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Having spent 38 years studying deer behavior on a daily basis, Charles Alsheimer was more than a writer and photographer. He was a true pioneer. These are the lessons he passed down to us.
By Charles Alsheimer
No. 1: How Weather Affects Deer Behavior
A lifetime spent photographing and raising whitetails and being involved in some very interesting research caused Alsheimer to rethink some of what he previously thought to be “gospel” regarding deer movement.
He was one of the first whitetail behaviorists to document the six factors that cause deer to move or stay on their bellies:
3. Herd sex ratios.
4. Predators (man and beast).
6. Light (both sun and moon).
“Although each can trigger or suppress deer activity on its own, it’s when they work in concert with one another that they are most noticeable,” he wrote more than 30 years ago.
These insights on weather and how it affects deer movement educated generations of hunters on not only how they could better maximize their time afield, but also on the unique temperament of this game animal.
Alsheimer is also credited with popularizing the notion that barometric pressure is perhaps the No. 1 factor that dictates when deer will move.
“Whitetails can detect when barometric pressure is falling, even if the sky is clear,” he said. “They know when conditions are changing and their feeding habits can increase dramatically prior to the arrival of bad weather and after a front has passed.
“Through the years I’ve observed that whitetails typically move more when the barometer is moving, either up or down, than when it is steady. During this time, you’ll usually find periods of high humidity with fog, haze, rain or wet snow making up the weather system. When this happens, whitetails become secretive, especially in periods of dense fog. The sudden drop in temperature that often accompanies these fronts doesn’t cause whitetails to head for thick cover. Rather, it is caused by the unsettled weather associated with the leading edge of low-pressure fronts.”
He went on to explain how the greatest movement occurs if barometric pressure drops rapidly.
“With few exceptions, there will be little or no deer movement once the front arrives and the weather becomes nasty,” he said. “Then as the front passes and the weather returns to normal, whitetails and other wildlife start to move again.
“When the storm ends and the barometer rises, deer activity often increases dramatically, provided that air temperatures match the whitetail’s comfort zone.”
Several studies have been completed regarding the effects of barometric pressure on whitetail activity. Illinois biologist Keith Thomas found that greatest whitetail feedings occurred when barometric pressure was between 29.80 and 30.29 inches. When the barometer is falling or rising through this range, deer activity should be greatest.
No. 2: How Bucks Use Scrapes
As the rutting moon arrives and the rut intensifies, three distinct types of scrapes show up: boundary, random and primary. Charles Alsheimer was one of the first to define the terms and document this intricate whitetail behavior when D&DH published his article, “Hunting Whitetails with White Lightning” in the late 1970s. In the article he explained how he doctored scrapes with the estrous secretions from Holstein cows. The tactic not only worked, it helped kickstart the whitetail scent industry.
Through his observations, Alsheimer identified the following types of scrapes:
Boundary scrapes: Scrapes that are made randomly as bucks travel through their territory. These scrapes often show up along the edges of fields, fencerows and old roadways. Those made along field edges are nearly always made at night. Because of this, Alsheimer paid little attention to these scrapes except for checking the track sizes. He said if the track is more than 21/4 inches wide (with no more than a 1/4-inch split in the toes) the buck probably is over 21/2 years old and nearing maturity. Such bucks also will tip the scales at over 175 pounds in the North.
Random scrapes: Scrapes that are made spontaneously as a buck cruises his territory. A buck will often make a random scrape whenever he comes upon an attractive licking branch and is “moved” to work the site. Seldom will they be reused and in most cases are not serious candidates for a hunting setup.
Primary scrapes: “These are the ones hunters need to pay attention to. In many ways they are the “mother lode” of whitetail scrapes, with some having the potential of becoming the true “bus station” for white-tailed bucks,” Alsheimer reported.
Primary scrapes are normally found in strategic locations, inside corners, ridgelines and especially along well-worn trails between bedding and feeding areas during the rut. In many instances, bucks will make a line of scrapes (20 to 50 yards apart) along such trails. Because many primary scrapes are found along well-worn trails, more than one buck will work and rework them during the three phases of the rut.
