IT WAS THE BIGGEST WHITETAIL buck I had ever seen.
Crossing the road with its head held high, the buck’s antlers towered over it as it slipped into the woods and disappeared into the night.
I have seen and hunted whitetail in the trophy antler rich South Texas brush country, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Michigan and upstate New York and I have never seen a big buck this big.
It was tallest rack I had seen and at least 24 inches wide, perhaps wider and most likely sporting 12 points.
And it crossed a road in a heavily wooded area only a few miles from my home.
I had been out documenting how the floods from Hurricane Harvey impacted local wildlife and wildlife habitat, expecting to see feral hogs and raccoons not the buck of a lifetime.
And just as darkness fell on the landscape the buck slipped across the road and it obviously slipped out of the grip of the catastrophic flood.
The encounter made me ponder what this regal creature experienced during the 54 inches of rain that flooded the region in 24 hours and how many other times it escaped death over its lifetime.
This buck was no doubt at the prime of its life and in this area not only had to survive hunters, poachers, coyotes, bobcats and the occasional cougar but also a busy highway that it obviously crossed.
No game animal captures the hearts and imaginations of hunters like the whitetail and I believe much of it has to do with their survival instinct and that all of them are different.
Go into a wealthy hunter’s trophy room and they might have a zebra, elephant tusks, 30 different kinds of antelope, an elk and a moose but they probably have 20 whitetails. It’s not that they are any more beautiful than an impala for example but there is something distinct about the character of the creature itself. It’s almost an intangible.
Maybe it’s because they are all different.
The first deer lease I was on as an actual member was in Menard County. We would drive eight hours to get there on weekends and it was loaded with deer. My stand was on a creek and to my right was a barbed wire fence about 100 yards away. Several times I watched deer walk up and down the fence for up to five minutes looking for a hole to crawl under.
It was a three-foot fence. They could easily jump over and in fact I saw that happen as well.
Were these deer the ones that have that super survival instinct to not take unnecessary risks? Perhaps.
I will never forget pheasant hunting in South Dakota and watching a big buck bolt out of a tiny wood thicket that was maybe ½ an acre. It was in the middle of nowhere and there was actually more cover not too far away, but that buck felt comfortable there.
Maybe it instinctively knew this area was frequented by people shooting pheasants, not deer.
There is no doubt whitetails are survivors.
In 1900 there were an estimated 500,000 whitetails scattered throughout North America. Unregulated hunting that involved market hunting decimated their numbers. Now there are 3.6 million of them in Texas alone with more than 25 million nationwide. A lot of the increase has to do with regulated hunting as well as some agriculture benefitting the species.
But the rest in my opinion is about their survival instinct. Mule deer are regulated too but their numbers are decreasing. One area in northwestern Colorado called the “mule deer factory” once had a population of more than 100,000. Now it’s down to 32,000 according to the National Wildlife Federation.
There are pockets of whitetail decline out there too, but they are still increasing in some areas and there is evidence of even pushing back muleys in some zones.
The antlers are impressive.
The battles for territory during rut are epic.
Their faces are all unique a show character.
But I believe what most hunters are really pursuing with whitetails is that intangible. It’s the instinct that pushes them to survive and thrive where other deer fail.
It’s the smarts to outwit predators but human and animal.
And it’s the surprise factor of seeing the biggest buck in your life in a place you’ve been a thousand times like me last year.
There is no animal like the whitetail deer.
An overview of common violations that Texas Game Wardens encounter in deer season, from improperly tagged deer to no hunter education certification.
—story by CHESTER MOORE