On a large percentage of the lands I visit across the county, a very familiar question eventually surfaces:"Does my ATV spook deer?" The best answer that I can give, is that I wouldn't mind if all of my neighbor's used an ATV. You see, in my expereince it isn't a matter of if an ATV will spook deer, but how much it will spook deer. And the same can be said for cars and truck as well.
*These hunting pressure management strategies, as well as most any other whitetail related tactic, are covered in my recently completely trilogy of Advanced Whitetail Strategy books, including the recently published"Mature Buck Success by Design", which details how to scout, prepare, forecast for and consistently kill mature bucks.
Now it isn't that I want my neighbors to fail, or that I wish them any ill will, but over many years on many different parcels, when my neighbors use ATVs, I see more deer. This is a "hot topic" with me, because I would never allow them on the lands I hunt. That's not to say that there would not be various cicumstances of opportunity, to use an ATV for hunters who simply couldn't access the land, that they are hunting, for various of physical reasons. However, in general the answer for "Is it possible to use an ATV without spooking deer?",would be a big, firm, "NO.
ATV Spooking Experiences:
My ATV experiences began all the way back in the late 80s, when my neighbor across the river to the South, would start his Honda ATC (3 wheeler). I was roughly 400 yards to the North and through the woods, but the sound of the machine firing up could be heard in all but the harshest of weather. He would then make the 1/2 mile ride to the East before turning North into one of the thickest, nastiest and best river bottom bedding areas in the immediate neighborhood. What happened was eye opening! In one ATV spook alone, I witnessed over 20 deer as they left their incredible bedding habitat, crossed the 200 yard pasture, entered the woods that I was adjacent to, and eventually traveled along the heavy funnel of mixed pine, grasses and tag alder, that I was positioned over. The deer would pass by, and enter another high quality bedding area on the land to the Northwest. In total the deer would move well over a 1/2 mile, and as a hunter in my late teens, the movement left me with a pounding heart and filled tags, for many years to come. I was filled with so much anticipation for the neighbor's ATV spook, that on more than one occasion my hope was dashed when the putt-putt-putt of the ATC, turned out to be a grouse below the huge, multi-trunked white pine I was sitting in.
During 1998 I eventually moved to the Upper Peninsula of MI, with eager anticipation of hunting remote, wilderness habitats of unbroken timber. With more planned expections, the same ATV spooking patterns returned. I quickly learned to find locations that featured a 45 minute walk or more, into the core areas of cover that held a very small % of hunters, if any at all. The region was flat and contained many forms of natural waterways, including beaver ponds, small lakes, swamps and creeks. Sound carried so well, that on more than one occasion with the right wind, the conversations of distant hunters could be heard from a 1/2 mile away or more. But voices weren't the only unwelcome noise that was carried throughout the wilderness! It seemed that anyone and everyone had an ATV, and that nearly every one of them, drove their ATVs to their blinds. Even the entire scenerio of my drunken neighbor falling into the creek, after dropping his father off at a remote deer blind on an ATV, could be heard; including the cussing voices and gravely purr of the Yamaha Grizzly. The plan was simple in the UP, which included, walking a great distance prior to light, getting ready in the blind while deer were in the middle of being spooked from distant lands, and then waiting for them to filter through a core area funnel during the later 1/2 of the morning. I even learned to plan my hunting treks accordingly, by avoiding mid-week hunts that lacked the high % of ATV use from the weekenders, while instead prefering to hunt during Sundays and Mondays, following the weekend's latest ATV spook.
One of my fondest property memories was when I would take our Kubota RTV for a spin on the land with my kids, sometimes cuddled up in blankets and often with a few snacks. It was a pure adventure for Autumn, Jake and Sam, but it was also some great, quality bonding time to spend together in the woods. There were several times where a trail cam would capture the image of deer looking our way and then leaving, while we eventually rolled into the frame about 5 minutes later. In the remote wilderness setting, the deer were often gone while we were still a mile away or more!
Then, throughout the 2000s my neighbor's ATVs spooked deer in the agricultural setting of SW WI with the same results, only this time the stakes were much higher with true, mature bucks of 5-8 year old bucks in play. During the bow or gun season, we learned that by offering a sanctuary of quality cover between ourselves and the ATV intrusions, were at times were able to witness two dozen deer or more, as they vacated their prererred habitat, to the safety of our lower quality habitat, but ATV-less offerings.
Lower hunting pressure levels on average or even below average habitats, trumps higher quality habitat with high hunting pressure levels. And trust me, ATV falls into the "High Pressure" level! There are 3 things that spook deer, including: Site, Sound and Scent. Basically the 3 S's that when completely removed within a patch of cover, become a sanctuary. An electric cart or machine could be a fit for sanctuary, but any form of noise, visibility or smell from hunters or machines will spook deer if detected. In the case of our SW WI neighbors, the deer would actually vacate the land they hunted before they would even drive onto the property!The deer simply knew the drill, and they exited ASAP. I now hunt that neighbor's land, and we have been successful because we have attempted to completely remove our hunting pressure, while hunting. But I am also now amazed! Because the land we now hunt is a great little chunk of habitat, which has been a very rewarding experience to enjoy without the use of an ATV. I honestly don't think the previous hunters knew what the were missing out on, which is one of the main reasons for writing this article.
