How to Read Whitetail Body Language and Sign
October 25, 2016
There's no other way to put it: I'd taken an incredibly stupid shot. And I'd had no excuse for doing so.
In retrospect, I'd already worked way too hard at trying to fill my Alberta buck tag and had vowed not to return home from this bowhunt until doing so.
Unfortunately, the horrific back-to-back winters the area had endured meant the pickings were slim, and the only buck I'd found to hunt had already given me the slip twice before. Still, there was no excuse for taking the quartering-to shot on our third encounter.
Luckily, though, my bloodless arrow was sticking in the dirt. I'd come dangerously close to wounding the buck but had missed him clean. And his initial reaction told me he was going to give me another chance. Yes, he'd jumped back as the arrow zipped between his front legs.
His reaction had even been tentative as he approached the arrow. Luckily, with my being an odor-control freak, my Eastons had been treated for human scent and handled meticulously since then. So it wasn't all that shocking to see the buck relax. The distraction provided by my errant arrow allowed me to slowly nock another one.
Being in an overly exposed, small aspen, I was thankful for the chance to read his body language. If not, I most certainly would have rushed nocking that second arrow and would have been busted in the process. Instead, I somehow showed far more sense than I had with the initial shot.
I waited for the deer to resume browsing on the cutline. He eventually was paralleling me, and when he turned his head away, that allowed me to bring my Mathews to full draw. Within seconds, I'd sent my follow-up arrow through that buck's heart.
Being able to read what a deer is about to do is a critical skill. Unfortunately, it's become something of a lost art. In this case, reading the buck's body language truly did stop me from rushing things and sending him running away. Still, that's only the tip of the iceberg of the books deer give us to read. Reading them carefully and taking the lessons to heart can often be a true difference maker.
One of the areas in which many hunters can improve is their ability to read body language. There's no substitute for being able to predict a deer's next move — because that often will determine what yours should be.
An obvious example can be seen when a buck is posturing for another. With his ears back, neck stretched out and perhaps his head slightly cocked, he's looking to start something. Most seasoned hunters know that if one of the bucks doesn't back down, a fight is going to happen.
Whether we're watching a fight or a buck dogging a doe, most of us realize we'd better take the shot now, if one is available. Otherwise, all we can do is sit back and watch the show, hoping to catch a break. Trying to call or rattle bucks exhibiting either behavior is far more likely to be ineffective than result in a shot opportunity. After all, they're focused on what's in front of them, and either situation is far more pressing than the thought of responding to what sounds like other deer.
However, after the fight or when the doe gives Mr. Big the slip is another story. Although using a buck grunt, snort-wheeze or rattling is likely to send the loser of a fight running in the opposite direction, the victor is ripe to come running. Same with hitting an estrus doe call once the doe has given a buck the slip. Hit it before she's departed and it's likely to send her running for cover with the buck we want in tow.
Many hunters realize the advantages of reading those body language signs. They see the low, outstretched neck of a buck trying to curl in the odors of the doe and know a chase is on the verge of unfolding. When two big boys are posturing, they realize a real show is about to start, and the winner will be a sucker for some form of aggressive calling or rattling.
After all, he'll be jacked. But what about deer just going about their daily lives, not on the edge of rutting behavior? We run into those scenarios far more frequently.
Body posture tells us whether a deer is relaxed, determining what the phantom noise, image or smell is or is about to bolt at any second. Of course, a relaxed deer typically has its ears back or is moving them back and forth. The tail is down, in a relaxed position, or perhaps flicking back and forth. The neck can be in almost any position.
A whitetail in such a state is telling us there's no need to rush anything. The animal is content. It's possible calling or rattling would work, and it's not a bad idea if light is fading fast or the deer continues working away from the hunter; either scenario likely would end without a shot otherwise being offered. Then again, the deer is giving no clue it will work, either. Odds are it won't, but there's not much to lose in trying.
A nervous deer typically telegraphs its tension in obvious fashion. The ears are cupped forward, straining to capture the slightest sound. The neck is upright, with their head staring in the direction of concern or darting back and forth if the source hasn't yet been pinpointed.
One of a couple likely outcomes typically will occur. If the object of the deer's focus is another deer (the most common scenario), or if the concern is ultimately deemed harmless, the animal will revert back to its original activity. Of course, if the concern is deemed a threat, the deer typically will leave. A doe might bolt or begin a head-bob-hoof-stamp-snorting routine to get the threat to expose itself. Eventually, the deer will either flee the threat or decide there was no real reason for alarm and revert back to its calm state.
A hunter's best course of action varies. If you're buck hunting and a doe goes on alert, waiting her out is your best course of action. Simply remain calm and motionless, particularly if it's you the doe is focused on.
On the other hand, if you're doe hunting, time your movements with the head bobbing or a glance to the side, come to full draw and arrow her the first chance you get. However, it's a good idea to aim at the heart, as the deer is alert and might drop at the sound of the shot. Even if she drops a lot, your aiming compensation hopefully still will result in a double-lung shot.
What if the suspicious deer is a buck and he's within shooting range?
Then there's a choice to make. If you believe the object of his concern is an approaching deer, relax and wait it out. If it proves to be a predator or another hunter, hope for a sideways glance to give you the opportunity to draw and shoot, again aiming for the heart.
In any of these situations, you're typically best served leaving the calls and rattling antlers alone. The deer is already tense. Any of these actions is likely to send it running away. The exception is when the tense deer is a buck and he's focusing on phantom sounds coming from your direction. In that case, a grunt or estrus call might convince him he's heard another deer. He might then want to further investigate.
