I listened with respect and more than a little awe the night before my first deer hunt when the camp boss leaned back in his chair, clamped his chapped hands behind his head and filled my 15-year-old head with advice from his nearly 30 years in the deer woods. One of his yarns stuck forever in my mind, maybe because it started with two words: “Deer always … .”
The fact is, general truths guide us only so far. But what’s the fun of deer hunting without its rich mix of mystery, science and hands-on experience? With that in mind, let’s look at 10 common generalities and outright deer-hunting myths to see how they stand up to scientific scrutiny.
Myth 1: The biggest buck gets his pick of the girls. This is true … if he’s there at the right time, the doe is willing, he intimidates all other suitors and no smaller buck distracts him so long that another youngster sneaks in and breeds his mate of the moment.
Nature also can’t guarantee all unions will produce offspring. When researchers at Mississippi State University genetically traced bucks and their progeny, they found an experienced, yet average-antlered buck often produced more offspring than his trophy-antlered classmates. Why? “Average” always rules natural selection, says Valerius Geist, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary in Alberta.
Myth 2: Scent is the primary attractant in active scrapes. Scent is just one of three factors that draws bucks to scrapes. More vital is the scrape’s location and the presence of an overhanging branch. If a scrape appears where deer don’t travel routinely, it seldom draws more visits. And if a scrape doesn’t include an overhanging branch about 5 feet above the ground, deer can’t leave scent all those months when they don’t paw and urinate into scrapes.
“Think about it,” said professor Karl Miller at the University of Georgia. “If you have five bucks in a square mile of woods and each urinates 10 times a day, you’d get 50 new scrapes every day.”
Myth 3: Deer never migrate. Although this is true across much of the whitetail’s range, the question in many regions is, “How far?” When winter makes life unbearable, deer may move 50 miles or more to find resources to sustain them. Migrations, which might also cover only 3 miles, occur in Northern forests where deer seek thick stands of white cedar each winter, and in prairie or intensively farmed settings where whitetails travel far to find sheltering woodlands or river bottoms.
John Ozoga, who spent 30 years studying whitetails for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, reports migrations are affected by myriad factors: food, nutrition, thermal cover, snow depths, prolonged cold and the herd’s own traditions. Does and fawns tend to migrate first while bucks linger where they rutted. Seldom do deer make a beeline for winter range. A Wisconsin study found most took 24-31 days to complete their journey.
Myth 4: The biggest bucks live far from the roads. Given urban sprawl, rural development and the whitetail’s ability to live alongside humans, a safer generalization is that most big bucks live close to roads. Why? Because in most regions deer are surrounded by roads.
That doesn’t mean mature, secretive bucks can’t find refuge, however. Natural barriers are at least as important as distance in discouraging hunters from intruding. For example, when researchers conducted an aerial survey of public land in north-central Pennsylvania, they could quickly predict where they would see few hunter orange dots on the landscape below.
They reported deer refuges occur in thick cover wherever hunters must first cross water, ascend steep hills and walk cross-country more than a third-mile; hardly a deep-woods excursion!
Myth 5: Mature bucks walk into the wind whenever possible. If this were true, all old bucks would eventually end up in far northwestern whitetail country, or whichever direction predominant winds blow from in their home region.
The fact is the whitetail’s nose (and hearing) is so extraordinary hunters tend to discount how well deer use their eyes. With their combination of monocular vision to the sides, binocular vision to the front, and the structure of their eyes’ orbit and retinas, whitetails can detect motion ahead, to the side and rearward. At no time are their three senses in “screensaver mode.” Each provides an overlapping defensive shield. Bedded whitetails typically watch the direction of greatest visibility while trusting their nose and ears to protect their rear, where terrain or cover blocks their view. When traveling or entering openings to feed, deer usually have the wind at their backs and trust their eyes to watch ahead. When returning to bed in thick cover, they usually move into the wind to detect hiding predators.
