Whitetails Also Communicate via Scents

Like most animals in the world, including tame cats and dogs, white-tailed deer  communicate with one another via scents, which is a good thing to know if you are a deer hunter. All mark their personal home ranges, larger hunting ranges too if a wolf, with urine. Urine is apparently different enough in odor for each animal, even of the same species, to make it clear which among them marked the boundaries its home range with urine. This is especially important among mature whitetail does with young and the most dominant (highest in the local buck pecking order) of bucks living in each square-mile or two (except perhaps where whitetails have become accustomed to being overabundant). Does with fawns viciously protect their smaller (90-250 acre) individual home ranges from invasions by other does with fawns. Whereas dominant bucks allow a certain number of lesser antlered bucks (lower in the pecking order) to live in smaller home ranges that overlap with ranges of other bucks and does within their large, urine-marked home ranges,  as the primary breeding phase of the rut draws near, via threat or battle, bucks most dominant force all other antlered bucks in their ranges to temporarily live elsewhere. 

About mid-October, musk odors produced by antlered bucks become a dominant form of communication. A pungent musk then being produced in increasing volumes in buck tarsal glands located on the inner surfaces of their hind legs just beneath their hams, is carried via a liberal stream of urine to buck ground scrapes (see photo), intended to warn other bucks to keep out of their home ranges, now their intended breeding areas. Antlered bucks also mark their intended breeding ranges with easy-to-spot and smell antler rubs (bark scraped off of tree trunks with antlers to expose large patches of bright wood), which are laced with another identifying musk originating from glands in scalps of bucks—carried by a viscous fluid that runs down the sides of their heads down onto the sides of their necks, causing wrinkling of neck fur most obvious on dominant breeding bucks. Scalp musk is also regularly applied to branches or boughs overhanging ground scrapes of dominant breeding bucks. Before long during this period, lesser bucks are forced off-range and the only ground scrapes thereafter regularly renewed (commonly once every 24–48 hours) within doe ranges are those made by dominant breeding bucks, serving as potent reminders to displaced bucks to “keep out or suffer the consequences.”

 Once the first two-week breeding period begins two or more weeks later (in November), the pheromone emitted from urine of does in heat becomes a dominant form of communication. Each mature or yearling doe is in heat 24-26 hours and only about 10%, (1–2 does per 2 square-miles) is in heat on any one day. Downwind bucks can detect the odor of this pheromone two or more miles away (ignored or checked cautiously by mature experienced bucks if accompanied by human odors). If a dominant breeding buck happens to be accompanying another doe in heat within its range, another doe in heat will not wait long for the buck to show up. It will then go to the buck, easy to locate via its strong airborne musk odors spreading downwind.

All whitetails have tarsal glands. Those of does do not produce musk. Tarsal glands of both sexes produce another odor, ammonia-like, emitted in great quantity by whitetails while they are greatly alarmed. When airborne, it serves as a warning to all other downwind deer within 200 yards or so that something dangerous is near (a hunting wolf or human, for example). Much of this odor falls to the ground, creating an easily-to-identify trail scent that can be rapidly followed by less-fleet deer such as fawns. Where emitted, this trail scent serves as a warning to other deer four or more days. A bounding whitetail will usually halt upon gaining a safe distance from a hunter or predator to cleanse (lick) the tufts of fur overlying its tarsal glands to halt the release of “danger scent.”

 Individual whitetails, including fawns, are also identified by one another and by hunting wolves via a variety of scents released into their hoofprints by interdigital glands located between their cloven hooves.

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Tips for Hunting Whitetails During Extremes in Temperatures

Northern whitetails live without suffering in an enormous range of temperatures, sparse red and wiry fur keeping them comfortable during the heat of summer and tan and heavier fur with a cottony underlining enabling them to survive 40-below-zero in winter. Unusually warm or cold fall and early winter temperatures can dramatically curtail daytime activities of whitetails with winter fur, however, not uncommonly forcing them to bed in deep shade where unlikely to be bothered by hunters from early morning to sundown when temperatures in the 60s or 70s or convince them to remain in their beds in areas where protected from wind during normal feeding hours when temperatures are 10–40 below-zero, then temporarily subsisting on fat stores.

 Yet, there are periods when temperatures are extreme, hot or cold, when odds for hunting success can not only be quite good, but unusually great. While it is unseasonably warm during daylight hours, for example, whitetails will usually be quite active (feeding) during the first legal shooting hour of the day beginning one-half hour before sunrise. In such weather, therefore, set your alarm clock for 4 AM and get to your favorite feeding area stand site thirty minutes before first light (following fluorescent tacks pinned to tree trunks 10–20 yards apart that light up like Christmas tree light in the beam of a flashlight). The last legal half-hour of the day can be productive too, though less so.

