Folks my age remember when Maine’s deer hunters in the regular firearms season often shot the first whitetail that offered a sure kill-shot. In those days, an old saying ruled, “If it’s brown, it’s down.”

Back then in my circle of acquaintances, archers were the first ones to describe the learning experiences and joys of watching deer for a long time before getting a clean bow-and-arrow shot.

Back in the 1980s through the mid-1990s, I was shooting three to five white-tailed deer per year, and all those kills led to plenty of learning experiences about whitetail behavior. During that era, though, my real education came from wildlife photography, particularly with deer, black bear and moose. Those shoots taught me plenty.

When a photographer sits in a ground blind or tree stand and watches deer, bear or moose for hours at a time for year after year, the learning curve rises sharply. They see animal behavior that they have only read about.

Here’s a perfect example of learning one point over part of a lifetime:

In November when I was 11 years old, a buck scrape beneath a hemlock limb about 51/2 feet off the ground caught my eye, and the following year, another scrape showed up in the exact same spot, teaching a basic lesson. Bucks often scrape under the same limb season after season — a point that serious hunters learn early in life.

Thirty-seven years later, this limb had grown much higher off the ground, but bucks still scraped under it. It was obvious to me that rutting bucks stood on the back legs to get their facial glands onto the branch.

One December in 1994, I shot photos of a Maine 8-pointer, doing just that. My experience with the high hemlock limb had made me suspect this behavior, and wildlife photography showed me firsthand.

In hard-hunted areas, shooting deer images is far more iffy, so wildlife photographers head to deer-rich areas, often closed to hunting.

This reasoning involves a business decision, too. Large numbers of less wary deer crowd into wildlife refuges, perfect for photographers interested in making money. These artists set up a blind or tree stand with reasonable certainty that critters will cooperate.

Just how good does it get for photographers in such settings?

A quick story says it best. One evening on Swan Island in the Kennebec River, the late Bill Silliker was shooting deer photos to the east of a main tote road that runs the length of the island. I had set up on the west side in a small field beyond sight of the byway a few hundred yards away.

The air was dry and blistering hot, so at dusk, I quit the shoot, walked to the road and sat in a grassy strip between the dusty tire tracks. There, I cleaned my lenses and meticulously packed them away for the trip home.

A short while later, two-dozen deer moved into the field below me, but a knoll hid them. On the other hand, Bill was watching the deer from just inside the woods and decided to play a joke. He jumped them so they’d run past me, and it worked out better than he had planned.

First, I heard a soft, swishing rumble that sounded like — well — a herd of deer galloping at me in high grass. The herd ran right over the top of me, and a huge doe leaping across the road a few feet away showed its snow-white belly. It was like being in a Walt Disney movie — say “Bambi.”

When I jumped up after the deer passed, Bill roared with laughter. This consummate pro took pride in not frightening game, but the child in him couldn’t resist pushing two-dozen down my throat.

How many times in heavily hunted woods do we see two-dozen deer?

Deer taught me — literally — to grunt properly enough to draw them to me. The lesson began during my first year shooting deer photos when I’d often hear a half- to one-second deer grunt that didn’t end abruptly but rather, trailed off slightly.

I duplicated the sound by expelling most of the air from my lungs, sticking the grunt call deep into my throat and huffing with the scarce air left. This makes an appropriate “hello,” a common deer greeting.

It works — one grunt every 15 minutes — and it helps dramatically to have a deer close enough to hear it, too.

Later, when deer breed in November from about Nov. 13 to 23, bucks may grunt repeatedly, so successful hunters emulate that sequence during that time. But day in and day out for about 111/2 months, that one-grunt call every 15 minutes helps draw deer to me.

The best part of wildlife photography, though, is sitting and watching deer do what they do when they think no one is watching. That experience helps observers learn animal behavior cold.

A minimum lens length would be 300mm, but a 500mm works better, a pricy item that can cost five figures for a quality telephoto lens. Serious photographers opt for a 500mm or even a 600mm.


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