A beginner’s guide to whitetailed deer hunting and scouting in North America.
As the season wears on, whitetail bucks get more aggressive and territorial.
I can still clearly recall my first whitetail. It was an unseasonably hot October afternoon, the leaves on the oak trees were vibrant oranges, reds and yellows. Squirrels frantically gathered nuts for winter. I climbed up into my perch 20 feet above the forest floor, anticipating the afternoon. Mentally playing out every imaginable scenario, I felt prepared. As the sun began to drop, I noticed movement a mere 20 yards away — it was a buck. I froze, fearing that he had seen me, surprised he’d snuck to that range without me at least hearing him. As I gathered my thoughts, I knew it was now or never. I slowly drew my bow, settled my pin right behind his shoulder, and let my arrow fly. It hit the mark, my heart was racing, and I was so focused on where the buck ran that I dropped my bow to the ground below. In that moment, I knew that deer hunting topped my list of favorite hobbies.
Hunting whitetail deer can be a hobby that lasts all year long or just a few short months, depending on your time and obsession. With a few tips, you too can place a tag on this smart, majestic animal of the North American countryside.
A key element to being successful in the whitetail woods is to do your homework. Scouting is just as important, I’d even say more important, than the actual hunt itself. My favorite time to scout is in the winter after all seasons have closed: The temperature is cool, and that allows you to spend more time with your boots on the ground. You will also be able to find deer trails much easier, and with all the leaves off the trees, you can gain a perspective of the topography. The best part of scouting during winter is that by the time your plan turns into action, the deer will have no memory of your presence.
You can also scout during summer, yet it is a little more difficult because of heat, foliage, pesky bugs, poison ivy, and other seasonal hazards.
While scouting, you want to look for a few key things.
First, you want to find deer trails. At certain times of the year, deer are very consistent and will travel the same trails day after day as long as they are not spooked. Deer are just like people, they will most always follow the path of least resistance. It is also very important to look for what I call travel corridors or funnels/bottlenecks/pinch points. Google Earth is a great tool for helping you find these areas. Look for anything natural or man-made that directs the deer down a certain path. An example is two big areas of timber connected by a small block of woods — natural crossing spots with cover. Or maybe a fence with a gate opening, or better yet a cliff face where they can only cross in one spot.
Second thing to look for is a primary food source, maybe an oak flat with an abundance of acorns or an agricultural field planted in corn, beans or another crop. Deer will rely on and key in on these food sources throughout the season.
Thirdly, look for bedding areas. These can sometimes be difficult to find, but the more time you spend in the field, the better odds you will find them. Whitetails are notorious for finding the thickest place to bed, so look for areas that have thick brush or maybe a cedar patch. When you find deer bedding areas, it will become obvious to you because there will be areas where the grass is flattened out to about the size of a car hood. If you spend enough time scouting, you will find deer beds by actually bumping deer out of them. When this happens, make sure you take note of where these deer beds are, and they will be an important part of your success.
After you have found these key areas, now it’s time to formulate a plan. Deer do different things during different times of the year. In the early season, whitetails spend all their time and energy focusing on food. In the last week of October through most of November, they are in their breeding phase called the “rut,” and in the late season they are recouping from the rut and back to the food source. Set yourself up on a food source during the early season, preferably hunting the evenings. During the rut focus your time and energy hunting near doe bedding areas in the morning and over food in the evening. Bucks will be searching for does to breed, so putting yourself around the does will give you the highest chance of success. When hunting the late season or after the rut, head back to those food sources. Deer will be hitting the food hard, trying to recoup their energy and weight before the onslaught of winter hits.
