The old doe led her twin button buck fawns from their bedding site within the thicket through the open timber and toward the alfalfa field beyond. Just like so many evenings before, they followed the familiar routine of picking up some freshly fallen acorns under the towering oaks before filling up on the nutrient rich alfalfa. The cool nights had signaled the changing of seasons to the doe and instinct told her to take in additional calories in order to build fat reserves in preparation for the long winter ahead.
The woods and fields had been relatively undisturbed for the past several weeks with the exception of the occasional farmer tending his crops. It was the best of times for the local deer herd. Food was plentiful and stress from predators and other disturbances were rare. This evening however a warning of things to come would confront the trio as they made their regular route to consume some of nature's bounty.
As usual the twins wandered ahead of the doe actually playing as much as eating. The old gal was all business though as she constantly kept a vigilant eye peeled for danger while also filling her belly. Seasons past had taught her to never let her guard down. On this evening that instinct would allow her and the youngsters to survive another day.
Still a hundred yards from the fields' edge, the sound of a grunting buck alerted the trio that they were not alone. Even though this was a familiar sound to the old doe, she remained alert and suspicious. Past experiences had taught her that this sound was not only made by pestering bucks but also by the whitetails most feared enemy, man. The young button bucks could tell by their mothers' demeanor that the situation called for a careful investigation. They cautiously followed behind mom, as the trio moved to a position well downwind of the sound, all the while staying hidden within the cover. Once there, they found the breeze carrying the odor that always alarmed the old doe; the scent of man. Quickly blowing a warning snort for all to hear, the doe next led her twin buck fawns on a hasty retreat back to safety of the thicket from which they had come.
The bowhunter sitting in his stand on the fields' edge for the first evening of the early archery season knew this hunt was ruined as soon as he heard the doe sound her alarm. However, he probably failed to realize the damage that he had done for the rest of the season and possibly for years to come. I firmly believe that next to his nose, a whitetail bucks best defense is his ability to remember events and situations and react defensively to them.
Using this ficticous story as an example, lets look at all the ways a whitetails memory can come into play to keep them out of harms way. To begin, the old doe recognized the sound of a grunting buck as one which humans can also duplicate. She probably remembered an earlier experience with an anxious hunter and a grunt call. This led her to investigate from downwind, where her suspicions were confirmed by the scent of a human intruder. I believe that in this situation, the button buck fawns learned a valuable lesson and will remember this experience. They were thus educated to the use of grunt calls before they have even worn their first rack. They also just learned and will remember the lesson of checking out potential danger from a location well downwind. These are lessons that this pair of young bucks will carry with them for the rest of their lives wherever they roam. However, there are also some site specific lessons that they will remember to keep them safe.
The specific location of this bowhunters stand will be remembered and likely checked from downwind anytime that these deer pass through this area. By alerting these deer to his location through the use of his grunt call, this bowhunter not only ruined his chances for success at this stand site with these particular deer, but he also taught them a lesson about grunt calls that they will carry with them wherever they go.
I believe that many of the bucks that live long enough to grow an impressive set of headgear are born to older experienced does. Not only are these ole matriarchs experienced at raising fawns but they also have the lessons remembered from several years of survival to pass along to their offspring during that first year of life when they accompany her. An orphaned fawn or one from a younger mother is simply at a disadvantage.
I have shared my theory concerning the role that a whitetails memory serves in its survival with many other hunters. Many agree when they think about it but some think that I give the deer too much credit. They offer the argument that a year and a half old buck is always naive and always getting into trouble, thus he cannot be remembering the lessons of survival taught to him by his mother. This is a good point but one that I feel I can explain.
I often try to put my deer hunting theories into human terms to convey an idea that is easier for others to understand. In this case I compare these yearling bucks to teenagers. Some have had a solid foundation of morals and principals laid down by their parents. Others were not so lucky and were pretty much left to raise themselves. In either case most teenagers go through a rebellious and mischievous stage, often resulting in dangerous or risky activities and sometimes run-ins with the law. It is those kids with the good upbringing however that generally get into the least amount of trouble and usually end up coming back to the roots their parents established.
With young bucks, those who were raised by the older experienced does will still act like young bucks but will do so while possessing the lessons to better survive. They will generally get into less danger and if lucky enough to survive through this stage, they will have the foundation of survival skills needed to grow into a mature buck. All of this is due to lessons remembered and passed down to the next generation by an older doe.