“I’ve made a career of hunting and killing bucks along well-used trails,” Alsheimer said. “I’ve probably killed more bucks over primary scrapes along well-used runways than any other place.”
No. 3: How to Speak the Language
When Alsheimer began calling to deer during the 1960s, he used only antlers. Although there were successes, it wasn’t until he began using a grunt tube, alone and in conjunction with antlers, that his success at luring deer close increased significantly.
Over the years, he discovered that deer are more responsive to a call than anything else. For this reason a grunt tube went with Alsheimer whether he was hunting with gun, bow or camera. Regardless of where he hunted in North America, he found that for every buck he rattled in, up to 20 would respond to grunting, bleating and wheezing.
“Whether you are a novice or seasoned veteran, it’s important to realize that you don’t need to know how to make every vocalization a whitetail is able to make,” Alsheimer said.
Alsheimer also taught us that there are four basic sounds (with variations) that whitetails make: bleat, grunt, wheeze and snort.
Among his favorite calls:
Bleat: Alsheimer found the bleat to be a good locator/coaxing call, much like a turkey yelp. He often used the bleat a couple of times just before and after he did a rattling sequence.
“I’ll also use it when the action is slow and I haven’t seen a deer in a while,” he said. “A bleat is easy to learn on most grunt tubes and a no-brainer if you have one of the gravity bleat canisters that are very popular. These canisters have holes in the top of them and when tipped upside down make a whitetail bleat.”
Fawn bleat: Alsheimer taught us how the fawn bleat is very similar to the bleat, but the major difference is that it is high pitched, like you would expect for a young animal.
“The fawn bleat is a phenomenal call for photographers who hunt whitetails throughout the year and for late-season deer hunters,” he said. “I’ve called countless does and bucks within camera range during the summer months using this call.
“During this time of the year, nearly all adult deer will be on high alert when they respond. When used during the autumn months, the fawn bleat is an excellent locator call. Bucks that hear it will often come to check it out because they know there must be a doe in the area.”
Basic grunt: Grunting is the vocalization of choice for whitetails. Bucks, does and fawns grunt. When it comes to the grunting sound that deer make it should be noted that all grunts do not sound the same because of each deer’s physical difference.
“No two deer will sound exactly the same,” Alsheimer said. “I’ve learned this through in-the-field experience and more than 30 years of raising deer. By way of example, I can be in my deer enclosure, out of sight of a deer that is grunting, and often know which buck is grunting.”
Alsheimer taught us how the tone of the grunt will often depend on the maturity level of the buck. Older bucks have a lot of bass to their voice, meaning their grunts sound very guttural.
“For the most part, I will not use a deep-throated guttural grunt unless I know I’m communicating with a mature buck,” he said. “If you try using such a grunt on a yearling or 21/2-year- old buck, there is the distinct possibility that he’ll turn tail and flee.”
Trailing grunt: The trailing grunt is a short grunt that bucks make when traveling through the woods or when around other deer. It’s not uncommon for a rut-crazed buck to make a short grunt every one to 10 steps if he’s in the right mood.
“If I see a buck walking through the woods, I’ll use this grunt to stop him and to coax him in my direction,” Alsheimer said. “This is also a call that I use when no deer are in sight. If a buck is sexually active but not with a doe, there is a good chance he’ll respond to a grunt.”
Tending grunt: The tending grunt can be a lethal weapon if used properly. When a buck is with a hot doe and is either frustrated by her rejections or is interrupted by another buck, he’ll make a grunt that has a ticking cadence.
“If I’m hunting in thick cover during the rut and a buck walks within sight of the stand, I’ll use a tending grunt to bring him within range,” Alsheimer said. “This is a great call to use when bucks are on the move and the rut is boiling over.”
Wheeze: The wheeze is an aggressive sound that bucks make when they are irritated by the presence of other bucks. There are times when a buck will grunt or snort before wheezing, but more often than not will wheeze only.
Alsheimer would make the wheeze naturally by inhaling over his tongue, with his cheeks tight to the edge of his tongue.
