October 19, 2023
A slight stick break sparks a sudden flurry of action. The big typical 10-pointer stands in its bed 50 yards away. Unsure of the sound source, it slowly turns and slinks out the backdoor, carefully navigating through thick cover as it goes. It turns and looks one final time before disappearing over the ridge. And then, it’s gone.
But not forever. Completely aware of what might unfold, you carefully ease to the downwind side of the bed, quietly hang a tree stand and settle into position. Three hours later, the giant buck returns, and you arrow a deer you bumped the same day. That’s what can sometimes occur from an intentional or unintentional soft bump. Not everyone buys into it, though.
CONVENTIONAL VS. MODERN THOUGHTS
Hunters long touted that a bumped buck was the end of the pursuit for that deer. There was literally no hope after hard spooking a mature whitetail. Virtually every magazine article, newspaper clipping, television episode, seminar speaker and opinion-giver said as much. And so, we all believed it.
It birthed an age where hunters rarely ventured into bedding areas. Hunting sanctuaries led to excommunication. Bumping bucks was an unfathomable mistake. And anyone who said or did otherwise was a charlatan unfit for the deer woods. But it wasn’t, and isn’t, totally true. Oftentimes, outside of opening week and the rut, hunting on the fringes or even within bedding areas is the only way to see mature whitetails, let alone shoot one. While hunting closer to daytime lairs comes with risk, under the right circumstances, it’s risk worth taking.
Still, despite being wrong that spooking a buck is a guaranteed hunt killer, the old guard was right that it’s best to not spook a deer (in most situations). Rather, it’s better to keep a deer in the dark. A buck that doesn’t realize it’s being hunted is almost always easier to harvest. A buck that knows hunters are nearby is much less likely to move during daylight.
They were also right about a second thing — repeated extensive pressure will result in decreased daylight movement, or possibly complete relocation. But that rarely, if ever, happens from a slip-up. It seems to take significant more human intrusion to spark such a reaction from even the savviest of bucks. Still, unintentional bumps can have varying levels of impact. And intentional bumps can be strategically and surprisingly effective.
THE UNINTENTIONAL BUMP
Accidentally spooking deer is inevitable. Every deer hunter has done it and will do it again. Taking precautions not to is great, but responding appropriately whenever it happens is equally important. When it does occur, the first order of business is considering the circumstances. How the event transpired can impact the outcome and how the deer reacts. Understanding this will help you prescribe your own response.
If it’s a local buck, conventional wisdom says chances are greater that it will have more of an impact. At least, more of a noticeable impact for you. In extreme cases, a target buck might completely vacate the area, but it likely won’t. Outside of the buck’s bedding area, it might avoid the location it was spooked during daylight for a short, medium or long period of time. Or it might merely be more careful when moving through there the next time. This seems to be truer when pressuring deer prior to the rut.
In contrast, if it’s a new buck during the rut, the event likely won’t impact the deer too negatively, as the deer wasn’t local to that specific area anyway. Plus, it’s the rut, and deer are much more tolerable of human intrusion during this timeframe.
Speaking of the rut, if a buck is with a doe, and a hunter spooks the pair, the buck is going wherever his girlfriend goes. If they get split up, and go in different directions, he’ll do everything possible to relocate her. In either instance, you can circle around, get downwind of the doe’s position, and likely intercept that buck as he relocates her.
Accidentally spooking a buck in a food source is less intrusive. If it’s the best grub around, chances are good that deer will return. It might not be in daylight for a few days, but if the food is peaking, it will be back. Spooking a deer over a water source is much the same, especially out in the open.
Staging and transition areas are getting closer to bedding areas, but are still mostly outside of a buck’s daytime haunt. Alerting deer here might cause decreased daylight movement for a short time, but it shouldn’t last too long.
Finally, conventional opinions said a bedding area is the last place you want to spook a buck. I agree that if done unnecessarily, and without a follow-up action, it’s wasted pressure that can have lasting effects. However, if done intentionally, or semi-intentionally while scouting, it can play into a hunter’s favor.
