Debunked! 15 Deer Myths

Get your deer knowledge learning curve on course before the next hunting season rolls around by putting these pieces of misinformation to rest.

Think that rattling horns work only in Texas, or on private lands with heavy buck populations? Don't you believe it: The tactic works anywhere.
Photo by Gerald Almy.

The store of knowledge about the intriguing white-tailed deer is increasing dramatically. One Web site, I'm told, even gives you a deer's-eye view, 24 hours a day, of a buck's activity via a camera mounted on the animal. Analyses of moon cycles, involved genetic theories and grad theses on the intricacies of the whitetail buck's behavior abound.

But amid this avalanche of information, many misconceptions about deer behavior -- downright fables, in fact -- persist. Though some who cling to these mistaken beliefs will never be convinced that they're not gospel, here's my attempt to clarify a few of the most commonly held myths about whitetails.

Why is it important to know that these "truths" aren't true? Well, for starters, most people simply want to recognize the reality of the situation. And the ability to distinguish fact from fiction can help to make for better deer hunters and deer managers.

'¢ Myth No. 1: If you see a rub on a small tree, a small buck, probably a yearling, is sure to have made it.

That's just not so. I've made a study of rubs over the years and watched 5-year-old bucks rub trees as small around as your thumb.

Now, that isn't the norm, especially early in the year. Larger bucks mostly rub large-diameter trees, and smaller bucks tend to rub smaller trees. But no hard and fast rules govern rubs. Most particularly during the rut, a testosterone-crazed buck will rub any tree that happens to be near as it tries to vent excess energy waiting for a doe to be ready to be mounted.

'¢ Myth No. 2: Hunting in the wind is a waste of time.

First off, a breeze is normal in many hunting areas. A strong wind doesn't make for the best hunting, but bucks can't just stop their lives because it's breezy. In fact, a wind can actually help you bag your quarry by concentrating it for you in areas protected from the wind, thus eliminating large swaths of territory that you don't need to hunt.

A moderate wind doesn't affect deer movement much, but during strong breezes, bucks tend to drop down to lower elevations, draws, hollows and valleys or protected bowls and basins within which they can move about freely while escaping the harshest winds.

Deer dislike strong winds, which render the cold more penetrating. Even more critical, high wind makes it hard for them to detect predators amid the noise and motion of branches whipping around. It also affects their ability to smell out potential problems and detect their source.

By hunting the right spots, you still can score on windy days.

'¢ Myth No. 3: Width of spread is the most important element for a high-scoring rack.

Actually, spread may be the least important element in that assessment. The most telling part of a score can vary with the conformation of the deer's antlers. But only one inside spread measurement is taken, so that's not that big of a deal in the final score. The two main-beam measurements are quite significant, as are the four mass measurements on each side -- often the tipoff as to a buck's age -- that are included.

The numerous tine measurements made on each antler are perhaps the ultimate determinants of a deer's score; a trophy buck can have a single tine measurement almost equal to the rack's inside spread. If you still think spread's so important, just look at the buck Wayne Stewart killed in Minnesota: Its net score 201, second-highest ever in that state, it ranks among the top dozen typicals ever killed. Its inside spread? Only 15 5/8 inches!

'¢ Myth No. 4: Scrapes are great places to hunt during the rut.

Bucks actually make and check scrapes one to three weeks ahead of the rut as a communication method -- sort of like checking in at the corner bar or burger joint. Once the rut arrives, they're busy checking doe areas and searching for the first females coming into estrus. Then, when they start to find ready mates, they're too busy hanging out with and breeding them to bother checking scrapes.

It's true that a week or two after the major breeding is done, bucks will once again start visiting and freshening scrapes while searching for the odd doe that wasn't serviced or trying to make contact for the secondary rut, which will start up in another week or two.

'¢ Myth No. 5: A buck grows its biggest rack at 3 or 4 years of age.

