Tactical Planning for White-Tailed Deer
July 31, 2019
Intercept wary whitetails by focusing on areas where bucks are, not where they're not.
Despite their popularity as a big-game species and extensive research regarding their behavior, researchers are still unlocking the secrets of white-tailed deer behavior.
As a hunter, using these findings can help you increase your odds of success this hunting season.
Here are six tips that will improve your odds of connecting with the buck of your dreams this fall.
AVOID ‘DEAD ZONES’
How adept are deer at recognizing the threat posed by hunters? Research conducted by leading whitetail experts Dr. Andrew Little, Dr. Stephen Webb, Dr. Steve Demarais and Kenneth Gee and published in Quality Whitetails suggests that white-tailed deer are exceptionally keen on identifying even a single hunter in their home range.
As a result, deer often shift their behavior as soon as hunting season starts by reducing daytime movement and spending more time in core areas. In essence, deer move less when hunters are in the woods.
This seems like bad news, but don’t give up hope. There are three keys to success when deer adjust to human pressure: Continuing trail camera surveillance, keying in on core areas, and being flexible with regard to setup locations.
Ultimately, this boils down to hunters identifying and avoiding “dead zones” within a hunting area. Deer are creatures of habit, and they’re extremely territorial. This means that the deer on your camera in August is probably still within its established home range. However, the deer is utilizing less and less of that area, especially during the daylight hours.
To avoid these dead zones, begin by identifying core bedding areas that are sheltered from hunters and determining multiple stand locations.
Always keep the prevailing winds and your direction of approach in mind: A new stand, even if it’s in the right location, won’t be productive if the deer know you’re there.
Avoid disturbing the area by keeping travel in the hunting area to a minimum, and avoid areas that humans often use. Research shows that deer — and mature bucks in particular — avoid paved roads, logging paths, open pastureland and other areas used by humans during hunting season, even if they were in these areas during daylight hours earlier in the year.
If you’re hunting in a particular area and deer sightings drop during the season, it’s a good bet that deer have identified your stand location and are actively avoiding you. Don’t waste your time in this dead zone. Focus instead on areas within a deer’s core range.
Over-hunting an area can quickly cause a decrease in deer activity, so have multiple stand setups, and don’t over hunt a single area. If you’re seeing deer movement, then the area is probably still productive, but when deer activity drops off, you’ll need to relocate.
MASTER DEER COMMUNICATION
Primos encourages hunters to “Speak the Language,” and no one is more fluent in whitetail than Will Primos.
“When you call and a deer responds, it’s magical,” Primos said. But many hunters get frustrated when their grunts, wheezes, bleats and roars don’t generate a response. The reason that you aren’t seeing the results has less to do with the effectiveness of deer calling and more to do with your technique, setup and the time of year. And, in fact, some call setups are blown before you even make a sound.
“Pay close attention to the wind while you approach your stand,” Primos said. “Also, you need to be sure that your blind or stand has some obstruction — a blowdown, a brushpile, anything. I’ve even called using the bank of a creek as cover. If a deer responds and doesn’t see another deer, they’ll leave.”
So, what is Will Primos’ go-to call sequence? It’s a bleat-roar-wheeze series, and when done correctly, it can bring a buck on a full run, ready to fight.
This call begins with a bleat, the nasally rasp of a doe in full estrous. Primos said that he likes to give a bleat, wait five seconds, and then give two more bleats about two seconds apart.
“The bleat tells deer in the area that there’s a doe in heat and ready to breed,” Primos said.
“The roar (which is similar to a deep, extended and very loud grunt) is a warning to other bucks to stay away. The wheeze is a sound when two bucks are ready to fight.”
Wheezing is especially effective because it’s higher pitched and may reach bucks that can’t hear the roar, extending your effective calling range.
Whether bucks come to steal the doe or simply witness a brawl, the bleat-roar-wheeze can be a dramatically effective call combination. Primos said that he’s seen bucks come to a call smacking their tongue to their noses trying to find a scent.
FIND WHERE DEER RUT
If you’ve done your pre-season scouting homework, you’re probably already familiar with the core territory of at least some of the bucks in your area. With that knowledge and an understanding of deer behavior, you can probably begin to develop a strategy for hunting those bucks during the rut — even before the pre-rut commences.
The key is to identify habitats that will become important to the deer when breeding season begins.
Whitetails have a natural affinity for habitat edges, so begin identifying where those habitat edges lie within your target buck’s home range — areas where woods meet crop fields or where pastures meet CRP ground. These are the areas that a buck is most likely to use to travel during the earliest stages of the rut, and even during the rut, mature whitetail bucks will still frequent these areas.
Be especially aware of areas where trees and brush with low branches grow along travel corridors and on the edges of fields, as these low branches are the most likely areas to locate scrapes and rubs. As the rut begins, the bucks in your area will use these communal signposts to relay messages to other deer, and that’s why they can be hotspots early in the season.
