Describing deer as “smart” or “dumb” is kind of silly. It’s mostly just a contextual framing exercise that masks what we are really saying, which is that some deer are good at surviving and some aren’t. And that’s not entirely true either. When we call a deer "dumb" it’s usually because it acts cavalier or careless around us. A “smart” deer does the opposite.
Without human involvement, the whole thing gets a little muddier. No one would call a buck dumb because a pack of wolves hamstringed him after a lengthy chase. We also wouldn’t call a fawn smart because it laid tight while a sniffing black bear worked the meadow 10 feet away but never caught on to the spotted snack tucked into the grass.
However accurately (or inaccurately) we describe them, one thing is certain—hunters are always looking for bucks that make mistakes. This is something all deer are capable of, but for us to capitalize on it usually means that we understand the circumstances that promote these slip-ups.
Comfort Zones I’m always amazed at how confident big bucks seem when they are in a spot where they feel comfortable. Even on public land, they don’t project neuroticism and jumpiness the way the average doe does, especially if she has a couple fawns in tow. This is one of the great intangibles of a buck bed or staging area strategy: If you can figure out either location (or both), you’re working with specific spots he has chosen for a reason.
That reason is safety, which comes from what the buck perceives as an advantage—detecting predators before they get the jump on him. This is a weakness you can exploit through a ton of scouting and observation. When you see natural daylight movement like a buck browsing and randomly making rubs on a thick ridge, you’re seeing something that you can use. A sighting like that is much more actionable than watching a buck poke his nose into a soybean field at last light. It signifies that the deer has a level of comfort that you can capitalize on.
A deer in the cover is a deer that feels safe. That makes him more likely to move in daylight, more likely to respond to a few grunts, and more likely to wear your tag.
Nose Confidence Mark Kenyon and I interviewed Adam Hays during a recent episode of Wired To Hunt that I guest hosted. Hays is well known for archery-killing four 200-inch bucks, as well as dozens of other mature deer. During our conversation, he mentioned how important it is for him to hunt where bucks feel the wind is working in their favor, but also offers him a setup advantage.
This plays into every one of my sits as well. If a buck believes the wind is perfect for him, he’ll be confident. His nose keeps him alive and he’s damn good as using it to avoid predators of all stripes. But some of his routes have weak spots, which briefly take his nose out of the game.
This might occur where a washout on a hillside forces him walk 20 yards out of the way or where a fence crossing diverts his perfect travel route by just 10 or 15 degrees to the preferred wind direction. But for 99% of the time he’s on these routes, he knows exactly what danger lies ahead.
That remaining 1% exists in spots worth finding. when you do, it’s incredible. But it pays to remember that while you might be able to scout these types of spots, you won’t fine-tune them without in-field, in-season observation. You might even need multiple seasons of it.
The Real Morons Okay, so we’ve tricked you into thinking you were reading an article about how to find the stupidest deer in the herd, but so far, we’ve only proven that bucks make occasional stupid decisions in their otherwise airtight existence. Don’t lose hope, because if you really want to find the dullards, you can. You just have to do the obvious.
A buck with one hunting season in the rearview mirror isn’t going to be as savvy as a buck with five. He’s also not going to occupy the prime real estate that offers the best survival advantages. Youngsters are more callable (generally) and more tolerant of hunter mistakes. If there is a dumb one out there, it’s a forky or an 83-inch two-year-old.
Of course, this all ties into hunting pressure and experience. You can grow really big, really dumb deer by not pressuring them. Age doesn’t necessarily equate to the accumulation of top-notch survival instincts. This is why you can pay serious coinage to hunt bucks that have been babysat to maturity; an expensive shortcut to dumb deer.
If that route doesn’t do it for you but you still want to cross paths with an idiot ungulate, you could do what everyone else does and hunt the rut. In my experience, rut season on pressured ground doesn’t really make bucks stupid, it just puts them on their feet more. They still don’t tolerate sloppy stand placement or extra movement, and they sure as hell don’t stick around if they detect you. They do move around more in daylight and can occasionally become laser-focused on the sweet smell of doe delicates over everything else.
But the rut is no secret and it’s definitely not always the fast-track to a grip-and-grin that we all feel it should be.
A better bet, even if you don’t want to lower your standards, is to figure out the areas that allow bucks to become overconfident. Then put in the work to suss out the exact ambush locations and specific set of conditions you need to make him look dumb, even if just for a brief moement.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.