What Deadheads Teach Whitetail Hunters About Buck Behavior

What Deadheads Teach Whitetail Hunters About Buck Behavior

There are two times in my life when I expect to find deadheads. Shed hunting is the first, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has dedicated some time to scooping up antlers in the winter and spring.

The second is while trout fishing. I don’t know how many times I’ve been slipping along the bank of some stream tucked deep into a valley when I’ve noticed a rack poking up out of the grass. The biggest was a 182-inch typical. That deadhead made news through the local deer scene and ended up with me eventually giving it to the kid who had shoulder-shot the buck the previous season.

Deadheads can teach you a lot about hunters and the deer they don’t recover, but they can also teach you a lot about whitetail behavior.

Wounded Whitetails & Water

It’s no secret that some wounded deer head to water. Blood loss is essentially water loss, and that needs to be replaced. If you happen to gut shoot a buck or hit one really anywhere that doesn’t turn out the lights quickly, a safe bet is that he’ll head toward water.

This is a general rule, of course. Wounded deer will go straight away from the only water source in the section, just as they’ll go uphill when they are only supposed to travel downhill. If you’re actively blood trailing, it pays to remember the general rules we all believe. It’s also a good idea to set them on the back burner and focus hard on spoor.

The link to spring deadheads here is that a lot of wounded deer do travel to water, but it’s probably not solely because they want to rehydrate. Water, whether you’re talking a stream, river or smallish pond, often features the kind of micro-habitat that deer prefer. The undergrowth is often thicker than the surrounding cover, which offers security. In the case of rivers and streams, they tend to be low, which allows deer to travel downhill to get there. Plus, while healthy bucks will cross water without thinking about it, some waterways serve as natural barriers to travel when it comes to mortally wounded bucks.

Wounded deer go where they go for a reason. The places you’re most likely to stumble across a deadhead are the same places you’re often likely to arrow a buck in the fall. Wounded deer travel to those spots for the same reasons healthy deer do, which provides insight into general buck behavior.

Deadheads & Cottontails

I used to rabbit hunt a lot, once the archery season in my home state of Minnesota started to die down in December. What I realized while pushing brush piles and overgrown homesteads for bunnies was that I found a lot of deadheads in rabbit-friendly spots.

This seems obvious on paper. Cottontails like thick stuff, and they are edge critters. Deer like thick stuff, and they are edge critters as well. The overlap between the species is big. It’s also true that rabbits don’t require a lot of space to live out their lives, and the areas they do so are often the areas hunters avoid.

Wounded deer know this, and they often crawl into the thorny morass that rabbits love, and then they expire. What does this mean to hunters? Well, the old buck that caught a slug in the guts and crawled into a hellhole to die didn’t do it randomly.

He probably used that area to stay safe dozens of times in his life. Where he went to die is probably the place he felt would offer him the best chance of survival. That’s a big clue into deer behavior.

Deadhead Drama

Most hunters look at a big buck skull out in the woods as a lucky find that belongs in their man cave or she shed. The catch here is that to be legal in quite a few states, you need a possession tag for it. You might pick up 100 deadheads a year and not get into trouble for it, but if, for some reason, you do get a visit from a Conservation Officer, they’ll take professional notice of your collection.

If you’re interested in a deadhead for more than what it can teach you about big-buck behavior, that’s fine. Just make sure you know what you’re doing if you pick it up and decide to take it home. This seems like an innocent move, but it can put you on the wrong side of the law. Take a look at your local regulations before you head out to catch a few brookies or try to cross paths with a cruising longbeard so you know how to proceed if you walk up on a bleached skull that’s complete with last season’s headgear.

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