I’ll never forget the respect, attention and downright awe I felt while listening to the camp boss fill my 15-year-old skull with tips and insights from his three decades in the deer woods.
He leaned back in his chair, clamped his callused hands behind his head, and told tale after tale about bucks he and his friends pulled from the surrounding forest over the years. This was my first deer hunt, I was the only kid in camp, and my dad’s two friends were doing all they could to funnel their combined three-score years of experience into my novice brain.
For some reason, one of the camp boss’s beliefs stuck forever in my mind, probably because it started with these two words: “Deer always …”
Fortunately, I had read every deer hunting book I could find in the early 1970s, so I didn’t take his word as the final verdict in this case. In fact, I wouldn’t have recovered my first whitetail two years later if I had heeded his belief: “Deer always clamp their tail when you hit them and give you a big ol’ wave goodbye when you miss.”
The fact is, general truths about whitetails only take us so far. They might be 60 percent accurate, but they’ll never account for the quirks of each hunter or each deer — or what the deer experienced in the seconds or minutes before your encounter. Those general truths also can’t factor in ever-changing forces that affect the woods, weather and other circumstances beyond anyone’s control.
That’s why wise, experienced hunters don’t like to lock down on hard-and-fast rules about deer behavior. Instead of squaring their shoulders and saying “Deer always …” they’re more inclined to duck, weave, look apologetic and say “It depends.”
Let’s look at 10 common yarns, generalities or outright deer-hunting myths to see how they stand up to scientific scrutiny.
Myth No. 1: The biggest buck gets first choice of the does.
That’s true — if he’s there at the right time, the doe is willing, he intimidates all other suitors, and no smaller buck distracts him so long that an average buck sneaks in and breeds his girl while he’s not looking. In a perfect world, the monarch never wastes time dogging a doe that’s not quite ready, and he never loses a coy partner while driving off subordinates. Such distractions could also cause him to miss his chance with a prime doe over the next ridge, which instead settles for Average Joe.
Nature also can’t guarantee all buck-doe unions will produce offspring. When researchers at Mississippi State University genetically traced bucks and their progeny, they found an experienced, yet average-antlered buck often produced more offspring than his trophy-antlered classmates.
Why? Average always rules natural selection, says Valerius Geist, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary in Alberta. That’s why far more people resemble Frank and Estelle Costanza than Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
Myth No. 2: Scent is the primary attractant in active scrapes.
This won’t even earn an “it depends” answer. Scent is just one of three known factors that draw bucks to scrapes. More vital is the scrape’s location and the presence of an overhanging branch. If a scrape appears where deer don’t routinely travel, it seldom draws a second visit from a different deer. And if a scrape doesn’t include an overhanging branch about 5 feet above the ground, deer can’t leave scent all those months when they don’t paw and/or urinate into scrapes.
“Think about it,” said Professor Karl Miller at the University of Georgia. “If you have five bucks in a square mile of woods and each urinates 10 times a day, you’d get 50 new scrapes every day during the rut.”
Professor James Kroll at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas agreed. “Adding scent to a well-placed scrape increases its interest to bucks, but the scrape must also provide visual cues,” Kroll said. “In our research, bucks were just as likely to investigate a scrape whether we treated it with human urine, commercial buck scent, commercial doe scent, or ‘new-car-smell’ spray.”
Myth No. 3: Whitetail deer never migrate.
Although that’s true across much of the whitetail’s range, the question in some regions is how far deer migrate. When winter makes life unbearable, deer move 50 miles or more to find resources that can sustain them. Migrations — which might also cover only 3 miles — occur in Northern forests where deer seek thick stands of white cedar each winter, and in prairie or intensively farmed settings where whitetails travel far and wide to find sheltering woodlands or riverbottoms.
John Ozoga, who spent 30 years studying whitetails for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, reports myriad factors affect migrations and travel distances. These include food, nutrition, thermal cover, snow depths, prolonged cold and the herd’s own traditions. Does and fawns tend to migrate first each winter, while bucks linger where they rutted. Seldom do deer make a beeline for winter range. A Wisconsin study found most took 24 to 31 days to complete their journey.
Myth No. 4: The biggest bucks live far from the roads.
Given urban sprawl, rural development and the whitetail’s ability to live alongside humans, a safer generalization is that most big bucks live close to roads. Why? Because in most regions deer are forever surrounded by roads.
That doesn’t mean mature, secretive bucks can’t find refuge, however. Natural barriers are at least as important as distance in discouraging hunters from intruding. For example, when researchers conducted an aerial survey of public land in north-central Pennsylvania during the late 1990s and early 2000s, they learned to quickly predict where they would see few blaze orange dots on the landscape below.
They reported deer refuges occur in thick cover wherever hunters must first cross water, ascend steep hills, or walk more than a third-mile. That’s hardly a deep-woods or wilderness excursion!
Myth No. 5: Mature bucks walk into the wind whenever possible.
