Spooking a buck in his core area doesn’t mean the game is finished. In some cases, it has really just begun.
By Bill Vaznis
The buck exploded from underfoot like a firecracker and zigzagged across the creek and up the wooded hillside before disappearing into a thick stand of hemlocks. The unmistakable noise of his wide rack snapping dead branches suddenly stopped, as if the buck had broken into an opening or stopped less than 100 yards away.
I immediately dropped to my knees and slowly raised my binoculars. Peering over the top of the housing, I stared at where I last saw the buck and looked through the glass, focusing inch by inch into the dark timber. Sure enough, the buck had stopped behind a fallen tree and was staring at me. He remained statuesque for several minutes, and then looked left to right, turned and flicked his tail as he faded like a wisp of smoke.
I remained motionless until I was sure the buck was gone and then stood to investigate the site thoroughly. I had been returning to camp opening morning, walking nonchalantly along the edge of the creek, when I jumped the buck from his daytime lair. If I had not stopped momentarily to watch a gray squirrel scamper up a tree on the far side of the creek, I’m sure the buck would have let me pass within 10 yards of his bed, nestled deep inside the canopy of a fallen red oak.
What happened next, however, forever changed my mind about pursuing a jumped buck during bow season. I’ve tracked plenty of deer in snow during gun season to learn that unless a buck is immediately pursued, it will often bolt for about 100 yards, stop to check its back trail and bolt again. After checking its back trail a couple of more times, the buck will eventually slow down and return to a more relaxed routine. I’ve shot several bucks in that manner when wind and snow conditions were in my favor. The trick is to give the buck 20 minutes or so to calm down before giving chase.
After jumping the bedded buck that morning, I sat, ate an apple and contemplated my attack. Then I hustled along the creek and circled upwind, hoping to catch a glimpse of the buck. After breaching the hillside, I slowed down and still-hunted along an old logging road that cut around the mountain before dropping to parallel a beaver flow. I expected the buck to cross the flow at the dam and hole up on the far side.
My hunch was right. An hour later, I caught the buck feeding on acorns along a ridge above the pond, oblivious to me. His mahogany rack glistened in the late-morning sun. I would like to tell you I arrowed that buck, but another deer caught me in midstep and snorted as I attempted a stalk, ending my fun.
Still, that close call convinced me that spooking a buck in its core area doesn’t mean the game is finished. In some cases, it has really just begun.
Late-summer and early-autumn bucks have fairly predictable routines. They remain bedded until twilight and then choose a route to a nearby feeding area until pink light, when they return to a bedding site for the day. If you spook a buck while sneaking to or from your tree stand or during a midday scouting trip, you might push him onto a neighboring farm or, worse, make him go nocturnal. You won’t see him in the immediate area for at least several days while he recuperates from the encounter.
So what should you do when you jump the deer? First, watch the buck as long as possible, noting his body language. If he makes a few short bounds but stops within sight behind a blowdown, he probably doesn’t know exactly what scared him. Drop to your knees and wait him out. Deer instinctively fear the human form, but they have difficulty discerning you when you kneel, provided you remain motionless. You will blend in with the surroundings, and the deer will eventually wander away, no worse for the encounter. Depending on the wind and ground conditions, you might try an end run.
If the buck seems nervous and high-steps away with its tail erect, you might try a fawn bleat. Fawns are rambunctious and can cause quite a stir as they scamper about. One or two bleats from your grunt tube will often calm a spooky buck, especially if he only heard you snap a twig. Even so, remain motionless for 10 or 15 minutes until you’re sure the buck has wandered away.
When a buck bolts as if his life depends on a quick escape, listen to the deer as long as possible. You might get a few clues about his body weight by the thud of his hoof beats, and the twang of a barbed-wire fence might help you define his escape route. File those clues away for future reference.
What if you jump a buck near your tree stand or ground blind? If you’re set up next to a preferred feeding location, you probably won’t see that buck in the area for several days. The best option is to use your grunt tube to help calm the buck down and wait for him to clear the area. Then, move your stand closer to his suspected bedding site. It makes little difference if you jumped the buck in the morning or afternoon, because if you spooked him badly enough, he’ll be wary about moving during daylight.
A second option is to set up a stand near a more protected feeding area, such as an overgrown orchard or small oak grove, and wait him out.
