August 10, 2021
The truest source of knowledge is experience, and both good and bad experiences can fortify your knowledge as a whitetail deer hunter. Every year, I try and put myself into positions that will not only hopefully create amazing memories, but also provide me with experiences that will enhance my knowledge in the whitetail woods.
As the founder of a whitetail deer management company, I get contracted to evaluate properties, calculate deer densities and develop a management plan to lower densities through hunting. This allows me to hunt and shoot more than 30 deer a year and have some really amazing experiences, all while creating healthier habitats for all wildlife.
I also keep my hunting skills honed by hunting public land across multiple states. For the past 5 years in a row, I have been able to shoot at least one 3 1/2-year-old (or older) buck on public land in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. I’ve also been able to take at least one 4 1/2-year-old (or older) buck on private land in these same states.
I hunt the deep woods of the Adirondack Mountains, the agricultural fields of Pennsylvania and both suburban and rural areas of Maryland. I have multiple encounters with mature bucks, harvest many does and log more than 400 hours in a tree stand in any given hunting season. This past season rewarded me with a 5 1/2-year-old Maryland buck, a 4 1/2-year-old New York public-land buck, 32 total deer and a tremendous number of experiences. From them, I learned the following four lessons that will inform my hunting this coming season.
1. Beware the Wind
These days, most hunters are very mindful of the wind and careful to only hunt stands that are set for specific conditions. However, no matter how meticulous you think you may be, remember that the wind is always your enemy.
One day last season, my father and I sat during a rainstorm and watched a typical main-frame 10 point come in and bed down 50 yards from us. The wind was in our favor, moving from the deer to us, so we knew we could outlast this deer without spooking him and hopefully wait for him to present a shot opportunity.
A couple hours in, my buddy, who was hunting more than 300 yards away, decided to call it a day and walk back to his truck. Wouldn't you know it, upwind and uphill, my buddy's scent made it all the way down to this buck, bedded in a hollow. The buck immediately jumped to its feet, did an about face, threw its nose in the air and headed out of there in a flash.
What I learned from this is that you must always be mindful of the wind, and that just because it's in your favor at one location, there may be deer downwind of you—even 300 yards away. As long as the wind is blowing, you could potentially be educating deer and putting pressure on your hunting property without even realizing it.
2. Take Vacation Early
A mental note from the 2019 season reminded me that there were too many people hunting a public area that I like to hunt in my home state of New York the first week of November. So last year I opted to go a week earlier. Less pressure, especially on larger tracts of public land, is almost always a good thing. Of course, I like to get really deep off the road or at least climb steep hills that will deter most other hunters. My mindset is that if I can get there before everyone else, I may have a shot at a mature buck before it feels pressured.
Luckily, my hunch paid off. I hiked just over a mile off the road, up an extremely steep oak ridge, and tucked in right on the edge of the public area. I observed several deer that evening, including a very mature 10-point buck. Shortly after spotting that buck, another good buck appeared.
Having set up over a few rubs and an active scrape, I grunted and called the second buck right to me. It was clear these deer were unpressured, and I had made the right decision to go earlier than most hunters who usually hunt that area.
3. Scrutinize Trail-Cam Images
On Nov. 8 of last year, I rattled and decoyed in a mature Maryland 8-point buck. Unfortunately, he came from the opposite direction I was expecting deer to come from that morning; he and a smaller buck approached the rear side of my decoy, while I was set up to make a shot on a deer approaching the decoy head-on. He got as close as 50 yards, but just wasn’t having it and walked away. I didn't want to take a shot at that distance, so I let him go, determined to spend the rest of my season trying to get another shot at him.
As I filled out my observation log later that evening, I took a screenshot of my video footage of the hunt and placed it with my log entry. The photo showed both the mature 8 and the other buck he was with, and I'm certain that's the reason I ended up killing that 8-point a week and a half later.
For the first week after the initial encounter, I never saw the mature buck. He didn't show up on my trail cameras and just seemed to become a ghost. But I knew that just because he wasn’t on my cams, that didn’t mean he wasn’t still in the area. That's when I went back to the photo in my observation log and studied the buck he was with that day. Most bucks move alone during the rut, but this younger buck was so attached to that mature 8 I was after that I decided to switch my focus to the younger buck.
