The Sleeping Buck

By David A. Murray
PLANNING is the key element to a successful photo shoot. Although, the best-made plans can’t prevent the inevitable, however, it can stack the odds in your favor. Good preparation and planning can minimize the chances for major oversights or mishaps.

I spent a lot of time planning for a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. The time of year I would be there was considered the off-season and, as with most seasonal locations, most businesses and services would be closed. This could mean long distances to travel for supplies, and lost shooting time as well.

I previously photographed in the Great Smoky Mountains on several other occasions, but on this trip, instead of flying, I would be driving and staying in my truck camper for about two weeks. This would make it difficult to balance the quantities of food, water, propane, and other necessary supplies needed for the duration of the trip. In the small space of the truck-camper, the storage capacity for supplies and equipment is extremely limited and good planning becomes that much more essential.

For years I have used, and continue to add to, a database list of supplies, equipment, and gear. The database includes items for camping, canoe/boat travel, safety and survival, photography gear and accessories, etcetera – I call this my “Travel List.” The list covers the gamut of supplies, clothing, and gear pertaining to a one-day shoot in the Maine North Woods or a month-long trip in Alaska.

I divide the “Travel List” into categories, such as clothing, footwear, general equipment, photo equipment, personal gear, and so on. All clothing, footwear, and supplies have a designated code for seasonal usage. For example, heavy wool pants are designated as winter clothing, whereas Gore-Tex┬« rain gear would carry a designation for all the seasons. This allows the ability of filtering through the list for a specific time of year or the climate of the shooting location. The mission

It was still dark outside, as the steam from my first cup of coffee drifted out of the vent hole in the travel mug. The road was pleasantly empty. The driving time to the Smokies would be about twenty hours. I calculated the route using the Rand McNally TripMaker® software. The route and departure time was calculated so that I would not be traveling through the major cities during heavy traffic hours.

The mission was simple. I needed to get to the Smoky Mountains while the white-tailed deer rut was in its final days. The task would not be that simple. Due to conflicts and commitments in my schedule, this trip was postponed for nearly three weeks. By now, many of the big dominant bucks would be heading up into the mountain ridges to feed on acorns in hopes of replenishing some of the fat lost during the rut.

It was a long drive, but fortunately uneventful. The weather fluctuated from cold nights and mornings to sunny and unseasonably warm days. The number of deer sightings was noticeably less than in past years. Did I drive all this way and miss the rut? The poison of discouragement began to set in by the third day of the shoot. The reward of building trust

Things just had to get better, and finally they did. Just after daybreak, I spotted a beautiful buck crossing an overgrown field heading into the woods. I loaded up the photo gear, packed some food and water, and started in where I had last seen him. I was running out of time and needed to locate and work this buck, even if it took until dark.

I came onto a game trail that followed a small stream along the base of a steep hill. After a mile or so, I noticed a deer darting off to the left. It was a doe, and she was acting strangely. I had seen this behavior before, and it wasn’t long before the buck emerged from behind some bushes. He chased her around, and I followed both of them for about three hours. The doe wanted nothing to do with him, at least not yet. Eventually, she ran off and the buck gave up the pursuit.

It was late in the season and the big buck was noticeably tired. It wasn’t long before he found a spot to rest. He was on a hillside, and this gave him the advantage of scent and sight. I knew the only option for photographing him was to gain his acceptance, sneaking up on him was not an option.

I approached from the downhill side, in full view. The buck and I both knew that he could be up and over the other side of the hill in seconds. Slowly, I inched my way up the hill, stopping for ten minutes periodically. I carefully watched the buck’s reaction to my approach. It took about an hour to get within good photographing distance with a 500mm lens. He was still lying down and obviously accepted my being there.

Successful wildlife photography requires patience, persistence, and knowledge of the subject. If the approach had been different, I could have possibly grabbed one or two quick shots. Instead, I chose to invest the time into gaining the trust of this buck and ultimately shot twelve rolls. The buck acknowledged the trust we had established when, for a moment, he fell asleep in my presence. This is my favorite image from those twelve rolls of film. –Boothbay Register