Where Rob Tyler sat, the mountain laurel in the ditch looked like a wall. In reality, it was more like a tunnel. And, as if on schedule, something came chugging slowly through it.
Tyler, a 38-year-old veteran hunter, couldn't have asked for a better finish to a better day.
The party of Navy pilots he had planned to take hunting that morning had canceled at the last minute. So instead, he treated himself to a day of hunting with five friends.
Tyler crouched next to a holly tree on a 300-acre parcel of river land south of Fredericksburg. A deer was pushing slowly through the laurel. Tyler could see parts of the rack, tilted close to the ground, and he didn't hesitate. His first shot was on the money.
*Rob Tyler's massive 6-point buck scored 169 9/16 by the Virginia scoring system, eclipsing the previous record by more than 9 inches. Photo by Henry Christner.
The buck was a big one, and its beautiful 6-point rack proved to be a prize winner in several respects.
Not only did it win the Virginia Deer Classic in Richmond and the 55th annual Virginia Big Game Contest in Harrisonburg last year, it established the Virginia record for 6-pointers with a score of 169 9/16 by the Virginia scoring system. The existing record in that class, for racks of 6 points or less, had been 160.
As a deer hunter, Tyler has found that being at the right place at the right time is almost second nature. He has hunted the farming country of King William County all his life, and this particular piece of property near the pristine Mattaponi River has an excellent deer herd.
"The genetics run strong on this farm," he said. "There are no supplements, or any salt feed or minerals put out. What racks these boys sport is from nature."
Tyler gives a lot of credit to his dogs, all beagles. Like many dog-hunters, he says the joy of hearing them run is an integral part of the hunt.
"I raise them for the enjoyment of it, and I've had this bloodline for 12 years plus," he said. "The beagles start off as rabbit dogs, and the ones that tend to go off on hot deer scents end up becoming deer dogs.
"With proper handling, you can hunt deer all day and not have to hunt the dogs.... If a deer is killed, they come right back. If they put deer in the river, they come straight back for the next drive. They don't scare the game, and they put meat on the ground. Beagles run deer just like a rabbit, but in a bigger circle."
Tyler owns a dozen dogs, half of which he uses for deer. He's had three of those since 1987. During the early 1990s, he used them religiously while hunting with friends and other visitors he invited down from northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland. These days he keeps his hunting parties down to a smaller circle of friends — the bigger hunts with out-of-town guests stopped being fun after awhile — but the visitors could always count on coming in contact with a deer one way or another.
"Our success rate was 99 percent on hunters pulling the trigger, and the kill rate was less than half that. Taking four to six hunters with that kind of success rate is tough. You've got to place them on the right stands, work the wind and their scents so that when the dogs jump, the action happens.
"We had a knack of knowing where the deer would be lying and were able to cope with any weather conditions. If it was dry and hot, we would hunt river bottoms, creeks, beaver ponds. If it was windy, snowy or raining, we would hunt the small pines and honeysuckle. On cold days, we would hunt the sunny side of a hill and the laurel patches."
Because Tyler was the owner of the dogs, it was usually his job to do the driving on one of these organized hunts. He also had to stay on top of all the other details of being host and huntmaster. "I'd organize the hunts, prepare lunch the night before, get all the gear ready and be ready in the morning with a master plan," he said.
Such was the case that December morning when Tyler bagged the state-record 6-pointer. But the party of pilots, with whom Tyler had hunted many times, couldn't make it back to Virginia in time to keep their deer-hunting appointment.
"So it was a vacation day," said Tyler. "I would hunt, but it would be more relaxed."
Tyler called his good friend Russell Guyton, and together they came up with four others who wanted to participate, including Tyler's brother, Bruce.
Having decided to take the day off from any formal organizational duties, Tyler asked Guyton to handle the drive. Tyler and the other four hunters would settle in on the stands. In Tyler's mind, the key to success that December morning would be making the approach, and he had his master plan ready and waiting.
"The wind was blowing from the northwest, so three of the hunters walked into the woods from that direction. I told them they were my decoys," Tyler said. "Then two of us entered from a state road on the east, so that our scent never entered the woods."
Despite the cold wind that day, Tyler was traveling light. He was carrying an .870 Magnum, a knife and a few shells (3-inch Federal No. 1 magnums). "I have a bad habit of never taking enough shells, and on that day I only had three or four," he said.
His most important item of gear was a voice-activated FM radio headset, which he planned to use for staying in touch with Guyton during the drive. "The wind was blowing hard, so I knew I'd never hear the dogs unless they were on top of me," said Tyler.
He positioned himself by the holly tree, near the laurel ditch, and found that this part of the plan wasn't working. "I kept calling Russell to find out if they had jumped. He never came back to me. After about 20 minutes, I could faintly hear the dogs running. About this time I saw the top of a rack about an inch off the ground, stepping through the laurel. I waited for a second until the rest of the body stepped into view. The first shot was a victory."
It also had been a victory for thinking ahead.
"This was the backdoor approach," said Tyler. "The deer knew the other hunters were there. He had flanked them all the way down the line, his nose only inches off the ground, working the scents. His mistake, a dumb mistake, was that he came out first, ahead of the does. When I shot, deer came from everywhere — does, bucks, I don't know how many; I had my eyes on the target."
Tyler and friend Jimmy Jenkins, who was on a nearby stand, tried to drag out the deer but had to give up and field dress it in the woods. Then they hauled it back to one of roads through the farm, only to be confronted by game wardens in two different vehicles.
"Someone had seen us come in from the state road and thought we were hunting illegally," Tyler said.
After clearing things up with the wardens, he was free to relax and enjoy the rack that eventually would find its way into the record book and onto the wall of his home. He won't soon forget the vibes of that particular deer stand because it provided an encore on the final day of the 1994-95 season.
"I took a hunter who had never killed a deer before to the same spot by the laurel ditch," Tyler said. "I was on one stand and he was on another. The dogs did their thing, and it happened again. This buck was gray from age, the color of slate in the face, with a massive rack of 10 or 12 points.
"I saw the deer in the laurel. I was waiting for my friend to shoot; it was too far for me. After an hour, I walked to where I last saw the deer, then on to my friend. He said he had seen the deer come out from the laurel and lie down.
"After the dogs went past, it went back into the thick woods leading to the beaver swamp. My friend said it was too far for him to shoot as well. I hope the old bird will be there for this season. It's going to be one hot deer stand."