The morning of Nov. 19 saw a steady south wind, which is not too common for this particular Montgomery County farm. I had a few stands dedicated to a south wind, but none I was too excited about hunting, so I took the morning off and sat in my car and observed the fields from a distance. As I sat there, I scrolled through recent trail-camera photos looking for that younger buck. Sure enough, just the night before I had gotten a photo of him using a trail on the south end of the farm. I couldn’t help but wonder if the big 8 was in the same area. The wind was right to hunt it, and there was no point sitting in my car, so I made my way there and climbed up the tree with my saddle. Just before 2 p.m., I looked up and saw three bucks pushing a doe, one of which was the younger buck.
I immediately began to scan the area. Just as I had hoped, the big 8 was riding the flanks and coming right to my tree. At one point he stood just a few yards away, looking directly up at me, but then he made the mistake of turning broadside and walked toward the other deer. I made a perfect heart shot and knew that I only killed that deer because I took the time to look deeper into my trail-camera intel.
4. Create Sanctuaries
Since 2017, I've designated an area on our property that is off limits to hunting and human intrusion of any kind until the very last days of the season. One year it was a food plot, another year a known bedding area. This past season it was a timber stand—a small, 40-acre parcel across the road from our main farm. No one stepped foot on that tract until I went in one day in December and hung a cellular trail cam over a mineral block. Later that day, a beautiful, mature 13-point showed up on the camera at 4 p.m. and did so religiously every evening for the next several days.
I waited for the right wind, went in, set up and was offered a shot at not just that buck, but 15 other bucks in one evening. I took my chance shooting off my weak side of the saddle and missed just low. The experience, however, gave me knowledge and reassured something that I've believed for years: Human intrusion is the worst thing for a hunting property. By leaving an area alone all year long and never stepping foot in there, you can set yourself up for a late-season hunt of a lifetime. Four years in a row I've had a shot at a buck at least 5 1/2 years old during the late season by following this strategy—this just happened to be the first time I missed.
Experiences, both good and bad, are what turn a good hunter into a great one. Learning from these experiences and using them to your advantage can help up your game in the deer woods. Take notes this season, right your wrongs, hold yourself accountable and never stop learning. Anyone can be a lucky hunter. Being a great hunter requires dedication.
An observation log and heat map can help you identify prime stands for future hunts.
I keep observation logs of my hunts, and they prove to be great reference sources for future hunts. My system is fairly simple, and the key is being consistent. I start by rating each hunt with an A, B, C or D. For deer activity above normal, I rate it an A. If activity is good and seems normal, it gets a B. Below average gets a C, and days with no activity get a D. At the end of the season, I load the total number of sits in each location and create a heat map based on the data.
Additionally, I'll log the number of mature bucks, immature bucks and does I see. I also track how many does have fawns and how many fawns are with each doe. This helps me become more in tune with the dynamics of the deer herd.
Once I move the data onto a map, I can identify areas with higher densities or more mature buck observations. Pairing this data with up-to-date trail-cam info the following year can be the difference between tag soup and a taxidermy bill.
THINK LIKE A DEER
To better understand whitetail behavior, put yourself in a buck's hooves.
Last year, a good friend of mine said something that really made me stop and think. "Once you realize deer are constantly trying to survive," he said, "you'll change the way you do things."
I'd never really thought of it that way, but he is absolutely right. Deer don't wake up and start their day worried about predators—their guard is up from the moment they are born. They sleep, eat, walk and run with a purpose. They know that every move they make could be their last, so they make them methodically. Whether it seems like it or not, deer are constantly on alert.
Every time you go hunting, you enter their home. Just as you would know if someone was in your house, deer know—sometimes long before you think they would know—that you are after them. From waiting until dark to enter a field, to walking into the wind, to going a few days without food or water if need be, deer live to survive.
To become a true apex predator, you have to realize that everything you do—how you walk to your stand, how well you control your scent, how motionless you are on stand—can affect the outcome of your hunt. There’s an old saying that in order to catch a fish you must think like a fish. The same goes for deer.