This Flashback article was first published in the January 2012 issue of Deer & Deer Hunting. Almost 10 years later, it still baffles us how one trail camera caught all of this action!
When Marlin Smith placed his Moultrie trail camera on his hunting lease this summer, he was hoping to capture some stunning images of white-tailed bucks. Those hopes were realized within the first week of the camera being in the woods, but in a way that Smith would have never imagined.
Documented in extreme detail — more than 200 photos — was the grisly death scene of a record-class buck at the jaws of some blood-thirsty coyotes.
Smith, a northeast Texas resident, had placed his Moultrie camera on his 4,800-acre lease in nearby Oklahoma. The property he hunts is owned by a large timber company is located in some foothills far removed from paved roads and county highways. This is the third year he has been hunting the property.
Smith is an avid bowhunter who has taken many trophy bucks over the years. Excited about the upcoming archery season, he drove to his lease on Aug. 2 and placed his trail camera in an effort to census the area for deer activity.
“The area where I put this camera is a little opening in the woods,” he said. “I picked that spot because several deer trails ran through it. It just seemed like a good place to hunt.”
Smith said he did not place bait in front of the camera, adding that he prefers to monitor deer that are moving more naturally because this gives him a better understanding of where bucks will be traveling during daylight.
“We don’t use corn because of the (black) bears. We do use mineral licks. This helps us get at least somewhat of an idea of what’s out there … what kinds of bucks we have roaming the ground.
The Return Visit
Six days later, on Aug. 8, Smith again returned to the lease to check on his trail cameras. His plan was to pull the card and be on his way. To his surprise, the camera’s batteries were dead.
“I thought that was odd,” he said. “I didn’t expect to have a ton of photos on there. As I was changing my batteries, I gave the card to my buddy, and he put it in his wife’s point-and-shoot camera and started looking at the pictures. After a while, he said, ‘You’ve got to see this. You have a really good buck on here.’ ”
After scanning through the photos and noticing images of the dead buck, the two friends searched the immediate area. They didn’t see any evidence of what was shown in the photos.
“There wasn’t anything,” Smith said. “No hair. No blood. No drag marks. Nothing.”
The two hunters left and returned home to examine the photos in more detail. Needless to say, they were shocked and amazed at what the older-model Moultrie Game Spy camera had meticulously documented.
“I just kind of sat there with my mouth open,” Smith said of his reaction to viewing the images. “We went back the next week to look for the buck. It took some time, but we eventually found the head about 300 or 400 yards from the camera. There wasn’t much left of it … just the skull and a little bit of the spinal column. His antlers were chewed up pretty good. Based on his jawbone, he’s a 4½-year-old.
“That just blew us away. We always hear about how coyotes really only kill fawns. Well, this certainly proves that coyotes can kill a mature, healthy white-tailed buck.”
Searching for Answers
How could a record-class buck, seemingly in his prime, fall victim to a couple of coyotes? Was he injured beforehand? Was he suffering from an internal disease? And, perhaps the larger questions: Why wouldn’t he run farther, and why did he stay in front of the camera?
“I’ve been asking myself the exact same things,” Smith said. “I have no idea. All I can say is that it happened.”
When Smith’s photos first circulated, some questioned whether the incident took place in an enclosure. Smith scoffed at that notion.
“Hey, I’m just an average guy,” he said. “You can rest assured there are no fences around there. This is real. That was a 100% wild deer living on free-range timber-company land.”
Smith did, however, speculate on what might have happened.
“That opening in the woods is a unique spot,” he said. “It’s really the only spot where that buck could stand and fend off a coyote, I guess. The whole area around it is really thick; really hard to move through. It’s really hilly, and there are a lot of rocks.
“That opening is a good spot for bowhunting, because deer like to move through it. The land is too rough to plant food plots or anything like that. We just kind of hunt the draws and the edges of the hills.
“From what I can tell, the coyotes chased him a long ways and then somehow managed to bay him in that area surrounding the opening.”
After examining all of his photos, Smith said he believes there were four coyotes involved in the attack. “If you look real close at some of the photos, you’ll see two coyotes on him and two sets of eyes in the background.”
Could the buck have been sick?
“I don’t know; he might have been,” Smith said. “However, we got a photo of him a few weeks before that, and he seemed to be fine. But who knows? The weather this year has been brutal. It’s been extremely hot. We had a stretch of I don’t know how many days where it’s been over 100. Maybe that had something to do with it.”
As the photos reveal, coyotes are persistent and work systematically when they kill a deer. As documented in previous issues of Deer & Deer Hunting, coyotes will sometimes kill younger deer by cornering the animal to the point where one coyote will move in and bite down forcefully on the deer’s muzzle. The coyote will then maintain its grip in an attempt to suffocate the deer, or hold it in place long enough until other can move in and help. This behavior, although common among large cats, is uncommon behavior among coyotes when they attack adult deer.
When attacking adult deer, a pack of coyotes will work systematically and attack the rear end of the deer. Their goal is to disembowel the animal. A burst abdomen and/or bladder will immobilize the deer and cause it to go into shock. From there, the coyotes will literally eat the deer while it’s still alive.
After killing the deer, the coyotes will take turns feeding on the carcass. Their eating order is usually determined by each animal’s social position in the pack, with the largest coyote feeding first.
We’ll never know exactly why this magnificent buck decided to stay in front of Marlin Smith’s trail camera for more than five hours during the night of Aug. 1 and 2, 2011. We can only speculate that he might have been completely exhausted from being chased for who-knows-how long beforehand and that clearing in the woods was the only place where he felt safe enough to try to fend off their ferocious attack.
In the end, however, these timeless images reinforce a thought that many hunters have pondered in recent years: Coyotes are a force to be reckoned with when managing any property for better deer and deer hunting.
A final note to keep in mind, which is one we have mentioned previously in D&DH, is this: Predation is an inexact science. Researchers increasingly discuss the role of opportunity in predation, which is a departure from the once-standard belief that four-legged predators primarily hit only the weak and sickly, or the young and old.