Deer Hunting 2010 — Are You Ready?

You wouldn’t think that sitting and waiting for a deer to walk by would take much expertise, but it does. Most hunters don’t have the patience or the perseverance to be expert stand hunters. They fidget, shuffle their feet, cough, smoke, snooze, and are back at the truck by 10 a.m., wondering why they haven’t seen any deer.

Still, there’s the rare occasion when even the most impatient neophyte will have a deer get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, or another antsy hunter might push a deer his or her way. Most years, the inexperienced stand hunter will bemoan the end of the season with a freezer full of TV dinners and frozen pizza instead of venison.

What separates the experts stand hunter from the novice?

A number of things, but one of the most important is stand location. Most hunters don’t give enough consideration to the factors that are likely to cause deer to move past the place they picked to sit. Many hunters will go into an area only a day or two before the season, find a heavily used runway, rubs, or a scrape line and figure, good enough. But without giving consideration to the effects of the terrain, hunting pressure, food sources, and the breeding season are likely to have on deer movements, your chances for success on stand are slim.

Finding the ideal place to stand or place a blind requires an investment in time and effort. There is no substitution for scouting. If you’re an upland hunter, a lot of your scouting can take place during bird hunts in early fall. Familiarize yourself as intimately as possible with the piece of ground you intend to hunt. You should learn everything you can about the nuances and subtleties of the surroundings. The deer know it like you know your own living room.

Scouting will give you a better idea of where deer are likely to show up and where you can waylay one. Often this familiarity only happens over a period of seasons. Every time we hunt our property I learn something new about how, where and why deer move through it.

Scouting during and after the season can be productive, too. Sign, deer sightings, and travel routes are easy to see then and give you a good indication of how the deer react when the pressure is on and where might be a good stand location next season. Post-season can be the best time to look for sign. Rubs will be very visible then and will highlight travel corridors of trophy bucks. The stark foliage and visibility afforded during winter makes pinpointing prime stand locations easier.

Look at the big picture when examining stand placement. What features in the lay of the land are likely to cause dear to move in your direction?

One ideal stand site is near terrain-related funnels. Terrain funnels can be either adverse or favorable when it comes to affecting deer movements. The topography, likes the banks of ravines, may force deer around a given area and toward you, or it might dictate the path of least resistance where deer can travel with minimal exposure.

Deer are not going to travel over a ridge or cross steep hills if they can skirt the bottom of the incline or use a protected valley that affords them security and cover. Knowing where a buck won’t go, can tell you a lot about where he will go.

Whitetails don’t particularly like crossing deep, swift rivers, either, and moving water can funnel deer along riverbanks and streams. Deer will often mosey along rivers to points where they can easily wade across, rather than swim. In addition, the edges along rivers usually boast heavy vegetation and are natural corridors for deer travel.

I found just such a spot in one of my favorite grouse coverts when I was going to college. During the grouse hunts, I discovered a heavily used runway that had ankle-deep mud and was about 2 feet wide where number of deer (more like a herd) had been exiting and entering the river while crossing at a shallow riffle. What made the location even more appealing was the hilly terrain to the east, which tended to funnel the deer down to the riverbank on the far side and into heavier cover.

As the deer moved along the bank to the crossing spot on the far side, the cover began to narrow and peter out, creating a cover funnel that ended at the shallow riffle. It seemed logical for the deer to cross the river there and sneak into the cedar swamp on my side of the river.

I told my brother, Doug, about my surefire spot. He agreed that the combination of the funnels and the shallow, muddy crossing sounded ideal, but he only laughed at my guarantee of a buck on opening day.

At 7 a.m. on November 15, I was crouched under a weirdly shaped maple tree 50 yards from the river and watching the edge of the cedar swamp. I didn’t know if the deer would come from the swamp to cross the river or from the other side into the swamp, but I reasoned I would probably be able to hear any deer crossing the river from the east. I decided to watch the swamp. I’d only been on stand about 15 minutes when I heard a SPLASH! SPLASH! SPLASH! from the direction of the river.

