Increase your odds of filling your tag this season by following these proven success tips.
By Mike Schoby
Year after year it seems as though the same group of deer hunters fill their tags, while others do not. While coincidence and good ol' Lady Luck may play some role each year, more often than not the successful hunters are those whose attention to detail accounts for their filled tags.
Toward that end, we've compiled the top 10 ways you can become one of the consistently successful deer hunters in the West today.
NO. 10Deer season is not the time to field-test gear. If a new product or item has not been put to the test during summer, it is often best to wait until after the deer season to give it a try.
Check EquipmentAhead Of Time
I have seen hunters head afield with new binoculars that fogged up in the first rain. Others have worn boots that came straight out of the box (the forthcoming hot spots and blisters were a foregone conclusion). How many hunters have pointed a new range finder at a buck only to find out it needs batteries? All of these simple problems can be avoided by spending just a few hours before the season running gear through its paces to make sure it works.
NO. 9Most hunters walk into their areas or stands as it is just getting light enough to see in the morning and head out for the truck with still enough light to see the trail. It is one of the most common mistakes hunters make.
Go Early/Stay Late
Know a deer's escape routes and corridors. This hunter checks fresh signs of a deer leading through a fenceline that is actively being used. Photo by Mike Schoby
Deer, especially in heavily hunted areas, can be extremely nocturnal and won't start moving till almost dark and are often back to their beds within minutes after the sun breaks the horizon. This is also very common in the early part of the season as the temperature soars throughout much of the West.
To capitalize on this limited movement during legal shooting hours, hunters need to be in place well before light with enough time remaining to let the country settle down before it gets light.
I like to be in place at least 30 minutes before the first hint of light in the eastern sky, and I regularly stay till it is pitch black, using a small headlamp to move to and from my stand/hunting area. Just because it is past legal shooting hours, you don't have to exit your stand. I have had times when it was too dark to shoot, but I didn't want to get out of my stand because deer were moving underneath me (this is particularly true for blacktails). Even though your opportunity for the day is over, there is no need to blow your opportunities for the season by letting deer know you are in the area. Stay in your stand until there are no deer in the surrounding area - even if this takes an extra hour of waiting. It is time well spent.
NO. 8A spot that has a lot of deer activity or holds an extremely large buck is hard to pass up, and it is easy to get into the trap of hunting that spot time and again to the exclusion of all other places. The adage, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket," is especially true for deer hunters.
Hunt Multiple Areas
I have made this mistake more than once. While it's tempting to hunt a hot area every day you're in the woods, try to avoid this practice. Put yourself in the deer's position: If your instincts suggest a predator is visiting an area on a regular basis, you'll avoid that area. In other words, by returning to an area day after day, you're allowing your prey to pattern you!
Common thought among trophy hunters is the first time you hunt a spot is your best chance for harvesting a trophy buck. While I have shot deer enough times on subsequent visits to the same spots to not fully agree with that theory, over the course of a season, I do see the areas I visit frequently substantially diminish in activity from the start to the end of the season.
The best way to avoid diminishing returns is to allow each spot a cool-down period. The key is to have a handful of good spots and rotate them regularly - not returning to the first one for at least a week.
NO. 7A deer's nose has probably saved him from becoming chops, roasts and jerky more times than the rest of his senses combined; the older the buck, the truer this is. If you are serious about filling your tag this season, you have to keep his nose in mind.
Hunting scent-free starts at home with odor-eliminating clothing and body washes, shampoo and deodorant, and continues in the field with scent-eliminating sprays and cover scents. The utmost in protection comes in the form of activated carbon clothing, which dedicated hunters use in conjunction with the other forms of scent control mentioned above. Scent control works just as well for blacktail and mule deer hunters as it does for whitetail hunters.
In addition to doing as much as possible to control human scent, hunters should also be aware of the prevailing wind direction and use it to their advantage at all times. This may entail circling 180 degrees to a different position when making a stalk on a large mule deer buck or relocating a tree stand before waiting for blacktails to move.
Whatever the case, by eliminating as much human scent as possible and limiting the potential of deer smelling whatever amount remains, you have made a significant stride in upping your success this season.
NO. 6Any time you hunt on public land crowds are part of the equation. Don't be like an ostrich with its head in the sand hoping that come opening morning you will have a public spot all to yourself. This mentality will just set you up for disappointment.
Work The Crowds
I learned long ago that if a public spot holds quality game, other hunters will find it. While remote, hard-to-access locations will indeed draw fewer hunters than areas closest to roads, almost invariably someone else with enough drive will join you there.
Other hunters, however, can be used to your advantage, especially in heavily hunted areas.
Long before the season, scout likely escape routes and heavy patches of cover. In general, you're trying to figure out where the animal
s are going to go when pressured. This sometimes can be as simple as the farthest side of the property away from the main parking/entrance area, or it may be a couple thousand feet up a mountain.
Whatever the case, figure out where the deer will go and then be there on opening morning well before light. By the time the other hunters get going and start pushing game, you will already be in position for a steady, relaxed shot.
NO. 5Having the right gear to keep you out in the field is the difference between going home with a buck and just going home. Dressing for success means wearing the appropriate clothes for the prevailing weather and also being prepared for other adverse conditions.
Dress For Success
If rain is possible, head afield with quiet, breathable rain gear. Deer aren't afraid to move in the rain - you should be dry enough to still be afield when they do.
