The Need To Breed

This 11-pointer came out on the short end of a rut battle that left him with a most unusual rack.

When the author saw this big Kentucky buck step out, he realized that the deer had an outside spread of nearly 24 inches. But the hunter was in for a surprise.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt

How powerful is a whitetail's breeding instinct? It's so strong that not even a serious injury will necessarily keep him from his appointed doe-chasing rounds.

All sorts of calamities can befall a buck during the rut. This is perhaps his most vulnerable time of the year, to some extent due simply to the odds. A buck covers more ground during the rut, and the more hours he's on the move, the greater the probability of his encountering some threat to his wellbeing. And many of the dangers bucks face then are neither broadheads nor bullets.

The threat could be in the form of a speeding vehicle -- deer-auto collisions tend to be highest during the rut -- but cars and trucks are by no means the only non-hunting dangers. Deer country is often filled with wire fences, and a miscalculated jump can lead to lethal entanglement. And then there's the peril of having to tangle with one's own brethren. In some cases, a buck's greatest danger comes from the same bucks that were his buddies back in the summer, before their interest turned to girls.

We see photos and hear tales of big bucks locked together in combat, the regal racks that empowered them ironically leading to their demise. While hardly common, such cases aren't as rare as you might suppose. Each year at North American Whitetail magazine, we receive word of a number of these lockups, and doubtless many more are never discovered by man.

Most rut confrontations don't lead to locked antlers, or even serious engagements of headgear. Typically, one buck soon admits inferiority and vacates the area, leaving the spoils to his rival. But in areas inhabited by two or more bucks of fairly equal stature, the result can be a vigorous battle that leads to bruised bodies, broken antlers and even a lost eye for one or both combatants.

Twice in my hunting career I've shot bucks that had lost an eye, presumably during the rut. And in neither case did it appear to have diminished the deer's libido one bit.

The first of these bucks I shot back in mid-November 1994 while hunting in western Alberta with outfitter Byron Stewart. Hunting back in a pine thicket, I rattled the tall-tined 8-pointer to within 17 yards of my ambush in a clump of bulldozered tree roots. After recovering the buck, I noticed that his left eye -- the one nearer me as he walked in to check out the source of the rattling -- had been gouged out. Although the eyeball remained in place, it had turned yellow and was inoperative. There were no obvious wounds on the rest of the buck's head or body, but I'm confident the damage was caused by a wayward antler.

The next time I shot a "half-blind" buck was in mid-November 2004. I was hunting at R&W Game Trails near Marion, Kentucky, as a guest of Thompson/Center Arms. Cameraman Ron Sinfelt and I were on hand to film for North American Whitetail Television.

Guide Dirk McTavish had picked out a good spot for us to try an all-day sit, in a hardwood bowl above a cut soybean field. We eased into position before daybreak and settled in.

Not long after shooting light came, we spotted a nice buck off to our right, feeding through heavy cover. But he never gave us a good look. Later in the morning, a 2 1/2-year-old buck trailed a doe and fawn right by us, but he wasn't a deer we wanted to shoot. Same for another 2 1/2-year-old we saw dogging a doe on the ridge above us just after lunch.

Upon discovering that the buck had suffered a cracked skull plate and a gouged-out eye, the author realized that the deer's true antler spread was far less than it had appeared.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

The afternoon watch was slow until the light started to fade. Then, far below us, we spotted a doe easing toward the field edge. And behind her, standing in the timber, was a buck -- a very wide buck.

From the rear, his sweeping rack looked like a radar screen. Within moments Ron was on the deer, and I was creeping the cross hairs of my 3-9X Swarovski scope onto the animal.

At the shot, the buck just looked around; apparently the round had whizzed just over his back. I dropped another cartridge into my 7mm Rem. Mag. Thompson/Center Encore and tried again. This time we heard the bullet hit, and the buck started running straight toward us. He veered off to our left, and when he stopped, I hit him again. It was over.

Upon reaching our deer in the gathering darkness, Ron and I made several discoveries. First, the 11-pointer's right eye was gone, apparently the result of an antler encounter gone bad. Second, he had a huge knot between his knee and hoof on one foreleg, which might have been caused by a run-in with an automobile or some other accident months or years earlier. But neither of these injuries was the deer's most obvious deformity. Those antlers that had looked so wide were now practically touching each other!

How could this be? Only a few minutes earlier had we seen the buck standing out there behind that doe, and the videotape confirmed what we were sure we'd seen: an outside spread of around 24 inches. Had I somehow shot the wrong deer?

No -- I'd taken a buck with a variable spread!

As it turned out, at some time in the not-so-distant past the buck had cracked his skull plate around the base of his right antler. There wasn't a broken point on either antler, but evidence of the trauma was obvious. Although the skin wasn't broken, the right antler was loose enough to swing freely.

When the buck walked out behind that doe, his outside spread was right at 2 feet. But when he hit the ground, his loose right antler flopped over, giving him an outside spread of not over 17 inches! In fact, so loose was the right antler that the tips of its beam and some tines actually could be made to touch their counterparts on the left side. This buck literally could have shaken his head and rattled his own rack!

Having shot dozens of bucks and observed hundreds more, I'm well aware that they suffer injuries,

just as people do. Still, it was amazing to realize that even with an eye missing, a broken foreleg on the mend and an antler flopping off the side of his head, this buck apparently had just one thing on his mind -- and it wasn't his personal comfort. No, he was still as eager as ever to find and breed a doe. The calendar and his nose told him it was time, and he was going to do his best to act the part of a rutting buck.

Are all of them this focused on breeding? Perhaps not. But I can say with great conviction that when the mating urge hits a big buck, he's going to go where he thinks the action is -- even if that action is what got him injured him in the first place!

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