“It can be hard to master naturally and I suggest that you purchase a good behavioral video that illustrates the vocalizations in order to learn the sounds whitetails make,” he said. “There are also a number of commercial calls on the market that can make the wheeze.”
No. 4: The Benefits of QDM
For the better part of 30 years, Alsheimer had been immersed in quality deer management (QDM). He was the first to admit there were times in the beginning when he wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing.
Traditions die hard in the Northeast, and the thought of managing land for quality deer was not an idea that was embraced by many New Yorkers during the early 1990s. Despite the drawbacks, Alsheimer kept the vision. Early on, progress was hard to see. But as the years passed, the QDM philosophy gained both momentum and acceptance when the public was able to see the results.
“QDM sounds great, so why doesn’t every state agency and hunter want to embrace the concept?” he once asked. “Some view it as threatening and others simply resist anything that smacks of change.
“Land and wildlife management is an energizing experience for some, but it can be a headache for others when they realize what it involves. This is why it’s important to understand QDM in terms of land, time, money and equipment before making a decision.
“For some strange reason, most hunters/landowners think they have to put together 1,000+ acres to have any kind of a QDM program. Not so. We did it on essentially 160 acres. The results were nothing short of incredible.”
When Alsheimer began practicing QDM in 1990, there was scant information available for small landowners who wanted to implement a QDM program. Because of this Alsheimer admitted he flew by the seat of his pants during the early years. He also often said the learning curve would have been a lot shorter had he not been the one breaking new ground in this area of deer management.
“Failure to plan is a plan to fail is something I’ve often said applies to everything in life,” he said. “It certainly applies to QDM, because a sound plan is the make-or-break ingredient. The better the plan, the better the results will be.”
BENEFITS OF QDM
- Deer population doesn’t exceed property’s carrying capacity.
- Improved buck-to-doe ratio.
- Older age-class of bucks.
- Improved habitat.
- Better hunting.
- Better landowner/hunter opportunities.
- Better understanding of property’s ecosystem.
- Feeling of accomplishment.
No. 5: How to Plant a Food Plot
Along with practicing QDM, Alsheimer was one of the first food-plot practitioners north of the Mason-Dixon line.
“Food plots were popular in the South for many years before we got started,” he said. “They did it out of necessity — there just wasn’t a lot of native vegetation for the deer to eat. Well, not enough of it to provide year-round nutrition. My eyes were opened to these new ideas after I flew to Texas and visited with legendary deer manager Al Brothers.”
Two of the biggest take-aways Alsheimer got from that meeting were how to manage deer for age and how to provide them with proper nutrition.
“It didn’t take long for us to realize that you have to get the ‘stones’ right, so to speak,” he said. “Without the right soil, you’re not going to accomplish much.
“Plants that deer feed on are for the most part nothing more than the delivery device for the nutrients in the soil. Consequently, it is critical to get the soil’s pH as good as possible to ensure optimum food plot success. Over the years I’ve worked diligently to improve our soil’s pH before the first seed is planted.”
Due to his farm’s soil structure, Alsheimer had to apply many tons of lime to get the food plot location’s soil pH over 6.0 in those early years.
“Although it’s best to get the soil to a pH of 7.0 (neutral) it simply isn’t possible in many parts of America,” he said. “However, if a soil pH of 6.0 to 7.0 can be attained, great food plots can be grown.”
Alsheimer compiled all of his knowledge on these subjects in countless articles and several books, including the classic, “Quality Deer Management: The Basics and Beyond” (Krause Publications, 2002).
No. 6: What is Realistic?
Alsheimer wasn’t long into his work on private-land deer management when he realized there was a ceiling to the good intentions of even the most ardent QDM supporter.
“You realize two things really quick,” he said. “One, you can’t stockpile bucks. Two, you have to be realistic with your expectations.”
He used his deer research facility and his incredible photography to illustrate points time and again in pictorials published in D&DH and also video aired on D&DH-TV.
