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You will find dozens of deer hunting tips in this article covering a wide range of different topics. Dive in and start learning!
Opening Day Deer Hunting Tips
Yippee! The gun deer season is just a couple of days away. You've already loaded up the truck with all the needed trappings; decks of cards, food, beverages, and everything in between. And of course, you promised your spouse (notice I didn't say "wife"!!! -- women hunt too!) that if you get your deer quick-like, you'll be back for Thanksgiving. Errr, at least you'll try.
Having said that, most of the hundreds of thousands of deer hunters would probably like nothing better than to bag their deer opening day, get back home to watch football, and have Thanksgiving with the family. And of course, there are many that want to stay the whole time in deer camp. Tradition is a strong and compelling reason to do so. And then of course, it's just one heckuva lot of fun.
Let's deal with those who want to get in and out. Now, you may get lucky, and not having done any scouting or preparation, scope out a nice deer on opening day and get it too. You're done. You can head home the next morning. But a lot of times that is wishful thinking. The deer hunters who really want to get their deer opening day have done a lot of preparation. And remember, the deer on opening day soon recognize that hunters are in the woods, and of course everyone is competing against everyone else for those big rack trophies.
There are some simple rules to follow which will maximize your chances of getting your deer on opening day. Nothing complex, and of course you may have your own regimen, but this is one that 30 year deer hunter and guide, Phil Schweik says makes a lot of sense and gives the savvy hunter a leg-up on getting a nice deer on opening day.
Tips for Everyone
Also these hints assume that you're pretty-much out alone, and not with a big hunting group. Big hunting groups are fine too. But that's when you start deer drives and stuff like that. We're concentrating on the individual, rather than groups, although these tips can apply to anyone:
DNR Harvest Results
Check out the DNR harvest results from the previous deer season. While not totally reliable, conditions and deer populations in various zones/areas change constantly, the harvest results can at least give you some idea of where deer are locating. At least it's one measuring stick that can give you some type of measurement as a starting point. And, this may sound like a broken record, but if you're only after a trophy, don't forget your chances of getting a deer like that at all, let alone on opening day diminishes your chances of getting out of the woods quickly.
Do your scouting. That means finding the right area to hunt, which will offer you the best opportunity to find a deer. Some areas specialize in trophies, but have fewer deer, so you might have to make a trade-off. Your chances are better if you're going to go after something nice in a heavily-deer-populated zone. Your call. Then, try to get specific. Start your scouting in winter, after the season, continue in the spring, and move on to summer and fall. Look for forage areas, water availability, deer trails, and bedding areas.
It's not rocket science. Take the time and go out and look around. That's all it really is. Take notes. Put up some trail cameras if you wish. Draw schematics, and mark trees and areas on a map. If you have one, a good GPS will allow you to triangulate exactly where some marking or tree, or rock, or area is located. And if you don't have a GPS, a compass will at least give you some direction to head to/from when out in the woods. Consistent scouting will give you consistent results, but don't start scouting the week before the season opens and expect any success. It's a year long process that savvy and successful deer hunters follow.
Take Time to Set Up
Find the specific area where you're going to set up, either in a blind or a tree stand. After you've done your scouting, put all the info together, and choose the spot from which you're going to hunt. Maybe a particularly heavily-used trail; near a bedding area, or forage area. If the food is there; if the water is there; if the deer are traveling through an area; and if they are consistently in those spots throughout the year, then you know where to set up. Also, try to find areas that are not heavily traveled with other hunters or people. The more out of the way a place is, the better chance you'll have to find the deer you want on opening day.
*Be prepared with your equipment, and get up early on the first day. With hundreds of thousands of competitors in the woods, make sure you're "up with the birds" as they say, and get into your blind or tree stand. Initially the deer will not spook, until they start hearing gunshots, seeing other deer run about, and start smelling and seeing humans. In this case the early bird may very well get the worm.
As New Year’s Eve approaches, most deer hunters have hung it up for the season. They have either bagged their deer or are tired of trying. With whitetail populations still high throughout most of the country, seasons are long and limits are liberal. On my Southwest Wisconsin property, you can legally hunt deer from September 18 through January 9. That’s well over 100 days of deer hunting. If you stopped hunting in November, you essentially give up one third of your potential season. For diehard deer hunters, there is no excuse for that.
As soon as the November gun deer season comes to a close, the deer woods gets pretty lonely. I’m often the only person hunting within a few miles. It sounds like a good thing and it certainly can be.
