Ah, it's an exciting time to be a deer hunter. Big bucks are coming out of hiding. The rut is on!
But this year, I'll have to enjoy the breeding season for deer strictly as a voyeur. I can watch - and have already watched - mule deer bucks pushing around smaller bucks. I've watched them court their does. But as to pulling a trigger and putting my tag on one, well, that just isn't going to happen.
In a way, that's fine with me. In a way, it's not.
I always look forward to the time period from about Nov. 10 on to the end of the deer season on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in Montana. For me, Nov. 10 has always been something of a magical date.
Over the years, the 10th has marked about the time when I've started seeing the bigger mule deer bucks consistently showing up amid the does, fawns and little bucks. The bigger bucks' necks might not be fully swelled yet by the rut, but it's starting.
It's also the time you can expect whitetail bucks to start to lose their nocturnal ways. Instead of being strictly nighttime critters, you'll see them in daylight. And if you're an antler-rattler or deer caller to bring bucks out of hiding, those tactics will start to work better and better.
It's time for buck hunters to start making the hard, tag-filling choices.
If you're looking for a monster mule deer or whitetail buck, you hold off on pulling the trigger. You hunt. You're tempted by good four-points and five-points. You hold off. You wait in hopes that the really big, trophy-class bucks will appear.
The real hard-core trophy guys may watch dozens of big bucks by season's end, in hopes of finding just the right one. They may still be looking as the sun sets on the final day of the season - Nov. 30 this year in Montana - and never fill their tag.
But for most hunters, somewhere along the way, they find the buck they want, pull the trigger and take home their venison and memories to feed them through the winter.
But I'll be enjoying rutting time strictly as a voyeur this year. My buck hunting ended a week before Nov. 10 arrived.
It happened like this. I had an antlerless whitetail B tag. I was watching a field where whitetails lingered to feed after first light in the morning.
I got there while it was still pitch-black dark, 40 minutes before the legal shooting time of a half-hour before sunrise. Though I couldn't see them with the naked eye, my binoculars picked up the shapes of three whitetail deer feeding in the gathering-light gloom.
Good, I thought to myself. If you see just one deer, you never know if it's an adult or a lone fawn. I could easily tell the difference between the adult and the two fawns out in the field.
As I continued to watch them with my big, 10-power binoculars, the clock grew closer to the shooting day's legal start and the deer began walking closer. Good, the shot was getting easier. Things were coming together to fill that antlerless tag.
I waited until exactly three minutes after shooting time, just to be safe, settled in for a steady hold and pulled the trigger on about a 140-yard shot and then walked out to the downed deer with tag in hand.
But it wasn't a doe. It was a yearling buck with a 2-inch spike on one side - good, it takes a 4-inch spike to be officially an antlered deer.
But the spike on the other side was a spindly 5 inches - 1 inch over minimum. The spikes were so small they had been hidden by the deer's ears.
Why was this little buck leading around two fawns in a scenario that would have spelled "d-o-e" in 99.9 of 100 cases? Who knows? But it was legally a buck and there my buck tag went.
I'm no trophy hunter by any stretch of the definition. That fat little buck is going to be some great eating and look awfully good every time I sit down at the dinner table. So, it wasn't painful at all to put my tag on it.
But I will miss the challenge and excitement of looking over the bigger bucks of late November, trying to decide when to pull the trigger. I'll still be out there watching them, of course. I still haven't tagged that antlerless whitetail. I'm looking them over awfully close now, though.
Contact Mark Henckel at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 657-1395.