October 13, 2016
Deer hunters in farm country everywhere have at least one thing in common: Those farm fields are an important part of the landscape.
Field hunting seems easy. Set up on the edge and watch for deer. Maybe they'll come out to feed. A galloping doe might lead a rutting buck past your post. Perhaps other hunters will push a whitetail within range.
But is field hunting really all that easy? Much more than just plopping down and waiting just anywhere, it takes smart strategy to successfully hunt farm fields of all kinds during gun season. Site choice, stand placement and hunting techniques make the
difference between failure and a notched tag.
FIELD OPPORTUNITIES AND INSIGHTS
Across deer range, farm fields provide essential whitetail habitat, and are a fact of hunting life. Bottom line: If you pursue whitetails, chances are you spend some of your hunting time on, in or around those fields.
When you hunt fields, you make the most of your hunting area. Deer eat in, travel across, and make escapes through fields. A whitetail going from Point A to Point B has no reservations about heading cross-country through what seems to be wide-open spaces. As a hunter, choosing the right place from which to wait and watch is critical.
Deer hide in fields too. Fallow or abandoned fields are deer magnets, as are Conservation Reserve Program properties and other conservation grasslands. When hunting pressure hits, deer readily abandon woodlots, thickets and brush-covered land for fields and other open-country hideouts.
Some whitetails will hide where you don't think there's enough cover for rabbits. Standing corn — and even corn stubble — also attracts deer looking for a quiet haven. Last year I watched a buck and doe spend an entire November afternoon smack dab in the middle of a full section (one mile square) of cut corn.
Even the biggest buck doesn't need trees or brush to hide. A little grass or cornstalks — plus distance and seclusion — can be safety enough.
Whether you sit and watch, move out after the whitetails, or do a little bit of both, here's how to make the most of your field hunting opportunities this gun season.
WAIT 'EM OUT
Deer travel across fields in their daily travels, and to evade other hunters. A stand overlooking a field offers advantages over a post in thick cover. You can see deer coming from farther away, take unobstructed shots, and hunt multiple crossings at the same time.
The best way to locate a good stand site on a field is to hunt an area for enough seasons to actually see how the deer travel the land.
One year, from a farmland stand on a hillside, I saw five different deer or groups of deer travel the edge of an alfalfa field a quarter-mile away as the animals eluded hunters working a creek bottom.
I tried to "wish" every one of those deer my way. But hope isn't an effective hunting strategy. So the next year's opening morning found me stationed at the hot crossing. At 7:25 a.m. a roly-poly 6-pointer trotted past and my tag was filled.
That was a great spot for four years, until the fenceline was removed. The local deer don't cross as regularly there now, and I've since found other good field stands. But that's part of the game. Land use and crop rotation cause deer to shift their habits. You must shift with them.
On the other hand, I know field crossings that whitetails have used since I began hunting in the late 1960s. If cover and land use stay similar, geography (a dip, rise or swale) can keep generations of deer using the same travel route. Find one of these situations and you could have a stand for life.
One of the most challenging parts of hunting "field" deer is staying as still as possible. In the woods you have some cover to drink a cup of coffee, eat a sandwich, wipe your nose or make a little body shift.
When you're hunting a field, take a moment to scan your surroundings before making any move. Then check again! Field deer have a way of just appearing, seemingly out of nowhere.
Break up your silhouette. Sit or stand against a tree, fencepost or other background. I have made many a small blind from hay bales, but with modern big-bale techniques farmers are using, those days are fewer and farther between.
On one of my favorite fields — a 10-acre patch of secluded river bottom soybeans or corn (depending on the year), I just set a turkey hunting seat up against a cottonwood tree. The view is just fine, and the whitetails never seem to see me tucked up against the trunk.
If you're going to hunt a field edge from a tree stand, be sure to put up some netting or fabric, or weave together some branches from a tree that will hold its leaves so you're not exposed to prying whitetail eyes.
