-Back to Articles-
THE WHITETAIL: MORE THAN AN ANIMAL TO ME
Text and photos by Charles J. Alsheimer

What does the whitetail mean to you? Have you ever thought what your life would be like if they weren't part of your life? Chances are that America's favorite deer evokes a million different feelings within hunters across this great land. The whitetail has a way of being both an inspiration and an addiction at the same time. Why else would anyone sit in a tree stand for hours in the most miserable conditions known to man? Through rain, sleet, or snow deer hunters keep coming back for more.

I'd hate to think what my life would have been like without the whitetail. It was what truly introduced me to nature. As a little kid the graceful figure of a mature buck running across a plowed field on our farm was what lit my fire, a fire that has kept me heading back to the woods for over 45 years.

In my wildest dreams I never envisioned having a career in the outdoor field. You see, I've gone through a process of sorts in my relationship with the whitetail. When I was a young boy all I wanted to do was get a glimpse of them. Then, during my teenage years the thrill of hunting whitetails was a big part of my life. As I climbed the hill of life I went from being a young man to middle aged. In the process, the way I looked at life and the things around me changed. The thrill of the hunt took on a new dimension which was the desire to know all I could about whitetails.

The "desire to know" became far more important than the dos and don'ts of hunting them. The more I learned the more I kept coming back to one thought. The thought was that the whitetail was far more than an animal made up of X amount of skin, bones and antlers. To me it's far more than an animal.

Reflection
The other night I was patrolling and scouting our farm. The late summer day had been rather cool and clear. The sun was dropping below the tree line as I rounded the corner of a spruce plantation on the north end of the farm. Fifty yards ahead my eyes caught movement in the golden rods. I came to a stop and turned off the Gator just as a doe and two fawns stepped into the roadway. For the next couple minutes they surveyed me before bounding off.

Rather than firing up the engine and continuing on I chose to sit back and listen to the sounds of nature. To me the chorus made by insects at nightfall is one of the greatest songs on earth.

In the Eastern sky the moon slowly crested the horizon. As daylight vanished I sat in awe. Time flew by and before I knew it the rising moon had turned into my street light. As I reached for the key to start the engine I couldn't help but think of how blessed I was. I also realized that the blessing I'd just experienced was a direct result of my encounter with the three whitetails. As I pulled away from the goldenrod field and headed home my mind was full of thoughts and things.

Noted Christian writer Chuck Swindoll once said, "The greatest things in life are not things-the greatest things in life are experiences and relationships." When you think about it Swindol's words have a way of summing up life-at least for me. During the thousands of hours I've huddled behind a camera and sat in a deer stand I've come to realize that the whitetail is far more than a "thing". To me the experiences and relationships it has brought my way have been far more rewarding than things crafted by man's hands.

The People
Had it not been for the human relationships the whitetail has brought my way it's doubtful my life would be as fulfilled as it's been. It's because of the whitetail that I've come to know the likes of Paul Daniels, Terry Rice, George Jambers, Ben Lingle, Bob Avery and Pat Durkin. All of these men have played a huge part in making my career what it is.

To do the things I do with a camera often requires involvement from others and Daniels and Rice have been become like brothers to me-brothers I never had growing up. Both are great deer hunters and two of the best photo models a hunting and whitetail photographer could ever hope to have. Paul, in particular, has been close. We've hunted, traveled and literally wept together. It's been one of those special life-long relationships made possible because of the whitetail.

George Jambers, Bob Avery and Ben Lingle are special human beings. Aside from being successful businessmen they were all serious deer hunters who worked hard to raise the best whitetails possible on their property. They also opened their heart and property to me. In all cases they had no clue who I was when we met, just that I admired the whitetail as much as they did. In each case a special bond formed and over the years all let me photograph to my heart's content on their property, when others were not allowed access. For this I feel most fortunate. But more importantly the wonderful times we shared on their respective properties have enriched my life beyond measure.

And then there is Pat Durkin. Readers of this magazine know him as the editor. But to me he is far more than that. Of the men I've mentioned Pat came into my life after the others. Though our years as co-workers and friends are few the time has been special. No doubt some would wonder what we have in common-once the whitetail is removed. He's from the mid-west; I'm from the East. I'm tall, he's short. He's a master with words while I often struggle. I was a real "jock" growing up while he had other interests. In many ways we don't seem to mesh. All I can say is that there's a special chemistry in our relationship.

He's one of the few editors I've worked with who calls to ask my opinion on a matter or say, "I've got an idea for an article and I think you're the one to write it." Truth be known, the idea behind many of the articles I've written for Deer & Deer Hunting came from Pat. He thought of them and I took the ball and ran with it.

