Legends of the Deer Woods

David Guynn knows most of the legends, but one took the cake.

“I was in an archery shop here in Clemson,and a fellow was telling me some of the locals had come in and accused the (Department of Natural Resources) of putting out birth-control poison for deer — and by golly, they had pictures of them doing it,” said Guynn, professor of wildlife management at South Carolina’s Clemson University. “I kind of chuckled because I’m somewhat familiar with the technology that’s available, and there aren’t any oral contraceptives that prove feasible. If there were, they’d have to go through a long process of (Food and Drug Administration) approval to be used.”

So what was the explanation for the locals’ X-Files-like story? “The DNR does a furbearer survey each year,” Guynn said. “What they’ll do is clean out a circular area 3 to 4 feet across and spread lime across it, and then put a scent table in the middle of it. That will attract foxes, coyotes, dogs, deer and bobcats or whatever, and hopefully, they leave a nice footprint in the lime. That’s what the fellows saw.”

It might seem preposterous that a wildlife survey could be misconstrued as a conspiracy, but such deer-related myths and legends are common across the country, and they ring enough of truth to make folks raise their eyebrows and scratch their heads.

Biologists have probably heard and refuted all the stories, but they acknowledge that such tales —although usually hogwash — are a colorful element of America’s deer hunting fabric.

Common Perceptions

Many deer hunting legends are innocent, time-honored fallacies handed down through generations. Consider the almost ubiquitous tale of the swampbuck, a deer that seemingly lives for a decade or more and only leaves its thick, nasty home at night.

“(Some people say), ‘Swamp bucks and monster bucks are super smart and secretive,’ when their longevity has more to do with where they live than any special intelligence or learning,” said Keith McCaffery, a retired deer researcher for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Guynn said the swamp buck myth might be a product of observation. “You’ll have deer that live in a particular area, and people talk about seeing this deer for the past five to 10 years,” he said. “More than likely, it’s not the same deer. Wild deer seldom live that long. And during that period of time, his antlers will change quite a bit.”

Antlers are the focus of many myths, mostly because of the awe and fascination they inspire among hunters.

“There’s a lot of stuff about antlers …I’ve heard,” said Steven Ditchkoff, assistant professor of wildlife at Auburn University. “People think a buck is growing his largest antlers at 3 1/2 or 4 1/2 years, and after a buck is 5 1/2, it’s going to decline. I think that’s a big fallacy. Most of your bucks aren’t going to peak until they’re 7 1/2 or 8 1/2.”

When hunters discuss antlers, pseudoscience about genetics often comes up. Some hunters believe the genetics for quality antlers have been “shot out of the herd” in many areas.

“Inbreeding is a common myth you hear,” said Lonnie Hansen, resource scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “You’ll hear the deer in our area are inbred, their legs are shorter, and their antlers aren’t growing as big. In deer populations, there are natural mechanisms to ensure that we get a good mix of genetics. There’s a dispersal period of males … in Missouri and the agricultural Midwest, and that period is often about when a buck is 1 year old, in May or June. They’ll often go long distances, so you’ve kind of avoided (inbreeding).”

Buck dispersal is a well-documented phenomenon. For example, in an ongoing study in Pennsylvania, researchers are learning that young bucks disperse great distances from their home range even in areas with quality habitat.

Two bucks from this study were killed by hunters in 2003. One had dispersed 25 miles from its birthing site, while the other had roamed 35 miles by the time it was 2 1/2 years old.

Many factors affect antler development, including habitat, soil type, sickness, deer densities, winter severity and annual precipitation. When everything’s favorable, young bucks will exhibit impressive antlers.

When one or more of these variables aren’t favorable, an entire yearling buck crop might exhibit seemingly terrible growth. However, that growth can instantly improve the next year if favorable conditions return.

Monster Does

Even antlerless deer spawn myths. Consider the legendary “150-pound doe” many Northern hunters shoot every fall.

Of course, the odds are astronomical that even an old, well-fed doe would dress out at 150 pounds. “I think most hunters tend to over estimate body weights,” Guynn said. “They think deer are a lot bigger than they really are.”

