Low-Impact Tactics For Hunting Deer
September 28, 2010
Barging boldly into the woods on opening day isn't your best way to find and fool big bucks. Our expert explains how to minimize your "intrusion factor" during peak hunting periods.
It was a cold fall morning when I slipped into my tree stand. I was running late, so I rushed a little to get set up before the sun began to rise.
Just after daybreak, a small spike buck came in from the south unexpectedly. Spotting my movement, he bounded off with a snort.
Disappointed, I slumped back into my seat for the long haul.
Not long after the squirrels settled down for a midmorning nap, I saw a huge rack floating through the woods toward me. The buck was practically in my first shooting lane!
Quickly I grabbed my bow, waited for the deer to pass before moving again. I centered the 30-yard pin on his massive chest. Just before he walked out of the last shooting lane, I released. I heard the arrow connect.
Instantly the buck bolted through the woods. I saw him slow down and begin wobbling before walking slowly out of sight.
Then the realization hit me: I had just taken the biggest deer of my life! I hung onto my safety strap to settle my nerves enough just to sit down.
SCOUTING PAYS OFF
Just the day before, I had slipped into the area and immediately noticed a scattered line of big rubs. Within moments, I jumped another much smaller buck from his bed.
I spent a few minutes looking over the area and decided to hunt this location at the next opportunity. The next morning featured a perfect northwest wind, and the ensuing events changed my hunting style forever.
A whitetail's uncanny ability to keep us guessing allows those record-book bucks to survive, many of them right under hunters' noses.
The deer know when we come and depart from their woods, and so they either move around us or wait for the cover of darkness.
Hunters often tip off their presence by leaving scent, making noise or being spotted.
I saw the buck slow down and begin wobbling before walking slowly out of sight. Then the realization hit me: I had just taken the biggest deer of my life!
This often explains why the very first time you hunt from a stand offers your best chance for killing a buck: You have the element of surprise on your side.
Over the years, I've worked hard to recreate these circumstances every time I step into the woods. Once a buck knows you're after him, your chances decrease dramatically. But hunting an animal that never knows he's being hunted will greatly increase your odds for success.
Having no impact on a hunting area is impossible, of course, but minimizing your impact is always possible.
Whitetails don't know the difference between a threatening intrusion and a recreational stroll. So whether you're hunting small game or scouting pre-season, your presence is still viewed as a threat. In areas that are heavily hunted, even stopping along the road to lift your binoculars on a deer will causes the animal to retreat to the deep woods.
Yet down the street at the local park, you can practically feed the same deer out of your hand. That's because those deer have been conditioned to the fact that humans in the park are no threat. But in the open woods, you are definitely seen as a danger.
Most of your scouting should be done during post-season. At this time of year, you can access your hunting property as many times as you need to. By the following fall, the deer will have forgotten all about your off-season intrusions.
Additionally, this is a fine time of year to see what was going on during the previous breeding season. In the dead of winter, it's easy to identify rubs, scrapes and trails.
Since most of my hunting takes place during the rut, I want my tree stands placed for hunting at that time.
Any in-season scouting should be done carefully. This close to the season, intrusions will often alter buck movement, foiling your element of surprise. Deer can't read a calendar and don't know exactly when deer season opens. But they'll soon notice increased activity in areas that were devoid of humans for the previous eight months.
MINIMIZE YOUR IMPACT
If you must prepare a location, make trails, build blinds or hang stands just before the rut, use extreme scent control. Try to visit the area on a rainy, windy day. The precipitation will wash away your scent and let you come and go undetected.
Every time we humans enter the woods, we leave some odor behind, even when we're wearing rubber boots, cover scents or even a complete masking outfit including gloves and mask. Even after you depart the woods, your human scent may remain on the ground for days.
Two years ago, for example, I was hunting a finger of woods that paralleled a standing cornfield. I crossed a section of the field where the crop was stunted, thus providing easier access.
Later that morning, a tall-tined 10- pointer took advantage of this same easy route through the corn — that is, until he crossed where I had walked!
