The Deer of the River Bottoms


During its relatively short span in modern history, the United States of America has had 44 presidents. Without question, our 26th president was the greatest hunting president in the history of our country. But he was much more than an avid hunter.


Theodore Roosevelt, or TR as he is fondly known, was also one of our country's first great conservationists. Not only was he one of the founding fathers of the Boone and Crockett Club (established in 1887), he was also a dedicated student of nature and one of the driving forces behind a sweeping conservation movement that started in the late 1800s and eventually led to the establishment of a national park system that included such American treasures as Yellowstone and Yosemite parks.

Although he lived for only 60 years (1858-1919), TR was a high-energy individual who never slowed down, and he packed a lot of living into that short span of years. In addition to being a prominent president, an explorer, a war hero who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, a conservationist and an avid hunter who traveled the world, he was a prolific writer who penned 42 books and numerous articles. Several of those books are about his hunting exploits.


In 1884, at 26 years of age, TR lost his beloved wife shortly after she gave birth to a daughter. To aid in the healing process, the grief-stricken young man traveled west from his home in New York to the badlands in western North Dakota and lived there off and on for the next three years. He owned and operated two small ranches on the Little Missouri River near the town of Medora. Out of that ranching experience came some of his greatest hunting literature, including stories about chasing gnarly "white-tails" in the Dakota river bottoms.

Amazingly, when you read excerpts from his book about a memorable whitetail hunt that took place in the early 1880s, you'll find that not much has really changed about hunting North America's No. 1 big game animal in the 130 years since those timeless words were written. Whitetails are still the great hunting challenge they've always been, and that will never change. Other than the dress we wear today and the modern high-tech weapons we use, in many ways TR's magical words could have been written last season.

--Duncan Dobie

THE DEER OF THE RIVER BOTTOMS

From Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, by Theodore Roosevelt, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1885

Of all the large game of the United States, the white-tail deer (white-tailed deer) is the best known and the most widely distributed. Taking the Union as a whole, fully ten men will be found who have killed white-tail for one who has killed any other large game.

And it is the only ruminant animal which is able to live on in the land even when it has been pretty thickly settled. There is hardly a State wherein it does not still exist, at least in some out-of-the-way corner; and long after the elk and the buffalo have passed away, and when the big-horn and prong-horn have become rare indeed, the white-tail will still be common in certain parts of the country.

When, less than five years ago, cattle were first driven on to the northern plains, the white-tail were the least plentiful and the least sought after of all the large game; but they have held their own as none of the others have begun to do, and are already in certain localities more common than any other kind, and indeed in many places are more common than all other kinds put together. The ranchmen along the Powder River, for instance, now have to content themselves with white-tail venison unless they make long trips back among the hills. The same is rapidly getting to be true of the Little Missouri.

Ferris found the deer easily enough, but they started before he could get a standing shot at them, and when he fired as they ran, he only broke one of the buck's hind legs, just above the ankle. He followed it in the snow for several miles across the river and down near the house to the end of the bottom, and then back toward the house. The buck was a cunning old beast, keeping in the densest cover, and often doubling back on his trail and sneaking off to one side as his pursuer passed by. Finally it grew too dark to see the tracks any longer, and Ferris came home.

TRACKING A WOUNDED BUCK

Next morning early we went out to where he had left the trail, feeling very sure from his description of the place (which was less than a mile from the house) that we would get the buck; for when he had abandoned the pursuit the deer was in a copse of bushes and young trees some hundreds of yards across, and in this it had doubtless spent the night, for it was extremely unlikely that, wounded and tired as it was, it would go any distance after finding that it was no longer pursued.

When we got to the thicket we first made a circuit round it to see if the wounded animal had broken cover, but though there were fresh deer tracks leading both in and out of it, none of them were made by a cripple; so we knew he was still within. It would seem to be a very easy task to track up and kill a broken legged buck in light snow; but we had to go very cautiously, for with only three legs he could still run a good deal faster than either of us on two, and we were anxious not to alarm him and give him a good start.

Then there were several well-beaten cattle trails through the thicket, and in addition to that one or two other deer had been walking to and fro within it; so that it was hard work to follow the tracks. After working some little time we hit on the right trail, finding where the buck had turned in to the thickest growth. While Ferris followed carefully in on the tracks, I stationed myself farther on toward the outside, knowing that the buck would in all likelihood start upwind.

