The stand setup was perfect. Yet after hunting for three straight days, all I'd seen were does and a couple of scrub bucks. The area was littered with gigantic buck rubs and scrapes, and my trail camera told me two mature bucks spent a lot of time near my stand. Now suddenly both bucks had disappeared. To say I was disappointed was an understatement — devastated was more like it.
After the season ended, I asked a friend to come to my property and show me if I had a crack in my hunting strategy armor. After arriving at my stand, it took him about 10 seconds to tell me what I was doing wrong.
"You've only got one entrance and exit route, so you're making it easy for deer to pattern you," he said.
Pattern me? "Deer really do that?" I asked him. He just laughed.
In those days, I was pretty naïve about just how intelligent whitetails are. The notion that deer possess the mental capacity to figure out hunter movement patterns and adjust their behavior accordingly sounded like science fiction. I had no idea that mature whitetails often make a living monitoring hunters' whereabouts.
Sadly, a lot of hunters still believe deer don't have the smarts to pattern hunters. For you naysayers, let's first do away with the argument that deer can't pattern hunters and look at some sure signs that deer on your property have pegged your hunting habits. We'll then look at research on deer-human interactions and how whitetails often turn the tables on who's pattering whom. Finally, we'll cover strategies hunters can use to make them unpredictable to their prey and boost their success.
To better understand how closely deer are in tune with their environment, let's consider an analogy Dr. James Kroll, a noted wildlife biologist and professor at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas, uses to help hunters see that every time they enter the woods, they're disturbing whitetails' domain. Ever notice that when you're driving home from work, as you get closer to home you become more aware of your surroundings? A block away, you notice a neighbor has a new car in their driveway. As you pull into your own driveway, you see one of your kids left their bike out. You go into your house and immediately notice a new picture on the dining room wall.
It's the same with whitetails.
"Hunters don't think about that deer live in the woods 24/7," said Kroll. "Deer notice changes in their surroundings, particularly when the change threatens their life."
As dedicated as most of us are to hunting, it pales in comparison to a deer's survival instincts. For whitetails, hunting isn't a game — it's a matter of survival.
"Mature deer quickly learn what hunt setups look and feel like, which often explains why even though the wind and everything else was right, you still didn't see the buck," explained Neil Dougherty, a wildlife consultant for North Country Whitetails (www.northcountrywhitetails.com). "Just like a soldier will not go into an area because it "just didn't feel right," deer stay clear of hunting setups because they can detect something isn't quite right."
Dougherty helps hunters turn their land into buck stomping grounds. Time and time again he's witnessed a disconnection between where deer should be on a property because of good food and cover, and where they are actually found. This is often due to hunter intrusion.
"Every time you're in the woods, whether it's to check trail cameras, scout or hunt, there's a reaction by deer," Dougherty added.
One sure sign that deer are reacting to your presence is a sudden decline in the number of pictures of mature deer your scouting camera takes. If you pay attention, you'll see this is often due to a sudden increase in hunter intrusion. To help you see just how much of a disturbance you're causing and that you're making it easy for deer to pattern you, keep a log of all the visits you've made to your hunting property. Record things like the date of your visit, how long you were there, what you did and where you went. By periodically reviewing your log, you'll begin to see patterns in your movements. And research confirms that deer see them too.
There's an old saying that mature deer don't get old being stupid. They quickly identify hunters' presence and change their movement patterns. Research has found that deer don't hightail it to the next county because hunters have invaded their home — they just find better places to hide. Louisiana State University professor Dr. Michael Chamberlain and former graduate student Justin Thayer found deer keep track of hunter movements. The researchers placed radio telemetry collars on 22 bucks and followed their movements over 40,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods in the Bayou State. Members from 30 hunt clubs descended upon the woods each fall, bringing an onslaught of hunting pressure. Yet many older bucks were able to stay alive — often right under hunters' noses.
"Time and time again hunters would tell us that they knew bucks were around, but they never saw them," remarked Thayer, now a deer biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "Many times I would take a reading and know a buck was within 50 yards of a deer blind, but the hunter never saw it."
Bryan Kinkel, a wildlife consultant with BSK Consulting, has conducted several studies of whitetail-hunter interactions. He found that it's doesn't take much hunting pressure to make bucks disappear.
"After a stand had experienced 15 hours of hunt time, the chance of seeing a mature buck dropped to zero," said Kinkel. "What's scary is that the 15-hour limit isn't just for the current year, it's cumulative for three years back. So if you hunted from a stand for five hours each year, by the third year that was enough to make bucks change their movement patterns."
Most hunters don't have the luxury of only hunting a spot for less than five hours each season. Kinkel recommends getting a map of your property and noting all your stand locations and how much hunt time each stand experienced. After the season, look for areas where deer haven't been pressured and set a stand there next year.
"We call them de facto sanctuaries, because hunters have unintentionally created safe areas for deer," added Kinkel. "The areas exist because there's no deer sign, so hunters don't want to hunt them. But next year they become buck hotspots."
Kinkel has found that about 80 percent of mature bucks killed on his property are taken from de facto sanctuaries. It sounds simple, but one of the best ways to prevent deer from patterning you is to hunt new areas that most hunters avoid. Whether it's a little swale next to a highway or a small patch of tall grass and picker bushes, monster bucks hang out in the most unlikely spots. Hunt them and you'll prevent deer from figuring out your hunting strategy.
Another way to keep stands fresh, which reduces the likelihood of being patterned, is to do what Dougherty calls "hunt by contamination." Before the season begins, set up two or three stands 100 to 150 yards downwind of your primary stand. After sitting in your number one stand once or twice, move to the next stand.
When hunting, keep careful records of deer sightings. When you notice a sudden decline in the number of deer you see, particularly older deer, you know it's time to hightail it to another hunting spot.
Besides switching stand spots, one of the best ways to prevent deer from patterning you is to never do the same thing twice. Whether it's using a different entry/exit route (always with the wind in your favor) or parking your truck in a different spot, the point is to always keep deer guessing.
Another simple strategy is to hunt midday, when most hunters leave the woods. Kroll has found it's the best time to kill a mature buck.
"Deer do a better job patterning hunters than vice versa," Kroll added. "Since most hunters are in their stands the first and last two hours of daylight, mature bucks often move around midday."
Remember that deer aren't just patterning you — they're patterning other hunters. The typical hunter arrives at his stand a half hour before daylight and leaves right after shooting light has ended. John Eberhart, co-author of "Bowhunting Whitetails the Eberhart Way," gets to his stand at least an hour before daylight and stays an hour after dark — longer if he knows deer are nearby. This makes it harder for deer to know Eberhart's after them.
Do you like to use scents and lures? Never use the same one more than once, particularly if you hunt a heavily pressured area, where others hunters likely use the same attractant as you do.
The instructional DVD you got with a brand deer new call demonstrates how successful hunters use the call to lure behemoth bucks into range, but it can also make it easier for you to be patterned. Change your calling sequences to prevent deer from drawing a connection between the sound of a particular big buck grunt and the presence of a hunter. The same goes for using rattling antlers.
By paying attention to your hunting habits and staying committed to always employing different hunting strategies and techniques, you'll make it harder for mature bucks to pinpoint your whereabouts, and easier for you to fill your buck tag.