feature By: Jack Ballard | January, 18
Childhood friends enthusiastically shared their birthday plans with me, having parents who offered parties, picnics and play dates as options for celebrating their arrival on Earth. “What would you like to do on your birthday?” wasn’t a question I recall hearing until adulthood. Born just a few days before Christmas into a family of seven children, to a mother who canned enough fruit and vegetables to feed her entire brood and labored 12 hours or more a day to keep the household ticking, meant the youngest son’s birthday was gratefully rolled into the December holidays.
Birthdays still seem something of an afterthought, but a couple years ago an opportunity arose to potentially celebrate in a most pleasant fashion. A three-day muzzleloader hunt in Nebraska would terminate on my birthday. Travel arrangements were made with great anticipation. Should the first two days of the hunt prove unsuccessful, at least I would be doing what I like on my birthday.
And so it was. The sun rose on the first morning of the hunt, setting the world all dazzling with glittering grass and sparkling frost on the limbs of ancient cottonwoods. Outside the elevated blind was a frozen cornfield, several rows of uncut stalks; a seemingly attractive spot for whitetails to arrive for breakfast. A swooping form pierced the blue northern sky to alight on a pale limb of a nearby tree. The iconic wicka, wicka, wicka call of a northern flicker announced the dawn. But save for a single yearling doe that wandered across the cornfield without stopping to investigate a single drooping ear, the morning vigil ended with a few delightful hours of nature observation – devoid of deer.
The evening watch brought more whitetails to the remnants of standing corn, but nothing I wanted to shoot. A doe with twin fawns wandered in just before sunset. Minutes later a forkhorn buck strolled directly under my blind. A spike straggled into the field before shooting light expired, joining a contingent of does now numbering a half dozen. Despite the property’s status as a haven for outsized bucks, mature bucks were noticeably absent.
Deer seasons spanning the month of December (or beyond) give hunters who haven’t previously burned their tag precious extra weeks to add a doe to the freezer or stay on the hunt for a notable set of antlers. But those who pursue mature bucks of both North American species (mule deer and whitetails) on the back side of Thanksgiving face increasing challenge with each passing day. As the hormonal urges driving rutting behavior subside and bull necks begin to shrink, contenders in the waning contest for breeding rights become occupied with other concerns. Post-rut bucks look for sustenance and solitude, and generally aim for locations where those desires can be filled with minimal movement. Wide-racked mule deer and heavy-antlered whitetails that a month before spent nearly every minute seeking or tending does may see the “on your feet” periods of the day shrink to just a few hours.
The second day of the hunt proved nearly a repeat of the first. I opted for a different stand, this one overlooking an expansive hayfield where some re-growth on the alfalfa proved attractive to deer as evidenced by plentiful sign, including a heavily used trail crossing a sagging strand on the top of a barbwire fence. The path was within muzzleloader range, as was a sizable chunk of the field’s best forage. Whitetails shunned the fence crossing, but by the time shooting light expired on the evening watch, more than two dozen deer had ambled onto the dwindling alfalfa stand. Those included a few yearling bucks, but not a single buck carrying more than two tines per antler came to graze.
Late-season deer hunters are routinely admonished to target food sources, whether gunning for does or a buck. Such advice is certainly sound but oftentimes fails to acknowledge an important difference between the habits of older bucks and does, or underaged bucks: Deer in the second category will frequently feed in areas a distance from cover or in places where daytime human activity (vehicle travel, farm operations, etc.) regularly occurs. In my experience, the burly bodies of full-grown muley and whitetail bucks are much less likely to be spotted in such locations. Although the hayfield I watched included a dense stand of junipers and deciduous brush and trees on the opposite side, my theory that a good buck might emerge from the tangle to feed on the field’s edge proved to be in error.
This buck behavior proves puzzling to those unfamiliar with the activity shift typically occurring among older bucks between mid-
November and the same time in December. An attractive forage area used by dominant, rutting bucks may be completely abandoned a month later. My Nebraska hunting area perfectly illustrated this pattern. I had hunted it a few years previously as the rut spun into overdrive around November 10. Good bucks were frequently seen among does on the fields, especially very early in the morning. Another hunter in the party shot a thick-beamed whitetail, with tines numbering 11 on its two antlers, trailing a doe toward the cornfield. I dropped the largest white-flagged buck of my life – hot on the tail of four does headed to another grain field – with a 100-grain Hornady slug from a favorite .243 Winchester.
It’s perfectly logical to assume bucks of similar caliber would return to those prime feeding areas after the rut. However, except in the most lightly pressured or unhunted areas, the drive for security normally trumps the need for easy feed requiring vulnerability to a hunter’s reach. Bucks are highly motivated to regain fat reserves burned during the breeding season, but they are most prone to do so in places that offer exceptional security along with something to eat.
