During the past 30 years, hunters have seen many advancements that help them up their game.
Gear improvements like faster bows and wireless trail cameras have definitely increased the odds of taking a good whitetail buck. In the area of stealth there has been an enlightenment, with HD camo draping every shoulder and scent-eliminating products overflowing backpacks. However, despite all the products and promises, the advantage still belongs to the deer.
If hunters remain unseen with the newest camouflage products, and cannot be smelled with the latest in scent concealment, then what is the biggest factor keeping them from putting that big buck on the wall? The answer may be as obvious as the two large objects attached to every whitetail’s head that have not drawn much attention from the outdoor industry, or from hunters, in our modern era.
With years of research, scientific testing, and loads of field observations, a new picture is emerging of the last great defense of whitetail deer — hearing. Armed with some science, a few sound rules, and a new mindset, hunters can get past this lynchpin sense and take their stealth to the next level. Here’s what you need to know.
The Physics Facts
Vibrations: From stepping on leaves and twigs to clanging equipment, vibrations are made that propagate (travel) through the present medium (air). In normal conditions, vibrations produced by walking in leaves and branches can conservatively travel 300-400 yards, and slight metal clanging (like when hanging stands and climbing sticks) up to a half-mile, all within a whitetail’s audible frequency range. Translation: The noise you make travels far, and deer hear it.
Ultrasonic Hearing: Research done by Dr. Henry Heffner at the University of Toledo shows that deer can hear upwards of 54,000 hertz (humans hear up to 20,000 hertz, if lucky). Translation: You make noises you may not even know you’re making, but deer can hear them clear as a bell.
Pinnae: Whitetails have large pinnae (the external ear) on their head, that they can rotate like radar dishes in any direction to pinpoint the slightest noise. Translation: Deer can collect vibrational soundwaves from any angle, making their hearing even more sensitive to any noise you make.
Vision Link: Studies show that a whitetail’s keen ability to detect and pinpoint sources of soundwaves is directly tied to vision and is how deer know where to look for danger. Translation: Hearing is a more vital defense than eyesight. By getting past a whitetail’s ears, the eyes can be defeated. I found this out once while hunting in wet, silent conditions. Two does watched as I quietly climbed to my stand and set up my camera. This all happened within plain view at 35 yards, without the deer becoming alarmed.
Field Data: Numerous studies also show that deer change patterns and avoid certain areas exclusively after just one incident with a hunter, even if it is only due to sound propagation (i.e. noise).
So, we know that the negative aspects of noise can impact your hunting success. Here are the basics to getting past a deer’s ears — aka the “Rules of Sound Concealment.”
Rule #1: Do Not Accept Any Noise
Many hunters have just accepted noise as inevitable. Crunching through leaves and twigs, clanging something here and there, sawing limbs, and clipping twigs creates an incredible “noise footprint.” But the physics and deer-hearing research above show this can be a terrible mistake. To avoid this, a mental shift needs to be made. Psychology tells us that by changing thinking, actions follow. A simple decision to not accept any noise can lay the critical foundation for immediate change in hunting practices and results.
Rule #2: Every Sound Counts
Some hunters believe that a few noises are acceptable; for instance, that keeping to a quota of only two or three sounds will be forgiven by deer. But research suggests that every sound a hunter makes matters and needs to be avoided. Be constantly aware of this while setting stands, and when walking to and from your stand. Ask yourself, “Will what I’m about to do make noise, and what will the consequence be if a deer hears it?” Rule #2 reveals the ugly truth many have not been honest enough to look at: Every twig crunch, every zip of that zipper or rip of the Velcro, and every scrape against the tree while hanging a stand will make noise, and if a deer hears it, it counts — and not in a good way.
Rule #3: Go Slow!
Maybe it’s out of pure excitement, or trying to sneak a hunt in after work, but many hunters rush into their stand location too quickly. This is when hunt-ruining mistakes are made. Try the “Rule of Halves.” Simply put, if it will take 10 minutes to get on stand, slow down and take 20 minutes. If it normally takes 15 minutes, then take 30.
Focused attention is key. Watch each footstep, being sure there are no twigs or leaves that will increase the noise made. Look for bare patches of dirt that won’t make noise, stumps or logs you can step on, or grass patches that will be quieter than the alternative. Slow down each step, applying the “Rule of Halves” here again. When leaves and twigs can’t be avoided, increasing the time it takes to place each step will dramatically decrease the amount of noise made.
Rule #4: Use Cover Sound
This trick isn’t always possible, as it depends on environmental factors. But it can elevate the stealth factor. Simply put, this technique uses things like wind gusts, trains, planes flying overhead, cars driving by, flocks of noisy birds, and other nearby noises to help conceal, or cover, unavoidable noises. Simply take steps and make movements when these sounds occur.
Rule #5: Less Is Best
Contact = vibrations = sound propagation = busted hunt. Get that equation? If hunters remove the first part of the chain reaction — the chance for contact — then there’s no way to make that noise, spook that deer, and get to the “busted-hunt” part of the equation. Ask yourself, “What route to my stand will make the least amount of noise, while still paying attention to wind direction?” Mapping out the least-intrusive route to a stand by using field edges, dry ditches, fencelines, etc. can help reduce noise. If possible, remove leaves, twigs, and debris from the path to your stand, and avoid clothing contact by snipping your way through vines, branches, and briars while trekking back to a spot in thick cover. Less contact is always best.
Rule #6: Silence All Equipment
If noisy contact can’t completely be avoided, then alter the vibrating material. A guitar is loud not because of the vibrating strings, but because of the hollow body amplifying the vibration. Unfortunately, a lot of hunting equipment is just that — a hollow, loud, sounding board. Think about trail cameras, climbing sticks, stands, decoys, and all the other hollow, noisy equipment we use. Silence it, or get rid of it. For hollow equipment, try filling it with spray foam. For other metallic items, try covering them with camo tape or fleece to mute vibrations. Find noisy contact points on your treestand and silence those as well.
Jim Hole Jr., of Classic Bowhunts in Alberta, Canada, has been guiding, outfitting, and successfully bowhunting big Canadian bucks for over three decades. Experience has taught him how vitally important it is to have low sound-impact equipment. “If a bowhunter wishes to get close to mature deer on a regular basis, he must concentrate his efforts on being silent and having gear that is silent, not just ‘pretty silent.’ Mature deer have no tolerance for such things,” Hole advises.
So, go through all equipment, take inventory of potential noise sources, and make it quiet!
Rule #7: Eliminate Unnatural Sounds
If there’s one sound not to make in the woods, at all costs, it’s an unnatural one. If a branch breaks in the woods, deer within earshot are semi-alerted. However, if they hear metal clanging, a cell phone going off, or a plastic bucket clunk, it’s immediate high alert for all deer, but especially mature bucks. Even small things like a quiver snapping into place, or snapping a trail-camera door closed, can spell the end. When buying products, consider the noise cost, not just the retail cost. Is the material deadened, hollow, or like a tuning fork? What about the clasp, snaps, buttons, or even zipper pulls? Consider these factors when making purchase decisions. When choosing building materials for that homemade blind, or things to equip that blind with, think about what noises will be made by accidental contact, and choose materials that contribute to silence rather than destroy it.
All of this may sound extreme, but if you apply these sound-concealment principles for defeating a whitetail’s last great defense — hearing — you just might enjoy some extreme results.
*The author is a freelance writer and avid whitetail hunter of 27 years.