“Experts” say they won’t move in a high wind. The big ones, I mean. The thick-necked heavily-antlered behemoths that know all the tricks. They’re too savvy and wise, I’m told, to wander about indiscriminately when arctic air slams in behind a December cold front.
“Can’t trust their noses,” say the whitetail sages. “Too risky when the wind shifts and bends. They instinctively know many a young and foolish buck has lost his life because he didn’t know where a suspicious scent came from.”
That’s true as a rule. With the patience of Job and a keen survival instinct, big buck whitetails usually lay low when the wind is blowing hard. Much better to suffer hunger or unrequited passion to browse and breed another day.
There are exceptions, however. Like Christmas Eve morning, 2005. Hard to forget that date.
I saw him and he saw me at the same instant. I stepped around the outline-breaking concealment of a big live oak in the same eye-blink during which he walked into the clearing from behind a thicket of wax myrtle. We gazed at each other like an outlaw and a Texas Ranger in an old Hollywood western.
He was huge. His body inundated my field of vision and his size was immediately evident, though it took my eyes awhile to adjust to the changing light and shifting shadows of the dawning forest. He carried a good winter weight and stood there in that classic pose big bucks assume in wildlife-calendar photographs. What sort of image I presented to him, or how impressed he was, I cannot say.
The antlers were almost as impressive as his mammoth body. I’ve seen better, but only on those out-of-proportion bucks from Texas and Canada’s other-worldly giants. The ten points, long tines, impressive mass and ample spread balanced well with his big frame. The rack was a “typical,” one side a twin of the other, high and wide, tines scrubbed white from rubbing and brush-hooking.
He stood posed, as majestic bucks are wont to do, like an egotistic body builder, as if he knew his “audience” was looking on in amazement and wonder. We each remained motionless and stared each other down for perhaps 30 seconds, much longer than most humans ever have to view a living deer of that magnitude.
“He should be running,” my mind informed. “Why doesn’t he?”
Then came the thought, “He’s not going to move unless I do,” and then, “or unless he smells me.”
The wind. That revelation came suddenly. He’s confused. He’s not sure what I am or what I have in mind. For all the years he’s roamed these woods he’s bedded down all day on days like this. Can he be wondering how he could have been so foolish, to let his guard down this way? No, of course not. Deer don’t think or reason.
Or do they?
Twenty yards apart we stood, this buck and I. I held the upper hand, of course. I knew exactly what he was, I could accurately guess his next move if things didn’t change soon, and, above all, I had a clear sense of his vulnerability at that moment. I had him. He was mine, pure and simple.
For a few seconds longer, the standoff continued. In that span the wind I suppose made a subtle shift and carried man-smell to his nostrils. Stalemate over. Standoff at an end. Primordial instinct and wild-animal smarts now in high gear; he leapt upward and sideways at once, then bounded away. I watched the “flag” and those magnificent antlers get progressively smaller as his flight carried him away.
No longer cautious about moving, I exhaled a cloud of cold-morning vapor that was quickly caught up and carried away by the stiffening breeze now rustling the deep-woods foliage.
Today, nearly eight years later, there remains no doubt in my mind he was the finest whitetail deer I’ve ever seen alive.
Oh, by the way, I had no gun that day. It was a morning’s walk, not a hunt.
That happenstance bothered me a little then.
It doesn’t now. Not a bit.