Change up your late-season whitetail drive strategy this year and head for the thickest, most impenetrable cover you can find -- then dive into it! (December 2009)
The afternoon before Thanksgiving afforded us just a few hours to get in a quick hunt after having spent the morning catching up on things around home. I had my wife, Esther, and my son with me, and I was hoping for Esther to get a shot at her first deer. An adult doe or buck would do just fine, and I plotted in my head as we drove up the road to my folks' property. Being next door, their property was all we had time for. My plan had hatched by the time we pulled in the yard. My 8-year-old son, Seth, wanted to sit on stand with Esther too. He said he'd be quiet. We knew we'd have fun, and it was a beautiful day.
The author, son Seth and wife Esther admire Esther's first buck, which she shot during a late-season Wisconsin drive.
Photo courtesy of Pete Maina.
I placed them in a stand where Esther couldn't see particularly far but where one deer always seems comfortable enough to sneak through. I offered the basics of what I was up to and a time when I'd be back to pick them up. I had two main "spots" in mind. I headed north in somewhat of a looping path, skirting a very thick patch of cover that had recently been logged, then dived right into the middle of it.
For the third time, I stopped, panting a bit, and decided I'd gone far enough. The cover was opening up a little in front of me. I waited awhile, and decided it was time to turn around and head back out to circle the next patch I had in mind. Literally as I turned, the shooting started. Halfway to them, I heard a finishing shot. Esther's first deer was a nice 8-point buck. A great moment, to be sure!
Have you ever been 30 feet from a deer and unable to shoot it because you have no idea whether it's a male or a female, or because you couldn't even be certain where to aim? I have quite a few times, and it's frustrating, albeit exciting. In thick cover, sometimes you can only see deer feet moving along, part of an outline or nothing at all -- and yet you can hear them. If you are where many of the deer are during the daytime in the post-rut, this will occur.
IN THE THICK OF IT
I've been hunting in northern Wisconsin for more than three decades now, and things have changed quite a bit with regard to deer location during the season. Increasingly, deer seem to be seeking heavy cover during daytime hours and generally moving less. Three factors have promoted this situation. Of course, there may be areas where this isn't the case, but the increased popularity of baiting and feeding, easier access to prime hunting and a growing wolf population have all contributed. There is far less need for deer to travel long distances to browse, thanks in large part to food plots, agriculture and bait piles. Access in the forms of roads, trails, and four-wheeler paths has put hunters where deer weren't used to seeing them 20 years ago. Gone are the days of taking off with a compass and a sandwich -- and not seeing anyone else all day. Wolf numbers have also increased greatly, prompting deer to avoid frequenting the open areas where wolves tend to hunt. These pressures and more confined food sources that can be accessed at night have changed things.
Hunters, in general, tend to hunt in more open places as well. They like to be able to see and shoot long distances. But once the rut is over and the guns have been barking over the opening weekend, hunters who can see farther are very likely to see fewer deer. To increase your effectiveness, locate the likely holding places, protective cover and bedding areas. In short, find the thick stuff.
Likewise, employ alternative tactics, such as larger or smaller drives and still-hunting. With some further attention to details once these areas are located and hunted, the odds for success on future hunts can be increased. Of course, you'll also need a few folks willing to "go in" with you.
Essentially, you're looking for the thickest stuff in an area. This might be swampland, new-growth logging areas or simply heavy brush, but it's got to be the thickest cover available. Ideally, it's an area with a fairly good population of deer, with varying cover, in addition to the thick stuff.
If you've been hunting an area -- or several areas -- for years with little success, have you checked out the heaviest cover adjacent to or in it? In most cases, folks will hunt next to heavy cover, but seldom will they go right in. Of course, on some days deer are more apt to move naturally, and waiting near heavy cover in travel areas may work. However, I and other successful hunters in our group agree there are often days when deer will hold in heavy cover all day, moving very little, if at all. In such circumstances, waiting doesn't work, and stand-sitting success is greatly reduced.
I live right next to the Chequamegon National Forest, and of the countless hunters who utilize the area, many seem to complain there are no deer (and there are fewer these days). But we know there are deer around, and we've had success later in the season by targeting swampy, thick areas adjacent to or outside the areas frequented by the vast majority of other hunters. The key, to a certain extent, is realizing that, when pressured, deer will penetrate the most unlikely -- and often the gnarliest -- areas on the property. I've wondered how deer -- and especially big bucks with sizable racks -- can penetrate some of these areas. But if you search, the tracks and deer encounters will tell the story. There are no guarantees every thick cover area near hunters will have deer, but I'll say it's a decent bet. If you aren't spending time on your knees getting through, you're likely not where you need to be. If you're thinking, There is no way I'm going in there, then that's where you need to be.
Deer hiding within heavy cover -- and especially wise, mature bucks -- will often hold their ground even if a hunter is directly adjacent to the cover. I've been standing within 20 feet of deer that were hoping I'd walk by, and finally, they just couldn't take it. Years ago, during a particularly memorable hunt in a swamp, I spooked a huge doe. I had been looking directly at the deer but didn't realize what it was until it scared the heck out of me.
