Author: James L. Bruner
Sometimes you need to go to a dark dreary place that kind of plays with your senses and chills your skin enough to make you shiver. It’s that type of place where it feels like something is going to happen any moment and you’re going to be right in the thick of the event when it all comes down. A place so silent it’s difficult to grasp the concept that movement can easily be made without creating an associated sound lending to the thought that anything can creep up behind you without detection. That’s when you realize the deer standing in front of you seems to have appeared magically out of this thick wet swamp without a sound or clue but, just as you predicted, it used the heavily worn deer trail you scouted months earlier. Advantage now goes to the hunter.
There’s a lot to be said, and, a lot has already been said about deer trails and which are the best for deer hunting. You can dive into the world of primary and secondary deer trails, and even find them regularly, but what most hunters fail to associate is that trails are nothing more than an area where deer have traveled unless you understand how to hunt them. More to the point are some of the mistakes that can be corrected when hunting a heavily traveled or even a lightly traveled deer trail. It’s worth less than a grain of sand to find an active hunting trail if you’re going to stumble your way through the season wondering why all of the deer seem to have suddenly disappeared. So listen up. There are some basic benchmarks to follow throughout the hunting season and put you on the trail to success.
The number one offense in deer country is always going to be the setup. It doesn’t matter whether you’re hunting with a firearm or a bow. While each weapon has it’s limits it doesn’t mean you will always be able to push those maximum limits or hunt at the outer edge of your range. Most times you will find that the distance your treestand or deer blind will be from the deer is dictated by your surroundings or the terrain especially when hunting in a deep forest setting. Push the limits too much and it’s time to move or at minimum let the area cool down for a while. It’s easy to crowd deer out of their core area in a hurry and it’s even easier to scare the deer into the darkness for weeks on end.
It takes a lot of restraint and resistance to keep looking when you find a hub of deer activity and the closest place to hang a stand is practically right over the main trails of movement. This statement doesn’t mean that you should leave the area. By all means, if the deer are there, find a way to hunt them without pushing them out of the area. Try setting up further down the trail. The deer are moving through or along the trail so it’s highly likely that a suitable area will present itself further along the way that will afford ample cover and the elements needed for a productive deer hunt. The main reason why the deer sign may look like every animal congregates in a central hub is basically safety. The deer understand that an approach or ambush into this specific area is less likely to take place. This is the core area where the local deer have called safe haven. Deer are creatures of survival on a constant basis due to activity from both humans and predators. They understand that their continued existence literally hangs in the balance every minute of every day and are able to adapt when changes or threatening circumstances occur. Be smart about your interaction in a high traffic deer area because there are a lot of eyeballs, noses, and instincts working against you. Even when you can’t see the deer.
Other aspects to follow when choosing a deer hunting site are not always whether a virtual herd of deer travel through the area or not. In areas with lower deer densities you may not see deeply furrowed trails pounded down into the mud. Often these trails are faint in comparison due to the lack of animals using the trail. This doesn’t mean your hunting area isn’t as good as the next hunters. You are generally looking for one deer, whether that’s for meat or a trophy hunt is your decision, and that small little trail definitely has at least one deer and probably more. Often all the good timing and hard work can be ruined when a simple element is overlooked or, worse yet, ignored because the hunter is in a hurry. Pass by these small trails and you might be passing by the chance to fill your tag this year. We all understand the excitement but most of us learn that there are times to back off a bit and slow things down. Really take the time to decipher what you see in front of you.
You’ve heard it a thousand times by now but wind can be your biggest enemy. What more can I say about wind than to keep it to your nose so your scent isn’t traveling towards the deer. Although not categorized as wind, thermal currents also carry your scent. Hunting from a ridge may present and upflow of thermals in the morning as the sun begins to rise and warm the ground creating a thermal current that lifts your scent into the air. The top of the hardwood ridge is a great place to be while the bottom portion of the ridge is going to allow your scent to travel up the ridge and alert any deer that may have traveled behind you or bedded on the side of the ridge to take advantage of the warming rays of sun. The opposite can be true when the sun begins to fall in the late fall season. Your scent can literally fall down the ridge to the deer below as the land begins to cool and the thermal currents create a downdraft of flow. Also don’t forget that the seasonal winds usually dominate from a slightly different direction. By the time we begin hunting around here the winds have begun changing from South to South-West over to West and North-West. The early fall hunting days in October or even mid September can see big changes in wind direction throughout the day but especially in the evening. On more than one occasion I’ve hung treestands on opposite sides of the trail allowing me to hunt these changing winds.
Since we spoke of the sun let’s not forget to take advantage of the sun when possible. First and foremost you don’t want the sun in your eyes every morning or evening on the stand. Preferably you want to simply turn the tables if you will and have the sun in the deer’s eyes. A tree large enough to cover your silhouette while the sun shines down is perfect. Of course for ground hunters shooting from a blind the silhouette isn’t a problem. It’s important to remember that if the setting sun is at your back then the rising sun will be in your face. If there’s not enough tree cover in front of you then at some point in the morning you will be facing the fact that the sun will be in your eyes. Advantage back to the deer.
Time on the deer stand is important and let’s face it. You can be more comfortable in an actual deer blind than a treestand. The deer blind will also conceal much more movement but it’s still important to keep movement to a minimum and certainly any noise to a level what I would prefer to call non-existent. If there’s anything other than the smell of a human that will set a whitetail deer into motion it’s the sounds associated with humans. Beeps, dings, clanks, and pings, are all sounds that do not appear naturally in the wild and are alarm bells for the wary whitetail. This all plays back into the time spent on the stand. In most instances the more time you hunt the better the odds of seeing deer but you should know your limits. I am definitely not a sitter. After 2 hours I am wanting to move. I’m not talking moving to a different hunting spot I’m simply needing to move around. That usually begins with the feet fidgeting about to the tapping of the finger on my gun or bow to slight nodding of my head as a play a familiar song in my head. I am not the person to bring toys, books, games, and music out hunting with me so I realize that when the urge to move around begins that I will definitely be leaving before long. If bringing along all kinds of gadgets helps you sit still and hunt longer then that’s fine for you. Just know your own limit and leave before you hit that point or sooner or later you will find a deer staring at you and you’ll realize that this spot has been busted.
And last but certainly not least is your approach to your stand as well as your exit strategy. One question I hear a lot is if leaving your stand at night is it alright while there are deer about. If the deer do not see you leave your stand or blind then that’s probably the best scenario you can hope for unless you plan to wait for the deer to leave the area completely. I’m not just talking leaving your sight. It’s a guessing game based on the animals movement but I stick to my stand until the deer have left the immediate area and then I wait another 10 minutes. The fact is if the deer are foraging around your hunting area they are oblivious to your presence. You don’t want to ruin that if at all possible. It’s much the same when you enter your hunting area and you hear deer.
Most times you have very few options for entry or exit from your stand or blind and those options will include using the same trail the deer travel. There’s really not a better way to tip the deer off that you’re in the area so make an attempt to find an alternate route whenever possible. You would be surprised how easy it is sometimes to create a path to walk to and from your hunting spot without kicking up a big fuss with the natural surroundings. I routinely pick up small sticks on my trail and have even moved dried leaves off the trail I walk in each day. The key is to do everything in moderation and treat even the aspect of clearing small debris as you would a hunting experience.
As is said quite often, leaving a small footprint but taking away big memories sums up any time spent in nature especially during a hunting experience. Follow a few friendly words of wisdom from your fellow hunters and you too can be on the trail of a successful deer hunt.