Deer Hunting: Five Levels of Alertness

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Beginning hunters think there’s two kinds of deer: spooked deer and un-spooked deer. What they learn over time is that there are many different levels of spookiness, or alertness.

When you encounter a feeding or bedded buck–which hasn’t detected your presence–you’ll immediately notice his relaxed appearance; ears low, eyes calm, head low, etc. When you encounter a buck that has busted you, it’s the opposite. All you’ll see is “dust and butts.” But somewhere in-between these two opposites is where most bucks reside.

The reality is that when the hunt starts, 99% of all bucks know it! They’ve heard the trucks and ATVs roll in, they’ve smelled the hunting camps, and more importantly they’ve been alerted well in advance simply by the angle of the sun and it’s relationship to the buck’s internal clock that sounds the alertness bell (right around mid-August in Utah). Also, if you’re hunting an area that has lots predators, the buck will be somewhat alert most of the time, even at night.

My few encounters with big bucks last year got me thinking about this. What I concluded was that in high-pressured public lands all big bucks live a daily life of alertness. The only times they aren’t on high alert is at night, or pre- and post- hunting season. Why is this important to know? Because your method of approach/stalk must be based on your accurate assessment of the buck’s level of alertness. For example, if the buck is bedded AND alert, then your approach will be much slower than if the buck is bedded and dozing off.

Based on this knowledge, I’ve developed a level of alertness system. It ranged from 0 to 5. Level ‘0’ means the buck is carefree and happy, there’s little predator presence, and there’s no hunt going on. Level ‘5’ means he’s turned inside out and running for his life! Your job as a hunter is to estimate which level the buck is at, and then adjust your approach accordingly. The following is a breakdown of levels:

Level 0:
-The rare state of big bucks indeed. Only occurs pre- or post- season, like during scouting trips. (As described above.)

Level 1:
-The hunting season has begun, but the buck is bedded in a secure area with the wind at his back. His eyes are closed, ears pinned back, and chewing his cud. Or maybe he’s sleeping with his chin on the ground. Otherwise, he’s up and feeding, alone or with a small group, and has his head buried in the bush for long periods of time. Or perhaps he’s rubbing a tree low to the ground without stopping to look around.

Level 2:
-The buck is bedded but his head is up and looking around. He may have heard or smelled something, but not 100% sure. Or maybe he’s feeding sporadically, often lifting his head to scan the scene. Also, a buck on the move–like when he’s looking for a bedding or feeding area–will always be at level 2 or above because they’re always alert when moving from one point to another.

Level 3:
-The buck has heard, smelled, or seen something out of the ordinary. He’s staring in a particular direction for a prolonged period of time. This is often the case when a squirrel fires up, when forest birds go silent, or when there’s increased road noise in the area. Maybe he suddenly stood up in his bed. This is an alert buck scanning for danger. His head is high and his muscles are tense. In his mind he’s planning the safest possible escape route. However, if the threat never materializes, he may go back bed or feed.

Level 4:
-The buck is tense and ready to bolt. His eyes are wide, head is high, and ears are pinned forward. Sky-lining yourself, even at great distances, almost always triggers a level 4. Otherwise, he’s probably caught some of your movement or scent, or heard a non-natural sound, i.e. clanking of an arrow or breaking of a twig. Either way you are pinned down and he won’t stick around much longer. You either have a shot or he’s gone.

Level 5:
-It’s over; dust and butts! You are busted; the threat has been verified. You probably won’t see this buck again this year. This happened to me three times last year, and no, I did not see the big bucks again.

In future encounters with bucks I urge you to practice assigning levels of alertness. It’s a fun and handy tool, especially when hunting with other people. For example, when hunting with my wife I often cite the current assessment level of the situation. She may think I’m some kind of obsessive buck-nut, but she also knows what I’m talking about and will apply it to the stalk-situation at hand.

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2 thoughts on “Deer Hunting: Five Levels of Alertness”

  1. As always, your many insights are appreciated. Now, could you add a follow up that outlines your strategies for each level of alertness? I’d like to see if it matches mine…but mostly I value your insight.

    P.S.
    I think I could guess what your level 5 strategy is. 🙂

    1. I would love to follow up on stalking strategies based on levels of alertness, but it’s impossible. Every stalk is different. There are simply too many variables to ever cover in a single article. That being said, here are some examples of the most common situations:

      -Wind Temperament: If the wind is swirly or about to change with thermals, the stalk becomes urgent whether the buck is calm or not.
      -An alert buck (level 3 or 4) is nearly impossible to approach. Your best strategy is hold tight and wait for him to calm down. Otherwise, pull out.
      -If a buck is heavily distracted (i.e. raking a tree or dogging a doe) the strategy is always to run in on it, much like an elk. Big bucks aren’t easily distracted, so if they are, you MUST make a move!
      – Bedded or sleeping bucks with a super-low level of alertness are a rare treat. Basically your approach depends first on wind direction and second noise/terrain. If you can beat that, then approach slowly with movements based upon cover noise.
      – I love finding bucks feeding, no matter what level of alertness they’re on. Feeding bucks make lots of noise as they feed. Also, they’re inherently distracted by food, and their heads are frequently buried in the bush. This allows a careful but quick approach. The danger with feeding bucks is that eventually they’ll get full and head for bed…meaning they’ll leave! Don’t lose sight of your target and make your stalk quick!

      I hope that answers your questions.

      As for level ‘5’ bucks (e.g. butts and dust), my strategy is to sit down in the dirt and try not to cry. No, seriously, a big busted buck is gone. That being said, some options I’ve used are:

      a) Pull out and pray for better luck tomorrow.
      b) Follow his tracks and try to figure out where the holy heck buck goes when spooked. (Of course you risk spooking him farther into the next county).
      c) Anticipate where the bruiser went. (This is ALWAYS a giant mystery to me!) Then tomorrow, circle up/down/around the mountain and try to catch him feeding in the morning.

      That’s about it. Thanks for your comments, Russ! Glad to have you as a loyal reader.

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