In 1993, Mark Rucker decided to add elk to the mix on his ranch in Henry County, south of Brownington, where he raises crops and cattle and whitetail deer for hunting.
He and his father, Laverne Rucker, had started the game farm in 1989, and Mark set his sights on raising the biggest trophy elk possible on his ranch.
“I bred two cows and got one calf,” Mark said of paying $5,000 for artificial insemination from a world-record elk.
The bull calf grew to become 900 pounds with a 31-point rack, scoring 502 points on the Pope and Young scale in its prime, out-scoring its sire. A hunter from Georgia took the trophy elk 13 years later, Mark said.
“It was the biggest one he had ever harvested,” Mark said.
Mark now has a herd of nine female elk and one bull elk, and 80 whitetail on the property, which offers 1,100 acres of prime hunting. Called the Otter Creek Trophy Ranch, it is leased out to a group of hunters from Georgia who travel 15 hours one way several times a year for the trophy hunting.
The hunters stay in Clinton, and have been to the ranch once this year, Mark said, and are coming back, he said.
“It isn’t an easy hunt,” Mark said.
“Fair chase” is not issue on the Rucker Ranch, which is large enough for the elk and deer to evade hunters. Last year, there were five hunters, Mark said, so he let six bull elk out a week or so before the hunt.
The hunters harvested five of the elk.
Despite search parties of experienced trackers looking for it, nobody could find the sixth elk.
“We looked everywhere and didn’t even find a track,” Mark said. “We have trophy bucks (whitetail) on the ranch that we’ve only seen one time, because they are so smart and hunter-wary.
“We have game cams, but don’t even have pictures of them.”
Three months later, on Christmas Day, Mark caught a glimpse of the sixth elk when he was out on a farm road, he said.
There’s more big game down the road at the ranch where Mark grew up.
For Mark’s parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, his father built a 30-by-40 foot building next to their house and moved all his mounts out of the living room of his house into the building, called the Trophy Room. Laverne Rucker has made two big-game hunting trips to South Africa and five to Alaska. Trophies on more than half of the walls were shot with a recurve bow, Laverne said, including the lion and the Kodiak bear.
When asked how close he was to the lion when he shot it with a bow and arrow, he replied “Closer than I wanted to be.”
Laverne said he was seven paces away from the lion, who wasn’t aware he was there. He was even closer to the Kodiak, which was looking up at him in a tree stand. Kodiak, which are larger than grizzly bears, stand eight to ten feet tall and have large, curved claws that allow them to climb trees.
“I could have reached down and hit it with the bow,” he said.
Laverne switched to hunting with a crossbow in the last couple of years, due to arthritis, he said.
In 2014, Mark and Shirley Rucker made a big-game hunting trip to New Zealand, where they both got a red deer. Jim Smika wrote about their trip in his “What’s Your Story?” column in the Clinton Daily Democrat. The red deer mounts are in a trophy room the Ruckers added to their house, which was previously owned by the Ackley’s, who gave their name to the lake on the front of the property.
When they first added elk to the ranch, the Ruckers didn’t raise them for hunting, Mark said.
“In those days, you could sell the critters’ horns,” he said. “You could get $1,000 per elk horn in the Asian market.”
The job of harvesting elk horns entailed cutting off the horns in the summertime, when the horns were just appearing, and had velvet on them. Mark and Shirley recall having to funnel the elk through a squeeze chute, then put a blanket over the head of the elk before lopping off the horns. The market for elk horns eventually dropped off, he said.
Mark said he doesn’t have any elk ready to be hunted this year. The Ruckers developed their whitetail deer herd with the help of Shirley’s twin daughters.
“We once had eight or nine fawns that we were bottle-feeding,” Shirley said.
Hunters buy their deer tags from Mark, who keeps records for the Missouri Department of Conservation. He had to take a course and become certified in testing for Chronic Wasting Disease, he said.
He also has to maintain five and half miles of fencing. Automatic deer feeders spread grain, and there are ponds on the ranch, although he had to add a water tank this year.
The Rucker family continues the family tradition of hunting. Mark and Shirley’s young great-nephews, Crew and Coy, got their deer, as did grandson Matthew. LaVerne’s grown granddaughter also got a deer.
On holidays, the extended family gathers in the Trophy Room for dinner, surrounded on four sides by trophies from several continents.
Even though Mark grew up on a ranch where they raised cattle and chickens, the family ate venison and fish, he said. He and Shirley have a freezer of venison, he said. They have wild turkeys on the ranch, but don’t shoot them for Thanksgiving dinner.
“We could but we don’t, “Mark said. “Shirley buys one in town.”
For more information about the Otter Creek Trophy Ranch, go to their Facebook page.