Whitetail deer are widely available across the U.S. with many most states having seasons for them. These deer can be hunted in a wide variety of different ways, depending on the area you find yourself hunting in. No matter what style hunting you choose for these animals, you will find that whitetails are addicting.
Ambush hunting is by far the most common whitetail strategy, with most whitetail hunters preferring to ambush the animals on or near agricultural land. Aside from hunting pressure, the whereabouts of whitetail deer are dictated largely by the locations of their favorite foods, and whitetails are suckers for crops.
True numbers are hard to come by, but even a conservative estimate would be that well over 50% of the whitetail deer that are killed every year are killed on active farmland. However, having access to such property does not negate the need to do some serious pre-season whitetail scouting as you strive to put together a cohesive picture of how the local deer population happens to be using the habitat where you’re hunting. Specifically, you need to know where the deer are feeding, where they are sleeping, and how/when they are moving back and forth between these locations.
Scouting is Key
Finding the deer’s preferred feeding area is more complicated than just looking toward the nearest farm field. The feeding habits of deer are constantly changing throughout the year as they switch from one food source to another. In a typical fall, a deer’s “favorite” food might shift from alfalfa to beechnuts to acorns to apples to dogwood limbs.
Keeping up on the changing habits of deer requires flexibility and observation skills. That is, the flexibility to accept that tomorrow’s deer will not necessarily be found in the same place as today’s, and the observation skills necessary to anticipate the changes in a deer’s dietary habits based on clues drawn from the landscape.
For example, you might see deer feeding along the fairways of an irrigated golf course all August, but you’ll know that the smart choice for an October hunt will be near that stand of oak trees that’s been developing a massive crop of acorns on the neighboring state forest. It’s impossible to address or anticipate all possible scenarios simply because whitetail deer habitats are so incredibly varied, but hopefully you get the point. Identifying deer feed comes down to observing not only the animals, but also their surroundings.
As for whitetail bedding areas, “thickets” is the best single word to describe them. Whitetails, especially those that see substantial hunting pressure, generally like thick vegetation that impedes the eyes and block the passage of their predators. Think marsh edges, briar patches, early succession clear cuts, young Christmas tree plantations, creek bottoms, windrows, abandoned farmsteads, and fallow fields that have become overgrown with vines and woody vegetation.
There are exceptions to this, of course, particularly in hilly country. Here, deer will sometimes bed on finger ridges which provide them with a wide-angle view of the surrounding country, or they will use hillsides to maximize their exposure to the winter sun during periods of extremely cold weather. In short, deer are likely to spend their days in the kind of cover that you’ll sometimes need to get on all fours to pass through.
Since bedding areas are much more consistent than feeding areas, that is, deer will continue to bed in the same location while they’re feeding areas go through constant changes, you need to be very careful not to disturb these locations any more than absolutely necessary. Repeatedly spooking deer from a bedding area might cause them to altogether abandon its use. If you stroll into a brushy swale and kick out a half dozen deer on a mid-day walk, you should congratulate yourself on a valuable discovery. But you should also promise yourself that you’ll never walk through that swale again.
Once you’ve determined where the local deer are bedding and where they’re likely to be feeding during the hunting season, it’s time to figure out the travel routes that they’re going to be using as they move back and forth. Often this is simple as finding a deer trail, though deer seldom travel exclusively along one well-defined path. It’s more common for them to use what we’ll call travel corridors, basically areas that deer are likely to pass through as they move, often while feeding, from one location to another.
Setting up in Travel Corridors
Since we’re ruling out the ill-advised approach of hunting deer directly in their bedding areas, it’s time to decide if you’re better off targeting the animals in their feeding areas or along their travel corridors. This decision should be informed by a number of considerations, what sort of weapon you’re hunting with, how expansive the feeding area is and how well-defined the travel corridors are.
