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What Makes the Whitetail Tick? at Cabela's

What Makes the Whitetail Tick?

Author: Craig Springer

What others from the past write about their day and age speak volumes to us. It's probably something you don't give much thought, but without the written word, we would know so little about what got us to the present. I'm not talking about history books.

A whitetail running at full tilt is a thing of beauty.
I have a 1927 Ohio hunting license, a bit worn and tattered, not very valuable in the antiques shop, but for me, it's a real treasure. The edges are feathered and the folds tell of where this guy named Miller stuck it in the holder to put in the middle of his back. Some hand-written numbers in the corner, probably a game warden's badge number, show he'd been checked in the field.

The license tells of a simpler time, no faxes, no email, no pagers, phones were few -- and so were game laws. On one side of the canvas, it has all the particulars about Mr. Miller from Holmes County. He was a carpenter, maybe even Amish, in his early thirties, and probably a lanky fellow, tall and thin, shaped like the Model 12 Winchester he may have shouldered.

I didn't know him; there's no kinship to the Miller's with me, but I do feel akin to him in a way, knowing that we shared a hunting heritage. He probably felt the same way I did as a youngster when I saw a white-tailed deer.

The reverse side of the license lists all of the game laws. It didn't take a booklet and a Ph.D. to figure out where, when, and what you could or could not hunt. But what's most striking to me are these words: "Deer: closed statewide." Pretty simple. Pretty telling.

I spent most of my youth in Ohio. I'm not that old of a fellow, and I remember as a teen busting the brambles for bunnies and how unusual it would be to jump a white-tailed deer. Just 20 years ago there were a lot fewer deer than today. White-tail deer are a testament to sound conservation.

In the time of my Mr. Miller, he would have to wait another 16 years to buy his first deer tag. Whitetails were non-existent in Ohio -- and greatly reduced throughout their range -- by 1911.

Has that ever changed. Today, seemingly year after year, record numbers of whitetails are harvested. The turnaround essentially started with the Great Depression. During the Dust Bowl and through the 1930s, family farms failed. Folks moved to urban areas for hopes in finding wages through jobs. Farm fields turned fallow, and pioneering vegetation, brush and weeds, important parts of deer habitat took over. Poaching pressure was relieved, too, and the upward trend toward today's successful management was set.

Deer management alone cannot explain the great numbers of deer around today. The deer themselves deserve some credit. They are remarkably adaptable to changing habitat conditions.

This species is the most abundant big-game animal in North America and occurs from the Yukon south to Panama. It lives in every state, but only in small portions of the far western and Great Basin states where they mainly relate to wetter stream bottomlands. The higher elevation drylands are not habitat for whitetails, but instead provide a home for mule deer. The whitetail is highly adaptable to encroachment by man, and has a tenacious ability to survive thanks in part to its keen senses and cunning.

White-tailed deer differ from blacktails and mulies by their antlers. The latter two grow their racks in forked tines, while the white-tailed deer rack has tines off a single beam. Size is another matter. Whitetails from around their range vary in size. The whitetail native to the Florida Keys, known in some circles as the key deer, may reach only 80 pounds, the size of a large Labrador retriever. Elsewhere whitetails grow to over 400 pounds.

Regardless of size, whitetails move through cover with agility, and when necessary, speed. All deer walk not on their toes, but toenails, an adaptation for fast locomotion. But that's only in the face of danger. Whitetails are homebodies, essentially staying their entire life in about a one square-mile area. About the only time they may make a move is during the rut when bucks will wander about looking for receptive does. They make a living where forests edge up against fields and meadows, clear cuts and burns -- any place that provides that pioneering vegetation like that which cropped up during the Great Depression.

Just like you always put your right leg first into your pants, deer too are creatures of habit. Their feeding patterns are predictable, eating up to 15 pounds of food a day, taken mostly during dusk and dawn. Favored fare varies with season and abundance: dogwood, apples, oak browse and acorns, willow and bearberry rank high on the list. After filling the rumen, deer chew their cud in the safety of cover or darkness, and remain in cover until the next feeding foray.

The rut starts in autumn and varies around the country. The does first come into heat about November. In about 200 days, she will give birth to one, two, or maybe even three, five-pound fawns. Those numbers depend on the quality of habitat conditions.

Adult deer don't reach their prime until about five years old. You may be surprised to know that typically, fewer that five percent of deer harvested have reached that age. Most are not even three years old before being harvested.

In days past, whitetails were predominantly prey to mountain lions and wolves. Given those predators are gone over much of the whitetail range, man plays a very important role as a participant in the workings of nature - hunter.

My Mr. Miller, a faceless name but a hunter nonetheless, is probably long deceased. But I bet if he were alive today he would revel in the number of deer in his Buckeye State.

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