Why the Ghosts of Predators Past Make the Modern Whitetail So Difficult to Hunt

Why the Ghosts of Predators Past Make the Modern Whitetail So Difficult to Hunt

Hunters tend to view deer as we think of them now, which is understandable. It’s also a mostly distilled and distorted look at the most popular game animal. We can’t really help it since we live about 75 years, and have a hard time comprehending time scales much longer than that.

We aren’t comfortable with big numbers, and our brains aren’t great at understanding them. The distances between objects in the universe don’t make sense to us. We speak of light years as we would earth-based distances, but a single light year is six trillion miles. We talk of the dinosaurs with passing interest but can scarcely fathom giant reptiles ruling the earth 100 million years ago.

When it comes to deer, we generally don’t even acknowledge their origin story. This is something I dug pretty deep into while researching a book several years ago. It’s a good reminder that if you want to be a better hunter, you should try to understand where deer came from.

The Reigning Champ

Information about any event that happened deep into the past will be explained through a wide range of dates because it’s hard to pinpoint specifics. Whitetails, or the precursors to our modern whitetails, hit the scene a long time ago. Fossils, some of which were found in Florida, tell a story of somewhere between two and five million years ago when the first chapter of the whitetail’s book was written.

Think about that for a second. Imagine the predators that deer had to deal with over the course of millions of years. We think of deer as adaptable because they can live in cities or in the mountains. They thrive in extremely cold climates as easily as equatorial regions where cacti dominate. All of this is evidence of a truly adaptable critter, but it doesn’t factor in the list of predators they’ve gone up against over the years.

The hot topic in this category today is the gray wolf. A formidable predator, no doubt. Not that you could survey them, but I bet modern deer would choose packs of wolves over some of the toothy critters their ancestors had to avoid.

Giant bear and lion species, for example. Members from each could easily dwarf the largest specimens found today throughout the world. North America had its own version of the cheetah as well, a cat that also shaped the evolutionary history of the pronghorn. Deer dodged saber-toothed tigers and jaguars, as well.

Perhaps this feels like I’m selectively showcasing the survival narrative of my favorite game animal, but the truth is there were a hell of a lot of herbivores through the years that went up against these apex predators. A few still exist, but most of them are lost to the history of Earth. Predators don’t deserve all of the credit for wiping out various species of herbivores because they often had help from a changing climate and natural disasters.

The big and toothy precursors to today’s predator certainly didn’t go lightly on the whitetail, however, and yet we still have them to hunt. This can’t be said about many of the animals that were on the menu next to the whitetail, and that says something that modern hunters should listen to.

Why We Love Dumb Deer

When we discuss difficult-to-hunt deer, we tend to focus on how much pressure they receive. I do this a lot because I’ve spent tons of time on public land and enough time on highly managed private ground to know the difference. But it’s not so simple.

Epigenetics, the study of heritable traits that occur without a change to DNA sequence, can alter the course of a species' existence and influence evolution. Those heritable traits, like looking up in the trees for danger after 30 or 40 generations of deer that have dealt with death from above, make it more difficult to be a treestand hunter.

We attribute that type of characteristic to smart deer. The ones that don’t look up, well, they are dumb. Just like the deer that are babysat on a privately managed property until they are deemed old enough to shoot, don’t exactly scream high IQ.

These are easy-to-understand examples, but what about the deer bloodlines where avoiding the American Lion was the difference between life and death? We can scarcely fathom how that threat would carve a new pathway through the species’ DNA. We might never know, but that doesn’t mean that echoes of those past predators don’t still shape the behavior of the deer we hunt today.

How They Understand Us

We all know that the deer pattern us, but do we really? If we acknowledge that but walk the same paths to the same stands over and over, we aren’t giving the whitetail its due. This is true of all deer but becomes something else with older bucks (and does).

Whitetails have an understanding of where we enter the woods, where we are most likely to sit in ambush, and where we are most likely to sneak around when we are trying to find them. They learn this by seeing us, hearing us, and most importantly, smelling us.

They know when we are most likely to be in the woods with them and the seasonal timing and weather conditions that are most likely to keep us away. They seem to learn, as well, the difference between a harmless hiker and a hunter.

This is why successful hunters tend to follow one of two paths. The first is the land manager path, where creating dumber deer is the goal. If you can nullify the survival instincts built through millennia of avoiding predators, you win. The second is the mobile hunter path, where a combination of obsessive scouting and surprise sits often produces much better than average results.

If you can’t do the former, you might want to consider the latter. This might be the only way to consistently beat pressured whitetails at their own game. After all, you are competing against not only your neighbor’s hunting party but also packs of dire wolves that lived 100,000 years ago.

To best just such a prey animal, it’s a good idea to acknowledge how well they’ve done thus far against some pretty stiff competition. Competition that didn’t need to follow game laws, could see as well at night as in the day, and that possessed olfactory senses on par with their prey. Compared to them, we are terrible at this stuff, and it often shows in our successes—and our failures.

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