Super Buck Secrets

•"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 7 ½ 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 5 ½ 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, dumb-founding 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.

[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 land adjoining Shenandoah National Park and waited until it got within range. The second largest nontypical known to be taken with a muzzleloader, it scored 257 4/8.

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 5 ½-year-old bucks were captured (among many others), fitted with radio telemetry collars, and released.

These three bucks all lived to be 8 ½ 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, honey-suckle, 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.

[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.