Advice From An Old Buck
September 24, 2010
Learn what blacktails do to stay alive, and you'll be a more successful hunter.
A nine-hour stalk by author Bill Romanelli (right) and friend Kyle Carlisle resulted in a 280-yard shot on this young blacktail buck. Photo by Kyle Carlisle.
The young buck heard a whizzing/buzzing sound and at first, paid it no attention. The noise got louder and louder. Finally the buck stopped munching on the grass and looked up.
He saw nothing. But even as his ears started to perk up against his newer, bigger antlers -- he was a 3-pointer this year! -- the ground in front of his feet exploded, sending dirt and rocks into his eyes.
Instinctively, the deer jumped straight up into the air. His legs were pumping into a full run before his hooves hit the ground. A loud boom echoed around him as he began crashing blindly downhill, through branches and bushes and anything else in his path.
You've most likely seen it happen. In fact, odds are you've been the one who touched off an errant shot that sent an unscathed, otherwise healthy buck to flight. What do bucks learn from such incidents? The next time they hear the whizzing/buzzing sound of an approaching four-wheel-drive or all-terrain vehicle, how do they react? And where do they go? Just what do those big old gnarly bucks know that young bucks don't?
Fully acknowledging the Disney-esque pitfalls of anthropomorphism, let's step carefully into this scene and view it from the deer's perspective.
The young buck's heart raced as adrenaline coursed through his veins. He didn't know why, but his reaction to events he didn't understand was to flee from the area, to escape from whatever had made those noises.
In his frolicking younger days, when white spots graced his flanks and mere nubs had not yet grown into antlers that protruded above the hair on the top of his head, he'd heard stories of men with guns shooting at other bucks. But never before had it happened to him.
All attempts at grace and subtlety abandoned, he stumbled over a small rock but kept running. Finally, across the next canyon and most of the way up the next hill, he saw a thick overhang of branches almost surrounded by rocks. It looked like a great place to hide. He charged in through a small gap in the branches, stood stock-still within the shadows for several minutes, and then slowly dipped his head downward to peek out.
A deep voice from behind startled him. "You got lucky that time. You should be dead."
KING OF THE WOODS
The young buck whirled, prepared to flee once more. But his eyes had quickly adjusted to the dark and he was able to see who had addressed him. Lying in the back of the cover was the biggest buck he had ever seen. Thick, dark antlers projected out well past his ears and rose high above his head like a crown. Their tines forked off like lightning to five magnificent points on one side, four on the other. His face was stark white, but his eyes glared with a fierceness the young buck had never seen in another deer.
"And now you're trespassing," the old buck added.
Proud as he was at the first split in his own antlers a year earlier, and even prouder of his three points this fall, the young buck knew that challenging this bigger buck for this hiding place was out of the question. Instead he pleaded with the older buck to let him stay, saying that the hunters were certain to kill him if he left.
The bigger buck was quite comfortable in his shade and not in the mood to get up and drive the younger one off -- especially with hunters in the woods. So he decided to be generous.
"All right," the big buck said at last. "You can stay, as long as you sit still, stay quiet and listen. I'm an old deer; I've fathered dozens of sons and daughters -- you may be one of them, for all I know -- only to see them get killed simply because they were young and stupid. If you'll listen, I'll tell you how you can avoid the majority of these hunters, with their loud sounds and awful smells. They know so little about us and our ways and they make so many mistakes, it's a wonder any of them ever catch one of us. Frankly, it's embarrassing. So pay attention, and maybe you'll live long enough for your antlers to split again."
WORDS TO LIVE BY
The young buck agreed -- eagerly, but quietly. And so the old buck began:
"If you can just remember the nine things I'm about to tell you, one for each point on my rack, you might never see another human," he said. "There is the rare hunter who, through skill and knowledge, earns the right to take a deer, and that is an honorable death for any of us. Those hunters aside, here are the things you must remember.
