Whitetail Magic – (Part 1 of a 3 part series)

Posted on March 17, 2020


“Old-time teachers tell you there are about as many quirks in a tracked buck’s behavior as there are bucks” – George Mattis



Well, I’m no old-timer but through my experiences on the track there’s one thing that I have come to expect; a whitetail buck will do the unexpected. If you prepare yourself for that, no pre-conceived ideas will be found clouding your judgment when he does. Each and every buck has a mind of his own and can be relied upon to do pretty much as he darn well pleases.

Sure, there are a number of characteristic traits they all have in common, but once they’re put to the test with a good tracker on their trail, all bets are off. Each buck reacts differently. Speed and endurance are not the attributes to which success will come at this game of tracking; finesse, skill and the virtuous patience of an ox lend themselves much better to pitting your wits against a seasoned buck.

Kill him before he knows you’re behind him, or come prepared, for now school really begins and will quickly separate the men from the boys. A book, much less an article, could never hold every possible cleverly devised method of escape a buck has been known to practice. He’s quite a tactician.



After fifty-plus years of educating myself on their ways, a few devices these bucks utilize have occurred enough times to warrant them being somewhat reliable. Not that each buck will use the same traits or only one, but when they do, I’m on to them.

“Undoubtedly, the model hunting situation would call for about three to four inches of soft snow occasionally freshened with an added light cover as the season progresses. This, frankly, is more idealistic than realistic. Sometimes the season opens with a deluge of knee-deep snow, perhaps followed soon by an additional blanket of the white stuff. Then there could be the other extreme of only several inches of fluffy snow followed by a thaw, a heavy freeze, and the subsequent noisy crust. In between, sometimes, you get that tracking snow – that critical depth which does not hamper your hunting stride one whit yet is substantial enough so that it does not evaporate before your hunting shakes are fully subsided.” – George Mattis

Having snow to track on is important. Ideal snow becomes a blessing. Add this to a rising thermometer and you have the ingredients to what we trackers like to call, killing days. They don’t occur often, maybe three days per season, but when they come, you can only hope your wife’s not delivering or your daughter’s not walking down the aisle because these precious few tracking days wait for no one.


Photo by Jay Kennedy

With each new generation of hunters, the deer are quick to adapt in order to elude the hunters using the latest tactics to hunt him. They haven’t gotten any smarter, just better educated. With a persistent pursuer behind him, he now has to reach way down deep into his bag of tricks to escape capture.

As a buck matures, he becomes less and less motivated to flee with each disturbance. Initially, he will lie in his bed watching and listening before deciding to bolt. He has learned from experience that concealment is his greatest ally.



To illustrate this, I will share the following story. Pop had dropped me off at the end of a two-mile long logging road that ran its course beneath a towering ridgeline. Before Pop’s departure, we talked briefly, all the while the truck’s engine continued to generate noise. I chose my entrance so as to angle my way up the first incline that eventually flattened out into a series of benches. From there, the ridge reached even higher and became steeper up to the top. The mountainside consisted of beech, maple, a few birches and an occasional hemlock until it peaked out where softwood abounded.

As I climbed, my goal was to find a set of deep-sinking buck tracks that up till now had averted my sight. Reaching the first plateau, the ground flattened, providing much easier walking. Following this lay of the land that ran parallel with the road led me to the slots I was looking for. This buck had come down off the top and was traveling along the simpler route as well. The five inches of snow contributed not only to quiet walking, but the medium to finding his sign. I knew he was still up here based on the lack of evidence in the road below we had just driven down.



What I didn’t know or expect to find, was his bed, melted right down to the leaves indicating the duration he’d lain there, and those long bounding imprints that a startled buck makes heading straight up to the top. This veteran had laid up here with a clear view to the road and had literally watched me as I left the vehicle. Because of the high visibility these hardwoods offered, I’m sure he saw me coming a long way off. The vehicle below had shut that avenue of escape off and Pop’s presence to his right left him only one choice, return from whence he came.

I’d like to tell you I got him, but unfortunately, after miles of up and down dogging, daylight gave out and the night sky became his benefactor on this day. Don’t assume for a minute that this resting sight was randomly chosen, that buck knew very well how secure a setup he had, but one thing he could never consider is that now I too knew of his hideaway. Never again would I approach those benches with him or any of his fellow bucks knowing of my presence.

Within almost every written text on the subject of hunting whitetails, we have been exhorted on the prudence of walking into or quartering the wind. On leaves of brown, this philosophy is sound, but when a buck has been jumped on snow, follow him you must, no matter where he may go.

I’ve had more bucks walk with the wind to their backs after I’ve spooked them than not. They will use sight and sound as they proceed forward and scent to their rear in order to keep tabs on any follower. One tactic I’ve used on occasion is to run as hard as I could for a hundred yards or so to the downwind side of the disappearing buck, stop, and visually search for him. The animal cannot hear me running while he is doing the same. His focus will be centered on the back trail without the least suspect of a hunter being in front or to the side, and if all has gone as planned, his ability to scent me has been erased.



This may sound like a simple maneuver that would be a cinch to execute, but generally, when a huntsman jumps a buck his first thought is to get the weapon up and attempt a shot. When that doesn’t materialize, the frazzled brain then kicks in with self-accusations of inadequacy and by then, it’s much too late to start running, as he’ll hear you coming. This tactic must be an instinctive and immediate reaction in order to confuse the deer, much like a surprise attack.

For example, I once tracked a buck into a rabbit hole of thickly grown fir that became a struggle to navigate. Three hundred yards into this nearly impenetrable jungle the animal took off on a dead run to my left. Forthwith I spun and ran back toward the old two-tracks I’d crossed earlier to try and intercept him. It boggles the mind how these creatures can move with such grace and speed as they steer around all of the obstacles, that by now were slapping me soundly. Because of the number of stumbling blocks in my path, it took longer than expected to reach the road. Too long in fact, as the evidence proved conclusively the unfortunate verdict. His obvious tracks clearly indicated he was now walking. Yes, he stopped at the near edge, paused momentarily in order to look both ways, and then walked across. Had I gotten there sooner a chip shot could have been mine.


Editors note: Tune in on March 31 for part II


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