Deer Hunting: Five Levels of Alertness


Deer Hunting: Five Levels of Alertness

Novice hunters think there are two kinds of deer: spooked deer and un-spooked deer. What they learn over time is that there are many different levels of alertness.

If you get a chance to watch a relaxed deer in his summertime routine, you’ll notice that his ears are low, his eyes are calm and staring straight ahead, and he holds his head in a low and relaxed fashion. An alert buck is the opposite: his eyes are wide, his ears are forward and his head is erect and staring. Now, somewhere between these two opposites is where bucks reside most of the time.

As opening day rolls around, the majority of bucks already know it before the first shot is fired. They’ve heard the trucks and ATVs rolling in and can smell the campfires. Even before hunting season, a buck’s internal clock alerts him to impending danger of upcoming hunting season just by the angle of the sun. Any buck who has survived a few hunts knows that danger starts showing up at the beginning of autumn. Even worse, if there are lots of natural predators around—like cougars and coyotes—then a buck is already living in a state of high alertness at all times. This makes them even more difficult to hunt.

On high-pressured public lands, big bucks live full-time on a heightened level of alertness. Therefore, an accurate assessment your target buck’s alertness level will dictate your approach. For example, if a buck is bedded and alert, then you must be more cautious than when he is dozing off.

Over the years I’ve developed a rating system for assessing a buck’s different levels of alertness. A level 0 means the buck is carefree and happy with no pressure from predators. A level 5 means he’s turned inside out and running for his life. Your job is to figure out what level the buck is on, and adjust your approach accordingly. The following is my alertness level assessment system:

Levels of Alertness in Deer

Level 0

Level 0 is very rare, and basically means the buck isn’t alert at all. This only occurs in totally unpressured areas—such as unhunted private property or very remote country. It can also occur pre- or post-hunting seasons after the buck has calmed down and is in a relaxed routine. Level 0 also assumes that there are very minimal natural predators in the area.

Level 1

The hunting season has begun, but the buck is bedded in a far-away, secure area with the wind at his back. His eyes are closed, ears are pinned back, and he’s chewing his cud. Or maybe he’s sleeping with his chin flat on the ground. Otherwise, he’s up and feeding with a small group (for security). His head remains buried in the bush for long periods of time and he expects little or no threat of danger. Or perhaps he’s completely pre-occupied while rubbing a tree or sparring with another deer in a pre-rut state and doesn’t bother to look around for danger. This is an ideal situation for a stalk.

Level 2

The buck is bedded but his head is up and watching for danger. He may have heard or smelled something, but he’s not 100% sure. Maybe there are predators in the area. Or maybe he’s feeding sporadically and lifts his head frequently to scan for danger. Also, any buck that’s on the move–like when he’s traveling to a bed or feed—will be on a level 2 (or above) because deer are always alert when traveling.

Level 3

This is an alert buck scanning for danger. The buck heard, smelled, or saw 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. He might be standing up in his bed to have a look around. His head is high and his muscles are tense. In the back of his mind he’s planning the safest possible escape route. However, if the threat doesn’t materialize he’ll likely go back to bed or feed.

Level 4

The buck is tense and ready to bolt. His eyes are wide, head is high, and his ears are pinned forward. A hunter who has sky-lined himself—even at a great distance—almost always triggers a level 4 response. Or maybe he caught your movement or scent, or heard an un-natural sound nearby, like the clanking of an arrow or a breaking twig. Either way he’s not sticking around. The hunter is pinned down and unable to move. If you can’t get a shot soon, he’s gone.

Level 5

The buck explodes from his bed at close range, scaring you half to death. It’s all over; dust and butts are all you see. The buck saw or smelled you and confirmed the danger. He probably hunkered down in terror at first—until you were almost on top of him—his nose twitching, eyes watering—then blasted out of bed. He’ll likely run non-stop for a mile and you won’t see the buck again this season.

Final Assessment

In the future I urge you to practice assigning levels of alertness to the bucks you encounter. It’s fun and can be a handy tool in judging a situation ahead of a stalk. When watching deer with my wife, I’ll frequently assess a deer’s current level of alertness. She probably thinks I’m some kind of obsessive buck-nut, but I find it helpful nonetheless.

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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.

    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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