You’ve seen the research. It’s scattered across the Internet as well as printed in pages of magazines like this. Whitetails, particularly mature bucks, are experts at hiding once hunting pressure intensifies. They’re experts in SERE: survive, evade, resist and escape.
And recent GPS research had shed light into how they do it. One ongoing Penn State study with continuous monitoring of deer in Pennsylvania forests does reveal some insight for all. The study includes researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry in the Rothrock, Bald Eagle and Susquehannock state forests. Some of the best insight comes every autumn, when around 750,000 orange-clad hunters invade the state’s deer woods. That’s when the GPS tracking takes on heightened significance.
This particular study kicked off in 2013 and is currently funded through ’22. A frequently published blog gives you not only information on what deer do during hunting season, but everything whitetail, from fawns to nutrition preferences. It’s written for easy consumption without a heaping helping of biological talk. But I digress, so let’s get back to what deer do during hunting season in this Pennsylvania perspective.
In one of the November blog posts by researchers Jeannine Fleegle and Duane Dienfenbach, they point out case studies on specific deer using specific evasion tactics on hunters. These views are based on the tracing location of both bucks and does every 20 minutes during gun season.
According to the researchers, three main points should be taken into consideration from the GPS data. First, despite the additional hunting pressure, deer are still most active at sunrise and sunset. Next, even though the grass might be greener on private property, deer don’t always escape to Eden. And that’s re-enforced in Point No. 3: Deer don’t abandon their home range to avoid pressure. Keep all these thoughts in mind as you scour your area for whitetail hideouts when the heat is on.
Aaron Volkmar operates Tails of the Hunt Outfitters in southwest Iowa and adjoining Missouri. He also outfits whitetail hunts in Oklahoma and Kansas. This outfitting background is nearing the 2-decade mark, and Aaron has ample experience with deer escaping the hunting pressures on surrounding properties by utilizing his available habitat.
“I believe that if you haven’t patterned a dominant buck by the time hunting pressure starts, they’ll quickly pattern you — and that decreases your odds for success,” he notes. “This is particularly true of 5- to 8-year-old bucks. You hear hunters all the time say they’ve owned a property for years and have only one actual sighting of a a giant buck that routinely trips a trail camera. Those bucks have patterned the hunters. They go nocturnal and hide out where nobody will ever find them. They don’t wander, but instead head straight to their safe place when they feel pressure.”
COVER PLUS CORRIDORS
If there’s one thing you can bank on when the pressure increases, it’s that whitetails will get creative with their travel decisions. Aaron’s seen it firsthand, especially with deer sharing bordering properties where the hunting pressure is greater on the other side of the fence. To get to and from food, deer begin utilizing routes that cloak their movement. Whether they move through thick briars, stay low in ditches or travel within unharvested crops, the days of walking openly through their homeland disappear when they feel hunting pressure.
“If you put pressure on your bucks, especially places they visit routinely, like a food plot, expect them to hide their movement,” Aaron says. “It’s common for mature bucks to move to a vantage point where they can monitor the wind, but they’ll also find a safe area to watch a field or edges from all angles. They’ll take it all in and are wary of the behavior of does, fawns and younger bucks.”
When the rutting urge hits, mature bucks will join the party. But even then, depending on the past pressure, it could be with little shooting light left. That’s why Aaron works hard to avoid bumping deer. He moves his hunting clients into and out of areas in the least intrusive way. The extra effort sometimes gives deer the confidence to show themselves an hour or more before dusk.
Buck 8917 from the Pennsylvania GPS study followed a similar routine whenever hunting pressure intensified. His go-to hideout was a ridgetop that offered a visual vantage point as he bedded, along with being able to rely on prevailing west winds for scent detection. Terrain afforded the buck a “barricade” from any east-arriving danger. It was as close to perfect as you could get for a hideout.
ROOM SERVICE DINING
“It only takes one guy stopping along a road and glassing to spook deer that are hungry and openly feeding on a field,” Aaron says. “Even if only one deer feels the pressure, that single deer can clear an entire field and begin re-enforcing a pattern to feed out of sight.”
Some whitetails escape the pressure by feeding on browse or mast that exist under a woodland canopy. Even late in the season, deer might visit oaks or other mast producers to scrounge up a few bites before moving to a field under the cover of darkness. Acorns found on remote ridges and away from county roads offer perfect feeding opportunities. Depending on location, they also could provide an ideal ambush opportunity if the deer don’t bed in the vicinity and you have hidden access to the site.
“We hunt several farms with rolling fields,” Aaron notes. “The deer quickly figure out how to enter and leave those open fields without being seen from the roads. They travel in the dips or just stay behind a hill, but for them it’s out of sight, out of mind to continue feeding in peace.”
