The Bear That Changed Whitetail Hunting Forever

My son Dave’s routine upon arriving at 1 PM at his black bear stand/bait site 40-some years ago was fairly standard for us Nordbergs. Though his bait crib had been torn apart by a bear during the previous 24 hours, it still contained plenty of bait so Dave went straight to the base of the tree trunk at the edge of his 7-yard-diameter bait site opening opposite his stand tree and poured half of the honey from a jar into an empty bowl-like watermelon rind (previously cleaned out by a bear) and placed it on the ground between the tree trunk and the brush stacked behind it where one-half of the bowl would be visible from his portable tree stand. Then, using a short stick, he removed six limp-fried slices of bacon from a plastic bag and hung them on limbs in the brush pile. His “positioning baits” were then ready to ensure a bear would be standing quartering away when he released an arrow at it from his stand nine feet above the ground — setting up a deadly heart/lung shot with an easy to trail exit wound. Minutes later, Dave was seated in his stand, face covered with a camo headnet, arrow nocked and resting across his bow, his half full jar of honey stored out of the way on his stand platform beneath his seat.

About four hours later, his stand tree began to tremble. Turning his head a bit, he discovered a bear weighing about 250 pounds (not the 350+ pounder he was expecting) was climbing his tree. Figuring it would flee the moment it realized a human was perched above it, Dave froze. This realization didn’t occur until the beat was reaching for the jar of honey. After bear and hunter stared at one another a few long seconds, the bear backed down, sans honey, and quickly departed.

What that bear had just proven, black bears readily smell food and therefore humans as well in trees nine or more feet above the ground. That bear did not react to Dave’s odors accompanying the sweet odor of honey because it had become accustomed to smelling them during the two weeks before the opener when Dave had been regularly hauling (on a plastic toboggan) more bait to the site midday.

Having often watched mature whitetails halt upon discovering human trail scents and then stare in the direction taken by the humans, it is certain whitetails have a greater sense of smell than black bears, meaning, whitetails can also readily smell humans using elevated stands (contrary to popular belief decades ago). Since the 1970s, via magazine articles (nearly 800 of them), books (15), videos, and hundreds of nationwide seminars, I’ve been regularly warning hunters about this. Considering the great number products now available that claim to eliminate scents of deer hunters, most hunters now realize this is true.

The trouble is, most odor eliminating products have distinctive odors of their own, their effectiveness (those I’ve tested) is short-lived and some odors common to deer hunters such human breath and rubber boot soles cannot be eliminated. The only sure way to be completely certain you cannot be smelled by intended quarries is 1) approach them from downwind or crosswind (with the crosswind angling toward your right or left cheek) and then 2) stand hunt downwind or crosswind of where you expect to see a deer.

Keep in mind, while hunting, many deer will pass downwind of you and responses of downwind whitetails to your airborne human odors will be far less ruinous to hunting when not strong, meaning, while hunting whitetails, it is still a good idea to be as odor-free as possible.

Moonlight and Hunted Whitetails

Being equally active in darkness and sunlight, the degree to which whitetails begin to favor being most active in darkness during hunting seasons depends on how often they must raise their tails and flee and moonlight. For hunted whitetails that have survived two or more previous hunting seasons, moonlight at night is the clincher (a no-brainer) for mostly limiting activities to nighttime hours only — the period during which they are not normally threatened by aggressive (roaming) hunters and/or alarmed by nearby gunshots. When there is moonlight before sunrise in the morning, even when provided by a mere sliver of a moon, where hunting pressure is moderate-to-great (including hunting pressure attributable to wolves), hunted mature whitetails are typically on their way to bedding areas when the first rays of sunlight begin to stream from the eastern horizon. When there is moonlight in the evening, hunted mature whitetails generally wait until dusk to stir from their bedding areas. When there is moonlight all night, few whitetails are likely to be seen on the move throughout the following day.

The moonlight effect may cancelled by dark, heavy clouds, moderate-to-heavy precipitation and/or winds exceeding 15 mph at night; occasionally by does in heat. Bright northern lights can have the same affect as moonlight.

By no means should you forgo hunting in a morning or evening because of moonlight. Most mature whitetails are rarely completely nocturnal. To improve your odds for stand hunting success, don’t miss a minute of legal shooting time during the first and/or last hour of the day. On a moonlit morning make it point to get to your stand site 30 minutes before first light so there will be complete silence and no discernable movements made by you during the 30 minutes between your arrival and the first legal shooting minute of the day. If you arrive at first light, you will have wasted half of that first hour. If you arrive at sunrise, you probably will have wasted the entire morning. On a moonlit evening, remain at your stand site until 30 minutes after sunset.

