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December 29, 2012

Matt Williams: Top stories of 2012

Conroe man takes down 28-point buck on opening day

Athens — They say the older you get, the faster times flies.

I'm beginning to sense the pitter pat of the race.

I turned 51 this year, but it seems like only yesterday that I was a bull headed college senior hell bent on becoming an outdoors scribe with no clock to punch, no full time bosses and a plateful of monthly deadlines to pay the bills.

As I look back nearly 30 years later, it has been quite the ride. Through it all I've been lucky enough to visit some very cool places, fish and hunt for lots of different critters and make some great friends along the way.

People often ask how difficult it is to come up with a few good story ideas each week of the year. The answer is always the same.

This is Texas. It's a state with an outdoor menu befitting of a king. Millons grab the full meal deal every chance they get.

If you can't sniff out a topic that is newsworthy or entertaining enough write about in these parts, you obviously are not turning over enough rocks. If you are lucky, a few good stories might fall right into your lap.

While I spent a high percentage of this past year with my nose in the dirt, a few good stories came knocking at the door. Here are a few of the top outdoor stories gathered up in 2012:

Buck of the Ages

Conroe bowhunter A.J. Downs shocked the Texas deer hunting community on opening day of the 2012 Archery Only deer season when he brought down a monster of a whitetail buck that quickly became the rage of Internet forums and outdoor blogs all across the country. That's largely because there is so much to talk about.

Sporting 28 measurable points, the antlers are incredible in every respect. Two experts have taped the rack and their numbers are significantly higher than those of any other non-typical buck ever taken on open range by a bowhunter in the state of Texas.

Downs arrowed the pending state record shortly after daylight at a distance of 15 yards while hunting from a ground blind on a 13,000-acre lease in San Jacinto County that he shares with his brother and several other whitetail junkies.

In late November, I attended the official scoring of the buck carried out by Randy Reeves, a certified Boone and Crockett scorer, and Bob Sweisthal, a certified Pope and Young scorer.

So what is the official tale of the tape? Downs has sworn me to secrecy pending official certification by B&C, but I can say this. P&Y has already issued an official certificate of approval, and the final tally on the score sheet may shock you.

Just for the record, Thomas Friedkin owns the current P&Y non-typical state record with a Dimmit County bruiser taken in 2010 that nets 229 6/8.

Texas gets a brand new lake

After more than 50 years on the books, Lake Naconiche finally opened to the public on Sept. 1. Located in northeastern Nacogdoches County, the 690-acre reservoir built on Telesco and Naconiche creeks had a ton of fanfare early on thanks in part to the light's out bass fishing experienced by anglers who entered a lottery-style access drawing intended to prevent overcrowding.

Several bass weighing upwards of nine pounds were reported caught and released during the opening weeks. Additionally, anglers enjoyed some outstanding crappie fishing.

While the "new lake" quality of fishing has since waned at Naconiche, some fisheries experts believe the lake will eventually evolve into one of the best trophy bass lakes in the state.

Butlers win

sentencing appeal

Also in September, a federal appeals court in Denver, Colo., overturned the sentencing penalties handed down to two East Texas brothers who in March 2011 pleaded guilty on felony charges of conspiracy and wildlife trafficking in Kansas.

According to court documents, James Bobby Butler and Marlin Jackson Butler, both of Martinsville, operated a hunting camp called "Camp Lone Star" in Comanche County, Kan., between 2005-08. There, prosecutors said they sold guided hunts to non-resident hunters for the purpose of illegally hunting and killing white-tailed deer and mule deer. The hunts reportedly sold for $2,500 to $5,500 each.

Initially, the case involved the poaching of more than 100 deer by as many as 60 clients.

The Butlers ultimately pled guilty to helping clients kill 25 whitetail bucks illegally in what officials called the largest trophy deer poaching case in Kansas history.

James Butler also pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, one substantive Lacey Act count and one count of obstruction of justice for instructing an employee to dispose of some deer mounts before investigators arrived. Marlin Butler pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and one Lacey Act count. The Lacey Act is a federal law that makes it illegal to knowingly transport and sell, in interstate commerce, any wildlife taken or possessed in violation of state law or regulation.

The Butlers were subsequently sentenced to prison time and ordered to pay fines totaling $70,000 between them. However, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled those and other terms of the penalties are too stiff for the crimes committed. Judges requested that the case go back to the U.S. District Court in Kansas for reevaluation and resentencing. A court date has not been set.

Fines for another deer breeder

In April, a federal judge in Tyler ordered a Blake Powell of Cherokee County to pay a $243,000 fine to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Lacey Act Reward Account and $157,000 to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation after pleading guilty to three counts of transportation of wildlife in interstate commerce in violation of state law.

TPWD reports said Powell, a deer breeder,  sold numerous deer in 2007 that were acquired from out-of-state sources and imported to Texas in violation of state law. Powell also purchased a prize breeder buck from an out-of-state source in 2007 and illegally imported the animal to his facility, Rockin' P White Tails.

In Sept. 2011, Powell's grandfather, Billy Powell of Troup, agreed to pay $1.5 million in fines and restitution after pleading guilty to smuggling at least 37 deer from Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio into Texas in violation of state and federal laws. Powell is the owner of the 5P Ranch. His was also sentenced to three years probation and six months of home confinement.

State law prohibits the importation or possession of deer from out of state because of the threat of spreading diseases such as chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis.

Chronic wasting

disease rears head in Texas

In July, TPWD wildlife officials announced that the first cases of chronic wasting disease had been confirmed in the Texas deer herd. CWD is a neurological disorder that occurs only in the cervid family. It is believed to be transmitted by prions that accumulate in the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen and lymph nodes.

The announcement came after two mule deer taken from a 150,000-acre sampling area in El Paso and Hudspeth counties tested positive for the disease. Always fatal, CWD has been documented in captive and free ranging deer and elk around the United States and in two Canadian provinces.

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