However, if you’re scouting for buck sign in the middle of the pre-rut, you’re probably way behind the game. For starters, you’re spending time in the deer’s core habitat and disturbing them, and second, you’ll be forced to try and setup an ambush in the midst of the peak of deer activity in the area — and there’s a good chance the deer are already onto you.
When you can accurately predict the areas bucks will frequent during the pre-rut and rut — either as travel corridors or scrape lines — you’ll be ahead of the game. This takes some pre-planning, but it puts you one step ahead of the deer and increases the odds you’ll be in the right place at the right time.
KEYING IN ON BEDDING AREAS
White-tailed deer spend the majority of their time in their bedding area, and finding a buck’s preferred bedding spot is crucial to getting a shot. If you’ve ever been in the woods and wondered where the buck on your trail camera is hiding during hunting season, the answer is probably pretty simple: He’s in bed.
The late Charlie Alsheimer studied whitetail behavior for more than four decades and wrote thousands of articles and several books on the subject. His research was instrumental in helping hunters locate buck bedding areas. Alsheimer determined that whitetails tend to bed with their backs to the wind, a tactic allowing them to use all their senses to detect danger when resting. By doing so, deer can smell danger approaching from behind (and Alsheimer determined that deer can smell humans from at least a quarter-mile away under ideal conditions) while using their eyes and ears to locate upwind threats. This allows deer to doze for hours at a time without risking attack. Also, Alsheimer noted that bucks tend to bed just below the peak of a hill in cover so they are hidden from sight.
As hunters, we should apply this to our particular hunting area to help key in on the types of cover bucks are most likely to use. By finding key bedding areas, you’ll have an idea where a buck is wiling away the daylight hours, and, more importantly, hunters can determine best areas to set up a blind or a stand to intercept him when he starts to move. When you locate a bedding area, you can determine a buck’s likely direction of travel to feeding areas, so focus on travel corridors leading from bedding areas to food sources. It’s also key to set up in areas that won’t alert the bedded buck to your presence, so establish a path to the hunting area that won’t carry your scent to the bedding area or allow him to see your approach.
FOCUS ON SMALL BEDDING AREAS
While it’s true that old bucks are masters of avoiding humans, it isn’t true that they’re always as far off the beaten path as possible. In fact, a buck might be right under your nose or bedding on the side of that busy trail that so many hunters walk down on their way to their stands.
If you’re focusing on the relative size of cover, you’re probably missing out on opportunities at deer each year. Instead, focus on the quality of the cover. For example, in one area where I hunt, there are lots and lots of rolling hardwoods. Bucks are routinely killed in the interior of the forest, but the two largest bucks to ever come from that property were both killed on narrow islands in the middle of a creek. The reason should seem obvious — these bucks avoided the area where most hunters went, and they opted instead to hide out in narrow fingers of land not much more than 10 yards wide. The key, though, was the quality of the habitat. It offered very dense bedding cover in the form of fallen trees and grasses, and it was absolutely impossible to approach these deer without crossing the water.
Start focusing on spots within your hunting area that offer the same qualities as those islands — dense, protective cover that stacks the odds in the deer’s favor. Also, be on the lookout for areas that most hunters will ignore. Deer are masterful at avoiding hunters in large part because they’re so skilled at patterning humans. If every hunter flocks to the same patch of land, it’s a safe bet that the bucks will be avoiding the area, especially mature deer. There’s likely a small patch of cover on the land you hunt that you and competing hunters have overlooked. Spend some time glassing that area and you might just intercept the buck of a lifetime.
MAKE THE MOST OF TRAIL CAMERA SHOTS
Trail cameras are essential deer management tools and can provide very good intel regarding what’s happening when you aren’t in the woods. And, in fact, that’s one of the most important reasons to be using trail cameras — they’ll keep you out of the deer’s habitat and reduce pressure prior to the start of the season. But knowing how to get the most from your trail cameras is crucial.
In short, it’s all about data. Simply gathering a few images to show your buddies is not enough to make your hunting season a success. Instead, use the resources available to you such as satellite imaging to create a map of the hunting area. Using a map (print an aerial image of your hunting area if you want to remain low tech), create a detailed log of where deer were seen, the date and time of day. Why is this important? Because you need to keep a record of deer movement and behavior. You’ll forget if you don’t write it down.
This record is going to become your virtual map to the deer’s home range. The more data you have, the clearer picture you’ll have regarding deer movements. This is important because when hunting season starts there’s a good chance that buck you’re following will become more nocturnal, and he’ll go out of his way to avoid hunters. What he won’t do, however, is leave his home turf. Science shows that deer are very hesitant to leave their home range. If you have lots of data telling you where a buck is feeding and bedding, you can still hunt him — even when he’s not moving as much as during the beginning of the season or when busy chasing does and ignoring food sources.