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Ordinarily, skilled stand hunting is most rewarding during the weeklong period each 28 days when there is no moonlight at night. By skillfully keying on the first and last hours of the day during periods of moonlight, your odds for success can be nearly as favorable. Keep in mind, too, despite moonlight, lone yearlings and fawns (not being led by older experienced does) are likely to be active throughout hours whitetails normally feed in daylight.

Beware the Whitetail’s 200-Yard Rule

Whereas whitetail fawns and yearlings do not think about it much and many 2-1/2 year-old bucks consider merely being out of sight of a hunter to be safe enough, while not bedded most bucks 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age (few live longer) and many does 2-1/2 years of age or older are firm advocates of “the 200 yard rule” — responding in some way to avoid discovery by an approaching hunter currently about 200 yards away. It’s not a 100% effective rule because hunting humans cannot always be heard, seen or smelled that far away. Whenever possible, however, an older, experienced whitetail will always somehow react upon detecting and identifying a hunter about 200 yards away. If not moving toward the deer, it will generally ignore the hunter. If the hunter is drawing nearer (typically made evident by sounds characteristic of big-footed human hunters moving on foot), however, an older experienced whitetail will become prepared to do something to avoid discovery by the hunter. At first it may merely remain where it is and continue whatever it was doing, feeding for example, but during the following 15–30 minutes it keep extra alert in order to monitor the progress of the hunter. Once it appears the hunter will definitely close within 100 yards, the deer will begin moving away. If sounds indicate the hunter is moving non-stop, therefore not currently hunting, the deer will not usually move far, merely moving to nearby cover out of the approaching hunter’s path where it can watch the hunter pass. If sounds made by the hunter are often interrupted by short periods of silence, indicating the human is often halting, therefore hunting, the deer will silently vacate the area before the hunter is near enough to realize it, after which it will not likely return to the same area four or more days. The 200 yard rule thus enables mature whitetails to regularly out-maneuver unsuspecting hunters without the need for haste or the need to abandon their home ranges (a hunt-ruining response).

First Rule for Successful Buck Hunting

My family of whitetail hunters and I became addicted to hunting mature bucks after using primitive platforms nailed six feet above the ground between adjacent tree trunks in the early 1970s and using doe-in-heat lure scents introduced in the early 1980s, making buck hunting remarkably easy. By the late 1980s, however, mature bucks were beginning to prove they were learning to identify and avoid hunters using both of these hunting aids. It was then that we began searching for new and improved hunting methods, the relative effectiveness of each tried determined only by numbers of unsuspecting mature bucks seen within 50 yards during a specific (multi-year) period of time. It was then that we discovered about 85% of the mature bucks we were taking were spotted during the first three legal shooting hours of the day beginning one-half hour before sunrise, half during the first hour. We also then discovered it takes about a half hour for unseen upwind whitetails within hearing distance of our stands (50–200 yards away) to quit being especially alert and cautious after we sit down at our stands (then becoming completely silent). To avoid missing a minute of effective hunting time during those first three hours, in 1991 we made it a rule to arrive at our stands (in trees or at ground level) one-half hour before legal shooting time begins (one hour before sunrise). To facilitate unerring travel on foot in darkness, we mark our stand trails with fluorescent tacks that light up like Christmas tree bulbs in the beam of a flashlight. Today, this precaution remains our first rule for earning opportunities to take mature bucks.

Give Whitetails a Chance to be Predictable

Normally, whitetails are 50% nocturnal. At least half what they do when not bedded takes place in darkness before first light in the morning and in darkness after dusk in the evening. When hunters make it too dangerous for them to be up and about during daylight hours, they are not in the least handicapped upon deciding it is necessary to become 100% nocturnal (move about during nighttime hours only). Actually, their eyes are evolved for this, enabling them to see as well at night as by day. Hunting success, then, has everything to do with how dangerous it is for whitetails to move about during daylight hours during hunting seasons.