I slowly turned to see a sleek buck with a nice set of headgear wading across the river. I had plenty of time to get the Winchester Model 94 .32 Special to my shoulder and I follow the buck’s gray body as he hit the riverbank. The thick-necked buck hesitated briefly once on the bank, tested the wind, and then ever so slowly began to move down the trail that past behind me. Nose to the ground, he would stop every few steps, raise his head to the wind, and then take a few more cautious strides, all the time looking straight in my direction. I was afraid he would hear my heart pounding.

At about 25 yards, he stopped, put his head down and turned to the side. I took the opportunity to center the iron sights on his shoulder and squeezed the trigger.

Doug was still eating his cereal when I burst through the door at 9 a.m. The ear-to-ear grin on my face was all that he needed to know that the can’t-miss river crossing had produced my first buck.

Cover fumbles are logical locations for blind or stand sites, too. Look for spots where the cover narrows down between two larger parcels of woods, a thick fence row leads from a cornfield to heavy woods, a few standing rows of corn leads from one field to another, the outside corner of a field that cuts into a woods, the finger of marsh between high ground and a brushy field, or similar situations.

Ideal cover funnels are located between bedding and feeding areas that does are likely to use heavily. Where does go, bucks will surely follow. Look for places that are likely to squeeze and concentrate deer movements.

Escape routes are also good places to locate stands, especially on opening day. The blitz of rifle-toting hunters will have deer scrambling for heavy cover and a stand along one of the escape routes they use to get there can be dynamite. Escape routes themselves are sometimes difficult to spot and decipher. Look for faint trails adjacent to well-traveled trails, but deeper into the cover. Deer won’t use these routes all the time, just when they need to. These are the routes they will take when the heat is on.

Other hunters are your best allies when hunting escape routes. Count on hunting pressure to move deer along these routes as other hunters enter the woods. You have to beat the crowds to take full advantage of the invasion. Approach your stand from downwind, as quietly as possible, and get there early. Use a route others aren’t likely to take to sneak into your stand and apply a cover sent to your boots to mask your trail.

Escape routes are just as likely to be used at midday and during late-afternoon hours on opening day is at the crack of dawn. Bucks caught off guard by the influx of hunters might just freeze and lie low at first light until they can get a handle on what’s going on. Then, as fidgety hunters move around at mid-morning and move back into their stands in the afternoon, the deer will use the escape routes to slink into security cover. Perseverance and staying alert might give you a crack at a trophy whitetail as he makes his move. Shots at a moving target are likely in thick cover and you’ll need to be focused and alert when hunting escape routes.

There are other factors to consider when picking a stand location, such as visibility, prevailing winds, thermals, and the sun. When deciding on a location to sit or place a blind at, consider the amount of territory that you can survey. Having the best stand location in the world won’t do any good if you can’t see a deer moving by farther than 20 yards or if the deer is on you before you can get them in your scope. Don’t put your stand right on the spot were expect deer to show up. With a rifle, you can be as far as 75 or 100 yards from where you’d expect a buck to appear. Hunters using shotguns obviously need to be closer. But the farther you can be from the deer and still make it easy, killing shot, the better. If you can’t place a bullet in the vitals area of an animal the size of a deer using a solid rest from that distance, you probably don’t have any business being in the woods.

Binoculars and tinted glasses can help you see when on stand. A rifle scope is not a substitute for binoculars. Only after you have identified what you’re looking at as being a deer should you even consider putting the scope on it. Binoculars will increase your field of view and help you distinguish antlers from underbrush.

Tinted glasses will cut glare, increase contrast on dull, dreary days, and help separate dark deer from dark cover. Yellow shooting glasses also brightened scenes during low-like conditions. Sunglasses might be preferred during bright, midday hours. It pays to have both. Glasses can also prevent eye injuries when moving through the woods.

