Whitetails Recognize Preludes to Hunting

Today’s mature whitetails recognize preludes to hunting seasons & differences between hunting & non-hunting humans.

Like last year, a big buck with especially large antlers and drop-tines spent spring, summer and early fall feeding, watering and bedding within or adjacent to my longtime Wisconsin hunting partner’s forest home. Often viewed with yearning and discussed by local deer hunters, weeks and even months before the firearm hunting season began the region surrounding the buck’s range rang with hammer blows and motorized equipment used to prepare stand sites, post lands, clear trails, create shooting lanes and offer generous quantities of baits such as apples, corn and growing clover or alfalfa. Contrarily, my partner deliberately avoided disturbing deer inhabiting his own wooded property throughout the year, but again, that canny buck was nowhere to be seen during during the 2016 firearm deer hunting season.

Such a tale is common wherever whitetails are hunted, one reason being, experienced whitetails that have survived three or more hunting seasons recognize preludes to deer hunting such as scouting, preparations of stand sites, discharges of firearms at targets and game such as grouse, waterfowl and black bears during earlier hunting seasons and an increasing frequency sounds made by off-road vehicles within their home ranges. They then realize it will soon be time to begin taking the evasive actions that enabled them to survive previous hunting seasons.

Mature whitetails also quickly recognize differences between hunting and non-hunting humans. When harmless humans they have often observed throughout the year suddenly don blaze-orange clothing and begin sneaking into their ranges, often halting to peer about and listen, or when humans form long lines that attempt to drive them toward waiting lines of downwind humans, they instantly begin taking previously effective precautions. Though conservative at first, as soon as it becomes obvious it will thereafter be difficult to avoid short-range encounters with hunting humans, they readily abandon their home or breeding ranges for extended periods, not uncommonly taking refuge several miles away on posted property or in habitat seldom invaded by hunters such as wooded swamps. Older wolf-country bucks I have studied were knowledgeable of safe sites in areas as large as a township (36 square-miles). Many experienced deer simply become nocturnal when threatened by hunters, stubbornly refusing to leave their secluded beds within their home or breeding ranges during daylight hours.

Now you know some major reasons why such deer are so difficult to hunt.

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Characteristics of Productive Stand Sites

Whitetails are generally active in only about 10% of their home ranges on any one day. Typically, this 10% is long, and shaped like a skinny, lumpy donut with a secluded bedding area and current favorite watering spot in two parts and one or two of several feeding areas in other parts. To be productive, therefore, a stand must be located somewhere within this donut. This 10% is easy to distinguish, being well marked by often-used deer trails, fresh deer tracks and droppings and other very recently made deer signs. The trouble is, depending on wind direction, needed cover, currently available foods, known locations of trails and sites frequented by hunters and hunting methods used by hunters, this 10% can change in location, shape and size as frequently as twice daily during a hunting season, confounding efforts made by hunters. For this reason, preseason scouting is generally most rewarding during the first 2–3 days of a hunting season. After that, most hunters must depend on luck.

This is only the beginning of this lesson on deer hunting.

During any one day during the course of a hunting season, where are deer right now? Unfortunately, If you’ve been making drives or wandering dark to dark through your hunting area, they’re likely somewhere else, perhaps miles away. At the very least, most mature whitetails in or near your hunting area are now nocturnal — active during darkness only. If you are a skilled stand hunter, however, one who does not ordinarily alarm deer while hiking to and from stand sites, beginning on day three of your hunting season, mature whitetails are likely living fairly normal, predictable lives out of sight and safe distances from the trails you use and your stand sites. Their current locations are clearly marked by fresh tracks and droppings of walking or feeding deer.

How to find and recognize these signs without spooking deer and how to successfully take advantage of such signs are book-sized subjects — soon-to-be published in my Whitetail Hunters Almanac, 10th Edition. I plan to touch on these subjects piece by piece via blogs during coming months. Recognizing deer tracks and their meanings is now well covered in my recently-published, $4.95 ebook entitled Dr. Ken Nordberg’s 2016 Pocket Guidebook to Whitetail Tracks Fall and Winter which can be downloaded to any device.

