FUMBLEUS WHITETAILUS – OR BUCK FEVER (November 28/97)

In my early teens on a first deer hunt. Three of us in a line, my brother and father on the flanks, climbing a hardwood hill. I looked up after negotiating a steep stretch and a deer was standing broadside, so close I could see its nostril quivering. “Dad” I called out, “there’s a big buck here looking at me.”

To this day I don’t know why I didn’t shoulder my rifle and drop the buck. I was telling Terence O’Shaughnessy about the incident recently and he said it was a simple case of buck fever. I protested. “My hands didn’t shake and I was calm,” I said. “How can you call it buck fever?”

“Fumbleus whitetailus shows up in strange ways and that’s what you had,” Terence said. I knew a lecture or a binge of storytelling was coming from the way Terence sat back in his chair and hooked a thumb through his suspenders. And so it was. For the next hour, Terence told me rollicking tales of hunters who suffered from the malady everyone calls buck fever. These incidents that happened while Terence was hunting with friends. To protect those still inclined to act erratic when the male of the deer species is encountered, names and places are omitted. Otherwise, the cases of buck fever occurred as described.

After a rugged morning of beating the bushes in the days when doe deer were legal game, Terence and a companion sat down on a log to eat lunch. While they were eating a doe walked out of the bushes close by and stopped to look at them. Terence’s companion grabbed his rifle, pointed it at the doe and attempted to cock it with his thumb. He fumbled with the hammer once, twice a third time while the doe slowly walked away, but couldn’t cock the rifle. When the doe disappeared into the bush the hunter discovered he was holding the rifle upside down.

One of Terence’s longtime hunting companions had the greatest luck in seeing deer but was always missed them – and he usually had a reasonable excuse why he missed. After he jumped several deer one morning without getting a shot off he told Terence something was wrong with his rifle. Later that day Terence observed his companion when he jumped a buck. His companion aimed at the deer and pulled the trigger repeatedly… without releasing the safety.

One of Terence’s hunting pals became completely rattled whenever he saw a deer with horns. He bagged does with no problem. When he saw horns, however, he began to shoot wildly without aiming. “Usually he shot low in the general direction of the buck,” Terence said.

This may have been the same friend who told Terence that minutes before they met in the woods he emptied his rifle at three deer and never hit one. This puzzled Terence since he hadn’t heard a shot. He asked his companion to show him where he was standing when he fired at the deer. His companion showed him the spot. On the ground were a handful of live shells. As he said, he had emptied his rifle when he jumped the three deer… by jacking the shells out of it.

As Terence said, buck fever manifests itself in strange ways. One of his friends froze when a buck walked up to an apple tree he was watching. He explained that he didn’t dare move because the deer was looking at him. While he was immobile the buck ate his fill and walked away unharmed. While Terence watched, another friend drew his bow on a deer that was close by in the open. He held the bow in the drawn position for several minutes while the deer walked by and ambled safely away.

“He couldn’t tell me why he didn’t release his arrow but I knew what it was,” Terence said. “A case pure and simple of buck fever.”

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