The Buck Stops Here
Suspense reigns at Muy Grande, the world's longest-running deer contest.
By John Goodspeed
Bob Jackson points to a photograph. In it, he’s kneeling behind an eight-point buck with antlers that look as though they’d been twisted by a tornado with a sick sense of humor.
“That’s the ugliest deer you ever saw,” the Katy resident proclaims.
But the whitetail presents a pretty picture below the leaderboard heading of “Widest Spread” with a score of 262/8 inches, based on the contest’s antler-ranking formula. It’s early on a chilly January afternoon, the final Sunday of the 2017-2018 Muy Grande Deer Contest, billed as the world’s oldest such deer hunting competition (and copied by others as its fame grew).
Official scorer Kenneth Sharber measures a set of antlers from a white-tailed buck harvested in South Texas.
With nine hours left in the South Texas competition, Jackson beams like a confident winner, but his hunting buddy, Brad Hildebrand of Victoria, tasted defeat only a day earlier. Neophytes to the contest, the pair each shot their leading entries a month earlier at the Sweden Ranch, named for a ghost town near Benavides where a post office opened in 1884 and shuttered in 1932. Hildebrand led the “Best Seven Pointer” category with a 1161/8-inch buck until William Barfield of Hebbronville topped it by 56/8 inches.
“That’s the way the contest goes,” Hildebrand says. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
That same day, though, on his last hunt of the season, Hildebrand nails a nine-point contender.
While Jackson views the leaderboard inside, Hildebrand watches anxiously as the buck is scored on a waist-high metal table under an awning angling off the red-brick Muy Grande building, which serves as a grocery store, restaurant, gas station, sporting goods store and contest headquarters.
“We pre-scored him before we brought him in and knew it was going to be tight,” he says.
As pickups and cars rumble around the fuel pumps, Muy Grande founder Leonel Garza measures lengths of antler tines and circumferences along beams and tallies the score.
“That deer is 1502/8, which is real close to the one that is leading,” he says.
With the help of his cane, Garza, 78, hobbles inside to check the leaderboard, then returns and announces, “There’s 6/8 of an inch separating that first place and this one. We’re going to do it again.”
Leonel Garza, founder of the Muy Grande Deer Contest, has scored more than 20,000 deer since 1965.
Tight-lipped, Hildebrand nods. This time, Garza fills the scoresheet as son-in-law Kenneth Sharber measures with care and precision — a championship depends on it. On the leaderboard below “Best Nine Pointer” is a photo of Adam Lozano Jr. of Garden Ridge with his 151-inch trophy. Whether it stays there depends on the numbers.
Sharber reports between pauses for measuring: “We’ve got 107/8 … 52/8 … 42/8 …”
The Dream Starts Young
Freer, the home of the Muy Grande, sits in the big-buck Brush Country of Duval County at the crossroads leading to Laredo, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Houston. Bob Jackson, 61, and his father, Donald Jackson of New Braunfels, would stop at the Muy Grande store before the contest was conceived just to gawk at the hunters’ harvest.
“We couldn’t wait to see how big the deer were in that cooler,” Jackson recalls.
Bob Jackson was 7 when the contest began in 1965. While he and his father never entered the actual competition, they visited regularly. Inside the store, a large board is dotted with bold, black-lettered signs proclaiming the many categories — “Husband and Wife Team,” “Top Story of the Year,” “Freak of the Year,” “Heaviest Javelina” and many more — with corresponding photos and notecards offering glimpses at the current leaders. Hunters register for the contest and then spend the next days and weeks of the season trying to harvest that trophy animal. When that lucky moment occurs, they bring the field-dressed deer to Muy Grande for scoring. If they can’t make it in, assessment by a certified Texas Big Game Awards scorer will be accepted.
Bob Jackson proudly points out his entry atop the leaderboard for the widest antler spread.
The scoring, devised by Garza himself, uses the Boone & Crockett score common to hunters as a basis, but adds in factors like the circumference of the main beam, the antler width and number of points, and the animal’s field-dressed weight. Those numbers decide who makes it to the leaderboard, perhaps knocking off the current hopeful leader at the end of the contest. It’s high drama that intrigues young and old patrons throughout hunting season.
“I have a lot of fond memories of going in and talking to Leonel Garza when I was a kid,” Jackson says. “Muy Grande’s a tradition.”
Also a lifelong fan of the contest, Jackson’s friend Hildebrand decided to participate after management practices at the ranch, family owned for six years, began paying off with quality bucks.
“I stop all the time at Muy Grande,” he says. “Like everyone else, I want to see what’s going on and if I know anybody on the leaderboard. To me, Muy Grande is the grandfather of all the deer contests, and Leonel Garza is a legend.”
Wide as the Rio Grande
Garza managed the Center Circle gas station in town and had started a simple deer contest as an attraction. One day a stranded motorist hitchhiked in, seeking help with a pickup stuck in a pasture. Garza pulled him out, refused compensation and asked him to tell friends about the contest and his hunter-friendly gas station.
Two weeks later, a convoy of pickups appeared, and a driver showed Garza a recent newspaper story about his station. The stranded hitchhiker happened to be Fred Strong, an outdoor writer for the Victoria Advocate, and he had repaid Garza’s kindness with free press. Newspapers across the state began spreading the word about the contest, and hunting trucks and jeeps lined up at the Center Circle.
But the contest had no name. Irritated that one writer called it “the little filling station deer contest,” Garza came up with Muy Grande (Spanish for “very big”), because, he says, “The deer in South Texas are as big as Texas and as wide as the Rio Grande.”
The Muy Grande contest grew from a simple, one-category competition to 11 divisions and 136 categories for everyone — men, women, boys, girls and military members.
A young admirer sizes up a set of antlers at the Muy Grande store.
More than 2,000 hunters compete annually; there are now more than 1,200 lifetime members.
The charismatic Garza, himself now nicknamed “Muy,” has scored more than 20,000 deer and visited with such celebrities as Nolan Ryan, Earl Campbell, Ty Detmer, George Strait, Gary P. Nunn and Ramon Ayala. The House and Senate recognized Muy Grande for contributions to conservation, deer management and the economy of Texas for spurring the hunting industry.
“A legend? I don’t put no mind to it,” Garza says. “I accept it, but being called a legend doesn’t make me feel like a big shot. What makes this contest stand out from the others — and I don’t like to brag on myself — is that it’s respected by every type of person who walks in with a deer. Those people will never forget how you treat them.”
A Family Affair
Like her four older sisters, Imelda Sharber, 45, grew up helping with the contest. In 2005, her father asked her to lead the 40th anniversary. She introduced a website and social media.
“Dad still has big ideas and needs help with them,” she says. “It was a crazy thing to do, but the next year Kenneth left his job with British Petroleum to work at the store full time.”
The couple bought property across the street and opened a new place in 2008, Muy Grande Village, with more pumps and a bigger store with a restaurant, souvenirs, sporting goods, hunting supplies and, of course, the contest. Diesel pumps for 18-wheelers opened this year; taxidermy and deer processing shops are in the works.
“It’s not just an honor to continue the tradition, it’s a responsibility we take very seriously,” Kenneth Sharber says. “Leonel is still here every day whether he needs to be or not — shaking hands, talking to people and selling a few ranches here and there.”
Family members helped Leonel Garza found the Hall of Fame in 2007 to honor hunters, landowners, conservationists and wildlife biologists and continued to expand the awards banquet, with attendance now at 400-plus. Youth participants get trophies and plaques, while more than 200 winners receive a jacket embroidered with their name, category and score.
“It’s a big thing to win a jacket with Muy Grande on it,” Kenneth Sharber says.
A deer hunter checks in to the Muy Grande store in Freer.
This year’s jackets sport Muy Grande camo from the store’s new line of outerwear (featuring a mesquite bean pattern from a photo Garza shot).