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Apple iBooks version of Track Guidebook

Amazon Kindle version of Track Guidebook

Deer Stand Productivity

If you see some deer in your hunting area during a hunting season, it is natural to assume you are capable of seeing all deer there. Within suitable whitetail habitat, however, it’s impossible. There are 15–30 deer per square-mile in your hunting area and about 40% are antlered bucks. You’d have to be exceptionally lucky, very knowledgeable about whitetails and their habits, very skilled at hunting and have lots of time to hunt to see half of them during the course of a hunting season. The seen half would include many inexperienced fawns and yearlings and the unseen half would include most of the mature bucks and many of the mature does. The luck part is best where few if any hunters wander about on foot from dark to dark (“Stirrin’ ‘em up,” as they typically like to say with a grin).

It’s also natural to imagine the stand where you took, or nearly took, a big buck last year will be a great place to take a big buck this year. Though I’ve hunted whitetails 71 years, I still waste opening mornings at such sites, hoping it’s true. It rarely turns out that way, however. There are lots of reasons. Big bucks do not make the same serious mistake twice. In fact, during hunting seasons they rarely use the same trail twice in several days and they travel off-trail more than 50% of the time. Sites where they once encountered danger from hunters are routinely avoided and checked for danger from a safe distance downwind as they pass, year after year. This is basic survival behavior for whitetails that have survived three or more hunting seasons. Stand sites that were once productive, or nearly productive, inevitably become unproductive because mature whitetails are better at figuring you out than you are at figuring out them. Moreover, younger deer imitate their actions, thus learning to avoid you before before they’ve ever encountered you.

Previously productive stand sites can be productive soon again soon if a passing intended quarry (and all other deer) do not realize a hunter is near, or the intended quarry is successfully taken. It may take a couple of years for a mature buck to find and adopt the home range of mature buck that was taken by a hunter or died because of old age during the following winter and begin using sites and trails favored by the previous buck (usually for good reasons). Once this happens, a once productive buck stand site can become productive again (made evident preseason by annual scouting). The changeover from buck to buck can be rapid where deer numbers are great or slow (take two or more years) where deer numbers are low.

Where stand sites are overused, becoming productive again can take years. I know of two stand sites that once enabled one of my sons to take big bucks (half for the wall) two sets of five seasons in a row (ten in ten years) that are still unproductive 14 years later. If any whitetail, antlered or not, becomes alarmed enough by a hunter to quickly abandon a stand area successfully, trotting or bounding with its tail erect and/or snorting, the stand site is likely doomed for one or more hunting seasons.

Not uncommonly (for my sons and I), a new stand site that has all the characteristics of a dynamite spot to take a big buck will turn out to be a dud on opening morning. It isn’t likely because the hunter was mistaken about the site. There are lots of reasons why older bucks may be temporarily spending time elsewhere, accompanying a doe in heat a mile away, for example. Rather than hunt at the same site for an entire week, using the same trail to get there once or twice daily, almost certain to completely ruin the site for hunting, my sons and I have often been rewarded by abandoning such a stand site after one day of unsuccessful hunting and then trying it again 4–7 days later (it worked for my sons John and Dave this past season).

Generally, though we still find it difficult to avoid using a stand site on opening day where a big buck was taken or should have been taken the year before, we each begin each new hunting season with several new stand sites: many never-used-before (generally best) and some that haven’t been used for several years (all near fresh signs made by mature bucks). We also each begin with at least three different bucks to hunt. Doubtless these are major reasons we are successful at taking our agreed-on limit of four mature bucks per hunting season (to prevent overhunting of bucks).

