Preparing For A Successful Deer Hunt

There's one thing deer hunters can take to the bank in the off season: The things you do today will influence the chances of your success in the deer woods come fall.

Photo by R.E. Ilg

I live in deer country near low-elevation forest, a short distance from the foothills, canyons and river valleys that feed out of a major mountain range. I spend considerable time each year hunting, fishing and scouting new areas in these woods. As a result, I have a bird's-eye view of the different ways hunters approach the upcoming deer hunting season. I witness a wide range of strategies, but the methods I see at the opposite ends of hunting preparation continuum are illustrative.

I begin to see one hunter every year in mid-summer, several months before the opening of the season. He parks his truck in a turnout on a road, which climbs a low foothill pass, which provides an expansive view of the higher slopes above. He glasses the open, logged ridges above the road with a spotting scope. He is in his late 30s or early 40s and appears to be in good shape.

The country he inspects is good, with sunny, east-facing logged over slopes covered with berries and young conifers, and pocked with shady ravines that host perennial creeks. It is the kind of country that draws mature, heavy-antlered bucks.

From mid-summer until early autumn, I see the hunter regularly; he is doubtlessly there even more than I know of because I don't travel the road that much. When we pass him, I always say to my wife, "There's a serious hunter."

I encounter the hunters at the other end of the continuum much later, usually not until a week or 10 days before opening day of deer season. Their scouting forays consist of driving along logging roads on Forest Service land and private timberlands. These hunters seem to be clumped at the extremes of the age range, either teen-agers to 20-somethings or old guys who even from a distance are not in good shape. Because of the large and increasing incidence of gated roads, these hunters now tend to be concentrated in fairly heavily traveled forest and foothills roads -- mainlines, in logging company parlance. While does and juvenile deer may be seen relatively regularly in these areas, mature bucks tend to avoid them completely.

There is a saying among fishermen that 10 percent of the anglers catch 90 percent of the fish. I haven't seen comparable figures for deer hunters, but from my own observations and experience, I would guess that the ratio may even be more skewed than 9-to-1. In most West Coast states, for example, somewhere around 20 percent of hunters tag a buck every year. But if you could see the figures of hunters who take deer four out of five years, I expect they would account for less than 10 percent of hunters, and probably considerably less. Casual hunters, the ones who scout late in the season from heated pickups, may literally stumble onto a legal deer every few years, and these deer add percentage points to the overall harvest figures. But it takes a lot more of them to contribute a proportionally much smaller number of deer.

Any way you look at it, serious, committed deer hunters regularly take more deer than their less-dedicated counterparts. By the very nature of their commitment to the sport, it is safe to assume that they also account for the vast majority of deer listed in record books.

So how do you become one of the small percentage of hunters who regularly take deer, and who tag trophies much more frequently than casual hunters? The answers are surprisingly simple to pinpoint.

HOW DID THEY DO THAT?

Perhaps most importantly, deer hunting is not a two-week or month-long affair for perennially successful hunters. It is something they think about and study all year. Serious hunters also spend hundreds of hours each year with their weapon of choice in their hands. They know they may only have one shot all season, and that skill and familiarity with their gun or bow can make or break the season. They also understand the physical demands of hunting. Staying in shape is second nature. They also understand that a successful hunt begins with scouting trips months before the opener, and most have intimate knowledge of the areas they hunt and the deer they pursue long before the beginning of the season.

FINDING DEER

Although good deer hunters practice with their firearms and exercise throughout the year, let's begin with scouting. This makes sense, because getting out in the field and seeing deer serves as an impetus for increased target practice and conditioning.

West Coast hunters, depending on the state in which they live, have the opportunity to pursue blacktail, mule and white-tailed deer. Each species exhibits different behaviors, prefer different habitats and require slightly different hunting tactics, but the basic scouting strategy is essentially the same, regardless of species. The purpose of scouting is to identify and pattern the habits of a specific animal or group of animals and then figure out the best place to be during the season to get a clear shot.

Deer are creatures of habit driven by their life-sustaining searches for forage, water and cover. While more and more deer seem to become nocturnal as hunting pressure increases, dawn and dusk mark their most active periods, when they move from food and water sources to bedding areas. This is the time you should be in the field and at a selected site with binoculars or a spotting scope.

I like to break down scouting strategies into two distinct categories: macro scouting and micro scouting. Macro scouting entails large-scale searches that are necessary to simply locate a population of deer in an area where they can be hunted. This is what hunters do when they prospect new territory, especially mule deer country.

Macro scouting is relatively uncomplicated and can often be accomplished from a vehicle and with short walks. Unlike, road hunting, you won't have a rifle along on these scouting forays; your "weapon" is a spotting scope, a pair of binoculars, or a camera because you'll be driving through deer country months before opening day.

Hunters who return to the same area year after year, of course, don't need to spend as much time on macro scouting as someone who is scouting new territory, but fires, development, logging and other activities could have an impact in deer country. It is always a good idea to visit even familiar deer haunts to prevent an ugly surprise on opening day.

Once you have located deer and see them regularly, it is time to fine tune your scouting to identify specific bucks, maybe even trophy bucks. This is micro scouting.

You definitely need to get out of your vehicle for this type of work. In with unobstructed visibility (most high des

ert mule deer country, burns, clear cuts, etc.) spotting scopes enable you to view deer from considerable distances. That is what the good hunter I mentioned earlier was doing.

The haunts of blacktail and white-tailed deer, however, do not often lend themselves to such optical scanning. You need to hike into the woods or hills and look for deer sign. It requires a lot of energy, locating trails, water holes and bedding areas, and it also requires you to sit for hours at a time.

