Steve Holte's intimate, six-year relationship with one special black-tailed buck deer has been one of man and ghost, with the ghost leaving behind only its shed antlers each spring as evidence of his life.
But technology has helped Holte conjure up his elusive benefactor, which ultimately turned out to be far from camera shy.
A small video camera Holte installed where he annually finds this deer's shed antlers struck gold this winter by capturing short video clips of the massive buck and the tell-tale 4-by-3-point antlers it grows.
"The first time I saw it, it was jaw-dropping," says Holte, 52, an expert shed-antler hunter from Eagle Point. "That was truly a reward to finally see what those antlers looked like on the animal."
Turns out, the deer Holte's never seen sure likes mugging for the camera, which regularly captured 15-second snippets of it day and night.
"We ended up with lots of shots of him over several weeks," he says. "He's quite a camera hog."
Small video cameras are replacing still-shot cameras as the "critter cams" of choice for wildlife enthusiasts such as Holte, who are finding plenty of big-game animals soaking up their 15 seconds of fame within these video frames.
Strategically placed along game trails, these cameras sport infrared triggers that turn on when animals travel past them. They film short digital videos of the critters on the move, offering a unique glimpse into what goes on in the backwoods when people aren't around.
For as little as $100, hunters or trackers once relegated to looking for a few footprints and excrement can find animal evidence by the megapixels.
"They're kind of neat," says Mark Vargas, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist. "A lot of people just like to see what's going on out there for fun."
Vargas, however, uses them for work.
Vargas should know. Since 1997, ODFW's Rogue District biologists have been the only state biologists to use a critter cam tucked along a deer trail from September through November to track migration of blacktails in the upper Rogue River drainage.
Set on public land, the camera sits in a waterproof box and films in short bursts once its infrared trigger is tripped.
At night, a spotlight illuminates the animals. During the day, they venture by oblivious that something is watching.
Vargas ventures into the camera site regularly, replacing digital cards and downloading the images onto his computer.
The results are a veritable cornucopia of critter porn.
Blacktail bucks, does and fawns are most common. So are Roosevelt elk. But the cameras also have captured plenty of
black bears and cougars tromping and traipsing by.
Once, at night, a bobcat sat perched on a rock right in front of the camera, its glowing eyes affixed menacingly on the lens.
The most unusual video Vargas' cameras captured came last month when it caught the moment a rarely seen spotted skunk crossed paths with a gray fox.
The skunk first appears in view, and almost immediately moves into its defensive posture. The skunk stands on its front legs and arches its tail overhead, then hops on its legs ready to squirt its fowl musk.
That's when the fox steps into view. It's startled by the skunk before the two part like comedic actors darting off stage.
"The odds of that happening right in front of the camera, in focus, is pretty bizarre," Vargas says. "It's amazing it all lined up like that."
Equally amazed is Holte, who turned digital last fall in search of that special buck with which he shares an amazing bond.
The buck, which Holte estimates to be 9 1/2 years old, seems to spend the spring on the same patch of public land in Jackson County each year. Each year, it grows large and wide 4-by-3-point antlers that virtually match year to year.
Holte knows because he's found six years' worth of the animal's shed horns, all within 200 yards of each other.
"We found quite a bit of history in there," says Holte, whose shed collections are regular attractions at outdoor shows throughout the West.
Holte first bought two 6 megapixel cameras last fall, first using them to find places to set his tree stands for general bow season. After filming many bucks in preseason, he placed his tree stand within view of the camera.
"It didn't get me a deer, but it got me awfully close to them," Holte says. "I got tons of footage.
But the big payoff came after the season, when a camera captured the first image of this year's set of antlers still attached to its rotund frame.
"The antlers look even bigger on the animal," Holte says.
For several days, the big buck ventured past the camera, often stopping and posing like a runway model. In one drizzly moment, the buck shook its body and "you can see about a gallon of water fly out of his fur," Holte says.
Later, Holte's camera captured the buck one last time, but without its antlers.
Like the deer itself, Holte still hasn't seen antler year No. 7 in person.
"But seeing what I got on the camera, I know they're out there somewhere," Holte says. "It gives me confidence to keep going back."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail email@example.com.