September 27, 2016
I couldn't believe it. There they were, just 35 yards away, but I hadn't even seen them until now. More astonishingly, they hadn't seen me!
I'd walked through the woods right toward them and had set my climber 25 feet up the side of a tall oak, then set up my equipment, all within plain view of two does that lay 35 yards away, chewing their cud. Were they blind?
What strange behavior, when normally they would have been off like a bullet at the sight of a human so near.
It was then that it hit me — and then hit me again. The wet conditions and slight wind of that Ohio afternoon had made my entrance completely silent, bypassing the ears of those does. Thanks to my lack of noise, I'd somehow, unbelievably, bypassed their keen eyes. This was huge.
THE HOLY GRAIL
There are countless differing views as to which sense is most important to a whitetail. Debate aside, we know that if we can fool their eyes, ears, and noses, we turn the table on these ghosts of the woods and become ghosts ourselves. Of course, even novice hunters know getting past all three of a whitetail's key defenses is at best tough, and often pretty much impossible.
Although finding a chink in a that armor has been the quest of generations of wise hunters, we're still are at a distinct disadvantage every time we set foot in the woods. But science is now showing us that it's how a whitetail's senses are linked — two senses in particular — and how that could be the animal's long-sought Achilles heel.
First, we need to realize that a whitetail is at its best, and has an almost unfair advantage, when it can fully use all three main defenses. When they can see everything around them, have the wind in their favor and have crisp, clean air that allows them to hear every little noise in their environment, little can fool them.
These senses work in tandem, in unison, sending all data to be analyzed by the brain like the control panel of a jumbo jet. When all of the data are coming in, the many senses, or sensors, are corroborating what's going on outside, giving a very clear picture of present conditions and dangers.
However, when at least one of those senses is knocked out, there's much less information to verify what's happening. It's like flying blind, at night, in a big Midwest thunderstorm. When deer can't cross-reference another sense, information becomes less clear. And that's when they have trouble understanding what's going on around them. This is when mistakes happen and a deer becomes vulnerable.
Science is now revealing that one sense can "tell" another sense to check for danger. So if one sense isn't alerted, the animal might not know to use another to even check for danger. Hence, we have the whitetail's potential Achilles heel. Those two key senses that work together, as I found out that day in Ohio, are sight and hearing.
THE TRUTH ABOUT EYESIGHT
Camouflage connoisseurs might be aghast to hear this, but sight is actually the least valuable sense to whitetail. According to numerous studies conducted at the University of Georgia's Deer Lab, whitetails see everything in equal focus, with a wide 310-degree field of view. We also know their sight is rather blurry and not very detailed.
They primarily use their eyesight to distinguish moving objects from non-moving objects. They also see high-frequency light (ultraviolet, blue and gray) the best. In fact, they see it 20 times better.
So perhaps deer don't care if your camo is matching; it's more about adequately breaking up your form. Also, their eyes are wired to look for movement. Think about how hard it is to see a deer in the woods when it isn't moving. It's the same for them trying to see you. Their eyes work best in low light, and they best see wavelengths toward the high end of our visible spectrum. To fool a whitetail's eyes, research suggests that you just don't move, that you break up your form and that you stay away from blues and grays.
Eyesight is primarily used as what I call a "confirmation" sense. This means whitetails mainly use their eyes to scrutinize after a cue from another sense (typically hearing). Once the deer has heard something, it visually scans and confirms sources of sounds and potential threats. This isn't true 100 percent of the time, of course, as sight can act alone — but a large majority of the time, this is how it works.
Last fall, while scouting a property at midday, I took a shortcut back to my truck through a cutover hay field. There was no cover, and I was only wearing half-camo (my jacket), which didn't come close to fully concealing my 6-3 frame.
As I crested a rise, I noticed a young buck in front of me about 80 yards away. I froze. I then watched him for 10 minutes, and all the while he kept working his way toward me. I know he saw my form, but I didn't move. He kept coming. I was downwind, bypassing his nose. And I wasn't making any noise, thus bypassing his ears. He had no reason to visually scan for danger.