Considering all the hours you’ll spend scouting and hanging stands, all of these hours boil down to seconds when shooting a deer. Don't let all your hard work go to waste by not being able to execute the shot. There are many different weapons you can use to harvest deer. Archery equipment can consist of longbows, recurve bows, compound bows, and now even crossbows depending on the state. Muzzleloaders are also popular, and you have what are called centerfire rifles. These are your high-caliber, long-range weapons. Scopes are often used to magnify the target. There are many calibers that can be used such as .243, .270, .30-30 and .30-06. No matter what weapon you choose, make sure you practice, get to know your range, and become a sure shot. Also remember to always check your state’s game laws to make sure you are in compliance with the season and regulations, and have the appropriate licenses, tags and permits.
Taking the life of an animal should not be taken lightly, and you should take it upon yourself to do everything you can to do it in an ethical manner. Study the anatomy of a deer in order to become familiar with good ethical shots. If you choose bow hunting, shoot your bow often, and when the season starts to approach, you should increase the time you spend practicing. Practice with heavier clothing, to make sure nothing will affect your shot once the colder weather hits. Then continue shooting throughout the season.
Most of the information presented in this article comes from a bow hunter’s perspective, but the principles can be applied to different weapons. Be sure to check the law first, because time of season — and therefore best hunting tactics — can depend on weapon of choice.
When it comes to hunting whitetails, there is one thing you will learn early on, and that is they have an excellent nose. They rely on, and trust, their noses.
When a deer catches your scent, we call this getting winded. They make a noise every deer hunter hates that sounds like a sneeze through a mega phone. Yet no matter what you do, “getting snorted” will happen from time to time.
First things first, wash your camo hunting clothes in scent-free detergent. Even run a load of scent-free detergent in your washer before washing your hunting clothes. Also, take the time to spray out your dryer with scent-eliminating spray. You can purchase all these products from Cabela's, Bass Pro, or even Wal-Mart. Or you can make your own. Eliminating that dryer-sheet smell in the dryer is imperative.
After you have washed and dried your camo, place it in an unscented bag. Something else that helps beat a whitetail’s nose is to shower with scent-free soap before you hunt. Wearing your camo in the house or in your truck can contaminate your clothes, so what I like to do is wash an extra pair of regular clothes I can easily slip on after the shower and out of once I have arrived at my hunting destination. You can be as extreme as you want on the topic of scent. I know some guys that are more extreme than me and some that are not, and both are successful.
However, the most important thing you can do to beat a whitetail’s nose is to play the wind. When you place a stand or blind in a location, you will have a good idea of where those deer are coming from and traveling to, as well as which direction the wind typically blows in your location. Keep the wind in your favor and try to avoid placing blinds and stands downwind of deer movement. Set multiple stands to allow for hunting a variety of wind directions. If you are diligent in playing the wind, your success will greatly increase. Keep in mind, if you continue to get winded by deer, they will eventually start to avoid your location.
Calling deer is typically only successful during the phases of rut. There are several calls that you can use to entice a monster into range. My favorite call is a good pair of rattling horns. The purpose behind rattling horns is to play on a buck’s aggression.
During the rut, testosterone is at an all-time high. Bucks are looking to breed as many does as possible and to also defend their territory from any intruders. I prefer a real set of antlers, but there are several products on the market that do a great job. When rattling, keep your eyes and ears on alert and be ready for action. Often a buck will come running in out of nowhere looking for a fight, which is an awesome experience.
Another important call that is commonly used is the grunt tube. This mimics the sound of a buck’s grunt. When a buck hears another buck grunt, he will often come check out his opponent. Sometimes they take their time working in so be patient and don't over call. A bleat call is also a useful tool you can utilize. These are very simple calls to use and can be deadly to a big buck looking for does. I like to use a bleat call when I see a buck with his nose on the ground searching for a doe. Sometimes a combination of a grunt and bleat can work well too.
Doe estrus is another common tool that deer hunters can utilize. This comes in a bottle and can also be purchased from any retail store that carries hunting supplies. We talked earlier about the power of a whitetail’s nose, and this is one way to take advantage of that nose. Bucks during the rut are spending all their time searching for does that are in estrus. They rely on their keen sense of smell to find these does. So by using doe estrus you can lure a big buck into shooting range.