If it is early in the season, dressing for success may also include bug-repellant clothing. More than one hunt has been foiled due to clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies. A head net and bug-proof suit (including gloves) should be worn and used in conjunction with an insect repellant. Robinson Labs makes a hunter-friendly/scent-free repellant called "No Stinking Bugs." It has a natural earth scent and works incredibly well.
Touching back on cold weather preparation, smart hunters dress in layers. Start with a base layer that wicks moisture away from the skin, followed by one or more insulating layers (depending upon how cold it is) topped off by a shell layer such as a Gore-Tex parka and bibs. By wearing layers, you will stay dryer and warmer, and layers can be removed during high-sweat activities and put back on when you stop.
NO. 4To fill a freezer as well as a wall, serious hunters hunt all year, albeit most of it without a firearm or bow. Bring a pencil and notebook along with a quality pair of binoculars, and then call it what it is: scouting.
If you are serious about getting a big deer this year, scouting is mandatory.
Heading afield during the relatively short deer seasons each year gives very little insight to deer behavior, herd concentrations, food sources, travel patterns and escape routes. But by watching deer throughout summer, you will have a much better idea of where to set up come opening morning.
Don't fall into the trap of doing all your scouting a month or two before the opener. Truly successful deer hunters are religious about taking a look around in the middle of winter. From February through March, most of the cover is down, the leaves are off the trees, and with any luck there is a good covering of snow on the ground that makes trails and bedding areas easy to spot.
Late winter/early spring is also a great time to be out, but now you'll be looking for shed antlers. Not only do such excursions help you learn more about a specific area but you'll also get an idea of the quality of the deer living there.
NO. 3If you're like most hunters, you think you know the terrain of your hunting area like the back of your hand. This sounds simple enough, especially so if you have walked around your hunting area. If you haven't looked at it from above, you don't know what you are missing!
Know The Lay Of The Land
Looking over topographical maps in conjunction with aerial photos tells a completely different story about your hunting area that is seldom evident from ground level. Travel corridors, geographic features and cover that naturally funnels movement (saddles, ridge backs, tree lines, etc.), as well as property boundaries, feeding and bedding areas literally pop out when viewed from above. Best of all, getting aerial views is just a click away at www.mytopo.com. Select the area you are interested in and they will ship high-definition, poster-sized photos right to your door.
NO. 2I know it sounds too simple to be true, but hunters are notorious for putting away their rifles at the end of one season, then pulling them out for the beginning of the next without firing a single shot to make sure the sights are still accurate.
For some the last time they printed bullets on paper was the previous year, for others it might have been during the Nixon administration, and for a thankfully small percentage, their rifle may have never been sighted in at all.
It should be noted that bore sighting is no substitute for actual sighting in; don't let anyone tell you otherwise. At best, bore sighting will get you in the ballpark. At worst it is not even close to hitting paper at any distance.
Another foible hunters get into at the range is sighting in with one variety of ammunition and hunting with another. They do this for a variety of reasons, but generally cost is the overriding factor. They shoot cheap ammo at the range and then stock up with premium ammo for use in the field. Whatever the reason, it's not a smart move. Although two bullets may weigh the same amount, the odds are more than likely that they will hit in completely different places.
Hunters should shoot and hunt with the same ammo. Even if it costs a few dollars more each season to practice with premium ammo, it will pay off in the end.
As a final note on sighting in: Others can't sight in your rifle for you. Every person is different - the way they hold a firearm, look through its scope, apply trigger pressure. If you let someone sight in your rifle, you're setting yourself up for a bad experience afield.
NO. 1This is not to be confused with sighting in, but for a hunter to be successful, marksmanship is one of the most important things they can master to fill a deer tag.
All the scouting and preparation are for naught if, when the moment of truth arrives, you can't deliver the goods. Sighting in off the bench is required to know your gun, ammo and sights work well together, but only actual shooting practice will hone your skills to make the shot.
Range practice should encompass all things that could conceivably happen in the field. This means definitely practicing the four shooting positions - prone, sitting, kneeling and offhand (standing) - as well as practicing some not-so-conventional ones as well.
It is a good idea, if you have a place to do it, to practice taking steep uphill and downhill shots. Before the season starts is the time to figure out exactly where your gun hits. Also try shooting with all of your gear on. Sometimes packs get in the way; sometimes bi-pods shift the rifle's point of impact (different from when you sighted in off the bench). The only way to know for sure is to run some ammo through the gun and find out.
How about long-range shooting? So many times hunters sight in off t
he bench at 100 or 200 yards, read the ballistic tables printed on the side of their ammo box and figure they are capable of cleanly bowling over a deer out to 400 or 500 yards. Don't laugh: Nothing is sadder; nothing is further from the truth.
The ballistic charts on the side of the box are approximations for a wide variety of calibers and situations - unknown elevations and various scope-mounting heights are the biggest gremlins to printed ballistic tables. Your particular rifle may act differently from what the box says.
Factors other than bullet drop make long-range shots implausible as well, including mirage (heat wave distortions) and wind drift. You should never take a shot in the field with a load and rifle you have not personally tested at that distance.
* * *
These 10 bits of advice won't guarantee a deer - there is always the element of luck involved with every hunt - but if you follow at least a few of these tips you have gone a long way toward swaying the odds in your favor.
If you choose not to follow these tips, stay tuned until next month, when we offer the top 10 ways to prepare a deer tag for dinner.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!