The first consideration, what sort of weapon you’re using, will tell you how close you need to get to the deer. With a rifle, you can keep a relatively comfortable distance of 200 yards between you and the deer, a yardage that greatly reduces the chances that you’ll spook the animals. In a shotgun-only zone, you’ll want to at least halve that distance even if you consider yourself to be a good marksman. Same with a muzzleloader. And with a bow, you’ll want to trim that distance down to thirty or so yards.
Once you know how close you need to get, you can weigh the pros and cons of hunting the feeding areas or the travel corridors. There is no fast and easy way to make this determination. First, imagine that you’re hunting with a rifle and you’ve identified a large cut cornfield measuring 300 yards across that is being used heavily by deer.
There are at least three good travel corridors approaching this field, from multiple directions. In this situation, the smartest move is to set up an elevated blind where you can observe the entire cornfield, knowing that you can reach any deer that materializes at the terminus of every travel corridor with a well-placed shot.
Now we’ll imagine the same scenario except that you’re hunting with archery equipment. If your maximum effective shooting distance is 40 yards, then there’s little point in trying to cover the entire cornfield from your ambush location. Instead, you need to do some careful scouting to determine which of those three travel corridors is being used most heavily.
Once that’s done, you need to identify the best point along that corridor where you can except deer to pass within range of a plausible ambush location. In the case of single game trails this is fairly easy, but in wider corridors you need to search out pinch points or funnels that serve to constrict deer traffic down to precise locations.
Examples might include an old beaver dam that deer are using to cross a stream, a skinny strip of brush connecting two larger patches of timber, a chunk of dry land between two flooded swamps, and a convergence of two or three deer trails. While searching for funnels, keep in mind that whitetails have a relatively small home-range. Their bedding and feeding are often separated by very short distances or might even bleed into one another. Be careful that you’re chosen ambush point isn’t crowding the bedding area, because this might cause you to spook deer as you get into position to hunt.
Now for another scenario, this time a large pair of parallel ridges covered in white oaks that have been dripping with ripe acorns for two weeks. The ridges are hundreds of yards long, and there’s a lush understory of vegetation that prevents you from ever seeing more than a hundred or so yards in any given direction.
Running between these ridges is a small stream that flows into a swampy wetland, and this wetland is traditionally where the deer like to bed. There’s a bunch of game trails leading out of the swamp and running along either side of the stream, and these trails become more and more diffuse as they get away from the swamp, presumably because deer are pealing away from the trails in order to ascend the ridges and feed on the acorns.
Since it’s impossible to cover the entirety of these two ridge top feeding areas, even with a rifle, both the bowhunter and the rifle hunter are going to focus their attention on the trails that exit the swamp and follow the creek. The difference between their strategies is that the rifle hunter would be wise to find a location where he can get a little bit of elevation on one of the hills and then overlook the entire creek bed, preferably in a place where the bottom is wide enough and open enough to allow for multiple shooting opportunities at an animal that is traveling through.
The bowhunter, on the other hand, will need to get down into that creek bed and select an appropriate pinch-point or funnel where a number of the deer trails converge. He’ll be much more likely to spook deer, and it’s certainly possible that deer will pass beyond his range, but it’s the surest approach to capitalizing on a temporary food source that’s drawing an abundance of deer.
Choosing the Right Stand
They ought to put a whitetail deer next to the word “skittish” in the English dictionary. These animals tend to run first and then wonder about what spooked them later. The challenge for a whitetail ambush hunter is to stay in your stand for extended periods of time while limiting any effects that your presence might have on approaching animals. One Wisconsin hunter describes what it’s like to ambush whitetails by saying, “You even gotta move your eyeballs slowly.”
The best way to avoid a whitetail’s acute sensory perception is to use an elevated platform such as a treestand or freestanding ladder stand. This does a few things for you, it helps keep you above a deer’s field of view. It helps keep your odor up higher where it might be taken away on the wind rather than pooling around you and it gives you a more commanding view of your surroundings. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that a treestand will allow you to get sloppy. You still need to stay mindful of wind direction and camouflage when using a treestand, just not as mindful as you need to be when using a ground blind.
