The Doctor, the Shaman, and the Elephant

Before I go any further in this endeavor, I want to commend Doctor Ken Nordberg and his son John. Their efforts in the field of deer hunting are exemplary– Ken for his body of work and John for his effort to make Ken’s work available online. The only “gentle nudge” I can make to John is to hurry up and make all  the out-of-print almanacs available again in .pdf format.

The Blind Monks and the Elephant

The Blind Monks and the Elephant

Back a long time ago when your shaman was at shaman school, the teacher gave us a book that contained the story of the blind monks and the elephant. The monks stumbled on the elephant and began to examine it.  The result was one monk finds the tail and says the animal resembles a rope.  Another grabs the trunk and says it is a powerful snake. Another starts feeling a leg and says it is a tree trunk.

I look at Ken and myself as two of the monks. He has spent the bulk of his time up in Minnesota tracking big bucks in the North Woods. I have spent most of my hunting career in the Ohio Valley, and for the last 13 seasons a single 200 acre plot in the Trans-Bluegrass of Kentucky. Deer Hunting is a vast subject, and I have grown to respect Ken’s body of work. I was reading him early on in my career, and I stumbled on his website a while back. I can look back now and see influences. I can also see where we have touched the same part of the elephant at times.

Dr Ken Nordberg's The Whitetail Hunter's Almanac 1st Edition Front Cover

Dr Ken Nordberg’s The Whitetail Hunter’s Almanac 1st Edition Front Cover

The Internet has really opened things up for deer hunters. In the past, we had to rely on a few limited and biased sources for information:

  •  Our peers and mentors– If Uncle Fred was listening to a football game when the big buck came out in 1956, it might be that you would be hunting with an AM radio turned down low in the 1980’s. Don’t laugh. I read that suggestion back in the early 80’s.  Ditto for smoking flavored pipe tobacco, hunting over a small campfire and other superstitions.
  • Magazines —  Frankly, magazines are there to sell magazines and sell what their advertisers are hawking.
  • Books — Don’t get me started on the hooey I have read about deer hunting in hardcover books.

My point is that the Internet has given us a chance to compare notes.  I see something. I write about it in an online forum.  Somebody tells me they have seen the same thing. Somebody else says we are full of beans. . . this is terrific for deer hunters. Finally the blind monks are starting to talk to one another.  In Doctor Ken Nordberg’s case, I am attempting to stand on his shoulders.

Why Adult Deer Easily Spot You– check out this article!

Why Adult Deer Easily Spot You, from October 2006 is a great example of all the things I want to explore in Doctor Nordberg’s work. Some of the piece is dead-on in my view. Some of it is colored by Ken’s bias. Some of it is probably dead wrong. However, even at his worst, Ken is giving a cogent view worth reading.

Let me tear down the fallacies first, and get the nit-picking out of the way. Orange is not black to a deer, nor is it white, gray, or invisible. If you go by the latest actual research on deer, deer are what is known as Red-Blind/Protanopic– they have a deficiency of red receptors in their eye in comparison to the human eye. As a result, they see hunter orange as something akin to the yellow of a freshly turned sugar maple. Compare this doctored pic to the pic of Katy on Ken’s site.

Ken's Katy at her stump

Ken’s Katy at her stump

Is Ken wrong?  Ken bases his assertions about deer learning about hunter orange from hunting in a northern wilderness with low deer density.   I would not toss out what Ken is saying.

Is hunter orange a dead giveaway? No.  I switched from the minimum hunter orange Kentucky allows (solid vest and hat) to a full orange clown suit a few years ago, and I did not see  a decrease in sightings. Do I wear a full face mask? No, I did, but I found that with my eye glasses that fogging was a problem. I switched to a solid green wool balaclava over a decade ago. It exposes my eyes nose and mouth, but that is it.  I was wearing one for every one of my big bucks. Are deer getting smarter? No, but individuals do learn, and the longer they live the more they learn.  Old doe and old bucks are very savvy critters. However, there are things that keep them huntable:

1) They have no culture. Deer do not gather around the campfire and listen to the old ones. I have seen younger deer disobey a matriarch that was snorting wildly and go check out what was up in the tree. I have also seen deer completely ignore a snorting matriarch and nibble acorns in apparent bliss. In both cases, the snorting matriarch had seen me kill her mother and her son in previous years. She knew me. I knew her.

2) Deer get stupid.  All my big bucks were shot during either the Rut or the False Rut in October. I have had a buck with a nice  rack approach me on the trail like he had romance on his mind. I have also been bald-faced busted by a mature buck and gotten him to go back to feeding by barking at him like a squirrel. Deer have their moments, but they are not geniuses.

3) I believe we anthropomorphize deer waaaaay to much.  I am convinced deer have a totally alien view of life and death, their own mortality, and what it is to be predator and prey. As a result they do not act as we do. If you follow me on the D&DH forum, you know this is a pet subject.

Now that I have torn down everything Ken wrote, let me build it back up and start to agree with him.