How dangerous is it where you hunt? Do you and your hunting partners make drives? Do you prefer moving about throughout the day, still-hunting or seeking deer to stalk? If your answer is “yes,” whitetails in your hunting area are finding it extremely dangerous to move about during daylight hours. Moreover it is certain most of them cannot find safe places to bed during daylight hours within their home ranges. To survive under such circumstances, mature (experienced) whitetails fully realize their only safe alternative is to quickly abandon their home ranges, seeking refuge in long familiar places seldom invaded by hunters such as posted lands and swamps and bogs (which can be miles away).

You are probably thinking this can’t be helped because hunting humans are in fact dangerous predators of whitetails. However, what you probably don’t realize is, like traditional prey of large predators throughout the world, our mature whitetails are capable of living fairly normal, predictable lives during hunting seasons if given the chance. You probably don’t realize, when whitetails are given the chance, your hunting success can improve dramatically. How is this possible? The answer has long been known by modern bowhunters who often change stand sites. It’s called “stand hunting,” Where all or most hunters are stand hunters and where those who are not stand hunters are respectful of areas where hunters are stand hunting, all classes of whitetails including the largest of bucks rarely find it necessary to become 100% nocturnal or abandon their ranges. Best for them, whitetails then have safe bedding areas during daylight hours. As preferred, they can thus remain in their home ranges during hunting seasons, free to feed at predictable places during predictable hours almost anywhere they want, at least until some unknowingly wander into easy shooting range of skilled stand hunters.

Fresh Deer Tracks With Great Hunting Value

Fresh tracks of a trotting deer (tracks three or more feet apart along a fairly straight line) or a bounding deer (elongated C- or J-shaped track patterns 15–25 feet apart) have no hunting value. They were made by a highly alarmed deer abandoning the area, perhaps its entire home range. It will not likely be seen in the same vicinity for a considerable number of days, if at all.

Fresh tracks of a walking deer (12–18 inches apart) or a feeding deer (tracks close together and randomly zigzagging) indicate the deer was not alarmed. If discovered early or late in the day, whether the deer is currently visible or not, it is likely fairly near. If the fresh tracks are found midday, though it is unlikely that deer is currently near, it will likely return to the same vicinity later the same day or early the following morning (unlikely after that).

What should you do? If early or late in the day, rather than attempt to stalk that deer, cautiously move 20 yards or more to a downwind site where you will be well hidden, sit down on your backpacked stool and wait patiently for the deer to appear — until 10–11 AM in the morning or 30 minutes after sunset in the evening. If midday, leave the area. After lunch, cautiously return to an appropriate stand site site from downwind or crosswind or before sunrise he following morning.

If the fresh tracks of the unalarmed deer are 3-3/4 to 4 inches long (not including imprints made by dewclaws), I never hesitate to hunt that deer as described above because the deer that made those tracks is an enormous buck. I have taken quite a few mature bucks, some of them dominant breeding bucks, within 15–30 minutes after sitting down on a nearby log or my stool.

You don’t own such a stool? Think about what you are missing.

Check the Wind Direction Before Hunting a Whitetail Feeding Area.

If you are a veteran stand hunter, you have doubtless noticed you are far less likely to see whitetails in the evening. Here’s why. Realizing they are most vulnerable while feeding, being most visible and often having their heads down, mature whitetails almost always use their noses to determine whether or not a large predator or human hunter is waiting in ambush within or adjacent to its intended feeding area before entering it. This, of course, must be done from downwind.

Normally, whitetails begin feeding in the morning shortly after 4 AM. Whether you are planning to use an elevated stand or sit at ground level, because whitetails will already be feeding as you approach a feeding area in the morning, it is best approach the feeding area from downwind in the morning, beginning 200 yards or more away, and then sit near a downwind edge. Why 200 yards away? Because feeding whitetails are likely to react with alarm upon smelling you approaching within 200 yards (your airborne odors growing stronger as you draw nearer).

Matters are different in the afternoon. If you arrive at a feeding area before whitetails arrive, which you should always do to avoid the risk of being heard and seen approaching by feeding whitetails, stand hunting at a downwind location is then totally wrong. There, whether high in a tree or stand hunting at ground level. you will be easily smelled and identified by whitetails normally approaching from downwind, it being impossible to eliminate all odors common to human hunters (the pungent odor of rubber boot soles and mouth odors to name a couple). In the afternoon and evening, then, you should approach from and sit crosswind of the edge of a feeding area. Keep in mind your airborne scents will spread out as they drift downwind. A high vantage spot where the wind angles slightly toward your right or left cheek is ideal. This precaution will improve numbers of deer you will see in late afternoon and evening.