When hunting from the ground, either because you can’t legally hunt from an elevated platform or because the landscape isn’t conducive to elevated platforms, it’s vital that you take serious precautions to mitigate your sound, sight, and odor. This is especially true when hunting with a bow or muzzleloader, where you need to get nice and close to the animal in order to make a clean kill.
You can construct serviceable ground blinds using native materials located around your hunting area, but it’s hard to beat the manufactured tent-like structures known as pop-up blinds.
Pop-ups offer unmatched visual coverage and can also help to deaden noises and prevent scent-dispersal. They are a bit clumsy to transport into the field, but once they’re on location you can easily move them around to adjust for changing circumstances such wind direction and the preferred travel routes of your quarry. They are also quite helpful in protecting you from fowl weather, which enables to stay in the woods longer and therefore see more deer.
When to Hunt Whitetails
The best time to hunt whitetails is whenever you can get into the woods. With that said, there are a couple of occasions when it’s an extra-good idea to be in your stand.
The first is on opening day of the firearm season. In most states, opening day accounts for 50% or more of the entire annual whitetail harvest. Until daybreak on opening morning, deer are usually going about their typical business in a fairly predictable fashion. They haven’t yet adjusted their routines to account for hunter pressure, so you’ve got the element of surprise on your side. Usually within minutes of the arrival of legal shooting hours, the deer will know that something is seriously amiss and they will begin moving in seemingly erratic patterns as they get bumped from one hunter to the next.
This usually goes on for hours, often enabling hunters to see more deer by noon than they’ll see in the entire remainder of the hunting season. Once the initial flurry of opening day activity is over this usually happens around 10 a.m. or so don’t succumb to the temptation to head back to your car or truck.
Instead, you should remain in your blind and allow less-disciplined hunters to spook more deer past your stand as they leave their own ambush locations and begin bumbling through the woods. Inevitably, the mid-morning silence on opening day is broken by a few shots fired from hunters who had the wherewithal to stick it out and capitalize on the laziness of other hunters.
If you don’t manage to kill a deer on opening day, don’t lose faith. The majority of America’s whitetail hunters spend only two days in the field. Within a week of the opener, the woods have usually quieted down enough for the deer to come out of the temporary nocturnal state that usually begins with the onslaught of opening day. Once they’ve started to return to their normal routines, you can begin the serious and much more rewarding task of hunting deer that are actually behaving like deer.
The rut is the other time when it’s extremely productive to be in the whitetail woods. This is when the ultra-cagey, sometimes nocturnal, always elusive whitetail bucks abandon their inhibitions in order to breed females. Hunters often describe the rut as occurring in three stages: pre-rut, peak rut, and post-rut.
While no two serious hunters will agree on what exactly these terms mean and when exactly they happen, here’s a general guideline. Pre-rut is the period when the bucks start to establish their hierarchies and begin showing a bit of enhanced interest in the local population of does. However, their feeding and bedding activities are generally normal during pre-rut, so don’t make any drastic moves in terms of stand location. And be prepared for some quiet days. In fact, many hunters call this period the “October lull.” Pre-rut can begin as late as December in the southern U.S.
Eventually, pre-rut gives way to something called peak rut, which is an approximately 1-week to 2-week period when the bulk of the female deer come into estrus. This usually results in massive amounts of deer activity, with bucks on the move all day as they defend their territories from other bucks and harass pretty much every doe that they can find. At this time of year, early- to mid-November in the north; as late as late-January in the south, bucks will abandon all caution and behave in ways that might strike a person as outright stupid.
Now’s the time when you want to be in the woods, no matter what! Also consider moving your ambush position away from food sources and toward travel corridors in order to capitalize on the increased wanderlust and decreased appetites of the local bucks. And if you see a doe in your area that is displaying submissive postures, urinating frequently, or being hounded by bucks, pay attention. If she’s in estrus, her scent could attract bucks from miles away.