 When it is very cold in November or December, it usually doesn’t stay very cold unduely long. After a few days, watch for or keep track of local weather forecasts so you don’t miss thaws or near-thaws with the wind calm or light, usually happening sometime between 10AM and 3PM. During a midday thaw or neathaw following a spell of frigid temperatures, every deer in the woods will be on the move, heading to feeding areas, feeding for an hour or two, then heading back to bedding areas. Never waste one minute of time eating lunch in camp or your vehicle midday while one of the best opportunities of the year to take a deer is occurring. My three sons and I almost always take 1–2 bucks midday when this happens. As winter progresses, expect midday feeding every day the temperature is in the high-20s or above and the wind is calm or light.

 Similarly, after several days of unseasonably warm temperatures when the temperature finally cools to normal levels or cooler (in the 20s, for example) and the wind is calm or light, expect all deer in the woods to be on the move midday, feeding. We’ve taken several mature bucks midday when this has happened.

 Keep in mind, too, northern whitetails with winter fur are most active, feeding later in the morning and beginning earlier in the afternoon while the temperature is between 20 and 40 degrees and the wind is calm or light, whether it is sunny or cloudy and whether or not it is raining or snowing lightly.

Whatever the weather, hunt anyway. A big buck might show up when you least expect it like the the one pictured above, taken my son, Dave, during an unusually warm November morning. Consider also gritting your teeth and hunting when it is extremely cold and you doubt deer will be moving. While your partners are sitting around the cracking woodstove back in camp, playing cribbage, a big, rut-crazed buck might show up even when it’s 27 below zero and the wind is whipping sheets of snow past your stand site. This I know.

No. 5 Best Tip for Hunting Whitetails Today

While on your way to a stand site, don’t allow your footsteps to sound like those of a deer hunting human, especially in the last 100 yards. Mature experienced whitetails do not have to see or smell you to identify and avoid you. They can do it via sounds you make alone. On a quiet morning, they can not only hear your approaching footsteps up to 100 yards away, but determine whether or not you are a harmless squirrel or deer or a dangerous hunter and react accordingly.

There are many reasons footsteps of human hunters easy for mature whitetails to identify. Human footsteps are much louder than footsteps of wild animals, for one. Humans unconsciously drag their boots across gravel and through dead grasses and leaves, crunchy snow, breaking ice and splashing water. They step on many more branches that break or snap loudly underfoot than any other creatures in the woods. Their footsteps are frequently interrupted by short periods of silence, revealing they are often halting to scan ahead and listen, typical of a hunting human. All or one is reason enough to move out of the path of an approaching hunter and/or abandon the vicinity.

While on your way to a stand site where you hope to see deer, there are three ways to avoid letting them know are coming. First, use an established deer trail to get to your stand site that was cleared of dead branches for silent hiking throughout the final 100 yards (or more) two weeks before the hunting season began. Second, bend your knees with each step and lift you feet over noisy grass, leaves and other obstacles on the ground and then put your feet down softly. This is difficult to do without conscious thought so keep your mind on how you are stepping, especially throughout that final 100 yards. Third, don’t stop until you reach your stand site, especially in that final 100 yards.

Hiking in this manner will make it extremely difficult for the most wary of whitetails near your stand site to identify you by your footsteps. They’ll probably hear something, but it won’t be human-like. If they can’t positive identify you, they won’t abandon the area. They may move to nearby cover where they can’t be easily seen, however. Upon arriving at your stand site and then becoming completely silent and unmoving downwind or crosswind, they’ll remain suspicious and cautious for awhile. If they hear (or see) nothing more during the next 15–30 minutes (count on 30), those deer will then resume what they were doing (feeding for example), soon likely to become visible at short range.

 

No. 4 Best Tip for Whitetail Hunting Today

Unless a deer is in sight or sounds reveal one is near, while heading somewhere on foot, especially a stand site, don’t act as if searching for deer. Don’t display hunting behavior, meaning, don’t sneak from place to place, often halting to scan ahead and to either side and often change direction. Instead, walk non-stop at a moderate pace along a fairly straight path, keeping your head pointed straight ahead. Act as if you are only passing through the area, getting to some distant site foremost in your mind, thus appearing harmless.

This sounds crazy, I know. After all, you are hunting deer, but there is very good, little-realized reason for doing this: within every mile you travel on foot in whitetail habitat, at least during the first 2–3 days of a hunting season, if you continue doing things wrong, you will unknowingly pass within easy shooting range of eight or more unmoving (frozen) whitetails hidden in cover. “If this is true,” you might be thinking,” this is a very good reason for sneaking and often halting to scan for deer. Actually, this is one of the most ruinous things you can do. Though inexperienced fawns and yearlings that see you displaying such behavior may not realize what you are doing in the woods, whitetails that have survived two or more hunting seasons will instantly recognize you as being “very dangerous,” after which they will abandon the vicinity where you were discovered, quickly and noisily or with great stealth, and not return for four or more days (does and young) or fourteen or more days (mature bucks), meaning, you have just ruined this portion of your hunting area. A randomly wandering hunter displaying such behavior can cause all whitetails to abandon an entire square-mile or more in 1–2 days, without seeing a deer.

