During my 73 years of whitetail hunting, I’ve been caught short of stand sites by upset deer plenty of times. The last time it happened, I only had 10 feet to go when a doe began snorting repeatedly out in the dark clearcut ahead of me. I knew it was a doe because about five minutes later a buck grunted out there three times. At first light, of course, the clearcut was devoid of deer. While tiptoeing to a clump of spruced overlooking a browse area a shortly before first light few years earlier, I was suddenly brought up short by another doe repeatedly snorting on my left, downwind. Shortly after on my right, upwind, a buck began uttering gurgling grunts. I was caught between them. Though always a supreme disappointment, I at least then always knew I had picked a stand site that would have put me close to a big buck.
Such experiences taught me some serious lessons: always approach from downwind or crosswind, for example, never select a stand site that can’t be reached without being seen by deer in an adjacent feeding area and always turn off my flashlight well before its beam can be seen by deer feeding ahead. Nowadays, while scouting two weeks before a hunting season begins, I always mark my trail at the spot where I know I will need to turn off my flashlight. Deer encountered well away from a stand site are less bothered by a flashlight as long as I don’t stop. They’ll usually simply move aside and watch me pass (as almost routinely revealed by tracks in snow later). When you stop at your stand site, however, that’s another matter. There a flashlight beam provides mature whitetails in the near vicinity absolute evidence of your identity and what you are up to. They won’t stick around the area after that, all hunting season.
Even after taking every conceivable precaution, unfortunately, being identified by nearby whitetails as I approach my stand site still occasionally happens, maybe more than I realize. Wherever whitetails are currently active, it is always likely one or more of them will be downwind as you approach. If a deer along the way that identifies you via your airborne scent isn’t close to your stand and if you aren’t acting as if hunting (sneaking and stopping often), chances are no serious harm will be done, unless, of course, the deer nonetheless begins warning all other deer within a half-mile of your approach via one or more snorts. Years ago, I knew a doe that was particularly skilled at identifying my son, Ken, and me at ridiculously long range while we were heading to our stands in early morning darkness. All we had to do to make it start snorting its head off in a densely wooded valley a good 600 yards ahead was cross the summit of a high hill east of the valley. After a few of such withering surprises, we learned to take the long way around.
Adjacent to one of my stand trails was a pond in which lived a beaver that amused itself by repeatedly making thundering slaps on the surface of the water with its tail each time it spotted my flashlight beam approaching. It would then follow me and continue pounding the water until I was finally out of sight. Needless to say, this ruined a nearby stand site that had great great buck hunting promise. I finally had to move that trail. Wildly flushing grouse and red squirrels barking at the last minute have been equally ruinous at times.
The point is, though you can actually become skilled enough to get to stand sites without alarming deer ahead much of the time, you can’t accomplish it every time and sooner than you realize after you do manage it, deer living in the vicinity will soon find you one way or another regardless, most often without your knowledge. This is no reason to quit trying to do it right, however. You only have to succeed in getting to a well selected stand site without alarming deer once per hunting season to become regularly successful at taking even the most wary of bucks.
Continuing to use the same stand site throughout a hunting season, even if you feel you have never alarmed a deer while hiking to and from that stand site, becomes a hopeless mistake much more quickly than you realize, particularly if it is your intention to take a mature buck. Every time you return, it gets worse. Whenever you move to a new (unused) stand site 100 yards of more away near a trail or site marked with fresh mature-buck-sized tracks and/or droppings—where a mature buck is active now, today, and has not yet discovered you—your odds for success immediately swing back in your favor. Sooner or later, keeping your odds for success high with silent moves to new unused stand sites almost always pay off.