November 20, 2023
In a Southern deer camp some years back, a group of us gathered around the fire and joked about how all the outdoor show hosts from the Midwest had it easy compared to hunters in the South. Between bucks that had a genetic predisposition for size and the agriculture to help them reach their potential, combined with terrain that typically allowed for easy identification of bedding versus feeding areas and the travel corridors that connected them, it was no surprise the Midwest appeared to be populated with overachieving “big buck” hunters.
“Let them come to the South where the whole region is a bedding area,” joked one of the guys.
He wasn’t wrong, but there is a region of the country where it’s even more challenging to tag a nice buck than the South. There is no harder place to tag a mature buck in the Lower 48 than the East, and it really boils down to one major factor: human pressure.
That means not just hunters in the woods, but also people recreating in any number of ways in natural areas during hunting season and the proximity of comparatively small hunting areas to roads, shopping centers, industrial operations and houses ... lots and lots of houses.
In fact, the states with the largest and densest populations and the most competition per acre for hunting are those that line the Eastern Seaboard. Of the 13 states that make up Game & Fish’s East region, eight of them fall in the top 10 densest states in the country. New Jersey tops that list with a whopping 1,259 people per square mile, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
That’s 204 more people per square mile than second-place Rhode Island and 365 more people per square mile than Massachusetts, which sits at third. Compare that to the big-buck meccas of Iowa and Kansas, which have just 57 and 36 people per square mile, respectively. It doesn’t take a statistical genius to quickly understand why the odds are higher for someone to tag a trophy in the Midwest than in the East.
So, what’s an Eastern hunter to do? Give up? Of course not. But if you want to stack the deck in your favor during this year’s whitetail rut and not risk your hunt to chance, you must have a game plan.
KEEP IT CLOSE TO HOME
Outfitter David Sichik of Garden State Guides grew up hunting the small pockets of land and greenways wedged between large homes scattered around what passes for countryside in the western part of New Jersey. Based out of Hunterdon County, Sichik now runs dozens of hunters on a collection of those same—often quite small—properties.
“Most of the properties we hunt are as small as 10 acres, with the largest being 120 acres,” Sichik says. But he is quick to counter anyone who thinks such properties are too small to successfully hunt.
“New Jersey has a large deer population, mostly because deer have learned to live among people here and make the most of small areas of cover,” he says. “I want smaller properties, and as long as I have permission from the surrounding homeowners, I want houses to be close to where I hunt as well. That’s where the big bucks are.”
As the one-time owner of a landscaping business, Sichik and his crew would frequently spot deer, particularly nice bucks, lying contentedly along a yard’s fence line or less than an arrow’s flight from the yard just inside a greenway. He says the closer deer are to people on a daily basis, particularly where no harm or harassment is visited upon them, the more used to humans they become.
“And they will often stay right there,” he says. “They are used to people working in their yards or eating and drinking on their decks and kids playing on swing sets. In fact, too much quiet probably throws them off.”
Sichik points out how many hunters often wait until a few weeks before the season to scout their hunting properties and end up spooking deer due to the sudden human activity. But deer in his part of New Jersey have grown accustomed to constant human activity, so he doesn’t worry about it. With more and more people irritated with the damage deer do to their shrubs and gardens, he finds a ready source of intel on deer activity near the spots he hunts.
“You have so many more eyes keeping a lookout for you. I typically won’t hunt a spot until someone tells me they saw a nice deer there, then I will hang cameras to see it for ourselves,” Sichik says.
With smaller areas and narrower travel corridors, the best place to hang his trail cameras is usually right on the fence surrounding a yard. He uses cellular cameras so he doesn’t need to visit the properties he is trying to cover.
“There’s no need overdoing human activity either. I don’t want to literally be in their bedroom,” he says. “Keep activity as aligned with what they are used to seeing around the houses near where they live.”
Sichik notes that most bucks don’t have to travel far, even during the rut, because food and does are often close by and in abundance, though they will travel some. When chasing activity occurs during daylight hours on his cameras, he knows the rut is coming on and it’s time for hunters to sit areas longer during the day rather than just hunting food sources in mornings and evenings. When he sees a really nice buck, he tries to get on it as quickly as he can.
To seal the deal, though, he never sends a hunter in on a big buck until the wind and weather are ideal. He also tries to keep tabs on what the neighbors have going on, such as big cookouts or events that swell normal human activity in the area beyond the norm.
“One time, a neighboring property had some big pool party. It was still early in the season and warm out, but it was enough that it pushed the deer out of the area and threw my hunt off,” he says.
5 Tips for Hunting Pressured Bucks in the East
- In heavily populated areas, bucks that live on properties measured in the tens of acres rather than the hundreds become accustomed to human noise and activity.
- The mantra in recent years has been to “go deep” on public land. In some instances, it might be better to get to a “shallow” stand early and let others push deer to you.
- With food and does often in abundance in populated areas, bucks don’t need to travel far for either. When you start seeing daytime activity on cams, that’s your cue to sit all day.
- One smart strategy for a small property is to find the thickest areas and set up on a travel corridor that connects them.
- Bucks that live near a high level of human activity know that the safest places on a property are often those with the most dense cover.
Land management consultant Pat Gaffney, who specializes in managing properties for maximum whitetail hunting success through his company Whitetail Consultants (whitetailconsultants.com), is also a former outfitter and longtime hunter. One way he has found success is by accessing hard-to-reach properties other hunters overlook simply because they’d have to trek too far, or because getting into prime hunting spots would be too challenging. While this approach can come into play on private land, it is particularly useful for hunters working public land.
“Understanding the terrain is critical, particularly understanding where the farthest reaches of the land are,” Gaffney says. “The harder it is to get to, the better your odds are on a place. A lot of guys will overlook hard-to-access properties—either leased land or public.”
He recalls one 80-acre piece of land on which he once ran guided hunts. There were no roads into the property, nor did it border a road, but it did sit on a river. So, Gaffney and his hunters used a boat to access the property. There, the whitetail stand locations were plentiful.
“The river itself acted like a road that deer would travel along, and they would also cross a number of drainages that ran through the property, creating plentiful natural travel corridors,” he says. “You could get in those bluff areas over the drainages and sit up high where you could see deer skirting around them.”
On the flip side of going deep, Gaffney also suggests hunting shallow.
“People will typically not go too far off paths or try to get to hard-to-reach places, but they will push into the woods some distance because that’s what we’ve all been taught,” he says.
In those situations, it’s worthwhile to get to your hunting spot early (or stay late, or both) and set up as legally close to roadways and parking areas as possible since other hunters are apt to push deer to you.
GO THICK OR GO HOME
Brandon Martin has been the natural resource manager at Virginia’s Fort Barfoot (formerly Fort Pickett) for 10 years and has worked on the base in natural resources since 2008. The National Guard base comprises 41,000 acres, most of it open to public hunting. In his time there, he has seen a number of hunters find success year in and year out, and the two things those hunters tend to have in common is they do their homework and they hunt thick areas. However, most hunters tend to avoid thick areas, which means big bucks tend to frequent them. They offer the safety and cover deer need to survive a long hunting season.
“It’s as simple as putting your time in,” Martin says. “Don’t show up and expect to hit paydirt by chance. You need to look at satellite imagery and maps and get out and drive, or better yet walk around.”
He notes that hunters who key on thick areas and then set up along the travel corridors leading away from these spots typically have the most success. Recent clear cuts, between 2 and 10 years old, will hold an abundance of deer, and hunting the edges of them in their second and third year of regrowth can be particularly beneficial to deer hunters.
“There’s just enough cover that they feel safe and hidden, but not so much that a hunter in a climbing stand looking down can’t see them when they move,” Martin says.
He also recommends reaching out to the people like himself who manage the land.
“Talk to the agency that manages the public land, but don’t forget the forestry departments either,” he says. “Find out where they’ve harvested trees recently. They may even share some forest maps.”
HUNT THE HUNTERS
Another Virginia wildlife biologist, Kevin Walter, says after so many years of managing highly trafficked public lands and working with hunters, one of the biggest mistakes he sees hunters make is not discovering alternate stand locations and using them when situations dictate.
“A lot of guys go into an area too much. They love an area and can’t stay away from it. They don’t take time to figure out other areas to hunt depending on wind or hunting pressure, and they beat the death out of the one spot that is their favorite,” he says.
If you see ribbons or reflective tacks pushed into trees indicating paths other hunters are following, or tire tracks and boot prints in mud, or scrape marks in the bark of a tree from a climbing stand, these are all signs someone is hunting the area. You must “hunt the hunters” and clue into where they are going. Then, find an area that has been overlooked and isn’t getting hunted much.
Walter says the guy who pays attention to things such as which way the wind is blowing and which food sources are being used by deer, and has alternate stand locations and hunts them when the conditions are right, is the guy who is going to find success.