October 28, 2010
By Jay Strangis
Escape artist par excellence, most private of game animals, a mature whitetail buck offers zero tolerance
By Jay Strangis
Are whitetails any wiser than they were in grandpa's day? They could be. Certainly there has been some natural selection going on over the past several decades. With several million hunters pursuing them each fall, it only makes sense that the animals would have acquired specialized traits for survival. For instance, bucks that are slow to come out in open fields probably live longer than more careless bucks, and they pass these traits on to their offspring. Certainly, too, a deer that is intolerant of disturbance or new events, like the trace smells of a hunter, would tend to live longer.
Is this really a new deer, though? I don't think gramps had to exaggerate a bit when he told of that old swamp buck giving him the slip again and again. For the most part, this is the same animal gramps hunted, and if there's one thing that certainly hasn't changed over the years, it's the whitetail's ability to disappear.
No doubt, the whitetail deer is an escape artist par excellence, and if you want to find out just how good a mature buck really is, play hide and seek with one sometime. Rifle hunters do it all the time when they engage in deer drives. In other words, just to get a taste of the abilities of a buck, get into the woods with one and try to corral him.
Those old-fashioned deer drives can teach you a lot about whitetails, especially about the older deer, the mature animals we call trophies. These aren't just dumb animals that run headlong at the first sign of danger. They survive by slinking, crawling, hiding and knowing the terrain far more intimately than any hunter. It's been proven time and again: even though a buck, or maybe two or more bucks, are located in the same piece of timber, it doesn't mean the drivers will ever even get a look at any one of them.
The point is, whitetails are intense critters with tremendous survival instincts and abilities. This is why bowhunters have learned to harness the element of surprise, because to go up against a whitetail on his own term is to lose.
Even with the element of surprise in hand, just locating a mature deer can be plenty difficult.
A famous Michigan study documented what happened when hunters were allowed into a one-square-mile enclosure over a seven-year period. The area held an average population of 26 whitetail deer per square mile, 20 percent of which were antlered bucks. The deer had never been previously hunted. The results were astounding. In the first hunt it took six experienced hunters 124 hours just to see their first buck. Think about that the next time you aren't seeing deer on a spot you were sure held plenty of animals. You may not be wrong about the spot. Your hunting methods, or lack of luck, may be another story.
Masters of deception, mature bucks like this one are seldom seen in daylight, especially within bow range. Their tendency to shun areas of human activity and commit themselves to a solitary, reclusive life during the fall season make them extremely difficult to hunt on all days except the rut.
How do the bucks do it? How do they disappear? Well, they've got lots of tricks, not the least of which is raw nerve. About 10 years ago, a friend of mine with the same first name was hunting on the third day of a nine-day rifle season. Most of the hunting in this part of the Midwest takes place on the first and last weekends, and the week in between is typically quiet, as it was on the morning Jay decided to try a little still hunting with his .30-06. Now Jay isn't a small guy, so I doubt it was his stealth that allowed him to see what he saw next.
As he was about to descend a small hillside somewhere deep in the woods, Jay happened to glance to his left and see an impressive whitetail buck bedded 20 yards away. He couldn't believe his eyes. The buck stared in another direction, straight ahead as if in a trance, allowing Jay to raise his rifle and harvest a good trophy. Turned out the buck was healthy in every way, but he must have had ice water in his veins.
I once had a similar experience. When I was much younger, I literally stumbled across a buck lying behind a huge fallen log. It was the second day of rifle season and the area we were hunting didn't have a lot of hunting pressure, but apparently this buck was steely-nerved enough to lay low rather than run. When I crawled over that big log and had that buck come leaping to his feet with a heaving grunt just two feet away, I nearly went into cardiac arrest. Needless to say, I missed the shot at the fast-bounding deer.
Both of these experiences emphasize one thing: whitetail bucks will go to any length to avoid a hunter. So how can knowing this help with your own bowhunting? It can help if it gets you to take this creature seriously.
STAY OUT OF PATTERNS
I believe a big part of a buck's success at survival comes wrapped in his ability to learn. Big whitetail bucks, those that survive into their fourth hunting season and beyond, seem to have two important attributes in common: they learn quickly, and once they learn something, they take the lessons very seriously. In other words, they almost never make the same mistake twice.
What this means is that a mature whitetail, once aware of your presence, may do a better job of figuring you out than vice versa. This is why it is so important to refrain from contaminating a hunting area with scent, to steer clear of prime safety zones such as bedding areas and to avoid creating marks or reminders that tip a deer off to your presence long after you are gone.
That said, there are three specific cardinal sins that must be avoided in your hunting area if you expect to harvest a better buck.
Never sit a stand in the wrong wind. For many of us, the times we want to hunt and the best times to hunt don't always coincide. It's inevitable that the very morning we planned so carefully and looked forward to might not greet us with a perfectly favorable wind. Yet it's tempting to compromise ourselves and a good stand by sitting the stand anyway, especially if the wind is just a bit off and we've seen lots of deer at the spot. Resist the temptation. If you do sit the spot, you may never even see the buck you spook, yet you won't get a chance to spook him again. This is a prime reason to develop alternate stand sites and use them.
