A Priceless Moment, Preserved Forever
By Carolyn Drinkard
As deer season nears each year, Alabama hunters begin the time-honored tradition of preparing to take that once-in-a-lifetime trophy buck. They plant green patches, place game cameras in strategic locations and scout trails, learning the paths deer take and hoping to outsmart these clever creatures. Hunters preserve their treasures with pictures, mounts and racks. Years from now, these will help them spin their tales and fondly relive each special moment.
In the 1980s, Dennis Campbell recognized the value of recording Alabama’s free-range trophy bucks. Working with the Alabama Wildlife Federation and the AWF’s “Big Buck Program,” Campbell coordinated hundreds of volunteers across the state, who carefully measured and recorded the successes of Alabama’s hunters. He compiled this data and published his first Record Book in 1989. The book not only had pictures of both typical and nontypical deer but it also contained stories about the people and places associated with these amazing deer. Campbell continued to score free-range whitetails and publish more books through the years; however, in 2014, he passed the baton to Hale and Michael Smith, who have passionately continued Campbell’s work and the tradition of excellence he promoted.
In 2015, Hale and Michael Smith brought Alabama Whitetail Records to their hometown of Thomaston. Their goal was to provide a permanent place for the records in a museum that would continue Campbell’s legacy, while showcasing some of the largest bucks taken in Alabama. In 2017, the Smith brothers opened the Alabama Whitetail Records Museum in a brick building on Buck Corner, at the intersection of Highways 28 and 25.
From October to April, hunters loan their treasures for display in the museum. Usually, there are 20-25 deer available to view and inspect. The Smiths try to rotate the exhibits every three months. In April, these deer are returned to their owners, as the Smiths transition to the next season. A few deer remain on display at all times for visitors to enjoy, however.
The Alabama Whitetail Records Museum displays only deer that have achieved Alabama Records’ standards. For example, a typical deer, killed with a gun, must measure 150 inches; a nontypical, 175 inches. A typical, killed with a bow, must measure 115 inches; a nontypical, 140 inches.
The museum showcases Alabama’s amazing deer population.
“We have deer here in Alabama that rival any other deer in this country,” Hale explained. “By keeping really good records for the past four decades, we have been able to spotlight our impressive deer herd to the world.”
Hale believes the quality of Alabama’s deer population is a testament to the state’s conservation department. These dedicated men and women provide the programs to keep deer healthy and the oversight necessary to manage the deer.
“In the 2017-2018 season, we measured more 170-inch deer than we ever have in one season,” Hale stated. “It was a heck-of-a-year from all corners of our state. This is a tribute to the conservation department and their programs.”
Not only have the Smiths provided a permanent home for Alabama’s trophy buck records, they have also moved record keeping to a digital format. Now, anyone can access information on their website and Facebook page. They also have an app with a database, which provides a plethora of valuable information. For example, not only can a hunter compare his deer to others killed across Alabama but he can also compare that deer to ones killed within his own county. A hunter can also look up the largest deer killed in the specific area where he may be hunting. The app will also send notifications when a new deer is measured and recorded.
Volunteers throughout the state continue to measure deer, but they now have more up-to-date information, because of social media such as Instagram and Facebook. When hunters post their pictures, scorers can communicate with the individual hunter, measure and score that deer and then record the story behind the trophy buck. This can now be done much more quickly and efficiently.
Hale and Michael see themselves as overseers of records. However, they also believe hunters have needed a home place to showcase some of their trophies; therefore, the Whitetail Records Museum in Thomaston was the perfect location.
“We are within 60 miles of the place where the largest deer was killed in Alabama,” Hale explained. “The No. 1 nontypical, killed by David Nelson in 1956 in Green County, scored 310 inches. The No. 1 typical buck was killed here in Marengo County by Joe Gandy. It scored 213 6/8 inches. These deer will rival those killed anywhere else.”
In April, the museum held its first Alabama Whitetail Records Official Buck-Scoring Day. Held in conjunction with the annual Pepper Jelly Festival, the sponsors provided a crab boil and other activities for hunters. Over 250 people showed up with their mounts. Out of 21 deer scored at this first event, seven met the requirements for Alabama Whitetail Records. The day was a chance for hundreds of hunters to visit with each other, share their stories and learn new techniques. The sponsors plan to make this an annual event on the last weekend in April.
For Hale, the Alabama Whitetail Record Museum continues David Campbell’s record-keeping system. However, it is also a way to give back to his community and to promote tourism both in this area and in the state of Alabama. Just since fall 2017, the museum has welcomed hundreds of visitors from 14 different states and many other countries.
“I love the great outdoors, and I am passionate about promoting the recreation, history and culture in this area and in the great state of Alabama,” Hale said. “People don’t have to go to other states for big deer. We got them right here in Alabama. Our deer can rival any found anywhere else!”
The museum is open Wednesday-Saturday from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. Come on by and see these amazing deer. Relive the priceless moments preserved for all to enjoy.