The white-tailed deer isn't smart. The white-tailed deer isn't dumb. As a prey species, the white-tailed deer has superb survival instincts. If it didn't, it would have died off decades ago. It's still around because of its ability to avoid predators,which include us.
In the Northeast, human populations are high. And it's no secret that the region contains quite a few hunters, too. When the masses descend on public lands during deer season (more than a million possible in Pennsylvania alone), whitetails go into hiding pretty quickly. Successful hunters are the ones who find pockets in those high-pressure areas to locate wary deer.
Recent studies of deer and hunter movements during hunting season, which were conducted by Penn State University have shown us two things. First, most hunters don't stray too far from the truck; and second, deer on pressured public land don't leave the county when hunters show up during the season. Deer just do what they have to do to avoid the hunters and survive.
So, in order to find where pressured Northeastern deer are hiding, you need the right gear, the right attitude and the right game plan. Here's what you have to do to avoid the crowds and find those areas where all the deer have gone.
Go Far, Go Deep
During Pennsylvania's 2001 and 2002 firearms deer seasons, Penn State researchers outfitted hunters heading into a 180-square-mile section of state forest with GPS units to track their movements. What they found is that most hunters didn't stray more than a third of a mile from a road, and they steered clear of steep terrain.
Not surprisingly, a subsequent study, which tracked deer during hunting season, showed the animals quickly moved into the places hunters wouldn't go, like the mature buck that suddenly moved further away from roads and climbed 400 feet higher in elevation than it had ever gone before the hunting season started.
What that tell hunters trying to find those elusive deer on public ground is that you've got to go deeper; you've got to climb higher and you've got to work harder and smarter. Simply put, you've got to go where the deer are, and that's where other hunters are not.
Map Out Your Strategy
Knowing that most hunters tend to hang close to roads and avoid rough terrain, you should be able to look at a topographical map of the area you plan to hunt and figure out pretty quickly where to focus your deer-hunting efforts on public ground.
Locate the roads and find isolated areas one mile or more away from them. Also, look at the elevation lines and find the steep slopes. You can bet not too many hunters — if any — are scaling them to get to their hunting spots.
If you can find a steep slope that's a mile or so from any road, you know you've hit paydirt. Certainly there will be fewer hunters in such places.
Walk Your Area First
A map will give you an idea of likely spots where you can beat the crowds, and where deer will probably show up. But that's not enough. You need to check it out on foot before the season starts. Maybe there's a major trail running right to your spot that doesn't show up on the map you reviewed. Maybe the area you picked out is just a huge boulder field that even the deer avoid at the peak of gun season.
You need to go see what's out there to determine if that's where you need to be come hunting season. Look for signs of other hunters. Is there any flagging material or reflective tacks on tree branches, which might indicate a marked trail designed to guide a hunter to his spot? Are there any tree stands hanging in the area? What about boot tracks, garbage or other signs of human traffic?
Look for deer trails, buck rubs, scrapes and other deer sign, too. Look for mast trees and other places where deer might find food. Even during hunting season, deer need to eat. Simply getting away from people doesn't mean you're going to be tripping over deer. You've got to be where the deer want to be.
Thick, nasty cover that's off the beaten path is an excellent place to bet on crossing paths with a wily old buck. They love to seek out such cover when they get pushed away from their usual haunts by the sudden wave of hunters filling the air with their scent.
One of my favorite places to hunt on public land in Pennsylvania is a thick mess of multiflora rose and tulip poplars. It's surrounded on three sides by private property. The owners don't allow hunting, nor do they allow anyone to walk through their land to access the public ground.
There's only one way into this jungle, and it's a good hike from the nearest parking spot. Once I busted my way in, I found no sign that anyone had been in there, so I marked a tree for my stand. I arrowed a nice 10-pointer there just a few years ago.
Be the One
Getting away from the deer-hunting crowd isn't always easy in the Northeast. There are a lot of people around. But even in our crowded neck of the woods, there are places many hunters just won't go, because of the time and energy needed to get there.
Be the one who's not afraid to make that investment. Be the one people are talking about when they say, "You'd have to be crazy to go there."
You can rest assured the local deer know those places, and that they're pretty familiar with them. When you come out after dark, dragging a thick-antlered brute, you can watch the other hunters' expressions turn from derision to envy.