Signs to Success: Using what you see and hear to your advantage
By Ryan Graden
I had been sitting in this stand all evening. It was one of many long hour sits during November for one particular buck that I knew was in the “neck of the woods” that I was frequenting. He was not a buck of a lifetime, but he was a definite Pope & Young buck that I wouldn’t mind having on my wall.
I first set eyes on him while on a horse ride with my wife and a few friends that we work with. We happened to be on a trail that weaved its way through some heavy brome grass when all of a sudden, the lead horse literally leapt one giant hop to the left as this buck exploded out of the four foot tall grass and headed for the timber. After the excitement of the situation settled, a smile on my face was all that was left knowing that the fall was fast approaching.
Now, that smile wasn’t so bright! I had spent most of November chasing this buck. Signs from him were everywhere. Rubs on large tree trunks and his scrapes were all around. I knew that I was in the right area, but he continued to elude my efforts and I was getting quite frustrated. The cold, wind, and dropping November temps were not keeping my hopes up that this buck would make its way to my stand.
This particular evening, I had not seen much deer activity at all. It had always been a good spot to at least see some does, but on this night, none had appeared. I could see a few of his scrapes from where I was sitting so I knew that they had to be frequenting them on some kind of a regular basis.
As I waited that night in a big white oak tree, there was a pesky squirrel that continued to hound me all evening. He’d come up and down the tree that I was in. Occasionally making it to the ground to dig for his late evening snacks. Then up the tree to bark at me once again. I had learned to ignore him knowing that until the sun went down, this little stinker was going to be a frustrating distraction to a dull evening.
Once again, I heard this squirrel messing around in the crunch of the leaves behind me. I didn’t even turn my head. It wasn’t worth my efforts. However, this time it sounded like he was taking a different path? Instead of coming to the base of the tree that I was attached to, he was swinging out to my left towards one of my shooting lanes! As I slowly caught the movement from the corner of my left eye, I realized it wasn’t the squirrel that I thought I was hearing. It was him! The buck that I had not laid eyes on since August.
He didn’t see me at first. His body was relaxed like he had just woke up for a deep sleep. His nose was to the ground and he had a slow and steady walk to his movement. He was speaking in a series of slow, small calm grunts as if he was smelling something he liked on the trail that he was following.
As I drew my bow back, his ears perked to the sound of my carbon arrow sliding against my whisker biscuit rest. His back legs tightened and tucked under his haunches as he readied to bolt! I knew my time was limited and I better take the opportunity that I had at the present. His body had all the signs that the seconds were limited. I took aim and slowly pulled the trigger on my release and watched my lighted knock fly true.
Being able to read the signs that a deer leaves in the woods and or demonstrates in its body and sound is very important to being a successful deer hunter. Just walking into the woods with a hope and a prayer is not going to promise you a freezer full of meat. You might get lucky a time or two, but your odds will be exponentially increased if you learn to process what these deer put out there for you to read.
Let’s begin in the off season.
Signs of Feeding
I like to plant a few small food plots every spring. My “go to” plot to plant is soybeans. Thankfully, I have a few farmer friends and seed dealers that, if I’m patient, give me their left over seed in June for me to plant. That means I plant later than the average farmer, but for my purpose, that’s okay. I’m not looking to harvest by a certain time. I’m just providing a winter food source.
As these tender shoots are growing, it’s important for me to know if deer are catching on to the presence of the food plot. I like to check on them from time to time to make sure that the deer are beginning to make these plots a part of their routine. By mid-July, if you look at the tops of these plants, you should be able to see that the very tops of the plants have been nipped off from the deer grazing on their tender shoots.
If deer are eating in this way, it’s a good sign that this food plot will be well used come the first temperature drop and hard snow. Knowing where the deer are feeding is going to be key to success. In this case, deer activity in food plots is a huge indicator of success if you are planning on taking out your kids for their hunts.
If you don’t plan food plots, look for a few other signs of feeding. Grasses will be grazed shorter than the stems around them. There will be an increase of droppings in a grazing area as well as a good number of prints pressed into the dirt. If you see heavy sign of any of these things, key into that area. You can bet, deer activity will be proving itself there.
Late Summer to Fall Rubs
In August and early September, you should begin to see some trademark signs of whitetail buck in the Iowa timber. I’m talking about rubs and scrapes. Let’s break each of them down a bit so you know why both are so important.
Rubs begin to show up first in late August. Bucks, by this time are finished growing their antlers for the year. Their “fighting gear” has reached its full potential for the year and they are ready to use them. This begins by rubbing off their velvet. The skin-like outer covering to growing antlers. When the growth has reached its maturity, the velvet begins to dry and become loose. As bucks feel the need, they will often pick a tree trunk, bush, or fence post and begin to aggressively rub the velvet off every square inch of their antler.
Rubs, as the season continues, have other purposes too. Typically, the size of the tree that is rubbed dictates the size of the buck rubbing it. A small diameter tree that has been rubbed is usually a small 1.5-year-old buck. Diameters of five to six inches or more are showing bucks that are 3.5 years old or older.
The act of rubbing does a couple of things for a buck that is coming into breeding season or the rut. First, it helps to strengthen the neck muscles of a rutting buck. Fighting is important among whitetail bucks. Moreover, the neck is an important tool to gain an advantage over an opponent. A strong neck will lead to winning many battles.
Rubs also allow a buck to deposit a little “scent” from a gland that is located right in the corner of the buck’s eye. It’s technically called the preorbital gland. As they rub on the tree, you will see them rub from the base of their antler up on to the ridge of their nose and corners of their eye. It’s just another way to leave a “calling card” of whose living in this area to other deer.