Of course, knowing the deer are in there is one thing; figuring out how to get into position to identify the one you want to kill -- and killing it -- is another. A group drive is one very effective way to get the job done. If you're targeting a large, thick area, it's time to find more friends and family. You'll need a team of hunters to cover likely spots where deer will hide within thick cover, as well as a number of shooters in positions where the pressured deer are likely to emerge from the cover. If the body count is low, thick areas can be taken in sections, but this is problematic in that deer can slip off to the side beyond
the coverage of the hunters. The reality is that there is a lot of luck involved in this and other methods of taking deer. If you pressure deer to move, they will do exactly that, and while a few will run directly to your blockers, undoubtedly there will be others that evade your group.
The size of your "drive" -- or the number of hunters you employ -- isn't as critical as the way the group operates. Groups ranging from two hunters to 20 can find success driving deer, but the size of the drive often dictates which patches of cover can be targeted.
"Drive" really isn't the appropriate term. Traditional drives take place in more open areas and rarely require much on the part of the walkers, other than staying in line on a compass heading and taking up space to push deer. "Driving" in thick cover is completely different. Rethink much of what would be common knowledge on stands and drives. It helps to consider why these deer are where they are, and the reason seldom has anything to do with comfort. They are there because of pressure. Deer in thick cover have usually been pushed there by hunters -- be they human or natural. They are wary and they will resort to moving only as a final option. If these deer are made to move, they will not run blindly (nor can they in thick cover). Rather, they'll sneak out quickly and quietly.
In terms of stand placement, target the edges of thick cover, but avoid those transition areas that lead from thick cover directly into open areas like food plots or farm fields, areas deer may be hesitant to cross. The natural reaction is to set up shooters on the most open side of an area to maximize shot visibility. Often there's an open bog, a mature stand of woods or a clearcut adjacent to thick cover, offering good vision. Problem is, the last thing a wary deer wants to do is expose himself or herself in open terrain. Instead, start the drivers from the clear area, and set up shooters on the side that offers the most cover to exit out of the area.
It's hard for some folks to take a stand where the farthest they can effectively see to shoot is 30 yards or less. Get over it. If the deer will come out, they will come out where they are most comfortable. Of course, trails can offer clues as to preferred travel routes, but, in general, the thickest funnels will likely be the first to draw wary, pressured deer looking to evade your drivers. The good news for the shooter on this sort of deer drive is the shooting is close-range. Once a stand is selected, prepare by picking your shooting slots, and be certain you will be in position to take advantage. Even on quiet days, in this type of cover, you will nearly always hear the deer sneaking up. Very rarely will they be running full-steam.
There isn't any exact science to spacing the walkers, although they should be closer based on the thickness of cover. Most important is how to walk to actually scare and push the deer and ensure that there are no holes in your drive coverage. If done properly, there's a much higher probability of pushing deer to another walker or shooter. Walkers need to pay much closer attention to their compass in this kind of cover. It's truly amazing, in the thick stuff, how easy it is to be off 60 degrees in no time. Check the compass often, and pick something tall you can see for the next goal. If walkers leave big holes, no one sees any deer. Deer will take advantage of gaps in your drive line and simply stay put.
The best tactic for prompting deer movement in thick cover is to slow down. Walk several feet, then stop and listen. You should spend as much time waiting, watching and listening as you do walking. Selfishly, it's the only way you'll have any chance to shoot a deer in thick cover if you volunteer to walk. Alone, you'd never have a chance, but with others doing the same thing, you actually can kill deer.
If walkers constantly move, even at a slower pace, it's very likely deer never even get very nervous. You can't possibly be silent enough to sneak up on a deer in this stuff -- even on the good days. "Quiet" simply isn't a realistic goal. That said, don't intentionally make noise either.
As you encounter pockets of thinner cover, stop and wait for a few minutes, listening intently to the woods around you. Don't just wait 15 seconds; wait awhile. Deer are much more comfortable when they can see or hear you. When you stop moving and making noise, they wonder if you're sneaking up on them. I expect there are times they can hear multiple walkers at once. If they know where you are at all times, they'll stay where they are and let you walk by. Conversely, when a deer loses track of you, it will become insecure and flee, oftentimes offering other hunters a shot.
Sounds simple -- and it is -- but concentration is a must, because if there are gaps in your drive or steady sounds for deer to track, nothing happens.
When you do move deer around from these thick areas, pay attention to where they move and sneak through when nervous. Snow obviously helps here. Trotting tracks mean sneaky deer. It's very valuable information for future use when hunting the same areas. Wary deer seem to seek out the same security cover year after year, and they'll often use the same escape routes. For starters, consider that thicker is likely better for a stand. From there, let the deer tell you where their comfort zones are. Once you find these comfort zones of travel, then a solitary walker with some knowledge of the woods can be very successful in moving deer to a single stander, as in the opening story. While there are lots of places for deer to hide and for a stander to set up in an 80-acre patch, the likely location of deer in it -- and the path they'll use to exit it -- can be quite predictable.
Editor's Note: Pete Maina is an avid outdoorsman and TV show host. Well-known for expertise with muskies and northern pike, he loves any type of hunting and fishing. Check www.thenextbite.com and www.Petemaina.com.