Small jungle deer called brockets range from southern Mexico to the Amazon Basin and confound hunters.
By Craig Boddington
We hiked up a ridge and crawled up into a tall machan. I was near panic because the most likely approach of the game animal would require a right-handed shot for left-handed me. But, there was no way to reverse the hammock. So I settled down. I could shoot right-handed if I had to. Thankfully, I didn’t have to.
I doubt we’d been there a half-hour. I was looking to my left, downhill, when guide Hector Arias came to life and pointed right, up the ridge. That was the left-handed shot. All I needed to do was lift the shotgun and find the small deer in the understory. I couldn’t see the animal, but I saw movement and a reddish hide through green leaves and shadows. It was not 25 yards, but I couldn’t see antlers. Hector was whispering “Shoot!”
“Es macho?” I asked Hector, in order to confirm it was a male.
There was a small opening. I put a bead on its shoulder. The deer went down. Sounds easy, and it was. On that day. Except, this was my fourth attempt for a red brocket deer. I had spent a collective month, mostly in hammocks far above the forest floor, hearing birds and monkeys and occasionally seeing other wildlife, but mostly watching still forest. The buck I was climbing down to look at was the first red brocket I’d ever seen.
It doesn’t have to be so hard. A year earlier, also hunting with outfitter Mario Canales, hunting partner Sergio Alcazar took his red brocket on his first try. I never saw one, but between us, we were 50 percent, good enough that I thought we were in the right place, and it was a good idea to try again.
A few days earlier than I shot mine, not far away, fellow writer Mike Arnold took a red brocket on his first attempt. Also a few days earlier, the redoubtable Rex Baker took a red brocket, also on his fourth attempt. Proving there’s no justice, about the same time, Jay Link didn’t get his red brocket…on his fifth attempt.
Luck is fickle. You try to hunt the right part of the Yucatán Forest. You try to be there at the right time, and you try to find an outfitter who’s done his homework, identifying feeding areas and maybe using trail cameras. Then it’s up to fate.
The only thing comparably hard to hunt in North America might be wolverines. Wolverines are almost impossible to hunt on purpose; most are taken incidental to other pursuits. The red brocket can be specifically hunted, but no one can assure success.
The various brockets are small jungle deer ranging from southern Mexico down through the Amazon Basin. They are among the least known and least studied mammals in the Western Hemisphere.
Because of the thick habitat and inaccessible range, subspecies are still in doubt. Between southernmost North America, Central America and South America, there might be as many as 10 species. For sure, there are two distinct species that are North American animals, although categorization has recently shifted.
My red brocket is the Central American red brocket, Mazama temama. Our more common brown (or gray-brown) brocket is the Yucatan brown brocket, long considered a subspecies of South American varieties. Research continues.
In 2021, the American Society of Mammologists ascribed our North American brown brocket not just to its own species, but to the Odocoileus genus (whitetails and mule deer), now calling it Odocoileus pandora. I’m sure the deer don’t care. I do.
All brockets typically grow short, straight spikes for antlers. Additional tines are uncommon. Body color varies with the season. Size varies. In Yucatan, our brown brocket is typically larger, but the biggest difference is skull formation and pedicles. To tell them apart, you have to see one of each — nothing easy about that.
The brown is more widespread and may be found on forest fringes near agriculture. The red brocket is more a creature of dense jungle, often found in hilly country. They do not interbreed, but their ranges often overlap. The brown is tough enough to hunt, but where overlap occurs, it’s an article of faith that there might be 10 browns for every red. Not that anyone is likely to see 10 brockets on a hunt. They’re there, but these little deer are too shy, too nocturnal and their jungle habitat is just too thick.
Whether in Africa, Asia or America, hunting the pygmy antelopes and deer is an acquired taste. It took a while, but I got interested in Africa’s “little guys” a long time ago. To some extent, this is SCI’s fault — they gave them recognition in our Record Book.
Similarly, brocket deer are also in the Record Book. SCI was first, and remains, the only record-keeping organization that recognizes them, despite the obvious fact that they are American big-game animals, with measurable horns or antlers.
I first hunted them many years ago, joining a group that included SCI stalwarts Andy Samuels and Dr. Jim Conklin. I think there were five of us. I was the only one who never got a shot. At that time, the red and brown brocket hadn’t been separated. Few knew the difference. In fact, the existence of the red brocket in Mexico was in question.
On the way back to camp one afternoon, Dr. Conklin got a shot at a brocket drinking by a stream. His was different from the others, reddish in color (not definitive), but the face was narrower, pedicles closer together, antlers straight up. Decades later, we know these indicators are definitive.
Dr. Conklin, a Weatherby Award winner and the namesake of the Conklin Award, lucked into a then-mythical red brocket. It was one of his last international hunts.
Today, SCI properly separates red brocket from brown. With Mexico’s growing UMA (privatized wildlife management units) system, and with more knowledge and widespread use of trail cameras, either animal can be targeted and hunted specifically. But even today, it’s unlikely that 20 red brockets have been taken by sport hunters.
I probably won’t intentionally hunt brockets again, but I do want to learn more about the American jungle. You’re never too old to keep learning.
Col. Craig Boddington is an author, hunter and longtime SCI member. He is Past President of the Los Angeles Chapter, a decorated Marine and C.J. McElroy Award winner.
This was originally published in the March 2023 edition of Safari Times. Click here to become a member of SCI and received Safari Times and SAFARI Magazine.