The Adaptive Hunter

Posted on September 10, 2013


“If the whitetail deer followed a definite pattern of behavior when being pursued by hunters,

 the tales of the chase would be somewhat drab even to an outdoorsman.”

                                                                                                        George Mattis


Cautiously, I slipped slowly along following the fresh imprints of a large buck; one that was bird-dogging two does. Fortunately, the remnant of an earlier drop of providential snow still remained to help decipher the spoor; a luxury that was not mine two days prior. In fact, due to the absence of the white substance where I’d been hunting, I did what any perceptive NFL quarterback would do at the line of scrimmage when discovering a flaw in the defense: I called an audible. Climbing into my truck, I was determined to drive whatever distance necessary in order to locate tracking snow; a journey that ultimately brought me many miles to where I now found myself.

With each footfall placed atop the two-inch crust, a loud crunching heralded my approach to the otherwise unsuspecting forest inhabitants. Although the goal was to erase the gap between me and the pursued deer, I was ever hopeful that enough distance still remained so as not to prematurely alert the buck before I had him in my sights. Given the circumstances, I was left no other choice but to make my way along the trail excruciatingly slow using rocks, deadfalls and other forest debris to conceal my footfall.

After two hours into the hunt the trail forked; the doe’s tracks continued up the slight incline, the buck’s imprints veered sharply to the right and angled away from the direction of the two females. Ordinarily, and without hesitation I would have immediately continued on the buck’s trail, but today I paused to contemplate my options.


What was so different about this situation as opposed to previous experiences that would cause me to stop and ponder my next move? Pat Durkin, former editor of D&DH offers a fitting explanation when he writes:

“The serious (adaptive) deer hunter forever seeks an edge – however slight – that will put them in place for their next kill. Their searches will make them track down not only the deer, but every new whiff of insight offered. Most of these hunts turn up only myth and corkscrewed assumption, but occasionally they’ll return the wiser, even if they can’t put their wisdom into words. Invariably, the next time they hunt they’ll drag out a buck when they had no right being near a deer. They’ll concede it to luck, and begin their next hunt grateful for another chance to learn.”

The calculated decision I made was to continue stalking behind the doe’s imprints, all the while maintaining an ever-vigilant eye to my right in anticipation of the buck’s return. I came to this adaptive conclusion because first of all, the snow was noisy and prevented me from moving very quickly. Because the buck was now alone he would be quick to pinpoint my approach, significantly reducing my ability to creep within shooting range of him undetected. Secondly, I knew that the herd was in the waning days of the rut with few remaining does yet to be bred. Based on this, I was banking on the buck’s improbability of locating any other females below, and realizing that he’d not soon forget about the two does up here, would succumb to his instinctual drive and return to their trail. This judgment on my part would either prove to be a pivotal and rewarding choice, or a major mistake.


Less than an hour later the incessant chatter of a red squirrel below me told that something might be coming. I stopped immediately and intently listened. Despite hearing nothing that would foster any further attention on my part, I stubbornly maintained my motionless vigil. Call it intuition, gut feel or just plain woodcraft, I sensed that the buck was in route and I sure didn’t want to miss welcoming him. Finally, after what seemed like hours, the faint, yet unmistaken cadence of a large four-footed beast resonated within my straining ears. Is it a deer? Could it be my buck? All questions that ran through my noggin as I patiently waited. With each step the animal drew closer and the footfalls grew louder. The suspense was building when suddenly I heard a distinct vocal grunt removing any doubt about the approaching beast.

With my rifle now shouldered and eyes riveted in the direction of the oncoming sound, the expectant buck’s two-foot spread of antlers with five points per side paraded into view. To ensure that indeed this was the buck I had been following, I allowed him to take three more steps and expose his huge frame. Confident of his identity, from a mere thirty-foot distance, I sent the shot that brought my trophy to bag.


Rather than adhering to conventional tactics, techniques that had more than proven their worth over the years, I instead adapted to the situation before me and walked away with a fine buck in tow. It is these unconventional  approaches that today’s huntsman must embrace if he is to regularly succeed in his deer hunting quests.