Family members help run it all, including Elda Garza, Leonel’s wife of 57 years, their daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren. The Sharbers’ oldest child, Meghan, a freshman at Texas A&M University, was crowned Miss Freer 2015, but she still mops the store.
“Deer hunters are the nicest, greatest people,” Imelda Sharber says. “They bring their families, and they’re like family members we see annually, just like our blood relatives.
We love it because that’s how it should be, and we want to see those traditions continue.”
The final day is still exciting to Garza and Kenneth Sharber, even after all the hours they’ve spent working on the event since October.
“We sit out here scoring deer when it’s 30 degrees and drizzling, so we have to love it,” Sharber says. “When kids come in with their first deer, it’s special. It makes memories that last forever.”
“It’s especially thrilling if a kid comes in at the last minute to win a category,” Garza agrees. “They are so proud. But it’s sad to see the one leading lose.”
Bob Jackson, one of the Katy hunters, says that for many seasons he killed only does and deer he wanted to cull from the herd.
“I’m actually going to hunt this year,” he told his friends. “The ranch foreman discovered that wide deer last year. He showed me a video of him and pointed me in the right direction.”
Jackson drove, walked and stalked that wide deer for four days with no luck. Then he glimpsed a deer in high grass and crept up to discover his quarry.
“I got within 100 or 110 yards, threw up and shot,” Jackson says. “I had no idea how wide he was until then. Next thing I know, I’m leading the contest.”
Jackson’s buddy, Hildebrand, had admired one particular nine-pointer over several years, but waited for the perfect moment to shoot it.
“We like to shoot deer between 5½ or 6½ years old,” he explains to me.
On the Saturday morning of the final weekend of the contest, he drove around with a ranch hand and spotted that nine-pointer. They studied it for 15 minutes before concluding it was finally old enough.
“Some deer seem to shrink after they hit the ground,” Hildebrand says. “He actually looked bigger. I began to realize that this deer just might win the big nine contest.”
Kenneth Sharber measures an antler beam circumference.
Clock Still Ticks
At Muy Grande, Sharber continues announcing measurements on Hildebrand’s deer as Garza glances at the first scoresheet.
“Doing good,” Garza says.
“Looking better?” Hildebrand asks nervously. To intensify his anxiety and amuse the half-dozen onlookers, Garza replies, “No,” which evokes laughter from all but Hildebrand.
“Gained 1/8 of an inch,” Garza finally assures the anxious hunter. “Picked up another one. This deer’s going to come out ahead of the first score, that’s for sure.”
Garza tallies the numbers, and Sharber double-checks them.
“OK, here it is. 1524⁄8. Earlier it was 1502/8, so this here beat that other buck by 14⁄8 inches,” he announces, then points to the grinning Hildebrand. “Look how happy he is. How come you’re so slick to enter the contest at the last moment?”
“I didn’t see him till the last moment,” he answers, as Garza pounds his back and congratulates him.
The contest, though, will still tick for eight more hours. Anything can happen.
No Agony in Defeat
Hildebrand checks the leaderboard online the next morning and finds his lead position has held. He wins.
“I’d never entered a deer contest before, and winning that category is very exciting,” he says. “Gratifying, too, because all our wildlife management came into play and afforded us a nice deer like that.”
Jackson’s saga ends differently. In first place is a 27-inch entry — 6/8 inches wider than his — that Kathryn Lake of Dallas shot on the Dougherty Ranch in Live Oak County.
“She came in at the last second,” Jackson tells us, seemingly with little disappointment at his silver finish in “Widest Spread.”
“Widest Spread,” a special legacy category because it was the contest’s first, is now one of many categories that award a coveted Muy Grande jacket to second-place finishers.
“I’ll put it up on the wall or under glass or something,” he says, beaming with satisfaction and pride.
After following the legendary contest for 53 years, Jackson finally entered. He held the lead for nearly a month, lost at the closing bell — yet still managed to be crowned a winner and return home with his coveted jacket.
Now that is muy grande.