THE INTENTIONAL BUMP
While unintentionally spooking a deer once usually isn’t either a hunt-killer or a good thing, intentionally bumping a deer out of its day bed in a designed manner can be a very good thing for a deer hunter. First, it tells you where that buck sleeps during the day. Secondly, that information can help tag it.
Modern findings — both anecdotal and research-focused — have revealed that whitetails tend to circle back into their bedding areas after being spooked from them. This can take a few minutes, or a few days, but bucks almost always return to their bed. Think about it, most deer experience confrontations with hunters and predators regularly. If a mature deer sees, hears or smells danger coming before it reaches it, its bed selection did its job. Over time, a buck can become more confident in a specific bed if it helps detect danger before danger befalls it.
To capitalize on this, you must know where a deer beds, or where it likely beds. Then, chart a route that keeps you downwind of the deer, or at least at a crosswind. Slowly inch along and still hunt through cover. Hopefully you can spot the buck before it sees you. You might even get a shot, be able to stalk closer or slowly leave and return another day to capitalize on that specific bedding location. However, if you move slowly enough, and a bedded deer gets a little squirrely, you can take advantage of this, too.
Granted, if a deer smells, sees and hears you, it might be a day or more before it returns, maybe longer. It might even relocate. But if a deer only hears you, or maybe sees some movement it doesn’t like, it’s much more apt to return sooner. Therefore, a soft bump can push a deer out long enough to hang a tree stand on the downwind side and intercept the buck as it circles back around and into its bedroom. This is a proven tactic that many modern deer hunters are using with success.
CLOSING THE GAP
All things considered, it’s important to pay attention to the buck’s reaction, whether it’s an intentional or unintentional spooking. If a deer blows and runs hard, it likely saw, heard or smelled just a little too much to return soon. In contrast, if a buck slowly or moderately rises and bounds a short distance, and stops and turns to see what you are, odds are greater it will return sooner, perhaps even the same day.
Of course, every deer is unique. Each buck will react slightly differently. It isn’t a cookie cutter tactic. There’s plenty of variation in response to it. But when it works, it works quite well. It’s a high-risk maneuver, but one that comes with high reward, too.
WAYS YOU SPOOK BUCKS (AND DON'T KNOW IT)
Spooking bucks isn’t always known. Oftentimes, it happens without our knowledge. There are certain things that tend to do this more than others. The first of which is ATV use. Over time, deer realize these are associated with hunters. While it’s still okay to use these, doing so carefully is necessary, and driving close to hunting spots isn’t advised, especially the day of the hunt.
Placing gear such as tree stands and hunting blinds in an obvious manner is another way hunters spook deer, even when they aren’t there. It’s best to place these in areas and ways that don’t draw attention. Provide as much cover as possible.
Trail cameras are also capable of spooking deer, if not used correctly. In the days of white flash, some deer would spook at this, while others did not. It seemed to depend on their individual tolerances and tendencies. The same seems to be true for the visual profile of an obvious trail camera, too.
Bad entry routes are among the most common ways hunters spook deer knowingly, but especially unknowingly. Oftentimes, deer are long gone before hunters even realize it. Crummy exit routes do the same. How you get back to the vehicle after the hunt is equally important. Choosing bad paths can alert deer to your presence, and it’s even easier to spook deer in the dark without knowing it.
While obvious, hunting with a bad wind direction can spook deer, too. While deer sometimes blow or visibly spook, you don’t see every deer that picks you off. This is especially true with mature bucks. Sometimes, these older age class whitetails merely slink off, and you’re none the wiser to the education you just gave them. I’d venture to say that hunters spook many mature bucks that they never even know are present, than those they knowingly bump.
Ground scent is another big one. It can alert deer to your presence while you’re there, but it does the same after you’re gone. This is another reason hunters should take creative entry and exit routes that deer are less likely to cross. Consider very shallow creeks, streams, ditches, drainages and other safe routes deer are less likely to use.
Common blunders aside, anything out of the norm has the capacity to alert deer. They are very in tune with their environment. Think of your own home. If you leave, and then return to an unnatural change, it’s going to pique your interest, and not in a good way. It’s the same way with a mature deer when he realizes something is amiss with his home range, but especially his core area.