At some point during a whitetail deer hunt, you must be in the right spot at the right time to take a Booner buck. But the reality is, great deer hunters don’t consistently take big bucks because they are just lucky. Rather, they’re skilled hunters who have learned how to read the terrain, identify food sources, and think like a buck. This allows them to better predict where one will be at a given moment in time. With time, dedication, and these down-and-dirty whitetail deer hunting tactics, you can too.
Scouting for Deer: 101
1. Finding the Food
Step number 1 in whitetail deer hunting is identifying food sources on the property you hunt. This requires walking the property and being able to identify various trees and plants. We all know deer love acorns and other hard mast, but they’re called “ice-cream foods” by deer biologists. This is because they’re a treat to deer whenever they can get them, but they disappear fast. Soft masts such as apples, pears, cherries, or plums are dynamite for deer as well. However, they are also very seasonal. In the spring, whitetails typically grow and survive on green forbes. And they browse blackberry, brambles, greenbrier, prickly pear, poison ivy and dozens more in the fall.
The problem with browse, however, is that it’s too widespread to target specifically. So, if you can scout and find a white oak tree that’s raining fresh green acorns, you should hunt near that tree until the ice cream is gone. It’s only a matter of time until deer—and bucks—find it. Finally, strongly consider installing food plots where legal. While deer don’t need supplemental food in spring and early fall, they’ll flock to crops when times get tough in winter.
2. Identifying Cover
Bucks get old and big by being wary. They stick close to terrain features that mask their movements as much as possible as they travel from their bedding areas to their food sources. So before and after the rut, don’t expect to see mature bucks out in the open before dark. During most times of year except for the rut, you should hunt thick cover and woody travel corridors to consistently take mature bucks.
A natural funnel of oak woods that narrows like the waist of an hourglass is the perfect ambush spot; bucks are forced into this deadly funnel if they are to remain hidden as they move to feeding areas. Such a stand location is wonderful for the majority of deer season. Learn how to identify these areas by looking at aerial photographs, Google Earth, and other apps such as OnX.
3. Placing Boots on the Ground
After studying maps, it’s time to get in the woods. Hopefully you scouted during the summer,. But even if you can’t scout until just before the opener, it’s better than not scouting for deer at all. One rub on a tree tells you a buck has been there once. However rub line, or several rubbed trees in succession, typically indicates the area is home-base for a buck. Look for deer tracks concentrated in muddy creek crossings and dirt roads. These reveal how many deer are using the crossing, if any of them are big, and the direction of travel. Try to find ground scrapes in late October and November. Fresh ground scrapes tell you two things: A buck is in the area, and he will likely come back to check it for scent.
4. Using Trail Cams
After you find a good food source and/or copious deer sign, place a trail camera. This will allow you to learn for certain if deer are consistently gravitating to that place and at what time. A week later, sneak back in and check the cameras. If you see a good number of does, or perhaps a buck that trips your trigger, you’ll know where to hang your stand.
5. Placing Stands
Place a tree stand downwind of a funnel’s center by factoring the predominant wind in your area. If the wind swirls or switches directions a lot in your area, consider placing two stands on either side of the funnel. This gives you the option to make a game-day decision on which stand to hunt.
If you hunt food plots, consider moving your stand to a subtle trail leading to the food plot, and not over the plot itself. Big bucks don’t often come out in the open plot until after dark or during the rut. Catch them as they stage in cover before dark.
6. Minding the Weather
Bucks are programmed to alter their lifestyles when days get shorter and summer morphs in to fall. Bucks begin moving more, marking their territory, rubbing their antlers, sparring with rivals, and looking for does, all in an effort to begin the breeding process. During this time, often in late October or early November, any sudden drop in temperature or swing in moon phase can set bucks into motion. When this happens, you should be in the woods, waiting in ambush with your favorite gun or bow.
7. Hunting the Rut
In most places in the southern U.S., except extreme South Texas and South Florida where the rut happens around Christmas, the whitetail rut starts in late November and lasts until early to mid-December. During this time, hunters should hunt does to find big bucks. This means moving your tree stand or ground blind out of deep cover to more open areas, such as food plots and food-laden fields, where does congregate.
If you can find does, sooner or later bucks will show up. And if you find a hot doe, one that is obviously in estrous because it’s constantly being chased by bucks, continue hunting in that area. If there is a dominant buck around, he will eventually show up to claim his breeding rights. Bucks are programmed to breed, even if it means taking more risks and moving out of their sanctuaries to do so. The more time you spend in the woods during the rut, the better your chances of nailing him.
8. Attracting Deer
If you have no food plots, the oak trees aren’t producing and you can’t find does concentrated in any one area, consider sweetening your stand location with corn, where legal, or other attractants such as Acorn Rage from Wildgame Innovations or any number of products from Big and J attractants (Both sold at Bass Pro and Cabela’s). But before you do this, make sure you are where deer naturally want to be and not simply at a location that’s convenient for you.
While deer can see clear across fields, possess great vision in low light conditions and have a 270-degree field of view, they survive via their sense of smell. And the older a deer is, the more it trusts its sniffer. A 5-year-old buck doesn’t have to see you or hear you to bolt at the first whiff. So you must do everything you can to mitigate your scent. This means doing the obvious things like washing your clothes in scent-free soap, taking a scent-free shower the morning of the hunt, using non-perfumed deodorant and not doing anything silly, like pumping gas before you go whitetail deer hunting. Some hunters even swear by scent-reducing devices such as Ozonics and the new Zero Trace machine from Wildgame Innovations.
10. Playing the Wind
Know that if you can smell something, you can bet a deer can smell it from a literal mile away. And because you can never fully mask your scent from a whitetail, your best bet is to use the wind to your advantage.
This means letting the wind choose your stand locations for you. Even if you’ve seen a big buck on camera and your stand is convenient, resist the urge to hunt from it if the wind is blowing from behind your stand to the direction from which you expect the deer to come. It’s not worth the risk of spooking the buck when you can wait for a day until the wind is right.
11. Sneaking to Your Stand
If deer are not used to vehicles where you hunt, park at least a half mile from your stand and silently walk in. If you can use terrain features, such as creek bottoms, a two-track road, or a line of cedar trees to mask your entry, do so. Consider driving around your property and walking in from another angle if it’s the quietest way to get to your stand. Getting in and out of your stand undetected is one of the biggest factors of success on a given day of whitetail deer hunting.
12. Making the Shot
If you’ve done everything right, being successful comes down to making a perfect shot under pressure. The best way to accomplish this is by practicing long before the moment of truth arrives. Increase pressure during practice to better mimic the hunt. You can do this by wagering small bets while shooting with friends or by participating in local 3D tournaments. Learn how to narrow your focus so that you only focus on a deer’s vitals and not its entire body when you shoot. Then, just before the shot, tell yourself, pick a spot, squeeze the trigger, follow-through. If you’ve prepared well, there should soon be steaks in the freezer and a big buck on the wall.
Old School Whitetail Deer Hunting Meets New-School Tricks
13. Learn Tree ID
Ancient hunters knew what plants attract deer and how to identify them. These days you can use the internet to learn what these trees and plants look like so you can use them to find deer. A great place to start is the Quality Deer Management Association website qdma.com.
14. Scout from Afar
In the old days, scouting always meant walking the property and looking for signs. Now we can use technology to do much of the legwork for us. Use satellite imagery such as Google Earth and OnX maps to locate potential food sources and buck-holding terrain features. Then deploy cell-phone-based trail cams to scout deer as you live your daily life. Spypoint’s Link-Micro cellular trail cam is effective and affordable.
15. Try an Integral Rangefinder
Only 20 years ago, hunters preferred a “flat-shooting” rifle or bow to minimize mistakes made in range estimation. Now, range finding devices are widespread and affordable so that the distance to the target should always be a known variable. Recently several companies such as Burris, IQ and Garmin launched bowsights that have integral rangefinders built in. So hunters can quickly draw, range the target, pick the correct pin, and deliver one deadly arrow that kills your quarry quickly.
So You Got One. Now What?
The Slay to Gourmet cookbook by Jon Wipfli helps you take your harvest to the next level.
Chef Wipfli’s adventurous new recipes will inspire home cooks and gourmands alike. Raised in Wisconsin and based in Minnesota, outdoorsman and trained Chef Wipfli knows a thing or two about venison. His book, Venison: The Slay to Gourmet Field to Kitchen Cookbook, takes you on an authentic journey. It takes you from the hunt, through the mechanics of butchery, on to bold and delectable recipes that elevate this somewhat humble wild game to mouth-watering, restaurant-worthy dishes.
In Venison, you’ll find more than 30 recipes with accompanying accoutrements and sides. Jon also takes readers through the process of ethical whitetail deer hunting, shares the importance of responsibly and locally sourced food, explains efficient processing with less waste and more for your table (Jon’s no-nonsense technique for field-dressing a deer Is illustrated with step-by-step field photography), and of course, offers recipes for using the game in restaurant-worthy dishes, like Porcini Encrusted Loin, Meatballs with Cherry Barbecue Sauce, and a killer Leg Steak Sandwich with Bacon Jam and Blue Cheese. Whether you’re new to the hunt or a seasoned veteran, a home cook or gourmand, this fresh approach to venison cookery is a must-have kitchen companion.