However, a lot of the deer we kill earlier in the year find their way to our stand due to mistakes other hunters make. Someone coming out of their stand too early, pressuring their refuge, or not playing the wind correctly can put a deer under your stand that would not be there if no one else was hunting.
What’s great about hunting late in the season is deer are not pressured as much as they are in October and November. During gun deer season any human a deer encounters is probably firing at them. Later in the year most of those folks are sitting on their couch. Since fewer hunters are affecting them, deer will begin to develop patterns hunters can take advantage of.
Find The Food
After breeding season comes to an end, deer are focused solely on survival. If you find good food sources, you will find deer. Oak and hickory trees provide deer with one of their favorite foods, acorns. If the corn crop is still in the fields, you can find deer there as well.
One of my favorite tricks for finding the hot spot in a corn field is hunting the corners. Harvesting equipment is incredibly efficient, but when combines turn corners in fields, they often miss a row or two of corn. Deer will concentrate their efforts where food is easiest to obtain.
The best field you can find for late season deer hunting is planted in winter wheat. Farmers often plant winter wheat for rotation purposes and to prevent soil erosion. This crop stays green throughout the winter and deer hit it hard when other food sources dry up.
When doing your late season scouting, keep an eye out for green fields when everything else is brown. This is a good indication you are looking at a winter wheat field. Farmers will also be more willing to give you access during late season. Most of their friends or relatives are done hunting for the year but crop damage increases as deer become more dependent on agriculture for their survival.
The Sunny Side
Staying warm is another survival strategy for winter whitetails. On snowy or extremely cold days, deer will find junipers and other evergreens for shelter. Snowfall is lighter around these trees and it’s easier to forage. On sunny days, look for deer on the sun facing ridges. Whitetails like to bed down on benches along a ridge in full sun.
Picture a dog or cat lying on the floor where sunlight is hitting the carpet. It is the same concept. Hunting downwind of a west facing ridge adjoining a major feeding area can be very productive. Big bucks often use west facing ridges as staging areas during the late afternoon.
Late season whitetails are a lot of fun to hunt. They use their bellies instead of their testicles to think. Their bellies always seem to want the same thing. It’s up to the hunter to figure out what that is and try to get as close as possible. This chess game is enjoyable. But what I like most is the solitude. The woods are quiet and the conditions add to the challenge.
Early Season Hunting Tips
Some deer hunters won’t step foot in the woods until the rut begins to heat up. There is nothing wrong with prioritizing time but they may be missing out on a superb opportunity to kill a great buck. Hunting during the early season can be drastically different from deer hunting in late October & November. There are not many states with early season firearm seasons, so take these tips for muzzleloader and archery hunting.
Skip The Midday
Warm early season temperatures tend to keep deer off their feet. Save your vacation days for the rut and plan evening hunts for September hunting. For evening hunts, set your stands 50 yards off primary food sources. Mature bucks won’t typically expose themselves during daylight hours, even during the early season. Look for scrapes or rubs just inside the woods. Sign like this indicates bucks are spending time in that area as they wait to go out to feed. Buck trails tend to be less obvious than doe trails but typically run within 20 to 30 yards of primary doe trails.
Keying on food sources is a good idea, hunting over water is even better. This is especially true if there isn’t a lot of water in your area. Deer will browse throughout the day but typically won’t hit a field hard without stopping to get a drink first. If you can hunt a water source close to cover and food, be sure to bring some field dressing gloves along.
Deer are often still on summer feeding patterns during early season hunting. They won’t be this predictable again until well after the rut. A well placed trail camera can give you detailed information about what time a deer passes by, where it is headed, and where it came from. Utilize your trail cameras and most of all, trust them. If you have a lot of deer passing by the camera at six o’clock every night, be in your stand in time to ambush them.
Early season stands should be set well in advance of the season. A month is usually sufficient for deer to get used to stands in the woods. Cutting shooting lanes is vital to early season hunting success. Trees are typically still loaded with leaves in September so having ample space is important whether you’re hunting with a bow or muzzleloader. Don’t be lazy with the wind just because it is early either. Deer use their nose 365 days a year. Always keep wind direction in mind before choosing a stand.
Early season bucks aren’t focused on recreational activities. It’s all about food and cover. This habitual behavior leaves them susceptible to hunters who do their homework before going into the field. One last thing to consider… insects can be brutal in September. Bring along a face net, gloves, and even a ThermaCell.
Pre-rut Hunting Tips
The words “The Rut” stir up dreams of giant bucks in the minds of most deer hunters. At the very least it is a time when deer seem to move all day long. Even if you don’t get a chance to take a deer, you will get to see some. While the rut gets all the headlines, I prefer the pre-rut.
