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A trophy trio: GF bow hunting enthusiast earns top ND ranks for 3 mule deer bucks in velvet

Courtesy Photo Jason Schiller of Grand Forks displays three mule deer bucks that have earned prominent rankings in the Pope and Young record book for deer taken by archery. The buck on the left is the top scoring North Dakota typical velvet mule deer, the buck is the middle is the top-scoring North Dakota nontypical velvet mule deer and the buck on the right ranks fifth in the nontypical velvet category for mule deer bucks in North Dakota.

GRAND FORKS -- Walk into Jason Schiller's spacious garage, and it quickly becomes apparent where his passion lies.

The 30 sets of mounted antlers that line the top of one wall are a giveaway. So are the five European mounts, including a bull moose, which catch the eye on another wall.

The garage, with tongue-and-groove pine on the walls and ceiling and a spotless floor, looks more like a hunting lodge than a place to park vehicles.

The antlers fit right in with the decor.

"I just keep these out here because I don't have room in the house," Schiller, 38, Grand Forks, said. "People drive by on the street; a lot of times, they catch a glimpse of the antlers, and they'll turn around and come back for a closer look."

The star attractions in this antlered menagerie, though, are the trio of mule deer head mounts -- all in full velvet -- that hang in Schiller's trophy room inside the house. All three recently landed prominent positions in the Pope and Young Club's book for big game taken by archery.

Two of the racks are the highest-scoring Pope and Young mule deer velvet bucks in North Dakota for their respective categories; the third is ranked No. 5.

According to Schiller, it all started one morning last spring when he and his son, Tanner, 9, were sitting at the breakfast table. As it so often does, the conversation turned to deer -- specifically, the mounted velvet bucks in the family's trophy room, which Tanner routinely showed off to visiting friends.

A budding bow hunter, Tanner shot his first archery buck this past fall.

"I asked Tanner, 'Do you know how big these deer are?'" Schiller said. "We were just talking, and I was trying to explain to him how big the deer were so I decided to turn in the scores" to Pope and Young.

By the numbers

Schiller said he only recently learned of their high rankings among North Dakota velvet bucks:

n His No. 1-ranked North Dakota typical (symmetrical antlers) velvet mule deer buck scored 172-7/8 gross and 165-2/8 net; he shot the 5x5 buck Sept. 3, 2011.

n His top-ranked North Dakota nontypical velvet mule deer buck (asymmetrical antlers) measured 217-1/8 inches gross and 209-1/8 inches net after the mandatory 60-day drying period; he shot the 7-by-8-point buck Sept. 5, 2008.

n The No. 5-ranked North Dakota nontypical velvet mule deer buck has 26 measurable points and scored 198 5/8 gross and 181-1/8 net; Schiller shot the 9x17 buck Sept. 2, 2002.

Officials from Pope and Young confirmed the rankings, and Schiller has the certificates and scoring sheets to prove it.

"I kept trying to get him to turn the scores in (to Pope and Young), and he never wanted to turn them in," said Randy Dufault, East Grand Forks, a certified measurer for Pope and Young who scored the antlers. "He just decided one day, 'Let's turn them all in at one time,' and we sent them."

Schiller said it never was a priority, and he probably wouldn't have submitted the scores to Pope and Young if not for the conversation with his son.

"I had the deer scored each year I shot them," he said. "I just never turned them in because I didn't really care for the publicity."

Besides, Schiller said, North Dakota is kind of a "sleeper state" for big mule deer.

"You get enough people the way it is, always wanting to know where you're hunting and bothering you," he said.

Public land

Without getting too specific, Schiller said he shot the bucks on public land in the Badlands of western North Dakota. Schiller, who grew up in East Grand Forks, said he's been hunting the rugged terrain since he was 14 and made his first trip with uncles who got him into hunting.

Then, after graduating from college, Schiller began making the trek west with longtime hunting buddies Scott Stauss and Jeremy Beck.

"If it wasn't for this group of guys, I wouldn't have been able to shoot these animals," Schiller said. "They help me a lot -- in more ways than one. We're just always looking for new and better places to hunt. You can't shoot deer unless you're where the deer are."

Schiller's three top-scoring racks are especially impressive because the bucks shed their velvet in early September, shortly after archery season opens. Schiller took all three of his trophy velvet bucks within three days of each other in different years.

"You've got a week or week and a half and the velvet is gone," he said. "There's not a lot of time for people to shoot that big of a deer when it's in velvet."

Despite the distance from Grand Forks to the Badlands, Schiller said he didn't shoot any of the bucks by accident or coincidence.

The 26-point nontypical is a perfect example.

"We drove out there three weeks in a row before season and watched that deer," Schiller said. "We watched it for three straight days before we moved in to kill him.

"None of them have been flukes -- we go out there, we find them and we put in a lot of time on them."

Schiller says his wife, Katie, also deserves a lot of credit for putting up with his hunting habit. The couple also has a daughter, Jocie, 7.

"She lets me hunt every weekend," Schiller said. "I haven't missed a mule deer season in 12 years. She's been beyond accommodating for me to do everything I've done."

Changing landscape

Despite his history of success, Schiller says the western North Dakota oil boom is changing the places they hunt.

"This year was kind of sad for me," he said. "I've gone out there 12 years in a row, mule deer hunting. It's just amazing how the place has changed -- the garbage, the people --it's just sad. I usually try to spend nine straight days; I went for three days and, for the first time ever, I just came home.

"It was really disheartening."

Schiller said the changes are going to force them to hunt in parts of the Badlands where the impact is less significant. Fortunately, pockets of less disturbed land remain. The hope, Schiller said, is that his son will be able to have the same good memories of trips to the rugged western part of the state.

"It was the first place I ever got to deer hunt, and to go out there and deer hunt your first time, you kind of get spoiled compared to the flatlands," Schiller said. "I think it's the country. It's just beautiful, the desire to get over the next hill to see what's there. You can see anything once you get over that hill. It might be better-looking land or more animals, it just drives you."