From using the latest technology in optics, attractants and calls to different hunting strategies in the woods, deer hunters are always looking for something that helps them gain an advantage over their quarry. 

While crystal-clear optics give hunters an edge and first and last light, some of the best advantages for hunters having nothing to do with technology — something that’s right in front of their eyes.

Hunters can improve their success in the woods by learning to better understand a deer’s behavior, body language and reactions to stimuli in the wild. Deer will let hunters know what is happening, and if they pay attention and decipher the message, they may know what move to make next.  

Deer and other wild animals have very limited communication abilities. Deer communicate with each other more through scent than any other senses. People communicate through a wide variety of methods, but many forget how effectively they can communicate silently, through body language. You can pick up on another person’s demeanor through their stance and facial expressions, and while humans can mask their true feelings, deer lack this ability and can be read like a book for the trained eye. Deer would be bad poker players. 

So when is it important to understand what a deer is thinking or what a deer sees? To start with, deer are extremely perceptive in the woods; they can hear sounds hundreds of yards away and can smell scents even further. When deer recognizes danger or detects another deer in the woods, they will quickly show their findings in their body language. 

Mike Herron of Burlington, N.C., had the biggest typical buck entered at the annual Dixie Deer Classic in Raleigh, N.C., in 2013 with his 162-inch Alamance County monster. Understanding how to interpret a deer’s actions while he’s on stand is a critical component to his hunting strategy. He watches the deer he can see constantly to figure out what is going on and what is going to happen next. 

“Deer are the first to tell you when there are more deer in the area,” he said. “Just watch their ears, and if they keep staring behind them, most likely, there are more deer approaching. The more alert they are when looking in another direction other than towards your stand, the more obvious it is another deer is making its way into the picture.”

Deer don’t usually surprise each other. They will usually detect another deer coming long before it arrives. The big question is for them, “Who is coming?” 

Alex Hughes of Elon, N.C., is no stranger to killing big bucks. Over the past three years, Hughes has taken two 150-inch class bucks with his bow, and reading a deer’s body language is a huge part of his game plan, especially when a real trophy buck is in the area.  

“Deer will let you know when somebody is coming. If they are moving their head back and forth from an approaching trail, that is a good indicator of an approaching deer,” Hughes said. “And if the deer is starting to cower down, then get ready for a more dominant deer to arrive.”

Mature, dominant bucks behave differently from subordinate deer when approaching a food source. Herron typically notices that big bucks don’t ease into a food source or into an area when there are already other deer present. 

“Once an older deer commits to the food source, for the most part, he’s relying on the others to spot the dangers,” he said, “because he has already checked it with the wind before he gets there anyway. Mature bucks don’t seem to be as alert as a younger deer either.” 

If a deer is entering an area at a fast pace, and deer already in the area are alert and moving out of the way, it is probably the big buck the hunter has been hoping to see all season. 

Another important behavior to recognize is when deer are not comfortable and perceive some sort of danger brewing. Typically, if a big buck they are targeting steps out, the next step is to make the shot. But that sometimes isn’t always that easy, and a hunter will choose to watch the deer for a while before they make their squeezing the trigger or string release. Hughes said he watches a deer’s posture carefully, especially the way it holds its neck and head. 

“If the deer is holding his head high with a stiff neck, they are on alert and sensing danger. But if they are swaying their head back and forth and wagging their tail from side to side, they are relaxed,” Hughes said. “If you notice a deer hesitant to feed around you, continuing to lift its head and smelling the air, it is probably about to leave the area. If it’s a trophy, you better act quickly.”

Deer hunting has many facets, and learning to read deer on stand is one of the most-important steps to make to become a better hunter. As soon deer hunters learn to take advantage of a deer’s behavior, its body language, he or she will be a step closer to taking trophy bucks on a regular basis.