Why Hunters Call This Elusive Deer Breed ‘Marsh Ghosts’

by Amy Myers
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In the wetlands of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, hunters have their sights set on a deer that moves silently even through tall grasses and ice-covered waters. Nicknamed “marsh ghosts,” sika deer are one the most elusive breeds that can vanish without a trace even before you line up your shot.

Firearm season has already reached the Old Line State, and for many, that means they’ll have to pull on their waders and climb high above the phragmites to catch wind of any sika deer. But if you’re listening for the shuffle of hooves through dead leaves, you might as well leave your rifle at home. These deer have tiny hooves and small statures that make it easy to travel through fallen foliage without a sound. Instead, some experienced deer hunters have learned to listen for falling water droplets from the sika’s legs nearby.

This breed is smaller than the typical whitetail and often has spinier racks than its more commonly known cousin. While the two species tend to share the same diet, they don’t share the same ecosystem. In fact, sikas aren’t even native to the United States, nor are they actually deer. They were originally a breed of Japanese “mini elk” that ended up populating the small region on the East Coast in the early 1900s.

As it turned out, Maryland’s marshes almost perfectly matched the deer’s original habitat, and since their arrival, they’ve become a welcome part of deer season.

How Sika Deer Hunting Differs from Whitetail

Sika and whitetail seasons overlap in Maryland, but that doesn’t mean that hunters use the same techniques for both species. While whitetails are most active during the day (especially when the corn feeder’s refilled), sikas prefer to travel and forage at the edge of daylight. Hunters in search of this deer have to climb into their ladder stands even earlier to see one on the move. The best hours to catch one between the crosshairs are just as the sun is approaching the horizon in either direction. Even then, you might not hear a splash of water until it’s too dark to take the shot.

Of course, all of this can add up to a frustrating and freezing hike back through the trail if you come home empty-handed. But as any deer hunter knows, anticipation and persistence are all part of the game. Part of the reason Maryland hunters hold sikas in such high regard is because of the fact that they can pass your stand without you ever knowing – until you find fresh tracks just a few feet from your tree.

Still, even catching glimpse of a “marsh ghost” feels like a magical experience. And if you’re lucky and quiet enough, you may even hear the hauntingly beautiful bugle of the sika stag.

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