By Bill Winke
See if you remember this moment: You are approaching your stand and hear a crash in thick cover to your right. You whip your head around in time to see a big set of antlers bouncing above the brush. Oh, rats, you think. Only you didn’t say “rats.” You’ve been after that buck since you first laid eyes on him during the summer. He is the one you came in here to hunt. Now what?
Here’s another example: You are in the stand. The morning sun is starting to make your eyelids heavy. You decide a little rattling would be a good idea before climbing down. After a 30-second battle, you hang them up. Ten minutes later, you give in and start pulling your pack out from under the seat. That’s when you hear that sound again — a loud crash. He was there, hiding in the brush 50 yards away, and now he turns inside out before vanishing in a trail of vapor. He had you dead to rights. Rats again. What next?
I receive many questions on my website; real questions from real hunters. It’s a great way to learn what I should be writing about in my articles. The question I get more than almost any other is, “What should I do after spooking a buck?” So, here we go.
As you may have guessed from these two scenarios, not every scare is the same. There are bad scares, and there are casual scares. A buck that is “badly scared” is going to react differently than one that is “casually scared.”
A badly scared buck is one that really busts out of there. He is running flat out, low to the ground. His No. 1 goal is to put as much distance between you and him as possible. Maybe you nicked him, or he saw you in the stand and recognized you for what you are; possibly, he picked up a heavy dose of your scent that hit him like a slap in the face. Regardless of why, he is flat-out hoofin’ it.
I remember a buck that came in to a grunt call one day many years ago. There was fresh snow on the ground, and when he finally spotted me in the tree at just 15 yards (I decided not to shoot him), snow literally flew in every direction when he turned inside out. I saw him a week later from the same tree; he stood on the other side of the field studying my tree. That’s what I am talking about when I say “badly scared.”
Casually scared is more like startled. This is not the fight-or-flight kind of fear you get with badly scared deer. A casually scared buck will bound off rather than blow out like a rocket. They know something is wrong, but the danger isn’t imminent. The deer doesn’t feel it is about to become venison.
Why It Matters
Bucks will respond to danger in proportion to the level of fear they sense. For example, bucks that are badly scared will alter their behavior more noticeably than bucks that are only casually scared. Bucks are casually scared almost every day. If they dug a hole and pulled the dirt over the top every time they were casually scared, they would all have suffocated a long time ago.
Instead, they take notice, adjust their movements a bit and go on with their lives. If persistent danger reinforces these casual scares over time with more casual scares, the bucks will eventually stop using a certain area or become nocturnal.
If the buck is badly scared, he will immediately alter his behavior. He will bust off for a short, 200-yard dash and then keep moving away cautiously for maybe another 200 yards before settling down. He will not soon forget what happened, and every time he is near that area, he will be cautious, probably for weeks to come.
So, figuring out what to do after spooking a buck starts with figuring out how badly he is spooked in the first place. I’ll dig into that concept a bit more in the next section.
Hunting Casually Scared Bucks
If you bump a buck while heading to your stand or the deer hits your ground scent, he is likely casually scared. I have already gone over that. (Don’t forget: They can also hit your ground scent after dark and you will never know about it.) Casually scared bucks certainly become harder to kill in that area. There is no question you have damaged your chances for success. That is the main reason the first time you hunt a new stand is usually the best time.
Now, we need a plan. First, figure out how often that buck gets casually scared by people in that area. For example, if you are in a residential area and hikers often come through walking their dogs or messing around in the woods, the buck is accustomed to some human interaction and has learned to accept some of it as normal. If you alerted the buck in a way that he might consider normal for that area, you can treat it differently from a situation where he was surprised. For example, let’s say he hit your scent where he is used to hitting scent, on a walking path or trail. Or you bumped him up near a roadway where he often encounters people. It is not a big deal.
If that is the case, I will keep hunting the stand as I normally would, in my regular rotation, resting it as often as I might if I had not spooked a buck. My bump was normal operating procedure. He will be back, maybe even later that day.
However, if that scare occurs in a place and in a fashion that is foreign to the buck, he will not be so forgiving. Let’s say you jump him from his bed as you are sneaking in to your stand. You are in a ditch slipping into an area where the buck rarely sees a person. He is bedded right on the edge and bounds off 50 yards, then stops and looks back before trotting over the ridge. You think, He didn’t look that spooked.
Maybe he didn’t look that spooked, but deer don’t like surprises, and they don’t like anything new. They will remember it. If they are not used to seeing a person doing what you just did, they will see it as an invasion (as they rightfully would when encountering you in their bedding area). In that case, the deer will change their behavior in the short term. It may be a couple of days before the buck comes back, and when he does, he will likely be cautious, possibly only coming through that area at night.
If it is the rut, he may do something stupid, but likely he will still exercise greater than normal caution. If he encounters the threat again in the same general area (or evidence of it, such as human scent on the ground after dark), he will be even more reluctant to travel that area naturally during daylight.
In such a case, I will not hunt that stand again for a while. I may wait a few days longer than I normally would in the hopes that he will pass through the area a few times when the coast is clear and begin moving naturally again.
Hunting Badly Scared Bucks
When a buck is badly scared from a particular stand, especially when he saw you up there, you may as well stop hunting it for several weeks. I don’t know exactly how long it will take for that buck to come past that tree again during daylight without looking up. It may not happen again until next season, after he has investigated it many times, found it safe and subsequently forgotten about the incident.
In other words, when a buck is badly scared from a particular tree, you need to move on. That is the safest bet. He probably won’t leave the area completely, but he will be much more cautious near the stand where you spooked him. So, you need to move at least a couple hundred yards to start hunting him again — even farther would be good as long as you can stay within what you believe is the buck’s home range.
You Make the Call
I have seen bucks come back to the same field 15 minutes after a passing pedestrian or slow-moving car bumped them off, and I have seen them disappear off the face of the planet after I put the fear of God in them from my treestand. Knowing how to adjust your strategies depends entirely on what it was that spooked the buck and how spooked he was. Read each situation carefully and cut your losses when necessary so you don’t waste valuable stand time hunting ghosts this season.