the great animals on display were taken by experienced hunters, but many were taken by beginners. Some were taken on guided hunts, but many were taken by DIY hunters…some in their backyards, others hundreds of miles from home. As happens in every Awards presentation, a couple of very lucky or very dedicated (or perhaps both very lucky and very dedicated) hunters came to the podium more than once. Most recipients understood they were accepting a plaque for what was, literally, the trophy of a lifetime.
Boone and Crockett’s system sets extremely high standards, and there are really three tiers of excellence. There is an Awards Period minimum entry score; animals that meet that minimum will be included in an Awards Period records book that lists only animals entered during that three-year period. There is a higher minimum for inclusion into the All-Time records book, published every six years. For instance, the awards period minimum for a typical whitetail is 160, while the all-time minimum is 170. In any category, taking a “B&C Awards Period” animal is difficult and requires some luck. Taking an “All-Time B&C” animal takes a lot of luck and in many categories is so difficult as to be like being struck by lightning. The third tier—taking an animal so good as to be invited to bring it to the Awards Presentation and before the judges’ panel—is a bit like being struck by lightning and walking away from it.
There have been a lot of lightning storms in our game fields the last three years. I had the honor to emcee the 29th Big Game Awards presentation. The program lists fully 98 awesome animals to be recognized, but not every hunter or owner was able to make the trip to Springfield, so by our count, on July 16, 2016, 82 very lucky hunters and their very big animals were recognized. Here are some of the highlights.
Bears on Parade
Whether we’re talking black, grizzly, or Alaska brown, this was an exceptional Awards Period for big bears, with 16 monster bruins recognized. The First Award for black bear went to Scott Stintzi, who took the third-largest bear recorded from Wisconsin (a great place for big bears). Steven Christie received the Second Award for a Saskatchewan bruin. There was a three-way tie for Third Award. Interestingly, two of these bears also came from Wisconsin, while Timothy Justnes’s bear set the new state record for New Jersey.
All five of the grizzly bears recognized came from Alaska. Shane Swiderski’s First Award bear is the new No. 2 B&C, while John Hatch’s bear, just four-sixteenths smaller in skull measurement, is now the third-largest hunter-taken grizzly. The story I liked best, however, was the Fifth Award bear taken by Alaska resident Aaron Molchak, who went hunting alone after his partner broke his wrist.
Six Alaska brown bears were recognized, obviously all great bears, but none approaching the current Top Ten. The hunters who sent in their stories were honest folks and the stories were all great (they’ll be in B&C’s 29th Awards book), but here’s something I found interesting. B&C records all bears and cats by skull measurement, which is lasting and irrefutable, but doesn’t always perfectly reflect body size. Aaron Simser’s First Award bear was a 10-feet, 10-inch giant, and Lawrence Vielhauer’s bear (again in a three-way tie for Third Award) was described as 10 feet, 6 inches. However, both Jeff Ploch (Second Award) and Michael Walkley (a third of the Third Award tie) described their bears as in the nine-and-a-half-foot class.
A Mess of Moose
Among B&C’s three categories, fully 15 moose were recognized: Four Canada moose, six Alaska-Yukon (including the two Certificates of Merit moose mentioned), and five Shiras moose. Despite concerns about wolf predation, which is very real in many areas, this is a large number of really big moose. Rollie Miller’s First Award Canada moose was the only one that made the All-Time Top Ten, ranking ninth place all-time, but several others were close. All the Canada moose recognized came from British Columbia. Of the six Alaska-Yukon moose, four were from Yukon and two from Alaska. Very interestingly, three of the big Shiras moose came from Idaho, where wolves are certainly eating moose; two came from Colorado, where wolves are still scarce.
Good News for Caribou?
That depends on which caribou. There were five woodland caribou recognized, which suggests that Newfoundland’s extreme reduction in tags is having a positive effect. The best of these, and the First Award, went to resident hunter Jeffery Samson, who took B&C’s All-Time No. Six caribou. He was bowhunting, so his caribou is also the new World Record Pope & Young and earned him P&Y’s highest honor: the Ishi Award. There were four barren ground caribou recognized, which is strong, but only two mountain caribou, two Quebec-Labrador caribou, and just one Central Canada barren ground caribou.
A Pair of Pronghorns
Three pronghorns were recognized: First and Second Awards and an Honorable Mention. This is a small number for a relatively common animal and perhaps reflects spotty but widespread drought condition during much of this Awards Period. Ah, but the First and Second Awards…you gotta see ’em! With a score of 96 4/8, Mike Gallo’s New Mexico pronghorn was confirmed as the new World’s Record, clearly a wonderful animal with the deepest hooks you can imagine. Dale Hislop’s Arizona buck was an inch smaller by B&C overall score, but it has the most amazing prongs I’ve ever seen. If they stood together I have no idea which one I’d choose! Hislop’s pronghorn was certified as the new No. 2, a pretty amazing turnover in any Awards Period.
Counting Typical and Non-Typical B&C has 10 categories for our five deer. In total, there were just 24 great deer recognized, not a large selection for our most popular game animals. In some cases this probably reflects drought (just four Coues whitetails—two typical and two non-typical); reduced populations from disease is probably another factor (amazingly, just two typical whitetails were recognized, but there were four awesome non-typicals).
The best of the best deer? You’ll have to take your pick! Hunting public land in Colorado in 2014 Brett Ross (First Award, Non-Typical Mule Deer) took a monstrous buck in country he and his family have been hunting for 40 years…a buck no one knew about. Scoring 292 6/8, it’s both a hunting story and a buck that gives us all hope. But so does Tim Beck’s big non-typical Indiana whitetail, a whopper of a First Award buck at 303 7/8. Beck was hunting a farm he’d hunted for years and was prepared to be on stand the full 16-day season when this monster came in front of his stand.
Well, some of the deer and some of the caribou were certainly down. Elk were down, too, with just two Typical American Elk (one from Wyoming, another from Idaho) represented. There were three magnificent Non-Typical American Elk, two from Utah (a trend?) and one from Arizona. There were three Roosevelt’s elk honored, not unusual because a big Roosevelt’s is tough…but there was only one tule elk recognized, clearly a reflection of California’s long drought. Bison, muskoxen, and Rocky Mountain goat were sort of normal, but our North American sheep were a shocker.
Out of four potential categories there were just five wild sheep recognized: one Stone’s, two Dall’s, two desert bighorns…but no Rocky Mountain bighorns. I don’t pretend to have a handle on this. We know Stone’s sheep are down, so Marty Loring’s First Award ram is a wonderful animal, especially taken DIY as a B.C. resident. Big Dall’s sheep are also hard to come by these days, so my friend Edward Joseph’s First Award Chugach ram is an awesome trophy. We could easily theorize that, with prolonged drought in the Southwest, horn growth is down in desert sheep. Recent Awards Periods have seen a parade of awesome Rocky Mountain bighorns…but in this period, no monsters entered. I’m sure this will be noted and will give biologists something to ponder, and after all, that is part of the real value in hunters’ records.
Generation Next Awards
Beginning with the previous 28th Awards, Boone and Crockett offers special recognition for young hunters who entered trophies during the Awards Period. The “Generation Next” banquet, held on July 15th, honored 42 young men and women who entered Awards Period-qualifying animals. This is exponential growth from the first youth awards, held three years ago. Lady Luck shows no age limits, so many of these trophies were truly fantastic…and what a great bunch of young hunters!