Saturday, March 8, 2014
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.
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.
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.
A FORM OF CHESS
When taking a stand, veteran deer hunters scrape leaves and debris away so they can turn silently should a deer approach from an unexpected direction. Through the decades, this seemingly insignificant tip has made the difference between me shooting whitetails or not.
Yes, a well-run deer drive resembles chess-game strategies.
Many people disapprove of deer drivers making loud, deliberate noises, which allegedly frighten deer. Maine legislators also disliked the practice and made it illegal in this state.
I said "allegedly frighten deer" because in my humble opinion, drivers making loud, unnatural sounds just tell deer where hunters lurk in the woods, giving these intelligent animals a chance to get out of the way.
A silently moving driver mimicking the sound of a walking deer really makes these big-game critters nervous and pushes them into the wind. In short, noisemaking is for amateurs. Savvy hunters sneak when driving.
For more than two decades, driving deer was illegal in Maine because the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife deemed it unsafe.
After Maine adopted a mandatory requirement for deer hunters to wear hunter-orange on the torso and head, though, IFW's own statistics did not support that claim. Now, it's legal here to drive deer with three or fewer people.
I'd like to say that Maine was the only place in the world where driving big-game animals was illegal, but another country, state or province somewhere must have prohibited driving, too. While searching the Internet, though, I have never found another place where it's illegal -- and I have looked hard.
The rarity of such a law across the globe tells me something.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer.