I glimpse antlers filtering toward me 80 yards to the right. Tall rack, beams outside the ears. Beautiful buck. My adrenaline surges, but all else is calm as I clutch my Mathews Z7, in tune with the buck's every step. And then the unthinkable happens: My knees shake, I can't breathe, I'm nauseous and my head aches—all at once. So this is buck fever. I never felt such nervous excitement before, but then I never hunted a buck with a bow before. I watch in agony as it moseys through the acorns on a direct line to my stand.
Perhaps nothing stirs more hunters across America than what many proclaim a national holiday: the opening day of whitetail deer season. From Pennsylvania to North Dakota schools close, businesses even shut down in anticipation of the number of hunters about to come down with sudden "buck" fever.
Collectively hunters have spent millions on guns and bows, ammo and optics, licenses and tags, calls and scents, clothing and footwear in preparation for hunting the country's most popular big game. Magic's in the air as we rev up our trucks and head for deer camp to recharge our spirits, leave behind the outside world and reconnect with nature, family and friends. For some, camp means pitching a tent and roughing it. Others meet at the lodge. Either way, we're good. We thrive on tradition, swapping stories around the campfire as we sip cold beverages and mull over which spot to hunt the next morning. This may be the year.
And we're ready. We've read all about the big-buck hunting tips and tactics. We've sighted and re-sighted our guns, tuned our bows and gathered our gear. For us hard-core deer hunters, not even Christmas generates so much anticipation.
We're prepared for the long haul. Between August and January, from before dawn till dark, day after day, we put in our time. Some of us will tag out on opening day, the rest of us still will be at it until darkness descends at season's end.
Of course, the trophy hunters in our ranks have an even tougher job. Few species are as challenging to hunt and, odds are, none generate as much friendly camp competition. Such commitment to mastering our craft means being willing to go home empty-handed.
So we hunt every chance we get, and when we're not hunting we're certainly thinking about it. The offseason finds us daydreaming about the buck we got or obsessing over the one that got away, the new bow we want, the tricked-out rifle we just bought, the stand we should move and the gear we need. The frenzied whitetail obsession never ends as we anticipate that familiar heart-stopping jolt we feel every time a mature buck steps into view.
As for that whopper buck I mentioned earlier, my arrow flew right under him, though he stood broadside at 30 yards. But I have a good excuse: Bucks are known to infect a hunter's nervous system with that mysterious and well-documented sickness aptly named in their honor.
Hunters' Field-Judging Tips
An exceptionally large male may lay down a track as wide as 5 inches. Tracks of adult females are 3.5 inches wide or less
When walking on impressionable terrain like snow or soft dirt, on level ground a mature male's average stride should stretch more than 40 inches; anything less is likely a female. More than one set of tracks likely indicates a female with young.
Gender isn't easy to determine. Mature males' skulls are larger and more round than that of females', with ears set lower on the head. They may also have tattered ears and scarred faces. Another good indicator is genitalia. Good luck checking that out.
Adults' teeth are usually stained yellow, and the tips of their canines are blunt; their coats are a uniform, tawny color, and their bellies are white. Sub-adults' teeth are bright white, with sharp canines; those less than 3 years old usually display faint spots on their sides and back, barring on the inside of their legs, and spots or barring on their bellies
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Like the fossilized skeletons of its ancestors displayed in the Smithsonian, a 12-foot alligator can be scary even when it's dead—something that Shooting Illustrated's Adam Heggenstaller learned in person during a gator hunt in Florida. Read More »
Could 2011 be the year of the work truck? If so, the Ram Tradesman is ready to clock in. Equipped with a juiced-up HEMI® engine.... Read More »
The year that Sumner, Mo., erected a statue of "Maxie" to commemorate being the "Wild Goose Capital of the World."
Maxie sports a 65-foot wingspan while resting on a cinderblock building in a community park.
The number of cackling subspecies.
The cackling goose, a smaller-bodied goose prominent in Canada and Alaska, is a tundra-breeder with considerably more black plumage than the Canada. At one time, the cackling goose was considered the smallest subspecies of the Canada, but is now recognized as a separate species.