Even though I was wearing rubber boots and a scent-proof suit, he detected unfamiliar odors and bolted.
This is a prime example of how incredibly keen a deer's sense of smell is. Achieving zero impact is nearly impossible, except possibly in conditions of driving rain or snow.
Controlling your human odor is a painstaking process, but when you do things right, you can become almost undetectable to deer.
Cleaning your body, clothing and gear completely with unscented soaps puts you ahead of the game.
But even using all the technology and techniques for controlling scent, hunting a stand in a poor wind will hurt your chances. Any buck in the area will get one whiff of you and slip out undetected, ruining the remainder of the season.
Once you've eliminated your odor, getting to your stand without stinking it up can be difficult, especially on a warm fall afternoon. Avoid sweating by
stashing your heaver clothes in your pack instead of wearing them during your walk in. Allow yourself enough time so you can walk slowly and calmly and avoid working up a sweat. This advice holds for leaving your stand after dark, too!
Many years ago, I completed an evening hunt, slipped away from my woodland stand and cut across a field of alfalfa. Within moments, I heard the unmistakable sounds of deer snorting. I had busted a field full of whitetails!
After three more repeats of these events, even the does stopped visiting that field until well after dark.
THINK ABOUT IT!
Look over the area first to find the best way to get in and out undetected. Many times, the route you use to enter and exit the woods has as much impact on a successful hunt as where you locate your stand.
Just because the hunt is over and you're packing it up for the night, don't think for a moment that scaring a few deer is no problem. It won't help to show up two hours early if you're going to push the deer past your stand on the way in.
Keep yourself from being silhouetted, heard or smelled.
And don't be lazy. Just because there's a logging road cut right to your stand doesn't mean it's best to use that lane for access.
Before you ever take a step, think about what the deer will be doing. They'll likely be feeding in mornings and evenings, so use the back door to get in at dawn, then exit through the field. In the evening, enter through the field and exit through the back door.
When analyzing an area, it doesn't hurt to be creative. Currently, I hunt a tight creek bed that funnels down between two hayfields. For years now, I've never been able to access the site in the morning without spooking deer in the hayfield.
Recently, I decided to pull on a pair of waders and walk all the way to my tree stand through the creek. I was able to step right off the creekbank into my stand. The water covered my approach and my scent, giving me literally zero impact during my entry.
Access to the hidden places where big bucks hide can be easier than you might expect. Long walks across water or steep ridges keep most hunters close to the road.
Many of the best places to hunt are along riverbeds, and I've found that using a canoe or boat can be a deadly trick. Usually the areas along the river feature overgrown brush, and good cover along the river bends.
During the rut, there's no better place to sit than in a thick funnel bordered by water. In addition, putting a river between yourself and other hunters will situate you where few of them are willing to go.
Accessing waterways by canoe often means quiet, scent-free access. If you're hunting close to the river, often you can step out of the canoe and into your tree stand.
Mountain bikes are very quiet and fast and can carry you farther off the road then many care to venture on foot. Last year, I strapped my bow on my back and biked to the backside of my hunting property. Even though I was hunting close to the road, my bike was easy to hide, keeping my presence secret from other hunters — and whitetails. My bike's rubber tires left no scent, and it was easy to stow in some tall grass.
Because bikes do carry foreign odors, I hid mine about 100 yards away, on the downwind side of my stand in an area where I had no concern about other deer venturing.
When sneaking into a stand during the rut, wear your light clothing. Even a short walk, canoe or bike ride will cause you to sweat. For this reason, I keep my outerwear in my backpack. This helps minimize any odor caused by perspiration.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
In deer hunting, it doesn't matter how hard you hunt, how long you wait or how many tracks there are. If your timing isn't right, you'll have no luck. Hunting an empty acorn flat is a waste of time. So is hunting a morning stand during the evening, or waiting under a barren apple tree.
Strike while the iron is hot by having a variety of hunting locations in mind. This means having done enough scouting so that you know which oak trees are dropping acorns or which apple trees are producing.
Find the deer's preferred food source — say, a hidden apple tree in close proximity to a bedding area or cornfield — or even better, the latest, hottest scrapes and rubs.
Divide your stands into categories and hunt them only when the optimum times come around. Generally, I use early-season stands, rut stands and late-season stands. You won't find me sitting in a prime rut stand until the rut really gets going. And, if the rutting signs are not steaming hot, I'll hold off until the bucks get active.
I've been lucky enough to find a few stands that produce consistently in both morning and evenings. But more often, it's either one or the other. Don't waste your hunting hours during unproductive periods of time.
OPPORTUNITY MAY KNOCK TWICE
Everyone make mistakes. You may miss an easy shot or spook some deer while entering your stand.
That happens to everyone from time to time, but how rest of the season will go is often determined by what you do next.
When a buck is hot on a doe, you can often get away with a mistake or two. If you miss a buck or spook one, stay put instead of packing your bags and heading home. If there's a hot doe in the area, likely she'll drag him — or some other buck — past your stand again in the next few hours.
When she comes out of estrus, however, it's time to move again.
Because it's the rut, almost anything can happen, even at midday. Sometimes, in fact, the 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. period offers the best opportunities. Hunters who remained on stand long after everybody else headed for the diner have bagged many a buck in the middle of the day.
KEEP A LOGBOOK
To help me track hunting areas, situations and patterns, I write on my aerial maps all kinds of information, such as the location of productive apple trees or oak stands, the dates they drop their apples, the locations of other hunters and when they hunt, how crop rotation affects an area from year to year, where the rub lines are found and more.
Last season, for example, the crop rotation around my best rut stands was the same as it had been six years before. On the adjacent property, a large cornfield offered early-season cover for several mature bucks.
This encouraged them to funnel past my stand as they headed into a thick bedding area.
Because the crops were the same, I kept my eye on an established
rub line that had been well used that very first season. Once I saw that it had become active again, I needed to hunt only two days before connecting on a nice buck.
Without keeping my historical data, I might have overlooked or forgotten these details, and my season could have ended much differently.
Last year, I settled into one of my best stands, which I'd left untouched for several weeks to avoid alerting the deer. Patiently I waited for the sun to rise. Just after it came up, I saw that there was no fresh sign around my stand. But there were several orange trail markers, with a cleared walking path directly under my stand. Another hunter had been walking under it every day to get to his own stand!
I climbed down and took a few minutes to inspect the area. There was no sign. Obviously the deer had moved away to a less-traveled area.
About 100 yards away, I discovered an active rub line and several new converging trails. The deer hadn't vacated the area, they'd only modified their travel routes.
I ended up taking a nice buck there, putting a happy ending on what might have been a miserable season.
Hunting the same stand day in, day out can be counterproductive. By mid-October, even local does will learn to avoid your setup. During the rut, the doe herd becomes a vital element in a successful season. And hunters who have several stand sites available have taken many big bucks.
Every season, I have several potential sites for stands picked out, but every year, a few simply don't produce. As hunting pressure intensifies, some spots go flat. This prompts me to uncover overlooked areas.
When other hunters invade areas I hunt, I focus on smaller, overlooked areas. Deer don't move far, but seek cover to avoid constant disturbance.
An important part of adaptability is having a system that allows you to move quickly when necessary. Having multiple areas prepared allows you to move in and out easily with little disturbance.
Every year, hunters young and old stumble onto some great bucks. That kind of luck is hard to come by!
But then, a few hunters get lucky every year. If you want to join that club, create your own luck and start playing the game at a higher level.
Keep the bucks guessing! Put together a plan that will keep you in stealth mode all season long. Get creative about ways to sneak into areas that are tough to reach without waders, a canoe or a mountain bike.
Set up early, practice scent control and hunt only when the timing is right. Stacking the odds in your favor will mean more successful hunts.
Give it a try, and this could be the year you shoot the biggest buck of your life!