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Whitetail Reflections

Hands down, the whitetail is the most popular big-game animal in North America.

Whitetail Reflections

A wall of whitetail antlers. In central Texas today, these are also-rans on the way to developing a flock of 10-pointers. In southern Ontario in the 1960s, they would have been trophies worthy of song and story. The magic of the whitetail spans the continent.

Many years ago, Outdoor Life did a study to determine the relationship between the illustration on the cover and newsstand sales. Among big-game animals, the covers that sold the most were those with pictures of magnificent white-tailed deer.

This is further evidence, if any is needed, that the whitetail is the most popular big-game animal in North America—so far ahead it’s not even close. Writers, including me, like to venture far afield and return home to write about exotic species like Cape buffalo, Alaska brown bears, and desert bighorns, but the stories that readers dig the most, no matter the time of year, are those about whitetails.

Jack O’Connor was even guiltier of this than me, but up against the implacable findings of that Outdoor Life study, for every piece he wrote about hunting Persian red sheep in the Vale of Kashmir (I made that up. I’ve always wanted to mention the Vale of Kashmir in a story. There are no Persian red sheep there.) Anyway, for every one of those, O’Connor reckoned he wrote five articles about whitetails.

O’Connor grew up near Tucson, so whitetails were the first big game he hunted, and it’s my firm belief that like your first love, you never forget your first hunt. And remarkably often, when you’re growing old and getting on, when you’ve hunted a lot of things in a lot of places, and you’ve run out of wall space, many of us go back to hunting what we did when we were kids and, surprisingly often, using much the same rifles we used back then.

This is a mix of many things—nostalgia, an attempt to reclaim youth, a visit to old familiar places. For me, hunting whitetails—it doesn’t matter where—is a chance to feel once again the excitement I felt when I was 16 and stepped out of the cabin that first time, into the snow, and set off in the hopes of seeing a deer. For the record, I was wearing a red-checked Mackinaw and carrying a Marlin 336 in .35 Remington. I still have the Mackinaw.

This was in southern Ontario, during an era that history records as the whitetail’s low point in population. For the first few years, even seeing a track in the snow was an event. But I kept hunting them, and gradually the deer bounced back. I finally took a buck in Ontario 27 years after I got my first deer tag, and that is a long time to go without.

By the time I got that buck, I’d hunted several whitetails in other places, as well as caribou in Quebec, an Alaska brown bear, a Dall sheep in the Chugach, and Cape buffalo in both Tanzania and Botswana, among other things. In those days, I kept count of animals downed, mostly for journalistic reasons, but the number was nearing 50 by the time that modest eight-pointer breathed his last. In those days, I always kept the deer hides, tanned with the hair on, because I could not bear to waste any part. That became cumbersome after a while, and I gave most of them away, but I still have the skin of that Ontario whitetail. I may have it buried with me.

There is a definite magic to the first game you hunted—and not necessarily to the first game you drop—simply because being allowed to go hunting with a real rifle is a milestone more important than your first driver’s license.

Another great thing about being in love with whitetails, no matter where you end up in your life, is that there are probably some to be found not far away. You can hunt whitetails until you die, and just being out there hunting them, that’s what counts.




By the way, according to the Outdoor Life study, the second-most popular cover animal was a tie between the elk and the grizzly bear.

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