In Northern states, the pre-rut usually starts near Halloween and runs through the first week of November. A few does have gone into estrous, but most have not. This creates a competitive atmosphere among dominant bucks as they attempt to be the first to breed. Competition is good, if you’re a hunter in the woods. There are a handful of time-tested tips for taking pre-rut bucks.
Hunt Travel Routes
Funnels and transition routes are always prime pieces of deer hunting real estate. However, during the pre-rut, deer will be more active during the day than most any other time. This daytime activity makes travel routes ultra effective during pre-rut. Rub lines are a good indication of a buck travel route.
Look for rub lines with fresh sign and old sign. The photo to the right shows an active rub with evidence of rubs from years past in the background. This is obviously a very established buck travel route.
Another thing to look for is rubs on both sides of trees. For example, if you find a rub that faces south and a few trees later find a rub facing north, you know that bucks are using this route in the morning and evening.
If the rubs on a given rubline are all facing the same direction, bucks are typically only using that trail one time during the day. If you know where the bedding and feeding areas are, you’ll know what time of day to hunt this rubline. However, a rubline like this is a lower percentage play compared to the example in the earlier paragraph.
Scraping Up Bucks
A lot of hunters can find scrapes in the woods. They are a little harder to spot than rubs, so most hunters get really excited when they find one. But did you know that not all scrapes are created equal? Scrapes found in open areas are usually only visited during the night. They’re usually made when bucks are feeding in fields under the cover of darkness.
The scrapes you’re looking for are primary scrapes. Primary scrapes are usually found within transition areas with cover around them. You will often find one very large scrape or several scrapes around one licking branch. That licking branch is key. Deer will use it to mark their scent with saliva and the pre-orbital glands around their eyes. These scrapes are a little harder to find but the good news is if you don’t adversely affect deer activity in the area, they will use the same spot year after year.
Hunt Around The Clock
As mentioned before, bucks are on their feet during the pre-rut. After feeding and checking does in the dark, they typically come back to their beds early in the morning. Then they do something they never would have thought of a few weeks earlier. They get up and check does. During the heart of midday, usually between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., bucks will cruise doe bedding areas and transition zones. Most bow hunters work their magic in the evening. But mornings and midday hours can be just as good, if not better during pre-rut. Consider this, as hunters enter the woods in the afternoon bucks go on alert.
They maintain this throughout the evening until the danger is gone. As the night wears on, bucks are emboldened. They run the woods while filling their bellies and looking for love. When morning approaches they are content and tired… still smarter than the average hunter, but not as sharp as they are in the evening. Hunters who skip morning and midday hunts during the pre-rut are missing out.
Call ‘Em In
The pre-rut is the best time to call deer. They are actively searching breeding opportunities and willing to fight for the chance. During peak rut bucks are often already paired up with a doe or too tired to fight it out for the opportunity. There is also the principle of supply and demand to think about.
When there are only a few does to breed, the competition will be fierce. A few weeks later, most does will be in estrous and there will be plenty of opportunities to breed. In this case, bucks are not going to put a lot of effort into finding a willing mate, because breeding does will be everywhere.
I like to mix some light rattling with a few grunts to mimic a sparring match. I’ve seen some hunters portray a knock-down, drag out battle to the death. In my opinion, this just isn’t realistic. Sure, fights like that occasionally break out. But most of the time a few tickles of the tines is all you need. I recommend hunting the area without calling a full day before calling.
The first day will give you an opportunity to see where bucks are traveling and this often leads to good shots. Remember, when calling or rattling deer effectively they will come in while looking for a fight or another buck. They are on alert. If you allow them to walk past your stand naturally, bucks generally keep their head down.
The pre-rut is my favorite time of year. Get into the woods a few weeks before the rut hits this season and the pre-rut may quickly become your favorite too.
Deer Scouting Tips
One thing that successful deer hunters do is pre-season deer scouting. No... that doesn't mean two weeks before the opener. It means both preliminary winter scouting (which we've previously written about), and fine-tuning what you've already learned in the spring. Do those "final touches" in the spring, and you're going to have one great, successful hunt when the season does arrive.
The main purpose of pre-season scouting is to find the right place or places to put your stands. If you place your stands in the spring, the deer will not be spooked during the season. They will have gotten used to the stand being there. If you wait until a week before the season to put up your stand, the deer will note that things are different, and this unusual "thing" is now present.
