By Nick Simonson
Sex. Good, now that I’ve got your attention, I can tell you how the same thing caught mine this weekend. In more than 14 years on stand in some various form during all phases of the deer hunting season, I’ve seen a lot of things. Does standing up on their hind legs and engaging in a slapfight battle royale in the rain? Check. Forkhorn bucks attempting to show each other who’s boss in a display of domination until suddenly in the distance the massive-racked alpha male crests the rise sending them running in comical, branch-cracking terror? Yup. It’s likely I’ve written about those too, but this opening weekend’s tale of unlikely love – or at least the reproductive process in nature, as I’ll try to limit the anthropomorphizing – was my first time, and you know what they say about that.
The rut brings on all sorts of aggressive behavior by male deer seeking female deer in the annual ritual of begetting the next generation. This year, it seems the process is all the more important, as the region comes off of a hard winter which claimed large percentages of the deer population. In anecdotal, second-hand, word-of-mouth reports (which, in deer hunting, or any outdoor activity are always the best to tell, but perhaps least reliable to hear) it was said that after the opening half day of gun season, the local meat market in my hometown had only received three deer. I had been in there on opening evening once or twice, and the floor was often covered with dozens of deer to be processed, just from the first five hours of the season.
But I digress, or perhaps delay this strange discussion. With lower numbers and these anecdotal reports, male deer doing their thing and finding receptive females to breed with is a more than necessary process this fall. Every buck with its head down, following a hot trail is key to more deer next year. Every scrape where both sexes leave their pheromones and fluids is a vital signpost to increased populations (and more hunting tags) next November. Every grassy field, tangle of brush, and deep, protective chunk of habitat on the landscape that provides a quiet place for them to do their thing is a requirement for better hunting in the seasons to come. And I guess, every deer – no matter how big or how small, how young or how old – apparently is essential as well.
So it was as a doe wandered in front of the hunting blind at 100 yards on the evening of day two of the firearms season. Shortly thereafter, from the slough to my right, another larger doe came in, or so I thought. The second doe’s behavior changed rapidly when she caught wind of the first doe, and it wasn’t long before the larger doe began acting strangely like a buck; sniffing the wind behind the first doe, nudging her gently after catching up, and yes, even trying to mount her. Confused, but accepting of all lifestyles and never too bewildered by different behaviors in the animal kingdom at this point in my life, I pulled my binoculars up and caught the slightest glint of about three inches of white above the left brow of the trailing “doe.” Indeed, it was a buck – the smallest, least-racked buck I had seen in a long time.
Certainly, I thought, with the roster of eight and ten pointers in the collection of trail cam photos from the property, there was no way this doe was going to tolerate the one-by-nothing attempting to court her, and she would shoo him off like a cheerleader shooting down the science team nerd in high school (again, no judgment, just a metaphor, I was on the science team, and my wife was a cheerleader). But, again, in these times of apparent want and woe for our deer populations, us hunters as beggars, really can’t be choosers when it comes to putting more animals on the landscape for the seasons to come, and to my surprise, the two did mate – TWICE!
It was like the final act from the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin playing out in the wild – really awkward but you just can’t look away. Being it was the first time I had seen two deer – let alone, perhaps the smallest, least dominant buck in the catalog of suitors on the 80-acre parcel – in flagrante delicto in the field, all I could do was giggle at the scene like a pre-teen sneaking into an R-rated movie
In the end, the two went their separate ways. The doe trotted off to the small lake to the west, with the young unicorn hanging around the tree line to the left of the stand until darkness fell and he slipped off into the shadows of the tall elms in the southern shelterbelt.
I’ve seen a lot of things while hunting, and as a result I know the importance of habitat, conservation, good weather, and timely rain when it comes to sustaining our deer populations. I’ve watched them do some weird things: fight, play, eat, sleep, and yes, now even mate. And as we remain hopeful for an upward swing in populations, it’s good to know that each and every one of them is doing their part, especially those which may be a bit awkward to witness and discuss but remain very important…in our outdoors.