Whitetail Magic – Part II

Posted on March 31, 2020


…at all times (the) deer must constantly make choices and play the odds. Whenever exposing himself to danger, he will invariably choose the move that is least risky.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Roger Rothaar/Whitetail Magic



Every buck possesses its own personality and will have varying degrees of fright or flight distances it is comfortable with. The chief end of however they elude us is to preserve life; their own.

Initially, a buck will attempt to outdistance you. When that fails, he will select another play from his game plan. In the words of the Dixie deer slayer, Archibald Rutledge, “My experience has been that when a deer is startled, it will play in front of its pursuer, dodging, mazing the trail and doubling, frequently returning to the place where it was jumped.”

One such buck did that exact thing to Pop and me. As has customarily been the case when we track a buck together, I was in front leading the charge, Pop to the rear, observing left and right for the buck. When you’re tracking in the thick growth, it’s hard to believe you’re being taken on a circular route. He’d weave this way, then that way, and all the time you’re concentrating. By day’s end we ended up looking down at boot prints. “Who else could be in here?” I thought. When I looked up and around it dawned on me, those tracks were ours and we had come full circle. I told Pop once he caught up, “Now I know what a beagle feels like after a day of chasing rabbits.” George Mattis knew of this as well, “Tracking is still-hunting, and all the care used in the latter is employed plus the additional task of yielding some time and attention to the course of the trail. It is as though one were hunting as usual, but in a direction and over terrain not of his choosing. The hunter can frequently get so involved in following the slots which lead him to the left and right at random that he can become more a sleuth and less of a still-hunter.”



Undaunted by our experience, we went right back in there a few days later and came away with our prize; a beautiful buck sporting ten points that dressed 236 pounds. Archibald Rutledge again expresses our sentiments completely, “But wonderful things happen to men in the big woods. Their apparently insane faith is not infrequently rewarded.”

A buck will stay just far enough ahead of you, not too close to allow for a shot, but near enough to know of your whereabouts. Sometimes you’ll catch a glimpse of him, enough to keep your spirits alive, but as soon as he hits an opening, a mad dash is made. Safely tucked into the opposite side, your buck will stand on guard awaiting your appearance. You now have to beat him at his own game by out-thinking him. All the physical endurance and sweat in the world isn’t going to do it. Intellect of the wiliest kind is what I prescribe.



Larry Benoit shared a story with me regarding a buck that was attempting to give him the slip. “He crossed a cutting that was directly below a ridge. Instinct told me he would be up on that ridge watching for me. Instead of going across, I waited and watched. After a few minutes I hung my hat on a visible treetop, positioned myself to commence firing and then, made that hat dance atop the sapling. Before long the curious buck moved to get a better vantage and when he did, 180 grains sent him to his maker.”

All bucks, once they realize they are being trailed will pull just about anything to shake you. A routine scheme to averting capture is one I’ve coined, “the loop”. The buck will be going along and then, at certain intervals, swing hard left or right depending on wind direction only to return back onto their original track. When you happen upon this it will appear as though two deer are now in front of you. Sometimes this loop is short while other times it can cover a great deal of ground.



This strategic maneuver seems to manage two self-serving goals for our buck. First it allows him the ability to view his back trail from the side, and second, to buy him some additional time should his pursuer elect to take his improvised path. Many have been the times in my earlier days when coming upon such a set of circumstances that I would take the time-consuming path that only led back to my own tracks. Each time it would infuriate me to think I’d been duped once again. Memorize his track, or better yet, place a stick at the widest point in his track and break it off. That stick will now save you time and frustration as it will only fit the prints of that buck.

Another favorite recipe bucks instinctively use to elude followers is walking in another deer’s hoof prints. You must remember, we are not his only predator and the least of those carrying any degree of olfactory senses. All animals are primarily guided by their nose. Deer leave scent when they walk with their interdigital gland located between the clefts of their hoofs. Many times, I have seen a buck stick his nose down into tracks and certainly where another deer has urinated. Each animal has its own unique odor about him or her. Unfortunately, our scent perception is not keen enough to detect the difference.



I’ve seen that the buck I’m following will walk in the reverse direction of the other tracks, place his prints directly in theirs, and even reverse his direction only to confuse me. I’m not sure that was his intent as much as indecision on his part as to what direction to take. It’s kind of like when I let my dog out; he bolts for the woods initially and then hits a scent, squirrel, chipmunk, etc., and begins to sniff, pacing back and forth until satisfied all is as it should be. Only then will he continue on to his intended mission. These bucks will act much the same way.

Much valuable time can be lost sorting out your buck that has decided to traverse along the path of other deer. Don’t get sloppy here. Just when you think you’re going along on his trail you will discover he abandoned it a way back and you failed to detect it. Mental discipline is required, and believe me, it becomes very easy to relax in this situation. Besides focusing on the group of tracks in front of you, make sure to keep a sharp eye on either side of the trail where the buck may decide to abandon his course and strike off in another direction.

Cruising the roads early one morning with the benefit of a half-foot of snow on the ground, we located an extraordinarily large print crossing a main thoroughfare. Jumping out, Pop and I examined it closely. The maker of this track had come through during the wee hours of the morning but even though it was several hours old, it was too good to pass up.



The first couple of miles were the worst. He easily slipped through tightly grown saplings and whips due to his sleek body, but the jungle of impediments was almost too thick for us. Finally, he broke out into a clearing and walked for another couple of miles without the least little obstruction in his path. Perhaps he, like us, needed a break from such closed-in surroundings. It’s a good thing he had some ground on us as I think the only viable tool that would have been useful in his capture under those tight quarters is a baseball bat.

He was definitely on a mission, for straight to the does he led. His track was of such proportion one would have had to be blind or intoxicated not to distinguish the difference from the other slots. On he led from one doe group to the next, and by the fresher signs, we could see we were closing the gap.

Even though we had not seen him, his tracks indicated a suspicious nature about him as he was stopping often, turning to look back and circling. After a good bit of this behavior he hit an old roadway that contained three sets of doe prints, all made in a single-file line. The tracks all were heading in the same direction, and he obliged to head the same way.

But something was wrong, following down the pitched road it seemed I had lost his track. How could this be? I thought. A track that large certainly isn’t going to disappear. When Pop came upon me, he must have thought I’d dropped something as he watched me pace back and forth, up and down the trail, frantically searching for his print. “Which way did he go?” Pop asked. “I don’t know, he came out here and joined up with these doe prints,” was my exasperated response.



What we soon realized was something neither of us could have thought possible. This buck of immense size had literally walked on the front tips of his hoofs in the doe prints for three hundred yards or so before once again reverting back to his flat-footed ways. It was as though he became a ballet performer, prancing about the woodland stage on his tiptoes. That, my friends, was one shrewd animal that we never got.

Editors Note: Join us on April 14 for Part III

All images and text on this site are copyright protected and the property of R.G. Bernier
© 2020 R.G. Bernier Nature Photography – All rights reserved.

Posted in: Whitetail Deer