Busting the buck myths

Are these buck blunders blowing your hunt?

When it comes to whitetail behaviours, hunters often blur the line between fact and fiction—and that calls for some serious debunking

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We’ve entered a new age of mythology. All you have to do is check out the latest movies, TV shows, books and video games to see how deeply today’s culture embraces folk stories, lore and downright fantasy. But the embracing of mythology is not restricted to fans of ancient battles for planetary supremacy, lurking vampires and wand-wielding wizards—the hunting community also willingly accepts myths as fact, even though many have no basis in science. Perhaps nowhere is this more prevalent than among deer hunters, so let’s set the record straight.

1Larry Smith

MYTH #1: Bucks become nocturnal when pressured by hunters

While it’s true that bucks react to hunting pressure, they don’t resort to sleeping all day as a means to escape hunters. They still have a job to do, after all, especially during the rut. Granted, they may not frequent agricultural fields in daylight once the first few shots of the hunt have rung out, but they’ll still actively pursue does. It’s just that their midday courting grounds will have shifted to within the protective confines of the trees.

If deer in your hunting area have stopped frequenting open fields during the day, head into the bush after them. I guarantee they’ll be active. In fact, many veteran deer hunters will tell you 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. is the best time to intercept bucks on the move, with their primary trails easily confirmed by tracks, droppings, scrapes and rubs.

If you have snow to assist in tracking, and the wind is right, you can actually walk up on bucks during midday. Most often, however, it’s best to hunt them from a ground blind or treestand; portable ground blinds provide great cover and allow you to easily move in search of the perfect spot. The key is to hunt throughout the day—you won’t shoot many bucks from the comfort of camp.

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MYTH #2: Deer tracks with dewclaw marks belong to bucks.

I’m continually surprised by the number of hunters who believe they’re looking at buck prints when they see dewclaw marks. It’s simply not the case, necessarily. All deer have dewclaws, those vestigial claws on the back of the legs above the hoofs. When the ground is soft, muddy or snow covered, the dewclaws on both bucks and does will leave an impression.

The size of a track can also be misleading. While mature bucks generally have larger hoofs than does, not all deer are created equal—some have big feet, others have small feet and most are somewhere in the middle. And while we’re on the subject, it isn’t just bucks that drag their feet when walking through snow.

All this isn’t to say that examining tracks can’t provide meaningful clues to the sex or age of the deer that made it, but you must look at it from a broader perspective. Is it a single set of tracks? A buck is more likely to be on his own than is a doe. Is it a relatively large track? We can’t dismiss size altogether. More importantly, how long is the stride? That’s your best clue for assessing the size of the deer that made it—a mature buck has a significantly longer stride than doe. Put all these pieces together to make your best guess, but don’t be surprised if it turns out you’re wrong.

3Larry Smith

MYTH #3: The best hunting is during the peak of the rut.

While many hunters plan to be in camp for the peak of the rut, they’re probably better off to hunt just before or just after the peak. When the rut is in full swing, with many of the local does in estrous, dominant bucks will invariably be with them. That means hunters will have to deal with stationary bucks and the additional eyes, ears and noses of the accompanying does.

Bucks are most susceptible before or after the peak, when they’re moving about their territory actively looking for does ready to breed. They’ll move continuously, perhaps checking their scrapes or moving between clusters of does. When bucks are on the move like this, they’re single-minded in their purpose—and that’s when they occasionally let their guard down, making them the most vulnerable to hunters.

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MYTH #4: Only large bucks will rub on large trees.

Many hunters believe that a rub on a large tree is a sign there’s a large buck in the area. That’s partly true, but you can’t always take it to the bank—bucks of all ages will rub on both large and small trees. It’s generally true that large bucks will initiate rubbing on larger trees, but smaller bucks will often rub on the same trees, unable to resist the opportunity to leave behind their calling cards.

Remember, bucks don’t intend to rub their antlers on trees, but rather the small scent glands on their foreheads between their eyes and the base of the antlers. This way, they leave behind scent to advertise their presence and warn other bucks in the area. And while large bucks will often rub large trees, don’t assume rubs on smaller trees were only made by smaller deer—mature bucks will also often rub on saplings and smaller trees.

