BRAINERD – I first began photographing whitetail deer nearly 30 years ago. I’ve hunted them with a bow and arrow for even longer. I have passion for whitetails, and I love that the combination of photography and hunting allows me to pursue deer year-round.
I’ve employed a number of techniques over time to help me get within camera range of deer (about 30 yards on average). I’ve used rattling antlers to lure amorous bucks close. I’ve sat in blinds near deer feeding areas such stands of oaks dropping acorns. I’ve used any number of strategies.
Wildlife photographers are supposed to be highly patient individuals, but I’m not. If possible, I like to stalk the fields and forest in hopes of finding photo subjects (in this case, deer). I find myself always wanting to know what’s over the next hill.
Admittedly that might not be the best way to get quality images of whitetails, but I like to have fun, too. I have found a deer-stalking process that allows me to be mobile, especially during the rut.
I’ll often sit on a high point in open deer habitat such as a CRP field, which is a farmland that the government pays the owner to plow but then leave unseeded so it might grow into thick undergrowth. Or I’ll get a vantage point overlooking a meadow with grass and forbs roughly waist high. I watch for a buck that is glued to a doe in heat. Bucks will breed with a doe several times during her roughly 36-hour estrus cycle and monitor her every movement. I’ll train my binoculars on a buck and doe that appear to be partners. My hope is to see the doe lie down.
The buck typically will bed down, too, and almost always downwind of the doe so it can monitor her movements without seeing her because of the vegetation. Then, I make a plan: How can I get close to the bedded buck?
Marking the spot
First, it is mandatory that I mentally mark exactly where the buck laid down so there is no guesswork during my stalk. That is not always easy in a featureless tall-grass field or meadow.
Second, I’m always hoping for windy conditions because stalking to within photo range of a deer when the air is calm is nearly impossible. A deer’s radarlike ears miss nothing. Their ability to hear and spot danger is unbelievable.
Third, and most important, I must approach the bedded deer from downwind. A blustery wind might hide my advance, and tall vegetation will keep the deer from spotting me, but my cover is blown if deer smell me.
So, here is a replay of how I was able to capture the image on this page.
It was late afternoon and I was hiking along a rutted road, camouflaged from head to toe, lugging a tripod mounted with a heavy telephoto lens. It was Nov. 22, past the peak of the whitetail breeding season, which occurs most often during the first two weeks of November. So, I was bit surprised to spot a buck with a doe about 200 yards away in a meadow with tall grass.
After watching the pair for a few minutes, it was obvious the doe was in heat. The buck had made numerous advances. Finally, the doe lay down out of sight. Shortly afterward the buck did the same. The two deer were bedded below me, and I could see the tips of the buck’s antler tines just above the vegetation.
By chance, all the conditions I mentioned above needed for a stalk were met, except I had to alter my course a bit to account for the wind direction.
Stalking with gear
Carrying heavy camera gear makes stalking difficult, but after pussyfooting through the grass I was eventually in camera range of the buck. I had moved down a gradual slope in the landscape and eventually could no longer see the buck’s antlers. I did, however, have the spot where he was bedded well-marked.
Within camera range, I carefully unfolded my tripod and aimed my lens on the buck’s location.
Now, here is the trick to getting the photo.
I blew lightly on my deer grunt call. Both the buck and the doe stood up expecting to see another deer. Because the vegetation was only about waist high, both deer immediately spotted me. They stared for an instant and then bolted off. But not before I got my image.
The situation does not occur on a regular basis. However, it’s one trick I’ve used over the years to capture images of bucks during the November rut.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at email@example.com.