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Wiltz: Buck fever? Can't say I've been afflicted

Deer season is important to me, and we are currently in the midst of our South Dakota deer hunting season. West River Rifle ended Nov. 20, but East River Rifle runs through Sunday, and then resumes with antlerless tags on Dec. 31 through the Jan. 8. Archery, as well as Muzzleloader, runs through Dec. 31, and then continues from New Year's Day through Jan. 15 with antlerless tags.

I've been dealt a setback that has affected my hunting, as well as other things. I learned an hour before the first pitch of Game Seven of the World Series that some spots I had removed from my left shoulder for biopsy tested positive for melanoma skin cancer. It made rooting for my Cubbies difficult that night. The growths, plus some extra skin for insurance sake, were removed last Monday. On Thursday, I go back to the operating room to have some skin grafted from my thigh to my shoulder. They will keep me for five days to monitor healing and pain.

LuAnn, our youngest daughter and a physician assistant who specializes in reconstructive surgery, tells me I'll be more or less healed in a month. If all goes according to plan, I'll be back at my muzzleloader stand in early January. Perhaps, I'll even get another shot at pheasants. I must think positively!

So why all this deer talk? I got to thinking about last week's column. I told of accompanying a close hunting buddy on his West River hunt, and I mentioned that he missed a shot at a real bruiser of a muley buck. I came to regret that I made note of the miss, and I've thought about it a lot. Mike is one of the best deer hunters I know, and I didn't need to remind him of the missed shot.

Anyway, while waiting in a doctor's office last week, I picked up an old copy of Field & Stream magazine, and read an article by four experts who had taken at least two 200-point bucks apiece. A 200-point Boone & Crockett deer is the deer hunter's Holy Grail. It doesn't get any better. These hunters went on to say that when encountering such a deer, an overpowering adrenalin rush attacks all systems and renders one almost helpless. Did this happen to Mike? I was right next to him. I didn't feel any rush, but I wasn't holding the rifle. Is this what they call "buck fever"?

In more or less 44 years of writing this column, I've never talked about buck fever. I immediately found myself wanting to define terms. Is buck fever a debilitating adrenalin rush? According to Google, buck fever is a nervous reaction a hunter gets when a trophy or quarry is sighted. There is no cure, and no hunter is immune.

I wondered: Have I ever experienced buck fever? First off, I've never had a Boonie buck in front of me when I've had a rifle in hand. What about other animals, other places? Nothing has ever done it to me in Africa, Alaska, Argentina, the Arctic, Canada, or New Zealand. Sure I've missed shots, but I don't believe they were related to buck fever.

To my personal way of thinking, the amount of effort put into a hunt can make a representative animal just as significant as tape measure statistics. In all of my life's hunts, two adventures come to mind. One was a 1999 Newfoundland moose hunt, and the other was a far more grueling 2007 Custer State Park elk hunt. On both hunts, I toiled from dark to dark. The hunts went for six and five days, respectively.

By day's end, I had left all I had to give on the slopes and deadfalls, and on the Custer hunt, Betsy labored with me side by side. Still, I shot well when I had to and I didn't experience buck fever. I accomplished a noteworthy feat on that Custer cow elk hunt. The success rate was only 37 percent, and I was one of the oldest hunters out there.

I'm going to try to whet your appetite for my coming book by giving you a peek at what I consider one of the most unusual deer stories I've ever heard. You may have read this story before in this column.

Jackie Gau and her husband, Bruce, both of Lake Andes, had decided to hunt the Pease Creek Recreation Area near their home for whitetails on the morning of Nov. 23. As they walked through adjacent shelter belts, a mysterious red object, highlighted by snow, appeared in front of Jackie. She soon realized that it was a deer carcass that had probably been fed on by coyotes or crows. As she approached, she discovered a large five-point buck that had been obscured by the cedar trees. The buck was attached to the carcass! Jackie called for Bruce. When he didn't respond, she decided to shoot the seemingly exhausted buck. The buck appeared to be in perfect condition.

The entire area was a mass of blood, hair and coyote tracks. All that remained of the four-pointer was the head, left front leg, some hide, and the cleanly picked vertebrae. Imagine the terror experienced by the superior buck as his opponent was eaten alive less than two feet in front of his nose! How did he summon the strength to ward off the hungry pack after engaging in mortal combat with the opposing buck? It would have only been a matter of time until he, too, fell victim to the coyotes.

I would guess that many locked antler bucks wind up being coyote bait.

See you next week.