October has always been my favorite month for a variety of reasons. It’s got the seasonal change, my birthday, Halloween, and (in Missouri) the first full month of bowhunting season. In the Midwest and many places, the so-called October lull has challenged deer hunters because it’s a transition period. But my success at taking a deer with my bow earlier this month proves that there are no certainties when it comes to deer hunting.
It inspired this list of 10 things every deer hunter might want to stop and think about.
1. No need to obsess on scent control
Since deer live by their sense of smell, we hunters focus a lot on defeating it as best we can. We spray neutralizers and cover scents on everything, we avoid strong unnatural odors like smoke and gasoline. This seems reasonable; there’s no need to do the smell-equivalent of shouting as we walk into the woods. Beyond that, though, I’ve questioned how much of it is necessary. At close range, say 50 yards or less, a deer that wanders downwind is probably going to smell you.
This happened on my hunt earlier this month; a pair of deer came down the ridge directly downwind and by the time I heard them, they were already bugging out.
2. The wind giveth, the wind taketh away
Hunting the wind is generally a good idea when pursuing whitetails. In my experience, however, the wind is highly unpredictable. I love Accuweather’s hourly forecast, and I use it before every hunt, but I still trust my own senses when I’m out in the field. On the morning of my successful hunt, they’d predicted wind out of the west/southwest, but it was more out of the southeast.
The wind was also gusty that day, which I really hate. I’ve read and heard from multiple sources that on blustery days, deer tend to bed down because they have trouble using their sense of smell. You know what, though? I saw more deer that morning than any of my other outings the month prior.
Also, the wind changes. Even mid-hunt. You can’t even rely on constancy.
3. Scouting is good. Hunting is better.
Many of the prolific hunter-writers (like the Eberharts) put a huge emphasis on scouting, especially during the pre- and off-season. I agree that it can provide valuable information, especially when done systematically. Whether or not extensive scouting actually delivers a more successful hunt is a matter of some debate. For one thing, the habits of game animals tend to change (both naturally and because of the presence of hunters) around hunting season.
I have the opinion, especially after my experiences this month, that no amount of scouting is a substitute for actual hunting time. This is especially true for me, because I am not quite willing to get up two hours before sunrise just for a scouting mission. When you’re hunting (as opposed to scouting), with so much on the line, I try to do it all right: getting up early, slipping quietly through the woods, and waiting in complete stillness for long periods of time.
With all of the personal, marital, and financial investment it takes to to actually get out into the woods, I make every moment of hunting count. I’m working my calls, or ranging the distance to landmarks, or scanning that distant ridge with my binoculars. Because of this constant vigilance, I’m far more likely to see something interesting. In the case of my most recent hunt, I set my blind up on the middle of a ridge — a place I might not normally choose, if I hadn’t seen several deer descending the ridge at a diagonal across that spot.
I like this rule because it means that fruitless hunts become scouting expeditions, opportunities to study up and plan a more successful hunt next time.
4. Calling for Deer is a Gamble
As hunters seeking mostly prey animals, we very much like the idea of proactively luring otherwise cautious game into shooting range. At least, I like that idea. The reality is that calling deer is very different from calling turkeys or predators. Those last two types of game rely on hearing to communicate throughout life. Turkeys routinely call back and forth to one another to meet up in the woods. Coyotes and foxes home in on the sounds of animals in distress. That’s part of why calling them works so well.
With deer it’s a unique situation: they use their hearing mostly to detect and avoid danger. Most deer communication is done using their fantastic sense of smell. The pros will tell you that the buck roar or a plaintive doe bleat will draw in a dominant buck during the rut. That may be true, but the success rate is probably much, much lower. Many times I’ve used a variety of calling techniques on deer that were in view, and they almost always ignored me.
There is one unique situation when deer calling has worked for me, and that’s the simple grunt call to stop a moving deer. Whether the grunt reassures or simply confuses them to buy the hunter that extra moment, I can’t say, but it’s incredibly valuable. When I took my deer earlier this month, I had trouble drawing the bow at first. Not sure why. The doe saw me struggling and was about to bolt, but I hit my grunt call. She held long enough for me to draw and make a good shot.
I’m not saying that using deer calls like The Original Can is a bad idea. It almost certainly can’t hurt, but most likely your efforts will be ignored.
5. Expect the Unexpected While Hunting
I went out earlier this month thinking I’d see more turkeys than deer. Instead I didn’t see or hear a turkey — which is very unusual, given that they roosted right in that area — but I saw more deer than ever. Many, if not most of my hunts don’t seem to go as expected. It’s a different animal, coming from a different direction, at a different time, than I could have predicted. They seem to ignore every game trail I’ve marked and create their own.
When I head into the woods, I feel like I take a lot of gear. Calls, decoys, a knife, binoculars, the ever essential GPS, another knife… and yet, I’m always thinking of something I forgot. Something I wasn’t ready for. That’s another thing I plan for the next hunt: something else to bring along.
6. Patience and Persistence Matter
I’ve been hunting the same piece of public land in north-central Missouri for several years. I’ve come to know it well, and had several close calls with turkeys or deer there. I withstood the occasional ribbing from neighbors when I came back empty-handed. On that fateful morning I did everything just right. An hour before sunrise, I was set up in the woods, after slipping in quietly under cover of darkness. I knew the terrain, the animals, the travel routes. Still, my opportunity to take a deer was a bit of a surprise. Five minutes earlier, when the other deer had blown out, I might have given up.
I stuck it out, though, and when that big doe walked into shooting range, I was ready. I’d put in the time at the range, gotten all the equipment just right. Even when I couldn’t draw, I had my grunt call handy and used it to good effect. Then I made an accurate shot. A clean kill. Found the deer, dragged it out, field dressed it, got it to the processor all within a couple of hours. Now I’ve got a freezer full of fresh venison, and that’s a good feeling.
7. Deer Are Heavy
Seriously. You only begin to appreciate this when you have to drag one for any distance at all. If my deer had run downhill instead of uphill, I might still be out there, lugging it slowly through the woods.