I’ve just returned from a non-triumphal hunt in Texas where four of us, in an area that is swarming with mule deer, went at it for five days and did not see a single shootable head. We saw spikes in battalion strength, regiments of forkhorns, and brigades of little four-points, but nothing with antlers out past its ears that had lived more than a couple of years. The big deer, who knew what was what, had vanished.
A local game biologist said this was a general condition in the area, not just on the ranch we were hunting, and that the rut, for some reason, was late this year, but that was all he knew for sure. My own guess is that the mature bucks had gone nocturnal; they simply hid until it was pitch dark; God knows there are plenty of places to hide in the high desert.
Big deer can also vanish because they get shot too much. For years, I hunted a spot in eastern Wyoming that produced good to outstanding heads and lots of them. Then, about 15 years ago, the outfitter called and said he was sending back my deposit. The quality of the antlers he was seeing could no longer justify the price of a hunt. The herd has never come back to what it was. I think if you take enough of the good racks, the big-antler genes leave the pool and the trophies peter out.
Or perhaps they go someplace else. The writer Norm Strung once got an offer from an outfitter friend named Roland Cheek to come on a horseback elk hunt. Cheek was retiring after years and years in the guiding business and he wanted to make his very last hunt with a friend. The men rode for two weeks solid and not only did not see an elk; they did not see a track. By the time they quit, Norm had blood soaking through his trousers. All for nothing. Where did the elk go? If anyone could find them, Roland Cheek could.
It’s a chance you take. As the old cliche says, that’s why they call it hunting.