A Secret Existence

The biology and behavior of whitetails that not only avoid humans--they also want little to do with other deer.

Field & Stream Online Editors

"What deer is that?" Keith Chaffin, the outfitter on the Junco Ranch in South Texas-the same ranch where Lyndon Johnson used to chase whitetails-adjusted the spotting scope for a closer look. "He's got great mass and main beams. He's real old. Where has he been?"

Chaffin has intimate knowledge of the deer on the Junco. He does helicopter surveys, scouts year-round, and even hires guides to monitor and film the whitetails on the ranch when he can't do it himself. Indeed, sitting in the tower stand with me, he could recognize and had even assigned names to most of the 10 bucks that had come out of the brush just before dark. Except for this one, which had Chaffin perplexed and not a little excited.

It was too dark and too far for a shot. But the next day, after searching, glassing, walking, and rattling, followed by a long, dusty stalk through thorn- and cactus-strewn brush, I caught up with and killed that barrel-chested 8-pointer as it crossed a sendero hot on the trail of an estrous doe.

Somehow, in spite of all the intensive scouting, hunting, filming, and aerial surveys, this buck had lived out its life cryptically, reaching the ripe age of 71/2 years without anyone's knowing it was there. And this buck stood out. The main beams were over 2 feet long, the base measurements were 51/2 inches, and two long kickers gave it a score just shy of 150.

Every year across whitetail range, hunters kill huge old bucks that no one knew were around. On Texas ranches such as the Junco, where bucks are counted and cataloged; on crowded public land in the Northeast, where hunters seem to scour every square foot of the habitat on a daily basis; on 100-acre woodlots, where any rack buck would be considered a trophy-monsters turn up that had given no previous clues to their existence. Call them superbucks: mammoth, often nontypical, gnarly-racked bucks, musky with age, that somehow survived four to seven years without being seen.

These deer are almost like a different species. Hunters scouting before the season don't jump them. Trail cameras don't capture their photographs. Farmers and rural workers don't spot them. Yet once in a while a hunter gets lucky and stumbles across a superbuck, dumbfounding the locals who thought there weren't any huge deer in the area by showing up with one at a sporting-goods store or check station. Amid the routine spikes, forkhorns, and basket eights, suddenly a hunter pulls up, glassy-eyed, revealing a brute shot on a 50-acre parcel or on a crowded wildlife management area.

If you're growing weary now as the season winds into its final days, and lack of sleep and the pressures of juggling work, family, and hunting are taking their toll, these deer can give you reason to uncase your rifle one more time. When all the good bucks in your region have been shot or otherwise accounted for, remember: The superbucks are still out there.

[NEXT "What Makes Them Different?"] What Makes Them Different?
Superbucks have two distinguishing behavioral characteristics:
** Reclusiveness.** As they reach middle age (3¿¿¿4 years), whitetails that will become superbucks start keeping apart from other deer. While cropfields draw many big bucks out on summer evenings, allowing the scouting and chronicling of mature animals in a local herd, these bucks won't show themselves openly during daylight. They tend to stay put on small home ranges, sometimes just 100 acres, traveling little because they know movement exposes them to danger. They become hermits.

Their bedding areas are often in small and unlikely-looking spots that hunters typically don't enter-a thicket next to a superhighway, say, or a tiny tangle of cover behind a housing development. Others may live in a refuge and roam out of the sanctuary only rarely. That's how Virginia's Jim Smith took his superbuck in 1992. He watched the 30-pointer wander onto his lanadjoining Shenandoah National Park and waited until it got within range. The second largest nontypical known to be taken with a muzzleloader, it scored 2574/8.

A study recently conducted by Scott McDonald and Mike Van Brackle of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Resources Division exemplifies how these special deer are somehow able to survive to old age while living around people and being exposed to heavy hunting pressure. Three 51/2-year-old bucks were captured (among many others), fitted with radio telemetry collars, and released.

These three bucks all lived to be 81/2 years old on wildlife management areas. How? They moved out of open areas and heavily hunted locations and spent daylight hours in thick, neglected cover: a mixture of greenbrier, honeysuckle, blackberry bushes, old abandoned homesites, and 7- to 10-year-old unthinned stands of pines filled with brush and briers.

Biologist Kent Kammermeyer detected a similar strategy in another Georgia study. As soon as deer season opened, a radio-collared buck in a large WMA shifted his home range to a remote laurel thicket a mile away near the top of a mountain, remaining there until the season closed. That tactic enabled him to survive many years-but a hunter did finally get him.

**Reserved Breeding Habits. **Although the rut is the undoing of many trophy bucks-the scent of an estrous doe causes them to abandon caution and chase any ready female in sight-superbucks are more reserved and wary, breeding does only in thick, isolated areas. Some seem to be almost nonparticipants in the rut, perhaps sensing somehow that it's their most vulnerable activity in life. Others breed mostly at night, hanging back and ceding a hot doe to others if she ventures out into the open during daylight. It's not standard buck behavior, but these are not standard bucks.

Superbucks may, in fact, be timid animals, shunning confrontation and aggressive behavior. Hunters who take superbucks usually find few, if any, punctures on the body or scarred and broken points. This contrasts with the average buck, which comes out of the rut bearing nearly two dozen fight wounds. Superbucks, it seems, not only avoid humans-they also want little to do with other deer. [NEXT "What the Biologists Say"]

What the Biologists Say
Whitetail experts concur on the existence of superbucks. "There is no question in my mind that some deer out there are less susceptible to hunting than others," says Dr. Karl Miller, professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of Georgia. "Recent use of infrared cameras has revealed bucks showing up that no one knew about.