The Whitetail’s Adaptability

The whitetail is the master when it comes to coping with its ever-changing environment. In the face of adversity the animal not only finds a way to survive, but quickly adjusts to change. Whitetails have not only endured modern man’s intrusions into its natural environments, the species has actually benefited from that encroachment.

For example, when developers cut into a deer’s habitat to erect a housing development, the whitetail does not wander around like an Ishmaelite in search of a new home; rather he secures himself in and around these new surroundings. And trust me, he can reside quite comfortably in your back yard, all the while remaining anonymous unless someone happens to one day stumble across his imprints or infringe upon his sequestered hideout.


When sections of a forest are clear-cut, eliminating part of a deer’s livable habitat, the whitetail’s environment does not become a ruinous disaster. Instead, he now has access to an assortment of nutritional food, and eventually as the cut re-grows, favorable cover. Believe me, whitetails are indeed opportunistic nomads that will quickly gravitate to these new food sources. It must be remembered that it’s the animal’s belly rather than any other physical requirement that largely determines where the deer resides.

Even with changes in its habitat, including human encroachment, the resilient whitetail has adapted itself to live under the shadow of man’s constant presence. Because of this, whitetails have become skilled in their ability to evade danger. They have learned that concealment rather than harried flight is a better option when danger lurks. This learned behavior should not be confused with a deer’s ability to become wiser. We, the hunters, act; he, the deer, reacts.

The Inveterate Hunter

In contrast to the whitetail’s remarkable adaptability are the hunters who have demonstrated reluctance, or at best, a gradual propensity to change their hunting methods, equipment, favorite bailiwicks or way of thinking. Far too often success in the hunt is left to a chance encounter accompanied by a hopeful heart rather than a realistic plan based on current deer activities.

It is not at all uncommon to still find a guy trudging up the same familiar ridge to post himself in or beneath a favorite tree to wait for a deer’s approach that quite possibly won’t materialize. The rationale for this exercise in futility is the wooded terrain is recognizable to the hunter providing him comfort, and at one point during his career he has either seen or successfully downed a deer at this location. What the hunter fails to consider is that whitetails no longer favor this piece of real estate due to better feeding grounds elsewhere, an alteration in the landscape, increased hunting pressure or any other numerous explanations for their absence.


Along that same line of thinking, where a clear-cut was once a veritable smorgasbord of feed attracting deer, a situation that made for outstanding hunting for several successive years; has now reached the stage of such dense growth that it serves no benefit to the whitetail. Continuing to hunt that location would prove fruitless as the animals have long since evacuated to where the loggers have created another ideally suited environment that meets the whitetail’s needs. Having the ability to recognize when it is time to move to better hunting grounds and understand why the deer have relocated is a sure sign of the prudent hunter adapting himself to the winds of change. Being acquainted with how the deer are behaving throughout the deer season (ex: chasing phase equates to bucks chasing does, which scramble to the thickest part of their home range to avoid the male’s unwarranted harassment) provides insightful advantages for those who ‘forever seek an edge’ and are not afraid to become unconventional in their efforts.

Much of the romance, charm and thrill of any hunt comes from trying to out guess an old whitetail. Being flexible with an open and inquisitive mind will lead the modern day huntsman to far more opportunities than staunchly adhering to conventional wisdom. Although the chief end of any hunting trip is usually the bag, the increased knowledge gained along the way adds cumulatively to past experiences and provides valuable insight for future hunts.



Paul Batura writes, “Adaptability is not a measure of compromise; it’s a measure of maturity.” Like humans, the white-tailed deer of today faces many uncertainties that force him to either adapt or become a victim of his circumstance. No longer can the hunter of deer expect to kill a buck simply by being in good deer country. He must, if any measure of success is to be attained, define and implement a strategy comparable to the animal he hunts, even if it defies conventionality. When this wisdom germinates into the huntsman’s pervasive attitude, he is well on his way towards achievement – no matter what has been his experience to date.

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer