The word came from my brother-in-law via the cell phone right at the peak of the rut this past bow season.
I knew it was an important call because; one, the middle of the day when he never calls; two, early November, and three, the whitetail rut’s thermometer was exploding out the top.
Bucks were running day and night.
I winced … bracing with trepidation for what I knew was to follow.
”You know that big 11-pointer that you’ve been getting on camera?”
Bracing for the inevitable punch line, repeated every rut now.
“Well, a guy who works in the next town over got him rutting behind a doe.”
Adding, ”Right up on the top of the ridge, above where one of your cameras is at.”
Good name, “punch lines.”
Felt like it.
Right in the gut.
Course I had to say, “Did the buck have a split G3 tine on its right beam?”
“Yep. Same one.”
And I’m sure this scenario repeats all over whitetail country.
Many of us addicted to running trail cams during the season as well as hunting, get the same type of “Dear John” call.
I told him lamely, “Well, there’s still a couple other good ones there.”
Of course it’s the truth, but with the rut firing up, and the gun season looming ahead, realistic chances for tagging any of the big digitized rackers in our hard-hunted woods is, and will always be, just this side of a dream.
The voluntary antler restriction program in New York state is sure working.
Not only are the DEC’s stats telling us that the bucks are getting bigger and older, but our trail cameras show that we are now living in the good old days of deer hunting.
But I knew that 11-pointer was living on borrowed time as he was hitting my mock scrapes regularly in the daytime. It was just a matter of time until a “ Dear John” phone call would bring me back down to earth one more time.
But then another day, one of the deer hunters on an adjacent ridge to where I was getting shots of the 11-pointer pulled his truck over, and we excitedly yakked about the deer we both had been seeing, as he also had the 11-pointer on camera and a few other common-between-us brag deer.
I asked, “What about that real high-racked eight pointer?”
“He got taken during gun season.”
What about that big 9-pointer with the sticker on his right antler?”
“He’s still running as far as I know.”
And that’s the way the conversation went, but ending with both of us shaking our heads at the distance the bucks run during the rut.
He said, “Yeah, we got the 11-pointer, but I’m not telling you to rub it in or anything.”
“Dear John” calls are one thing … but it’s always a bit more poignant when it’s face-to-face.
Strangely, just two hours later, another call from another deer hunter in the next town over related that not only did he have the 11-pointer on camera but had a clean miss with his bow.
The 11-pointer was rutting behind a doe.
Sure enough, his texted photo was the 11-pointer.
Now his hunting property is about a mile as the crow flies from my camera, making this buck’s known traveling area at least one mile square, that’s 640 acres between the three of us. And that lines up with classic whitetail research.
This buck had been on his rutting mission, traveling through a number of hunting properties, running by a number of tree stands and blinds, undoubtedly chronicled on other trail cameras that we don’t even know about.
So with reflection, it’s a bit foolish to get locked onto the dream of putting a tag on one of these big traveling rutting bucks. It’s really like winning the lottery.
Though our digital images make for great dreams and conversations, to literally shoot for, and fun to show our buddies.
Last summer, at the end of August, a big high-racked eight pointer still in velvet showed up on my camera.
But it wasn’t until midnight during the hottest part of the rut in early November that he hit my mock scrape/licking branch setup again, this time in hard-horn.
Never showed again.
My camera was not in the eight-pointer’s core area, but only on the periphery of his home range.
Researchers roll out data that’s points to bucks living in their core area most of the year, but their home range, where they rut, is a much larger area.
Heartbreakers for most of us, but they always equate to a huge smile on somebody else.
Oak Duke writes a weekly column appearing on the Outdoors page.