Frenzies of October Whitetail Hunting

Whitetail does won’t be in heat until early November. Yet, in a couple of weeks (mid-October) antlered bucks will begin their usual 2–3 week frenzy of making musk-laden antler rubs and ground scrapes. So why do they do this? Because cooler nights and peaking testosterone have inflamed their genetically influenced passion to mark intended breeding ranges with visible and musk-laden signposts. By this time, one enormous and aggressive buck will have conquered all other bucks in battle within its 1–2 square-mile home range, becoming the dominant breeding buck. No longer tolerant of other antlered bucks after weather cools, it will force them to flee off-range where most will remain and keep a low profile until November breeding is over. Until breeding begins, especially during hours whitetails normally feed, the dominant breeding buck will cruise its breeding range daily, searching for lesser bucks that dared to sneak back, visiting all does within its range (anxiously anticipating the first whiff of doe-in-heat pheromone) and renewing musk odors on all of its scrapes and many of its rubs — regarded as no trespassing signs by all other bucks. Between the onset of this activity and the onset of breeding in early November, there is no better time to hunt the largest of bucks living within your hunting area (bowhunting), keying on freshly renewed ground scrapes adjacent to deer trails with fresh deer tracks measuring 3-1/2 inches or more in length and/or fresh droppings measuring ¾ inch or more in length.

Typically, however, the discovery the abundance of freshly made or renewed ground scrapes at this time touches off a frenzy among deer hunters: using so-called “buck lures” to attract bucks to real or fake ground scrapes. Hunters have finally come to realize, however, wherever whiffs of airborne doe-in-heat pheromone are carried by the wind, odors emitted by the nearby hunter using it are also carried, alerting or alarming all downwind deer. This in turn has touched off still another frenzy among hunters: using gimmicks and potions claimed to eliminate or mask human odors.

Throughout the latter half of October, few things are more important to a dominant buck than keeping its musk odors strong at each of its scrapes. The only things that will keep a buck from regularly renewing each of its scrapes at least once every 24–48 hours are unseasonably warm or stormy weather or knowing a hunter is waiting in ambush near one. The more a hunter does to lure a buck to a scrape, the more likely and the sooner the buck will discover the presence of the hunter, usually occurring without the hunter’s knowledge.

The very best way to hunt near a scrape is as follows: 1) only hunt near a freshly made or renewed scrape, 2) stay well away from the scrape and adjacent trail, adding nothing to them including your trail scents, odors emitted from your breath and skin and the strong odor of rubber emitted by your rubber boot soles, 3) approach them from downwind or a crosswind angling toward one of your cheeks only, preferably beginning 200 yards away, and 4) sit silently and without discernable motions in a tree stand or on a stool at ground level without bare skin showing and where your silhouette is well hidden downwind or crosswind of the scrape. If a buck doesn’t show up within two days, it knows you are there, meaning it’s time to move to a new, recently made or renewed scrape.

How to Identify a Whitetail Feeding Area

Caption: Why feeding areas have so many tracks and droppings. (Texas whitetails.)

Whitetails spend nearly half of their lives feeding. They feed twice, sometimes three times, daily. Accordingly, there are more deer signs in feeding areas than just about anywhere else (except where whitetails are concentrated in wintering areas). If you are interested in becoming a more successful whitetail hunter, there is one overwhelming reason why it is important to be able to identify whitetail feeding areas: whitetails are most easy to see while they are up and moving about, feeding and traveling to and from feeding areas. Almost everything else they do while not bedded, including drinking water and engaging in rut related activities from early September to early January — including bucks sparring and battling to gain dominance, making or renewing ground scrapes and antler rubs, dominant bucks searching for does in heat and lesser bucks intruding in their breeding ranges and breeding — occurs during hours whitetails normally feed. Whitetails are most difficult to see while they are bedded, typically motionless (except for cud chewing), well hidden and stubbornly refusing to do anything else.

The deer signs that most make whitetail feeding areas obvious are lots of off-trail deer tracks and droppings, fresh and old among vegetation they normally eat — green grasses and leaves in summer and early fall (also acorns) and woody stems of various shrubs and saplings in late fall and winter. Heavily trampled patches of soil or snow reveal where antlered bucks have battled late during feeding cycles. Evidences of feeding may not be obvious until whitetails begin feeding on stems of woody shrubs and tree saplings in late fall, white ragged tips then becoming prominent. Look for lots of broken shells of acorns beneath oaks.