Hunter Orange is not an impediment, at least not in my experience.  Mind you, I hunt in a portion of Bracken County, Kentucky that is radically different from Ken’s Minnesota woods. Mine is a mix of field and woods– mostly fallow farms.   On the opener, we can average 3 shot-strings per minute in the first 4 hours of hunting.  I’m going to take a wild stab and say there might be a hunter every 4 acres of  19 square miles worth of earshot in the first half-day of the Opener. There are also a lot of deer– maybe 45 per square mile, but I’ve heard higher numbers cited.  We also never have snow of any significant amount in the Ohio Valley in November, so there is a lot less contrast in the woods. Suffice it to say that Ken and I hunt in very different places. Even though deer get shot at from every quarter in rifle season, I have seen them look through a 2X4′ solid orange curtain at close range like it was not there. It was up a tree and it was not moving.  I have also seen them get into a frenzy at 200 yards when a gust of wind blew a corner of a camo blind. It is more about movement than color.

The most important thing is this, and on this Ken and I agree:  at our camp we pack our outer layers in, we get in the woods early, we try not to be obvious in our ingress. We sit instead of stand. We prefer to sit in trees, and we try not to be obviously silhouetted against the sky or the ground behind. We try to break up our human form.  I use ponchos on my own body , camo skirts around my treestands and burlap or die-cut camo in front of my ground blinds.

The deer? They are different too.  My deer are used to constant contact with humans.  Ken’s deer might run at the sight of a human. Around my ridge, the deer are constantly exposed to humans, dogs, farm machinery and automobiles.  I prefer to accentuate that rather than try to fight it.  I make myself available to the deer every chance I get through scouting.  If one confronts me, I talk to her like a neighbor or a tenant. Deer will often stand and listen. There is only a few weeks a year when that relationship changes, and it is too late for the deer to notice the difference. On the way back from Roosters one night, I was picked up by a sheriff’s deputy who thought he had a potential DUI.  I don’t think he ever bought the story that I had stopped to converse with a herd of doe, but I blew  totally clean on the Breathalyzer, so he let me go.  I’m sure the headdress and turtle-shell rattle assured him I was an upstanding citizen.

About the same time, (October, 2006) that Ken published his article on how deer spot you, I was setting up NewStand, a 15 foot buddy stand overlooking Heartbreak Ridge.  KYHillchick, Angus, and the dogs were all out helping. Mid-afternoon, when we were at our sweatiest, two nice bookend bucks came by to watch.  I have a picture of them taken with a trail camera that same year.

These bucks stood around like a couple of kids at a construction site for about 10 minutes.  The dogs were quizzical, but did nothing.  We stopped work and watched.  The deer watched us for a bit and then sauntered off.

Now, did I get a shot at them in November?  No.   200 acres is a big plot, but it is small for two bucks.  We never saw them again.  Ken has an article on hunting big bucks. I do not want to get in Ken’s face. Ken is writing about his direct experience, and I figure it is dead-on as he sees it.

However, my guess is those two bucks left the property within a couple of weeks of our last sighting. By November, they might have been anywhere in the county or over in the next county.  With a lot of deer, there are a lot of mouths competing for food.  Bucks have a tremendous appetite. They roam.  I have heard 25 square mi. I have heard more. Our county is 41 square miles.  If you run some numbers assuming about a million deer in Kentucky, it means there is about 62,500 2.5 year-old or older bucks in the whole state or about 1.5 per square mile.  In earshot of my rifle on the Opener, there might be 30 and perhaps 63 in the whole  county.   How many 7.5 year old monster bucks? In our county, where deer outnumber people by a hefty margin there are probably 2.  That number assumes even distribution of deer across the whole state of Kentucky. In reality, along the Ohio River that number goes way up. So take a guess– 5? 10?  The problem is there are not all that many, and the chances of one showing up on my plot are small. At the same time there are probably 3000 or more rifle hunters that heard my shot.

Yes, we have had mature bucks take up residence for an extended time. The biggest we have had was The Chandelier. Back in 2008, everyone in camp saw it except me, until I was coming back from a scouting session at Midway in early November.  We bumped into each other  as I came around the corner going to Virginia about a half-hour after sunset.  We had a brief look at each other before he galumphed off into the gloom.  That year, all my neighbors were squawking about the monster buck, but no one ever shot him.  He put in a couple more appearances in our part of the county after that, but then he was gone.

Does my experience make Ken wrong? Does it invalidate his work?  No.  What I am saying is that there are times when the pursuit of an individual buck may make sense, but in a place like mine you are probably better off keeping the doe happy, giving them a nice place to raise their young, and then turning around and using them for bait come fall. Did that strategy nail the Chandelier in 2008? No.  Did I end up with a nice buck?

Shot For Just Being Ugly

Shot For Just Being Ugly

The whole story about that buck is here:  Shot for Just Being Ugly.

The fact that this guy was out there breeding doe and that I had another buck by my stand on the Opener tells me The Chandelier was long gone. We heard reports over the walkie-talkie about a monster cruising through. Under the circumstances, I thought the Mortimer Snerd Buck was a reasonable conciliation prize.  The day after, I got a photo of a nice 6 pointer going through, but after that  the bucks dried up. The best I can say is that I did the best I could.  For all I know that big one was hiding out in somebody’s flower bed in Milford when the shooting stopped that fall.

Does this make the elephant any clearer to you?  The point of all this is not to say Ken’s wrong and I am right. The point is to say that Ken is petting one end. I am petting another.



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