Deer hunting around populated areas looks wildly different now than it did when I was a kid. According to the National Resources Inventory, about 2.2 million acres of previously undeveloped land were developed between 1992 and 2002. That means in just a decade, an area the size of Delaware was lost to urban sprawl. And it hasn’t slowed down since.
So, while strip malls and duplex homes moving into farm country seem like a bad deal for deer hunters, it doesn’t mean all whitetail opportunity is lost. In fact, urban deer hunting is some of the best deer hunting in certain states. If you’re willing to follow a new set of rules and deal with barking dogs, bowhunting among population centers is a special experience.
No one knows this better than Taylor Chamberlin. He literally kills dozens of whitetails each year in Washington, D.C., making the best of a weird deer hunting situation. Like with any deer hunting, it all starts with digital scouting.
“I’m constantly studying satellite imagery to locate pockets where deer might live between housing developments, parks, busy roadways, and concentrations of human activity,” Chamberlin said. “Where can they go to be left alone?”
Oftentimes when you’re looking for a whitetail honey hole, you seek out large swaths of untouched land in the form of drainages, oak flats, and marshes. That’s not the case for Chamberlin. He looks for a half acre of overgrown brush along a creek, an orchard or tree nursery that might experience damage, or a wooded corner of a park that doesn’t have walking trails.
When he zeros in on an area, he then dresses in casual, non-camo clothing and starts knocking on doors to see how many properties he can get permission to hunt. Just one piece of ground won’t suffice since most of these properties are incredibly small. He’s always conscious of the optics of hunting to these folks, so he tries to make it seem as clean and palatable as possible. For as hard as Chamberlin works to get hunting permission, it’s crucial that he avoids losing it.
“I’m always thinking about shot selection and the possibility of having to interact with homeowners,” Chamberlin said. “This means I don’t shoot past 20 yards, and I don’t even consider a shot unless I’m 100% confident it’ll end up in a heart or double-lung shot. One bad arrow can result in a deer that crosses through 10 or 15 different properties, which is a nightmare that I try to avoid at all costs because it only takes one unhappy homeowner to shut down a great opportunity.”
On the flip side, when you can get in good with one homeowner, it can provide a snowball effect. It’s beneficial to tell someone that their three neighbors down the street all gave you hunting permission as well. It really helps put their mind at ease if they can see that others in the neighborhood are OK with what you’re asking.
If urban deer hunting sounds like too much work, then consider this: Every year, absolute giants are killed in metro settings (check out Seek One’s YouTube channel for the best urban deer hunting in the country). One of the biggest bucks I’ve ever seen on public land lived in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. I never arrowed him, but I’ve killed other bucks worthy of a taxidermy bill that were in suburban places where you wouldn’t expect to find good deer.
With a change of venue comes a change of tactics. While typical bowhunters weigh factors like moon phases and crop harvest, Chamberlin is mostly concerned about people walking dogs or mowing the lawn. With this comes another level of record keeping that the majority of whitetailers have never considered.
For starters, Chamberlin keeps a chart on the comings and goings of anything (or anyone) that might affect his hunt: “I have landscaper schedules, school bus drop off and pickup times, trash and recycling, you name it. This allows me to keep track of when I should hunt specific spots and how I should access them.”
These factors might push Chamberlin to saddle up in a specific tree on a Wednesday morning instead of a Thursday afternoon, or to approach a stand from one direction on Saturday but another on Sunday. Not only does this allow him to avoid people, but it also keeps his movements a mystery as the deer’s only predator.
“I might kill 20 deer from one property, with every one of them standing in a small 5-foot radius, but every shot was taken from a slightly different spot,” Chamberlin said. “Even on an urban hunt where deer aren’t getting over-pressured, they still figure it out pretty quickly if I shoot a couple from the same spot. The same goes for bumping deer, especially a doe with fawns.”
Although the landscape is different, most all other deer wisdom applies in suburbia. The key, Chamberlin notes, is to keep the deer guessing and to trick them into thinking they’re safe. This is sage advice for all deer hunters, whether they’re 50 yards off the Beltway listening to the morning commute or tucked into a ridge where the nearest town has a single traffic light. Whitetails are whitetails, from D.C. to BFE.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.