Whitetail Academia – Lessons from 5 Wilderness Bucks

Posted on February 16, 2021



“Argument goes on endlessly as to whether all of a deer’s actions are instinctive

responses to situations. It is the argument of ‘purposive actions’ verses ‘reflexive

actions.’ Whatever camp you may be in is irrelevant. As far as I’m concerned,

when a whitetail can make as many right choices as he is found to do, he’s plenty

       smart enough for me.”   –  Leonard Lee Rue III – The Deer of North America



As evasive, secretive creatures, white-tailed deer exhibit a great deal of tactical behavior. This trait is personified in two distinct categories by the modern-day huntsman and is based entirely on the outcome of his hunt. For those that fail to secure the marked beast that they have diligently pursued, the animal’s intelligence becomes the rationale to sooth a bruised ego. Contrary to that is the victorious deer-slayer who proudly stands over his highly sought-after prize, crediting his hunting prowess as the reason for success.


My opinion on the matter is that if we believe these animals hold any degree of mental decisiveness or reasoning, then few if any bucks would ever fall to our cunningly devised schemes. According to Archibald Rutledge, a man who spent a lifetime in pursuit of this animal, “It is impossible to classify his (the bucks) probable actions. As animals increase in intelligence, the chances of their behaving in a regular, unvarying manner are decidedly decreased. It therefore becomes impossible for us to say that a deer will do this or will not do that under certain circumstances, for he has both a certain sense of judgment and at least a rudimentary power of decision.”


Over the course of five-plus decades I’ve had the opportunity to pursue some incredibly sly whitetails. Bucks that I would have gladly conferred with a doctorate in “covert evasion.” Despite my best and most resourceful efforts, these animals made a complete mockery out of me. Does that mean their intelligence was above or beyond my own intellect? Although it may have seemed so at the time, that is not possible. Demonstrating the fallacy of this ill-contrived myth are the several noteworthy adversaries; the bucks of equal stature that have fallen victim to my rifle.



Circumstance and advantage play a huge role in our hunting forays. A favorable wind; a silhouetted animal against a backdrop of white; a soft footfall on a damp forest floor; snow-flakes dancing in the atmosphere precluding a deer’s visual acuity; and the simple reliance on the animal’s indelible curiosity are all examples of conditional opportunity. Despite the final outcome at the conclusion of a hunt, there will ever be valuable insights gleaned from the experience. The following are five of the most memorable of my own.


 Flying Reindeer


Like the sun disappearing at days end on the western horizon, my deer season was rapidly drawing to a close. Fortunately for me, a providential fresh blanket of snow covered the landscape on this next to final day. The buck’s track cut deeply through the virgin white tapestry and into the soft earth beneath, an easy path to follow, or so I thought. This buck was obviously on a mission, having wasted little time descending the ridge from whence his spore was first discovered.


With little effort I pursued his distinct lone slots into a basin where other deer tracks began appearing. It was evident that this guy was on the prowl for a hot doe. In my impetuousness to overtake the buck, the approach I took was much to hurried, motivating the alarmed animal to flee with the utmost haste. Instead of methodically following a buck whose mind was preoccupied with hooking up with a female, I’m now relegated to traipsing after a survival-minded nemesis that is keenly aware of the enemy breathing down his neck.



After several hundred yards, his track showed signs of him slowing a bit. No longer was he taking those 20-to-30-foot bounds, but he was still on a formidable trot. His track led to the edge of a secluded log road and came to an abrupt halt. Now, one would think that if the track had stopped there, the buck would either have to be standing in place or had leapt across the opening. After fifteen minutes of circling, scrutinizing and searching for his dissolved track, I literally began looking up in the trees with a real expectation of actually seeing him amidst the branches.


Having never been in this situation before, it took some real resolve on my part to unlock this mystery. Retracing his steps finally brought closure that this deer didn’t really have wings, but the evidence in the snow more than proved how shrewd he indeed was. The buck had literally walked backwards in his exact tracks for thirty yards, made a twenty-foot bound to the right of the original trail and continued on his way. I have trailed several bucks that have jumped perpendicular to their original trail, but only one other time in my career have I witnessed a deer employing this tactic.


Before the match was finished this buck continued to exhibit his cunning. He led me into a stream, where once again his track disappeared. I was a little quicker in unraveling this Houdini act and found his slots exiting on the opposite bank well upstream. I finally caught the beast and declared checkmate as he attempted to flee from his bed on a streamside knoll.


Pressure Cooker Buck


An alarmed buck’s first line of defense is to put as much real estate between himself and the intruder. Because the whitetail’s physical attributes preclude him from running great distances, he frequently stops in strategic locations to watch his back track. Once he realizes the enemy is still coming, another escape mechanism is implemented. With each successive interaction between predator and prey, the buck’s initial fright begins to wane. The distance required to catch up becomes significantly reduced. At this point it is best to use the buck’s confusion to your benefit. The buck can’t handle it. Place yourself in his hooves for a moment. Your life is on the line and this predator has been on your heels all day. You stand statuesque listening; every minute noise is now startling; your eyes stare in terror as your head jerks anxiously at the slightest disturbance; your mind is racing faster than your pounding heart; your thought process becomes blurred; and panic has set in much like the flushed flight of a ring-necked pheasant.