One way I apply it is to make a drag rag. Basically, you pour some doe estrus on a rag and attach a string to it and then attach that string to your boot. When you go walking in to your stand, you leave a trail of scent on the ground right to your location, in hopes a buck will cross that path and come check it out.
One final tool and tactic involves buck decoys. Opinions on this topic differ between hunters: some good, some bad. First off, a buck decoy can be the best tool you have — it allows you to cover a lot of ground when bow hunting. You want to use them on field edges where it can be seen from a distance. During the beginning of the rut, bucks become territorial, and their testosterone is increasing every day. If you find the right dominant buck, he will have no tolerance for an intruder on his turf. You can call deer from hundreds of yards away and seal the deal.
When you see a buck in the distance, get his attention. Try your grunt tube first. If he doesn't hear that, hit your antlers together, whatever you have to do to get him looking in your direction. Once he sees your decoy, one of two things will happen: He will either completely ignore you, or he will bristle his hair, lay his ears back, and make a stiff-legged march right to the decoy.
Make sure when placing your decoy that you place it within your range and at a quartering angle to you on the up-wind side. The reason for this is because bucks always challenge face to face. When he is coming across the field, he will come and circle your decoy on the downwind side and come head-to-head with your decoy. As the buck does this he will present you with a perfect shot. In my opinion, when it works, it is one of the most exciting ways to hunt whitetails. This also can work well if you are hunting a new area that you are not familiar with. It allows you to get a good vantage point and hunt on the fringe of an area you might not want to trek through.
Now let’s talk a little bit about the cons. Buck decoys are notorious for terrifying does. Usually if a doe sees your decoy, she will go the opposite direction, because every buck she encounters is harassing her. This can be bad for the meat hunter looking to shoot a doe, but also she may have a buck following close behind that will follow her right on out of range. It can also scare off bucks that aren't dominant. Remember, just because a deer has a huge rack does not make him dominant — this usually comes with age. So you might scare off a buck with nice head gear because he is not the most dominant buck in the area. Deer are a lot like people, they come with different personalities. Some are dominant and some are more docile.
Prevent and eliminate human scent on the decoy. In the end, decoys are a gamble. It could be the best decision you make that day or the worst, but one thing about it, when it works, you will never forget it. I would also advise you to only use this tactic when hunting on private ground. You could be putting yourself in harm’s way if used on public ground. Other hunters may mistake your decoy as an actual deer, so be mindful of that.
Being a whitetail hunter, you will likely hunt from a treestand at some point. In North America alone, one out of three deer hunters will fall from their stand at some point in their career, and about 3 percent of those who fall will suffer permanently crippling injuries.
Nowadays with the advancement of technology, they make harnesses that are attached to a vest that make them very easy to slip on and off, and they are very comfortable.
By far, the majority of treestand falls happen climbing into and out of the stand. Use what is called a lifeline, which is a safety line that hunters attach to from the ground to the stand and allows you to safely climb up and down your treestand. If you apply both of these, you will have a lifetime of safe hunting. As a whitetail hunter, you will be hunting alone most of the time, so always let someone know what area you will be in and when you plan on coming back.
Finally, spend some time with a butcher or experienced hunting buddy — YouTube even has some solid tutorials — to learn about safely field dressing your kill and even processing your own meat if you’re interested in saving money and doing it yourself.
Above all, enjoy Mother Nature and the process of learning the sport. Some of my most memorable hunts have been when I didn’t harvest a deer. Enjoy your time in the woods, and remember to always be safe so you can spend many more years improving at and appreciating this and other outdoor pursuits.
Feeling intimidated by the thought of hunting deer? Check out our beginner's guide to spring turkey hunting.
Todd Foxx grew up in southeast Kansas, hunting ducks, geese, turkeys, deer and more. He took the Kansas hunter’s education course when he was 9, and has been an avid outdoorsman ever since.
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