From as recent as last year to some 75 years ago, here are amazing tales of bucks that battled to their deaths!
Bernie Ellis stands next to the two big, locked-horn bucks that were found along a fence in his back yard last October.
Photo courtesy of Bernie Ellis
Just how often does the battling of two bucks result in the death of the participants? The commonly held belief is that such occurrences range from extremely rare to unheard of. However, during the annual breeding right rituals in southwestern West Virginia world of the white-tailed deer, that judgment may not be so hard and fast!
A prominent national outdoor magazine reiterated the long-held judgment as I paged through it while waiting my turn at Logan County's Guyan Barbershop. At this point in life, the reading glasses must be donned for that traditional wait inside the scrolling candy-stripes. With that backdrop, the barbershop (BS!) talk proceeded!
When proprietor Glen Grimmett sat me in the chair for my light trim, I gingerly placed the glasses in my breast pocket. As he started snipping, there was the usual local talk of big buck deer that included some eyebrow lifters.
For example, the guy in the other chair was going on about a recent gubernatorial bowhunt encounter with none other than (then) Governor Bob Wise just across the mountain. Of the Mountain State's assemblage of 55 counties, Logan remains one of its four "bowhunting-only" strongholds famous for its trophy bucks.
Coincidental to both the talk and magazine matters, it was just then that I noted some newly framed photos on the wall. Not having the glasses on and all, I asked Glen if they were the pictures of the two locked-horn bucks from Chief Logan State Park superintendent Bruce Collinsworth that made quite a stir a few years back?
Much to my surprise, Glen indicated that the photos were quite recent. Just a few weeks back they had been given to him by Bernie Ellis, a customer up the road. Glen let me borrow the photos and a quick call to Ellis revealed the latest on yet another gruesome and fatal Logan County encounter.
Just maybe, these white-tailed death duels were not so rare after all!
Ellis granted permission to use the photos and related the story that unfolded in his very own back yard. In fact, the mayhem of the battle was unbeknownst to him until he found the corpses.
The antler-locked bucks' bodies were still warm when he discovered them the morning of Oct. 19, 2004. Both bucks were more than amply racked, typical Pope and Young 9-pointers, each having 5 points to their left antlers and 4 points to the right sides.
Apparently, that was a deadly match made some place other than heaven. The weather was unseasonably warm and the deer were bloating. With such an adrenaline- and hormone-induced battle, there may not have been much venison worthy of salvage.
However, Bernie and a friend secured the horns that they were eventually able to disengage only after tremendous effort. In hindsight, Ellis wished he had had the heads mounted in the horn-locked position.
The circumstances, photographs and witnesses all told made for an absolutely fascinating event. That this one occurred within a short few miles of the previous one reported within Chief Logan State Park in the fall of 1998 made it ever more amazing.
It again begs the question: Just how many other sparring buck pairs fight to their death via this gruesome horn-locking thing? And how many other battles like this cause fatal or debilitating horn-stabbing injuries like jaw-breaks or blinding that likewise result in the death of battling buck whitetails?
The 1998 and 2004 Logan County battles within or a few miles distant, respectively, at Chief Logan State Park, are defying some commonly held beliefs. The park is an area gemstone where deer gawking is a popular pastime. The 1998 find was actually the skeletal locked remains of a battle that was judged to have occurred there in the fall of 1997.
No coincidence, the bowhunting-only status of the county and the "no-hunting" state park protection allows some of the bucks to grow to their true potential. This as opposed to gun hunt counties where few bucks get to live long enough to sport their maximum potential headgear.
Supervisor Dick Hall concurs with these assessments as far as bucks reaching their primes. However, he has never personally encountered or received a report of any such horn- locking deaths during his long tenure with the state.
In our conversation on the matter, he believed that such rare encounters might theoretically be more likely for non-typically racked bucks. Imagine two pitchforks, imagine them again with bent or dangled tines and you would think that locking up would be more likely for the non-typically racked bucks. With typical bucks naturally more common in the population and documented horn-locking fatalities such rare occurrences, we may never know the answer to that query.
Since horn-locking death is something you would never forget, the only other I vividly recalled was a 1930s photo from Pennsylvania. It came from the late Bob Latimer, a Game Commission employee who I had great fortune to know as a young conservation officer there in the mid-1970s.
Bob's 1938 photo of two (typical) locked-up Sullivan County, Pennsylvania, bucks was a popular fixture. Before he died, he personally published and mailed me a booklet simply titled Memories, including a full story of his encounter with the locked-antlered bucks, with the famous photo included.
Mr. Latimer's encounter was quite intimate, indeed. A party informed him that the big bucks were still alive, locked up and exhausted. By the time he and his crew reached the scene, one of the bucks was dead, its neck apparently broken by the other. The surviving buck was enraged, vicious and wide-eyed per Latimer.
When they tried to free it of its dead adversary's lock by sawing or shooting off the horns, they feared for their own safety. In testament to such November thick-necked and rut-crazed critters, I present you with Latimer's exact descriptions of the 1938 encounter.
The antler-locked bucks' bodies were still warm when he discovered them the morning of Oct. 19, 2004.
"The hardhack was mauled around over quite an area. The buck still alive didn't seem to be weakened down at all. We had allowed the pointer, Rose, to go along with us, which w
as a mistake. The sight of the dog seemed to infuriate this buck even more than we did. His eyes seemed to glow green with hate and the hair on his mane stood straight up. When anyone of us would attempt to get very close to get a look, he would lunge toward us. Never realized that a deer could be so strong, but several times he threw the dead deer clear of the ground in his lunges and a couple of times the dead deer's hind feet were in the air as high as my head."
Latimer was a decent-sized man in the prime of his life with still enough time to join the military at age 41. Bob and his crew decided that for their own safety and to end the misery of the still yet alive buck, they dispatched it with a shot to the base of its neck.
He and his crew salvaged the capes and heads of the dead duo. They were mounted and displayed in the locked position at the state Game Commission headquarters in Harrisburg for a long time. Bob also indicated that both of the bucks had full paunches indicating they "had fed the night before, so they must have only become locked that morning."
It may be a bit of a stretch drawing too many conclusions over so few occurrences over such a long time span. However, if there is somewhat of a common denominator to these three documented death battles, it appears to be this one: The horn sizes, body and skeletal masses seem to be about even. That is, the bucks appear to have picked on someone their own size, albeit mighty dang big ones to boot!
Aside from the heavyweight-to-heavyweight business, another more certain conclusion can be drawn. Antlered deer can be very formidable and dangerous critters. Another buck turned on our farm dog, a large black Labrador named Amos, back in the 1960s. It nearly slit his hide in two along the rib flanks, which required scores of stitches.
If you ever get to see or hear the real rattling sounds of bucks battling for breeding rights, you might well remember this article. And yes, even more so, you may be witnessing another battle to the death!