George Mattis describes this malaise in the following excerpt, “But one thing an animal cannot mentally cope with is being persistently dogged by its enemy. The steady pressure put on by a tracker eventually disarms the quarry. The animal’s normal senses necessary for its very existence become fogged. Curiosity, lack of courage, and bewilderment take over, and the hounded animal wallows in helpless confusion.”


One such buck that I had sufficiently pestered for the better part of a day began to show signs of caving. It was mid-afternoon when I decided to abruptly stop right where I was, lean against a stout hemlock and wait. Thirty minutes later with my rifle at the ready, that curious buck came walking back down his track. His head was at full alert, neck outstretched as he tentatively marched towards his ultimate demise.




When a buck is ready to bed, he often will hook to the left or right off his path. I know this now. It only took one painful experience at failing to collect the buck I was after for this subtle behaviorism to be learned. The buck chooses the direction of the hook entirely on wind direction and elevation. He prefers to lie above a game trail with the prevailing wind currents at his back. My learning curve began one cold November morning at pink light, when the telltale imprints of a fine buck were found. Diligently, I followed this marked animal for several miles, a journey that demanded far more in physical stamina than it did to mentally decipher the buck’s wanderlust to roam. Because of this I subconsciously became negligent.


The human brain has tendencies to wander when not completely focused on the task at hand. Mine is no different. On this day, as the foot mileage accumulated behind a buck that showed no sign of deviating from his course, I caught myself daydreaming. When you fall victim to this malady (and you will, trust me), it’s best to stop where you are and refocus. Any thoughts that are allowed to compete with the necessary attention required when in pursuit of a mature woods-wise buck will likely result in an empty game sack.



I was seven hours into this chase when the track suddenly hooked 90 degrees to the uphill side. Rather than peak around the fir tree inconspicuously with my weapon readied in preparation, I blundered right past the screen of green boughs into a forest opening. It was no more than forty yards to where the buck was now gaining his feet in preparation for his exodus. I can’t fully express how foolish it felt to watch a very wide racked buck disappear out of my life faster than it took to pen this last line. Due to my ineptitude, that animal has forever left his indelible mark in my deer-hunting career.


Mid-Day Bucks


While we’re on the subject of bedded bucks, there is another valuable lesson I gained from firsthand experience. Outside of the whitetail rut (particularly during the recovery phase), when a buck is found in a bed it would be accurate to assume this is his bedroom. Secondly, it would also be prudent to remember that a mature, savvy animal is rather reluctant to stray very far from the security of his hideout when the sun is near its zenith.



I once tracked a short-framed, hog bodied buck in a winter landscape right to his freshly vacated bed. It was nearly noontime when I came across the evidence of him rising, relieving himself, and walking away from his lair. Following his track just a short distance more revealed where he had rubbed a couple of small saplings and browsed on some maple shoots. Based on the time of day and the fact that the rut was over should have made me pause to correctly assess the situation. Instead, I proceeded to dauntingly enslave myself to the prints set before me and ultimately jumped the buck from another bed less than a hundred yards away. What should have been a slam dunk resulted in another mental miscue on my part.



Spotty Snow


Because I am primarily a deer tracker, snow becomes a necessary ingredient to my hunting recipe. There are times when there’s barely enough of the substance to make it practical or worth the endeavor, but as of late any snow is better than none. It seems a veteran buck will purposely seek out patches of ground devoid of snow to hide his trail. In locations such as north facing slopes, open hardwoods where walking on snow is unavoidable to the animal, your tracking job should progress uninterrupted. It is when his slots lead into dense canopies that a discerning eye and much circling will be required to maintain his track.



Tracking under these meticulous conditions ultimately will slow your pace. Each time the track seems to end, my first move is to look ahead in the general direction his path has been leading. I have found this to be the most logical place to begin when attempting to relocate the vanished slots. If that fails, I then begin making circles, starting where his last print ended. This is a time-consuming affair and may have to be repeated several times during the day if the buck is bent on remaining within these confines.


It was under these exact conditions that I took a fine ten-pointer. I had lost and then relocated his track three different times. Just prior to finding his imprint the fourth time, I almost gave up out of extreme frustration. Determined to find this elusive buck I continued, and as good fortune would have it, I spotted the only tree moving in the forest. The buck was giving a young maple the thrashing of its life. Within mere moments, his rib cage was pinned to my sights, quickly relieving my memory of any perceived misgivings.





Boondock bucks will always offer the huntsman a challenge, and the wilderness, by its very nature, certainly will test his resolve. To accept this will require the individual to understand the words written by Larry Kollor in his book, Shots at Whitetails, “For every buck killed there will be a dozen failures. This type of hunting demands the utmost in perseverance and patience.”


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Posted in: Whitetail Deer