The setup felt perfect.

It was a week before the rut, the wind was in my favor and I was sitting in a stand in what I thought was the perfect spot. A month ago I had placed the stand in a red maple overlooking a funnel that connected thick cover to a newly planted alfalfa field.

Can’t miss, I thought to myself. And yet, eight hours later, I had seen 15 deer, but nothing with more than pencil-thin tines on its head. What was I doing wrong?

How many times have you experienced a similar scenario? Despite our best efforts to conceal our presence, whitetails just somehow seem to know we are in their woods. And at the end of the day, all we’re left with is questions about how.

Read carefully, because this story will explain how many mature bucks just seem to be able to give us the slip, even though trail camera photos and brief sightings tell us they’re there. Not unlike a soldier who’s spent time in a war zone, deer also learn to sense hunting pressure and adjust their behavior accordingly. This is often the reason why, despite having a killer setup and the wind in your face, you see no mature bucks.

A Sixth Sense?

Talk with a military member who has been deployed to a combat zone, and they’ll tell you that they quickly learned to identify potentially dangerous situations — their survival depended upon it.

“One afternoon I remember turning down a road in Baghdad we were very familiar with, and there’s no one outside — very creepy for that time of day,” said Don Gomez, a former Army sergeant and spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (www.iava.org). Trash was piled high in a spot along the street where Sgt. Gomez and other drivers had not seen it before, so they steered clear of it. “We later called it in to an explosives team and, sure enough, they found one (a bomb) and detonated it,” Gomez explained.

A combination of experience and intuition allows humans to identify possibly life-threatening situations and avoid them. It’s not a stretch to think that some deer possess the same uncanny abilities. They can quickly recognize potentially dangerous situations and stay out of them. Like service members in war time, their very lives depend on it.

“For deer, they’re trying to survive,” said Neil Dougherty, a wildlife consultant for North Country Whitetails (www.northcountrywhitetails.com). “It’s not a game to them.”

Don’t believe me? Studies of whitetail movements have consistently shown that, once hunting pressure heats up, deer don’t hightail it to the next county. They stay in the area, but stay clear of hunters. A few years ago deer biologist Justin Thayer studied deer movements and survival in south-central Louisiana. The area was occupied by several hunt clubs who all agreed to let younger bucks walk. Once hunting season commenced, radio telemetry equipment revealed an interesting pattern in the movements of mature bucks.

“We would often find them (bucks) bedded down near hunters, but the hunters would never see them,” explained Thayer. “Hunters were very careful about not putting too much hunting pressure on deer, yet the deer just seemed to know how to avoid them.”

Nearly all hunters agree that whitetails have keen senses that enable them to detect predators. Deer often identify potential danger because a hunter makes a mistake. Maybe the hunter walked to his stand with the wind occasionally blowing toward a bedding area, or he banged the barrel of his gun against a metal stand. When a hunter does err, deer often take note of it.

“Deer learn by association,” Dougherty added. “They associate what just occurred to a negative outcome, and they learn from it. They’re masterful at detecting hunting patterns and adapting to avoid danger. Over time, they learn to associate certain terrain features and areas to hunting predation. This isn’t hard for them to do, because most of us are hunting deer the same way.”

To better understand what Dougherty is saying, think about the average deer hunter. Regardless of where he’s hunting, he sets his stands in the same areas: field edges, funnels, pinch points, etc. He accesses each stand using the most direct route, and he arrives and leaves there around the same times each day he hunts throughout the season.

Dougherty helps average-Joe hunters turn their ground into deer-hunting paradise. He’s gotten very good at identifying the mistakes most hunters make.

“Consulting-wise, I went through this period of time where I could tell a hunter where his stand was 100 yards before coming to it,” explained Dougherty. “Guys ask me how I do this, and I tell them it’s easy because all of us were taught to hunt the same way. We all create the same ambush spots, and deer learn to identify them and they stay away from them.”

