We all know mature whitetail bucks are wary critters. They also are rare. I refer to those that have survived three or four or more hunting seasons.
Now, during the breeding season or “rut,” normally elusive bucks can and often do make unwise decisions. The urge to procreate often puts them in harm’s way, making them more vulnerable to hunters than at any other time of the year.
The rut also makes whitetails vulnerable to those who want to capture their images.
Case in point: A few years ago on a sunny day, I was positioned along a woodland with hopes to snap an image or two of whitetails, particularly of any big buck that might come within view. It was late November, past the peak of the rut, but I was hopeful that a few bucks would still be active.
I had thrown together a makeshift blind. I had my tripod mounted camera and telephoto lens aimed upwind, and the sun was at my back. The conditions were perfect. Now all I needed was for a deer to wander past.
Across a large meadow I spotted a running doe. The deer was headed in my direction but several hundred yards away. Behind her were two bucks. It was obvious the bucks had reproduction on their minds.
Then, as the doe approached my blind, she made a gradual turn to her right and passed beyond reasonable camera range. The two bucks had stopped about 200 yards behind her, and they were eyeing one another as if trying to decide which would ultimately win the favor of the doe.
I needed to make a move.
The doe had run out of sight behind a hill. I gathered my gear and ran to a spot within camera range of where the doe had passed. I knew, one or maybe both of the bucks would eventually follow her scent trail.
I was scantly hidden, but I figured the bucks would be too preoccupied to notice me. Plus I was outfitted from head to toe in camouflage clothing.
My plan worked. Moments later the bucks worked out their differences without a battle and began tracking the doe, separated by about 50 yards. Although not monster-sized, the bucks were respectable and, now, closing fast. I quickly checked my camera’s settings. The bucks were running with tails up and alternating lowering their heads while tracking the doe’s scent trail. Judging from their gallop, the doe’s scent must have been potent.
The first buck approached, I found him in the viewfinder and pressed the shutter button. My camera whirred. For the most part I was able to keep the buck in focus as it passed. I was relying on the camera’s autofocus, which worked great because there were no obstacles like twigs or tall grass between me and the buck. Ditto the second buck.
Later, I analyzed the images of the running bucks. I had 15 keepers out of roughly 25 images.
I sat back and recalled the incident, realizing how lucky I was just to witness the whole affair and get some satisfying images.
I also realized some forethought had helped. The winds was right — I had made sure of that. And moving when the doe was out of sight and understanding the bucks’ habits and likelihood to run helped keep the latter in the viewfinder.
For technical-minded readers curious about my camera’s settings, I took this photo using a 600-millimeter telephoto lens. The ISO setting was 800, the shutter speed was one-thousandth of a second, and the aperture was f6.3.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.