When I moved to Hardeman County, Tenn., last year, one of the first things I did was hang an infrared trail camera on a pine tree in the little patch of woods behind my house.
Ive gotten enough photos of several small whitetail deer that I recognize them instantly and could call each by name if I wanted.
But when I checked the camera last week, I had two pictures of a deer I didnt recognize and one I certainly didnt know was there.
It was a nice seven-point buck with a thick neck, broad shoulders and a really impressive antler spread. Most likely it was a 3-year-old deer who could be a genuine Boone & Crockett trophy within a couple of years.
This deer has been roaming around on a tiny piece of property.
I almost can see the trail camera from my living room window, and I can see several houses from where the camera is hung.
How a deer can stay hidden in such a spot is a question that has been pondered since deer hunting became a sport and one that still causes a lot of hunters to scratch their heads.
Whitetail deer are one of the smartest, most cautious and most elusive games species, and the ones who live to be big bucks usually are the best of the best. It is hard enough to pin them down when theyre 2 years old. When 3 and 4 years old, theyre like secret agents for the CIA. When 5 and 6 years old, theyre like ghosts.
One of the biggest deer Ive seen killed in a long time was the 220-inch Fayette County buck taken by Tommy Springer on the opening day of Tennessees modern gun season last month.
Springer is a hardcore deer hunter and land manager and like many people who fit that description, he has infrared trail cameras hanging all over his property to help keep tabs on his herd. But before that gigantic deer stepped into his shooting range, Springer had no idea it existed. As massive and impressive as it was, the deer managed to live five years without being seen by a human or stepping in front of all those cameras that take pictures automatically.
Tom Matthews, the co-owner of Memphis, Tenn.-based Avery Outdoors, showed me a picture several years ago of an amazing whitetail buck he had nicknamed Otto. It was like something you would expect to find in Saskatchewan, Canada, and one that likely would have ranked among the all-time best ever killed in this part of the world.
He got one picture of the deer and never saw it again.
He thinks it is unlikely the deer was killed by a hunter on a neighboring piece of land because a buck like that creates a buzz and he would have heard about it. He figures it probably just died of old age.
Ive heard a lot of anti-hunters say the main reason they dislike the sport is because the deer arent armed.
Thats true; theyre not armed. But theyre far from helpless.
Whitetails have an incredible sense of smell that allows them to detect predators from several hundred yards away.
When humans go into the woods to hang or check an infrared trail camera, they leave scent with every step. The biggest, smartest deer avoid that scent and thus, avoid having their pictures taken.
Despite what some think, deer arent mindless drones wandering the woods.
In addition to using scent as a means for detecting humans, deer develop travel and feeding strategies that give them the best chance for survival.
A lot of the trail-camera photos of big, husky whitetail bucks are taken at night because those deer have patterned the humans around them.
Ive gotten hundreds of daytime pictures of does on my backyard camera, but the only two photos of the big buck were snapped between 4 and 5 a.m.
In one photo, the deer is sticking its tongue out at the camera.
Keep all this in mind the next time you go into the woods.
It doesnt matter what youve seen with your two eyes or what was on the SD card the last time you checked your trail cam.
The best deer often are the ones you never knew were there.