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That Makes Sense

Understanding the Amazing Senses of Mule Deer

by Michael Burrell

The deer’s olfactory organs are nothing short of incredible. The gist is a mule deer can smell a thousand times stronger than you can and from farther than a half-mile away. The deer species are some of the best sniffers in the animal kingdom. 

For me, the pinnacle of western hunting is to harvest a trophy mule deer. Now the definition of a trophy muley varies depending on your exposure to mule deer, as well as the area you’re hunting. It’ll have a different meaning for amateur hunters that hunt heavily hunted, general season areas vs. seasoned hunters with several large bucks under their belts and an Arizona Strip tag in their pocket.

But the one thing that varies little when hunting mature mule deer is their amazing senses. Successfully harvesting a mature buck all comes down to you outwitting a buck’s keen senses in order to get within shooting distance, whether you shoot a bow, muzzleloader, or rifle. To consistently get into the “zone” of mature bucks there are three major senses you’ll need to understand intimately…and outsmart…their sense of smell, sight, and hearing.

The archery hunter has the biggest challenge of outwitting a deer’s keen senses. Getting close and staying downwind is much harder than anticipated.

Ask a seasoned, archery mule deer hunter about getting inside the “zone,” and they’ll respond with a smile. Behind that smile, the hunter will reminisce the times when they were within 40 yards of an unsuspecting big buck. But you’ll also see the corner of their lip droop as they remember the disappointment…ahhh yes, the disappointment and regret; those times when the buck’s senses beat the hunter’s wit. A painful, dismal sensation that only goes away with time, but can return instantly with a simple flashback of that buck fleeing out of your life…again…forever. The pain burns deeply.    

Short of finding a mule deer who speaks English and uses hoof gestures to help explain to us sapiens how acute their eyes, noses, and ears really are, scientists have done the best job they can to measure how good their senses really are; what they’ve found shouldn’t surprise most of you.

Sense of Smell: The deer’s olfactory organs are nothing short of incredible. The gist is a mule deer can smell a thousand times stronger than you can and from farther than a half-mile away. The deer species are some of the best sniffers in the animal kingdom.

Forget about the high-dollar sprays, because you can’t hide your stink from those receptors in a buck’s nose. I promise. Learn more about air movement—including morning, afternoon, and evening thermals—and keep down wind. Period. One thing is certain, if a buck detects your scent…the gig is up. It is the one sense that a buck will trust 100% every time.

Sense of Hearing: A deer’s hearing is relatively good but maybe not as acute as I have been led to believe. My uncle forced me to believe a muley buck could hear me from inside the camp trailer, 15 miles from our hunting grounds. A study to understand just how well a deer could hear discovered that a deer’s hearing is actually not much better than a human’s. But different from humans, a deer’s ears are wide and cup-shaped. Their ears twist and turn like a satellite dish and are perfectly built to pick up and pinpoint small sounds. They are masters at discerning natural ambient sounds from more unnatural or threatening sounds.

One of my own studies I conduct regularly—just for kicks and giggles—is the “What’s that noise?” game. I’ll get within bow distance of a deer and make different noises just to see what sort of reaction I get from the deer. I was amazed with what I could get away with. Breaking simple little sticks and throwing rocks near the deer rarely invited any cause for concern from the deer. They may point their ears in that direction for additional sounds, but quickly forget about the sound if there aren’t additional noises. The sound of any sort of weight pressing over sticks or rocks will turn a head, as will any sounds that come from your mouth (whistles, kissing sounds, etc.)

Bow hunters especially—don’t think you are going to cover the last 30 yards in your heavy-lugged boots. Take them off and replace them with a couple extra layers of wool socks. You’ll amaze yourself with how quiet you’ll be. I don’t wanna hear any complaining about cactus, snakes, or other sharp objects on your feet. Wanna kill this buck or not?

Sense of Sight:The mule deer’s eyes, like most prey animals, are located on the sides of their heads. This gives them a 310 degree view around themselves. It might surprise you that their daytime and color vision is less accurate than ours. A recent study found that they see shades of blue colors the best, and red colors the worst. Deer can also see greens and yellows but can’t differentiate shades of colors as well as humans can. This means if you wear camouflage that contains subtle shades of one or two colors, you’ll most likely stand-out to a deer, appearing like you are wearing a one-piece suit. Pull out your camo and think about what I just said…

Let’s not just focus only on the flaws in a deer’s vision. What the deer lacks in color-vision, it makes up for in the ability to detect movement. Their ability to capture movement out to 500 yards is second only to the pronghorn.

To outwit a buck’s eyes, make sure your movement is never sudden but slow and easy. It’ll make it harder for a buck to detect you. Also, wear camo patterns with heavy contrasting colors that break-up your outline more, it will make a difference. Oh yah, I almost forgot…ditch the blue denim—they can see blue.

Ok. All deer, young or old, use their keen senses to stay alive. But what differentiates a mature buck from the rest of the population, is how well they take advantage of their keen senses in everything they do, from bedding and feeding locations to travel and escape routes. You’ll do yourself a huge disservice by pretending that a wise buck hasn’t the brains to process optimal location strategies in order to maximize the capabilities of all his senses, along with an escape route…and another escape route to escape the initial escape route. That’s how they get old…they rarely screw up.

Those of you who have had the chance to watch an old buck work his way to bed in the morning, stop in his tracks and watch his back-trail for minutes on end…motionless…only to turn and look forward, staring at the trail ahead, know that this behavior is more than the deer simply taking in the scenery and enjoying the sunrise. This is the deer’s ability to efficiently execute the judgment and wisdom that goes into each choice he makes.

Big bucks work the topography and wind currents to their advantage. They will typically find a location to bed for the day where they are difficult to spot, but can still maintain a good, 360 degree view of the immediate area. They aren’t in the valley bottoms, rather half-way up the mountainside where warming currents carry any scent molecules from potential threats below; and they are prepared with several escape routes above them.

So what does it take to get up close to these big ol’ bucks and connect? The most successful mule deer hunters I’ve met are those that can not only get into the “zone,” but can keep their cool. The key word is patience; the end result is typically unsuccessful when you rush a buck. Stay slow, steady, and cool. Keep tabs on the thermals and understand how they shift with the changing temperatures. Cover patches of your reflective skin (your face and hands) and keep your movements sloth-like. Only take a step when you know it is going to be absolutely silent. Once you’ve discovered that your patience and wisdom has paid off and there he is—in range—oblivious to your presence, don’t forget to breathe and shoot straight.