This memory process certainly does not stop as a buck matures. In fact it continues until the day a buck dies. In a mature animal the lesson will require an even lesser threat to have an impact. For example if a mature buck sees something that he perceives as a possible threat, he will often not need to confirm it with his nose from a downwind position. He will simply trust one of his senses when before, as a younger animal, he may have confirmed a possible danger using another of his senses. I believe that this is the characteristic that makes a mature buck such a tough challenge. He has several seasons worth of memories from which to draw from and to top it off he now requires even less of a threat to make a defensive move and avoid detection.
The question now is, what can we as hunters do to combat the memory factor and up our odds for success? I firmly believe in the theory that I have outlined above and have developed an approach to hunting mature bucks which takes into account a whitetail bucks ability to remember. Whether you accept my theory or not is really a moot point. The approach that I use in my hunting can definitely offer some ideas to improve most hunters' success. Let's discuss some ideas and I bet that before we are done you are giving some more thought to the memory factor.
Scents and calls are a part of almost every whitetail hunter's repertoire. While these can certainly play a crucial role in success, they can also educate the very deer that we are hunting and alert them to our presence. We need to take special care to ensure that these tools are not actually hurting our chances.
When using scents I always keep in mind that the woods are full of other hunters using them, often expecting magical results. No matter your skill level or where you are hunting, you have no control over what the hunter across the fence is doing. I try to set myself apart from the rest of the hunting crowd. I go out of my way to use a brand of scent that is hard to come by in my particular area. If the local Super-Mart is selling brandX buck lure by the case, then I will mail order a harder to obtain brand just to be different. When that big buck comes along and smells the scent that I have put out, I don't want him to remember that he smelled the same thing last week right before a small twig saved him from taking an arrow to the lungs. Combat his memory against him by using a scent that he has never smelled before.
Calls and rattling are the same as scents in this regard. Most hunters use them so you have to set yourself apart from the crowd. Use a different brand of call with a sound that is a different tone than the most popular calls in your area. Maybe an even better trick and one that has worked extremely well for me is to use them at an odd time of day or season than most other hunters. The two biggest bucks I ever rattled in came to the horns at mid-day…in December. I have also rattled in bucks in early October, a good month before the rut. I bet those bucks hadn't encountered a hunter using horns that early before!
Many experienced trophy whitetail hunters are aware of and believe in the idea that the first time on a particular stand offers the best chance of success at that location. While this idea is certainly not new, it does go hand in hand with my theory concerning a whitetails memory and in fact even compliments it. With a new and unhunted stand site the local whitetails have not yet had a chance to experience dangerous situations or detect human odor from this location and thus cannot use their memory as a defense here.
While it is usually impractical to hunt a different stand on every hunt, there are ways to maximize the number of productive hunts we can enjoy from each location. First we need to consider an approach route before we ever place a stand. If the stand cannot be accessed without alarming the local deer then we have already lowered our odds of success considerably. Whitetails remember that a hunter stomping through the area means danger and this will cause a mature buck especially to keep a low profile until after dark. A stand site is worthless if the deer know that you are in the area.
This brings us to the next factor that is a must for a good stand site, the wind. While on stand your scent will always be moving across the landscape in at least one direction. A stand should be placed so that when your scent is being moved by the wind in a certain direction, it is moving across an area that the deer generally avoid or do not use. We must then have the patience to only hunt that stand when the wind direction allows us to do so undetected. I firmly believe that hunting a stand just once with a bad wind direction can do more damage to our chances for future success than most hunters will ever believe.
These two factors, entrance route and wind direction, should always be paramount when selecting a stand site in order to prevent the local whitetails, as much as possible, from having a negative experience at these locations to remember. This should allow us a handful of good hunts each season at each location. Even so, the local whitetails are bound to catch on to your ambush sooner or later, and when they do they will remember. Another trick I often employ with a good stand is to let it set idle for a season or two. I realize that this sounds extreme and maybe ridiculous to some but I have reaped the fruits of such action enough to believe in it. I also know that it can be tough to walk away from a stand that has produced for years and I am not suggesting that you do so if it is still keeping your freezer full and your taxidermist happy. What I am talking about are those stands that were hot when you first hunted them and remained productive for a couple of seasons or so and then soured. It is very likely that the local deer got wise to your location and adapted. I have witnessed situations in my own hunting areas where a year or two away from these locations allowed the deer to return to use them as readily as before. If you think about it, many of the deer in an area today were not even alive two years ago. It would be impossible for these deer to remember that a hunter likes to hang out in an area when he has not been there for two years. The older deer will even grow somewhat more willing to use an area that they once feared, although in my opinion a mature buck will always remember a negative encounter.
