1. Don’t Shoot Bucks That Look Insecure
When you first see a buck, take a moment to check its posture. Dominant bucks hold their heads high and walk loosely with their tails held straight out. A subordinate buck walks with stiff legs and a hunched back, and keeps its tail between its legs. If you see a good buck in a subordinate posture, consider holding your shot. It could mean there’s a real monster in the area.
2. Find Small Bucks Near Big Scrapes
If you’re looking to shoot a buck quickly during the rut and aren’t much concerned about the size of its antlers, look for a large scrape that’s torn up, irregularly shaped, and looks like it’s being used by more than one deer. Younger, more submissive bucks frequent such scrapes. Since these bucks are less wary and more numerous than trophy animals, you’ll stand a good chance of filling your tag faster than you would when hunting scrapes made by solitary (and often bigger) deer.
3. The Surefire Spot for Big Bucks
Don’t give up on a hunting spot when you learn a big whitetail has been taken there. If it was a dominant buck, a host of suitors for this vacated territory will soon move in. The sudden void may dramatically increase other bucks’ activity. If you can hunt where another hunter has already bagged a big buck, do it!
4. See More Deer by Scanning an Area Twice
Immediately after stopping at a vantage point, allow your eyes to relax and move them slowly back and forth over the surrounding terrain without focusing on any specific feature. Relaxed eyes automatically focus on any movement within their field of vision. If no deer are moving in your immediate vicinity, shift to a tightly focused analysis of every piece of cover you can see. Peer into the shadows, looking for pieces of deer—bits of antler, the curve of an ear, or the horizontal line of a back. Move to your next vantage point once you’re satisfied that you’ve probed all the places a deer might be hiding.
5. Don’t Use Too Much Freshly Collected Scent
If you plan to use scent collected from the glands of a freshly-killed deer, make sure to use less of it than you would of the bottled stuff. The fresh gland scent will be much more potent than what you can buy commercially.
6. Three Steps to Proper Still-hunting
Proper still-hunting can be described as a three-step process. Step one is to stand motionless behind an object that will break up your outline while searching the surrounding area thoroughly for any sign that deer are present. Step two is to remain still and use your eyes to pick out a way forward that lets you place your feet on the quietest ground cover possible, such as bare rock, moss, wet leaves, or soft snow. Step three is to scan the woods for deer one more time, then slowly and silently navigate the route you’ve picked out. Repeat steps one through three until you find your buck. Do not rush. A good still-hunter will sometimes take an hour to traverse 100 yards of heavy cover.
7. Catch Wary Peak-season Bucks Off Guard during Lunch
Because of increased pressure during the rut, mature bucks will often change their patterns to avoid hunter activity. Many will become nocturnal, but a significant number instead spend more time searching for does during the middle of the day, when most hunters are back at camp taking naps and eating lunch. Try sitting your stand during the hours before an afternoon to catch these deer off guard.
8. Use Different Routes to Your Deer Stand at Sunrise and Sunset
Never walk through a crop field in the early morning when approaching a deer stand set up near its edge. Deer are likely feeding in this field under cover of darkness—you will startle them if you don’t take a back route to your stand. The opposite is true when you’re approaching the same stand during the afternoon or evening hours. Deer are likely bedded in the cover you used to hide your approach in the morning, waiting for the sun to go down before moving out to feed. You should approach your stand through the field at this time of the day.
9. Guess a Deer’s Sex by Analyzing Its Gait
You can tell buck tracks from doe tracks more easily when tracking deer through the snow. Does place their feet with precision; bucks sway from side to side while walking, a rolling gait that often leaves drag marks in powder. Longer drag marks may mean you’ve found the trail of an older or heavier buck.
10. Hunt Near Food Sources When the Barometer Starts Dropping
White-tailed deer feed heavily in the days and hours leading up to the arrival of violent low-pressure systems. Watch your barometer. When the pressure starts dropping, head to the edges of crop fields and alfalfa meadows, or to stands of mature oak where the ground is covered with acorns. As the front gets closer, start hunting from stands set up along trails that lead from these food sources to heavy cover where you know deer go to hunker down during nasty weather.
11. Flush Big Bucks from beneath Downed Trees
When still-hunting through mature forest during hot weather, keep your eyes peeled for large trees that have been uprooted recently by storms. The maze of shade and cover offered by the fallen limbs and branches provides one of the best hiding places in the forest, and big bucks will often bed down deep within their embrace to escape the heat of the day. Experienced animals feel very secure in such cover and may not flush unless you get extremely close to them. Approach every such tree you can find.
