Deer Hunting Guide

 
guide to deer hunting

Image Credit: Larry Meade

The white-tailed deer is the most-hunted game animal in North America. About 11.6 million hunters each year pursue big game (elk, deer, turkey) and 11 million of those are deer hunters.

The amount of information out there in books, magazines, and the web is overwhelming. So in this page I’ll focus on the key elements of finding success in deer hunting.

About White-tailed Deer

Whitetails are native to North America, found just about everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. They vary widely in size, but generally follow something called Bergmann’s Rule: the farther away from the equator you go (north), the bigger they get. Males typically weigh between 130 and 300 pounds, while females run smaller (90-200 pounds). Males shed their antlers every year; length and branching of the antlers is determined by age, nutrition, and genetics.

Diet

Whitetail deer diet

Credit: Flickr user dwilliss

White-tailed deer are herbivores and they can eat just about anything, including somethings (like poison ivy and mushrooms) that we can’t. They eat a wide variety of legumes, grasses, and plants, hard mast (acorns and nuts), soft mast (berries and leaf buds), and various crops. In my backyard, they seem to prefer the soft leafy plants, such as hostas. On average, an adult deer eats 7 pounds of vegetation per day.

Vision

Long ago in my hunter’s safety classes, the instructors assured me that deer don’t see well beyond 20 yards, that everything past that is a big blur. This isn’t true at all, in my experience. Deer have spotted me from much greater distances, and in broad daylight. But there are two features of whitetail vision that are important for us hunters:

  1. It’s dichromatic, or two-color vision, primarily yellow and blue. That gives us one extra color range (red/orange) that deer don’t distinguish very well, which is why we get away with wearing hunter orange. On the other hand, they can see blue rather well, so jeans aren’t a good choice for the woods.
  2. They see better in low light due to a higher concentration of rods (light-sensing cells), a wider pupil, and a special light-reflecting layer (tapetum) at the back of the retina. This makes sense; deer are active at night, but remember that when it’s totally dark, the deer can see you.
whitetail deer hearing vision

Credit: Flickr user dottiemae

There is a question of whether deer can see in the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum better than humans. Research suggests that they can, though the impact that might have on deer spotting hunters in clothes washed with UV brighteners (which most laundry detergents contain) is still a matter of debate. The purveyors of special detergents for hunters would have you believe that this makes you light up like a neon sign in the woods. I think we all know that’s probably not true. It seems far more likely that deer will smell or hear you or see you moving than spot the faint UV glow in your clothing.

Hearing

A few researchers have studied the range and sensitivity of deer hearing. The general conclusion is that their hearing is fairly similar to ours, with the exception that they can pick up some ultrasonic frequencies. One advantage the deer have, however, is a pivoting ear, which lets them pinpoint the direction of sound more quickly.

Sense of Smell

We all know it’s phenomenal. Deer live by their sense of smell. Human noses have 5 million olfactory receptors. Most dogs have about 220 million. Deer have 297 million olfactory receptors, so by that measure the whitetail’s sense of smell about 60x better than ours. Does this mean that a bowhunter needs charcoal-lined clothes, scent-neutralizing body wash, and foul-smelling cover scents to have a chance at success? Probably not, but hunting the wind is certainly a good idea. So is avoiding potent “human” smells like gasoline and tobacco. Two other thoughts on deer olfactory abilities:

  • Deer can distinguish and recognize individual people by scent. That means a deer knows that you (the hunter) are not the same person as the farmer who normally runs his tractor around here. It stands to reason they can also smell your equipment, and distinguish archery equipment from farming tools.
  • Deer memorize smells and associate them with important events. If you shoot at a buck and miss, it’s reasonable to assume that he will now associate your scent (person, equipment, and cover scent) with danger.

Agility

How fast are whitetails at a full run? In Virginia they’ve been clocked at 47 miles per hour. They can jump incredibly high, clearing obstacles of 8-9 feet from a standstill. I’ve seen a buck do this myself, and it’s pretty amazing. A whitetail running can jump distances of over 30 feet. And they can even swim 13 miles per hour.

Where to Hunt Deer

White-tailed deer are abundant in North America, and there are many places to hunt them.

