By Russell Thornberry
It was an open fall in eastern Alberta. The temperature was well below freezing, but there was still no snow, so the deer were coming to water holes and licking ice for the moisture they needed. So were the coyotes, squirrels, and grouse. Without snow, the ice was a crucial source of water. During such a fall, a hunter could cash in by observing any water hole that deer were approaching.
I was sitting in my blaze orange jacket with my back to an upturned tree stump a few yards from a stock pond that had been dug out in the middle of a thick stand of timber. Since natural cover enclosed it, game favored this spot, including the huge-bodied 11-point buck that stepped out of the timber.
It looked around for any sign of danger and stared right through me as I sat as still as a stone with my 7 Mag lying across my lap. I never blinked. The buck ignored me and began licking the ice, and I dropped it where it stood. The point of all this is that the color of my jacket didn’t register as a problem for this deer. But, had I made the slightest movement, it would have left in a cloud of dust and rolling stones.
Deer apparently see colors, but they don’t interpret them as humans do. With the exception of white, hunters can get by with most any color as long as they are still. Is this Russell telling the world that camo is irrelevant? By no means. In fact, a well-camouflaged hunter might even get by with minor movement because his outline is broken into so many pieces. So, the advantage of camouflage is indisputable, but my point is that deer will tolerate some amazing colors if there is no movement. A hunter’s movement is much more likely to catch a deer’s eye than the color scheme of his clothing.
Deer also detect movement better when they are standing still. If they are moving, then there are twigs, limbs and other natural objects that change perspective as they walk by. In essence, to the deer’s eye, as with a human being’s, there is the perception of movement all around them when they are moving. Look out your car window as you are driving. The landscape is changing all around because of your movement. So it is with moving deer. When hunters, especially bowhunters at close range, need to move slightly, they should wait until the deer is moving. It will be far less likely to notice.
Just as unnatural movement unnerves a whitetail, so does the lack of expected movement. If you’ve ever hunted with deer decoys, you probably experienced the fact that a statue-still deer is unnatural, and it typically scares the daylights out of deer – especially does that run interference for the bucks. My experience is that when a doe observes that decoy, which appears to be peering eternally in a fixed position, she gets quite nervous and begins to look for what the “other deer” is so fixated upon.
Standing stone still with a fixed gaze, in terms of whitetail body language, means something is wrong. Now, add a little movement to the decoy, like a twitching tail, and it calms the real deer down considerably. If the decoy stands in a feeding position, that is much more tolerable to the real deer than staring into space.
To a great extent, deer depend on movement to visually locate one another. I have experimented with decoys in a variety of conditions and locations, and I have been amazed at how difficult it was for a deer to see a decoy in dense cover. In many cases the deer almost ran into the decoy before it even noticed it was there. I find a decoy to be a deterrent before the rut begins, but once it kicks in, the faux deer can be dynamite for attracting bucks.
Understanding what movement means to deer is an interesting study. Once, while hunting in Saskatchewan in November, I climbed down out of my treestand at midday and walked to the brow of a nearby hill to see what was beyond it. I was dressed in solid white, which was the ultimate camo in the deep snow.
As I was returning to my tree, I saw a buck walking directly under my treestand. It caught my movement at the same instant that I saw it. We both stopped in our tracks facing one another. I was holding a large pair of brown mittens in one hand. While the buck was watching me, I brought both hands together in front of me at belt buckle height and then twitched them from side-to-side, just as a whitetail would do when giving the “all clear” tail twitch.
When I did, the buck dropped its head and continued along its merry way. That simple side-to-side twitch was so ingrained in its understanding that it believed the coast was clear. It was a case of the right movement at the right time.
Knowing when to move and when not to move reminds me of “The Gambler” sung by Kenny Rogers. “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em ...” There’s a time that you dare not even blink your eyes and at other times the right movement can be your ally. Experience will tell you which is which.
This article was published in the August 2004 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.