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Top 10 Deer Hunting Myths
A young deer hunter listened with respect, attention and much awe the night before his first deer hunt when the camp boss leaned back in his chair, clamped his chapped hands behind his head, and filled his 15-year-old head with deer hunting tips and advice from his nearly 30 years in the deer woods.
For some reason, one of his beliefs stuck forever in this deer hunter's mind, maybe because it started with these two words: “Deer always …” In fact, this deer hunter wouldn’t have recovered his first whitetail two years later if he had heeded his creed, “Deer always clamp their tail when you hit them or wave goodbye when you miss.”
The fact is, general truths about whitetails guide us only so far. They can’t account for the quirks of each deer hunter and deer, let alone ever-changing factors affecting the woods, weather and circumstance. That’s why experienced deer hunters avoid “Deer always …” beliefs and say, “It depends,” when answering most questions about whitetails and deer hunting.
Let’s look at 10 common yarns, generalities or outright deer hunting myths to see how they stand up to scientific scrutiny.
Myth No. 1: The biggest buck gets his pick of the girls.
That’s true … if he’s there at the right time, the doe is willing, he intimidates all other suitors, and no smaller buck distracts him so long that another youngster sneaks in and breeds his mate of the moment. In a perfect world, the monarch never wastes time dogging a doe that’s not quite ready, or loses a coy partner in the confusion of driving off subordinates. Distractions could cause him to miss his chance with a prime doe over the ridge, who instead accepts the advances of Average Joe.
Nature also can’t guarantee all unions – divine or ordinary – will produce offspring. When researchers at Mississippi State University genetically traced bucks and their progeny, they found an experienced, yet average-antlered buck often produced more offspring than his trophy-antlered classmates.
Why? Average always rules natural selection, says Valerius Geist, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary in Alberta. That’s why far more people resemble Archie and Edith Bunker than Andy Roddick and Brooklyn Decker.
Myth No. 2: Scent is the primary attractant in active deer scrapes.
This isn’t even an “it depends” answer. Scent is just one of three factors that draw bucks to deer scrapes. More vital is the deer scrape’s location and the presence of an overhanging branch. If a deer scrape appears where deer don’t routinely travel, it seldom draws more visits. And if a deer scrape doesn’t include an overhanging branch about 5 feet above the ground, deer can’t leave scent during all those months when they don’t bother pawing the ground and urinating into deer scrapes.
“Think about it,” said Professor Karl Miller at the University of Georgia. “If you have five bucks in a square mile of woods and each urinates 10 times a day, you’d get 50 new deer scrapes every day.”
Professor James Kroll at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas agreed. “Adding scent to a well-placed deer scrape increases its interest to bucks, but the deer scrape must also provide visual cues,” Kroll said. “In our research, bucks were just as likely to investigate a scrape whether we treated it with human urine, commercial buck scent, commercial doe scent, or ‘new-car-smell’ spray.”
Myth No. 3: Whitetail deer never migrate.
Although that’s true across much of the whitetail’s range, the question in many regions is how far deer migrate. When winter makes life unbearable, deer move 50 miles or more to find resources that can sustain them. Migrations, which might also cover only three miles, occur in Northern forests where deer seek thick stands of white cedar each winter, and in prairie or intensively farmed settings where whitetails travel far and wide to find sheltering woodlands or riverbottoms.
John Ozoga, who spent 30 years studying whitetails for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, reports myriad factors affect migrations and travel distances. These include food, nutrition, thermal cover, snow depths, prolonged cold and the herd’s own traditions. Does and fawns tend to migrate first each winter, while bucks linger where they were rutting. Seldom do deer make a beeline for winter range. A Wisconsin study found most took 24 to 31 days to complete their journey.
Myth No. 4: The biggest bucks live far from the roads.
Given urban sprawl, rural development and the whitetail’s ability to live alongside humans, a safer generalization is that most big bucks live close to roads. Why? Because whitetails are surrounded by roads nearly everywhere they live.
That doesn’t mean mature, secretive bucks can’t find refuge, however. Natural barriers are at least as important as distance in discouraging deer hunters from intruding. For example, when researchers conducted an aerial survey of public land in north-central Pennsylvania, they could quickly predict where they would see few blaze orange dots on the landscape below.
They reported deer “refuges” occur in thick cover wherever hunters must first cross water, ascend steep hills and walk cross-country more than a third-mile; hardly a deep-woods excursion!
Myth No. 5: Mature bucks walk into the wind whenever possible.
If that were true, all mature bucks would eventually end up in far northwestern whitetail country, or whichever direction predominant winds blow from in their home region.
The fact is, the whitetail’s nose -- and ears -- are so extraordinary that deer hunters tend to discount how well whitetails use their eyes. With their combination of monocular vision to the sides, binocular vision to the front, and the structure of their eyes’ orbit and retinas, whitetails can detect motion ahead, to the side and rearward.
At no time are those three senses in “screensaver mode.” Each provides an overlapping defensive shield that’s seldom defeated. Bedded whitetails typically watch the direction of greatest visibility while trusting their nose and ears to protect their rear, where terrain or cover blocks their view. And when traveling or entering openings to feed, deer usually have the wind at their backs and trust their eyes to watch ahead. When returning to bed in thick cover, they usually move into the wind to detect hiding predators.
Myth No. 6: Shed antlers reveal the best place to hang your tree stands for next fall.
Shed antlers can reveal which bucks might be available come deer hunting season, but only year-round scouting can determine if “the shed marks the spot.” In areas where deer migrate three miles or more between winter and summer range, you’ll struggle to connect a shed to a particular animal, let alone build effective deer hunting plans around it.
In areas where a buck’s home range provides year-round food and cover, and the shed drops along one of his secret haunts or travel routes, you might be onto something. A shed might reveal a secure late-season food source, a hidden spring where it drinks, or a hilltop thicket where it beds.
At the least, a shed antler reveals which bucks survived the previous fall and offers hope they will remain nearby year-round. Its biggest contribution to your strategies might be the confidence boost that keeps you on stand when others quit.