In areas where the season opens before the leaves are off the trees or before the bucks lose their caution in the rut, this can be difficult. But the effort usually pans out for the hunters who stick to it. They typically know the habits of at least one legal deer they have spotted and observed before the first day of the season.

Most deer hunters live in suburbs and cities today, and they aren't intimate with productive deer habitat. The months when a hunter should begin putting in field time are also the time of summer family vacations. Sometimes success depends on a hunter's ability to convince a spouse and children to spend a part of their vacation in deer country. Failing that, most hunters are also trout anglers who spend a fair amount of time fishing each summer. Since deer and trout often occur in the same general area, it might be worthwhile to fish where you plan to hunt this fall. I spend dozens of days in the woods every summer looking for grouse, duck and trout habitat, and that is the way I learn the movements and locations of deer and elk in our neighborhood. The thing to do is to organize your day, so you can spend an hour or two at the hunting grounds, then you have the bulk of the day for fishing with family and friends.

A basic rule of thumb: You should make three or four trips to your hunting area between July and opening day.

GOOD SHOTS KILL DEER

It doesn't matter how many bucks you see if you can't regularly and automatically put your bullet or arrow into a vital area. As with scouting, most hunters do not have lives today that allow them to spend much time with a gun in their hand, let alone shoot it. However, you need to be absolutely comfortable with your weapon to make a clean kill, and the only way you are going to accomplish that is to put in regular, considered and realistic practice with your gun or bow.

For modern firearms hunters who live in the suburbs or cities, this virtually always means visiting a commercial range. It will cost you time and money, but as little as one session a week over the course of a year will greatly improve your marksmanship and knowledge of how your firearms perform with different loads and at different distances. Bowhunters usually have it somewhat easier, because they can practice in their yards or at metropolitan outdoor ranges.

One critical, but often neglected, aspect of shooting is the ability to estimate range. Far more deer are missed or wounded every year by hunters who inaccurately guess the distance of the animal than by poor shooting, and yet, learning how to judge distance is not possible at an indoor range.

For one, the background can often be tricky in the field. Deer may seem closer than they actually are when standing in an open flat that melts away to a distant horizon. Similarly, deer observed in thick cover may either seem farther or closer than they really are, depending on light conditions and shade.

The only way to become proficient at judging distances requires working at it in the field, and there's no better time in the field than when you are scouting. You can refine your skills dramatically by guessing distances during your day-to-day routine. Look at a distant telephone pole or parked car and estimate how far it is, then mark it off as you approach. You will be amazed at how quickly your accuracy improves.

As the season draws near, it becomes critical that hunters begin to craft their target practice so it more accurately duplicates hunting conditions. Unlike the rifle range, it isn't likely that you will be presented with a broadside shot at a deer in the field while you sit on a stump.

Many of the more comprehensive shooting ranges today offer lifelike shooting stations. If you can find one of these, patronize it.

You should also practice shooting offhand (standing), which is often the way shots occur in the real world. Also try shooting from as many awkward positions as you can dream up.

In more rural areas, gravel pits often become de facto shooting ranges, and they allow hunters an opportunity to shoot from a variety of angles. However, shooters need to exercise extreme care at informal ranges, and always, always pick up your empties.

Finally, the only shot you may have all season may very well occur after a fairly strenuous hike or when you are tired at the end of the day, and that's not taking into consideration the shakiness of an adrenaline surge. So it is always a good idea to exercise enough to raise your pulse considerably, then see how well you shoot.

GETTING YOUR BODY IN SHAPE

We all know that we are supposed to maintain a regular exercise regime, but most of us let our workouts languish sometime in January -- after our New Year's resolutions go up in smoke. Fortunately, summer is the best time of year to revive a workout schedule. If you haven't exercised strenuously for a long time, consult your doctor before pushing yourself. There are dozens of ways to work out -- from gym memberships to bicycling to weight rooms -- but a hunter who wants to enter the field with all engines humming needs to include work in each of the three critical areas: cardiovascular, strength and flexibility.

A healthy cardiovascular system, which includes your heart and lungs, lets you climb into the mountains or move quickly through blowdowns or heavy cover. It will also let your heart rate settle down quickly after strenuous exertion, which will greatly improve your shooting accuracy.

Running is the most well-known way to improve your wind and heart rate, but it does have its drawbacks, specifically the pounding that your knees and joints take on hard surfaces. In recent years, walking has become increasingly popular, especially among older hunters. Two of the oldest hunters I know begin walking around town in spring, add backpacks gradually, then add increasing amounts of weight to their packs as the summer continues.

Swimming and bicycling will also get your pulse up and are less stressful on bones and joints.

Strength is necessary to carry a weapon and pack, and if things go well, to pack an animal out of the woods over rough terrain. Most successful hunters lift weights to increase strength, and a growing number have found the convenience and relative bargain of a gym membership the easiest way to improve muscle mass and responsiveness.

The various stations at weight rooms let you work on all major muscle groups. While bulging biceps and flat pecs look good in the mirror, it is important that everything from calves to triceps to your neck muscles be in shape for working

hard during the hunting season.

Flexibility is the most neglected component of a healthy body, especially among men. Although many masculine outdoor types resist it, yoga is one of the best ways to loosen your joints and tendons. You can also do it at home free of charge. Once you develop a routine, it doesn't take that long to work on your entire body. For middle-aged or older hunters, yoga is especially beneficial, because it is very low impact. Swimming is also an excellent way to maintain loose limbs and ligaments. It is also an excellent cardiovascular workout that does a fair job of strength training if you vary your strokes. I swim a half-mile a day at least five days a week during the summer, and by hunting season, I have a spring in my step and much better wind than at any other time of year. But I like to swim, and that it the critical ingredient of any successful exercise regimen: You need to enjoy it.

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