D&DH Editor Dan Schmidt agrees. “I’ve shot more than 75 does in my life, and two-thirds of them were of the Northern borealis strain — the largest of the whitetail subspecies. Of all those does, the heaviest were two 4 1/2-year-old does that each weighed 137 pounds dressed.

"The year that I kill one of those legendary 150-pounders is the year I start buying lottery tickets.”

Of course, many people only believe what they see, so deer numbers and sex ratios also create widespread fallacies.

In many areas, hunters believe deer numbers are far lower than wildlife agency estimates. Hunters also exaggerate buck-to-doe ratios. For example, Hansen has heard that Missouri has 20 does for every buck.“

That’s certainly not a possibility unless we have no reproduction going on at all,” he said. But although many myths involve common observations or easily understood misconceptions, others border on plots from science-fiction novels.

Wild and Whacky

“I’ve heard, ‘The DNR stocked deer in southern Wisconsin during the 1960s by trucking them from northern Wisconsin, and I know the bartender whose brother has a cousin who knows the fellow who actually saw the trucks,” McCaffery said.

Natural wildlife trends are often the focus of legends. A fairly common myth— especially in the Northeast — maintains that wildlife agencies have stocked coyotes to reduce deer populations.

Of course, conspiracy theorists have misinterpreted the recent nationwide expansion of coyotes for a government conspiracy. “I don’t know of any DNRs that have actually stocked coyotes,” Guynn said. “There have been some cases in which individual sportsmen or hunting clubs would bring them in so they had something else to chase. But the DNR gets blamed for so many things they don’t have anything to do with.”

Hansen has heard another variation in Missouri. “We certainly hear the mountain lion stocking issue a lot,” he said. “Generally, hunters believe we’ve stocked mountain lions to control deer populations. People report seeing Department of Conservation trucks unloading mountain lions. We’ve had several mountain lions show up in the state recently, so a lot of people have gotten pretty excited about it. They assume we’ve reintroduced them, when, of course, we haven’t.”

Mike Tonkovich, wildlife biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, might have heard the wildest story. Surprisingly, however, it didn’t involve whitetails.

“We certainly are blessed with our share of government conspiracies, but oddly enough, none that directly involve deer,” he said. “For example, we have been accused for years of dropping timber rattlesnakes from airplanes, releasing Asian beetles to feed the turkeys —which, incidentally, are taking all the blame for the decline of the ruffed grouse— and dumping coyotes from boxcars.”

Long Live Legend

It seems odd such tales could persist in an age when television viewers watch pictures from Mars, and pre-teens chat on cellular phones and download digital tunes off the Internet.

Still, many observers don’t think deer hunting legends will fade soon. “Educational efforts make some progress during times of unrest, but agency budgets and programming back off during good times,” McCaffery said. “The result is that myths and allegations renew. I haven’t seen much evolution in creativity. Most of the arguments are the same warmed-over arguments that probably date back to the deer wars of the 1930s and ’40s.”

Ditchkoff understands how deer hunting myths survive, but he believes education is thinning them out. “I think it’s declining,” he said. “If you look back 20 years ago, the average deer hunter received his information from his father, grandfather or the people he hunted with. Today, I think, our younger generation of hunters receives a lot of its information from magazines that more often are based on science as opposed to someone’s opinion. “But if it’s something you’ve learned from your father or grandfather, there’s a lot of family trust there. You’ve believed that for 10 years, so it’s tough to break those beliefs. It’s difficult to say,‘My old man didn’t know what he was talking about.’”

Conclusion

Although deer hunting myths can be frustrating for biologists (see accompanying sidebar), most wildlife professionals laugh off tall tales and realize they’re just part of the whitetail scene.

“I hope there are always legends,” Hansen said. “That’s part of the deer mystique. It’s part of the excitement of deer hunting. People are excited about deer, and that’s often why they come up with these ideas and legends. When we stop hearing these legends, then we have to wonder whether we’re losing something. I think legends are great, and I fully expect them to continue.”

— Brian Lovett is the former editor of Outdoor World and Turkey & Turkey Hunting magazines.

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