"First, stay away from roads. An unbelievable number of hunters are perfectly happy with a tiny deer like you and they always find you near roads. Avoid the roads, and half the hunters out there will never see you, because they don't know how to look for deer. They drive along on their noisy machines with their guns strapped to their backs, instead of hunting the more rugged places and scouting out where we feed and sleep. They hope to stumble across one of us, which happens often enough to keep most of them on the roads. That gives us bigger bucks a better chance at survival."
"Second, use your nose, especially in late spring and early summer. That's when the dangerous hunters will be scouting the area, looking for the trees you've rubbed with your antlers and other signs that you've been there, watching you graze and bed down, mapping out your escape routes and figuring out your patterns. Some of them are careless when they scout and leave their scent all over. It usually fades when hunting season starts, which is good enough for a young deer who doesn't mind a ride in the back of a truck. A smart deer who wants to grow old learns to leave an area whenever he detects human scent, or goes out only when it's dark.
"Your nose can also save your life if you learn to make the wind your friend. Many hunters pay no attention to the way the wind moves in different kinds of terrain, or how thermals go downhill in the morning, then uphill as the sun rises and warms the air. The easiest thing to smell is their clothing. Most are smart enough to wash their hunting clothes with unscented soaps, but then contaminate them by storing them with their regular clothes. They also wear their hunting clothes in their cars, which puts the stink of fuel, old sweat and food all over them.
"You can also smell their sweat, unless they're clever enough to wear clothes that block their scent or spray themselves with some kind of sc
ent-blocking materials. And the one thing that almost always gives them away is their breath. Before they hunt, they eat huge, strong-flavored meals, or brush their teeth with minted toothpaste instead of something innocuous like baking soda. They have no idea that your nose, which is 100 times stronger than theirs, can pick up those odors.
"The hunters to fear are those who check the wind constantly, who store their hunting clothes in special bags mixed with leaves and grass from the area and who make every effort to neutralize their scent. The rest you can usually avoid without them ever knowing you were there. They make it almost too easy."
I CAN HEAR YOU!
"Likewise, use your ears. Even when they aren't driving loud vehicles or talking at the top of their lungs, nothing else sounds like a human stomping around the forest on their ridiculous two legs. Assuming they're smart enough to find a good hunting spot and cover their scent, you can hear some of them coming a mile away. When you do, don't worry about being stealthy in making your escape. Galloping away loudly alerts the rest of us to the threat, and it's our way of letting the humans know we're laughing at them.
"The ones to watch out for are those who take their time, move slowly one step at a time and patiently creep through the woods.
"Fourth, use your eyes. Most hunters use camouflage nowadays, but some think they can sneak up on you wearing jeans and white shirts or some other clothing that completely stands out from their surroundings. Every now and then, you'll see one who doesn't get the concept of concealment. There they'll be, standing out like a beacon at the top of a hill and peering into a canyon.
"Sadly, those kinds of hunters are vanishing. I think they just get frustrated at never seeing deer and quit."
"Fifth, use your terrain. Whenever you bed down for the day, pick a place that has at least one good escape route. You see? Mine's right over that way. Pick a high point that allows you to look downhill when the thermals rise to you. Stay in high grass or behind leaves and bushes because, as I said, most hunters don't know how to look for deer. They use binoculars, but they look at the brush instead of through it. And they look for a whole deer, instead of learning to recognize just an ear or a leg or a patch of hide. They don't take enough time to really look for you. And that's how you can beat them almost every time.
"Another thing about the terrain. Try and stay in the steepest, most rugged and brush-covered places you can find. Usually the mere sight of such hard country is enough to send most hunters looking elsewhere. That's why deer there grow so big and old. Steep terrain also makes it hard for most hunters to get a steady shot. They spend hours practicing from rock-steady benches on flat ground and aim at targets only 100 yards away. Most never practice shooting from the positions or distances that rugged country requires. So even if they get lucky and spot you, they'll probably miss.
"That's especially true if you're uphill or downhill from them, because they forget uphill or downhill shots are shorter distances than what their fancy range finders tell them. The steeper the angle, the shorter the distance; and nine times out of ten, they'll shoot right over you.