If that were true, all old bucks would eventually end up in far northwestern whitetail country, or whichever direction predominant winds blow from in their home region.
The fact is, the whitetail’s nose — and ears — are so extraordinary that hunters tend to discount how well whitetails use their eyes. With their combination of monocular vision to the sides, binocular vision to the front, and the structure of their eyes’ orbit and retinas, whitetails can detect motion ahead, to the side and slightly rearward.
At no time are those three senses in “screensaver mode.” Each provides an overlapping defensive shield that’s seldom defeated. Bedded whitetails typically watch the direction of greatest visibility while trusting their nose and ears to protect their rear, where terrain or cover blocks their view.
And when traveling or entering openings to feed, deer usually have the wind at their backs and trust their eyes to watch ahead. When returning to bed, they usually move into the wind to detect hiding predators that invaded their thick security cover.
Myth No. 6: Shed antlers reveal the best place to hang your stands for next fall.
Shed antlers can reveal which bucks might be available come hunting season, but only year-round scouting can determine if “the shed marks the spot.” In areas where deer migrate three miles or more between winter and summer range, you’ll struggle to connect a shed to a particular animal, let alone build effective hunting plans around it.
In areas where a buck’s home range provides year-round food and cover, and the shed drops along one of his secret haunts or travel routes, you might be onto something. A shed might reveal a secure late-season food source, a hidden spring where it drinks, or a hilltop thicket where it beds.
At the least, a shed antler reveals which bucks survived the previous fall and offers hope they will remain nearby year-round. Its biggest contribution to your strategies might be the confidence boost that keeps you on stand when others quit.
Myth No. 7: Bucks run for the hills when the shooting starts.
A deer’s instinct is to survive with the resources at hand, and fear prevents it from seeking refuge in unknown territory. That’s especially true in the eastern United States, where deer live in relatively small areas with ample food and cover.
Radio-telemetry research reveals that whether whitetails are hunted by humans, hounds or both, they seldom stray far or long from their home range. Dr. Grant Woods of Missouri says whitetails will never be confused with Christopher Columbus.
“Most whitetails act like they’ll fall off the edge of the world if they leave their home range,” he said. “Familiarity is their best chance for survival, especially in thick cover. If a whitetail lives in open terrain, its home range might be larger, and then its best defense might be putting more ground between itself and the threat.”
Myth No. 8: Bucks only pay attention to scrapes during the rut.
For hunting purposes, that’s true enough. During the two weeks before peak breeding, bucks frequently paw scrapes, sometimes urinate into them, and work the overhanging branch with their antlers/forehead, mouth, nose and pre-orbital glands.
However, some scrapes draw year-round attention. These off-season visits are less noticeable, except when documented by scouting cameras, which show bucks sniffing and marking the overhanging branch.
“The speculation is that bucks feel compelled to communicate their presence to each other, no matter what the time of year,” Miller said. “But in fall it goes beyond branch marking. They convey a complex pulse of new information by pawing the scrape and probably leaving scent from their interdigital glands. Then they convey another new pulse of information by urinating over their tarsal glands and into the scrape. Whatever it is the bucks are conveying, all research shows scraping activity peaking two weeks in advance of breeding.”
Myth No. 9: Only big bucks rub big trees.
Research in recent years verified that bucks of all ages and size work the same scrapes, and sometimes the same rubs. Even so, small bucks seldom initiate rubbing on a big tree. That first contact usually comes from a brute that needs something stout to test his antlers, bulk and muscle.
Even though subordinate bucks might approach these signposts nervously — and frequently lick their tarsal glands clean in order not to draw the attention of bigger bucks — they often can’t resist the urge to leave their own scent where a bigger buck has rubbed.
“If you watch how bucks rub, they’re not rubbing their antlers; they’re rubbing their forehead and the base of their antlers,” Kroll said. “They’ll stop and smell it often, making sure they’re leaving their scent for the next buck to smell. That’s their advertisement. It helps keep them primed. When a big buck is around, rubbing helps him suppress his subordinates. As long as they can smell him, they’re looking over their shoulders, worrying he might be near.”
Myth No. 10: Deer cannot see hunter orange.
For years the common belief was that whitetails were color blind and saw everything in black-and-white hues. That statement is half-right. Research suggests deer likely have red/green color blindness, which means they see reds and greens in shades of black and white.
The whitetail’s eye is also well-equipped to pick out violet, blue and yellow colors. Therefore, deer likely see hunter orange as more of a yellow and can best detect lighter-colored varieties of hunter orange. Darker varieties of hunter-orange fall more into the red spectrum, which is more difficult for deer to see, especially when dyed into soft fabrics like cotton, wool and fleece.
Deer can also detect light reflecting off hard surfaces, which is why they can best see hunter orange on sunny days on garments made of “hard” fabrics like nylon or vinyl. Meanwhile, any color in shaded, darker backgrounds isn’t as obvious.
If you’re worried about deer seeing hunter orange, choose garments made of soft, natural fabrics in camo/orange prints, and stay in the shadows.