12. Don’t Get Too Hot to Sit Still in Cold Weather
When hiking out to your tree stand in cold weather, do not wear all the layers you’ll need to stay warm while sitting still. Doing so will cause you to sweat heavily on the way in, and this sweat will cool quickly once you stop moving, leaving you too chilled to remain quiet for long. Dress lightly and carry your outer layers in a backpack. Pull on warmer clothing only after you’ve climbed up into your stand and sat long enough for your heart rate to slow down.
13. Read Rub Lines to Anticipate a Buck’s Movements at Different Times of the Day
Rubs can show you to where, at what time of the day, and in what direction a buck normally travels. When you first find a rub, get down on your knees so that your field of vision is similar to that of the buck that made the rub. Scan for additional rubs in the area—chances are good you’ll find another from thirty to fifty yards away. Repeat this process until you’ve identified a series of rubs, called a rub line. Rub lines often mark the routes a buck uses to travel to and from his preferred feeding and bedding areas. Most rubs in a line will be made on the same side of each tree; this tells you the direction the buck travels when using the route. If the line leads from a feeding area to thick bedding cover, set up a stand nearby and hunt there in the morning. If the line leads away from bedding cover, hunt it in the evening.
14. Hunt All Three Phases of the Rut
A good deer hunter knows that there is not just one rut, but three. The first, called the pre-rut, occurs in early October, when mature, four- and five-year-old does first come into estrus. The second, known as the peak or primary rut, runs from late October to the last week of November, and is when the majority of female deer come into heat. The third, called the post-rut or late rut, takes place twenty-eight days after the end of the primary rut, as does that were not bred during October and November come back into estrus. These pre- and post-rut phases do not last long. Look for a sudden explosion of fresh buck sign, then hunt hard for several days using techniques, such as rattling, that take advantage of the increased aggression triggered by competition for a limited number of willing does.
15. Gain Extra Seconds to Shoot When Rattling in a Buck
Bucks will often appear at the most inopportune moments, especially when you’re rattling antlers to call them in. If you spot one while holding a rack in your hands, don’t be afraid to put it down and pick up your gun. The buck you’ve called will be expecting to see some motion and will be less likely to startle immediately when he sees you, which gives you a few extra moments to shoot him. Using one smooth, unhurried motion, pick up your rifle, shoulder it, and fire. Make sure that you do not move too fast or jerk your arms, rifle, or body. Such sudden movements signal your excitement and may alarm the animal.
16. Let Blood Color Tell You How Fast to Follow a Wounded Buck
Blood trails don’t just tell you the direction a wounded deer is moving. They can also provide good information about where on its body you shot the animal, and how quickly you should follow its trail. Bright red blood is full of oxygen and often means you’ve hit your deer in the lungs. Deer hit this way don’t go far so you can pursue them quickly. Dark red or purple blood may indicate a gut shot. If you find such blood, particularly in conjunction with bits of intestinal fat, and there’s no precipitation forecast that could wash away or obscure the trail, consider giving the animal time to bed down and stiffen up before looking for a follow-up shot. Gut-shot deer often run long distances if they’re chased immediately after being wounded.
17. Tie Back Branches When Hanging Your Tree Stand
While a good pair of pruning shears can be a bowhunter’s best friend, there are many situations in which you should refrain from overlapping. For example, when setting up your tree stand, it is a good idea to try tying back any branches that obstruct your view, using a length of rope or wire. This method is quieter than clipping, will cause less damage to the tree you’re using, and the branches can often be more easily positioned behind your stand in order to break up your silhouette.
18. Find Deer in Transition Zones
During the end of October and in early November, before the peak of the rut, deer switch from grazing in fields to browsing on twigs, branches, and buds. These foods are most easily found in wide transition zones of thick understory that grow up between mature forests and more open fields and meadows, where the shade cast by tall trees is not deep enough to inhibit the growth of younger saplings. The thick growth also serves as a cover for the animals after leaves have fallen from the branches of more mature timber. Set your stand near deer trails close to rubs or scrapes in these transition zones, and you’ll have a good chance of filling your tag.
19. Still-Hunt Uphill in the Early Morning
On calm days when there’s little wind, air will flow downhill as it cools in the evening, and uphill as it heats up during the day. Deer use these currents to keep track of their surroundings. To keep them off your scent, hunt your way uphill in the late evening and early morning hours, and down during the rest of the day.