Life in a Portable Deer Hunting Blind

“Boy, that’s a frigid northwest wind,” I silently complained. By carefully reducing the size of the window on my left and moving my stool back away from the opening, it began to feel warm inside. “There, that’s better. Now I can watch the entire end of this clearcut where we’ve been finding all those fresh deer tracks in real comfort. That’s certainly different. I’m glad I’m not sitting in a tree stand this morning. Keeping out of a cold wind is something I didn’t think about when I decided to try using one of these things (a camo fabric covered, tent-like, portable ground blind).

“It sure was easy to set up. It practically set up itself when I pulled it out of the bag. I wasn’t impressed by the size of the stakes that came with it, but they are definitely keeping this thing pinned down just fine in this breeze. Despite using a couple of ropes provided to tie to adjacent brush and trees in stronger winds, it’s rocking a bit, but no more than the surrounding grass, shrubs and trees. Now if it will only fool bucks and other deer into thinking it is a normal part of this landscape…”

“Hey, that’s a deer over there by that big boulder. It’s kind of dark yet. I can’t see if it has antlers. Better take a look at it with my scope. Nope, it’s a doe. A good decoy though. There, it’s looking this way. It doesn’t seem to be bothered by what it sees. Now it’s feeding. This blind has just passed its first important test. Can’t wait to see how a big buck will react. For me, that’ll be the most important test.”

Unfortunately, during our past hunting season I did not see any of the most elusive of wolf-country whitetails in our hunting area — dominant breeding bucks. Until I see one up close and acting as if my blind is a harmless bush or tree, I cannot honestly suggest such a hunting aid fools much experienced older bucks.

Though hopeful, I’m not sure a boxed-shaped object in the woods, whatever its colors, can be counted on to do this. The outline of my portable blind is mindful of a six-foot-tall spruce tree, but it doesn’t have the colors and design of a spruce tree on it, making it somewhat out of place in the woods as well. The most advantageous functions of a portable ground blind are: 1) hide a hunter’s silhouette, otherwise readily recognized by today’s mature, stand-smart whitetails, and 2) hide a hunters movements (while scanning for deer, stretching during hours of sitting and preparing to fire at a deer), otherwise also readily spotted by nearby whitetails. Though turkey hunters have been enjoying great success while using portable ground blinds without regard for using surrounding cover to disguise their blinds, my long experience with studying and hunting mature bucks convinces me this would not be advisable when hunting a buck that has survived three or more hunting seasons. In my opinion, to be effective for hunting such deer, portable blinds available today need to be masked by more than camo fabric. Because of their distinctive and unnatural shapes, they should be at least 50% masked by surrounding natural cover. I also believe the failure to do this will inevitably enable mature whitetails to quickly recognize and avoid portable ground blinds, just as they eventually did with portable tree stands. Meanwhile, though these hunting aids may or may not make older bucks easier to hunt, I do believe skillfully disguised portable ground blinds will prove to be effective for taking most other whitetails.

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In this location the ground blind sticks out like a sore thumb.

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This photo is from a different angle, in the same spot, with the blind staked down so it is more upright. However, it still sticks out. Instead, if the blind is moved back and to the left about 10–12 feet, it looks like this.

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In essence, I am trying to hide and disguise my camo blind. This will reduce your shooting window, but will improve your odds of seeing a big buck.

Don’t fold you window flaps outwards like this.

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Notice how the material reflects light in an unnatural way.

Instead, fold the flaps inside like this.

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Notice how human skin is very visible inside of the blind.

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You should always wear gloves and a camo face mask.

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This will help to make you less visible inside the blind.

Not Positively Identified

Upwind whitetails inadvertently alerted by an unidentified sound or motion made by you will not soon abandon the area if they can’t positively identify you.

After being alerted by an unidentified sound or motion (not true of human odors) made by you, nearby whitetails upwind or crosswind that cannot positively identify you via sight or hearing won’t soon abandon the vicinity of your stand. Take the buck my son, John, took on the fifth day during our past hunting season. When our deer camp clock began ringing 4 AM that morning, it was 28 degrees outside, the air was calm, the starlit sky was moonless and clear and a south west wind wasn’t expected to begin blowing until 9 to 10 AM.

