I have stumbled many a time during the last 50 years that I have been in the woods and I am sure that old and new deer hunters will enjoy learning from my past mistakes. I've made them all, but the key is that I've learned from every one, and I don't allow myself to repeat them.
NOT BEING IN THE STAND
The first and most important lesson in deer hunting is . . . to go deer hunting! There are dozens of great excuses for not going -- too cold, too hot, too wet, too dry, no deer, too many does . . . the list is endless. Yet big deer are killed every day of the season at all hours of the day; it's just that you won't see any if you don't go out and hunt for them!
This is actually one mistake I rarely make. I hunt every day I can, sometimes skipping work, school and all sorts of social responsibilities in favor of standing on, in or under a tree somewhere in the woods. I have killed dozens of deer on days I really should not have been out there, but my favorite bucks are the ones I shot while hunting on stands my friends or family decided to vacate that day.
I love coming home at 10 a.m. with a nice buck that I shot where my brother, cousin or son should have been, and I don't mind rubbing it in, either. Deer hunting is hard work but you won't get a shot if you aren't there. In fact, tell me where your stand is and I (or someone like me) will go shoot your deer for you!
Mistake No. 2 is going deer hunting but quitting early. Again, the list of excuses is endless but, for me, nothing takes precedence over deer season. It's short, it only comes once a year and when it's over I have a full year to fill my calendar with social and family matters. In deer season I am out there -- rain or shine, cold, snow and windy misery notwithstanding. What keeps me out there is the knowledge that the deer are out there, too, and the only way we can bump into each other is if both participants are present.
If you are going to hunt, especially later in the season, commit to full days, not an hour here and an hour there. In the late season deer move more often during the day due to cold temperatures, snow or lack of food. There may even be some post-rut activity, which could keep whitetails moving throughout the day.
Predictions and pontifications abound, but no one can truthfully say or guarantee where and when a deer may show up. The odds are highest when a hunter stays put all day, so when you leave the house in the morning, be sure everyone knows that you won't be home until after dark.
NOT STAYING AWAKE!
That little fault cost me a nice buck the fall I mustered out of the service. I was finally home, relaxing in the early November sun, glad to be in the woods again . . . and so I dozed off. A loud snort woke me up quickly, but too late! As I reached for my gun I saw a set of 10-point antlers disappear behind a blowdown. I hunted hard all the rest of that season and finally got a similar buck, but that lesson stuck with me. Now I'll stand up, take a walk, brew some coffee or do whatever it takes to stay awake. I don't want to have to relive that nightmare ever again!
RUSHING YOUR SHOT
Perhaps the most discouraging mistake I've ever made was rushing a shot. A nice buck was walking down a logging road and coming straight for me. He hadn't seen or smelled me -- he was just meandering as deer often do, stopping to look around, sniffing the air, just being a deer. Impatience got the best of me and I took a chance on a poor shot and missed him cleanly! My mistake: shooting too soon. All I had to do was wait another 10 seconds and I'd have had a clear, broadside shot at 30 yards. But thoughts of impressing the guys back at camp took control, and when that happens the outlook is grim at best!
USING TOO MUCH GEAR
Back when I went through my "gear for all occasions" phase, I blew a chance at a good buck by being so focused on my stove, tea cup and sandwiches that I didn't even hear him coming. If you want to hear for yourself how loud a gas stove can be, turn it off! The silence will be deafening -- no wonder I couldn't hear the deer coming my way.
Now when I hunt, I sit still, pay attention and listen. No more picnics in the woods, no clattering of gear, no outdoor toys to play with. I keep my gun in my hands, I watch the woods around me and I check out every sound and movement that catches my attention. Rather than play with books, phones, ipods and whatever else there is to reduce the so-called boredom in the woods, I do what deer do -- keep my eyes peeled and pay attention. Big deer can walk by very quickly with barely a sound. If you aren't totally focused on the woods around you that buck can sneak right past you, leaving nothing but tracks to prove he was there.
NOT PRACTICING SHOT PLACEMENT
Another mistake I made only once was when I couldn't decide on taking a shoulder shot, neck shot, spine shot or what. For years I had settled on a shot halfway up, behind the shoulder and had done very well. But then one season I found myself caught up in the "sniper" mode that was all that rage in the 1980s. Trick shots from long range, even running shots, were the rant of choice by outdoor writers of the period. And with Jack O'Connor and his cohorts gone from the pages of our favorite outdoor magazines, we had no choice but to listen to the newest crop of "experts," many of which, I eventually realized, didn't know secant from ogive!
