Archery seasons across the Midwest are opening up. As hunters, our minds begin to wander to tree stands and trail cams. I was fortunate to get out this past week for my first sit. For me, the early season offers a great opportunity to get a crack at a mature buck before pressure and shifting food sources impact their day to day movement. The all too common conundrum of early season hunts is how aggressive to get with your hunting tactics. Unless I have a solid record of exactly where a buck is bedding, I tend to hunt the fringes and avoid marching too deep into the timber. With beans already going yellow across much of Minnesota and Wisconsin, I knew that my window to get close to a good early season buck was quickly closing. I opted to hunt a thin trail that accessed the bean field from the north, the trail meandered from a small bedding area and connected at the lowest point of the field. In all, I saw two bucks, six does and got a quick glimpse of what looked like a solid racked 10. Low light and thick foliage made it difficult to get good glass on him, but my gut tells me he was a solid deer. As light faded to nil and being that I had a dozen or so deer feeding 100 yards to my south, the execution of my exit strategy began to play in my mind. One wrong move and every deer in the field would undoubtedly be alerted, reducing my chances of hunting that location successfully in the future.
How well do deer see in the dark? Really well. We may never know the full extent of how well they can pick up shapes and movements, but the bottom line is that they are very capable of seeing you exit the field long after last light. A whitetails ability to see at night is credited to an increased number of rods. As humans, we have a higher cone count which allows us to distinguish between color more efficiently; a whitetails eye is geared for maximum light detection which is made possible by a low cone/high rod count. Ever noticed how a deer’s eye seems to glow in the headlights and trail cam pictures? The back of a deer’s eye actually reflects light which allows them to use the same light twice.
For most of us, the cover of darkness feels like a shield. We feel assured that we are doing little harm to alert deer of our presence. But in my experience, if you need to cross open terrain, there is no way to avoid being detected. I think that while deer are aware of our presence after dark, they are less stressed over the intrusion and less likely to sound off. After dark, I am usually more accustomed to hearing the trotting hoofs of a spooked deer as opposed to the dreaded danger snort. I think that deer feel more comfortable and know that we are severely handicapped at night, and therefore react differently.
How far can he see you from? Another great question. I think that the distance a whitetail can detect movement at night is greatly influenced by the moon. A deer’s eye relies heavily on available light and therefore, the phase and position of the moon play a significant role in detection distance. On a pitch black moonless night, I would venture to say 100-150 yards is not out of the question. However, on a full moon night, a whitetails eye could very well allow detection from 150+ yards.
Moral of the story, there is no fail-proof exit strategy in the deer woods. The more you hunt, the more the deer in your area will be alerted to your movements. Waiting until dark and utilizing ditches, drainages and terrain features will help, but you are never 100% undetectable.