“It’s a perfect morning to hunt at my blind on the north east side of the Moose Mountain clearcut (our name for a certain tall, steep-sided hill),” John declared. “I’d better get a move on. It will take me almost two hours to get there.”

John was especially cautious as he began to make his way up the slope toward his blind — a naturally formed stack of storm-toppled evergreens atop a fifteen-foot high rocky outcropping overlooking the clearcut. Having discovered deer bedded directly in front of that outcropping upon approaching the his stand site during a previous hunting season, John was deliberately bending his knees with each step to make sure he didn’t drag his feet in dry leaves and putting his boots down lightly, avoiding stepping on any branches or twigs lying in his path. Uncharacteristic of human hunters, any deer that might be feeding near his stand ahead would find it very difficult to hear his footsteps, much less determine what was making them. Upon sighting his three fluorescent tacks on the base of a tree trunk ahead, intended to warn him when he was near his destination, John turned off his flashlight and silently slipped on his hunting coat that had been carried lashed to his backpacked hunting stool to ovoid perspiring during his arduous, two-mile hike. When his blind finally loomed up before him, John slipped his stool from his back and knelt before it to remove his camo headnet from its attached packsack. At this point, however, something inside the packsack made a soft, but strange sound. John then heard something moving away through the deep grasses about 20 yards out in front of his blind.

It was 6:40 AM, twenty minutes before it would be light enough to clearly distinguish a deer and legally fire at one. Under the starlight sky, nonetheless, John could make out the dark form of a single deer with modest antlers moving south across the clearcut, often halting to stare back in his direction. In an attempt to fool the deer into believing the sound it heard was made by other deer, John dug out his rattling antlers and softly tapped them together a few times, holding them high enough above the top of his blind to be seen by the retreating deer. It being obvious the buck had not positively identified him because it was not trotting or bounding away with its tail up and/or snorting, John hoped it would remain near until it was light enough to be more clearly seen.

The deer finally disappeared and nothing was seen stirring until 8:45. Alerted by soft footsteps, John was staring south when he spotted a buck on his left — a 2-1/2 year-old six-pointer lacking one tine. It was stalking slowly north west past his blind about 45 yards away, seemingly searching for something — likely the two bucks it thought it heard touching antlers earlier. Ordinarily, John would have passed up such a buck, but being a year with low expectations due to much reduced deer numbers, he decided to take it. As soon as the buck stepped past a clump of mature evergreens that enabled John to raise his rile and take aim without being seen by the deer, he squeezed his trigger. At the shot, the buck dropped in its tracks.

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Tracks 3-3/8 inches in length revealed this buck was the same deer that had been in front of John’s blind earlier. This proved again, though you may inadvertently alert nearby whitetails as you approach a stand site, if they cannot positively identify you via seeing, hearing or smelling — you being motionless or your motions being well hidden when they look your way, your silhouette is well disguised by natural cover, you have no bare skin showing and you are downwind or crosswind — those deer may be suspicious and extra alert for about 30 minutes, but they will not soon abandon the area.

Metallic Sounds & Experienced Whitetails

Did you see anything today?” I asked my grandson, Tyler, as he entered our deer camp wall tent a week ago Wednesday evening.

“Yup,“ he answered with a haunted expression on his face. “It was the biggest buck I’ve ever seen in the woods. I couldn’t tell how many tines it had, but there were lots of them. Many were really tall and its main beams were much wider than its body.”

“I got to my ladder stand with the railing by the river well before first light this morning,” he continued. “After carefully climbing to the platform and sitting down, I reached up and carefully eased the railing down to its horizontal position. Just before sunrise, however, the railing unexpectedly dropped into its locked position with a metallic click.

