November 14, 2010

Allen Afield: Yes, deer driving works, but it's difficult to do well

By KEN ALLEN

The regular Maine deer season opened two weeks ago for 150,000 hunters, so by this coming week, the resulting hunting pressure has forced whitetails into a nocturnal behavior pattern. In short, they bed down in thickets all day to avoid human encounters, and then they move after dark to feed and breed, a general rule with exceptions.

DEER
click image to enlarge

Wary whitetails will move into the wind as a basic defense mechanism. The deer’s ultra-sensitive sense of smell allows them to sense what might be approaching.

Associated Press file photo

When predators such as humans or coyotes move into these bedding areas in the day and push deer into motion, these ultra-wary animals flee into the wind far more often than not so their ultra-acute noses can smell what lies ahead in ambush, a survival instinct as basic as procreation.

Hunters know how efficiently whitetails use wind, so they generally approve of driving deer to shooters on stand. Even folks like me who still-hunt and seldom participate in drives view the practice as an ethical tactic.

On the other hand, non-hunters who look at deer as dumb critters may think driving gives hunters an unfair advantage, so they view it as unethical.

However, these intelligent game animals have honed this wind-defense strategy over millennia, and slip away from shooters on stand and drivers most of the time. That's why one out of every eight to 12 hunters -- on average -- shoots a Maine deer annually, a dismal success ratio.

READING SCENTS

Many non-hunters and inexperienced hunters think deer flee into any direction that the driver wants to push them, but these folks have not thought the equation through. On rare occasions when circumstances cause deer to run with the wind, these ungulates will quickly make a U-turn into moving air so their noses can detect what danger awaits ahead.

Even at times when a barely perceptible breeze blows, deer still have an advantage as they walk or run with air drifting into their faces.

To emphasize the wind's importance in the whitetail world, please consider this digression, comparing human eyesight to a deer's olfactory nerves:

One evening when I was 10 years old, three of us were playing tag in a backyard with lots of trees. We soon established who could run the fastest and slowest, so the game became a huge bore.

To liven this children's pastime, two of us put on a blindfold and then start running away while the guy who was "it" counted to 20. When he reached that number, we could snatch off the blindfold -- and "snatch" we did. Without the use of eyes, we worried about smacking into tree trunks.

The relief of seeing again creates an excellent comparison to deer running with the wind instead of against it. These animals feel as panicky and defenseless without wind in their face as we do covering our eyes.

To be ultra-successful at deer driving, hunters must know a particular forest and understand deer behavior -- both skills crucial for success.

When savvy hunters set up a drive, they begin the campaign by determining wind direction. Then, they push deer toward moving air because that's the only direction these critters will travel for any length of time. In a nutshell, if wind blows from the west, hunters push them west.

Next, hunters taking a stand must know a good deer crossing, and then, each hunter stationed in ambush waits downwind of the trail so approaching deer cannot smell human odor.

Savvy hunters walk to their stand from the downwind side and never step in a deer trail unless they do it several hundred yards away from their stand. If circumstances force hunters across the path, they do it well away from the drive zone so deer can pass the shooter before hitting human scent.

(Continued on page 2)

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