4Clinton & Charles Robertson

MYTH #5: You’ll scare deer away if you urinate near your stand.

You don’t want a buck to catch you in the act, of course, but study after study has shown deer don’t appear to associate the odour of human urine with a predator. Nor does the unique chemical-based odour trigger a flight response. It’s been documented, in fact, that deer can actually be attracted to the smell of urine from any number of creatures. In one experiment captured on video in the early 1990s, deer were shown to be attracted as much to human urine or straight ammonia as they were to natural or artificial deer urine-based attractants. The bottom line? You can leave that pee bottle at home.

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MYTH #6: Hunting over scrapes is the best way to find a big buck during the rut.

The truth is, bucks tend to make and visit scrapes much more often before and after the peak of the rut than during this prime period. It makes sense when you think about it: When most does are ready to breed, dominant bucks are too busy tending to them to spend time checking scrapes. Rather, it’s in the pre- and post-rut periods that bucks are much more vigilant about checking and freshening scrapes in an effort to find receptive does.

A fresh scrape does indeed signal there’s a buck in the area, but don’t waste time hunting over it unless it’s on a well-travelled deer trail. There should also be an overhanging branch that allows the buck to deposit scent from his forehead glands. Even then, it may be days before the buck revisits the scrape, if ever. While there’s always value in hunting bucks when you know you’re on their home turf, a scrape is rarely the spot on the spot we all wish it were.

7Russ Amptmeyer

MYTH #7: If it’s a windy day, you may as well stay in camp

It’s long been suggested that deer don’t move on windy days and that it’s generally a waste of time to hunt when it’s blowing hard. The theory is that in strong winds, deer are less able to detect predators, so in response they bed down in thick cover and wait it out. I have little doubt howling winds do render a deer’s senses less keen, but deer don’t quit going about their business just because it’s blowing. If they did that in some regions I’ve hunted, they’d end up with bedsores and die of starvation.

Deer know their territory like you and I know our houses. When the weather turns—whether it’s snow, rain or wind—deer know exactly where to head for maximum protection. They still want and need to eat, sleep, drink and breed, and wind isn’t going to prevent them from doing just that. They will, however, move to the parts of their territory that offer an escape from the harshest winds. Preferred haunts include creek or river valleys, natural draws or bowls, swamps and densely wooded thickets—anywhere that affords them protection.

The fact you’re not seeing deer in the same places you patterned them before the wind picked up means you have to rethink how and where to most effectively hunt them. Actually, a windy day can be a deer hunter’s friend—it narrows your search radius and, with the wind in your face, it ensures your scent won’t betray you. And as a bonus, any noises you make while moving through the bush will be muffled.

8Larry Smith

MYTH #8: The timing of the rut is determined by moon phases.

It’s the photoperiod—the number of daylight hours in a 24-hour period—that determines the timing of the rut, not the lunar cycle. In short, autumn’s shorter days trigger whitetails to start breeding. Across most of Canada’s whitetail habitat, you can generally count on the third week of November as being at or near the peak of the rut, irrespective of the moon phase.

This evolutionary trait is timed so that when a doe gives birth, the availability of food and cover for both doe and fawn, and the prevailing weather, will be the most favourable. There should also be ample time for the fawn to grow strong enough to withstand the coming winter. All this gives the fawn the greatest chance for survival. Photoperiodism never betrays this biological imperative—it’s as regular as, well, clockwork.

The notion that the lunar cycle is the primary trigger, on the other hand, simply makes no biological sense. Lunar cycles can be highly variable on an annual basis, so those who suggest the onset of the rut is influenced by the second full moon after the autumnal equinox are sadly misinformed. Similarly, some suggest the moon’s phase affects deer movement and feeding patterns. That’s probably true to some extent, but weather has a much greater influence on how deer behave on any given day.

 

Ken Bailey is Outdoor Canada’s truth-seeking hunting editor.