But, I had my chance one cold afternoon when a beautiful buck made his way down the mountainside across from me. Had I stuck to my old, reliable behind-the-shoulder shot he would have been mine. But no, I had to start fiddling around with neck shots, spine shots, behind-the-ear shots and everything else -- and never did get a shot!
Indecision and uncertainty cost me my deer that year, and once again I vowed to avoid that little mind game. Ever since then, I go into the woods knowing exactly where I'm going to shoot my deer -- half way up and right behind the shoulder. I look up, lock on and pull the trigger without hesitation. I leave the trick shooting to the guys who can afford to miss. I like my venison and I do most of my hunting on public land, so there are no affordable misses.
Perhaps it's sloth, perhaps it is arrogance or pride, but I'm amazed at how many hunters don't scout the areas they plan to hunt but when they do find a great spot they don't take time to sharpen their shooting skills for the big moment.
Stumbling around in the woods on opening day (or Saturday or the next deer-season holiday) without pre-scouting the area is as useless as hunting in your garage. In fact, you may as well stay home if you are not going to expend any effort on finding out where the deer are most numerous this season -- not last season or the year before.
Things change in the woods annually and the deer quickly adapt to those changes, but hunters have a tendency to hunt the same area year after year for decades without making an effort to see if the whitetails have changed their ways. It gets to the point where some hunters continue to hunt from grandpa's favorite rock even though no one has seen a deer from that rock in decades. The underbrush that grandpa found so appealing is long gone. The trees have grown beyond sapling stage and have shaded out all the succulent undergrowth that deer need for food and cover -- and yet hunters waste no time discovering these things or scouting other areas where deer are now more numerous.
If you are hunting woodland whitetails and you can see 200 yards all around you, find another spot. Sure, deer go through those open hardwood stands (invariably at night) but come late season and they are going to be in the thickest, nastiest patches of briars, brush and saplings they can find. That's where you need to be, too. Your average shot may be less than 50 yards, but if that's the case, you have found the right spot.
In farm country, deer won't be found in the open fields and croplands during the late season. Instead, look for them in pockets of thick brush, young pine stands and old clearcuts, because they don't like to be seen and they will spend much of their time in those places. Also, keep in mind that whitetails disperse far and wide with the falling of the leaves and the coming of winter. A square mile of cover that held 20 deer in September may only have 10 deer on it in December, and possibly less, depending on a variety of conditions.
Scout well, scout long and hard to find fresh sign of deer where you want to hunt. If you avoid this exercise you are simply hoping to run into a deer at random, and the odds of that happening are seriously against you.
NOT SIGHTING YOUR GUN IN
The same goes for sighting in your gun or bow. Do it prior to the season, on days off during the season and every time you travel a long distance (by air or ground) to get where you want to hunt. From what I have seen over my many years of deer hunting East and West, I think it's safe to say that every state's deer harvest could double if every shot that was fired hit its mark. I have hunted in states where it seems that the hunters outnumber the deer, and sometimes there will be a barrage of fire that sounds like the first minutes of D-Day. Yet out the other side of the woods goes the buck everyone was shooting at!
Sighting in for brushy-country whitetails is easy. With rifle, muzzleloader or shotgun, simply sight in to hit dead on at 50 yards. Any deer you see in the woods can be taken with a midway behind the shoulder point of aim out to 150 yards -- plenty of accuracy.
In more open country, sight rifles in at 25 yards. This will put the average center-fire deer cartridge three inches high at 100 yards and a few inches low at 250 yards. After that it's math and ballistics!
Traditional muzzleloaders should be sighted in to be dead-on at 25 yards, which gives you 125-yard accuracy, plus a little more if you want to sight in 2 inches high at 25 yards.
Today's in-line muzzleloaders (where legal) are good for 200 yards or more. If you take the time to sight in properly, you should not have to make excuses for why you missed!
What I would like is for every reader of this story to be part of an experiment this year. Follow all of these directions, learn from my mistakes, and see if your deer-killing average improves. Hunt hard, stay focused and shoot straight. The rest will take care of itself.