For a large majority of American hunters, the whitetail deer is the first big-game animal they ever hunted. It's also the most common. Currently, it is estimated that there are approximately 25 million whitetail deer in North America, and they are hunted, annually, by some 11 million hunters.
Growing up in Texas, I began hunting whitetails while in my early teens. At that time, there were about 2.5 million deer in the state. However, with the eradication of the screwworm and development of improved game management, that figure has increased to between 4 and 5 million whitetails that make the Lone Star State their home.
Although I've been fortunate enough to hunt big game all over North America and some foreign countries, just about everything I know about hunting was learned while on the trail of the whitetail deer. As a kid, trying to bring home some venison, I learned the rudiments of tracking, the importance of wind direction, the use of concealment and the importance of studying game habits. In all of this, the whitetail deer was my teacher. And, in most cases, the whitetail deer that I hunted taught those lessons by making a fool out of me.
For all that, deer hunting still provides a thrill that only another deer hunter can understand. There is the crisp fall morning, the flash of a tan hide through the brush, the sound of your safety going off and the silent prayer to the gods, "Please don't let me screw this up!" It gets in your blood.
Down in my neck of the woods, successful deer hunting is accomplished in several ways. One of the most common techniques is to sit in a blind and let the deer come to you, or to the nearby feeder. While this method can be very successful, I've never cared for it all that much. The main reason being that I get impatient and can't sit still for very long.
Another more challenging technique is what we call "spot and stalk." The hunter observes an area, either on foot or in a vehicle, and moves in on foot once his trophy has been located. Wind direction and concealment are critically important, as is the hunter's ability to move slowly and quietly. Since deer have a keen sense of sight, smell and hearing, it's tough to get in range for a clean shot. However, when that happens, and the venison is on the ground, there is a real sense of accomplishment for having taken the game on his own grounds.
An even more exciting method of hunting whitetail deer is rattling. I haven't a clue who first came up with the idea of rattling a set of antlers to simulate two bucks fighting but it sure works. During the rut (which occurs in November and December in most of Texas), whitetail bucks become quite aggressive. There is a real race to see which buck can win the favors of a doe in heat and some dandy fights occur to determine the winner.
Rattling is most commonly used in Texas, however it can be successful anywhere that whitetail deer are found. Rattling is most successful when the buck-to-doe ratio is as low as possible. Hunters usually find some natural concealment near thick brush or other whitetail habitat, and rattle off and on for about 30 minutes. When the bucks come in, they will usually come on the run and will quickly try to circle downwind to be sure of exactly what is going on. The hunter needs to be ready with his rifle, judge the buck quickly and make his shot before the animal breaks away to escape. The action is generally close range, quick and exciting.
Hunting with Joe Coogan
The Stasney's Cook Ranch is a 25,000-acre spread located just north of Albany, Texas, right in the middle of prime deer country. Under the watchful eye of Johnnie Hudman, the deer on the ranch are carefully managed and controlled to maintain a healthy herd of trophy animals. However, this ranch is not a game farm. These are free-ranging, wild whitetail deer that will quickly hit the brush if there is any indication of danger. I have hunted this ranch a number of times over the years and have always enjoyed the challenge of trying to harvest a trophy from its deer herd.
Now, I have to tell you that filming a hunt for television is an interesting challenge. Besides our guide, Jim Kern, Joe Coogan and myself, we had two cameramen with us. Our little group of five all had to sneak up on our quarry, or stay concealed while we rattled them up. However, the entire group had pretty good woodcraft skills and we figured that we could "get 'er done."
Jim Kern, besides being a former professional baseball pitcher, is a master with a set of rattling horns. Kern rattled in about 20 bucks on the first day of our hunt. Time and again, we'd set up in heavy brush and watch the bucks that came in to check out the sound of the rattling antlers. Unfortunately, these were all young bucks that we chose to take a pass on.
One afternoon, Kern led us to the edge of a brushy draw that ran down into a mesquite flat, with a semi-circle of hills nearby. It was prime deer country. Almost as soon as Kern started rattling, the bucks started trotting in. Using the draw for cover, two bucks, both eight pointers, came in close before they topped out on the rim of the draw some 15 yards from us. The camera guys were having a ball, getting film footage of mature bucks that close to the lens.
Later, while spending a lot of time glassing the area, we soon realized that the deer were spending most of the day in a low, flat area that was choked with mesquites. In the early morning and late afternoons, the deer would be hanging out on a nearby ridgeline that contained the kind of browse that interested them.
On the third day of our hunt, we were making our way along this big ridge line and spotted some whitetails grazing in front of us. One was a decent 10-point and I decided to take him if we could get within range. With a cameraman at my back, we moved to within about 100 yards of the deer before the cover ran out. Dropping to a supported kneeling position, I put the Burris 3x9 scope on his neck, got my breathing under control and sent a Federal 180 grain Trophy Bonded Tip bullet his way. Hit in the neck, this buck only moved about two feet. Straight down!
My portion of the hunt, at least as the lead trigger man, was over. Naturally, we spent a good deal of time getting photos and film footage shot before heading back to the ranch headquarters. As usual, when you've got your trophy hanging in the cooler, the evening's drinks, fellowship and supper are all much more enjoyable. After all these years, that's still the feeling I get from a successful whitetail hunt.
Of course, as a hunting team, our job was only half-finished. Joe Coogan had magnanimously allowed me to go first. Now we had to locate a decent buck for Joe to take the measure of.
Sunday morning, the last day of our hunt, found us still looking for Joe's buck. In fact, we had just about given up hope and were cruising back into the ranch headquarters for chow when Coogan spotted two bucks running across a cactus flat, headed for some heavy woods along a draw.
We didn't think the bucks were badly spooked, so our team quickly hit the brush and tried to locate a place nearby to set up and rattle. We found just such a spot, a small stand of live oak trees on the east side of the draw, about 200 yards from the woods. Sitting down on the shady side of the trees so that the shade would serve as further concealment, we found our places as Jim Kern started rattling his antlers.
In less than five minutes, a 10-point buck came blowing out of the woods and headed our way to see what the fight was all about. Circling around to the north of us to catch the wind, Mr. Whitetail paused for just a moment to sniff the breeze. And a moment was all that Joe Coogan needed. He launched a Federal 180 grain Softpoint and made a perfect lung shot. The buck flinched from the bullet's impact, turned in a half circle away from us and piled up.