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January 4, 2014

MATT WILLIAMS: Top outdoor stories for 2013

A year of big bass, deer poachers and seasons like no other

Athens — I don't know about you, but 2013 is one year that I am happy to see rolling to a close. Cancer took a couple of my dearest friends over the last 12 months, two others passed away in their sleep from heart failure and another has gone under the knife for open heart surgery twice since last summer.

Take away all of that junk and it has been a pretty decent year. I'm thankful I've got this job to keep my mind pre-occupied through such trying times. It provides a good place to vent. Plus, keeps me abreast of news and other issues that hook and bullet crowds who share my passions are sure to find of interest.

The was certainly no shortage of newsworthy topics to come across across the outdoors desk in 2013. Some took some digging to get to, while others fell right in my lap.

Here's a glance back at some of the top outdoors stories from 2013:

Dream season 2013

If there has ever been a deer season that ran short on big buck fodder in eastern Texas, 2013 was not it. We're coming off a season that was a huge story within itself.

In nearly three decades of covering the outdoors in these parts I cannot recall a single deer season that produced the big numbers of top end whitetails that this one did.

Whopper bucks were in the news just about every week following the Sept. 28 bow season opener through the Thanksgiving holidays. I'm not talking about 18-inch, eight pointers, either.

2013 was a year for giants in both the Pineywoods and Post Oak regions. Several county records were broken and numerous hunters — some of them youngsters — brought down personal best bucks that aren't likely to be topped — ever.

While the banner season shocked quite a few hunters, it came as a pleasant surprise to many wildlife biologists, as well. Most experts had predicted an average-to-above-average season for bucks, but none forecast the perfect storm that ultimately resulted in a hunting season for the ages.

In looking back, most wildlife experts agree that the fairy-tale season culminated as a direct result of several key stars lining up simultaneously. Among them are the 13-inch antler restriction put in place several years ago to protect adolescent bucks from harvest, good carry over of mature deer from previous seasons and a spotty mast crop that flushed big, smart deer from thick cover and made them move to find food. Rebounding habitat conditions from the epic drought of 2011 also is believed to have played a leading role.

Madison Co. giant

I've heard some great deer hunting stories over the years, but none can top the one 15-year-old Makayla Hay of New Waverly had to tell after opening morning of the 2013-14 general season.

Hay made national outdoor news when she shot an incredible 23 pointer on the 1,600-acre lease that she shares with her father, Jim, in Madison County. The “book” deer has been green scored at  213 7/8 gross and 203 1/8 net by an official Boone and Crockett scorer, making it the biggest non-typical ever taken in Texas by a youth hunter and highest scoring buck taken in Madison County in the last 46 years.

What makes Hay's story truly unique is the history behind the Madison County bruiser. Turns out a fishermen named Chuck Kelly of Madisonville actually photographed the big deer swimming the Trinity River near the Hay's lease about 2-3 weeks before the general season got underway.

Kelly posted pictures of the big buck on the Internet. The best one showed it swimming along beside a much smaller six point. Not surprisingly, rumors began to fly about the authenticity of the photograph soon after it surfaced.

Some naysayers claimed picture was a Photoshopped version of an image that circulated several years ago, which depicted a group of big bucks swimming the river farther downstream, in the vicinity of Lake Livingston.

When Hay's father saw the photo, he, too, questioned its origin. Regardless, he showed the picture to his daughter as a way of stoking her interest before the season got underway.

It worked. To make long story short, the youth hunter went to her stand on opening morning with full intentions of killing the gnarly non-typical buck that hunters all across Madison County and beyond had been talking about for weeks. Amazingly, she pulled it off in short order!

Test tube almost turned ShareLunker

Last April, bass angler Lane Kruse of Garrison got the drums beating at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens when he caught a 12.54 pound largemouth bass off a spawning bed at Lake Naconiche. The TFFC is headquarters of the Toyota ShareLunker program, a spawning genetics research program run by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department since 1986.

The only fish accepted into the program are those that weigh 13 pounds more. Interestingly, Kruse's new lake record bass was caught from a reservoir that had only been open to the public for eight months at the time. Naturally, fisheries biologists were dispatched to give it a closer look.

That's when they discovered a passive integrated transponder (PIT tag) inside the bass' body cavity using an electronic scanning device. Interestingly, the tag identified the fat fish as one of 173 adult ShareLunker offspring that were released into the new lake back in 2009, before it was completely full.

Subsequent DNA testing helped scientists trace the bass' parental lineage. The evaluation determined the fish was the 2005 offspring of a 14.28 pound Florida/northern strain crossbreed caught in 2004 from Lake Falcon and 2.25-pound pure Florida male.

The Cruse bass was the first ShareLunker offspring of such size to be caught from a public lake and documented in the 28-year history of the program.

Butlers re-sentenced to prison

In a long awaited end to an very old deer poaching story, two East Texas brothers are headed to federal prison after pleading guilty to felony charges of conspiracy and wildlife trafficking in Kansas in March 2011.

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.

James Butler 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 at High Roller Whitetails in Center 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.

In June 2011, the late U.S. Senior District Judge Wesley Brown sentenced James Butler to 41 months in federal prison and ordered him to pay $50,000 in fines and restitution for his part in the crimes. Marlin Butler received 27 months in federal prison and was ordered to pay $20,000 in fines and restitution. The men also were sentenced to three years on supervised release after their prison terms were served. They also were banned from hunting, fishing or guiding during that time frame.

Defense attorneys appealed the sentencing and won.

In Sept. 2012, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the penalties were too stiff for the crimes committed.

The case was sent back to the U.S. District Court in Kansas for re-evaluation and re-sentencing.

In October, U.S. District Judge Monti Belot upheld the appeals court ruling and relaxed the penalties levied on the brothers by a significant margin.

James Butler was sentenced to serve 10 months in federal prison, while his brother's sentence was reduced to eight months.

Belot reduced Marlin Butler's fine to $10,000. Additionally, he ordered that the $24,700 in restitution already paid by James Butler be returned.

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