Hunting Private Land

Hunting deer on private land

Credit: FieldSportsChannel

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service, around 84% of hunters pursue their game on private land, and most of those hunt private land exclusively. Speaking from the perspective of someone who hunts both, I can tell you that private land offers several important advantages:

  • No hunting crowd. This is #1 for me, because on private land you can usually limit the number of hunters and where they might be hunting. The deer-to-hunter ratio therefore stays much higher. These all conspire to make deer less wary and increase hunter success.
  • Land management. Planting food plots, clearing timber, and creating more ground cover are just a few of the things that landowners can do to benefit the deer herd on their property.
  • Safety. It’s arguably safer to hunt on private land, where at least you know who has permission to hunt, when/where they might be hunting, and how experienced they are.
  • Convenience and surveillance. Hunting on private land, especially land that you control, offers many small conveniences. You can build permanent tree stands, set up digital scouting cameras, and place mineral licks without worrying that they’ll be stolen or tampered with.

We all know how nice it is, but hunting private land isn’t completely easy or free (or else nearly everyone would do it). You either have to own/lease it, which comes with costs and responsibilities, or you have to get permission to hunt on someone else’s land.

Urban Deer Hunting

Urban deer hunting

Deer in the Burbs

Ironically, some of the highest concentrations of deer are found in places where they often can’t be hunted. I’m talking about urban areas, where deer have adapted to the subdivisions and cityscapes of modern life. Few natural predators can find them here, and food is often plentiful in the gardens and landscaping of us humans. So deer thrive and reproduce. Deer overcrowding in urban areas creates problems: property damage, deer-vehicle collisions, and the spread of tick-borne diseases are a few good examples.

The good news is that many communities recognize the problem, and have initiated programs to allow urban hunting (usually just bowhunting) under controlled circumstances. See my conservation department’s nice article on deer hunting in the burbs. Several townships in my home city have passed ordinances to allow bowhunting for deer control. The requirements are fairly rigorous. To bowhunt within those townships, the hunter must:

  1. Own or obtain permission for land at least 5 acres in size within the township
  2. Take an archery safety course offered by the Department of Conservation (in addition to the required hunter’s safety certification)
  3. Provide proof of personal liability insurance for no less than $2 million
  4. Notify neighbors and the local police department of the dates and times that hunts will be conducted.

These requirements specify a very cautious approach to urban deer control where safety and transparency are paramount. I understand that, though I’m not sure that a $2 million insurance policy or filing paperwork with the police department are truly necessary. On the bright side, many urban areas don’t prohibit deer bowhunting outright, so it can be done if local and state ordinances are followed. See my article on bowhunting in urban zones.

Managed Hunts

Managed hunts are highly regulated hunts that take place during the hunting season on lands not normally opened to hunters, such as conservation areas near urban cities. Missouri offers numerous managed hunts every year; most are for historic methods (archery and/or muzzleloader) but some are even open to modern firearms. Each hunt has a specific period (usually 1-2 weeks), location, and number of slots. Hunters get to put in for a total of one hunt each year and are selected by lottery system.

Managed hunts offer an interesting dynamic. They’re not guaranteed, since you have to “win” one of the slots for the hunt you want to do. Once drawn, however, you’re part of a limited number of hunters who get access to an area normally closed to hunting. I’ve drawn for managed hunts for the past few years and really enjoyed them. Last year in Missouri (for the 2012-13 season), 23,037 hunters applied for managed hunts, 5,715 were drawn (25% drawing odds), 4,607 actually hunted, and 1,784 deer were harvested (29% success rate).

Hunting Public Land

I spend much of my time during deer and turkey season scouting and hunting on public land. I’m blessed to live in a state that has thousands of acres of conservation areas and other territories that are open to hunting. Then again, I also live in the Midwest where ~10% of adults are hunters. Sometimes I’ve been lucky and had certain conservation areas almost to myself — usually by hunting on a weekday when most people have to work. More often I’m hunting in with a crowd, and that requires creative hunting strategies to say the least. More on that later.

Scouting for Deer

Scouting for deer and turkey is something I’ve written on quite a bit. It’s a key to success and also a good way to feed the hunting addiction outside of deer season. And hey, it’s fun. As you’ll see from my pre-season scouting checklist, I gear up for a scouting mission almost as much as I do for the hunt itself. The one possible exception would be when you’re scouting urban areas for bowhunting and don’t want to draw attention.

