The saga of the Joe Franz buck was only beginning when the hunter pulled the trigger.
Many deer hunters dream about taking the animal of a lifetime. A buck with antlers larger than conceivably seems possible in a whitetail deer. Very few get the chance to see, let alone harvest a true trophy whitetail.
In 2014, Joe Franz lived the dream of many a deer hunting enthusiast when he downed an incredible Iowa 23-pointer. The icing on the cake was the whole hunt was captured on video for the world to see. Today it is still considered the largest whitetail ever killed on film.
However, the story of this world class deer was only beginning after Franz pulled the trigger. Roughly a year later Franz found himself in a complicated legal battle after being accused of baiting. It's nothing short of a nightmare scenario for anyone who has ever wanted to bag a big buck.
Franz's quest for the buck he later named "Palmer" started in the summer of 2014 when he purchased an 80-acre farm in Marion County, Iowa. He had spent years looking for the perfect whitetail property and this new piece of land had everything Franz was looking for. Shortly after buying the land, his listing agent clued him in on the fact that a monstrous set of sheds had been discovered the year prior.
The hunter quickly went about preparing his land for the 2014 hunting season. He set up several elevated blinds, re-worked some key food plots, and did some strategic mowing. The monster buck stayed elusive most of that summer, but Franz finally got trail camera photos of Palmer in August that confirmed the buck was not only still around, but had blown up to world-class proportions. According to North American Whitetail, Franz and his friends knew this was a special deer. They also knew the controversy that often results from the harvest of such an animal, so they took precautions.
"We also decided it would be in my best interests to videotape the actual hunts, in an attempt to dispel any rumors that might arise as to legality of the kill (should I be fortunate enough to take the deer)," Palmer wrote in NAW.
Franz didn't know it at the time, but this decision would play a key role later down the line when questions of legality did indeed arise about the harvest. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. With the rut rapidly approaching, Franz made some mock scrapes near the food plot and then began making plans for the early season. Franz wanted to bag the buck before the heat of the rut kicked in and the deer started to wander in pursuit of hot does. The hunter and his friend and cameraman Derek Wilkerson had their first encounter with the buck on October 4th when the buck made a grand appearance. Palmer appeared in the food plot before dark and worked over their mock scrapes before finally closing the distance to 46 yards. Franz was using a crossbow and had previously decided his maximum distance was 40 yards. This moment was also caught on film and can be seen in the video above. As a result, Franz watched Palmer walk away unscathed.
Fast-forward to October 12, 2014, and Iowa's muzzleloader season. Franz and Wilkerson went back to the food plot in swirling wind conditions. Deer were in and out of the food plot all evening and the hunters were just about ready to give up when Palmer finally showed. The monster buck eventually closed the distance to about 65 yards which is when Franz was finally able to get a shot off on the trophy buck.
The hunters found good blood at the site of the shot, but there was some uncertainty about how good the shot had been due to some food mixed in with the blood. The hunters reviewed the footage and decided to come back the next day. Fortunately, Palmer had only made it a short distance into a stand of timber before expiring. Franz finally had a Boone & Crockett class buck, a long-time goal of the hunter. Photos of the buck instantly went viral on the Internet due to the buck's incredible mass, towering tines, and abnormally narrow inside spread.
A dream harvest turns into a nightmare.
Just under a year after Franz shot the buck, the deer was back in the headlines again. Someone called the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and told them Franz had illegally shot the buck over bait. In October of 2015, the Iowa DNR officially hit Franz with four charges for hunting over bait. Although he denied the accusations, Franz surrendered the buck's mounted head and antlers over to the DNR while the case was still pending. The DNR also seized the muzzleloader used in the hunt.
This was when it was revealed that the previous landowners had left some mineral lick sites behind when they vacated the land. Some of which were close to the site where Franz ultimately shot Palmer. This set off a complicated legal battle over Iowa's baiting regulations. This set off a flurry of headlines and it quickly became one of the biggest hunting stories of 2015 with hunters everywhere divided on the matter.
According to the Des Moines Register, Franz's attorneys William Kutmus and Trevor hook immediately went on the defensive. They claimed a DNR officer had taken soil samples from the mineral site on the farm without a search warrant or probable cause. The attorney's also claimed Iowa's laws on baiting were too vague on things like how close hunters can legally sit to salt blocks or other forms of bait. They also brought up how the minerals from such a block can seep into the ground. The attorneys questioned if hunters could be charged for hunting over bait because of a salt or mineral lick that is no longer in the area. They questioned how long a bait site must sit before someone is legally allowed to hunt it again.
When the case went to District Court in February of 2016, it did not take long for Judge Thomas Mott long to decide Franz was not guilty of all four charges. The case revealed that Franz was aware of the mineral site. The Des Moines Register reported Franz contacted a DNR officer to ask what he should do with the site. The officer allegedly told Franz he would have to dig up dirt from the area and put fresh soil in place. Franz suggested he would cover the bait site instead. Prosecutors tried to argue Franz had failed to do this. However, it did not matter because the judge determined that was not enough evidence to show Franz was using the site to attract deer. In the end, the video of the hunt ended up being the key piece of evidence in exonerating Franz. Mostly because it did not show the big buck had any interest in the bait site.
"Acknowledging the presence of the mineral lick not far from the deer blind from which defendant shot the deer, the deer nevertheless came no closer than dozens of yards from the mineral lick, and neither headed toward it or away from it," Judge Mott wrote in his decision. "In other words, the evidence does not show the deer took any interest in the mineral lick in October 2014."
And that was the end of the case. Franz's buck and hunting equipment were later returned to him. There are rumors Franz was forced to sell the farm where he killed the buck in order to pay the legal fees, but we are unable to confirm if that part of this wild story is true. The whole incident did set off a lot of debate over Iowa's baiting regulations, which are still incredibly vague. The law only really defines what constitutes bait. While hunters can set out mineral licks, they are not allowed to hunt over them. The regulations do not address how far a hunter must be from such a site to be considered legal. Make of that what you will.
Just how big is the Joe Franz buck?
Lost in all the hassle of Franz's legal issues is an appreciation for just how special this buck really is. The buck grossed over 260 inches and officially netted 230 7/8. It's nowhere near the biggest ever taken in Iowa, but this buck has unique look that appeals to nearly all hunters. Perhaps the most notable thing about the antlers is the inside spread is only 13 inches. It's extremely rare to see such a world class rack that barely gets any credit from the distance between the main beams.
The tines on this buck are simply unreal. Palmer's G2 tines are 14 2/8 and 13 inches respectively. The G3 tines are 14 3/8 and 11 6/8. The main beams are 22 5/8 and 26 6/8 inches. However, it's the mass measurements most people notice. The bases are 7 1/8 and 6 5/8 inches. The third circumference on the right antler measures a staggering 11 4/8 inches. The fourth circumference of this same antler is 9 4/8. This deer looks more like a moose than a whitetail!
While the accusations and resulting court case likely caused quite a few headaches, we are glad Franz got his deer back. It's good to know the largest whitetail ever harvested on film was a legal kill.
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