Myth 6: Shed antlers reveal the best place to hang your stand for next fall. Only year-round scouting can determine if sheds mark the spot. In areas where deer migrate 3 miles or more between winter and summer range, you’ll struggle to connect a shed to a particular animal, let alone build effective hunting plans around it.
In areas where a buck’s home range provides year-round food and cover, and the shed drops in one of his secret haunts or along his travel routes, you might be onto something. At the least, sheds reveal which bucks survived the previous fall.
Myth 7: Bucks head for the hills when the shooting starts. A deer’s instinct is to survive with the resources at hand, and fear prevents it from seeking refuge in unknown territory. That’s especially true in the eastern United States where deer live in relatively small areas with ample food and cover.
Radio-telemetry research reveals that whitetails seldom stray far or long from their home range. Dr. Grant Woods of Missouri says whitetails will never be confused with Christopher Columbus. “Most whitetails act like they’ll fall off the edge of the world if they leave their home range,” he said. “Familiarity is their best chance for survival, especially in thick cover. If a whitetail lives in open terrain, its home range might be larger, and then its best defense might be putting more ground between itself and the threat.”
Myth 8: Bucks pay attention to scrapes only during the rut. For hunting purposes, this is true enough. During the two weeks before peak breeding, bucks frequently paw scrapes, sometimes urinate in them and work the overhanging branch with their antlers/forehead, mouth, nose and pre-orbital glands.
However, some scrapes draw year-round attention. Off-season visits are less noticeable, except when documented by scouting cameras. “The speculation is that bucks feel compelled to communicate their presence to each other, no matter what the time of year,” Miller said. “But in fall it goes beyond branch marking. They convey a complex pulse of new information by pawing the scrape and probably leaving scent from their inter-digital glands. Then they convey another new pulse of information by urinating over their tarsal glands and into the scrape. Whatever it is the bucks are conveying, all research shows scraping activity peaking two weeks in advance of breeding.”
Myth 9: Big bucks rub big trees. Research in recent years verified that bucks of all ages and sizes work the same scrapes, and sometimes the same rubs. Even so, small bucks seldom initiate rubbing on a big tree. That first contact usually comes from a brute that needs something stout to test his bulk.
Even though subordinate bucks might approach these signposts nervously—and frequently lick their tarsal glands clean to avoid the attention of bigger bucks—they often can’t resist the urge to leave their own scent where a bigger buck rubbed. “If you watch how bucks rub, they’re not rubbing their antlers; they’re rubbing their forehead and the base of their antlers,” said Dr. James Kroll at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas. “They’ll stop and smell it often, making sure they’re leaving their scent for the next buck to smell. That’s their advertisement. It helps keep them primed. When a big buck is around, rubbing helps him suppress his subordinates. As long as they can smell him, they’re looking over their shoulders, worrying he might be near.”
Myth 10: Deer cannot see hunter orange. For years the common belief was whitetails were color-blind and saw everything in black and white. That is half-right. Research suggests deer likely have red/green color-blindness, which means they see reds and greens in shades of black and white.
The whitetail’s eye is equipped to pick out violet, blue and yellow. Therefore, deer likely see hunter orange as more of a yellow, and can best detect lighter-colored varieties of hunter orange. Darker varieties of hunter orange fall into the red spectrum, which is more difficult for deer to see, especially when dyed into soft fabrics like cotton, wool and fleece. Deer can also detect light reflecting off hard surfaces; they can best see hunter orange on sunny days on garments made of “hard” fabrics like nylon or vinyl. Meanwhile, any color in shaded, darker backgrounds isn’t as obvious.
Fast Facts • The average human nose contains about 5 million receptor sites; the nose of a whitetail contains hundreds of millions. • Research finds between 85-98 percent of deer activity at scrapes occurs at night. • Radio-telemetry studies of deer during hunts reveal they seldom leave their home range, even if it’s as small as 200 acres. The few that stray farther usually return before the next dawn. • In University of Georgia studies, up to 11 different antlered bucks worked one scrape site during a two-week monitoring period. • A 2001 Texas study found a maximum of 28 percent of bucks fathered more than one full-term pregnancy each fall.