Some 35 million strong, our whitetail deer is the world’s most populous large wild mammal. From the treeline in Canada, to the Amazon Basin, from the Atlantic to Pacific, this ungulate is found in all states and provinces excepting only Alaska, California, Nevada, Utah, Baja California and Newfoundland. It has been successfully introduced in many countries around the world, from Finland to New Zealand.
It’s the whitetail deer that created the world’s largest hunting culture. To millions of North American hunters, “big game,” “deer” and “whitetail” are synonymous. The whitetail has also created the sporting world’s largest related industries: camouflage, scents, lures, stands, decoys, specialized arms and ammo, food supplements, feeders, the list goes on.
I am aware there are other large game animals across our continent. Alaskans and Canadians love their moose and Western hunters love their elk and mule deer. I’ve enjoyed hunting all of them, and a lot of other animals elsewhere. But in North America, it’s the whitetail that drives the show. It’s not only our most populous game, but most popular, pursued annually by more than 10 million American hunters who have passion and dedication.
For sure, I am one of these! I hunt other game in other places, with passion and dedication. But throughout the year, I spend a lot of time preparing for whitetail season. Working food plots, clearing trails, adjusting, building and moving stands, and cruising the woods looking for sign and stand sites.
Deer seasons vary across the United States. Mine, in Kansas, comes later than many. For me, all the preparation comes together in November and early December. A primary focus is our short rifle season, a 12-day, post-Thanksgiving marathon when we share our neck of the woods with a dozen or so hunters. But we also have a long, luxurious archery season and, usually, I slip away to hunt whitetails somewhere else. This past fall, I hunted whitetails in Georgia at my friend Zack Aultman’s place, and in Texas with buddy John Stucker, and a second time in Texas at my son-in-law’s ranch.
No Toto, Georgia pines and Texas mesquites are not Kansas!
The best whitetail hunters concentrate on their own local deer, getting to know them intimately. I make no claim to be among the “best” whitetail hunters. I enjoy learning about them in different habitats.
So, why whitetails? The cultural answer is simple. For many, the whitetail deer is the most available game animal. They are also the most democratic because they are huntable on public land across much of the continent. For most whitetail hunters, they also are close to home.
The psychology is more complex. Our whitetail deer is a survivor. It’s adaptable to man’s intrusions and lives happily in the suburbs and neighborhoods of major cities as well as the wilderness. He is cover-loving and crafty, and bucks that survive just a couple of hunting seasons become invisible and nearly bullet-proof. They’re nocturnal ghosts seen only on trail cameras in the dead of night or in headlights.
Because of their vast numbers, the whitetail deer is America’s greatest road hazard. In many areas, it also our greatest agricultural problem. Combine these factors with our North American Model of Wildlife Conservation — which prescribes public stewardship and access to the resource — and American hunting seasons can be intense. Few animals on Earth are as hunter-educated, and as crafty as our North American whitetail deer.
Many who hunt them simply know them as their backyard deer and acknowledge that they are tricky and difficult. I rate them a bit higher. In my book, a mature whitetail buck, taken wild and free in fair chase, should be counted among the world’s great game animals. Hunters who are consistently successful in taking good, mature whitetails, especially on public land — trust me, they are few — rank among the world’s best hunters.
I do not consider myself among them! After 15 years of hunting them on the same limited Kansas acreage, I know my deer pretty well, but I’m still learning. And, I’m still fascinated! To this day, the sight of a nice whitetail buck gets me excited like no other game animal!
Unlike many American hunters, I didn’t grow up hunting whitetail deer. That is part of my own psychology. I grew up in a Kansas that didn’t have a deer season. Deer were declared extinct statewide in the 1920s. They started to filter in during WWII, but were still scarce when I was a kid. At our Boy Scout camp, there was wonderful habitat (and lots of deer today), but nobody ever saw a live deer. Once in a while we’d see a track and talk about it for days.
As a kid, I wanted to hunt whitetails, but it wasn’t possible. Instead, I grew up a bird hunter like most Kansans of the day. For my first big-game experience, Dad and I went west to Colorado and Wyoming for mule deer and pronghorn. When Kansas eventually opened a deer season — by drawing only — we applied out west, where mule deer outnumbered whitetails.
I didn’t hunt whitetails until I was stationed in Virginia in the mid-’70s. I didn’t know what I was doing (and wasn’t very successful), but the timing was good. In the 1960s and ’70s, at different times in different regions, America’s whitetail population exploded. Remnant populations moved out of the deep woods into farm country and the cult of serious whitetail hunting grew.
There are lots of whitetail experts and gurus today, but gunwriter John Wootters was the original. His best-selling Hunting Trophy Deer (Winchester Press, 1977) was a landmark work, and still useful. I worked with John through the 1980s and ’90s, and I learned much. During that period, I didn’t live in whitetail country, but I hunted them in lots of places. Respect, fascination and frustration grew faster than expertise.
We bought the Kansas farm in the early 2000s. For the first time in my life, I had my own deer to learn, study, hunt and try to manage. The jury is still out on the success of those efforts, with a new trial set for every autumn. At the start, I thought I knew what I was doing, but I did not. The first few seasons were tough! Today, I know we have more deer and better bucks, but I’ll never know if it’s because we did some things right or if it was natural progression.
In the most recent trial, our December 2021 rifle season, the judge and jury (comprised of our hunters and our deer) were generous. We took 12 nice bucks for 12 hunters, and a similar number of does. Just a few years ago, I would have thought such results impossible. Being a realist, I don’t know if such a season will ever happen again, but it sure was fun.
On the next-to-last evening, with all buck tags filled and maybe five minutes of shooting light, I shot an ugly “management buck,” the kind of deer I look for. After the shot, my hands started shaking. I was certain of the shot, but the buck had run into thick woods and dark was closing fast. I climbed down unsteadily, fumbled for my headlamp and stepped into the dark timber. The light immediately reflected off the buck, dead just inside the treeline. I looked down, saw my hands were still shaking, my heart racing.
That’s what any whitetail does to me. Honest, I get just as excited when one of my hunters takes a nice buck. But you should see me after an encounter with a really good whitetail!–Craig Boddington