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By Dick Scorzafava

The whitetail buck is a master of his environment.  At times he seems a master of illusion, as even the most proficient of hunters finds himself not only up against a challenging opponent but an invisible one as well.  What causes these bucks to go “under-cover”?  How can a tried and true “hot” spot suddenly turn cold?  What can a hunter do to heat up such a hot spot that has chilled out?

Adjusting to changing conditions is what seems to make these bucks vanish into thin air.  But they are not really gone, they have just reacted to a situation in their environment that they felt was threatening.  What type of situation could trigger these Houdini-like responses?  How can we as hunters compensate?

Changing weather conditions, and vanishing food sources are but a two of the catalysts for the ever adjusting whitetails.  Most of the others are induced by hunters and the pressure they exert in the woods.  Just as the deer react and adjust to these changes, we as hunters need to be flexible enough to adapt and search out and discover where these creatures are hiding or what we can do to counteract their reactions.

Weather: there is nothing as changeble as the weather.  Unsettled weather conditions  make the deer disappear.  They haven’t abandoned the area, most likely they are just sitting tight.  Take advantage of advance weather forecasts when possible and use the eating frenzy that usually immediately precedes and follows storm activity.  Sitting in your treestand during a blizzard is just as ineffective as hunting on a hot day or during high winds and  heavy downpours.

When the weather is severe,  the deer do naturally what we all should do, find a safe, dry spot, sit back and wait it out.  If their internal barometers give them advanced warning of impending foul weather a whitetail will lengthen his feeding cycles to bulk-up for the weather induced time-out.  This elongated feeding time will give you more hours before the deer seek the safety of their bedrooms.  Setting up on travel lanes that lead from food sources to bedding grounds may present you with some shooting opportunities before the deer retire to wait out the storm.

Foodsources:  a whitetail’s main concern is survival and much of this revolves around food.  When a food source becomes scare or vanishes it seems as if the deer do too.  If you’ve totally lost sight of the deer obviously you must relocate the deer.  Buck or doe it doesn’t matter.  To find a buck, find a doe; to find a doe, find the food.  Knowing where preferred food sources are located is important.  Oak trees, orchards, clover or alfalfa fields all may help you get back into the swing of things.  Hunting these areas should prove effective but if for some reason they don’t, be flexible and keep looking for other favorite food sources.

Making use of pre- and post-season scouting can help as well as having a topographical or aerial map that can show agricultural areas.  Does tend to congregate in nutritionally rich area as their biological needs are greater to insure healthy pregnancies and to feed their young.  Finding family units will mean one thing to the serious hunter.  Bucks are not far behind.  As the rut progresses the buck’s travel patters will be determined by where these family units, and those hot does are congregating.

If you are unsure whether or not an area is actually feeding deer you must look for fresh sign.  Finding green acorns scattered on the ground is not fresh deer sign.  It is more likely a sign of squirrels overhead.  Look for tracks, fresh droppings and ripe acorns and acorn tops.  All of these together tell you not only is the crop ripe but that the deer are feeding long enough to produce droppings.

If you have found a new active feeding ground let the tracks to and from the area help you devise the best ambush spot.  It may not be in the middle of a field or right under a spreading oak tree.  Setting up on the fringe of such an area, where one can view the feeding ground but also have access to a buck while he’s passing by is a great strategy.  So depending upon the type of food source you’re hunting you want to be close enough to watch it but actually hunt the travel lane that shows signs of heavy use.

Hunting Pressure: over time, deer that have been hunted in pressured areas have learned to adapt to the invasion of the woods by man.  They revert to being creatures of the night.  A mature buck who senses hunting pressure may become almost totally nocturnal.  He will move and feed under the cover of darkness.  This is one adjustment that a deer can make that can almost stymie a hunter.  But take heart there can be some light at the end of this dark tunnel.  If they do not eat exclusively at night, bucks will at the very least move to feeding grounds that offer the ultimate in protection.  Looking for increased safety and security in addition to food bucks will hide out in thick, dense pockets or little thickets where they may munch out while avoiding hunting pressure.  The way to hunt these invisible bucks is to hunt them in their bedrooms.

Bedding areas never change and they are the core area of a whitetail.  His normal movement zone is bedding area, feeding area, watering spot, and the labrynth of connecting trails.  If you have found his bedroom you have zeored in on the heart of his territory.  When threatened a whitetail till limit their movements and stay in the area,  with the highest degree of cover and increased protection, namely his bedroom.  This bedding area may cover from 1-10 acres, and knowling where it is located ca give you a place to pursue a whitetail who has decided to wait out the intervention of hunters.  Set up your stand on the fringes of these areas and use them on optimum hunting days only, during the very early morning hours and the late afternoon/evening hours.  You may get a glimpse of a buck as he travels to and from the safety and security of his bedroom

Overused Tree-stands: whitetail deer also adjust to permanent and overhunted tree stands.  How?  They simply walk around them.  It is critical that the hunter have several stand sites set up in advance because sooner or later a buck will realize that you are there and then he’ll avoid that area for up to a couple of weeks.  Which could mean a totally unproductive season for you if you are not as adaptable as your quarry.  Permanent stands present this same problem. For even though the hunter may stay our of sight and even though a may see deer, the whitetails will learn that these stands represent danger and they will keep a healthy distance.  This can be an insurmountable  problem to the bowhunter who must get in closer than the gun hunters.

