The buck worked his way along the edge of the thicket. I got turned and ready in my stand about 60 yards away, and when it looked as if the deer was about to veer off in the cut, I grunted a couple of times. The buck stopped, looked my direction, and then decided to come my way.
It was peak rut, snow on the ground, and that morning was a frigid 14 degrees. As I shifted slightly to get my bow up for the shot, my stand creaked. It wasn’t much, barely noticeable, in fact, sounding no different to my ears than the trees that creaked and popped in the cold breeze around me. The buck interpreted the sound differently, though. He paused, sniffed the wind, and then without really spooking, he just did an about-face and walked off and out of sight. He hadn’t spooked, exactly, but that creak was enough to make him change his mind, and no amount of grunting could bring him back.
Sometimes it amazes me what will spook deer. I’ve sat in plenty of creaky stands over the years, but never had one cost me a chance at a buck. What I’ve learned is that it’s not so much the sound they find alarming as it is their mood when they hear it.
For instance, with no reason to be alert, almost any unnatural sound may go unnoticed or just ignored. No reason to worry about it, so they don’t. However, the same deer coming to a grunt, like the buck mentioned, has its attention focused solely on your direction and locating the source of the call. His senses are heightened, tuned in. So in that case, a small creak takes on greater significance.
Here’s another example. Several years ago, I was hunting over a food plot and watched a handful of does picking at the clover. I didn’t realize it then, but I was on the front of a bout with the flu. My throat was tickly and I wasn’t always able to suppress my cough. I tried to muffle it with my sleeve, inside the front of my shirt, any way I could, but there was just no stopping it completely. It didn’t matter. Not one deer spooked or ever looked my way. Even the deer within 30-40 yards just kept on feeding right in front of me. Right before dark, a mature 8-point showed up and I killed him.
This property was a cattle farm, so there were always weird noises coming from the livestock. Among the typical vocalizations, you’d often hear animals sneeze or cough, all normal sounds that animals make. The deer coming to that food plot had come to accept certain sounds and didn’t associate them with danger. My guess is that my coughing fits were something that they wrote off as normal to living near livestock.
The same is true with whitetails that live in urban and suburban settings. How many car doors slamming, radios blaring, and voices of passersby do you think these deer hear in a single day? They’ve learned to tune out these sounds. But I’ll bet if I went to pull back my bow and the cable slide stuck and made an obnoxious “doyng doyng doyng” sound as it I came to full draw, that buck would blow out of there like a bomb went off – in fact, I know he would because it’s happened to me!
In wilderness settings, it takes much less to spook deer. I spend a lot of the time in the Big Woods hunting on thousands of acres of contiguous public land. There are many times when it’s so quiet you swear you can hear a single leaf fall several hundred yards away. There are no vehicle noises in the distance, no people talking. Two years ago, my arrow slipped off of my bow rest and made a tapping noise. It wasn’t loud, but not quiet either. A hundred yards away, a deer started snorting. It sounds crazy to think a deer would spook just because of that, but I’ve seen it happen often enough when I’ve made other noises to know that’s exactly what happened.
Sense of Hearing
A whitetail’s sense of hearing isn’t much different than ours. They can detect slightly lower volumes than we can. They also have a higher frequency range. Our upper range is around 20,000 hertz, while a deer’s is around 30,000 hertz. In terms of hunting for whitetails, that doesn’t translate into much difference for us. However, what separates their hearing from ours is the actual shape and size of their ears. Their ability to triangulate their ears to tune into an exact location is mind boggling.
When it comes to directional hearing, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an animal be able to pinpoint a sound quite like a whitetail does. Many years ago, my brother-in-law and I were hunting together just inside the woods bordering a huge field that was perhaps 600 yards across. A nice 6-point came out about two-thirds of the way across the field. Figuring it was worth a shot, I grunted at him as loud as the grunt tube would let me. Immediately the buck lifted its head and stared in our direction. I grunted again and the buck began the long march toward us.
Once the buck committed to coming, we kept silent. The deer closed the gap, moved down the woods edge closer to us and jumped over an old barbed wire fence and came to a stop five yards in front of us. Long story short, when I drew back my bow, the nock broke and the arrow clanged off of the tree stand and to the ground, and the buck took off. My brother-in-law was in the tree next to me with a video camera, laughing his butt off.
The whole encounter was amazing, though. The buck had responded to a grunt from over 300 yards away and was able to track it to its source within a couple of yards.
How close or how far away a sound can spook deer is a matter of acoustics, which are greatly impacted by weather. Think of those many evenings on stand, listening to the squirrels rustle through the leaves all around you, and a slight breeze in the tree tops. Then, once the wind dies down and everything goes quiet, think of how your hearing range multiplies and you can hear the tiniest twig snap from a long way off. Well, it’s the same with deer.
I’ve experienced days of little to no wind when I knew I was pushing deer out on my way to my stand simply because they could hear me coming. With no wind as interference, the sound of my steps in the leaves was just too loud no matter how softly I tried to walk. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve had experiences on very windy days when I’ve walked up within a few yards of a bedded deer before it heard me approaching from behind.
So which sounds spook deer the most? Easy. The ones they’re not used to hearing. Brush scraping against clothing as we walk to or from our stands. Creaky tree stands or other equipment. The sound of our bow letting an arrow fly. All of these have the potential to spook deer.
Whitetails are incredibly adept at distinguishing natural sounds from unnatural sounds. They won’t spook even when squirrel activity reaches peak levels, but they’ll bolt just from the sound of a single bootstep crunching the leaves. Camouflage clothing and equipment may help you fool their eyes, scent-eliminating spray and other products may help you somewhat fool their nose, but nothing can help you fool a whitetail’s ears.