Deer season opens Monday, and if the local bucks have any sense, they'll stop squabbling over women and start mapping survival strategy.
"Those deer are going to fight," Jim Clay hissed at me last weekend as we strained to see 150 yards downhill from where we sat in the high woods.
"When a deer backs up like that, that's a challenge," he whispered. "You're going to see something most people never see."
I wish I could report all the intricacies of a buck fight in the autumn wilderness, which by all indications is a spectacle. There was a fight, sure enough, but ours was a frustrating, obstructed view as two bucks thrashed around for 15 minutes, rushing each other, locking and unlocking antlers and battling lustily for the favor of three or four does lingering close by.
From his vantage point, Clay, a lifelong deer hunter, could see better than I and kept up an excited commentary. But I had a good line of sight through the trees when the big buck hoisted the small one by the tangle of their combined horns and hurled the little fellow down in a shallow creek. I even saw the water splash, scout's honor, and heard sharp clicks as the antlers clashed.
"Lord, I wish I'd brought my horns," said Clay, who, like many veteran deer hunters, has taken up rattling antlers as a way to lure bucks into range during the rutting season.
He was convinced that by striking horns together, he could duplicate sounds the fight produced, and thus induce the winner to come over afterward in search of another victim. I wondered what he would do when the enraged buck arrived. Serve tea?
Anyway, Clay was rigged for turkey hunting and had nothing to make noise with but a pocketful of Perfection turkey calls, which he manufactures for a living. As many startling things as he can do with a turkey call, including bugling for elk, Clay conceded he could not duplicate the sound of antlers clashing.
As the fight wore on we sneaked closer, and were perhaps a third of the way down the hollow when a wind shift carried our scent to the assemblage. The does went first, slipping off into the thick woods, and then the two protagonists broke off and vanished like smoke.
Lucky for them it was a week before season. "Imagine if you'd been in that stand," said Clay when we got to the creek bottom, where the soft ground was pockmarked with deer prints. A hunter had built a deer stand in an oak tree 30 yards up the hollow. "What a view," said Clay. "What a place to hunt."
It was a pretty spot -- right at the junction of three hollows, with acorns and other mast littering the leafy ground and water burbling along in the creek. It had everything a deer could want. Unfortunately, Clay has permission to hunt turkeys there, but someone else has deer rights.
But he has his deer-hunting spots. This being a windy day, not much for turkey hunting, Clay and I drove around to some of the places where he hunts whitetails and searched for deer sign, of which there was plenty. This is called "scouting," and if you haven't done it yet, better go.
Just after lunch we visited a field in the woods. On one shady edge lay seven fresh scrapes made that morning by a buck staking out his turf. Even on a dry, windy day, the ground was still damp where the buck had pawed the ground that morning and urinated to mark his territory.
"Guaranteed," said Clay, "that if you sat down right here, you'd see a buck tonight."
Virginia officials foresee a banner deer season. There was a big population last year and the doe kill was down because of bad weather during doe season, according to regional biologist supervisor Fairfax Settle.
Assuming normal reproduction and a heavy carryover population, Settle said, "I think you'll see a record kill. It should exceed 90,000, or right close to it."
Clay and Tom Hardesty, my deer-hunting adviser in Maryland, where gun season opens Nov. 30, envision good hunting conditions. With the mating rut in full swing in both states, they expect bucks to abandon their customary wariness as they prowl in search of love.
Anywhere a buck has made a fresh scrape is an ideal place to hunt, both men said, because the buck will visit the scrape daily and females will pass by it regularly.
Hardesty said hunters who find a fresh scrape should leave it alone that day, then hunt it the next morning, setting up an hour before dawn within sight of the scrape if they intend to "still-hunt," or 100 yards or more away if they intend to rattle, so as not to spook the buck away by getting too close.