When the deer was within about 40 yards, I started moving toward him. Immediately he jumped, then tore off to the safety of nearby brush. The buck's confirmation sense wasn't alerted until I did something drastic to trip it, setting off an alarm in his brain. That's the reality with a whitetail's sight most the time; it's a response sense, not a main sense.
THE TRUTH ABOUT HEARING
Over the past several years, I've done extensive scientific research on whitetail hearing. I've done tests on live deer and laboratory tests on typical noises hunters make. These tests showed normal sounds hunters make travel very far — at least hundreds of yards, and some over a mile. And I've found deer hear best at the key frequencies of the most common hunter noises: crunching leaves, breaking branches, clanging equipment, etc.
But a whitetail's hearing is also ultrasonic, which means the animal can hear at much higher frequencies than humans. In fact, a whitetail can hear sounds of twice as high a pitch as what we can.
So what does this mean for hunters? It boils down to this: Our noise travels farther than we think. Also, some of the noise we make we can't even hear, but deer can hear very well. They're specifically wired to hear it. Translated, getting past their ears is tough. But two more key discoveries reveal the long-sought weak link in the whitetail's defenses.
THE WEAK LINK
With the above being true of vision and hearing, the whitetail is only at full advantage when these senses are working well, and in tandem. They're made to work together. And they're crucially linked together.
Henry Heffner, Doctor of Psychology at the University of Toledo, is an expert on animal hearing. After years of testing, research and numerous scientific publications, his work is exhaustive. In one study, he tested the hearing of 24 different mammals, ranging from humans to cows, rats and horses. He compared the test subjects' hearing to their visual ability to locate sound sources.
What he discovered was profound. He learned the primary function of hearing is to direct visual attention for further analysis. This means hearing in mammals, including whitetails, is a cue. I call it a "trigger sense." The trigger is designed to trip at the first sign of danger, and it functions as a cue for a whitetail's eyes to kick in and to tell it where to look for a threat.
Dr. Heffner also found mammals with a broad field of vision (which whitetails have) require less accurate information regarding the location of a sound source in order to scrutinize it. Thanks to their acute hearing and field of view, they're particularly keen at locking in on the source of the slightest sound. As we know, this keen combination results in their being extremely hard to kill.
These two discoveries have implications for hunters. We know deer hear well, and that when they pick up a sound, they scan the area with their wide field of view. If they then spot danger, they'll typically be off in a flash. So taking extra effort to conceal your noise gives you a bit more leeway on movement.
It can be easier than you might think to trick a whitetail's senses. But you have to be willing to make a few changes to your routine. It's all about how dedicated you are to analyzing your surroundings and actions while hunting.
For instance, pay extra attention to your noise level while entering and exiting the woods. Strategize and implement entry/exit routes for ghost-like stealth. Take extra care to quietly shut your truck door. Of course, don't slam the bolt of your rifle or clank your release against the metal railing of your stand. Analyze all equipment for any vibration or noise and eliminate it.
How much time do you take making sure all your camo is up to par vs. making sure you and your equipment are silent? To drastically improve your odds of success, start obsessing on getting past a deer's ears, too. Doing so will help to conceal you as much as your camouflage will.
If you're cognizant of your noise level, as well as your movement and positioning, you'll be more effective. Once you've committed to silencing all aspects of your hunt, you'll be amazed how stealthy you'll become.
A NEW STRATEGY
To better your odds of taking a whitetail this season, make a mental shift. Recognize the senses as a system, not as equally effective stand-alone defenses. It's important to remember that while these senses are extremely powerful and effective alone, they're even more so when linked together. By taking steps to curtail your noise while hunting, you'll effectively reduce a whitetail's chances of seeing you.
So focus your attention not just on camouflaging yourself visually but also audibly. Get creative, because solutions abound for camouflaging your sound.