I've lost count of the times we've talked serious about the things that matter most in life-family, values and our health. It's this part of our relationship that is most special. From time to time everyone needs a release valve in which to vent things and over the years we've used each other to air things out. I've often thought about how special Pat's and my relationship is. I've also thought about what I'd have missed had the white-tailed deer not caused our paths to cross.

Chance Encounter
From time to time I'll have people come up to me at speaking engagements and discuss different things. Often I'm asked about articles I've written. This may come as a surprise but the two most remembered articles I've ever penned for Deer & Deer Hunting were not how-to's on hunting. They were The Journey (an article about my son and me) and One Man's Battle With Lyme Disease. I feel fortunate to have written both but in terms of impacting humanity the latter (a story about my encounter with Lyme disease) is probably the most meaningful piece I've ever written. Here's why.

About five years ago I traveled to Warren, Pennsylvania to do a deer seminar. Prior to the show I was sitting at my book table signing things and a man in his thirties came up to the table. Our eyes locked and I could see his lips beginning to tremble. I also noticed his eyes watering. For a split second I wasn't sure what was going on. The person then attempted to talk. His voice broke and he managed to say, "I'm sorry."

He paused, got his composure then said, with tears running down his cheeks. "I want to thank you for saving my life." Now, I was stunned-I didn't know what to say.

I remember saying, "What do you mean?" The guy went on to say that for the better part of two years he found his life slipping away from him. No matter how many doctors he went to see none could find out why his health was deteriorating. Then he read my article on Lyme disease in this magazine. Ironically the symptoms I encountered were similar to his. He got in contact with Dr. Joseph Joseph, who treated my Lyme, and discovered that he, too, had Lyme disease. He began treatment for Lyme and from the brink of disaster his life was turned around.

So, there I was, in Warren, Pennsylvania experiencing one of the most rewarding times of my life. My association with the whitetail had allowed for a new and different twist to life's journey-that of helping a fellow man. Since this experience I've been amazed by the number of people this particular article has helped. There wasn't a sentence in the article telling how to become a better deer hunter. But what the piece did was help a lot of hunters (and non-hunters) regain the gift of life and that's far more important than any thing I could ever write about.

The Experience
I'll never forget the time I was standing beside a waterfall in a nearby state park. The day was beautiful and the scene was breath taking. While watching the water cascade down the falls I noticed a family of four approaching. As they walked by I overheard the teenage boy say to his mom, "This is boring, when are we going home." His words nearly blew my mind. My guess is that the kid would have preferred being home on his computer than experiencing nature. I felt like telling the boy that it doesn't get any better than this.

In retrospect the whitetail introduced me to nature. It's because of the lure of the whitetail that I came to love and appreciate everything from wildflowers, to sunsets, to raging rivers and mountains. In my case everything fed off of what I admired most about the whitetail. During the course of the journey I fell in love with photographing all aspects of nature. I'm best known for the photographic images I've made of the whitetail but photographing a beautiful sunset or a carpet of wildflowers gets my inner juices flowing just as fast as photographing a big whitetail buck. Photography has caused my natural roots to run deep into this country's soil.

But I don't have to be gripping a camera, gun or bow to be energized by the whitetail's world. My forays into the whitetail's woods have caused some special bonds with the real estate I've walked. Some of the ridges, swamps and stands of oaks have left a lasting impression on me. Our farm is a prime example. Though only 200+ acres in size there are several locations where memories have been etched from years of going back to the same trees to hunt.

In the Northwest corner of the farm is a huge beech tree in the center of a ten-acre stand of 100+ year old oak trees. It's here that I can witness the grandeur of a sunset and sunrise from the same homemade, permanent tree stand. Though there may be better deer stands on the property I still go back to the blind because of the memories I've formed over the years. Whenever I sit in it and scan the wood's different trees and shooting lanes I'm reminded of different times and experiences. In many ways the old stand is an archive of my lifetime of deer hunting.

The Animal
Over the last twenty-five years I've been blessed to have photographed wildlife from the Everglades to Alaska. Through these experiences I've come to realize that no other animal can stack up to the whitetail when beauty, grace and compatibility with man are factored in. It is simply in a class by itself.

The key to much of the whitetail behavior I've been able to photograph over the years came to me by accident. While photographing on a large estate in the fall of 1986, I discovered a side of whitetails that has enabled me to truly get "up close and personal" with certain deer.

One day while baiting around my photo blind I discovered a button buck staring at me from thirty yards away. Our eyes locked and I figured he'd run at any moment. When he didn't I tossed him some corn to see what he'd do. Well, to make a long story short I was able to get this buck and several other deer to "imprint" on the sound of shelled corn rattling around in a plastic can. The amazing thing is that by shaking the can I was able to get these deer to tolerate my presence.