In a minute or two Ferris came on the bed where he had passed the night, and which he had evidently just left; a shout informed me that the game was on foot, and immediately afterward the cracking and snapping of the branches were heard as the deer rushed through them. I ran as rapidly and quietly as possible toward the place where the sounds seemed to indicate that he would break cover, stopping under a small tree. A minute afterward he appeared, some thirty yards off on the edge of the thicket, and halted for a second to look round b

efore going into the open.

Ferris found the deer easily enough, but they started before he could get a standing shot at them, and when he fired as they ran, he only broke one of the buck's hind legs, just above the ankle. He followed it in the snow for several miles across the river and down near the house to the end of the bottom, and then back toward the house. The buck was a cunning old beast, keeping in the densest cover, and often doubling back on his trail and sneaking off to one side as his pursuer passed by. Finally it grew too dark to see the tracks any longer, and Ferris came home.

TRACKING A WOUNDED BUCK

Next morning early we went out to where he had left the trail, feeling very sure from his description of the place (which was less than a mile from the house) that we would get the buck; for when he had abandoned the pursuit the deer was in a copse of bushes and young trees some hundreds of yards across, and in this it had doubtless spent the night, for it was extremely unlikely that, wounded and tired as it was, it would go any distance after finding that it was no longer pursued.

When we got to the thicket we first made a circuit round it to see if the wounded animal had broken cover, but though there were fresh deer tracks leading both in and out of it, none of them were made by a cripple; so we knew he was still within. It would seem to be a very easy task to track up and kill a broken legged buck in light snow; but we had to go very cautiously, for with only three legs he could still run a good deal faster than either of us on two, and we were anxious not to alarm him and give him a good start.

Then there were several well-beaten cattle trails through the thicket, and in addition to that one or two other deer had been walking to and fro within it; so that it was hard work to follow the tracks. After working some little time we hit on the right trail, finding where the buck had turned in to the thickest growth. While Ferris followed carefully in on the tracks, I stationed myself farther on toward the outside, knowing that the buck would in all likelihood start upwind.

In a minute or two Ferris came on the bed where he had passed the night, and which he had evidently just left; a shout informed me that the game was on foot, and immediately afterward the cracking and snapping of the branches were heard as the deer rushed through them. I ran as rapidly and quietly as possible toward the place where the sounds seemed to indicate that he would break cover, stopping under a small tree. A minute afterward he appeared, some thirty yards off on the edge of the thicket, and halted for a second to look round before going into the open.

Only his head and antlers were visible above the bushes which hid from view the rest of his body. He turned his head sharply toward me as I raised the rifle, and the bullet went fairly into his throat, just under his jaw, breaking his neck, and bringing him down in his tracks with hardly a kick. He was a fine buck of eight points, unusually fat, considering that the rutting season was just over. We dressed it at once, and, as the house was so near, determined we would drag it over the snow ourselves, without going back for a horse.

Each took an antler, and the body slipped along very easily; but so intense was the cold that we had to keep shifting sides all the time, the hand which gripped the horn becoming numb almost immediately.

THE GHOSTS OF THE RIVER BOTTOMS

White-tails are very canny, and know perfectly well what threatens danger and what does not. Their larger, and to my mind nobler, relation, the black-tail (mule deer), is if any thing easier to approach and kill, and yet it is by no means so apt to stay in the immediate neighborhood of a ranch, where there is always more or less noise and confusion. The bottom on which my ranch-house stands is a couple of miles in length, and well-wooded; all through last summer it was the home of a number of white-tails; and most of them are on it to this moment.

When not much molested white-tail feed in the evening or late afternoon; but if often shot at and chased they only come out at night. They are very partial to the water, and in the warm summer nights will come down into the prairie ponds and stand knee-deep in them, eating the succulent marsh plants. Most of the plains rivers flow through sandy or muddy beds with no vegetable growth, and to these, of course, the deer merely come down to drink or refresh themselves by bathing, as they contain nothing to eat.

Throughout the day the white-tail keeps in the densest thickets, choosing if possible those of considerable extent. For this reason they are confined to the bottoms of rivers and the mouths of the largest creeks, the cover elsewhere being too scanty to suit them. It is very difficult to make them leave one of their haunts during the daytime. They lie very close, permitting a man to pass right by them; and the twigs and branches surrounding them are so thick and interlaced that they can hear the approach of any one from a long distance off, and hence are rarely surprised.

