They are invincible. Totally nocturnal. Endowed with a sixth sense that allows them to sense that a predator is nearby. Some might say mature bucks are like a different species of deer.
Which is true in some ways, and in others totally bullish.
The smartest male on the landscape couldn’t outrun most preschoolers. It has benefits, don’t get me wrong, but being hyperintelligent isn’t one of them. This, of course, begs the question not of whether we give too much credit to mature males, but why?
Why are we giving them traits that simply don’t exist?
instinct versus intelligence
“I think sometimes we categorize intelligence wrongly,” said Clint Campbell, host of The Truth From The Stand podcast. “They’re just super in tune with their surroundings, so things that we don’t notice, or don’t give a lot of credit to, become huge red flags for them.”
Freshly broken branches, the smell of a hand on a barbed wire fence, or a 190-pound drop in a tree where there were none every other day of the week, are all noticeable to a deer. Their life largely exists in a single section of land, and the presence of predators is a newsworthy event.
“They don’t reason or rationalize,” Campbell said. “They react. They are so attuned to where they live that we attribute a much greater meaning to it.
It’s not intelligence or the possession of a meaning yet to be identified, it’s survival instinct. Realize that, and you’ll be well on your way to giving mature males their credit and nothing more.
I went through a long and frustrating phase when I started bowhunting, where I became convinced that I would never shoot a mature buck. Every once in a while someone would pass by, and I would lose them so much they would always live to see another sunrise.
Then in 2006 I posted on a bean field for my first sit of the season. The first deer to come out was an atypical deer that was 40 inches taller than a deer would have to be to get me to reach my bow. He never looked at me as he got closer and closer. This male was unconscious, and when I stood over him to admire his rack, it was telling.
As composed as they may be, they are not perfect survival machines. Even deer that spend their entire lives on public land, dodging constant pressure throughout the season, make mistakes. This is something that gets stronger the more you hunt, especially if you spend time in multiple states hunting on land that anyone can hunt. Even the most wary of bucks will be dumb at some point each season. Recognize this and use it to your advantage.
Make ’em mess up
“Last time I drew Iowa, I kicked a buck out of his bed and then went the next day to settle on him,” Campbell said. lower his guard. But I also tricked his surroundings and settled where he couldn’t easily get downwind.
Campbell killed this buck at 16 yards, and you might think that’s different with the Iowa deer. Maybe, but there are plenty of people killing mature bucks on public land in states that don’t have the same reputation for deer as Hawkeye State.
That’s because deer are, well, deer. They all have exploitable weaknesses. The rut is big, and if the bucks were so smart, they’d probably ignore their daytime excitement to continue their hunt at night when we got back to camp.
They don’t, because the biological urge to pass on genes is strong. Does it make down dumb? Yes, but they make “stupid” mistakes every day of the season. I will never forget editing an article by Bill Winke in a past life when I worked in the magazine world. In the article, Winke mentioned a buck he darted that was so cruising that he covered every bit of the woods Winke was set up in. He wrote that you could have killed that deer from every tree in the plot.
They also engage in risky behaviors outside of the rut. This happens if they are hungry, thirsty, tired, or just grumpy enough to want to stand on top of another male. Naturally, they rely on their senses to try not to die during all these activities, but their defenses are not infallible.
As Campbell mentioned, something as simple as setting up a spot where a buck can’t turn downwind outwits them in a really advantageous way. Take their noses out of the game and you will win a lot. Sit behind a tree to stay hidden and you reduce their ability to see you.
They are survival machines, but they are imperfect. Acknowledge how well they know their home range, then use it to your advantage. Settle where they live, but in a way that removes some of their defenses, and you’ll find that males that once seemed unkillable are no longer so.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.