Interestingly that button buck lived to be nine years old. Over those years he allowed me to follow him in his wanderings, provided I had the food. In the end he wasn't a majestic looking buck, but he wore the scars of his nine years well. He eluded predators, endured incredible buck fights, and survived the brutal northern winters before dying of what appeared to be natural causes. Rather than let coyotes consume his body I buried him beside a small stream, not unlike the small stream where we had met on a cool autumn day nine years before. Though it seems like a fairy tale, he and I formed a bond that's a true love story, one that will probably never be repeated in nature.

Since 1986 I have used the same imprinting technique on an estate in Pennsylvania, deer wintering areas in New York's Adirondack Mountains, a ranch in Texas, and here on our farm. Actually the principle is nothing new, Pavlov was the first to get a conditioned response from animals, and over the last ten years this technique has provided me a window into the whitetail's world few humans have ever seen. Lest you think I have some mysterious power over whitetails let me set the record straight: I've encountered many people from around the country who have also been able to get wild deer to imprint on foods and different sounds associated with it. So, what I've done is not new or unique, it's just few people have discovered it. So, "now you know the rest of the story." Well, not quite.

There's no question that this discovery, break, fluke, or whatever you want to call it has enabled me to have a special relationship with the whitetail that even researchers haven't had. People often ask me how I've been able to record the different behavior's in whitetails that almost no one else has seen. Well, it's because of that button buck in 1986 that the landowners came to call Charlie. He allowed me a window into the whitetail's world that may never be repeated. When I think of his tolerance of me I think of one thing-disbelief. In the physical realm Charlie was 100% white-tailed deer but hopefully you will not mind if I submit to you that he truly thought he was part human-or that he thought I was part deer. I'll let you decide. Regardless, the 8+ years we knew each other was one of those "believe it or not" relationships which is hard to believe unless it was witnessed.

Blood Ties
In the 1970's I was immersed in the corporate sales and marketing career. My turf was the hallways of government and some of the biggest corporations in America. It was an exciting time in my life. Then something happened. In 1977 my wife Carla and I had our only child, a son we named Aaron and my life was changed forever.

Up to that point I hunted as much as I could but was never able to find enough time to do it. When Aaron was just shy of two years old I decided to make a career change and go full time into outdoor writing and photography. Part of this decision was to be able to spend more time with Aaron. On September 1, 1979 I walked out of corporate America and into the American wilderness.

Carla is a public school teacher so when I left the corporate world we had to decide what to do with Aaron when I was traveling and photographing. Rather than place him with a baby sitter I took him with me-everywhere. To understand where I'm coming from envision a 6'2" guy with a big camera slung over one shoulder and a two year old boy over the other shoulder. That was me. I'll be the first to admit that there were some very awkward times, but I wouldn't trade the times or the memories for anything. Aaron went with me wherever I went, whether it was to check trap lines, to speaking engagements, to deer stands, to the Everglades, to the Rockies or Alaska. Simply put Aaron didn't fit the mold of the average kid growing up in America.

Because most of our time was spent in the whitetail's world he and I learned many things about deer together. I'll never forget the first time I used a commercial deer call in 1985. They had just come out and I was anxious to see how they worked. Well, we found out how good they were.

Huddled in a tightly woven ground blind I had made on our farm I grunted two bucks to within fifteen yards of our stand, late one afternoon. There I was with the tube in my mouth "talking to the bucks" and Aaron whispering in my ear, "Daddy, are you going to shoot them." Well, I didn't. I chose to pass on both because of their size. As I reflect on the experience I still get goose bumps. The value of that moment in my life's memory chest is priceless.

I could go on and on with story after story like this. Our life together has truly been a journey scripted in Heaven. The effect of the whitetail on both our lives has been cumulative. It gave both of us a greater appreciation for nature and the great God we serve. The bottom line is that the whitetail has truly been the lynchpin that has allowed our relationship to grow and blossom over the years.

Gold At the End of the Rainbow
I sometimes wonder about people's values. There's a popular bumper sticker that reads, "He who dies with the most toys wins." Sadly too many in America are swept up by this mentality. Gadgets, toys, bricks and mortar are nothing more than things. Personally I think Swindoll's quote has more meaning. "The greatest things in life are not things-the greatest things in life are experiences and relationships." And many of the special relationships I've had in my life are a direct result of my association with the white-tailed deer. In many ways I've struck gold.

If I were to die tomorrow I'd have no regrets. Thanks to God and one of his creatures-the whitetail-I've been blessed beyond measure. A man can't ask for any more.

-Back to Articles-