Rubs & Rublines
Of course, reading sign is another method of reading the deer that made it. And frankly, no other sign tends to excite hunters more than the sight of a large-diameter tree torn to shreds. For the purpose of this article, the question becomes, what can that rub tell us?
Over the years, I've heard a ton of pure ridiculousness passed off as fact about whitetail rubs. I've heard there are rubs for velvet shedding, others to indicate aggression and still others to mark the boundaries of a home range. The trick is finding the boundary markers, one "expert" says, because a mature buck patrols the outer boundary of his home range precisely once every three days, refreshing these rubs as a warning to all other bucks. Set a stand to cover a boundary rub, hunt it for no more than three days in a row and the buck is yours. Really?
Yet another "expert" has claimed that, though any and all bucks will rub at the edges of openings, only dominant bucks rub inside the woods. Amazingly, this expert says, they bed within 200 yards of such rubs, always travel into the wind to reach them and only rub the side of the tree from which they approach.
So all you have to do is put your back to the rubbed surface, walk straight away and you'll find the buck's bed within 200 yards. Best of all, because he only travels into the wind and apparently beds in the exact same spot every time the wind comes from that direction, we now know exactly where he'll be bedding every hunting day with that wind direction.
No wonder the author claims the hunter buying his book will kill the dominant buck within five hunting days. I mean, knowing all of that makes it unfair to the buck! But if you use this trick and don't find the bed or kill the buck within five days, it's because the rub was made by a "dominant roamer" that was merely passing through. Well, all I can say is that the places I've hunted must be overrun by "dominant roamers."
I could go on for an entire article, as those are merely two of countless examples of what I feel are buck rub fantasies being passed off as fact. Here's what I think I actually know on the subject.
Both young and mature bucks rub trees of all sizes. On most common rubs, unless velvet is hanging from it, I have no clue if it was made to shed velvet, build up muscles for the rut, intimidate a rival or serve as some other form of communication with other deer.
What I do know is that the mature buck will tend to do a lot more damage to a tree than an immature buck will. Because of that, when I see a large, shredded rub or small sapling that's literally been destroyed, I'm looking to see if I can find an overly large track to help verify my belief. I'm betting it was a mature buck that made that rub.
Conversely, when I find a more typical, shined sapling or a large tree with just a handful of gouges, I don't pretend to know the caliber of the maker.
One other thing I think I know is that some rubs get worked year after year after year. You can tell that by the rub having annual "heal" marks on the remaining bark. These rubs tend to be more in line with the communication hubs that consistently worked scrapes in high deer activity locations often become. Most deer passing them stop to give a sniff.
I'll skip the examples of fantasies passed as facts about scrapes. Let's just say I've hunted scrapes for over 30 years now and have yet to see an estrus doe urinate in one and then hang around the scrape, waiting for Mr. Big to arrive. I've seen an estrus doe stop and pee in a scrape once, but she kept going on her merry way as soon as she was done. So if scrapes are the whitetail world's version of pick-up bars, they're pretty lame.
What the most serious scrapes do appear to serve as are communication hubs. They're like the small-town café where all of the locals learn what's going on with everyone else in the area. In the deer herd's case, they learn all of that simply from the odors left behind by previous tenders of the scrape.
Studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of scrapes are made after dark. A mature buck commonly makes over 200 scrapes a fall. However, he consistently revisits only a rather small percentage of them.
The tricks to successful scrape hunting involve: finding those few scrapes that are tended consistently, located in areas the deer feel safe enough to visit during daylight; setting up on the downwind side; and hunting them the last 10 days or so of the peak scraping phase.
Hunt them too early and odds are you'll burn them out before they start to see daylight activity by older bucks. Wait too long and the older bucks are too busy with does to worry about scrapes. You really have only about 10 days when scraping activity and increased daylight movement line up to make scrape hunting good.
After peak scraping ends and before spring green-up arrives is the best time to read scrapes. During this span, you can gauge how much deer activity they received the previous year. An overly large scraped area or bowl-shaped appearance screams that the scrape was used a lot the previous year. So long as the licking branch is still attached and major habitat changes don't occur, odds are extremely good that scrape site will be hammered again next year.
As a side note, mock scrapes can be great scouting tools for gauging if an area is being frequented by a mature buck. Although bucks won't take over every mock scrape, they seem almost compelled to at least check them out once. Placing a trail camera over them or simply checking the dirt for oversized tracks will give you a pretty darn good indication of whether or not Mr. Big is present.
And speaking of tracks, they're probably the most ignored deer sign of all. Sure, we all glance at them, and a bunch of tracks will tend to get us excited — but that's ignoring the most important things they can tell us hunters.
Look more closely at that trail on your area's best food source, for example. If most of the tracks are headed for that spot, odds are very good it's mainly an early-evening trail, with the deer mostly moving from bedding to feeding. If the tracks are primarily headed away from the food, it's thus more of a morning trail. A fairly equal number heading both ways indicates it's likely good both early and late in the day.
Track sizes also offer valuable intel. Although some large bucks have fairly small hooves, most are bigger than average. Find those large tracks in a mock scrape or on a trail, and odds are a mature buck made them.
Now, let's go back to those trails around that food source. A couple have a wide range of track sizes, yet no overly large tracks. One fainter trail has mostly large tracks heading in, while another has mostly large tracks heading out. Just that fast, we've identified the family group trails, as well as the morning and evening trails of a more mature buck.
Whether we're observing deer or the sign they leave behind, we're being offered invaluable pearls of wisdom. What we then do with these pearls is up to us.