Toledo, Ill. — Hoping to locate the deer he’d stuck with an arrow the night before, John Martin assumed he was getting assistance in that effort from a handful of hungry coyotes.
But Martin was in for one of nature’s surprises.
Hunting in Cumberland County the morning of Nov. 2, the 20-year-old Martin stumbled across two bucks – one dead, one very much alive – locked together by their impressive rack of antlers.
The coyotes were actually beginning to feast on the deer that had perished during a traditional rutting season battle. An 8-point buck had succumbed, leaving a 9-pointer to survive.
That is, survive long enough to be arrowed by Martin, who was tipped off by the coyotes.
“I was hunting with my dad and my cousin and my dad is the one who told me to grab my bow,” said Martin. “I had assumed it was a deer I had arrowed the night before attracting the coyotes, but it was a completedly different situation.”
Martin shot the live buck, as the law allows in Illinois. The Martin family took the meat from the live buck and the younger Martin is having both heads mounted – locked together just as he found them.
“It’ll make a neat mount, a good story to tell,” said Martin, who has been hunting for about seven years.
Stumbling upon bucks with locked antlers is somewhat rare in the state, although there were some widely reported incidents earlier this year.
In a case that went viral on video and social media, DNR Conservation Police Officer Steve Beltran worked to free one trophy buck from another.
“It wasn’t my first time, but it’s definitely a task unlike any other we do,” said Beltran, an Ogle County CPO, following that effort. Beltran, who has been a CPO for 13 years, got the Ogle County call on Jan. 31. Two bucks were locked together in a cornfield. Days later, on Feb. 6, a Will County CPO answered a similar call.
To deer hunters, it’s an intriguing sight. Mature and athletic bucks with massive antlers locked together in what oftentimes is a fight to the death. To a CPO, it’s an exercise in wildlife law and rapid decision-making.
“First you have to assess the situation and make a decision – are both deer in good shape? Is one near death? Is a clean separation possible?” Beltran explained. “Then you have to figure out what tools you need and how to keep yourself and others safe. It isn’t a game. It can be dangerous.”
Sometimes the only recourse is for CPOs to put one of the deer down in order to save the other. In the Ogle County case – similar to the recent case involving Martin in Cumberland County – one of the bucks had already died during the fight.
The surviving deer in Beltran’s case was dragging the dead buck in a grassy waterway section of the field when Beltran arrived. Because of the struggle, the area had been turned into a mud pit.
“The call had come from a farmer who was driving by and saw the two bucks locked,” Beltran said. “When I got there, the only tool I had at first was 13-inch bolt cutters, and there was no way that was going to work.
The deer that was alive was twisting, spinning and jumping. I could not get close enough.”
An Ogle County sheriff's deputy was on the scene to assist Beltran, who used a set of long-handled brush clippers to break off the left base of one of the set of antlers. But the right side was still locked. After much weaving and working, Beltran was able to use the apparatus to free the racks and the surviving buck fled quickly across the field, appearing to be in good health.
“That’s really what it’s all about, trying to save the deer and keeping everyone involved safe,” Beltran said. “It’s important for people, if they ever come across this in the wild, to call their local CPO or the sheriff. This is nothing to mess around with.”
The Will County case involved two bucks with rather large sets of antlers. The pair had been in a lengthy battle in the middle of a cornfield, and both were beginning to wear down.
A CPO, a state trooper and a Will County Forest Preserve officer worked to free the two bucks.
When both deer became exhausted and fell to the ground, the officer used a handgun to shoot the antlers until one set broke, freeing the two deer.
Not all deer are as lucky.
Glenn Helgeland, executive director of the Illinois Deer Expo, which each year displays mounts featuring locked antlers, calls them “tragically spectacular.”