“Reaching top-end antler growth is no easy feat and requires a host of factors, all working together for it to happen,” Alsheimer said. “However, when you understand the process and are fortunate to see such an animal (live or dead) it is a sight to behold.
“Hunters often ask my opinion concerning the size buck they should attempt to harvest on their first trip to a North American whitetail mecca, be it South Texas, Saskatchewan or points in-between. Such conversations are interesting because most of these hunters have never placed their crosshairs on any whitetail bigger than a yearling. For the most part, conversations with their outfitters have led them to believe that they should hold out for a buck in the 150- or 160-inch range. There are many areas where such trophies are possible, but not nearly as possible as many hunters are led to believe, especially when hunters are at the mercy of unpredictable weather.
“I’m a firm believer that a 140-class white-tailed buck is a trophy anyplace in North America. I’ve hunted whitetails from Saskatchewan to Texas to New York and points in-between, and my experience has taught me that sightings of bucks with hat sizes greater than 140 inches are few and far between — at least under true fair chase conditions.”
The best analogy Alsheimer said he could offer is that a 140- to 145-inch buck is the equivalent of a 6-foot, 5-inch man.
“When you realize that the average height of an American male is 5-foot, 10-inches, you quickly get the picture that a 140-class animal is way above average and very special,” he said. “Frankly, in the majority of whitetail habitats a 140- to 145-inch buck is as close to top-end as it gets. To expect anything more is wishful thinking.”
No. 7: How the Moon Influences the Rut
Alsheimer’s annual Northern rut prediction forecast was among his most popular — and most misunderstood — contributions to the deer hunting community.
Those who only casually followed his work on this topic criticized him for not being scientific enough with his findings. Meanwhile, legions of fans — diehard hunters — knew he was on to something because it was his intimate knowledge of deer behavior, not a simple moon-phase denomination, that fueled his work on this topic.
Alsheimer’s rut-predictor (developed with Vermont biologist Wayne Laroche) was originally based on a model that links cyclical changes in the Earth’s solar and lunar illumination to the whitetail’s reproductive cycle. They hypothesized that sunlight and moonlight provided environmental cues that set, triggered and synchronized breeding among whitetails.
During the early days of their work, a computer model was developed that uses astronomical data, field observations of rutting activities and measurements of light intensity to predict rut activity.
Alsheimer presented his forecast every year in D&DH and also the “Whitetail Calendar” produced by D&DH. Considering how much work he put into this project, he compiled the annual predictions for a pittance of a fee. What’s more, on several occasions he turned down lucrative deals from hunting industry manufacturers and retailers to commercialize his rut forecast.
“I’m obviously not doing this for the money,” Alsheimer once told D&DH Editor-in-Chief Dan Schmidt. “I do this because I believe we are onto something.”
The key to understanding the forecast is to understand that it has to do with whitetail behavior and biology more than a simple moon phase.
“Now that we have been into this so long, we feel that we basically have three ruts: a synchronized rut, a classic rut and a trickle rut,” Alsheimer said. “A synchronized rut is when that doe’s estrogen level peaks, the buck’s testosterone level peaks and the full moon all happens at the same time on November 1.
“Whenever we have seen a full moon around the same time as a peak in those two hormones is the best rut. It’s the most spectacular,” he said. “When everything happens around November 1, everything seems to explode.
“Now what about the classic rut? Whenever you have that full moon hit somewhere in the neighborhood of November 6 or November 13 — or in that time frame — you’re likely to have a mid-November rut. It’s going to be great.
“What about the trickle rut? What basically happens here is you have a full moon that is going to hit October 16 or 17 and another one that hits around November 16 or 17. What basically happens here is some of those does will cue off the October full moon, while the others will cue off of the November full moon. So, late October you get a pop in the rut, and then Thanksgiving week you will get a pop in the rut and in-between it ebbs and flows. These are the kind of years when a guy is hunting some place and calls his buddies and says, ‘Hey, you better get up here because the rut is going crazy.’ It takes his buddies a few days to get there and it’s now completely dead in the woods, and they’re like, ‘you’re crazy, man.’ That’s the trickle rut to a tee.”
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