20. Hunt in Three Places at Once
One of the best locations to hunt is the intersection of three different types of vegetation. Look for a field corner bounded by timber on one side and a swamp, slough, or bottomland on the other, then hang your stand in a tree with a good view of any trails that lead from one to the other.
21. Don’t Hang Your Stand Too High in Steep Terrain
While hanging your stand high in a tree will better hide your presence in level terrain, doing so in steep, hilly country may actually put you at eye level with deer working down the ridges you’re hunting. Try lowering your stand to camouflage your silhouette in such conditions. A deer looking downhill will have a more difficult time spotting you against a backdrop of leaf litter than it will spot you against the sky.
22. Use Hunting Pressure on Public Land to Your Advantage
If you hunt public land that gets lots of pressure during the prime shotgun or rifle season, you’re going to run into other hunters in the woods. Instead of letting them ruin your hunt, figure out how to use them to your advantage. Set your stand up on trails leading to thick cover near routes you know other hunters are using. Deer will flee to these areas when spooked by all the unusual sights, sounds, and smells in the woods, so you’ll be in a good position to catch them as they sneak through.
23. A Basic Rule for Knowing When to Move and When to Sit Still
When you know deer are on the move, such as in the morning and evening hours, you should sit still in a good stand or other ambush point and wait for the animals to come to you. It is only during conditions in which deer stop moving that you should move to find them.
24. Develop a Quiet Stride for Still-Hunting
Maintaining proper balance is the key to walking quietly across the forest floor. A long stride combined with little forward momentum will often leave you tipping to one side or the other, which can force you to place your feet awkwardly as you catch your balance. To reduce the noise you make, learn to take smaller steps, and to place your feet heel or toe first. Shift your weight slowly onto your forward leg while rolling your foot from heel to toe (or toe to heel). When performed properly, this movement—called the rolling compression step—will allow you to feel any twigs, branches, or other objects that might make noise before you place your full weight on them. This lets you shift your weight to your back leg before the object snaps, then place your front foot in a new, less noisy spot.
25. Analyze Stomach Contents to Pattern Feeding Behavior
It’s a good idea to examine the stomach contents of a deer you’ve shot. Less-digested food is what the deer ate last; well-digested food was eaten earlier in the day. You can use this information to guess where the deer were feeding in the hours before you killed it, and then apply what you’ve learned toward filling any open tags you or your buddies still have.
26. Easy Way to Check the Wind
Save a few of the black neck feathers from your next ruffed grouse—or the lightest feathers you can pick off doves, pheasants, or quail if they’re your favorite birds. Hung from a bow limb with a piece of dental floss, a light feather is a great wind direction indicator.
27. Don’t Scare Big Bucks out of Bedding Sites
If you’ve located a good buck before the season, resist the urge to hunt him in his bedding site. This is almost certain to drive a wary trophy animal out of the area. Instead, hunt the travel zones between his bedding and feeding spots.
28. Gauge How Well Your Stand Is Hidden Using Black-and-White Images
A good way to tell if your stand or blind is well concealed is to photograph yourself sitting in it during the exact hours of the day you think you’ll be hunting for it. Use a digital camera, and convert your images from color to black-and-white using the image-processing program on your computer. Deer are colorblind so these black-and-white images will give you a good idea of the patterns, shapes, and tones that seem out of place. If you and your stand are easily recognizable, reconfigure its position and make sure that it is not too bright or too dark compared to its surroundings.
29. Practice with Your Bow in Hunting Situations
Always practice shooting your bow under the same conditions in which you expect to shoot your deer. You may be able to stick five arrows into a circle the size of your fist at fifty yards when you’re standing on flat ground and wearing a T-shirt, but that won’t help you much if you don’t know how to do the same thing while wearing a heavy jacket. Spend time during the preseason simulating live hunting situations. Use broadheads rather than field points, wear your hunting clothes and practice shooting from awkward positions and elevated angles.
30. Hunt Sleepy Bucks on Beds during a Full Moon
When the moon is full and the sky is clear, white-tailed deer will feed heavily during the evening hours and move less often during the day than they will when the sky stays dark all night. Run drives through heavy cover or still-hunt other likely bedding areas after a well-lit night to increase your chances of filling your tag in such conditions.
