Any deer hunter who says that he has never had a case of buck fever is full of beans.

Buck fever comes in many forms. Depending upon the situation, buck fever may be mild. It may come on as shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and a rubbery feeling in the knees. Buck fever can also come on as a more vicious malady that reduces a healthy 200-pound man to a lump of Jello, a quivering mass of incapacitated protoplasm unable to think or function.

In most cases, the larger the buck the worse the fever.

Why even Philip Tome, the legendary deerslayer of the Alleganies, experienced buck fever. In his book, Legendary Deerslayers, author Rob Wegner recounts Tome’s misadventure. It involved Tome and another hunter who had 30-yard shots at a monster buck on a river bank. The two hunters emptied their guns at this buck until “burning the barrel hot.” He writes, “At each shot it seemed to spring up, each time higher and higher, then dropping into the same spot. We then threw sticks at it, to drive it away, when it turned and in three leaps suddenly disappeared.”

Wegner points out that “burning the barrel hot” is southern speak for buck fever.

I like buck-fever stories and store them away in my memory bank like a squirrel hording nuts.

Henry Downs comes to mind. He was production manager at the Bangor Daily News, where I once worked. A casual deer hunter, Henry hunted with our group. One frosty November morning in a fir thicket west of Horseshoe Pond, I drove an elk-size buck down a game trail that Henry was standing on. Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Buck fever in its most malicious form. As the big buck came charging down the path in the dense fir thicket, Henry’s repeating deer rifle “burned its barrel” and left craters in the ground and holes in fir trees as high as 10 feet. Downs swore that day that the buck would dress out at 300 lbs. A skidder operator who saw the buck cross his twitch road at a full gallop vouched for Downs’ story.

There you go. Big buck, big fever.

Buck fever can be insidious, too. You can have it in small doses and not realize it until after the fact. Once, while elk hunting in the dark timber on a mountain in Colorado, I watched helplessly as a herd of 30 trotted by me at 30 yards. After the dust settled, I quizzed myself. “Why, you jerk. Why didn’t you pick out an elk and shoot it?” My answer really doesn’t pass the straight-face test. “There were so many animals that it was impossible to pick just one!”

Buck fever.

The most experienced deer hunters I know who aren’t out to hone their image tell me that, yes, they sometimes get buck fever at the most unlikely times.

My weakness is waiting a deer out. A quick shot, no problem. But put me in a situation where I get fleeting glances of a big walking deer, snaking its way through the hardwoods, and I have trouble. During that interminable wait for the deer to step into the shooting lane, I struggle with myself to control breathing, a noisy heart and a weaving barrel.

Here’s the best buck-fever story from last year. My nephew Paul Huston is a solid and capable deer hunter, who is at ease in the woods or on a trout water. He likes to tramp for miles and work his GPS. His story told at our deer camp went like this:

“He came to the grunt. I could not believe it. He was a 100 yards from me and I grunted again. He came closer and stopped. He looked right at me at 70 yards. I was on my knees. With the scope dialed up at 7X, I put him in the crosshairs. Gawd, he was huge! He filled the scope. Never saw a rack like that, ever!”

Our storyteller let the suspense build.

“I can’t believe it,” he says softly, shaking his head. “He was just standing there, but I rushed the shot.”

The room goes silent, except for the crackling wood fire.

“I missed,” he croaks.

“Well, did you have the crosshairs on him?” his father asks without an accusatory tone.

The storyteller pauses as if in thought. “The truth? I don’t know. I was a wreck, a wreck! Shaking all over. Awful. I never had it so bad. That buck looked so big and so close in that scope, I figured that he had to see me and was about to bolt. I really blew it, man.”

He jumps up from the table, takes off his orange hat and slams it to the floor. “I blew it!” he exclaims to the camp rafters.

Then words of comfort from fellow hunters. Words like “Hey, we’ll get him next year,” and “it could have happened to any of us.”

Indeed, it could. That’s the nature of buck fever.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife.

His e-mail address is [email protected]


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