When Dave Irwin spied a magnificent 5-point, black-tailed buck jog in front of his car in late November, he stopped and gave chase through the snow in hopes of shooting it.
For more than two hours, Irwin stalked the deer that almost playfully moved in and out of range, posing in perfect light and undeterred by the rapid clicks of Irwin's Nikon.
To his amazement, it was the same big blacktail Irwin photographed in early August, when its antler tines were in their velvety growth.
"I got the same buck in velvet and hard (antlers)," says Irwin, 44, of Medford. "Those are the special times; when you can get time one-on-one in the woods with an animal. That's something most people will never see."
But anyone can buy an image of that deer in framed prints, one of the so-called "story boards" this self-taught wildlife and landscape photographer sells regularly for $125.
Irwin will have plenty of these and other prints on hand this weekend as the featured artist in his hometown's largest venue of its kind, the 11th annual Jackson County Sportsmen's and Outdoor Recreation Show.
This former mill worker and logger, who traded sawdust for the shutterbug's life, has been a hit at the show's previous stops this month in Eugene and Roseburg, hawking everything from $1 bookmarks to $700 photographs he shoots, prints, mats and frames himself in his home studio.
Irwin shoots thousands of images a year, relying on his hunting and woodsmanship skills to ferret out his subjects in their native habitats. He shoots primarily on public land, never in fenced-in settings. National parks are the most controlled environments he'll work.
"It ruins the experience," Irwin says. "I try to be out there alone with the animals."
His effort appears to be paying dividends.
"He's our featured photographer of the year, and he's very talented," says Joe Pate, whose company, called ExpoSure, produces the show. "He's got some pretty incredible shots. I tell you, he's got to be one patient man."
He's also a grateful man, happy to be out of the mill and into the woods he's plied with either a gun, a fishing rod or a camera since childhood.
"I'm just a guy doing something I love to do," he says.
Irwin grew up in Central Point, but spent much of his time in Butte Falls, where his family dates back five generations of working the woods or the rails. He had an affinity for photography since about age 10, picking up foreign cameras at garage sales or borrowing them from his high-school photography classes to snap pictures in the woods.
But he never thought there would be work in it, so Irwin graduated and at age 19 began life at Cascade Wood Products in White City. That grew old after 15 years.
"When the mill got a little hard on my body, I had to look at what resources I had," Irwin says.
Irwin made his life-long avocation his new occupation a decade ago, doing some logging and other odd jobs on the side while honing his camera skills.
"I knew enough about chasing critters," Irwin says. "So here I am."
He's been at it hardcore the past three years, putting his guns away to work strictly with cameras during lengthy stints in the woods throughout the West. He works the fall ruts for big-game and the spring birthing season.
Irwin shoots almost exclusively with a tripod, often from a portable blind and occasionally wears camouflage so humans, not animals, don't see him. In the past, ranchers have shot the foxes or other critters they spied him shooting.
"I don't want people to see me," he says. "The animals don't care."
Foxes and bighorn sheep are the easiest to photograph, he says. "They just get really comfortable around humans."
As rifle hunters and archers know, blacktails are difficult to hunt, regardless of what you're aiming at them. They are elusive and live in tough habitat, but they stand out well in snow.
"Snow's the best to shoot in, but they're the worst conditions to be in," Irwin says.
One of his most popular images is one he stumbled upon in 2006 near Butte Falls. It's a pile of blacktail bones and remnants of hair beneath a skull with the antlers still on it.
He calls it "Circle of Life," and the mystery that oozes off the images attracts many eyes.
"Strangely enough, a lot of women buy it," Irwin says. "It's moody and dark. You don't know how the deer died."
Irwin's photos can be seen online at www.imagesinnature.net.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail email@example.com.