I spent the morning of my birthday sneaking slowly through a broad swath of cottonwoods and other trees, the trunks of which were frequently crowded by the spreading limbs of brownish-green junipers and other brush. It’s my favorite way to outwit whitetails and is exceptionally rewarding when successful. It was precisely “how I wanted to spend my birthday,” but the deer gods were no more accommodating of a singular celebration than my parents had been in my childhood. By midmorning I had encountered enough wild turkeys to fill a semi-trailer, and a few does, but nary a buck.
At the suggestion of the landowner, I decided to switch stands for the final evening of the hunt. An old, permanent platform was erected on the intersection of several trails at the edge of an expanse of open forest near the edge of the property. The owner, Marvin, had more than 50 years of history hunting the farm. He informed me that bucks frequently traveled the area, even after the rut. Though their preferred loafing area was located in a large, uninterrupted tract of timber on a neighboring property, he suspected an antlered deer or two might show up on “our” side of the fence.
From a biological viewpoint, his theory was sound. Post-rut bucks sometimes travel considerable distances between daytime bedding locations and food sources, so long as they can move through an undisturbed corridor between bedroom and dining room. For mule deer bucks, the formula for finding good feed while maintaining a buffer from disturbance often involves elevation. Mule deer occupying mountain habitat have usually dropped to winter range by mid-December. Trophy bucks often favor haunts higher than the herds of does and young bucks conspicuous on traditional wintering areas. On the plains and along river bottoms, the biggest mule deer bucks tend to stay a ravine or two away from feeding areas on agricultural lands during the day and visit the fields under the cover of darkness. Native habitat away from farming or ranching enterprises often holds mature bucks in bachelor bands on wintering areas also used by does, but segregated from the doe herds by some distance.
I climbed the wooden rungs onto the elevated platform with the sun still hanging above the treetops in the western sky. The afternoon was nearly windless and sunny. Bundled in several layers of clothing, I was warm and comfortable. Vehicles intermittently hummed on the highway a mile away from my position, but the opportunity to pass a few quiet hours in solitude watching whitetail cover, I decided, was a pleasant way to end a birthday away from the usual rush and bustle of the Christmas season.
Just at sunset I spied a deer clearing a very broad juniper on the opposite side of the fence. A look through my range-finding binocular revealed two bucks. Neither were trophies, but both carried the racks of second-year animals, one with four points per antler, the other with five. The rangefinder pegged them at 300 meters, but moving closer, not that it mattered at the moment. The pair remained on the neighbor’s side of the posts and barbwire, nonchalantly walking on a discernible deer trail and still well beyond muzzleloader range. My attention turned from the bucks to the path they were following. It looked as if the trail came near the fence but then forked, one branch crossing onto the property on which I was hunting, the other fading away toward the river on the adjacent farm.
My hope that the pair might hop the fence and walk my way was dashed when they opted to follow the trail’s fork leading deeper into the neighboring property. I watched their rumps disappear among a copse of bushy evergreens, then turned to scan the surroundings for more deer. A number of whitetails had appeared on a field behind me, apparently cropping at some regrown delicacy among the weathered stubble. A shallow, grassy ravine separated the fallow cropland from the stretch of timber I had been watching previously. Glancing back toward the location where I most expected a buck, a pair of ashen antlers caught my eye.
The buck was no wall-hanger but sported four tines on one antler, five on the other. A quick ranging through the binocular revealed it would pass just a touch over 80 yards away on its current trajectory as it passed through the ravine on route toward the others of its kind feeding in the field.
The sensible sight of my psyche concluded there was no need to kill this youngish whitetail. My family had already put an elk and two deer in the freezer. But a more sentimental notion argued that I had never before hunted, let alone taken a big-game animal, on my birthday. The farm was flush with deer and enjoyed a higher than average buck-to-doe ratio. Harm would come to no one if I shot the buck.
I clicked the safety to off and found the deer’s shoulder in the crosshairs. The whitetail dropped without a quiver at the shot. A later examination showed that the .50-caliber Hornday SST sabot passed completely through its body, entering the ribcage just behind the near shoulder, fracturing the rear of the scapula on its far shoulder.
Daytime faded quickly to dusk as the animal was field-dressed and pulled toward a pickup point on one of the farm’s vehicle trails. The air chilled and the low-pitched hoot of a great horned owl sounded from a distant stand of cottonwoods. December, it seemed, is a mighty fine month to deer hunt, birthday or not.