For this reason, consider yourself to be actually skillfully hunting while not moving about on foot and not hunting while moving about on foot. Stand hunting, not moving about on foot, is the most productive way to hunt mature whitetails because you are then doing exactly what mature whitetails do to avoid being seen and heard by passing hunters or predators. Consider your hike to a stand site to be a mere but necessary non-hunting prelude to actual hunting. Walking non-stop at a moderate pace with your head pointed straight ahead (day or night) will do the least amount of damage to your hunting area because most whitetails seeing (or hearing) you doing this will not flee but instead resume whatever they were doing after you have passed. Your odds of seeing deer at your stand site(s) will then be greatly improved today and throughout the rest of the hunting season.

No. 3 Best Tip for Whitetail Hunting Today

Especially if you want to take a big buck, become invisible to whitetails, best done by stand hunting. However, no longer is it okay to sit fully exposed in a tree stand. No longer is it okay to trim all branches from a stand tree to facilitate spotting and firing at whitetails great distances away in all directions. After nearly four decades of hunters using tree stands, whitetails almost everywhere that have survived two or more hunting seasons are now very adept at finding, identifying and avoiding stand hunters. Older bucks quickly spot man-made construction, destruction and intense and widely-dispersed trail scents characteristic of most stand sites. Mature whitetails, especially much-experienced, stand-smart bucks 3-12 to 6-1/2 years of age, generally find and begin avoiding stand hunters within 1–30 hours after hunters begin using their stands. Whether moving or not and whatever the hunter is wearing, the large, dark, sky-lighted silhouette of a hunter poorly hidden in a tree is readily recognized great distances away by mature whitetails (not including fawns and yearlings), thereafter avoiding them. There should be little wonder why so many stand hunters today erroneously believe something must be done to improve numbers of older bucks.

 Especially when hunting older bucks, bowhunters should wear dark camo clothing—no light tan, gray or white readily spotted by whitetails, especially while moving. Firearm hunters should wear camo blaze-orange, keeping in mind blaze-orange bathed in sunlight appears glowing white to whitetails. Human skin, which contrasts greatly with natural cover, should be covered, head and face with a camo headnet or mask, cap on top, hands with dark gloves. This is not enough. The hunter’s silhouette and stand should be screened by natural cover in front and fairly solid natural cover behind, preferably in shade, never clearly sky-lighted or snow-lighted. Colors of man-made stands or blinds should blend well with surrounding natural cover. Straight edges of portable blinds should be masked by natural cover. The hunter afoot should also be adequately masked by surrounding cover throughout the final 100 yards to a stand site. Natural cover surrounding a stand site should not appear significantly altered. Tree stands and blinds should be located 10–20 yards back in forest cover, never at edges of openings such as whitetail feeding areas or farm fields. Today, adequate natural screening cover is much more important than a wide field or view or a man-made shooting lane. A skilled marksman with a rifle only needs a few clear openings a foot or less in diameter, two feet or less for a bowhunter. Dense, intervening cover may occasionally make it impossible to fire at a nearby deer, but over the long run it will provide much greater numbers of opportunities to fire at unsuspecting deer at short range.

 Finally, every precaution should be taken to avoid being scented by whitetails. A mature whitetail’s eyes and ears can be fooled, but never it’s nose. As recent research with K9 dogs has revealed, though intensities of human odors can be minimized by various store-bought products (which is beneficial), nothing can eliminate them. Always approach stand sites from downwind or crosswind and always sit downwind or crosswind of sites or trails where you expect a white-tailed quarry to appear. Never trash a stand site or the trail or site where you expect deer to appear with human trail scents, readily smelled by whitetails four or more days after deposited—much longer if often renewed. Best stand sites for taking mature bucks are those never used before (no obvious changes in appearance present) and where care has been taken to minimize the intensity and spread of human trail scents. The more quickly a stand site is prepared for hunting (needing little or no alterations) and the less that was necessary to accommodate and hide the hunter, the better. After selecting a stand site, get well away from it as quickly as possible and then stay away from it until the hunting season begins. To make certain everything is back to normal by opening day, my sons and I always complete our scouting and prehunt preparations two weeks earlier.

America’s White-tailed Deer Need More Bona Fide Hunters

“Deer hunting” is defined as “the practice of taking deer.” One step up, “mature-buck hunting” is defined as “the practice of taking mature bucks.” This fall, are you going to again settle for failing to be a deer or buck hunter? That’s a shame because nowadays, America’s white-tailed deer almost everywhere, including seldom seen and normally wasted mature bucks, truly need more bona fide deer or buck hunters to keep them from being overabundant in winter, then suffering the cruelest fate of all, slowly dying from starvation because there isn’t enough natural food anywhere to feed overabundant deer in winter. It’s not the fault of state deer managers. If you are unable to regularly do your part to help keep the consequences of overabundance from recurring, it’s your fault. It’s your fault because you failed again to make an effort to become skilled and knowledgeable enough to more regularly take deer.