Photographing Whitetail Deer

I live on a gravel road, in the middle of a thousand acres of woods, on the Livingston/Steuben County line. My nearest neighbors are a half-mile away in both directions. We purposely built here in 2001 to enjoy and observe nature’s day-to-day life stories firsthand – and to photograph wildlife. Foremost among the wild creatures that share these woods with me are whitetail deer.

I have year-round opportunities to photograph deer – oftentimes right through my windows – and I’ve captured thousands of images that range from newborn fawns to rutting bucks. The current rut, which normally lasts about three weeks, is in its home stretch and will soon be over. What I like most about photographing during the rut is that normally-nocturnal bucks are on the move during daylight hours searching for does in heat. The key to success is to be in the woods, with a camera in hand, as much and as often as possible.

There are three phases to the whitetail rut: The seeking phase, the chase phase, and the breeding phase, and each one lasts about a week. Any of these phases provides the best opportunities to find and photograph whitetail bucks on the move during the day. During the seeking phase, I photographed a number of immature 4 and 6-point bucks – I call them teenagers—pestering any doe they could find. The does were not yet in heat and were clearly annoyed by the adolescent persistence.

Things changed during the chase phase, which occurred about a week later. As some of the first does started coming into heat, the estrus aroma began filling the air, which got the bigger bucks on their feet, rubbing trees, making scrapes, and moving about during the day. Opening day of the regular deer hunting season usually occurs at the very end of the breeding phase. Mature bucks may still be on the move, searching for any does that are coming into estrus and haven’t been bred yet. But the added dynamic of an army of deer hunters slipping into the woods will cause wise old bucks to revert to their nocturnal ways, making rutting photography that much more challenging.

Most bucks are a bit addle-brained during the rut, which makes it a bit easier to deceive them. This can be an advantage to the photographer who is properly prepared. Whenever I head into the woods with my camera I wear camouflage, which helps to break up my human form. I also use a cover scent to hide my scent. Most human scent is comprised of things like the bacon and eggs you had for breakfast that permeated your clothes. Rather than the skunky-smelling cover scents that hunters use, I prefer using a drop or two of vanilla extract, which emanates a floral smell – because it doesn’t stink and it works.

Another trick I use to stop a buck on the move is a commercial buck grunt call. One grunt stopped the buck in the photo above from pursuing the doe he was chasing long enough for me to take several photos. He perceived it to be a challenge from another buck. Grunt! Click!

Story and Photo by John Adamski

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