Productive Scouting — Part VI

After elevated stands became popular in the 1980s, it only took about ten years for whitetails to quit being unusually vulnerable to this new form of hunting. Such an adaptation in so short a period of time cannot be wholly attributed to annual large scale cropping of vulnerable deer by American deer hunters. The ability of whitetails to discover and avoid hunters using elevated stands back then was learned and still has to be learned by each deer during its first two years of life. Such learning is made possible by a unique whitetail characteristic: an innate eagerness of fawns and yearlings to imitate behavior and habits of older deer, their strict mothers at first and then other older deer.

Today, a newly prepared stand site — elevated or ground level, visible or invisible, occupied by a hunter or not — is likely to be quickly discovered, feared and avoided by whitetails 2-1/2 years of age or older living in the surrounding doe and overlapping buck home ranges. This is attributable to unusual sounds made while installing a metallic portable stand and ladder in a tree, altering the tree and its surroundings to the satisfaction of the hunter and an intense, unrealized concentration of familiar odors characteristic of human deer hunters plus strange odors long emitted by milled wood, sawed or chopped branches, metals. plastics, fabrics, paints, rubber (from boot soles), insect repellent and chainsaw oil and fuel. These odors typically last much longer than scents deposited along a trail by a passing hunter which normally fade away in about four days. Observations of mature whitetails assessing odors at new and long-abandoned stand sites in my study area suggest hunter-related odors are detectable at such sites weeks and months later (perhaps even a year later in some cases).

Responses of today’s mature, stand-smart whitetails upon discovering new stand sites vary. If easily identified via odors and appearances, some older, more experienced whitetails will simply avoid approaching within 100 yards of the site thereafter. Others will thereafter take the time to determine whether or not a human is at the site before approaching or passing nearby, a precaution that can be passed on from generation to generation of whitetails. Several probable record book bucks I have known of were notorious for a much greater response: annually becoming nocturnal or abandoning their home ranges for an entire hunting season soon after discovering hunters preparing stand sites within or adjacent to their square-mile home ranges.

More commonly occurring than most stand hunters realize, upon discovering a non-wandering (therefore non-aggressive) hunter at a stand site, many mature whitetails that have learned they have little to fear from such a hunter as long as they keep a safe distance away will thereafter maintain normal daily routines within the remaining safe portions of their home ranges throughout a hunting season. This is the one great advantage stand hunting hunting has over all other forms of whitetail hunting (though little taken advantage of). After a whitetail has moved a safe distance away from a newly discovered stand hunter, typically without the hunter realizing it, the only damage done is a circular area with a radius of about 100 yards is temporarily abandoned. A simple move to a new stand site 100 yards or more away will put a stand hunter back in an area where whitetails are predictable in location and time. Meanwhile, most mature bucks living in other portions of the surrounding square-mile, free to wander throughout home ranges of does and other bucks, will likely discover every new stand site sometime between the day they are prepared and the first 1–36 hours they are used.

One great handicap of stand hunting is, stand hunters are not stand hunters until they get to their stands. Along the way, they risk alerting or alarming deer and ruining the hunting value of their stand sites. Responses of whitetails upon discovering a hunter hiking to a stand site also vary. If discovered at what an experienced whitetail considers to be a safe distance away (200 yards or more), its response will usually be mild with little or no consequences to future hunting in the vicinity. If a non-hunting hunter, hiking non-stop (not halting to scan ahead for deer) is discovered approaching or passing within 50–100 yards, whitetails along the way are most apt to freeze in cover and wait until the hunter has passed and is a safe distance away before resuming whatever they were doing (feeding, for example), no harm done. If the hunter is obviously hunting, however, sneaking and halting often, mature whitetails along the way will temporarily abandon the vicinity, quickly and noisily or silently with stealth. The first time a lone yearling or fawn and sometimes a 2-1/2 year-old doe (living in its first individual home range with its first fawn) is alarmed enough by an approaching hunter to flee off-range, it is likely to sneak back within 1–4 days. Following a second alarm of this kind, it may not return for a week or more. The first time a buck 3-1/2 years of age or older is alarmed in this manner, it’s probably gone for the remainder of the hunting season.

For scouting in preparation for stand hunting to be productive today, it must be quite different than what was considered necessary 10–20 years ago. Today, the hunter must find multiple stand sites that require little or no preparation (to minimize odors and obvious changes in the landscape) that have approach routes that will make it difficult for whitetails to positively identify the approaching hunter. The reason for this is, whitetails near a stand site that cannot positively identify whatever is approaching via sight, hearing or smell will be curious for awhile but won’t abandon the vicinity. While drawing near a stand site, one loud twig snap underfoot or one fleeting glimpse of most of a hunter’s moving silhouette can instantly spoil the hunting value of that stand site for for taking mature whitetails for the balance of the hunting season.

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