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Report from a very wild party

Shawn Hensley Jim Adams measure racks during an informal contest for big bucks held unincorporated Cook County. | Dale Bowman~For

Shawn Hensley and Jim Adams measure racks during an informal contest for big bucks held in unincorporated Cook County. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 3, 2012 9:29AM

Deer hoof prints in cement trailed into the corner of Jim Adams’ work garage. His friends take their whitetail deer seriously, yet have a sense of wit.

Adams was cutting up grilled deer back straps and snow goose breast wrapped in bacon when I arrived. Forget snow goose being tough. This melted in my mouth. Adams’ trick is to brine it, then take it off the grill undercooked.

Grilling smoke and buck stories intertwined in the heat May 19 at the annual informal buck contest in unincorporated southern Cook County. It’s the last year at this site; a processing plant is coming. The buck contest will find another home.

‘‘A handful of us started it, about eight of us,’’ said Neil Nielsen of Glenwood. ‘‘It grew to 60-70 guys.’’

About 1995, they began going to homes around the south suburbs. They would dump shed antlers on kitchen tables, then measure them. Eventually the gathering shifted to Adams’ garage. Nielsen and Adams met when both found one half of the same big rack. Adams ended up with both. The rule of thumb is whoever finds the first half is given the second half.

‘‘Originally, it was an antler party,’’ Nielsen said.

Big found shed antlers adorned the outside wall of the garage. Other big racks, to be measured, were scattered on the ground below.

‘‘I’ve only seen ones like that on the hunting shows or at Jim and Cindy’s,’’ said Bruce Radek of Riverside. Cindy Gustafson is Adams’ wife.

Shawn Hensley, a dedicated shed hunter and bowhunter in southern Cook County, showed trail-cam photos of a buck huge enough to challenge the state record. Hunters who know it think it made it to this year.

That’s the stuff of dreams. Eating is more immediate.

A table in the garage overflowed with the homemade and wild: Tupperware containers of fresh fruit salad and homemade potato salad, canned peppers, a platter of grilled peppers, a bowl of deep-fried turkey breast, Cajun-fried walleye that would wake you up, venison kielbasa, venison sausage (hot and cold), grilled salmon, smoked salmon, one Crock-Pot of wild barbecue and another of a thick, hot gumbo of wild game.

To the side, big coolers were stuffed with ice and cans of beer and pop. In the back room, by rows of racks, another table overflowed with prizes for everybody.

As the eating wound down, Adams and Hensley began measuring. Everyone knew the winner would be Terry Hill of Downstate Leland, who was new to the group. He met Adams during some construction work and said he would make his first deer party. Good idea. His 21-point nontypical unofficially measured 191 inches. Deer racks are scored by adding and subtracting various measures in inches.

Hill was hunting Conservation Reserve Program acreage in Knox County during muzzleloader season.

‘‘I was doing a favor for an older gentleman and driving some deer,’’ Hill said. ‘‘I jumped some does, some small bucks and this guy. He came out of the stuff [6-8 foot grass] and started heading toward the Spoon River. I led him by about four feet. When I shot, I didn’t see a thing. There was a big puff of smoke.’’

He reloaded and walked to where he had shot. There was the buck.

Adams and Gustafson tapped the prize table for order, and then Adams began reading off prize winners and doing the raffle. A special prize — camo seat covers — went to Gustafson for her bowkill buck.

It was time.

Seasons change. Bucks are in velvet. Fawns are being dropped.

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