December 02, 2015
Bill Winke tells you what you need to know to be a better whitetail hunter this season.
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As a deer hunter you've been waiting nearly a year for this magical day — the deer season opener — and finally, it's here. Yes, you've been waiting, but are you ready?
The season is so brief and so intense that a deer hunter must be prepared for anything in order to take advantage of every situation that presents itself.
Learn to capitalize on every opportunity offered, as another one might not come along. Following are 10 tips that have served my partners and me well in more than 30 years of hunting whitetails.
1. MAKE A LIST AND USE A TOTE
You cleaned your gun, bow and other gear and put it away after last year's hunt, but do you know where everything is? I store my deer gear — ammo, hand warmers, drag rope, safety harness, field-dressing gloves, knife and other essentials — in a plastic tote during the off-season.
I like to think I am organized, but sometimes a key piece of equipment finds its way out of the tote, and by the time the season rolls around I have no idea where it went.
That's why I keep a 'deer hunter's' checklist with my stuff.
A simple checklist will help you round up stray gear and replace anything that got lost or broken or just plain wore out. Check off items as you put them in the tote and keep the list inside the tote.
When gun hunting season rolls around, use the list to pack for your hunt and you'll never again find yourself in a frantic search for your ammo or knife just before dawn on opening morning.
2. USE THE WIND
Bowhunters know to pay close attention to wind direction, but many gun hunters ignore the wind and pay the price when a buck catches their scent and gives them the slip. If you are gun hunting from a stand, set it up so you are downwind or at least crosswind of where you expect to see deer.
Still-hunt into the wind. On a windy day you can sometimes walk right up on bedded deer.
If you set up a drive, place standers downwind. If you drive upwind, deer may smell standers and circle back toward the drivers.
Cagy bucks sometimes do that even if you drive downwind, but driving upwind improves your odds.
3. DON'T STINK UP THE WOODS
Deer can smell you from farther than they can see you. Natural odors won't alarm them, but human odors will every time. You can't eliminate your scent, but you can limit it and reduce the chances you will spook a buck before you have an opportunity to shoot.
Shower with unscented soap before your hunt. Use an unscented deodorant, and avoid aftershave or cologne. Keep your hunting clothes in a tote or plastic bag with a handful of dirt or leaves from the area you hunt.
If they have been washed or dry-cleaned, hang them outside to air out.
Don't wear your hunting boots or jacket in garages, taverns or wherever they might pick up telltale odors. Walk in cow manure or deer droppings on your way to your stand.
If you have to answer nature's call, scrape away leaves down to bare dirt, do your business and then kick leaves back over it to help cover the scent.
Deer don't seem to be alarmed by the smell of urine, but it won't hurt to cover your pee as well.
Some hunters claim that urinating in a scrape will cause a buck to investigate it. Try it if you want, but don't blame me if it doesn't work!
4. HUNT A SMALL AREA
The home range of most whitetails is a square mile or less. The deer hunter who knows one or two spots intimately will kill more deer than the hunter who roams over a wide swath of country.
Pick a 40- to 80-acre area and scout it to learn where deer bed, where they feed and what travel routes they use. Map or make a mental note of every food source, ridge, trail and escape route.
If you hunt big woods, don't try to cover it all. Concentrate on a travel corridor or other heavily used place. My son and I hunt several hundred acres of woods, but we spend most of our time watching a funnel that deer routinely use between an oak woods and a swamp.
In 30 years we have taken at least 20 deer and passed up many more from just four stands within sight of each other.
5. DON'T BREAK FOR LUNCH
Sit tight during the noon hour and on very cold days, when most deer hunters head back to their truck or camp for lunch and to warm up. Dress warm, use hand warmers and pack a lunch.
Moving hunters will push deer to those who wait. If the rut falls during the gun season, bucks will move all day without being pushed.
6. DIFFERENT STRATEGIES
Sit tight as long as possible on opening day and on weekends, when the greatest number of hunters are in the woods. It only takes one hunter walking around to get deer moving. If you cover an escape route, you'll see action.
On weekdays, sit until 9 a.m. at least. Then still-hunt if conditions are right, or drive if you hunt with a group and that tactic is acceptable where you hunt. Schedule drives between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., and get back on stand until sundown.
7. FARM COUNTRY TACTICS
Deer often hide in standing corn, but they will also take refuge in grassy swales surrounded by mowed, picked or plowed fields. Don't overlook small woodlots close to town if you can get permission to hunt them. Hunt these hideouts carefully.
A bedded buck will sometimes sit as tight as a rabbit if it thinks you might pass it by.
Deer also hide in and travel along fencerows, and they can crawl on their bellies and hide in a shallow ditch if there is no better cover to be had.
Stand where you can watch these spots when others are driving or just walking around.
8. FAIR WEATHER OR FOUL
If nothing pushes them, deer often remain bedded on calm, dry days. Move through the woods if yours is the only hunting party, but sit if other hunters are in the woods.
When the barometer drops before a storm, deer often move to feeding areas regardless of the time of day. This is the time to watch trails and feeding areas such as oak woodlots or farm fields.
The deer feed again right after a storm, so get back on stand when the weather breaks.
When the wind blows and/or during a storm, deer often sit tight in sheltered bedding areas. You should watch evergreens and other dense cover or still-hunt into the wind. On rainy days, wet hunters will push deer.
When it began to rain on one warm fall day, I changed into waders, wore a raincoat under my jacket and sat all morning listening to wood frogs. A decent 8-point buck came by at around 11 a.m. I am looking at his rack as I write this.
9. TALK THE TALK
Deer are vocal animals, and many hunters use grunt calls to attract or stop a buck. Other deer vocalizations can work, too. A loud "B-l-a-a-a-t" will sometimes stop a running deer long enough for a shot.
A wheeze will sometimes confuse a deer that is wheezing at you but hasn't winded you yet. A grunt will sometimes turn a deer that has walked past you or bring it out of cover for a clear shot.
You can buy calls that make all three sounds and more, but with a little practice you can learn to make them with you mouth, which keeps both hands free for safer gun handling and accurate shooting.
10. COME TO YOUR SENSES
Your eyes, your ears and — yes, even your nose — can help you when you're trying to detect deer.
Don't look for a whole deer silhouetted against the sky, like those magazine cover shots we drool over. Instead, watch for movement or something that looks out of place: the flick of an ear or tail, a white throat patch or black nose, the horizontal line of a deer's back. In thick cover, stay low and watch for moving legs.
About 75 yards from one of my stands in a thick oak woods, a lone birch is barely visible. I check it often as I scan the woods. More than once that patch of white has disappeared for a moment as a deer walked past on its way to my stand. When it reached an opening, my gun was up and I was ready.
Your hearing can help you sort out the many sounds in the fall woods. A shrieking jay might mean a deer is coming your way. Learn to distinguish the hop-hop-hop of a squirrel from the scratch-scratch of a turkey and the heavier step-step-step of a deer so you won't keep turning around every time you hear something rustling dry leaves on the forest floor.
Believe it or not, you may even smell a deer before you see it, especially a buck that's been rutting and chasing does. When you bag a deer this season, approach it from downwind and notice from how far away you can smell it. You can sometimes sniff out a dead or wounded deer that took refuge in thick brush.
And remember this: As a deer hunter, your hunt starts the moment you step out of the vehicle or cabin into the deer's habitat. Keep your senses tuned to your surroundings and you just might be tagging that winter venison sooner than you expected.