That may be the case for captive deer whose growth is unnaturally accelerated with heavy rations of high-protein supplemental food, but for deer in the wild, 5 to 7 years is the age when a buck grows its largest set of antlers.

You don't have to take my word for that -- just look at some of the bucks Mike Biggs profiles in his fabulous book, The Whitetail Chronicles (Jumpin' Buck Enterprises, 1-800-433-2102).

The practical side of the coin is that encountering a 5- or 6-year-old mossy-horned buck in most places on either public or heavily-hunted private land is a rarity, so you have to factor that into the equation. In most situations, if you can nail a 3- or 4-year-old, you're doing better than most other hunters in the woods. Just realize that it's not the true monster he really could be if he made it through another year or two.

'¢ Myth No. 6: The oldest, biggest bucks have the largest home ranges.

In fact, younger bucks have bigger home ranges. Old bucks seem to sense that to travel widely about makes them vulnerable; they also have the stature to claim the best territory as their turf -- and when they command the best habitat, they need less of it.

Certainly, large old bucks range far abroad during the rut, but that's breeding travel, which takes them out of the core home range in which they spend most of the year. Subordinate yearlings are relegated to larger but poorer-quality home ranges that require more rambling around if they're to find sufficient food and cover.

'¢ Myth No. 7: Protein is

n't important in a buck's diet until it starts to grow antlers in March or April.

Like all living creatures, deer need protein year 'round; it's a vital amino acid required for life. To grow the best set of antlers, a buck should have all its protein needs adequately met at least a month before the new rack starts to grow. Thus, whatever combination of food a buck is eating should add up to 16 percent or more protein.

Protein levels in many types of foods that deer consume -- clovers, lablab, soybeans, alfalfa and brassicas, for example -- exceed that mark, but must be averaged with other, lower-protein foods that they eat -- such as browse or corn -- to produce a level of 16 percent or higher for optimum health and antler growth.

'¢ Myth No. 8: Urinating near your stand will scare bucks away.

Well, a buck might run if it sees any movement associated with your answering the call of nature, but the scent of urine itself isn't going to have an effect. It's a natural chemical signal out there in the animal world, and deer are no more alarmed by human urine than by that of does or raccoons. Several studies have involved placing human urine in scrapes, with observers noting that bucks didn't spook when they returned to the site.

Certainly a human's urine has a slightly different chemical makeup than a deer's, but evidently it doesn't contain any of the alarm signals that smells such as human perspiration or skin body odor contain.

'¢ Myth No. 9: The peak of the rut is the best time to bag a trophy.

In reality, the period before peak breeding and the period afterwards are generally better. Think about it: During the peak of the rut, things can seem eerily quiet in the woods, because most dominant males are hooked up with cycling females and hanging out in a small pocket of cover somewhere; during those few days, they don't stir much. And afterwards, as females abound in most populations, the males need shift only a slight distance to find the next mate once they're done with the current one. Often the doe is part of a family group in a small area, and the buck merely moves to the next one close by when he finishes with the first.

Because of that, the period leading up to the rut is really the prime moment. This will vary by area, and may last for several weeks; thereafter comes the rather slow rut, followed a week or two later by another period of major movement -- the stretch after peak breeding during which bucks are searching frantically for one last doe that hasn't been bred.

So, yes, hunt the rut -- but if you have to limit your hunting time, opt for the week or two before and a few days after the major breeding period in your hunt; you'll find your quarry more active then.

'¢ Myth No. 10: A spike yearling is just as likely to become a trophy as a forkhorn or spindly-racked 8-point yearling.

We've almost come full circle with this myth. Spikes were once customarily considered genetically inferior, and we were supposed to shoot them to improve the herd. Then, with the rise of quality deer management, the tide turned the other way. Don't shoot the spike, we were told. Let him go so that he may grow.

Alas, the rationale for that counsel had nothing to do with a deer being a spike. For some time, too many yearling bucks were being killed, such that very few ever lived long enough to achieve their full potential. A buck at 1 1/2-years of age has developed perhaps 10 percent of its antler potential, whether that's as a spike or as an 8-pointer. So it was good to pass up some of those young deer -- but the principle should have been: Let any yearling go.

