Hunter Chases Giant Mule Deer for Three Years Before Poacher Shoots it Out From Under Him
The hunter tipped off his local game warden after tracking down the poached deer's gut pile deep in Idaho backcountry. Here's his full story
In early February, Idaho resident J.T. Johnson pleaded guilty to killing a trophy mule deer with a rifle during last year’s archery-only season. Game wardens Chad Wippermann and Will Fuller investigated the incident and cited Johnson on a tip from a local hunter who’d been tracking the massive muley on and off for three years. After confiscating the buck, IDFG officials scored its tall-tined, ten-point rack at roughly 180 points B&C.
Wippermann and Fuller found the deer quartered out during a search of Johnson’s home. “I don’t think he had any intention of eating it,” Wippermann tells Field & Stream. “He did try to lie about it at first. It was entertaining, listening to all the stories he tried to come up with to cover his tracks.”
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According to Wippermann, the poacher shot the big muley on public land. “A bowhunter who’d been tracking the deer happened to be nearby and heard the shot,” he says. “My biggest cases always come from hunters who report stuff like this.”
The hunter who reported Johnson’s poaching activities to IDFG—a Coeur d’Alene resident named Vinny Ranucci—would later tell Wippermann that he felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach when he heard the shot ring out. “He said that when he got up to the gut pile, it was as big as an elk’s gut pile,” Wippermann says. “That’s when he knew it had to be the big-bodied buck he’d been tracking.”
Ranucci Shares His Story
Ranucci tells Field & Stream that he saw the deer dozens of times while it was alive and even passed up on shot opportunities that were less than ideal. On the day that Johnson illegally shot it in September of 2022, Rannuci was sitting on a stump with his crossbow—just three hundred yards away. Rannuci has a permit that allows him to use a crossbow during archery season because of a shoulder injury.
He says he’d seen the deer a bit earlier in the day. It was with a bachelor group of other nice bucks when he watched it walk into a high-elevation basin where he runs multiple game cameras. “I figured I’d wait him out because I know where he comes out of that basin,” he says. “That’s when I heard the shot.”
“I got there before the ravens did.”
At sunrise the following morning, Ranucci hiked to where he thought he’d heard the rifle shot the previous evening. He found one boot track on a bit of exposed sand on the forest floor. Additional tracks led him to a blood trail that took Ranucci straight to the big muley’s gut pile.
“I got there before the ravens did,” Ranucci says. “I saw where the guy had dragged it down the mountain and loaded it onto his 4-wheeler. When I got home I called Mark Rhodes who’s the head game warden in Coeur d’Alene. He put me in touch with Wippermann. He and Fuller took what little bit of information I gave them and found the gut pile. A bear had gotten to most of it, but they were able to locate the remains.”
At that point, the game wardens had their crime scene evidence, but they didn’t have a suspect. “I told Wippermann: ‘When someone kills a deer of that size, they’re eventually gonna talk,'” Ranucci says. “All you gotta do is listen.”
And he was right. Two days later, Wippermann heard of a Salmon, Idaho resident who’d boasted around town about killing a giant mule deer with a bow on the same evening that Ranucci heard the rifle shot that led him to the deer’s gut pile. That talk led Wippermann to Johnson, who he peppered with questions about his archery setup. The answers that Johnson gave Wippermann made it apparent that he had little to no working knowledge of archery hunting or equipment. A subsequent search of Johnsons’s residence turned up the deer’s rack and what was left of its meat.
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Johnson was issued thousands of dollars in fines and received a lengthy hunting ban. Because the buck he poached was so big, he received what the IDFG calls “enhanced civil penalties.” “In addition to paying more than $2,100 in penalties and court costs, Johnson lost his hunting license for five years,” the agency stated in a press release. “A two-year probationary period and forfeiture of the animal were additional punishments imposed.”