How To Read Whitetail Body Language -
Become a Smarter Bowhunter
Leigh Hauck – July 19, 2022
Have you ever watched a herd of deer and noticed how they are constantly moving their heads and tails? That is because they are communicating with each other through body language. As hunters, we can use this to our advantage by learning to read the signs they are giving off. Here are some key things to look for:
Ears: Ears are perhaps the most important tool a deer has for communicating. They are constantly moving, swiveling, and flicking to pick up sounds from all around. If a deer's ears point in your direction, it is a good sign that it has heard or smelled something and is trying to determine what it is. If its ears point backwards, it is a sign that it is feeling threatened.
Tail: The tail is another important tool for communication. A deer will hold its tail upright when it feels alert or afraid. If the tail is hanging down relaxed, it indicates that the deer feels comfortable and is not alarmed.
Body Position: The position of a deer's body can also tell you a lot about how it is feeling. If a deer's body is tense and its head is up, it is probably feeling nervous or threatened. If the deer is relaxed with its head down, it likely feels safe and unthreatened.
Now that you know the overview, we are going to break down some tips on how to read an animal’s behavior to help you pick the perfect moment to make your move and put a broadhead through that big buck.
Posture is everything
Watching a buck’s posture and head movement is the biggest thing you can do to help you time your perfect moment to draw and take aim. The amount of information the deer will give you just through its posture is incredible and should not be underestimated.
When a deer first enters a food plot, feeding area, or other opening that you are hunting, he will be on high alert. He will stand with a tall posture and have almost a twitchiness to his head movements. He is out in the open and vulnerable, and he knows that.
A deer at this level of alertness will not hesitate to jump at any noise or movement. This is not the time to make your shot, this is a time to be a fly on the wall and become a deer behavior analyst for a moment.
I recall one year when I took aim on a whitetail in Alberta just as he had come into a clearing for me to shoot. I was so incredibly excited; I had been watching him on camera for months and had never seen him in person. He was only 25 yards from me, but on extremely high alert as he had only just come into the opening and was beginning to analyze his surroundings very carefully.
Surely, he wanted to feed, but I was so ecstatic to finally have this deer in my sights that I took this early shot in the first moment that I had a chance. I had not given him a chance to relax, and I paid for it.
The buck belly flopped and completely dodged my arrow and ran away. At 25 yards, I could not believe that he had the sharpness to be able to move away from an arrow flying 280 feet per second towards him at 25 yards, but I learnt.
If you have the daylight, it is best to stay completely still and let that animal begin to relax and start feeding. You will soon notice its posture begins to change.
A deer that is taking its first few bites of food will generally have a very distinct stance. It will keep its legs braced, feet ready to move, and stretch its neck out carefully.
The smallest noise will cause this deer to jump, including the snap of a string. I have even had the noise of my jacket rubbing as I draw my bow be enough to make a deer like this jump and run. I only wear fleece now as a result of making that mistake too many times.
As it begins to relax, the posture will become more natural as its shoulders move forward over its legs, and it loses the bracing in its legs. It is a difficult change in posture to explain but look for it and you will see it. At this point, it may look towards a noise it hears, but is unlikely to jump as it may have been moments ago. This is a good time to start making your move.
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How to time your draw
Now that the animal is relaxed and feeding gracefully, you need to get ready to draw, but don’t rush it. We have all done it, and if you haven’t yet you surely will at some point. You draw your bow too early, and the animal flees before you even look through your peep. A devastating moment, but a crucial learning point.
The most important thing to watch for at this point is the animals head and where its eyes are focused. If it catches a glimpse of you drawing your bow out of the corner of its eye, you may be stuck at full draw for a long time with him staring straight at you.
This is not a great time to let your arrow fly either, as he has you pinpointed and is very likely to jump the string. The best thing you can hope for is to execute your draw while the animal’s eyes are focused elsewhere. Maybe a squirrel or another deer makes a noise in the bush, and he looks off towards it. Perfect. Make your draw and settle in.
Patience will pay massive dividends in these types of scenarios.
Drawing on a walking deer is a great option too. When they are walking, they tend to be slightly less alert than when standing completely still or feeding. Just wait for his eyes to be focused elsewhere, and you think you are out of his peripheral vision, and you should be able to get your bow back without being busted.
Of course, it is unrealistic to think that you can wait for the perfect shot every time. It’s bowhunting, and things rarely go as planned.
Every scenario is different, and will rarely follow script, but if you can learn to read the animals behavior and its surroundings you will be able to make smarter decisions and give yourself the best shot possible. Any advantage, no matter how small, can be the difference between success and failure in bowhunting.
Fire in the hole
You’ve done the hardest part. He is in range, your bow is drawn, he still doesn’t know you are there. What else can you do to make sure this ends well? As always, the answer is don’t rush. Just like with drawing, it is best to take your shot when he is not looking directly at you.
I have killed many deer by taking shots while they are walking slowly broadside too, their attention is on walking and less focused on you. I don’t like to “mew” or “snort” to make a deer stop either for a shot, this just puts his attention directly on me. Of course, many hunters have a lot of success with this method, this is just the mindset I have developed in my hundreds of days spent in the stand hunting deer.
In my experience with chasing the North American Super Slam with my bow, I have found that many animals are more forgiving than others when it comes to string jumping.
A mule deer is far more forgiving than a whitetail for example. I shot a mulie a couple of years ago at 55 yards that was looking right at me, we got some great slow-motion footage of that shot and found that he did jump, but only right as the arrow was about to make contact.
My 100gr. XL Tooth of the Arrow had him down in under 50 yards! A moose will rarely jump the string, an elk might at longer ranges in my experience. A whitetail is about the worst I have come across, I will rarely consider taking a shot at a buck that is looking at me even if I am at full draw. Their instincts are just so on point, and they are so fast it is not worth the risk. This brings up the next common question, what about just aiming low to compensate for string jumping?
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When deer hunting where should you aim?
To aim low, or to not aim low
Aiming low on a whitetail is a very common tactic to counter string jumping. When a deer jumps the string, its body goes down before it goes up, and years of slow-motion footage has revealed that aiming a couple of inches low can put your arrow in the perfect spot for when that deer jumps at the noise of your bow snapping.
I generally avoid using this tactic for a couple of reasons. Animals are extremely unpredictable, and despite having me breakdown a deer’s normal behavior in this blog, we can never know with certainty how an animal will respond to any given situation.
If you aim low, and that deer doesn’t jump the string, you are putting yourself in an awkward position. My other hesitation in aiming low is that all deer, just like humans, are different.
They have different reaction times, some can jump higher than others, and may have different reactions to a bow being shot. This level of unpredictability has led me to the belief that it is better to read the animal and its surroundings to give yourself the best chance of pulling off a shot with no string jump.
We realize that of this information is specific to hunting deer out of a stand or a blind, but it can be applied in so many contexts. Whether you are hunting deer, elk, moose, sheep, or nearly anything else, it is always a good idea to wait until they are not looking at you to draw, and especially to shoot. Maybe we will write a blog on how to read a rutting buck (which would surely be a shorter post)!
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