Successful deer hunters – those who “get their deer” nearly every year – don’t depend on luck. If opening day is the first day you step into the woods, you’ve got little more than luck going for you. If you are not lucky enough to bag a deer on opening day, your odds deteriorate every day as the season progresses.
There are a few very easy steps you can take, however, to improve your chances and turn you into a skillful hunter who is not dependent on blind luck each season. Many Maine deer hunters don’t see a deer the entire season, and only 10 to 12 percent get a deer each year. Those who are successful year after year comprise a very small percentage of all deer hunters. They use all of the techniques outlined in this column.
One recommendation is more important than all the others: Know your hunting territory as well as you know the layout of your own home. If a stranger enters your home early in the morning, he’ll expect to find you in bed or the bathroom. At noon he’ll expect you in the kitchen eating lunch. But if he doesn’t know where those rooms are he’ll be far less likely to surprise you there as he stumbles around the house looking for you. If you don’t know where deer bed down in your hunting area, and where the feed, you too are stumbling.
Opening day, when you hope to bag a deer, is too late to learn the layout of your deer’s home. Pre-season scouting is a very important ingredient for a successful hunt. You can scout deer all year round, but few hunters do. More than likely, your first real opportunity to scout may come in October, while bird hunting or just taking a couple of weekends to scout deer. Good scouts have a basic knowledge about deer and a keen eye for signs. Many good books provide the basic knowledge about things like ground scrapes and droppings. You develop the keen eye with experience.
Unless the habitat changes, I’ve found that deer use the same trails year after year. Feeding habits are altered, however, depending on the success of acorn, apple, and other favorite crops. Bedding areas vary, particularly as hunting pressure increases during the season. Your best opportunity is to find those areas before the season begins and be there first when the shooting starts.
Modern research is very helpful in providing information important to the deer scout. For example, we are told that whitetails defecate 12.7 times per day, while the number of pellets per defecation varies from 42 to 320. In other words, a small herd of six deer should provide 72 piles of droppings per day! Now that’s a lot of sign! Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re into a huge herd if you come upon a half dozen piles of fresh droppings. And remember, after a rain storm old pellets can appear surprisingly fresh.
The most exciting signs to me are those that a dominant buck uses to mark his territory. First are the tree rubs generally found on softwood trees. Bucks usually bed down near these and come to them immediately after arising from their beds. Second are the ground scrapes used to mark the buck’s territory and breeding area. These scrapes are generally found beneath an overhanging branch and activity occurs here year round, although the ground scrapes don’t usually appear under the branch until breeding begins. Dominant bucks mark the overhanging branch with scent by licking and rubbing their foreheads on the branch. I have found that the same branches are used year after year and provide the best places to observe deer.
For years I had a ground blind overlooking a scrape just outside a bog. My son Josh, Dad Ezra, and I all shot deer there. I would get to the stand early (half an hour before dawn in the morning or an hour before dark in the afternoon. If I’m planning to sit for a long time, I’ll have a book to read and a snack. When you are in a stand and deer are coming to you, rather than vice versa, you’ll have plenty of time to put down your snack or book, aim, and fire. I’ve had deer walk up to within 3 feet of me as I sat in a ground blind reading a book. They are not afraid of books!
I was in a blind near a ground scrape one year, reading a very good novel, when I looked up to see a huge buck already straddling the scrape. I quietly put down the book, picked up the rifle, and got off a shot. Sometime I’ll tell you the rest of that story!
It’s much harder to walk up on a deer, surprise it, and get off a good shot before it bounds away. I’ve done that, but your odds are not as good as they are in a well-placed stand. I’ve had equal luck from ground blinds as from tree stands, although you have to be more precise in placing your ground blind downwind and out of sight. And remember, you must have the landowner’s permission to put up a permanent tree stand, and label it with your name and address.