This may very well spook them. It's like you seeing a picture hanging on the wall in your home. The first few times you see it, you notice it. After that you become so used to it, you don't even think about it. That's what you want the deer to do when they see your stand.
You've got to do this pre-season spring scouting every single year! Some hunters assume that the deer will stay in the same areas. That isn't true. Deer seek out food sources and water. If either is not available, they move on. Hunters often forget that farmers rotate their crops, and at times leave fields that had a lot of corn or beans or alfalfa lay fallow for a year -- and at times, many years.
So if you've seen deer bedding near a good winter corn field, that doesn't mean that when the farmer plants in the spring, that he's going to plant corn, or even plant at all. If there's no food source, the deer move on, and you've got to be prepared to move on with them.
Key Aspects for Scouting
There are some "keys" on which knowledgeable hunters concentrate: The first is finding the deer bedding areas -- a sort of "deer safety zone," where the deer will stay. Then scout out and find forage areas. This, along with wind direction, will determine where you want to place your stand(s).
Stand placement is determined by the direction the deer travel from bedding to forage areas and vice versa -- and VERY IMPORTANTLY -- wind direction -- because you always want to be downwind from the deer. It's a good idea, once you've found where you want to put your deer stands on a trail, that you put stands on BOTH sides of the trail. That way, if the wind is blowing in any direction on the particular day you're hunting, you will always be able to select the "side" to hunt from, which will put you downwind from the deer.
Wind direction can be very influential on whether you're successful in your hunt. Indeed, there are areas that Phil Schweik will not hunt, not because they don't "look great," but simply because he's been "busted" due of the vagaries of wind direction and the like. A few examples: If you're in hilly terrain, thermals may very well "bounce off" hills or timber and take your scent to the deer even though you thought you were downwind. Watch hills and consider thermals.
Then, pay particular attention to hunting field edges, open creek bottoms or particularly marshes. They all share one negative in common: Wind currents, regardless of direction will swirl over the tops of trees, or over creek bottoms and marshes creating wind eddies that will blow your scent into a field where the deer are; and, believe me, the deer will immediately take off.
Phil's had situations where there's a perfect west wind; he's downwind from the deer, and then a swirling eddy created by a creek or marsh turned that wind direction literally back to him in an easterly direction, and gave him away.
Bottom line: Set up your stand after thoroughly testing the winds in the particular area you want to hunt, and that's a very compelling reason in and of itself to do a complete pre-season scout.
Tips for Overcoming the October Deer Lull
Many bow hunters can’t wait for opening day of deer season. Bucks are still on summer feeding patterns and are still fairly dumb when it comes to recognizing hunting pressure. It doesn't take long for deer to figure out they’re being hunted. Then bachelor groups begin breaking up and crops start coming off the fields. Feeding patterns really begin to shift when acorns start hitting the ground. Deer season often seems to go into a dead phase until the rut ramps up. My fishing buddy likes to say, “they just quit biting.” This time of the season usually occurs in early October and is often referred to as “The October Lull”.
This time of year can be incredibly frustrating to hunt. I’ve had stand sites that were very good the prior season and earlier in the current system go cold. Sightings go from ten or twelve deer per sit to zero. Where do the deer go? They don’t disappear. They’re just in different spots and feeding on other food sources. A deer’s world goes through some profound changes in early October. They are simply reacting to those changes.
Changes That Come With the Lull
As leaves begin to fall from trees and the under story, the cover deer have utilized throughout the summer may be rendered useless. Deer may have to seek out new bedding areas. South facing slopes warm faster. This is obviously a disadvantage during the summer months. But as temperatures drop deer seek warmer places to bed down. Changing bedding areas will shift travel routes and feeding areas.
Food sources also change. Soybeans are a staple throughout the summer but by October they may be already off the fields or golden brown. Depending on agricultural practices, corn may or may not be standing as October progresses. As fields are harvested, deer move in quickly to browse on spilled corn. This can have a dramatic impact on where deer are on a given day. And then there is the acorn issue. When acorns hit the forest floor deer no longer need to expose themselves in the open to feed. The pastures and agricultural fields they were hitting in mid-September suddenly go cold. The trails deer were using to access those fields are also quiet.
One of the other factors that lead to the lull is pressure. Deer hunters have been in and out of the woods more than a few times by the time October rolls around. Small game, bear, and bird hunters may have also disturbed deer. Late September and early October is also a popular time for other outdoor enthusiasts to take woodland strolls. The spectacle of orange, red, and golden leaves is too much for many to pass up. If a few frosts have knocked down the insects, a walk in the woods is inviting to just about anyone. All of this activity educates deer and puts them on alert, especially mature deer.