To boost the confidence of such deer, be proactive. Try working with a farmer to leave two to three rows of crops standing in a strategic location that will veil feeding deer behind the crop. A second alternative is to plant a vegetative screen. Tall crops such as sorghum, Egyptian wheat, corn or even landscape reed grass can block the view of road hunters who otherwise might spook your deer.
“Most farmers realize deer will browse their outer rows, so there are ways to work with that farmer to give you a cover screen already in place,” Aaron says. “If that’s not an option and you want deer to show before dark, consider planting your own screen that will mature before hunting season.”
It’s frustrating to hunt whitetails that don’t reveal themselves due to pressure. They still are feeding, but staying in cover until darkness. If you can’t find them along field edges, it might be time to scout hidden edges in interior cover. Aaron scouts for subtle terrain features that funnel deer as they move about in cover. These habitat elements may support a wandering travel behavior or prod deer right into your lap for an archerylike meeting.
Topography aspects to be watchful for include tree-lined creeks, brushy ravines, abandoned 2-track roads, weed-choked fences and other barely perceptible lines whitetails like to follow inside cover. To avoid intruding on these sensitive spots, Aaron isn’t against creating his own edges. Whether along food plots or routes leading to fields, he’ll capitalize on the same screen cover he plants to veil whitetail feeding activities. A wall of vegetative cover can go a long way in attracting whitetails to follow a path.
“One of my biggest focuses is to have at least two or more ways in, and out of a stand,” notes Volkmar. “By planting tall crops like we use to help camouflage our food plots, we can create cover to utilize while going in and out of a stand. In the process, we’ve created new edges that the deer begin using. It supports their secretive lifestyle and movements after being pressured. And they feel safe following the edges from cover to food.”
If your target buck is living across a fence part of the time throughout the year or heads to a safer property in deer season, you’ll need a plan for dealing with a border jumper. Some properties have appeal due to their non-hunting nature. Private lands with no hunting or even properties in sanctuary status can be attractive to bucks. State and federal wildlife refuges, large industrial complexes, housing subdivisions and even tightly controlled hunting properties lure deer, especially when area pressure cranks up.
You can hunt the fence lines of these properties for a crack at a buck straying to get to feed or a last breeding opportunity. You’ll likely have to refer back to those hidden corridors or subtle edges as ambush locations. Few pressured deer will openly be traveling from a refuge to grab a bite across the fence in a red-carpet appearance. This is where Aaron suggests you take an extra day or two to confirm travel behavior. Deer are already paranoid; if you hatch a plan on a hunch, it could prompt them to become even more reclusive.
“It’s not at all uncommon to see deer on neighboring properties that have been pressured go nocturnal,” he points out. “Why should they move to food plots or apple trees during shooting light when they can hold tight a few extra hours and move about in peace? Your only hope there is to lighten up the pressure or change what you’re doing.”
Aaron’s a fan of the latter. When he suspects deer from heavily hunted properties are visiting his farms more, he’ll set up to observe first. Trail cameras play an integral role, but he relies even more on firsthand observations to detect tricky travels of deer. Once he determines a pattern, based on movement, wind and terrain he’ll looks for a spot that will offer an ambush opportunity. When the pressure peaks, he follows the motto of “scout more and hunt less.”
Pennsylvania doe 8921 isn’t afraid to show her true colors when the orange army invades here homeland. According to her GPS data, she doesn’t leave the area — she just goes deep. Her escape solution includes thick cover, steep slopes and rocky terrain. That combination helps her hide and discourages hunter intrusion.
So take an intense look around your hunting property. Are you overlooking hideouts: obvious and otherwise? Your assessment should include the examination of isolated pockets of cover removed from a road or in the middle of a section of land. Inspect any old farmsteads, tree belts, hedge remnants, wetlands, native grasslands and gravel pits. Mature bucks that have left their normal patterns due to pressure seek out past refuges that haven’t been invaded or some obscure parcel of cover you likely wouldn’t glance twice at.
“I’ve seen bucks do crazy things to survive,” Aaron stresses. “Probably the wildest move I’ve witnessed was a giant non-typical buck that hid underneath an old church. The church was built on cement blocks, and the backside had an opening the buck would hole up underneath for shade and simply to escape the pressures found in traditional cover.
“Every so often he’d move to a small clump of brush approximately 350 yards from a county road, too, Aaron points out. “It was so small that everyone drove by it and never realized there was a giant hiding nearby.”
The outfitter advises checking every odd hideout possibility on your property. In addition to small clumps of brush, briar thickets and overgrown ditches, he’s seen bucks bed up against rusty farm machinery and even crawl into dilapidated barns. And Aaron’s not the only one to have seen this. On a hunt in Illinois, a friend of mine pointed to some old hog sheds that were falling apart. He said that more than once he’d watched bucks explode from inside as he passed.
Big whitetails will continue to stump and amaze us. But despite their ability to regularly make us look like fools, we can overcome them from time to time with intense scrutiny of the places we hunt. Adopt a buck’s survival mentality and you could end up a step ahead.