So how does the hunter adjust?  Move to another good stand site that hopefully had been set up in advance.  Setting up a new stand in the middle of hunting season may not be the preferred course of action but it may become a necessity.  It is critical that you avoid contaminating your area with human scent or by spooking the deer by changing the area too drastically.  Try to get in and out as unobtrusively as possible, and once ensconced in the new stand site don’t over use the area.

Silhouettes:  When confronted withshapes perched in usually empty trees, deer learn to distinguish man’s silhouette.  Again for those of us who hunt in treestands.  Whitetails have learned to distiguish the shape of man, outlined against the sky.  He may not realize what he sees exactly bit he has learned to identify the shape with danger.  Once a whitetail deer senses danger he will avoid the area himself and leave chemical warnings of danger for his fellow bucks, who will likewise avoid the area.  Today’s hunter especially those of us who use tree stands, need to make sure that we compensate for this acquired adjustment by making sure that  stands are not placed where they will outline the hunter against the sky.    Keep sunset in mind and realize that a stand that may be fine when the sun is overhead may illuminate you against a backdrop of leafless trees and blazing sky as the sun drops.

Deer cannot see all colors and they find it hard to distinguish motionless shapes.  So sitting still can be a great tactic to use while on stand.  Camo clothing can help a hunter remain undetected provided he sits or kneels motionless.  But its better to be  extra careful and sit a particular stand for a couple of days then move to another in case the deer get suspicious of the still but undefined shape of a hunter perched in a tree.

Danger From Above: due to the popularity and widespread use of tree-stands deer have been conditioned to look up.  They now look up, on the alert, to trees when in the woods.  They have begun to associate the fact that danger may be present and the threat is from above. The simple adjustment for the hunter to make is again to have multiple stand sites so that if you’re caught, you can abandon that site and move to a new one.  Otherwise you’re wasting your time.  Once you’ve been spotted, the only deer you’ll be spotting will be far, far, away.

Excessive Rattling/Calling:  Too much of a good thing can be bad, whitetail deer can become immune to the overuse of rattling antlers and calls.  Although these hunting aids can and do serve the hunters in the field, their incorrect or frequent use can can immunize a deer to their use.  Kind of like the boy calling wolf?  These devices do produce some excellent results in the right situations but they should be used sparingly and correctly to be effective.  If you over rattle, a whitetail will realize that the sound is not authentic and he may cease to react to the noise.  You  must imitate not only the sounds of nature but their tempo and their frequency.  So by all means use these products wisely and sparingly. But take care not to let the buck know you’re an imposter in your zeal to bag him.

Driving Mr. Whitetail: deer drives are a method of pushing or forcing a deer to move in a certian direction so that an ambush, staged in advance may bring a buck down.  Whitetails have become adept at circumventing this forced movement and they have learned that bolting right out straight ahead of the pushers results in death, because traditional drives place the shoters out in front.    The deer have adjusted to this hunting technique by turning to the sides, instead of running in a straight line, and running along along the edge of woods, fences, whatever, until they are back around and behind the pushers.  They then enter the woodlot well behind the pushers, and have left the shooters with nothing to shot at.

In order for the hunter to adjust to this twist on the forced drive, shooters must be placed on the sides of the areas to try and get a shot as the deer bolts to safety on the fringe.  Another shooter or two must be positioned about 100 yards behind the pushers
on each side to still hunt along as they try to take advantage of the whitetails re-entering the woodlot.  Keep a few shooters out in front and keep all your bases covered.  Several outfitters in Alberta, Canada have begun using this “net” technique to have more successful forced drives.

Locating bucks when they have seemed to abandon your area can provide that spark that can heat up your cold hunt.  If they bucks have disappeared because they have been over-hunted then you must be adaptable and find the new area where they are feeding and breeding.  Remember that you need to keep your presence in the woods as undetected as possible especially during the hunting season as you won’t necessarily have much time for these invisible bucks to return to their normal behaviors and reappear.

Avoiding pressure is critical for whitetail deer who are to survive the hunting season.  Their natural instincts and sense of self-preservation make them extremely adaptable and able to rise to the demands that hunting pressure exerts upon them.  Any disturbance natural or man made may interrupt a buck’s predictable behavior pattern.  These factors do affect a whitetail’s behavior but the changes are only temporary, and they are fairly predictable.  A whitetail’s unpredicatbility and his ability to adjust to any changing circumstances are predictable.  It is therefor up to the hunter to accept the challenge of becoming as flexible, unpredictable and adjustable as his prey.  Otherwise the whitetails will return to their normal patterns, but it will be long after you have returned home from the woods empty handed.

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