I wish I had the luxury of the year-round approach to scouting whitetails preached by some professional hunter-writers. That sounds like fun, but hunters like myself with jobs, families, and other hobbies usually can’t make that happen. Instead, I focus on using digital scouting cameras during the summer, and boots-on-the ground scouting in late summer to early fall. Basically, I’m looking for:

  • Deer sign, notably prints, game trails, and droppings
  • Possible bedding areas and the travel routes to/from them
  • Food sources, especially good crops of hard mast
  • Hidden water sources like small watering holes

When to Hunt Deer

Depending on who you ask, deer season can be divided into three or four phases, all focused on adaptation to changing seasons and the whitetail breeding season.

Early Season

September and early October usually represent the early season, when whitetails maintain their summer patterns and seem to be the most predictable, traveling between bedding and feeding areas in mornings and evenings with some regularity. There are good opportunities for bowhunting early season, though hunting warm weather presents some challenges.

Pre-rut and October Lull

The arrival of colder weather brings on a period of pre-rut activity when patterns begin to change as bucks establish their social order and begin keeping tabs on groups of does. This time is sometimes called the October Lull because deer movement seems to decrease, though many hunters (myself included) believe it’s just an effect of deer no longer being as predictable.

The Rut

The rut itself, which usually peaks near the fall firearms deer season, is perhaps the most well-known breeding season in North America. Branches are bare, deer movement is up, and their usual caution takes a back seat to their desire to reproduce. It’s a wonderful, magical time that we hunters exploit however we can. I haven’t written much about the rut, simply because it’s covered so well by so many writers.

Post Rut / Late Season

The post-rut whitetail season is my favorite time to hunt. It’s harder, of course, because deer regain their senses and become, if anything, even more cautious than they were before the rut. But hey, the bugs are gone, and the leaves are gone. Better yet, a lot of hunters don’t want to man up and hunt in the freezing cold.

Deer hunting in snow during late season offers unprecedented opportunities to track the deer and learn about their movements.

How to Hunt Deer

Many things have changed about deer hunting in the past 50 years,but the essential elements are still the same. The single most powerful advantage a hunter has over deer is the element of surprise. That’s why more than 50% of deer harvested during firearms season are taken on the first day. Whitetails in North America have evolved under hundreds of years of hunting pressure from humankind. It seems only fitting we learn to evolve with them.

Hunting Strategies

When how to call deerThe tactics and strategies for hunting whitetails fascinate me, but I don’t consider myself an authority. The people best-equipped to teach this probably don’t spend a lot of time blogging; they’re out in the woods instead. Now and then I’ll conduct a little poll among experienced hunters, as I did when I compiled my 18 top deer bowhunting tips. Sometimes I’ll do the research myself, like my article on when and how to call deer, a topic that’s just as complex and challenging as turkey calling.

I am rather experienced when it comes to the challenges of hunting heavily pressured deer on public grounds. So when I offer some tips about stand hunting on public land, you can bet they’re based on experience.

Gear and Equipment

I’ve already outlined how deer use their sight, hearing, sense of smell, and agility to avoid hunters all season long. Good hunting gear is how we even the odds. There’s been a ton of innovation in the 15 or so years that I’ve been hunting. That’s why if I had to start over again as a bowhunter, there are a few things I might do differently. I’d start at the bottom, with a better pair of hunting boots. But hey, you learn to be happy with what you have. I’ve already written about how last year’s investment, a good pair of hunting binoculars, helps me scout and hunt. And I just love using my digital scouting cameras year-round.

Bowhunting Whitetails

There are about 2.8 million bowhunters in the U.S., according to a recent Fish & Wildlife survey, representing 21% of all hunters. Using archery equipment represents the ultimate challenge in white-tailed deer hunting. The effective range for most hunters is 20-30 yards, meaning that they must be very close to their prey. Accuracy, too, is required, since arrows kill by cutting rather than impact. Drawing a bow also makes more noise and motion than shooting a gun.

Since I bowhunt more than anything else, I’ve written a number of articles about it, but my favorites are:

Bowhunting is a true test of skill in the woods. There’s very little margin for error, even with a flat-shooting bow. I love the long season, the challenge, and the fact that any deer or turkey that walks within range is fair game.

This is the end of my guide to hunting white-tailed deer. If you liked it, check out my guide on wild turkey hunting.

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