"I think the biggest question is why? Do some of these mature bucks get smarter with age, or do some bucks get older simply because they do something different? Perhaps it's a combination of both. Bucks should become wiser with age; deer have the ability to learn. But bucks that by nature are more nocturnal or inhabit some ¿¿¿unusual' habitat will also have a greater likelihood of growing older."

Brian Murphy, executive director of the Quality Deer Management Association, cites evidence that some bucks do not participate in the rut. "A recent study by Dr. Randy DeYoung and others from Mississippi State University showed that a small percentage of adult bucks sire no fawns whatsoever, based on DNA examination of fawns within the study area. It is not known if these bucks attempted to participate in breeding, or did so but were unsuccessful. I suspect some of these bucks were simply not active in breeding or fighting and therefore would have higher chances of survival."

There's no question that superbucks are different. That's why finding them usually requires a new mind-set and a different style of hunting. For details, see the following pages.

[NEXT "My Super Buck Story"] My Superbuck Story
The Jersey Giant

The Vitals
Hunter: Ed Eloe
Points: 23 (nontypical)
**Location: **Ocean County, NJ
**Firearm: **Thompson/Center .50 cal. Black Diamond

It was November 27, 2000, the opening day of muzzleloader season. I'd already been bowhunting a lot of different public areas during archery season and had taken about eight does. I run a Jiffy Lube and give them to the guys who work for me. I actually got into the woods late. Usually I'm already in the stand watching the other guys come in by flashlight, but not that day. I was hunting some oaks near my bowhunting stand, but in a place where I could make use of the muzzleloader's longer range. I dropped a glove getting up into the stand and decided to just let it go, because I was already hearing deer sounds in the darkness. I heard footsteps, looked left, and saw what looked like a standard 8-pointer, just a glimpse as he came through the trees broadside, not more than 40 yards out. And I put a bead on him, and when he came through the second opening, I shot.

It's funny. I'm 38 and I've been hunting since I was 6, but I still don't hear the shot when it's a deer. All I saw was blue smoke in the air. And when it cleared there was this huge deer on the ground and a doe kind of twitching and jumping all around it. Then she took off and I started counting points. There were 23 in all, a big 10-point main frame with lots of finger-size kickers. And nobody had ever seen this deer before on public land in New Jersey. I'm a meat hunter. I'm not hung up on racks. Isn't that the way it goes? When you're not hung up on getting something, that's when it comes to you.
-as told to Bill Heavey

Buck in the Birches
The Vitals
Hunter: Rober Cameron, Jr.
**Points: **20 (nontypical)
**Location: **Aroostook County, Maine
** Firearm: **Ruger M77 .270

I was hunting Aroostook County off Route 11 on November 22, 2002. I didn't get started until 10:30 because a bunch of us had driven up to go to our camp. There was snow on the ground and a light rain. I found a fresh buck track and followed that until it crossed a brook. So I figured I'd work my way back to the road. Took a compass bearing and headed back. I came up on this white birch knoll, and bedded down there was this nice, big buck that jumps up and trots off. But he didn't lift his tail, didn't seem too spooked. So I stayed put, waited about three minutes, then blew my grunt call four or five times. I've been hunting for 40 years, and I knew not to try to chase him down. He turned and came out in heavy cover about 50 yards off, but I couldn't get a clear shot. He stood about 10 seconds and then trotted off again. I waited a bit, then blew the grunt call again, rifle up, scanning. And h> The Jersey Giant

The Vitals
Hunter: Ed Eloe
Points: 23 (nontypical)
**Location: **Ocean County, NJ
**Firearm: **Thompson/Center .50 cal. Black Diamond

It was November 27, 2000, the opening day of muzzleloader season. I'd already been bowhunting a lot of different public areas during archery season and had taken about eight does. I run a Jiffy Lube and give them to the guys who work for me. I actually got into the woods late. Usually I'm already in the stand watching the other guys come in by flashlight, but not that day. I was hunting some oaks near my bowhunting stand, but in a place where I could make use of the muzzleloader's longer range. I dropped a glove getting up into the stand and decided to just let it go, because I was already hearing deer sounds in the darkness. I heard footsteps, looked left, and saw what looked like a standard 8-pointer, just a glimpse as he came through the trees broadside, not more than 40 yards out. And I put a bead on him, and when he came through the second opening, I shot.

It's funny. I'm 38 and I've been hunting since I was 6, but I still don't hear the shot when it's a deer. All I saw was blue smoke in the air. And when it cleared there was this huge deer on the ground and a doe kind of twitching and jumping all around it. Then she took off and I started counting points. There were 23 in all, a big 10-point main frame with lots of finger-size kickers. And nobody had ever seen this deer before on public land in New Jersey. I'm a meat hunter. I'm not hung up on racks. Isn't that the way it goes? When you're not hung up on getting something, that's when it comes to you.
-as told to Bill Heavey

Buck in the Birches
The Vitals
Hunter: Rober Cameron, Jr.
**Points: **20 (nontypical)
**Location: **Aroostook County, Maine
** Firearm: **Ruger M77 .270

I was hunting Aroostook County off Route 11 on November 22, 2002. I didn't get started until 10:30 because a bunch of us had driven up to go to our camp. There was snow on the ground and a light rain. I found a fresh buck track and followed that until it crossed a brook. So I figured I'd work my way back to the road. Took a compass bearing and headed back. I came up on this white birch knoll, and bedded down there was this nice, big buck that jumps up and trots off. But he didn't lift his tail, didn't seem too spooked. So I stayed put, waited about three minutes, then blew my grunt call four or five times. I've been hunting for 40 years, and I knew not to try to chase him down. He turned and came out in heavy cover about 50 yards off, but I couldn't get a clear shot. He stood about 10 seconds and then trotted off again. I waited a bit, then blew the grunt call again, rifle up, scanning. And h