Deer hunting lore says, “Keep the wind in your face and the sun at your back.” That’s good, sound advice when picking a stand site. Morning stands should face west, when possible, and evening stands should face east to take advantage of the rising and setting sun. Morning or evening sunlight highlights the highly visible white areas on deer or the glint of antlers.

My favorite stand faces east, and two of the better bucks I’ve harvested from it have been in the evening hours. I’ll never forget the ivory-white gleam of their antlers that caught my eye in the fading afternoon sun as they slipped through the brush. Deer, like humans, have a hard time seeing when looking to the sun.

As a general rule, thermals move upwind in the morning and downwind during the evening as air warms or cools. Productive morning stands might be best located on elevated vantage points that face west. Favored evening locations should survey the land edges with your back to the setting sun. Many times, a strong prevailing wind, usually westerly, will swirl and disseminate thermals and make them relatively inconsequential.

Blinds can be a tremendous advantage when stand hunting. If you’re lucky enough to own your deer hunting property or have permission to hunt somewhere on an annual basis, hunting from a permanent blind can prove a big advantage. Blinds can help keep you warm, conceal movement, and contain your scent. A productive blind in a prime location can produce a good buck year after year. It’s kind of like taking a big trout from underneath a logjam in the river; catch one there one year, and there’s a good chance there’ll be one there the next. Bucks are no different, as long as all the veritable stay the same.

Blinds provide a solid rest when it comes time to take a shot. Clearing shooting lanes, knowing the distance to your target, and having a solid rest, gives hunters stationed in a blind a huge advantage.

Blinds can be as elaborate or simple as you’d like. Placed well in advance of the season gives the deer a chance to get accustomed to it, and the blind becomes part of the landscape to deer. By blocking the wind, affording a comfortable place to sit, and keeping snowflakes from slipping down the back of your neck, a blind keeps you in the woods and improves your chance and of killing a deer. No one said you had to be miserable to hunt deer.

Even a pop-up-type blind or one constructed from natural materials found in the woods can be advantageous when stand hunting. A makeshift blind of branches can break up your silhouette. Temporary blinds are convenient if you like to move and serve the purpose of concealment and warmth.

A blind, short of something with thermal pane windows and the kerosene heater, won’t keep you warm on stand if you’re not dressed properly. Most hunters pile on plenty of clothes for staying warm while sitting. The problem is getting there. Working up a sweat on the way to stand is a surefire way of getting cold and limiting your time in the woods. The best strategy is to undress before making your way to your stand. You may want to replace your felt-pack boots with lighter walking boots when moving to your stand. If possible, carry your heavier outer garments and put them on once you get to your blind. If that’s not practical, take your time walking, stopping frequently. Open your coat, unzip your bids, take off your hat, and take a break if you start overheating. Dress in layers so you can strip down when you reach your destination and gradually put things back on as you cool down. Staying warm and comfortable keeps you in the woods.

Staying alert and focused on stand can be difficult, but you need to persevere and be ready when opportunity knocks. You can play mind games with yourself to keep a positive attitude and help time pass. Don’t get depressed thinking about sitting on stand all day long. Keep a positive attitude and convince yourself that any moment a buck will appear. Set time goals, maybe an hour or two, and then reward yourself by having a shot of coffee or snack. Bring plenty of high-energy foods to nibble on while on stand.

Make use of all of your senses. Look for motion. Study the surroundings for anything that might appear out of place. Look for parts of a deer-an ear, antler, or white throat patch. Move your eyes first to scan a new field of view, and then move your head. Use your ears to listen for crunching snow, rustling leaves, or excited blue jays.

Stand hunting for whitetails can be a real paradox. One minute it can be the most boring thing in the world and the next second can provide the ultimate adrenaline rush. Many hunters don’t have the patience to reap the rewards of stand hunting, but as my hunting buddy likes to say, “You must be present to win!”