The Chase Phase
If you can hunt several consecutive days as the rut is about to break loose, you might jump several bucks from one location. At first, you might think the bucks high-tailed it out of the area, but don’t believe it. They’re likely part of a pack of bucks in hot pursuit of a doe nearing estrus, and you stepped into the middle of the commotion.
In such cases, several bucks typically zigzag behind the doe to keep tabs on her as she attempts to elude her suitors by running in circles and ducking in and out of cover. The closer she is to estrus, the more likely a mature buck will be leading the charge. However, if she’s still several hours from ovulating, the old buck will be satisfied to remain nearby and let the satellite bucks chase until the doe is ready to stand and breed. Only then will he move forward to claim mating rights.
What should you do? Use your eyes and ears to keep tabs on the doe. Invariably, she will give some of the bucks the slip. Don’t fret, however, as that can be your golden opportunity. Let me explain.
When a rutting buck loses contact with a doe near estrus, he will frantically use all his senses to reconnect with her, often throwing caution to the wind as he searches desperately. He might boldly strut across openings with his head erect and ears cocked to pick up any sight or sound indicating her whereabouts, such as a doe bleat, a snapping twig, two bucks sparring, the flick of a tail, the rustling of leaves, a sapling swaying back and forth, or a tending grunt from another buck. The buck’s attention will suddenly focus on almost any sight or sound that might be interpreted as another deer. The buck will continue to circle, periodically dropping his nose to the ground to catch the doe’s scent trail, until he finds her or gives up.
What can you do? Give the buck what he’s looking for. Get the wind in your favor, and try some vocalizations. My first choice is an estrous doe bleat or a series of estrous bleats followed by a series of moderately-toned tending buck grunts. A buck seeking a lost hot doe might interpret your renditions as that doe being courted by another buck. Stomp the ground and shake some brush to add realism to the ruse.
During such times, almost anything will work. One season, I stumbled on several bucks chasing a diminutive doe through a long-abandoned corn lot. The doe crossed the field with several of the bucks in tow — but not all. I hunkered down and was pulling my grunt tube from inside my jacket when I heard something moving through nearby brush. I reached down, retrieved a foot-long dead branch from the ground, snapped it in two and scraped the ground with the broken halves. Suddenly, an 8-pointer broke from the brush and rushed toward me, stopping at 10 yards. He was obviously looking for the doe making all the racket and paid no attention to me crouched by a fallen log.
I dropped my head and hid my eyes under the brim of my baseball cap to avoid eye contact. I waited for the buck to look away so I could grab an arrow from my quiver. Just then, the doe reappeared, and the 8-pointer took off after her. I, however, was shaking like a leaf.
I learned from that encounter that you must be prepared to shoot before you try to lure a crazed buck close for a bow shot. Now I nock an arrow and drop to a knee before I begin calling, and I bring my bow to full draw when I believe a buck is approaching. You must act quickly, as there’s little time to waste.
Buck Tending a Doe
It’s not uncommon to jump a buck trailing a hot doe during the breeding phase, and the deer often split up and go different directions. Your first impulse might be to chase after the buck, but that’s not always best. The buck will leave the area for 10 minutes to a half-hour but will eventually return to where he last saw the doe. The urge to mate is powerful, and if you wait downwind of where you last saw the doe, your chances of getting a shot at that buck are quite good.
Three seasons ago, I jumped a buck tending a doe at first light. The doe went north into a woodlot, and the buck bolted south into a thick, impenetrable brush lot. I got the wind in my favor and waited. Sure enough, 20 minutes later I caught the buck sneaking out of the brush lot into an adjacent overgrown farm field. There was no doubt he was looking for that doe as he carefully worked through the goldenrod, briars and tall grasses, stopping often to stare into the woodlot.
As the buck neared the woodlot, it picked up the pace, but it was not fast enough. I came to full draw from a kneeling position, and at 22 yards I swung my bow and released a razor-tipped shaft in one fluid motion. The buck died within seconds from a double-lung shot.
If you jump a buck from his core area this season, don’t concede defeat. Consider the phase of the breeding season, and weigh your options. The fun might just be starting.
— Bill Vaznis is a veteran whitetail hunter from New York.
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