You're Giving Big Bucks Too Much Credit

You're Giving Big Bucks Too Much Credit

They are unkillable. Totally nocturnal. Blessed with a sixth sense that allows them to just feel that a predator is nearby. Some might say mature bucks are like a different species of deer.

Which is true in some ways, and in others, total bull.

The smartest buck on the landscape couldn’t out-reason most preschoolers. He has advantages, don’t get me wrong, but being hyperintelligent isn’t one of them. This, of course, begs the question of not whether we give mature bucks too much credit, but why?

Why do we assign traits to them that simply don’t exist?

Instinct Versus Intelligence

“I think we sometimes miscategorize intelligence,” said Clint Campbell, host of The Truth From The Stand Podcast. “They are just super in tune to their surroundings, so the things we don’t notice, or give much credence too, become huge red flags for them.”

Freshly broken branches, hand scent on a barbed-wire fence, or a 190-pound blob in a tree where every other day of the week there wasn’t one, are all noticeable to a deer. Their life exists largely within a single section of land, and the presence of predators is a newsworthy event.

“They don’t reason or rationalize,” Campbell said. “They react. They are so well-tuned into where they live that we assign it much greater meaning.”

It’s not intelligence or the possession of a yet-to-be-identified sense, it’s survival instinct. Understand that, and you’ll be well on your way to giving mature bucks their due credit and nothing more.

Deer Mistakes

I went through a frustratingly long phase when I started bowhunting where I became convinced I’d never arrow a mature buck. Occasionally one would walk by, and I’d lose it so much that they’d always live to see another sunrise.

Then, in 2006, I posted up over a beanfield for my first sit of the season. The first deer to walk out was a nontypical that was 40 inches bigger than a buck would’ve had to be to get me reaching for my bow. He never looked up at me as he fed closer and closer. That buck was oblivious, and when I stood over him to admire his rack, it was revelatory.

As dialed as they can be, they aren’t perfect survival machines. Even deer that spend their whole existence on public land, dodging constant pressure throughout the season, make mistakes. This is something that gets reinforced the longer you hunt, especially if you spend time in multiple states hunting on dirt that anyone can hunt. Even the wariest of bucks will be foolish at some point each season. Acknowledge this and use it to your advantage.

Make Them Mess Up

“The last time I drew Iowa I kicked a buck out of his bed and then went in the next day to set up on him," Campbell said. "When I saw him working a scrape, I gave him a doe bleat and he just let his guard down. But I also cheated his environment and set up where he couldn’t get downwind of me easily.”

Campbell killed that buck at 16 yards, and you might be thinking that it’s different with Iowa deer. Maybe, but there are plenty of people killing mature bucks on public land in states that don’t have the same deer reputation as the Hawkeye State.

This is because deer are, well, deer. They all have exploitable weaknesses. The rut is a big one, and if bucks were so smart, they’d probably ignore their horniness in the day to do their chasing at night when we are back at camp.

They don’t, because the biological urge to pass on genes is a strong one. Does it dumb the down? Yes, but they make “dumb” mistakes every day of the season. I’ll never forget editing a Bill Winke article in a past life when I worked in the magazine world. In the piece, Winke mentioned a buck he arrowed that was so into cruising for does that he covered every piece of the woodlot Winke was set up in. He wrote that you could have killed that deer from every tree on the parcel.

They engage in risky behavior outside the rut, too. This happens whether they are hungry, thirsty, tired, or just cranky enough to want to posture up on a fellow buck. Naturally, they rely on their senses to try not to die during all these activities, but their defenses aren’t foolproof.

As Campbell mentioned, something as simple as setting up in a spot where a buck can’t circle downwind is outsmarting them in a way that is truly advantageous. Take their noses out of the game, and you’re going to win plenty. Set up on the backside of a tree to keep yourself hidden, and you reduce their ability to see you.


They are survival machines, but they are imperfect. Acknowledge how well they know their home range, and then use that to your advantage. Set up where they live, but in ways that remove some of their defenses, and you’ll see that the bucks that once seemed unkillable suddenly aren’t.

Feature image via Matt Hansen.

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