It’s tough to tell which fact is more surprising:
That a red stag deer, not native to North America, was roaming around Randolph County, Alabama.
Or that, after countless veteran hunters sought this elusive animal for months, a teenager who never harvested a deer in nearly 50 previous hunts, is the guy who killed it.
Or that this specimen — estimated at more than 300 pounds — was so big, part of it dangled from his GMC Z71 pickup truck on the way to the processor, where it was too heavy for one scale and maxed out another.
Or that he dropped this bodacious buck from 32 yards away with one shot from a crossbow.
“A perfect shot,” said the victorious hunter, Coye Potts, 16, a junior at Handley High School in Roanoke.
All of which makes one heck of a hunting story. Here’s how Coye and the other folks involved told the tale to the Ledger-Enquirer — and perhaps how this red stag ended up in his sights.
Coye’s maternal grandfather, Phillip Taylor, lives about 6 miles from the Georgia border in Rock Mills, Alabama. About a year ago, he periodically saw a deer that “looked like a darn moose” venture out of the woods and into his goat pasture.
The frequency of these sightings increased to daily last month. And that deer ate more and more of the apples and pears off Taylor’s trees.
He doesn’t hunt, so he asked Coye, a licensed hunter, to come by and solve the problem.
Two weeks later, Coye arose before sunrise to be in the homemade blind of burlap and sticks he built on his grandfather’s property in time to greet the deer at dawn.
“Golly,” Coye thought, “that thing is huge. It don’t look like no whitetail.’”
White-tailed deer is the most-hunted game in Alabama. Free-ranging red deer in the state are escaped captives or descendants of captives, according to the Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources.
“Red deer sightings in Alabama are rare,” Marianne Gauldin, a conservation education specialist in the department, told the L-E in an email, “but they are at times harvested by Alabama hunters, typically one or two instances per season.”
Gun season hadn’t started in Alabama, so Coye used a crossbow for this hunt. His initial attempt at shooting the deer missed. Too low. A feed bag somehow caught in the antlers blocked Coye’s sight line.
One week later, for a few hours before school on two consecutive days, Coye didn’t have a clear shot at all. Taylor encouraged his grandson to be patient.
On his third day hunting that week, Nov. 3, Coye took one of his friends, Hudson Vowell, with him. Hudson, a 17-year-old homeschooler, used a rangefinder to spot for Coye.
They waited in the blind for about 90 minutes in the 2 acres of grassland before the deer emerged from the woods. Hudson was amazed at the scene.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever see another deer that big or a red stag in general that someone didn’t pay for, walking around in Alabama freely.”
They decided to not shoot until the deer was around 30 yards away.
Lo and behold, at 32 yards on Hudson’s rangefinder, the deer turned from looking right at the blind to show them its broadside.
“He never saw us,” Coye said. “I was really nervous and excited at the same time, just ready to kill him and hoping and praying that I didn’t miss again.”
Hudson sensed a serious case of buck fever swirling inside his buddy.
“Coye definitely had it,” Hudson said. “… Your adrenaline starts pumping, and your whole body starts shaking.”
The feed bag still was stuck on the antlers, but Coye’s arrow was on target. It pierced the double lung and heart. The deer jumped.
“He might have went 5 yards,” Coye said, “but he dropped right there.”
Coye turned to Hudson and hollered, “I got him! I finally got him! Looks like no school today because that deer is down!”
Hudson was proud of his pal.
“Under all that pressure, I’m glad he made the right shot,” Hudson said. “… It was definitely crazy. He couldn’t have gotten it any better. That’s the ideal shot you want.”
Taylor stood between two trucks to watch the hunt from about 50 yards away. As the deer approached his grandson’s blind, he thought, “Don’t panic now.”
When his grandson accomplished the mission, Taylor gushed with pride.
“Coye was so excited, he was about to cry,” the grandfather said. “… He’s just an amazing kid. … Lord, have mercy, it was something to see.”
Taylor sprinted to join Coye and Hudson.
“Paw-Paw, I ain’t never seen you run that fast,” his grandson told him.
The deer was dead by the time they reached it.
“My first-ever deer,” Coye said, “and it happened to be a monster red stag.”
When he finally saw the deer up close, Coye marveled at its beauty and size.
“This thing is ginormous,” he thought. “I was just in complete awe.”
They counted 11 points on the antlers.
“It was so much more than we thought,” Hudson said. “With that big bag on his head, you couldn’t get the full perspective.”
After a round of photos, it took four people — Coye, Hudson, Taylor and Coye’s paternal grandfather, Mike Potts — to lift the deer into Coye’s truck.
Coye drove the stag to East Alabama Dear Processing in Roanoke. It was too early in the morning for the shop to be open, so he called the owner, Justin Benefield, who told him to tag it and leave it in the outdoor cooler.
Still excited from the hunt, Coye hung up before realizing he didn’t mention the type of deer he killed.
Benefield had just put his phone back in his pocket when Coye called again.