For the ground blind, I surround myself with small fir or spruce trees and branches. Place a seat inside the cover, and open a few firing alleys. That’s all there is to it! A tree stand can be equally uncomplicated, perhaps just a single board mounted between two trees. I once had a stand with a comfortable couch about fifteen feet off the ground, but I never shot a deer from it. I use old metal ladders for access and leave them up year-round. More recently, I’ve purchased a few ladder stands that are absolutely luxurious compared to my old home-made ones. If you are building or installing a new tree stand, it is very important to complete that work well ahead of the season to give the scent time to fade and the deer time to get used to the new intrusion.
Once you know your territory and have well placed stands, other factors begin to come into play. Three are most important to me.
The first and most critical factor is time. Time in the woods is invariably rewarded. The more time you spend hunting, the better your choices. This seems obvious but it is often overlooked. Even if you can get into the woods for the final half hour of the hunting day, do it! I rushed home from a funeral once, quickly changed into my hunting clothes, ran a half mile through the woods to a favorite stand, got there fifteen minutes before sundown, and had a trophy buck that I’d been hunting three years walk by me ten minutes later. He now hangs on my wall.
Many sports spend most of the week at deer camp playing cards, eating, drinking and enjoying life. No problem with that! But you can’t consistently bag deer from the camp porch. Every minute spent in the woods improves your odds.
The second factor concerns shooting ability. It’s amazing that the first shot some hunters take with their rifle each fall comes when a deer is in the scope. Sighting in your rifle is vitally important! And it must be done every year. If you drop or otherwise jar your rifle during the season, sight it in again. You should also get in as much practice as possible at the range. Not only will this enable you to place an accurate shot if the opportunity arises during the season, it will also prevent the errant or misplaced shot which either misses the deer entirely, or worse, wounds the deer without cleanly killing it.
The third factor is teamwork. I have shot deer while hunting alone. I once hunted a particular buck, alone, for two weeks before bagging him. That was a great experience. But hunting, to me, is to be shared with family and friends. The camaraderie of a day’s hunt with friends who share one’s love for the woods and dedication to the hunt is unequaled as far as I’m concerned. It also increases your odds of success.
Deer driving is of course illegal. A drive to me consists of a bunch of idiots moving through the woods banging pots and pans or shooting their guns, driving deer to a line of other idiots standing in a nearby road. There is no place for that in our sporting world. It’s a shame that wardens have a very difficult time prosecuting these tactics.
Two or three folks hunting together, however, can be the essence of hunting, one on a stand and two still hunting around him. When I served as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, we convinced the legislature and governor to make this legal, for up to 3 hunters. I tried to make it 5 hunters because I think an organized hunt is far better and safer than sending five of us to randomly hunt through an area. But DIF&W would only agree to making this legal for three hunters.
My Dad and I had many successful hunts with one of us on a stand and the other hunting towards the stander. This was actually illegal until we got the law changed. This type of hunt also requires knowledge of the area and the deer within it. On my woodlot, I know where the deer bed own, and where they’ll often run if I kick them out of their bedding area. While that doesn’t always work, it’s helped us bag deer quite a few times. This is not unsporting – it is a very pleasurable and rewarding way to hunt.
One time I kicked a nice buck out of my bog and sent him into the woods right at my hunting buddy who was sitting in a chopping. Waiting patiently for the shot that never came, I finally walked out to find out why he hadn’t shot. He told me the buck walked right out of the bog and got to within 100 yards of him, but he didn’t shoot because he was waiting for the buck to walk by him! I sat him back down in his chair, circled back into the bog, and pushed that buck right back out to him. And that time he shot and killed the big 8 pointer.
You can take luck out of the deer hunting equation by sticking with the same area, scouting it as much as possible, spending all your available time there during the season, sighting in your gun and practicing with it, and hunting with friends who share your hunting ethics and love of a good hunt.
Of course, it does help to be lucky! One of the biggest bucks I ever shot came running right at me across a field after I had come out of the woods and was standing near the road waiting for Dad to pick me up to go to a hunter’s breakfast. You’ll have a great chance of success by using the techniques outlined above, but sometimes there’s just no beating blind luck!