Last weekend as hunters took to the Adirondack woods in search of whitetail deer, they traveled over a frosted, forest floor covered with leaves that crunched like potato chips underfoot.
Deer, decked out in their natural camouflage, blended easily into a predominately brown forest background. They remained still and listened as the hunters disappeared into the distant woods.
The hunters marched on by, all but oblivious to the presence of the animals. With no snow to capture their tracks, there was little evidence of the deer’s presence. When it was obvious the threat had disappeared, the deer calmly returned to their browsing. A gentle flicking of their tails revealed their calm demeanor as they fed on ferns.
Around the same time, the first winter storm of the season raged on less than a hundred miles to the south and barely 50 miles to the east. Eventually, the storm deposited over a foot of snow downstate and over 2 feet in parts of Vermont and New Hampshire.
Yet the storm did not cross the Big Lake, leaving the Adirondack region largely snow free, except for some minor accumulations in the upper elevations.
The forest remains brown, the deer are still around and hunters are left dumbfounded, wondering, “Will this be a repeat of last year’s nearly snowless hunting season?”
Without snow on the ground, the advantage firmly favors the deer. They are known as the “Ghost of the Woods” for good reason since they blend so well into their environment and leave so little evidence of their passing.
However, every season there comes a timeframe when whitetails seemingly throw caution to the wind. It typically occurs around mid-November during the rut. It is a period when the breeding instinct can over-ride their natural caution and bucks can be found looking for love in all the wrong places.
There is ample evidence that the rut, which is the peak breeding period for whitetails, will commence early this year. In the woods, there are already plenty of fresh scrapes and rubs. Last weekend, a member of our party returned to camp with handfuls of fresh shavings gleaned from the base of a striped maple that had been raked by a buck’s rack.
According to Charles Alsheimer, a recognized whitetail authority, a key factor in kicking the rut into gear is the occurrence of the second full moon after the autumnal equinox. Known as the rutting moon, it will occur on Nov. 10 this year.
Based on his highly regarded theory, the seeking and chasing phases of the rut in most northeastern states will likely begin around Nov. 7 or 8 and will continue for a week or more. Alsheimer predicts the “nine best days to hunt” will be from Nov. 10 to 18.
Breeding should begin to take place in most cases by Nov. 15, with the peak of breeding will occurring around the 20th. Alsheimer’s predictions have proven quite reliable over the years.
Although some hunters have complained that the season has been rather slow to date, they should remember there’s still over a month yet to go. Patience has more venison on the table than any other single approach. It is the most important tool in a hunter’s arsenal and often the most overlooked.
The answer is blowing in the wind
While patience is important to the hunt, so too are a host of other tools. Scent control is quite possibly of equal importance since whitetails rely as much on their nose for protection as they do on their eyes. They can often smell a hunter at far greater distances than they can observe them.
Scent control employs a number of efforts to prevent being detected by an animal’s nose. It’s that simple, and that difficult. Deer can smell a hunter at distances of more than a quarter-mile; it is a deer’s number one defense.
Scent control can be achieved through the use of body soap, shampoos and scent free detergents and sprays. Such methods are typically intended to eliminate or mask human scents. However, other scents are utilized as attractants, such as Doe-in Heat, apple or acorn, or as cover scents such as pine, cedar or earth.
Despite the best efforts at masking human scent or covering it with masking scents, the most important aspect of scent control in a constant awareness of prevailing winds. The most successful hunters are constantly assessing wind direction so that they can hunt into it. Always avoid hunting with the wind at your back.
Cover scents are part of scent control, but just because other smells are in the air doesn’t mean deer still can’t detect human odor in that air. There are many scents that humans carry, from the gas picked up on your boots at the service station to the garlic from last evening’s dinner.
A whitetail’s sense of smell is a matter of life or death, so covering up the human scent with apples or the like isn’t likely to overcome the threat-smell of humans. Hunting with the wind in your face remains the best method of scent control.
Wind awareness is easily achieved by attaching an indicator such as a thread or a feather to your rifle barrel. Another helpful tip comes from former forest ranger Gary Hodgson of Lake Placid. Hodgson always keeps a few puffball mushrooms in his front pocket, where a quick puff provides evidence of the prevailing winds, even on the calmest of days.
Whether sitting on watch, still hunting or conducting a drive, a hunter must always maintain an awareness of wind direction.
Photo by Joe Hackett
A whitetail doe scampers along the bank of the Raquette River recently.