If they think there is danger that the intruder will discover them, they arise and skulk silently off through the thickest part of the brush. If followed, they keep well ahead, moving perfectly noiselessly through the thicket, often going round in a circle and not breaking cover until hard pressed; yet all the time stepping with such sharp-eyed caution that the pursuing hunter will never get a glimpse of the quarry, though the patch of brush may not be fifty rods across.

STALKING TECHNIQUES

The best way to kill white-tails is to still-hunt carefully through their haunts at dusk, when the deer leave the deep recesses in which their day-beds lie, and come out to feed in the more open parts. For this kind of hunting, no dress is so good as buckskin suit and moccasins. The moccasins enable one to tread softly and noiselessly, while the buckskin suit is of a most inconspicuous color, and makes less rustling than any other material when passing among projecting twigs. Care must be taken to always hunt upwind, and to advance without any sudden motions, walking close in to the edges of the thickets, and keeping a sharp look-out, as it is of the first importance to see the game before the game sees you.

The feeding-grounds of deer may vary. If they are on a bottom studded with dense copses, they move out on the open between them; if they are in a dense wood, they feed along its edges; but by preference, they keep in the little glades and among the bushes underneath the trees.

Wherever they may be found, they are rarely far from thick cover, and are always on the alert, lifting up their heads every few bites they take to see if any danger threatens them. But, unlike antelope, they seem to rely for safety even more upon escaping observation than upon discovering danger while it is still far off, and so are usually in sheltered places where they cannot be seen at any distance. Hence, shots at them are generally obtained, if obtained at all, at a much closer range than at any other kind of game; the average distance would be nearer fifty than a hundred yards. On the other hand, more of the shots obtained are running ones than is the case with the same number taken at antelope or black-tail.

If the deer is standing just out of a fair-sized wood, it can often be obtained by creeping up along the edge; if seen among the large trees, it is even more easily still-hunted, as a tree trunk can be readily kept in line with the quarry, and thus prevent its suspecting any approach. But only a few white-tails are killed by regular and careful stalking; in much greater numbers of instances the hunter simply beats patiently and noiselessly from leeward, carefully through the clumps of trees and bushes, always prepared to see his game, and with his rifle at the ready. Sooner or later, as he steals round a corner, he either sees the motionless form of a deer, not a great distance off, regarding him intently for a moment before taking flight; or else he hears a sudden crash, and catches a glimpse of the animal as it lopes into the bushes. In either case, he must shoot quick; but the shot is a close one.

If he is heard or seen a long way off, the deer is very apt, instead of running away at full speed, to skulk quietly through the bushes. But when suddenly startled, the white-tail makes off a great rate, at a rolling gallop, the long, broad tail, pure white, held up in the air. In the dark or in the thick woods, often all that can be seen is the flash of white from the tail. The head is carried low and well forward in running; a buck, when passing swiftly through thick underbrush, usually throws his horns back almost on his shoulders, with his nose held straight in front. White-tail venison is, in season, most delicious eating, only inferior to the mutton of the mountain sheep.

THE VENERABLE WINCHESTER LEVER GUN

When I first came to the plains I had a heavy Sharps rifle, 45-120, shooting an ounce and a quarter of lead, and a 50-caliber, double-barrelled English Express. Both of these, especially the latter, had a vicious recoil; the former was very clumsy; and above all they were neither of them repeaters; for a repeater or magazine gun is much superior to a single or double-barrelled breech-loader as the latter is to a muzzle-loader. I threw them both aside and have instead a 40-90 Sharps for very long-range work; a 50-115 6-shot Bullard express, which has the velocity, shock and low trajectory of the English gun; and, better than either, a 45-70 half-magazine Winchester.

The Winchester, which is stocked and sighted to suit myself, is by all odds the best weapon I ever had, and I now use it almost exclusively, having killed every kind of game with it, from a grizzly bear to a big-horn. It is as handy to carry, whether on foot or on horseback, and comes up to the shoulder as rapidly as a shot-gun; it is absolutely sure, and there is no recoil to jar and disturb the aim, while it carries accurately quite far as a man can aim with any degree of certainty; and the bullet, weighing three quarters of an ounce, is plenty large enough for anything on this continent.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

The Lyons Press recently published a collection of Theodore Roosevelt's worldwide hunting exploits, Theodore Roosevelt on Hunting, edited by Lamar Underwood. To purchase a copy, go online to the Web site www.lyonspress.com.

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