Even for students of whitetail behavior, there are always lessons to be learned when it comes to the idiosyncrasies of this incredible animal. by Charles Alsheimer
For nearly six decades I’ve been a student of the whitetail. In my wildest dreams I never envisioned having a career in the outdoor field. You see, I’ve gone through a process of sorts in my relationship with the whitetail. When I was a young boy, all I wanted to do was get a glimpse of them. Then during my teenage years, the thrill of hunting whitetails was a big part of my life. As I climbed the hill of life and went from being a young man to a seasoned citizen, I’ve been blessed to have hunted and photographed them across North America. Along the way I’ve harvested more than 100 bucks, and taken more than a million photographs of whitetails, from the east coast to western Canada to South Texas. In short, I’d hate to think what my life would have been like without the white-tailed deer.
Through these experiences I’ve come to realize that no other animal can stack up to the whitetail when it comes to beauty, grace and compatibility with man. My relationship with the whitetail has given me an incredible education. As extensive as this education has been, one thing remains: I’ll never know all there is to know about the white-tailed deer. But that said, there are some key things I’ve learned that have brought me both hunting and photography success.
NO. 1: THEIR NOSE KNOWS
Early in my career I’d learned enough about the whitetail’s ability to smell to know that I had to take every precaution possible if I was going to consistently harvest mature bucks. But it wasn’t until I began raising whitetails in the early 1990s that I really got schooled on how well they can smell.
The south facing fence on our highfenced enclosure was 425 yards from the nearest cover. Each fall when the rut heated up and we had a wind out of the south, our bucks would pace back and forth along the fence with their noses in the air, smelling the scent of estrous does in the woods more than 425 yards away.
I live in snow country and have always been amazed how deer can find food buried under the snow during winter. So, once I saw that our bucks were able to smell other deer over 400 yards away, I decided to conduct a test to see how well deer can smell food under deep snow. To qualify, all tests were in areas of our enclosure where the deer were not regularly fed.
The results were impressive because every deer had little problem finding apples and cobs of corn in snow depths up to a foot.
But perhaps the most amazing thing we discovered from 25 years of raising whitetails was their ability to identify every other deer in their home core area by body odor. This was most apparent at fawning time. Each doe knew what her fawn smelled like and would not have anything to do with another doe’s fawn(s).
Bucks also know other bucks by body odor. When bucks fight, one always flees the scene after losing. On several occasions over the years, I’ve seen the buck that won the fight hunt down the loser hours later, not by the benefit of visual contact but by smell. It’s an amazing thing to see. So deer don’t need a visual to know a particular deer. Each deer’s ID floats on the wind.
NO. 2: NO TWO DEER ARE ALIKE
As with humans, no two whitetails are alike. Oh, they might look like other whitetails, but it ends there. Each has its own personality that allows it to survive — and yes, get killed. Five decades of hunting, photographing and raising deer has allowed me to see personality differences up close and personal. I learned a long time ago that not all bucks are sexually active during the rut, while others roam their home range throwing all caution to the wind. It’s the latter that seldom graduate to 3½ years of age.
Personality also determines a whitetail’s fright/flight distance, as well as its level of aggressiveness. Some deer allow predators (man or beast) to get very close before becoming frightened and fleeing, while others will jump from their bed and run as soon as danger — visual or odor — is detected.
Aggressive behavior is also personality driven. Both bucks and does can and often do blow a proverbial gasket. Though fighting among bucks is common in and around the rut, knock-down-drag-out fights can occur at any time, regardless of whether bucks have hard antlers. Antlerless or in-velvet bucks will rise on their hind legs and box. Skirmishes among does happen more often during fawning time when deer get too close to fawns, but as with bucks, can happen at any time. When it happens it is like a heavyweight boxing match.
NO. 3: THEY NEVER FORGET
Animals are not known for their intellect, but I can offer that they are incredibly smart. Simply put, once they learn what danger looks and smells like they never forget it the rest of their lives.