“About 100 yards away on the opposite side of the river, huge antlers immediately rose up from some deep yellow grasses. After lurching to its feet, the buck took a few quick bounds to dense cover and stopped where it was difficult to see. After I raised my rifle and began scanning for it with my scope, it began bounding straight away, tail up, zigzagging with each leap, an impossible target. It stopped again about 200 yards away. It was partially hidden, but I could see its body. Holding about six inches above the center of its chest, I fired, after which I never saw the buck again. I crossed the river at the ford where Uncle Ken got his biggest buck and spent an hour and a half searching for signs of a hit around the spot where I last saw the buck. I found no blood or hair anywhere. My bullet must have ricocheted off of something.”

“Too bad,” I reflected. “I had the same thing happen to me last year. Big bucks are lucky. You’ll remember this one for the rest of your life.”

“Metallic sounds likely have and likely will ruin your chances to take other big bucks in the future, with or without your knowledge. From now on, whatever sounds you make while hunting whitetails, try to make certain none are the kind that most frighten experienced mature whitetails, namely metallic sounds.”

No Snow Buck Hunting

During the past decade or so, a lack of snow has become an almost regular feature during the first week of our November firearm deer hunting seasons in Minnesota. This year (2016), daytime temperatures were in the 50s, 60s and one day even in the 70s during the first week, an amazing change from our once usual sub-zero temperatures during the same calendar period in past decades. A lack of snow and visible deer tracks in snow has not only made whitetail hunting more difficult for Minnesota hunters, but especially this year, upon taking a deer, hunters were forced to quickly find a way to preventing spoilage of their venison due to excessive heat.

Realizing our ability to key on mature bucks was now being severely handicapped by a lack of visible deer tracks in snow, my hunting partners and I quickly began using what we expected would be a less effective variation of our favorite hunting method, opportunistic stand hunting, relying mostly on fresh doe droppings rather than now less commonly found fresh tracks made by bucks to keep close to bucks. Logically, because the first of the three two-week periods of breeding was in progress (beginning November 3rd), we decided to key on (stand hunt near) more commonly found fresh — soft and shiny — half-inch-long droppings made by unalarmed, mature does, hoping any thus selected to hunt near was currently in heat and accompanied by a dominant breeding buck (generally the biggest buck in the surrounding square-mile).

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What we discovered while doing this was somewhat amazing. Ordinarily (while temperatures are normal for the period), there are very few lesser antlered bucks within a dominant buck’s 1–2 square-mile breeding range when breeding begins, having been driven off by the dominant duck during the previous two weeks. By mid-October when sub-freezing temperatures are common at night in Minnesota, winter coats of our whitetails are fully developed, preparing them to survive long periods of temperatures as low as 45 below zero during the coming months. For this reason, Minnesota whitetails are not as physically active while it is unusually warm during the latter half of October and November. Bucks are then less inclined mark their intended breeding ranges with antler rubs and ground scrapes. Something more happened this time: our dominant breeding bucks had obviously become less diligent about searching for and running off lesser bucks before and while breeding was in progress. For the first time ever during my 46 years of studying whitetails, younger antlered bucks were common wherever there were mature does (some likely in heat) during the first two weeks of November. This wasn’t true everywhere. Much of our hunting area is yet devoid of does due to losses during past severe past winters and continuing depredation by excessive numbers of protected grey wolves. Though our deer numbers were down and fewer deer were seen on the move during daylight hours, most that were seen were lesser antlered bucks. We actually saw more antlered bucks than does. Initially, we felt we’d be fortunate to take two mature bucks this year. Though we failed to tag a dominant breeding buck, quite surprisingly we took our self agreed on limit of four antlered bucks set during previous years (intended to prevent overhunting of bucks) rather handily: two 3-1/2 year-olds, one 2-1/2 year-old and one yearling.

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If global warming means we can expect similar changes in habits and behavior in northern whitetails in the future (frustrating changes for hunters using old, traditional hunting methods), skilled stand hunting near very fresh droppings made by unalarmed does appears to be a way to enjoy great future buck hunting regardless.