“Sir, this is a little extraordinary,” he told him. “This is not no normal deer. I killed that red stag. … I need help. My adrenaline is pumping, but I don’t think I can get it in the cooler.”
“I’m on my way,” Benefield replied.
Benefield recalled a conversation in his shop the previous night.
“Me and my guys was in there cutting meat and talking about the red stag,” he said, “and for him to harvest it the next day, it’s just unbelievable.”
Benefield had been hearing for seven or eight months stories about a red stag in the area, some from trail cam photos, others from roadside sightings.
“He was a traveler,” Benefield said.
In eight years as a processor, Benefield, 34, never had seen such a deer.
“Even though this thing was obviously raised in a high-fence farm,” he said, “how cool is it that it had the opportunity to get out and experience what it has since it’s been out and legally harvested in a state that it’s not even native to? Man, I wish I could have had a shot at it. … There were a lot of jealous people who didn’t get the opportunity to do it.”
Benefield explained the super skill Coye needed to make such a successful shot.
“If you’ve got a high-caliber rifle, and you see that thing 300 yards away, it never even knows you’re there,” he said. “You can drop it in its tracks. He was using a crossbow, which is a lot more consistent and accurate than a compound, but it’s still a challenge because you have to be within range. … First kill for a hunter making a heart shot on a 300-some-odd-plus-animal, it’s almost unheard of.”
When he arrived at his shop and saw the red stag, Benefield thought, “Man, this is the luckiest kid alive. In the state of Alabama, you just don’t get that opportunity, a hit-the-lottery type of thing. There’s no telling on a paid hunt how much it would cost.”
The deer was too heavy to be weighed by the shop’s digital scale. Then it bottomed out the manual spring scale at 280 pounds. That’s why they estimated its weight at more than 300.
“It’s three times bigger than an average whitetail,” Benefield said.
But it’s considered small for a red stag, which can weigh more than 500 pounds.
Benefield figures, when he finishes the processing, this red stag will yield more than 100 pounds of meat. Coye figures that will provide enough to feed his family every day for a month: jerky, ground meat, sliced tenderloin, cube steak, summer sausage and regular sausage. He’ll store it in the basement freezer.
“I just hope it tastes good,” he said.
Hudson said with a laugh, “I hope he gives me some.”
While he waited for the meat, Coye also looked forward to a longer-lasting prize: the shoulder-mounted trophy Whaley Tannery & Taxidermy in Wedowee is preparing for him. He’ll hang it in his family’s home theater.
“Every time you walk by it,” he said, “it will just bring back memories. … You just feel an accomplishment.”
Blake Whaley, the tannery and taxidermy owner, officially scored Coye’s red stag as a 5-by-5 10-pointer because one of the points Coye counted was too small. Whaley, however, thinks the deer is heavier than Benefield estimated.
“I honestly figured it to be closer to 400 pounds,” he said.
The rumors and theories
So how did this red stag end up loose in Alabama? Plenty of theories, but no definitive explanation.
The L-E wasn’t able to identify a deer farm in Alabama where a red stag recently escaped.
“There are legally-held captive red deer in Alabama,” Gauldin said in an email. “… They are private landowners so we do not distribute their addresses.”
Whaley didn’t know a red stag was loose in the area, but he had read online reports from RealTree, Georgia Outdoor News and Field & Stream about a red stag escaping last year from a high-fence deer farm in east-central Georgia.
In a Sept. 30, 2021, memorandum, Georgia Department of Natural Resources commissioner Mark Williams authorized the killing of the red stag “because live capture is unlikely and no owner can be identified.”
Georgia DNR Charlie Killmaster doubts that is Coye’s red stag.
The most plausible explanation for the origin of Coye’s red stag, experts told the L-E, seems to be a deer farm in Carroll County or Heard County near Roopville, Georgia.
“I heard rumors of a guy sold a high-fence and thought he sold all of his animals before he took his fence down, and that one was still in there,” Benefield said.
Roopville is about 30 miles from where Coye killed his red stag across the state border in Rock Mills, Alabama.
“I would suspect that’s it, due to the proximity,” Killmaster said.
Samantha Bone agrees. She is the feed sales director at the Georgia Deer Farm & Agri Center in Roopville.
The business gets its name from the deer farm that was on the property in the 1980s. But the deer farm closed decades ago.
“A gentleman named Mr. Ford acquired the deer through some type of grandfathered-in policy back then, and he had the deer on his property in Heard County for several years,” Bone said.
Folks would cut the fence to sneak onto his property and hunt, allowing deer to escape, Bone said.
“Even though they tried very hard to get them back in, there were a few that never were able to be trapped,” she said. “I have seen several incidents on local Facebook hunting pages of people getting pictures of the red stags on their trail cameras and also seeing them while they were hunting.”
But she never heard of one being killed, let alone a 16-year-old harvesting his first deer — so big and so rare — with one shot from a crossbow.
“That is amazing,” she said. “I’m sure that was a deer of a lifetime for him.”