To better understand how easy it is for a mature buck to sense impending danger, consider this analogy that comes from renowned deer biologist Dr. James Kroll. Imagine you are driving home from work. Have you ever noticed how, the closer you get to your home, you notice more changes in your surroundings? A block away, you see that your neighbor is washing a car you’ve never seen parked in her driveway. As you pull into your driveway, you notice that your son has left his bike out in the front yard. When you walk into your house and sit down in your easy chair, you immediately detect that your spouse has rearranged the living-room furniture.

As much time as dedicated hunters spend in the woods, it pales in comparison to deer that live there 24/7. If a bunch of limbs have been cut from a century-old oak, they notice the change. We try to trim shooting lanes and set stands well in advance of hunting season to give deer time to get “used” to the changes. But how many deer never become acclimated to what we see as relatively subtle environmental alterations? You can bet that the deer that don’t adapt to such changes are mature, and that they’re often the shooter bucks hunters are after.

Pattern-Busting Strategies

You have to think outside the box to bag mature bucks. They’ve heard car doors slamming and know this means a hunter has arrived. They see the new trail that’s been cut through cover that leads to an oak stand, and learn to avoid the oaks until after nightfall, especially if they tend to be more anxious.

“The big thing I see is hunters set up in funnels,” Dougherty said. “Everyone who has the technology to look at satellite imagery knows where these spots are, and they put their blinds and stands in them.”

Ambushing battle-hardened bucks goes well beyond avoiding setting stands in traditional locations like field edges, funnels and inside corners. Since we know that deer don’t just leave an area that has ambush spots, start by scouting your hunting area and thinking like a deer.

“I tell clients to walk their property and try to figure out what locations deer would walk to to smell hunters,” added Dougherty. “Go downwind 100 yards from your traditional ambush locations and look for deer traffic that shows they are checking for hunters before they walk through an area.”

After identifying these traditional sites, think about how you would avoid hunters if you were a deer. For example, if you are hungry and want to fill your belly with some corn, how would you get to the corn field without walking through traditional ambush spots?

Don’t try to commit all this new information to memory. Take a notebook with you and record the locations of all your ambush sites (stand locations) and where deer might go to wind hunters. Then write down potential unconventional locations to hang stands. It’s also a good idea to get an aerial photo and topographic map of your hunting property and designate your ambush spots, probable deer escape routes and potential hunting locations. While studying each visual aid, ask yourself how deer can get through the area without you detecting them. Once you start looking at things from a deer’s perspective, you’ll see how easy you’ve made it for whitetails to avoid you.

When it comes to selecting new stand locations, avoid heavily used trails like the plague. There will often be little, if any, deer sign to indicate some deer are slipping through an area. Mature deer often zigzag through a property to avoid hunters. Use this knowledge to your advantage when selecting new ambush sites.

Years ago I discovered by accident how some deer take the path of most resistance. I was hunting an area that my dad had just had lumbered for paper and pulp. It was late in Michigan’s firearms deer season, and I was trying to bag a mature buck I’d spotted a few days prior. As I sat in my blind, I saw a buck approach by walking over an old beaver dam that ran across a small swamp. I never would have thought that the buck would take that difficult path, but it did. I was able to harvest it, and to date it’s the largest buck I’ve ever killed in the area.

Don’t just set stands in unusual spots like next to small ditches or in small patches of cover. Make a note of how you are getting to and from each stand location, and record how deer could detect you from your entry/exit routes. And think about all the human scent you are leaving behind when accessing your stands. By making just two trips in and out of a stand location, you’ve saturated the area with your scent. Always wear scent-control clothing and make ample use of scent-eliminating spray whenever you’re in the whitetail woods.

If you’re going to employ this new hunting strategy, you have to be comfortable seeing far fewer deer than you normally would when hunting. By staying off of heavily used trails, funnels and other access points many deer use, you’re more likely to see the mature bucks that steer clear of these higher-traffic areas. In other words, what you give up in quantity you’ll more than get back in quality. And isn’t that what all serious deer hunters are after?