"Sixth, stay bedded all day. Humans are soft creatures. They get cold, tired, hungry, and they cramp up after just a few hours of hunting. Bugs really annoy them. Before the sun even reaches its highest point, most of them are back at camp telling lies about all of us they saw who were out of range.
"If you find a good spot to bed down shortly after sunrise and don't come out until dusk, they might never see you. Few hunters have the stamina to stay out all day waiting for you to blow your cover, as a good many deer do around midday, when they stand up and stretch. Still fewer are willing to hunt until the last daylight is gone, when they know there's a warm fire and a good meal back at camp."
"Next, try to stay away from the ladies."
At this, the young buck looked up sharply, about to protest. But the glare in the old buck's eyes was enough to make him fold his ears back and stay quiet.
"I know, I know," the old buck said. "This time of year, the does are irresistible, but try to keep your hormones in check until it's dark. As summer starts to turn to fall, almost every hunter in the woods knows that if they see does, they're sure to find a buck or two. I've collected whole harems by watching other bucks follow one of their does right out into the open, only to be dropped in their tracks by smart hunters. Also, does move around a lot more and they'll constantly give away your location.
"If another buck tries to challenge you for your does, I know your ego will insist you fight for what's yours. Just remember that there's a good chance that one or both of you will end up dead. For years I've been trying to get bucks to listen to this advice, but they don't. If one thing helps tip the scales in favor of the humans, it's that not one of us uses his brains when our does are in season.
"Also, don't go rushing in to the sound of other bucks fighting. A lot of humans have figured out that smacking a pair of antlers together late in the season is a great way to draw bucks out of their cover. It sounds like two bucks fighting, and that might mean a whole bunch of girls are unattended. My advice to you is to ignore that sound, unless it's dark out. Again, stay away from the ladies during daylight and you'll stay alive. If you just can't resist, at least stay downwind from the source of the sound as you check it out. Maybe you'll catch a whiff -- a warning -- of something strange before it's too late; it goes back to using your nose. If a hunter's done a good job of blocking their scent though, and you charge in at the sound of rattling antlers, you're probably done for."
A RUNNING DEER
"Finally, if you're sure a hunter is close and may have spotted you, run! If you force a hunter into a rushed shot at a moving target, the ethical ones won't pull the trigger at all. Others may try to take you on the run, but they won't be taking the time to make a good shot and will probably miss. If it's your unlucky day, they'll wound you, but since few of them know much about tracking wounded animals, they may never find you. The problem is that although you'll have escaped the humans, you'll spend of great deal of time trying not to become food for coyotes or cougars. If it's really your unlucky day you'll bleed to death, slowly, over several hours. It's a miserable way to die, so hopefully you'll never encounter anything less than an ethical hunter."
The young buck couldn't help being horrified at the thought and it was a few minutes before he realized the older buck was no longer talking. It had been several hours since he'd first stumbled into this shade, and the last golden light was fading from the sky. Soon it would be dark enough to move and leave the older buck to his sanctuary. He tilted his head up and sniffed the air: nothing other than the smell of tarweed, foxtails and, far off, a delectable oasis of vetch.
His stomach grumbled as the old buck spoke one more time.
"Bottom line my young friend, is that the difference between who wins, the hunter or the deer, comes down to who makes the first mistake. If you stay in cover, stay still and use your senses, the humans will almost always make that first mistake. Only those who have learned to think like we do and have figured out how to overcome our strengths -- which are also their weaknesses -- stand any good chance of success. The rest are all banking, to some degree, on luck."
The young buck thanked his host profusely for his generosity and his advice, promising to remember everything and saying he hoped to one day be as wise and as proud as the old buck himself. The old buck nodded and wishing him well, stood up. The land was dark and the chirping of crickets and frogs was all around, enough to cover the sound of his movements. He gave a wry look over his shoulder to the young buck and moved off to the scent of does that now filled the air.