31. Watch a Feeding Deer’s Tail
Feeding deer always twitch their tails immediately before raising their heads to look around. If you immediately freeze when you see this motion, you’ll be much less likely to alert the animal to your presence. Continue your stalk when the animal puts its head back down to feed.
32. Look Downhill When Still-Hunting during Bad Weather
The best places to still-hunt during violent weather are found on elevated terrain. Benches crossing the sides of ridges make excellent routes to follow because they give you top-down looks into the kinds of thick cover where deer like to hole up. That extra field of view means you’ll have more shots than you would if you were stalking through the level ground, where the cover you’re hunting will usually obstruct your line of sight.
33. Don’t Hang Your Stand Where You Find the Most Sign
Areas chock-full of deer trails, droppings, rubs, and beds are not always the best places to hang your stand. The abundance of sign could mean that the area is being used as a sanctuary—a place where deer congregate before heading out to feed, or where they bed down during the middle of the day. Since deer spend a great deal of time in such places, they become very familiar with them and will be sensitive to unusual sounds, smells, and sights. It can be extremely difficult to camouflage your presence under such conditions.
34. Bagging a Lunchtime Buck
Since most whitetail hunters are on their stands at first light, they tend to get restless from midmorning to noon. Many heads back to camp, or their vehicles, seeking a sandwich and a chat with their buddies. That’s when they inadvertently spook whatever deer are around, sending them sneaking away or bolting through the countryside. And that’s exactly when hunters who have stayed on their stands, quiet and alert, reap the rewards of the biggest bucks.
35. Use a Stick to Track Wounded Game over Sandy Soil
Some soil types can absorb both tracks and blood, making trailing wounded deer difficult. If the trail you’re following becomes indistinct, break off a straight stick that’s the same length as the stride of the animal you’re tracking. Place one end of the stick on the last clear track you can identify so that it’s pointing in the direction you think the animal was traveling. Look for new tracks or flecks of blood at the other end.
36. Sit Your Stand in the Morning When Hunting Hot Weather
Whitetails are more active than normal during the night when the weather is unseasonably warm and will stay bedded down in the well-shaded cover that’s close to a water source during the heat of the day. They may start moving again as the temperature starts dropping early in the evening, but when it’s really hot the air won’t begin to cool until well after dark. The best time of the day to hunt deer during hot weather is during the first two hours of shooting light in the morning when the air is coolest and you can catch your quarry moving from where they’ve been feeding to where they’ll bed during daylight.
37. Any Buck Is a Good Buck!
In my personal opinion, the concept of hunting only trophy deer seems misguided for most hunters. If you get a kick out of it, fine. Have at it. Most hunters, however, simply want to get out to the deer woods with the idea of bringing home a buck, any buck. The bigger the buck, the more thrills we might feel. But in the end, the old deer-hunting bromide is so, so true: You can’t eat horns. My advice is to relax, enjoy your hunting, and stick to the premise that any buck is a good buck.
38. Make Your Steps Sound like a Deer’s to Spook Fewer Bucks
There are some situations in which it is impossible for you to walk silently through the woods. Dry leaves, for example, will crunch loudly no matter how carefully you place your feet. If you find it necessary to cover ground in such conditions (and there are no convenient game trails to follow that offer quieter places to walk), you will get closer to your quarry without spooking it if you learn how to pattern your steps so that they sound like the steps of a deer. Instead of a regular crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch (the standard human cadence), randomize the rhythm of your footsteps so that they form an erratic series of steps and pauses. Step, step, pause. Step. Pause. Wait. Step. Step. Step. Pause. And so on. You’ll be much more likely to surprise bucks within shooting range if you use this pattern.
39. Spot Bucks Down Low
The horizontal line of a whitetail’s back is one of the best things to look for when still-hunting through thick brush. Most lines in the woods are vertical, and while you’ll eyeball a great many fallen logs by keying in on the horizontal lines, you’ll have a better chance of locating a hidden deer this way than you would be looking for a whole animal. Remember, though, that even mature bucks stand only three feet at the shoulder, so don’t raise your eyes any higher than this when scanning the area ahead of you.
40. Don’t Face Your Stand at the Sun
When placing your tree stand, avoid setting it up so that it faces a rising or falling sun. The rays beaming directly into your eyes will make it harder for you to see into shadows during critical low-light hours, and will glance off glasses, gun barrels, and reflective items, spooking deer that would otherwise be unlikely to spot you.