By Bryan Brasher | Scripps Howard
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.
Since then, I've gotten enough photos of several small whitetail deer that I recognize them instantly and could call each of them by name if I wanted to.
But when I checked the camera last week, I had two pictures of a deer I didn't recognize -- and one I certainly didn't know was there.
It was a nice seven-point buck with a thick neck, broad shoulders and a really impressive antler spread. It's most likely a 3-year-old deer that could be a genuine Boone & Crockett trophy in a couple of years.
This deer has been roaming around on a tiny piece of property.
I can almost see the trail camera from my living room window, and I can see several other houses from the site 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 first became a sport -- and one that still causes a lot of hunters to scratch their heads today.
Whitetail deer are one of the smartest, most cautious and most elusive games species on the planet, and the ones that live to be big bucks are usually the best of the best.
It's hard enough to pin them down when they're 2 years old.
When they're 3 and 4 years old, they're like secret agents for the CIA.
When they're 5 and 6 years old, they're like ghosts.
I see proof of it every season.
One of the biggest deer I've seen killed in a long time was the 220-inch Fayette County buck taken by Tommy Springer on the opening day of Tennessee's modern gun season last month. It made my little backyard seven-point look like Bambi.
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 on opening day, Springer had no idea it even 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-based Avery Outdoors, showed me a picture several years ago of an amazing whitetail buck that he had nicknamed "Otto." It was like something you'd expect to find in Saskatchewan 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's 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.
I've heard a lot of anti-hunters say the main reason they dislike the sport is because the deer aren't armed.
That's true; they're not armed. But they're 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 behind with every step they take. The biggest, smartest deer avoid that scent and thus, avoid having their pictures taken by the cameras.
Despite what some people think, deer aren't mindless drones wandering the woods like cows in a pasture.
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 you see of big, husky whitetail bucks are taken at night because those deer have patterned the humans around them.
I've gotten hundreds of daytime pictures of does on my backyard camera, but the only two photos of the big buck were snapped between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m.
In one of the photos, the deer is actually sticking its tongue out at the camera.
I guess I'm lucky it didn't have a middle finger to flip.
Keep all this in mind the next time you go in the woods.
It doesn't matter what you've seen with your own two eyes or what was on the SD card the last time you checked your trail cam.
The best deer are often the ones you never knew were there.