During the early 1990s, tracks in snow revealed mature bucks in my study/hunting area were going out of their way to avoid many of our previously used tree stands and ground level blinds, whether in use or not, including those many used only once for a half-day. Because my sons and I routinely take special care to ensure we are well hidden and downwind or crosswind of trails or sites where we expected to see a buck, it was difficult to imagine why this was happening. Deer tracks in snow finally provided a long ignored reason. During a day of stand hunting, bucks are as likely to pass downwind as upwind without the hunter realizing it. When they pass unseen within 200 yards downwind, upwind hunters are readily identified and easily avoided. Via airborne scents alone, mature whitetails can also accurately determine the hunter’s location, whether or not the hunter is moving and in which direction. Experienced whitetails today apparently realize a hunter whose source of airborne scents is not moving is a “stand hunter,” therefore harmless as long as a safe distance is maintained. Tracks in snow in my study area have often revealed some young and older downwind bucks and does will sneak near enough to take a look at what the hunter is doing. I’ve known several bucks that went out of their way to pass downwind of stand sites I had used before, doubtless to determine whether or not I had returned. Some even bedded downwind where they could monitor any move I made from my stand and the direction I took when I departed. The point is, in addition to any seen or unseen upwind or crosswind deer that may have identified us because our dark silhouettes were clearly visible against the sky or a background of snow or because of because of motions or sounds inadvertently made, lots of downwind deer that lived within the surrounding square-mile had learned all they needed to know to avoid us and our stands for the rest of the current hunting season and more. To minimize wasting time at stand sites soon avoided by intended quarries, my sons, grandsons and I began switching to new stand sites, always in sight of very fresh deer signs made by the same or other mature bucks near locations where they normally spend most of each day, namely 1) current favorite doe feeding areas and buck scrape routes along which scrapes are renewed every 24–48 hours during the 2–3 weeks before breeding begins in early November, 2) current favorite doe feeding areas early and late in the day and doe bedding areas midday during the two weeks does are in heat and 3) current favorite feeding areas of mature bucks and sometimes bedding areas of older bucks beginning mid-November. All stand sites we use are 100 yards or more apart from previously used stand sites.
A few older bucks recognize preludes to hunting seasons —shots taken by waterfowl and upland game hunters, for example — after which they disappear for the entire firearm deer hunting season. Generally, however, it takes 1–3 days — one for still-hunters and hunters who make drives and 2–3 for stand hunters — for all other mature whitetails (2-1/2 years of age or older) to realize they are again being hunted by human hunters. Inexperienced yearlings (including bucks) and fawns not led by mature maternal does are slow to realize this, making them the most vulnerable to skilled hunting. By day three, many mature does and all bucks 3-1/2 – 6-1/2 years of age will be using the tactics that enabled them to survive previous hunting seasons: traveling off-trail more than 50% of the time, for example, becoming less active during daylight hours and becoming more apt to abandon their ranges for the rest of a hunting season. Following nearly a half-century of widespread stand hunting, older bucks everywhere have become proficient at avoiding ambushing stand hunters, typically discovering and beginning to avoid stands with hunters in them within the first 1–30 hours they are used. Today, if stand hunting close to a trail or site currently frequented by an older buck, you’ll either get the buck within 1–4 hours or it will begin avoiding your stand site within 1-4 hours. The latter is most common.
Though some hunters strongly disagree (to put it mildly) when I recommend getting to a stand site one hour before sunrise in the morning, my three sons, three grandsons and I consider this precaution to be one of our most rewarding buck hunting practices. The reason is, about 80% of the 101 mature bucks we have taken since 1990, including three we took last November, were all shot near edges of feeding areas early during the first legal shooting hour of the day (beginning 30 minutes before sunrise). They were all taken on public land in a region inhabited by overabundant gray wolves and where where only one deer has been taken per 10 square miles for quite a few years. Our mature, especially wary, wolf country bucks generally head back to their bedding areas by 9:00–9:30 AM in the morning, but getting to our stands early is important for another reason. Mature bucks and other deer feeding near our stands are almost certain to hear one or more indistinct sounds or spot one or more indistinct motions made by us as we approach our stands in darkness (through dense cover downwind or crosswind). This arouses their curiosity, but as long as those deer are unable to positively identify us, they will not abandon the area. They will be especially alert and cautious for about thirty minutes, however, sometimes longer. They often move to nearby cover to hide their presence, but if nothing more is seen or heard from us after we are settled at our stands, they will usually resume what they were doing a half hour or so later, feeding, for example, and becoming visible, just about the time it becomes legal to fire at them.
Getting to a stand without seriously alarming deer along the way is not easy. It took many years of trial and error and some lessons provided by wolves to learn how to do it. To make it work today, we routinely use about 30 special precautions. It doesn’t work every time, but it works often enough to provide most or all of us with one or more opportunities to take an older buck almost every year. Not all hunters are capable of doing this, being unable to sit still 4-5 hours or being unable to hike to a distant stand in early morning darkness without seriously alarming deer along the way, for example.
No, we do not take mature bucks every half-day we hunt. On the average we take one, sometimes two on opening morning (in photo above is grandson Ryan with the buck he took 20 minutes before sunrise on opening morning, 2018), but by the end of a week, we usually have our self-imposed limit of four mature bucks. Yes, we have taken bucks during all hours of the day, so we are usually out there hunting them during all hours of the day. Yes, we have also taken quite few between 11 AM and 3 PM as well, particularly when a certain recognized sequence of weather events triggers brief but massive midday feeding…but no one in the world is ever going convince my sons and me, and now my grandsons, to quit making the effort to get to our stands one hour before sunrise.
Watch for explamaions about tho 30 precautions mentioned above in my fuure blogs, YouTube presentatios, Midwest Outdoors Magazine articles and my website.