This bring us to another trick for battling the memory factor – move your stand. Many times a prime travel route or funnel area can be covered from another tree a short distance away. If the deer seem to be getting wise to your favorite stand site in the big oak try moving it 30 yards down the trail to that forked ash tree. This trick can be especially effective when you pull out of the area for a year or two and then return. Furthermore, if a viable entrance route is available, I will often move a stand to the opposite side of a travel route and hunt it with a different wind direction. This will totally circumvent a whitetail bucks previous memories of the location.
Many times during the season I will actually carry a stand into an area and hunt from it immediately after I put it in place. Keeping in mind the wind direction and the route that I am taking, I will head to a location found on an earlier scouting trip, many times from the season before. By knowing where you are headed and quickly choosing a tree without stomping all over an area, a hunter can realize tremendous success with this approach. There is no way for a deer to remember an ambush that wasn't there a couple of hours ago!
A good friend of mine, Bob Brachear, uses this method almost exclusively and a buck he took last season proves just how effective it can be. Bob secured permission to hunt a new property a couple of seasons back. On his first hunt on this farm he carried in a climbing stand and set up in a point that jutted out into a field from a thick bedding area. Imagine his surprise when right before dark out steps a 160 class 10 point buck. A shot never materialized but Bob left with high hopes for his new found honey hole. Several other hunts failed to produce the big buck but by seasons end Bob had a good idea of the deer movement patterns on this property due to continually moving his stand.
As a new season began, Bob patiently waited for the rut to heat up before venturing into his best locations. Finally when the wind was right on an early November afternoon Bob slipped in and quietly made his way up a well located tree in the big bucks bailiwick. His patience was rewarded with the seasons first sighting of the areas dominant buck. What a sighting it was! The buck had added at least 20 inches to already impressive rack. As luck would have it though, again no shot materialized.
Ever one to err on the side of caution, Bob waited several days before entering the buck's home turf again. November 11 would be the fateful day that Bob would return for the hunt of a lifetime. Setting up in a new location on the farm, Bob used his knowledge of the area to keep the deer guessing as to his ambush without undue disturbances caused by in season scouting. There was no way that the deer on this farm could remember where Bob was waiting in ambush because he was always moving to a new location. Add the fact that Bob was hunting the area very lightly, and the deer probably felt as if they were living in a sanctuary.
Bob quietly slid the climbing stand into place and began his wait. Only a short time had passed before he heard the unmistakable sound of deer running in the leaves. When a doe appeared and looked over her shoulder in that pose that every experienced deer hunter knows, Bob readied himself for a look at the buck that was sure to follow. Like an answered prayer, the buck following the doe was exactly the one that Bob had hoped it would be. The huge 10 pointer had found a girlfriend and Bob was hoping to interrupt their romance. The deer were slow to cooperate however. If ever there was a situation ripe to be ruined by buck fever this was it; a Boone & Crockett buck chasing a doe around a hunters stand for a solid hour. Bobs nerves held fast however and when his opportunity finally came he made the most of it. A perfect shot at 18 yards was followed by a couple of quick hops and then a few steps. The buck stopped to look back and then toppled to the leaf carpeted forest floor. The dream became reality and the prayers answered.
Bobs buck later scored over 180 inches and easily qualified for the Boone & Crockett record book. The buck surely had a lot of experience with local hunters and had managed to outwit them for several years. Bob never gave the buck a chance to pattern his stand locations or hunting methods. In other words, Bob did not give this buck anything to remember about him and his efforts to kill him. He did not continually hunt the same stands or use scents and calls to alert the buck to his presence. A buck of this age probably has heard all the popular brands of calls and smelled all the hottest scents. Bob just continually hunted new locations where nothing had been done before to tip off the buck. He was able to spot the buck on three different hunts. Each was the very first time he hunted from those particular trees. Knowing how hard it is to get a buck of this caliber in close to a stand once, I would say that for Bob to do it three times he must have been doing something right … or something that the buck didn't remember happening before.