The post-rut period is just what it sounds like. As does cease coming into estrus, the rut winds down and comes to an end. Bucks begin the process of rehabilitating themselves after a period of self-neglect that has left them famished, exhausted, and sometimes hurting from minor injuries sustained in fight with other bucks. Post-rut is when bucks like to do a lot of resting, often hidden and alone, which can make for tough hunting. Now’s the time to focus your efforts on good feeding areas.
Calling Whitetail Deer
Hunters who are interested in calling whitetail deer will have their best luck during the various phases of the rut. Pre-rut is a great time to try antler-rattling, which mimics the sounds of sparring or fighting bucks. This is best done in places where deer are likely to congregate anyways, such as feeding areas, because you will often draw in deer that seem only passively curious about what’s going on, they’re not yet ready to be in a fight themselves, but they enjoy watching others go at it.
Many products are made to imitate this sound. Rattle bags and “pack racks” do the job and are easier to carry than real antlers, but most diehards choose to carry a real set as they are thought to have a more realistic sound. Some guys even soak their year-old rattling antlers in a five-gallon bucket of water prior to the season to give them that “alive” sound.
Try short, minute-long bursts of clacking antlers at 10 or 15-minute intervals. Be prepared at all times, as bucks can come out of nowhere and show up fast. But don’t just wait for the hard-charging monsters. Bucks of all sizes will sometimes skirt your position as they try to sneak a peek at the action.
During peak rut, when the woods have really heated up with breeding activity, you can try many different kinds of deer calls. Antler rattling will still work, sometimes very effectively. Grunt calls also work well. Most often, bucks will grunt when trailing a doe, this is known as a tending grunt, and sounds a lot like a burp and nearby bucks might respond to the noise in hopes of displacing their rival and snatching up the doe. Mimic these sounds with a commercially produced grunt tube.
There are literally dozens of commercially grunt tubes on the market today. Try several in order to find one that works for you, and then stick with it. Other commercially produced calls mimic what’s known as a “snort-wheeze,” which is a threatening noise that dominant bucks make when agitated by other bucks who are invading his space. This type of call will bring in other bucks who are trying to either assert their dominance or relieve their curiosity.
Finally, many hunters call in rutting bucks by mimicking the bleating sounds of does and fawns. Such sounds are made with manufactured internal reed calls as well as bleat cans that are operated simply by flipping the can end-for-end in your hand. These calls can also be used quite effectively to stop a rut-crazed buck that is walking too fast for a clean shot. But be sure to have your bow or gun ready before you try it, as the deer will likely look right in your direction when you make the noise. If it sees you, it’s likely to bolt.
Combine These Strategies
Some whitetail hunters combine calling and still-hunting strategies, they rattle or call in one place, then wait ten or fifteen minutes before moving on to their next calling location. Other still-hunters rely on absolute silence in order to walk up on whitetails that are unaware of their presence. This is best done when the forest floor is damp from rain or wet snow, which greatly diminishes the sound of crinkling leaves.
Besides maintaining silence, the biggest challenge to the still-hunter is spotting deer before they’ve spotted you. With their gray-brown coat, whitetails have an uncanny ability to blend into an variety of backgrounds ranging from deciduous trees to evergreen forests to desert scrub. When still-hunting whitetails, go excruciatingly slowly and use your binoculars to dissect your surroundings. Looks for parts rather than the whole. You’re far more likely to see an ear, nose, or antler than an entire deer.
Finally, drive hunting can be an incredibly effective and very fun way to hunt whitetails if you’ve got a few buddies who don’t mind hunting together as a team. Though you should remind yourself that establishing a productive whitetail drive might require a couple years’ worth of trial and error as you learn the best routes and positions to be used by drivers and standers. But once you figure out a couple of different whitetail drives, you’re sitting on gold. As long as the habitat stays the same, a good whitetail drive can produce venison on a yearly basis for decades or more.