A spike might be a spike because it was born late, lives in an overpopulated area, or simply carries genes for substandard antlers. Whatever the reason, it can develop into as good a deer as will a yearling buck in the same area that grows a better set of "first" antlers -- but it's an uphill climb all the way.

So if you have a policy in your hunting area of letting all young bucks walk, it's fine to include spikes in that group as well; some of them may indeed develop into nice 120- or 130-inch bucks. But if you have too many deer, and feel that some yearling bucks need to be taken, by all means settle your sights on the spikes.

'¢ Myth No. 11: The best shot to take on a deer is the neck. Wrong. If this is the only shot available and you're an excellent marksman, go for it; otherwise, aim for the back edge of the shoulder, or an inch or two behind it.

Solid reasoning backs this up: The target is larger, the shot is virtually always fatal if you're using modern, high-quality ammunition, and the wound produces a better blood trail for tracking. Perhaps best of all, very little top-grade venison is lost with a shot placed in this area.

But if you place a neck shot just a few inches off target either way, you may waste a lot of venison -- the whole deer!

'¢ Myth No. 12: Rattling is only worthwhile on private land with a good buck-to-doe ratio and an abundance of older-age-class bucks.

Slamming a pair of antlers together, grinding them, raking brush and pounding the ground with them: All of this shows rattling to be one of the most exciting deer-hunting methods of all time. Certainly it reaches its pinnacle on private areas on which a fairly good sex ratio exists among the deer herd.

Old bucks seem to sense that to travel widely about makes them vulnerable; they also have the stature to claim the best territory as their turf.

But rattling can be productive anywhere -- provided that you catch bucks when they're in the right frame of mind. And the only way to discover if they're in that frame of mind is to try it.

And on more and more public areas, sex ratios are getting better as biologists encourage hunters to harvest more does and pass up young bucks. Similarly, deer's dominance and territoriality instincts don't vanish because they happen to live on public land; an older public-land buck will often come charging in to the sound of antlers if you hike in to areas not pressured too heavily.

You may have to cover more ground, and you can't expect a lot of action, but some bucks can be called in this way. And it's a mistake not to have rattling in your arsenal for at least occasional use from the pre-rut through the post-rut. Just be sure to make sure that no other hunters are close by when you try it -- and wear plenty of hunter orange.

'¢ Myth No. 14: It's important to bleed a deer and remove the tarsal glands before field-dressing it.

Touching the tarsal glands with your hands and knife could spread some of the scent to the rest of the deer after you cut them off; left alone, they won't taint the rest of the meat.

Another ritual that you can forget: the need to slit a deer's throat and bleed it before field-dressing. Actually any modern weapon, bow or gun, will cause bleeding sufficient to make slitting the deer's throat unnecessary. It won't make the meat any better, and will be challenging for a taxidermist to repair if you want to get the animal mounted.

'¢ Myth No. 15: The largest doe in a herd is the oldest.

It's middle-aged does that are the biggest. They'll be heavier every year until they're about 4 or 5, declining slightly in body size after that.

'¢Myth No. 16: If a buck with superb antlers breeds a doe, the offspring will display similar trophy qualities.

Nothing actually guarantees this. Females actually contribute 50 percent or more of the genetic makeup for the offspring, including the genes for antler growth, so unless the doe giving birth also carries genes for large racks, bucks bred by a high-scoring buck may not inherit antler traits of racks of a large size.

According to deer breeders, the solid but not outstanding bucks are often the ones that father the best offspring. We haven't begun to fathom fully the complexity of antler genetics; we've still only scratched the surface in terms of the forces causing a buck to turn out however it does.

And for the sake of my own peace of mind, I hope that we never do fully take all the mystery and wonder out of that process, such that trophy bucks can be cranked out like so many auto parts on a factory's assembly line. Where's the joy in that?

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