SPOOKED BUCK – NOW WHAT?
You are approaching your stand and hear a crash nearby – in thick cover. You whip your head around in time to see a big set of antlers bouncing above the brush. “Oh rats.” Only you didn’t say “rats”. You’ve been after that buck since the season started – he is the one you came in here to hunt. The wind was in your favor and there was no way he could have seen you – he had to have heard you. But now he’s spooked. What next?
Here’s another example. You are in the stand. The morning sun is starting to make your eyelids heavy. You decide a little rattling would be a good idea before climbing down. After a 30-second battle, you hang them up. Ten minutes later, you give it and start pulling your pack out from under the seat. That’s when you hear that sound again – a loud crash. He was there, hiding in the brush 50 yards away and now he turns inside out before vanishing in a trail of vapor. He had you dead to rights. “Rats again.” What next?
One of the top questions I get: “What should I do after spooking a buck?” So here we go.
ASSESSING THE DAMAGE
Not every scare is the same. There are bad scares and casual scares. A buck that is “bad scared” is going to react differently in that area in the future than one that is “casually scared”.
Bad scared: A badly scared buck is one that really busts out of there. He is running flat out, low to the ground. His number one goal is to put as much distance between you and him as possible. Maybe you nicked him, or he sees you in the stand and recognizes you for what you are, possibly he picks up a heavy dose of your scent that hits him like a slap in the face. Either way, he is flat-out hoofin’ it.
Casually scared: Casually scared is more like startled. This is not the fight or flight kind of fear that you get with bad scared deer. A casually scared buck will bound off rather and blow out like a rocket. They know something is wrong, but the danger isn’t imminent. The deer doesn’t feel it is about to become venison.
WHY IT MATTERS
Bucks will respond to danger in proportion to the level of fear they sense. For example, bucks that are bad scared will alter their behavior more noticeably than bucks that are only casually scared. Bucks are casually scared almost every day. If they dug a hole and pulled the dirt in over the top every time they were casually scared, they would all have suffocated a long time ago.
Instead, they take notice, adjust their movements a bit and go on with their lives. If persistent danger reinforces these casual scares over time with more casual scares, the bucks will eventually stop using a certain area or become nocturnal.
If the buck is bad scared, he will immediately alter his behavior. He will bust off for a short 200-yard dash and then keep moving away cautiously for maybe another 200 yards before settling down. He will not soon forget what happened and every time he is near that area for weeks to come, he will be cautious.
So figuring out what to do after spooking a buck starts with figuring out how badly he is spooked in the first place.
HUNTING BUCKS THAT ARE CASUALLY SCARED
If you bump a buck while heading to your stand or the deer hits your ground scent, he is likely casually scared. I have already gone over that. Don’t forget, they can also hit your ground scent after dark and you will never know about it. Casually scared bucks certainly become harder to kill in that area. There is no question about that. You have damaged your chances for success.
That is the main reason that the first time you hunt a new stand is usually your best chance for success.
Now, we need a plan. First, figure out how often that buck gets casually scared by people in that area. For example, if you are in a residential area and hikers often come through walking their dogs or messing around in the woods, the buck is accustomed to some human interaction and has learned to accept some of it as normal.
If you alerted the buck in a way that he might consider normal for that area, you can treat it differently from a situation where he was more surprised. For example, let’s say he hit your scent where he is used to hitting scent, on a walking path or trail. Or you bumped him up near a roadway where he often encounters people. It is not a big deal.
If that is the case, I will keep hunting the stand as I normally would, in my regular rotation, resting it as often as I might if I had not spooked a buck. My bump was normal operating procedure for that deer. He will be back, maybe even later that day.
Now, if that scare occurs in a place and in a fashion that is foreign to the buck, he will not be so forgiving. Let’s say you jump him from his bed as you are sneaking in to your stand. You are in a ditch slipping into an area where the buck rarely sees a person. He is bedded right on the edge and bounds off 50 yards, then stops and looks back before trotting over the ridge. You think, “He didn’t look that spooked.”
Maybe he didn’t look that spooked, but deer don’t like surprises and they don’t like anything new. He will remember it. If they are not used to seeing a person doing what you just did they will see it as an invasion (as they rightfully would when encountering you in their bedding area). In that case, they will change their behavior in the short-term. It may be a couple of days before the buck comes back and when he does, he will likely be cautious, possibly only coming through that area at night.
If it is the rut, he may do something stupid, but likely, he will still exercise greater than normal caution. If he encounters the threat again in the same general area (or evidence of it – such as human scent on the ground after dark) he will be even more reluctant to travel that area naturally during daylight.
I will not hunt that stand again for a while. I may wait a few days longer than I normally would in the hopes that he will pass through the area a few times when the coast is clear and give it a thumbs up before he begins moving naturally again.
WHAT TO DO WHEN THEY ARE BAD SCARED
When a buck is bad scared from a particular stand, (especially when he saw you up there), you may as well stop hunting it for several weeks. I don’t know the exact length of time it will take for that buck to come past that tree again during daylight without looking up. It may not happen again until next season, after he has investigated it many times and found it safe and subsequently forgotten about the incident.
In other words, when a buck is bad scared from a particular tree, you need to move on. That is the safest bet. He probably won’t totally leave the area, but he will be much more cautious near the stand where you spooked him. So you need to move at least a couple hundred yards to start hunting him again – even farther would be good as long as you can stay within what you believe is the buck’s home range.
WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE TO WORRY
During the rut, you will often encounter bucks that are outside of their normal home ranges. If you bump a buck that you have never seen before and has never shown up on your trail cameras, he may well be a transient – here today, gone tomorrow.
In that case, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. I would go right back in there again as soon as it makes sense. He likely won’t show back up again no matter how long you wait, so there is no sense wasting a good stand waiting for a buck that is never going to return anyway. Every situation is different, but you are playing the odds correctly when you go back to hunting that stand right away.
I have seen bucks come back to the same field fifteen minutes after a passing pedestrian or slow moving car bumped them off, and I have seen them disappear off the face of the planet after I put the fear of God in them from my tree stand. Knowing how to adjust your strategies depends entirely on what it was that spooked the buck and how spooked he was. Read each situation carefully so you don’t waste any valuable stand time this season hunting ghosts.