KNOW THE LAND
Everybody's hunting spot is different, so you'll have to determine — through scouting — good field stand sites.
Some of my favorite setup spots include the corner where a fencerow or other cover meets the woods, a point of woods or finger of brush jutting into a field, a four-way fence corner, and a T-shaped fence corner.
One year, after observing multiple whitetails cross a creek bottom field, I simply walked down there the next morning and hid in the grassy creek bank. It was more like a trickle than a parade of deer that day, but a nice deer came lumbering by at 11 a.m. and I had my winter venison.
A little elevation is good. Dips in the land, where deer can sneak through a field with minimum exposure, make great crossings. So do low or sagging spots in a fence.
Subtle creases and folds in the terrain, along with swales, gullies, washes and ditches, present opportunities for a whitetail to vanish. I can't count the number of times I've been ready to squeeze the trigger on a walking or jogging deer when it just disappeared into the uneven terrain.
No matter how good your chosen stand site, always have a Plan B in case the wind doesn't cooperate. Know how you will shift your post, when needed, so that your scent will blow away from where you expect the deer to be. Set a couple of stands, or have a wind-friendly option on another field.
Moments of truth are critical to field hunting. Whitetails are edgy in the open, and there is little cover to hide your movements. Slowly bring up your gun only when the deer is moving or, better yet, looking away.
MOVE 'EM OUT
Whitetails love to hunker down and hide in a grassy field, especially when hunters are traipsing through local woods and brush. When absolutely nothing is happening, it may be time to get up, gather a partner or two and do a couple of little pushes. Here's how.
After choosing the spot to hunt — a fallow field, CRP acreage, or abandoned pasture — sneak a hunter or two into position along likely deer escape routes, or in the cover the whitetails are likely to head to. These posters should not expose themselves to the field to be pushed.
Send a hunter through the field. Hunt like you would for pheasants, quail or rabbits. Work the cover thoroughly — zigzagging, stopping, starting, varying your pace, backtracking, retracing steps, even circling around and coming back from other directions.
Sometimes deer leave immediately upon the walker's appearance on their turf. More often, whitetails will put their chins on the ground and stay put. That's why you have to bird-dog it and really work the cover. Then work it again.
Another way to hunt these deer is to stalk standing corn. Particularly in a wet autumn, when farmers can't get into their fields, you'll run up against this challenge.
First, secure permission from the landowner to hunt his standing corn. Once you're standing next to the stalks, here's what to do.
If you have a partner or two, place them at strategic spots outside the field in case deer exit. Then start at the downwind end of the field and creep slowly across the rows, peeking up them to try and spot a bedded deer to shoot. Snow helps. When you reach the other side of the field, walk 30 or 40 yards upwind and then enter and cross the stalks again. Continue until you've worked the entire field.
The close quarters of cornfield hunting make it exciting. Be ready for action until the very end. Whether you're posting or cruising the stalks, always be sure, for safety's sake, to know where any partners are before pulling the trigger.
Alfalfa and hay fields make for great deer hunting. Whitetails use them for feeding and traveling. Even below the snow, these fields offer green sprouts and feed, which whitetails crave.
Cut cornfields attract deer for the cornucopia of waste grain available before the stalks are plowed under. Cut soybeans run a close second, but I don't think they're as nice to look at as golden-yellow corn stubble in the sunrise or sunset.
Greening winter wheat fields lure whitetails with tender sprouts.
Although valuable CRP grassland is being lost to the plow because of lucrative grain prices, there still are good acres of this grassland, and lots of places with open areas in fallow or prairie status.
When deer want some seclusion, there's nothing like a lonely, abandoned pasture with a few brushy brambles and scrubby trees.
Farmland whitetails use fields every day of their lives for feeding, travel, escape and hiding. Whether you scheme-and-sit, plan-and-push, or do some of both, this will be a good year to spend some time down on the farm and in the deer fields.