This is when things really get moving! When you are seeing scrapes on field edges, in timber, and other areas that you hunt, bucks are getting serious about what’s to come. The great fall rut! The time of year where bucks get “love crazy” and hunters get to take advantage of it. The mistakes they make while chasing a doe could put a buck right in your freezer!
Scrapes, like rubs, somewhat dictate the size of the buck that is leaving it. A scrape has two parts to it. A piece of ground that is pawed, scraped, or torn down to the dirt and an overhanging branch above it.
On the ground, the diameter of the scrape will show a buck that is more aggressive in leaving his mark. If you look closely, you’ll see the front two tips of his hoof that he used to loosen up the dust and dirt. Bucks will work a scrape in all directions to get it the right size. Usually, if you really get your nose down in there, you will smell a pungent, urine smell too. Bucks will often stand with their hind legs in the scrape as they urinate onto their hocks (back knee area) and thus urinate into the scrape.
The branch above is used, again, rub the antlers as well as the scent gland (preorbital gland) near the eye. Most of the time these branches are torn up, broken, or even ripped off the tree. It’s another way for bucks to leave their scent as well as strengthen their muscles in preparation for the rut.
Bucks will often times make these rubs in a specific “mapped” out area. These scrapes are one way bucks can say, “I’m declaring this as my property”. They are typically on the outer edge of a deer’s home territory as well as dispersed through the body of that area. Finding scrapes and making a mental map of where you found them should lead you to hunting right in that deer’s day-to-day routine.
Once you’ve pinpointed where a deer is living, and have a rough idea of its age. It’s time to pursue him. Setting up the proper stands according to travel patterns and wind is important to your success, but that’s another article.
Once you see a deer, here are some things that you need to know. Deer speak and it’s a benefit to know what they are saying! The actions and sounds that a deer make will help you to know what’s going to happen in the moments to follow. If you don’t know what’s being said, you may blow your chance at making a once-in-a-lifetime shot!
Let’s start with normal deer posture for both bucks and does. As a deer is traveling, most of the time their nose is low to the ground. They are looking for something to eat as well as smelling what’s been left behind by others. A regular pace and a low-hanging neck and head show a deer that is relaxed and not alert of any danger. The tail of a deer will also be twitching at regular intervals. I will be tucked in a relaxed position rather than the alert “showing white” position.
But, that can change in a heartbeat! Sound, smell, wind, and warnings from other deer can take a relaxed deer to an alert one in milliseconds. A deer on alert of something will have its head up, ears perked, neck outstretched, and all four legs in a “ready to run” position. Sometimes you will see small “flinches” in the muscles as the deer’s body is preparing to run at any moment. If a deer that you are preparing to shoot changes its posture in this manner, you have seconds to make your shot! Even then, there is a chance of them ducking your arrow. If you’re shooting a firearm, make your aim true, but make it quick!
In this alert position deer will also begin a few different actions and sounds. The “stomp” is one of those actions that you will probably see first. Most often, by this moment, a deer has detected that something is not right. It’s alert but it doesn’t’ really know what the specific danger in the area is. So, it will begin to lift is front leg up high and stomp it on the ground. Sometimes it’s the same foot. Sometimes they will alternate in a marching pattern. When it’s stomped in the leaves, the sound carries to all other deer that are in the area.
Along with this stomp you might hear a “blow”. When deer sense danger, they will also blow a large and powerful breath exhaling through their nostrils. It’s loud! And again, it’s a warning to all other deer in the area that something isn’t right. Sometimes, the alert posture will lead to stomping and a blow as you watch the deer flee. And as they flee they will continue to blow with each landing stride making a sequence of blows as it runs away from you! When that happens, you might as well pack up and go home!
When the rut is in full swing, bucks will sometimes be the noisiest deer in the woods! You can hear them for miles if your ear is in tune to hear the sounds that he makes. One of the most common is the grunt!
I remember when I heard my first grunt in the woods, it was so unusual. I didn’t even see the deer but the low decibel tone of the sound resonated through the timber and into my head. It was steady and bold, and as it got louder, I finally saw the source of the sound as a buck came down a trail still 100 yards away.
Grunts are heard the most during the breeding season (rut). A buck on the track of a doe in heat will grunt the entire time he’s doggin her! The lower the grunt, the bigger the buck. Younger bucks will grunt too during the rut, but it’s at a higher pitch and will not travel as far in the timber.
The snort-wheeze is another sound that you will hear from a rutting buck as he is in the mood for breeding. It’s kind of like a “stuttering blow” of breath. It’s very loud and very distinct from other sounds.
I’ve heard them used by deer in a few different ways. I remember being in a stand and watching a younger buck pursue a doe in the timber below me. Every time he came close, she’d move away. You could tell he was frustrated. All of the sudden he let out a snort-wheeze as if to vocalize his frustration to this doe.
I’ve also heard it as a challenge. I have a snort-wheeze amplifier on my grunt tube. There’s been multiple times that I’ve seen bucks in the distance not really knowing if they are shooters and thus, needing a closer look. By issuing a snort-wheeze as a challenge, those buck will eventually make their way towards me thinking there is another buck ready to challenge them. A few times, it’s ended with a successful harvest.
And last but not least, the tail! It’s the body part that this species is named for. The white-tail is one of the telltale signs that you’ve been discovered and deer are not waiting around to see what happens next! I think of it as a deer’s last message to us that we’ve been had! Those fleeting white flags can be seen through dense Iowa timbers as deer run from predators and hunters.
When you see a bobbing white tail of a deer, just know, they’ve won this time, but you might win the next! Remember to read the signs, continue to educate yourself, and never give up!