Ghosts in the Forest

A hunter's memoir of the 1998 Iowa deer die-off.

The fatal viral illness known as epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) is transmitted to whitetails by biting midges. The host deer bleeds to death internally. EHD runs in cycles, and in areas where it occurs frequently, deer can build up a resistance to it, but no one is sure exactly how or where the virus originates. In late September of last year, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources declared, "EHD is killing our deer." By that November, several of my hunting group had begun bowhunting on a property we share, and it seemed as if the whitetail numbers had been cut in half.

Without looking for them, we started finding deer carcasses as we walked to and from our tree stands. By the end of the gun season we found more than 120 dead deer-at least 35 of them bucks, and some of these were very fine trophies. Tooth wear and antler mass suggested that several of the biggest bucks were at least 51/2 years old. Some had distinctive drop-tines and non-typical points that made them instantly identifiable.

It was eerie coming upon a bone pile with a huge rack sticking out. Then it struck me: We were finding ghosts. These deer lived their entire lives right under our noses without ever being seen. Despite heavy hunting pressure, it took a disease to finally reveal them.

Who knows how many we didn't find? The woods will feel a little empty this fall.