by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III
If you want to photograph caribou, you need to head north. If you want to photograph pronghorn, you will head west. If you want to photograph alligators, you are going to head south. And if you want to photograph Atlantic, or pale-bellied brant, you have to head for the eastern shore. However, if you want to photograph white-tailed deer, all that most of us have to do is just step out our own back door. And, unless you live in California, Oregon, Nevada or Utah, that means most of us.
The comeback of the white-tailed deer from its all-time low populations of the 1890s is one of conservation's greatest success stories. It is estimated that the population of the seventeen subspecies of the whitetail found in the United States and Canada now hovers around the thirty million mark. The number of deer in pre-historic North America, as calculated by the McCabes, father and son, from all of the historical records available was that there were approximately thirty-two to thirty-five million deer before the coming of the white man to the continent.
We are close to the all-time high; in fact, in too many places we now have too many deer. As a naturalist concerned with the environment and as a former farmer concerned with crop damage I can readily see the destruction done by too many deer. As a hunter and wildlife photographer there is just no such thing as too many deer. A fifteen to twenty mile drive from the heart of any of the biggest metropolises will put you in deer country and I keep wondering when deer will show up in New York City as the coyotes have done.
A maxim about wildlife photography that I stress over and over again is that you cannot photograph wildlife where it is heavily hunted. I'm not saying that you won't get an occasional photograph; what I am saying is that they will be so few and far between that you will probably give up even trying. I am constantly having hunters tell me that they would love to have a shot at the beautiful big bucks that I photograph and my answer is, "So would I". In most areas that are heavily hunted the bucks are shot when they are only 1½ years old. In my home state of New Jersey about 86% of all of our bucks are shot when they have their first set of antlers at 1½ years of age. White-tailed bucks do not mature until they are four years old and it is only after they have attained their maximum body growth that they can divert the nutrition, which had formerly gone to growth, to antler production. It is only after a buck is mature that he produces his biggest, best antlers. So, if you want to photograph the big bucks that you see in my photos you will have to do as I do and photograph the deer where they are not hunted. Only where the deer are protected can grow old enough and become large enough to produce the antlers large enough to cause an editor to want to buy your photos.
That's where you are in luck because, although you can find deer within fifteen to twenty miles of the heart of any city, they can't be hunted there. Where do I photograph deer? I go to local, county, state and national parks, refuges, preserves, reservation areas, watershed areas, power plant holdings, areas around industrial complexes, the green beltways surrounding many of our major cities, private land holdings and hospital grounds. Go to any area that has food and brushy cover where hunting is not allowed and you will find deer. Many areas where the deer are hunted are now embracing the "Quality Deer Management" programs in an effort to produce more trophy bucks and they are succeeding. However, as the deer in their areas are hunted, the deer will be much more wary than are those in areas where hunting is not allowed.
A word of caution, no matter how well protected the deer, no matter how "tame" they seem to have become, they never lose their inherent caution and so I always try to minimize my impact on them. Let me give you a few examples and a few tips that are used by most deer hunters.
I always dress in camouflage when I'm in the out-of-doors and, as I am in the out-of-doors every moment I can spare, it means that I am dressed completely in camouflage 95% of my waking hours. (My wife insisted I not wear camo on our wedding day and, although I have camouflage dress and sport jackets, I didn't wear them.) Today, some of the camouflage companies make suits with charcoal liners, such as Robinson's Laboratories Scent Blocker, that will help nullify your body odor, which helps to fool the deer's nose as well as its eyes.
Each year I try to get down to Cade's Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the best spots in North America to photograph big whitetail bucks. Do you have to wear camouflage to get good deer pictures there? No. However, I know I get more and better pictures there because I wear camo and blend in with the landscape and so am less conspicuous to the deer. Plus I also do not attract the attention of the tourists and other photographers. Just because I'm always willing to share my knowledge with you through these printed pages does not mean I'm always willing to share a big buck when I'm looking at him through my camera's viewfinder.
I do a great deal of my photography using my Rue Ultimate Photo Blind. For details on our blind, go to our website: www.rue.com. On private land I leave my blind up for extended periods of time. I don't have that luxury on public lands. Fortunately, the Rue Blind is light and easy to carry and able to be set up quickly.
When using a blind, you have to do your scouting first to make sure you situate your blind in an area where the deer are coming to feed. You have to be aware of the sun's direction and know whether you plan to use it in the morning or evening.
At all times, you need to be aware of the prevailing wind direction. I realize that the wind changes directions according to storm fronts passing through the area, etc., but basically we usually have a westerly flow of air over most of the country. Apple orchards, alfalfa fields, soybean fields, newly planted winter wheat patches and acorn ridges are all ideal spots to place your blind because all of these are major food items for the deer. The blind can also be placed to take advantage of any major rubs or scrapes that the bucks have made. Deer live in a world of scent and rubs or scrapes will be checked by most deer every time they pass through the area because such sites are a deer's version of "You've got mail".
Where legal, and it's not in federal parks and refuges, I often use bait and commercial scents to lure deer in. If I have to use a cover scent to help mask human odor at any time, I prefer fox urine because deer encounter fox scent all of the time and foxes do not represent danger to a deer. During the rutting season, a few drops of deer sex scent will not only attract deer to a specific spot, it will often hold bucks in the area for a while, allowing more photographs to be taken. There are a number of good scent companies and you can find their products listed in any of the sport hunting magazines, such as "Deer & Deer Hunting".
In baiting deer, I find that shelled corn is the most effective, eaten almost universally, it's cheap and easiest to carry. When you put out bait, hide it in a hollow or behind a low log. You don't want it to show in your photographs. Also, don't photograph the deer actually eating the corn because kernels will often stick to the deer's wet nose and you don't want that. Take your photos when the deer are coming into or leaving the baited area.
Indians have used calls for hundreds of years to lure deer within range of their bows. Modern day hunters finally caught on to the effectiveness of calls about thirty years ago and rattling antlers and using grunt and bleat tubes is now common practice.
My video camera, lens and tripod weigh 48 pounds so that, with a spare battery, tape, etc., I have to carry 55+ pounds every time I'm working in the field. I try not to have to carry any more additional weight than necessary. The Extreme Dimension Wildlife Caller has saved my life, or at least saved me lots of weight and bulk. I use their 'Phantom Whitetail System' that has an electronic keypad containing twelve digitally recorded sounds made by the deer themselves. The keypad is the player and, with a 50' extension cord and the small speaker, the entire unit weighs just a little over a pound. By pressing a button on the pad, you can produce the sound of bucks fighting, grunting, snort-wheezing, rubbing, pawing and scraping. There are few guarantees in this life, but I can almost guarantee that the estrus bleat or the fawn distress bleat will call in almost any deer in the area, or at least stop them long enough for you to get your photograph. It's a fantastic caller and you can get yours by calling 1-888-239-5133. I carry my unit on my belt and it sure beats having a big pair of deer antlers hanging and banging around my neck.
I love deer. I love studying and photographing deer and have written six books on them. I have taken over 200,000 still photos of deer and over 800 hours of video and I can't wait to get out to photograph the next one.