Avoid unnatural noises at all cost. It's actually amazing to see how many noises an animal as sensitive as a whitetail will tolerate. Trees groaning, branches rattling, acorns falling (they actually attract deer), squirrels chasing; yet nothing startles a deer more than an unnatural sound, and they never stay around long enough to investiga
te. When I got my first metal riser bow, I don't know how many times I had to let an aluminum arrow tick it before I wised up and became more careful. I spooked plenty of deer. The trouble with unnatural sounds, like metal on metal (tree stand noises are the worst offender), is that we don't know how far they carry or which deer have heard them. One thing is for certain: nothing educates a buck to your presence more quickly, and they don't forget.
Evade deer on the way to and from your stand. We say it constantly, yet it can't be said enough. Bumping deer on the way to or from a stand causes serious damage to a hunting spot. There is no question, the best days I have enjoyed on stand all came following a quick, quiet and uneventful trip-in and climb-up to my stand. My best spots could all be accessed without disturbing surrounding areas. Open fields, noisy ground and bright lights all announce your presence and location to deer. The deer you're spooking may not be the buck you're after, but any deer can lead the buck off your spot.
PICKING THE TIME
If the experiences described earlier aren't enough to convince you that whitetail bucks are intense animals, perhaps you can recall your own. If you've bowhunted very long, you've no doubt watched a buck or two at fairly close range. It's amazing to see how deliberate in habit and action these animals can be. They move slowly, pick their path carefully and make few mistakes, and they are uncanny at knowing when and when not to move.
A good part of a mature buck's success at survival comes from his commitment to moving only at the time of day when he can least expect to run into trouble. A wildlife biologist from Wisconsin, who also happens to be very successful with a bow, once told me that mature whitetail bucks are strictly nocturnal, except during the rut when they will show themselves just about any time of day. "To hunt a mature buck you must wait until the rut," he told me.
Perhaps. The very biggest bucks do seem to be primarily nocturnal animals, and the preceeding and early periods of the ruts do seem to be the best times to hunt, but at least a few good bucks have been taken outside the rut and during regular daylight hours. The point is, how can we predict buck movement well enough to waylay one during the times we hunt?
Picking the times we hunt more carefully can increase our chances for success. We not only want to be where bucks want to be, we want to be there when they are going to be there. Morning, pre-rut, food.
Don't give up on mornings. Mature bucks are like vampires, at the first signs of light, they head for cover, but they don't always head directly to bed. In the Dakotas and western Minnesota, I've seen bucks race off the prairie at dawn as if they were going to melt if the sun caught them, but as soon as they hit cover, they slowed to an ambling pace.
During the first couple of months of bow season in most places, mature bucks will spend a good portion of the first hours of daylight meandering to their beds. The animals have fed most of the night, and this is the time when they slow down and do a little scoping of their range. They might make a rub, look for a drink of water, or just generally take stock of what's new, all within the general confines of cover. Morning stands in deep cover on the way to bedding areas have always held great potential for bowhunting. Fair, cool mornings with little wind seem to be best.
Be ready for the chase phase. If I had to pick one time to be hunting bucks it would be during the whitetail chase phase, or those days leading up to the rut when bucks are rank and running because they can't find any willing does. Prepare yourself to stay on stand longer during this period. Pack some water, a hearty lunch and even a good book.
Become a student of foods. Scouting food sources has always been underrated. This single treasure trove often has more to do with success than most of us realize. The farm where I first started bowhunting had a variety of foods, and although I was moderately successful at taking deer there, I never knew all the correct reasons until some years later.
Deer definitely follow their stomachs, and mature bucks, though more guarded, are no different than the rest of the herd. If you can locate the foods bucks are using, you can locate to harvest them. I've seen too many bucks still on their feet an hour after daylight scratching for acorns to think this is an aberration.
Oaks often stand in cover, and bucks will linger in the morning on their way to a bed to take advantage of this food source. Similarly, bucks will often rise from their beds earlier in the afternoon if a desired meal happens to be located within cover as natural food like mast, persimmons and apples often are. The deer I was killing in my early days of bowhunting weren't just traveling to corn, alfalfa and beans, they were traveling to a variety of less obvious wild food sources; I was just lucky enough to get in their way.
NO MAGIC INVOLVED
Although ghostlike, whitetails don't vanish and they don't just appear. Whitetail bucks are flesh and blood. They eat, sleep and breed according to fairly well understood rules of animal behavior. The problem is, within their world, one of thickets and brush and the shadows, light and darkness of every kind of cover from swamp to big woods, they are the masters of avoidance and deception. They are the kings in the kingdom of wile, and they don't seem to be getting any easier to hunt.