This series of photos documents the life of a particular whitetail buck I photographed over a 12 year period. The buck lived on an incredible piece of property in the Northeast that was off limits to hunting. Aside from protection from hunters, he had a normal life, complete with challenges from Mother Nature. His home range featured a substantial predator population and received significant snowfall during the harsh winter months.
I’ve been able to imprint many whitetails on the sound of corn rattling in a plastic can. This particular buck was one such animal. Unlike many of the deer on this particular property, the buck had a gentle disposition and never exhibited any aggressiveness toward me, even during the full-blown rut. Consequently, I was able to follow him and document his comings and goings throughout the twelve years he lived.
Interestingly, this buck was only a 3-inch spike as a yearling. His largest set of antlers was grown in his 6th year and measured 169 7/8” Boone and Crockett. Once the buck reached 4 years of age, he began casting his antlers on nearly the same day each year.
Buck at 1 1/2 years old–Spike
In the area the buck lived there was a number of 2 and 3-year-old bucks and a few 4-year-olds. He exhibited typical yearling buck behavior when he grew his first set of antlers, in that he shied away from older bucks when encounters took place in prime feeding areas. Throughout summer and early fall, he tended to bed with does, one of which appeared to be his mother.
Once he peeled velvet he began working licking branches made by other bucks but seldom pawed the ground beneath the branch. His rubbing behavior was sporadic throughout the autumn months. Most of his rubbing behavior occurred on brush and saplings less than an inch in size.
When November’s rut rolled around he often challenged the does he encountered. He also took part in breeding parties with other immature bucks. This behavior amounted to approaching the bedded estrous doe and dominant breeding buck, hoping to tease the buck into chasing him. I never once saw him do any breeding.
Buck at 2 1/2 years old–85 B&C
When this buck turned two his antlers were a far cry from what they would be at age six. He grew into an eight-pointer that appeared to score around 85 Boone and Crockett. Although his antlers were smaller than most 2 ½-year-old bucks his behavior was quite typical of bucks this age.
By the time this buck hit two years of age it seldom bedded with does, preferring to be a part of a bachelor group made up of two yearling bucks and one 4-year-old buck. When I encountered the group in feeding areas at the end of the day it was not uncommon to see this buck and the dominant 4-year-old grooming.
Once he peeled velvet the last day of August he began exhibiting scraping behavior by working licking branches and rubbing on saplings. His bachelor group remained intact until the first week in October. From this point through the end of the rut’s breeding phase he attempted to engage does but in most cases always backed down to older bucks. Though I never saw him aggressively fighting there were a few occasions I saw him sparring with other bucks his age.
Beginning to Show Potential
Buck at 3 1/2 years old–122 B&C
Age wise it’s my opinion that 3 year old bucks are similar to 18-year-old high school seniors. They think they are bulletproof and ready to engage in the rut. I’ve long felt that in hunted areas this age class drives the rut. This buck fit that description to a “T”. His antlers scored around 122 B&C and his skeletal frame was now done forming. Muscle mass would continue to grow as he aged. Still a member of a bachelor group, he was the dominant buck in the group.
Once he peeled velvet the first week in September he immediately began showing dominance toward any buck 3 years old and younger. His scraping and rubbing behavior were significantly more than when he was 2 ½ years old. When the rut kicked in during early November he turned into a rutting machine, harassing every doe he encountered. No longer did he back down to any 3 and 4-year-old buck who crossed his path. Though he shied away from engaging the two bucks in his range that appeared to be 5-year-old’s, I saw him breed three different does, each time driving off younger bucks.
Exploding Antler Growth
Buck at 4 1/2 years old–164 B&C
Between age three and four the buck’s antler growth went from 122” B&C to slightly more than 164” B&C. He was now a typical 5X6. This was one of the greatest increases in antler growth I’ve witnessed in 40 years of photographing whitetails. He was now a “stud” at age 4 ½. Everything about him resembled what a true mature buck should look and act like. Younger bucks went out of their way to avoid him during the rut. By way of example, one day in early November I witnessed him make six scrapes in a little over an hour. Though he never hesitated to rub on cigar size saplings, I photographed him rubbing on trees over six inches in diameter multiple times. Typical of a buck his age, he was more nocturnal than when he was younger.
Years 5 & 6
Nothing Short of Impressive
Buck at 5 1/2 years old–165 B&C
Buck at 6 1/2 years old–169 7/8″ B&C (his largest antlers)
By the time he reached age five he had become king of the woods. His antlers at age 5 sported a typical 4X5 frame that scored 165 Boone and Crockett. His rutting behavior was very similar to when he was 4 ½, though now he was a bit more nocturnal.
When he turned 6 he grew his largest set of antlers. As a typical 4X5, he topped out at 169 7/8”. During these two years, he intimidated every buck he encountered. That’s not to say he didn’t get into fights with other bucks, because he did. From the interaction he had with those bucks it was clear he had won all of them.
Years 7 & 8
Beginning to lose his Edge
Buck at 7 1/2 years old–166 B&CBuck at 8 1/2 years old–160 B&C
During October of his seventh year, this buck got in a fight with a big ten point and lost. Though his 4X5, 166” antlers were impressive, he no longer intimidated other mature bucks in his area. Throughout the autumn of year seven and eight, he continued to be a scraping and rubbing machine. He also continued to show dominance to younger bucks, but whenever he encountered a buck of similar size he backed down. By the time he reached eight years of age he was very nocturnal.
Years 9 & 10
Beginning of the End
Buck at 9 1/2 years old–160 B&C
Buck at 10 1/2 years old–156 B&C
By the time this monarch turned nine it was evident he had put a lot of mileage on his body. Though still an impressive 160” 5X5 his fur showed the scars from years of fighting and his belly was beginning to sway. He continued to make scrapes and rubs and every now and then would attempt to show his dominance to other mature bucks. Each time I saw this behavior he always backed down at the last minute.
At age ten he sported 156” 4X4 antlers. As impressive as his eight-point rack was, his body and behavior smacked of being old. He kept to himself and shied away from bucks half his age. Scraping and rubbing were still part of his autumn behavior, but a fraction of what it was at age 4, 5 and 6. Also, chasing does in November was something I seldom saw him do. His urge to breed seemed to have shut down when he was ten.
Years 11 & 12
Sundown for a Monarch
Buck at 11 1/2 years old–143 B&C
Buck at 12 1/2 years old–105 B&C
By the time this great buck turned eleven it was clear his days were numbered. Even though he was a 143” 4X4 (with two stickers) his body and facial features showed he was nearing the end of his life. Throughout his eleventh year, he was very nocturnal, with rubbing and scraping behavior nearly non-existent. No longer did he seem to have an interest in does and pretty much kept to himself.
By the summer of his twelfth year, I wasn’t sure he would make it through the autumn months. I was right. When September rolled around and he peeled velvet his spindly nine-point rack scored 105”. His ribs showed and he now had a slight limp. It was in late November that I located his carcass in a stand of mixed hardwoods and hemlock trees. He had died of old age, something very rare in the whitetail’s world.