With all of these changes going on, it is tempting to stay home for a few weeks. And honestly, it’s not a bad idea. This is particularly true if you hunt a smaller property. Allowing the property to cool off for a few weeks can be a good thing. But if you’re a hunting junkie like me, passing up a few weeks of hunting just isn't an option.
Scouting is productive no matter what time of year you do it. Scouting is especially important during the October lull. Let’s be clear though, it’s not a good idea to go tromping around your property. If you can watch fields from the road, logging trail, or two track spend a night or two watching for fields deer are using. If you can see what fields deer are using and where they are entering, you’ll have a good idea of what they are eating. I take detailed notes of observations from the tree stand and the roadside throughout the season. These offer valuable insight during the season, the following year, and beyond.
Acorns can also spread deer out but keep in mind not all oak trees are the same. Learn to differentiate red oak from white oak. Deer prefer acorns from white oak over red oak, especially when there is an abundance of acorns on the ground. If you can note the best trees on your property ahead of time, you’ll save yourself some work and ease pressure on your property. I don’t advise walking the woods during the heart of the season but if you’re working a blood trail, observe your surroundings. You might as well take advantage of any required intrusion.
Some people like to move in on bedding areas during the October lull in an attempt to take the action to the deer. In my opinion this is a bad idea. The last thing I want to do is add stress and pressure to deer just a few weeks before peak hunting begins.
If you do feel the need to turn up the heat, do some calling or use scents. Some light rattling and sporadic grunting is common in the deer woods this time of year. The knockdown, drag out fights have yet to occur but believe it or not there is some sparring going on. In fact, I have seen bucks engage in light battles as early as mid-September.
When it comes to scents, early season hunters tend to use cover scents and curiosity scents early in the year. Estrous scent is something typically reserved for late October into November. This is a big mistake as far as I’m concerned. In late October and early November, estrous scent is becoming more commonplace. That same scent is rare and exciting for bucks in mid-October. Don’t be afraid to use it. Your estrous doe is probably going to be the only show in town.
The most successful hunters I've been around aren't the ones with the best properties or the fanciest equipment. That may be hard to believe for some. Most of the very successful hunters I've met spend a lot of time at their craft and aren't afraid to try new things. The best advice I have for overcoming the October lull is to do something other hunters aren't doing. Sometimes you have to use your entire tackle box to make them bite.
Deer Tree Stand Tips
Consistently successful deer hunters have knowledge of some easily learned secrets and tricks of the trade that will increase your chances of getting that prize buck you're looking for. Here are just a few of them.
What is Your Stand Approach?
An important thing is your approach to your stand. First of all look at the route to your stand. You do not want to interfere with the deer who you want coming to your stand. Adjust your stand's position, whether it be for a morning or late in the day hunt. In the event you're hunting late in the day, you surely do not want to go through a bedding area.
Find a route to your stand without disturbing bedding areas. And of course, the real savvy hunter will always take into consideration the need to play the wind, so that your scent will not go through the route you're taking, and right to the noses of the deer you're hunting. If hunting in the morning, don't use a route that goes through or approaches a feeding area, because deer will be there, and if you do use this route, the deer will simply move quickly out of that area.
The height of a stand is important. How high is too high? That's the classic question; and where the stand should be placed in height depends on cover, terrain, hills, brush and the like. You don't want to be up on a hill silhouetted against the skyline. And vice-versa, down in a swamp area, you want to be high enough to see over a tag alder thicket or high brush.
One thing is different when using a gun as opposed to a bow when hunting a swamp area. With a gun you want to be high, but if using a bow you want to be low and on the ground, so you can get a clear shooting lane, and not have to worry about shooting through a tag alder thicket. Best suggestion?: Use common sense! Think before you act. Be calm, and store that adrenalin rush away for after you've gotten that prize buck.
You don't want to take the same route to your stand every day, because the deer will surely be able to pattern you. Take a different approach each day. You also don't want to get out of your truck, slam the door, and just tromp through the woods to your stand. And I know it's hard to believe but a lot of hunters, even knowing better, do this.
What you want to do is get out of your vehicle quietly, get your gear on and then pussyfoot through the woods. Take some steps. Stop. Look around, and then move on. Savvy hunters feel the same adrenaline rush that you do, but they control that rush, and mentally tell themselves, "I'd better be quiet." You do the same. This type of trekking through the woods is almost like still hunting, but you are moving, and however surprising there are hunters who while going to their stands will actually get a big buck, because they were quiet, and very aware of their surroundings.