CUSHING, Texas -- It's James Kroll's birthday, and we're huddled into a makeshift brush blind on his Nacogdoches County property. The crew consists of Kroll, cameraman Wayne Trimble and me.
It's a perfect morning, the day before deer season. The air is cold and still. A nice rain just four days earlier has left the woods quieter than usual.
Kroll is the Dr. Deer of television and magazine fame. His day job is college professor at Stephen F. Austin State University. He tries to celebrate his birthday each November by rattling up a buck.
This year, I have the honor of wielding the rattling antlers. As soon as it's light enough for video, I start clashing and grinding the antlers to simulate the sounds of a buck fight. Iconic Texas horn rattler Bob Ramsey described the action best when he said you need to get a sneer on your face and see if you can overpower one side of the antlers with the other.
That is, after all, what whitetails do when they fight. The athletic, 200-pound animals do their best to subdue one another. There's no tapping out in this form of struggle for dominance. You win or you turn tail and run as fast as possible.
Usually the strongest, most athletic, meanest, toughest buck wins. He sometimes kills the other buck. They occasionally kill one another. A third buck, attracted by the commotion, may enter the fray, broadside one of the combatants and perforate a lung -- game over. Infrequently, fighting bucks' antlers become locked together, and coyotes close in on the now-defenseless animals.
I'm into my third rattling sequence, accompanied by Kroll with his grunt and snort-wheeze calls, when a buck drifts out of the forest about 125 yards away. We all see the buck about the same time.
He doesn't come running to the sounds, but he's clearly curious. He slowly walks completely across our field of view, stopping occasionally to stare at the buck decoy that Kroll staked 20 yards from the blind. Then the deer turns and walks right back the way he came, again stopping to look at the decoy, before disappearing like an apparition.
I saw him clearly through my binoculars, though. Clearly enough to know it's the biggest buck I've ever rattled up. Like Plains Indians once did with respected adversaries, I counted coup on the buck through 10-power glass.
We rattled up another buck at the next spot. This one came running from behind us within 30 seconds of the first antler clash, passing our brush blind at 12 steps before realizing he'd been duped. He was an 8-pointer with a broken brow tine, but I couldn't stop thinking about the big deer, my gift on James Kroll's birthday.
We were filming a segment for a new television series that will be called Dr. Deer, but I've got a face and a way of talking that's best left for print media.
I met Kroll in 1982 when I was looking for a different angle on white-tailed deer hunting. I called Horace Gore, then the whitetail program leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife, and asked him who was doing meaningful research. Gore sent me to Nacogdoches.
The result was a magazine story in which I outlined Kroll's scientific approach to deer hunting and, as a journalistic play on his Ph.D, dubbed him Dr. Deer. The moniker stuck, and Kroll, through ensuing years of hard work, has gained international fame.
If you see the segment on television next year, you'll hear me recalling that first meeting.
A lot of scientists have studied white-tailed deer in the last 30 years. They've literally and figuratively dissected the animals, mapped their genes, tracked them with radio transmitters and studied them in pens for multiple generations.
Here's what makes Kroll different from most deer researchers. He owns a closet full of camouflage clothing, a gun safe full of deer rifles and enough mounted heads to fill up the walls of his country home.
He's worked as a consultant to real deer managers from Saskatchewan to the Guanajuato state of Mexico. He's hunted whitetails from Canada to New Zealand. He's planted his own food plots, studied his own deer herd and decided which deer should be killed and which should be left to breed the next generation.
What he's learned about whitetails is more than theoretical. He takes the science and turns it into practical information that can make deer managers and deer hunters more effective.
DR. DEER'S PRESCRIPTION FOR BETTER DEER HUNTING
The main thing for deer hunters is to spend more time in the woods. This is a season they anticipate all year. Even on opening day, however, the average hunter goes out for an hour and a half at daylight, then goes back out for the last hour or two before dark. If more hunters stayed in the woods all day, they would see and kill better deer. The deer have become a lot better at patterning hunter movements than vice versa.
You've got to go after the deer to have a more gratifying hunting experience, rattling and calling when it's appropriate, sitting on the ground or targeting food sources like acorns or food plots when that's called for. Most Texas hunters rely on bait to attract deer to them and they don't know what else to do.
The average hunter is too tentative about trying something different. In a sense, they're afraid of spooking the deer. If you see a good buck that's too far to shoot and moving in the other direction, get out of the stand and go after him. What do you have to lose? You learn from failure. Don't be afraid to fail.
DR. DEER'S TIPS ON RATTLING
You must keep up with what the deer are doing in your hunting area. Rattling only works during a short window of activity. What I do is keep an eye on the scrapes, and when there seem to be fresh scrapes everywhere, that's because the bucks are establishing dominance. That's when they come to the sounds of a fight.
Rattling is like a bass fisherman working structure. When I start out in the morning, I have a predetermined rattling route. I may not rattle up a buck at the first spot, just like a bass fisherman doesn't catch a fish on every good piece of structure. For a fisherman, success is a function of how many times he casts his lure in a good spot and rattling is the same way. Just because it doesn't work on your first stop doesn't mean it won't work the next place.
When you pick a spot to rattle, you've got to give some thought about how a buck will come and where you will take the shot. The deer will almost always try to circle downwind. I like to set up so I have open lanes that the deer will have to cross to get downwind. I try to stop the deer in one of those shooting lanes.