*Let's face it, often it is hard to get around the fact that an ATV can be a necessary tool to navigate your hunting land. ATV's are an incredible tool, but a level of strategy should still be employed, by esstablishing areas of heavy and low amounts of deer usage. For more tips on defining deer usage, try reading, "Recognizing Deer Movements".
One of the most common statements I hear is that the deer obviously don't mind the ATV because they just stand and watch hunters drive by. Of course hunters may not realize how many run as soon as they pass, but at the same time the most important follow-up question is this: How many mature bucks have you seen watching you just drive by?" The answer is typically zero, and even the occasional "one" is during the period of Summer laziness, or represents an incredibly small % of the total number of deer observed. I had a good friend ask me about allowing a trapper on the land during the season, by truck, to access their traps. "A definite NO", is what I told him, which leads into the next lesson learned...
Scouting whitetails across the country for a living has its advantages, in particular when it comes to finding and being shown, mature buck bedding areas. Where they bed relative to doe family groups and hunting pressure carries a familiar pattern, and when answering the question of "what distance will regular use by an ATV, spook a mature buck from establishing his bedding area?", a familiar trend has emerged! That distance is rarely under 100 yards, and most often a few hundred yards. Sure, deer may watch you drive by, but I would ask again: How many of those deer are mature bucks? In general, you can take a highlighter on a map of your land, and shade out every acre of habitat within 100-150 yards (conservatively) of any regularily used ATV trail, that you use during the hunting season. Do you have an 80 acre parcel that features 2-3 ATV trails covering front to back? If you do, your neighbor's lands are all that is left for a mature buck to bed on. And if your neighbors are doing the same, you can expect the overall buck age structure potential to drop, until one of you ceases the ATV activity. Hopefully after you read this article, that will be you!
Do You Want to Alert the Deer Herd?
Let's face it, deer have the ability to pattern us, much more than we do of them. So why announce that you are coming? There are some cases where a tractor or vehicle can be used to drop a hunter off with good results, but those are after well established, daily patterns have already taken place with the machines, and are not for everyone.
My own personal efforts and those of my clients, have seen the best levels of success when the local deer herd had no idea that hunters were approaching, waiting in ambush, or moving throughout the lands. Although this does not apply as much to the local doe herd or even younger bucks, a wise old, independent thinking mature buck craves a low stress, ATV-less environment to call his home.
Are there other options?
There are a multitude of electric carts on the market, and some are quieter than others! My personal favorite of the moment is the 3-wheeled, front wheel drive Quiet Kat, which is small, fairly portable, quiet and very stealthy. However even the best of electric carts have to access the land through established trails and road, which often pass through food plots and bedding areas that should still be avoided for the potential detection of scent and site detection. Also, breaking sticks and rolling rocks can still alert deer that something large is coming, and an electric vehicle still needs a low-impact location to park (typically NOT under your deer stand). Electric carts are often the ultimate access machine, but even then they need to be used strategically.
Will An ATV Spook Deer On Your Land?
The answer to that question is a resounding "yes" when they are used during the hunting season, but in the end, it may actually depend on which deer you are trying to manage for and shoot. If young bucks and doe family groups is your game, than by all means do what is the most comfortable. However, if you value an older age structure of bucks and want to hunt the oldest bucks in the neighborhood, I suggest leaving the keys on the hook during the months of the hunting season. I have had clients run a dirt-bike track on their hunting lands during the Summer without a noticable negative impact for their hunting season, but during the hunting season every attempt to decrease the level of hunting pressure, and that includes an ATV. I have personally experienced that you can shoot your target buck(s) the majority of the time, but it will be an extremely rare circumstance that you will do so with regular and consistent ATV use during the hunting season.
The one time that an ATV will not spook deer, is during the off-season. Food plot, treestand and camera work are all great uses for the ATV. On my own lands that I hunt on, I have established a "No ATV" use rule by 2 weeks prior to the hunting season, for the owners. This is not an option for me, I work too hard and my hunting results are too important, to allow an ATV intrusion a few days prior to my sit, to destroy my opportunity.
Lots of hunters love to use their ATVs to access their deer blinds and treestands, and that is understandable! ATVs are fast, fun to drive and save a lot of physical activity. However, if your desire is to shoot mature bucks each and every year, as well as to promote the oldest buck age structure potential that is possible on the lands that you hunt, than it is safe bet one of the many priorities of herd management, is to cut the ATV use during the hunting season.