The reason so many yearling bucks make up the majority of each state’s antlered buck harvest is that they haven’t had enough time to learn how to survive. But once a whitetail makes it to 3½ years of age they are a totally different animal. By their third birthday they know every odor on the wind, not to mention the best places to avoid danger.
A fascinating thing I learned about a whitetail’s intelligence is how they are able to decipher danger by the way a person walks. In my case, our enclosure deer knew me by my gait so they never ran when I approached, regardless of the angle or location I came from. However, when a stranger approached they nearly always bolted and ran for cover at first sight.
NO. 4: LARGE ANTLERS DON’T NECESSARILY MAKE A KING
There is a great quote that says, “Attitude determines one’s altitude.” Though it refers to humans, it can also apply to white-tailed bucks because the largest antlered buck is not always the most dominant buck in the herd.
Every fall I’m contacted by hunters who are frustrated over the fact that many of the bucks they watched throughout the summer have disappeared by October. In every case they want to know what happened. When velvet is peeled, the stage is set for bucks to determine who will have bragging (or breeding) rights in the immediate area. Though big antlers can play a role in determining dominance, they can’t come close to the role attitude plays.
Most bachelor groups stay intact throughout the month of September in the North. During this time each buck feels the others out by sparring, all the while testing each other in an attempt to see who’s going to be in charge come November. Throughout this time, aggressive vocalizations, threat walking and sparring rule the day. In most cases hierarchy is determined by mid-October, with one or two of the bucks becoming the bullies. This process causes the other bucks that made up the bachelor group to disperse and search for a location where they can be king. The downside for many hunters and landowner/managers is that bucks with much smaller antlers (but bigger attitudes) often run larger antlered bucks out of the area.
A lesson for all is that it is nearly impossible to stockpile mature bucks because once a buck reaches 2½ most are driven to be the dominant buck in their home area. What usually happens is that an older buck (3½+ years old) becomes the dominant buck, with younger bucks sticking around in hopes of getting a chance to do some of the breeding. Then, when the rut is over, those bucks that dispersed during early October and survived hunting season return to their original home range and reform the bachelor group they were a part of during the previous summer.
NO. 5: KEEP ’EM HOME
Much has been written over the past five years about the size of a buck’s home range during autumn months. Those who hunt vast Northern wilderness regions believe mature bucks can and do cover miles of unbroken wilderness during the rut. Hunters in farm country and urban settings believe it is much smaller. Then there is telemetry research conducted over the past few years that suggests bucks typically have a home range of less than 1,500 acres during autumn. In truth there is no way to be specific when it comes to knowing the amount of ground a buck covers when autumn’s frosty mornings arrive. This is due to a host of factors. Over the years, my son and I have been fortunate to harvest some very nice bucks on our farm. Not all have been what you would call homebodies. Three of our best were strangers because we never saw them before the day of our encounter. In each case we later learned their home range was over 2½ air miles from our farm (thanks to trail cameras and personal observations). However, for the most part our success in harvesting mature bucks has come from learning what it takes to keep them from wandering very far.
During the fall of 1990, a group of local landowners and I embarked on a journey to have better deer on our properties. Success didn’t come overnight but thanks to trial and error the knowledge we’ve acquired over the past 26 years has made it possible to hunt older class bucks. The key to our success hasn’t come from advancement in technologies or equipment, it has come from knowing how to hold deer on our properties throughout the year. The bottom line is that every white-tailed buck’s mission in life is to survive and breed. That’s it, just two things, but these are very important things. For a buck to meet these goals he must have great cover, great food and a healthy, vibrant doe population. If any of the three are missing the buck will walk until he finds a location that meets his needs. I realize this sounds pretty simplistic, but I’m amazed at the number of landowners/hunters who fail to address the three. So the formula is pretty simple: Cover + food + does = better hunting.
So, there you have it, five of the best lessons from thousands I’ve learned during my near 60-year love affair with the whitetail that has allowed me to be the hunter I am. Thanks in part to the whitetail, my life has been special. Along the way I’ve learned much about nature and life from pursuing them. And one of my greatest blessings has been the chance to share what I’ve learned with the readers of this magazine since 1979.