Spotlighting. Shining. Jacklighting.
Without context, any of these terms can conjure images of some of the worst wildlife offenders in America—nighttime poachers using a bright light to blind deer into paralysis and then swinging a rifle out the window. This is an unfortunate reality in some parts of the country, but not a complete picture of the practice.
Spotlights can be used legally, at certain times and in certain ways, as a valuable tool to help hunters scout for and hunt deer. Here’s how some of the best whitetail hunters in the country are doing it.
It’s important to note that shining is not legal in all places or at all times. Due to the long history of spotlights being used in nefarious ways, the practice has now become carefully regulated to prevent abuse.
For example, in Wisconsin, shining is legal year round (with hours restrictions in fall that only allow spotlighting from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.), so long as there’s no weapon in the car. In Michigan, shining for deer is illegal throughout the entire month of November, but the rest of the year it’s allowed before 11:00 p.m. and after 6:00 a.m. Be certain to check your state regulations to confirm exactly when and how you can legally use a spotlight to view deer.
Why Spotlight Deer
Understanding these regulations can be well worth the trouble because of the plethora of information a spotlight can uncover. Whitetail deer—mature bucks especially—move most frequently under the cover of darkness or near the edges of it, with the majority of daylight activity happening in thick vegetation. This makes studying, scouting, and locating mature bucks particularly difficult while the sun is up.
A spotlight can aid in this by allowing hunters to observe and locate deer out in the open during the after-dark hours when they feel most comfortable. These sightings, along with prior knowledge of an area, can help you pinpoint where a buck is feeding, how he might be getting there, and where he’s possibly bedding.
According to Dan Infalt, renowned bowhunter and founder of Hunting Beast, this information is helpful during both summer and fall. July and August spotlighting trips allow Infalt to identify what quality of bucks are in the area, which helps him set his standards for the year. In-season shining is used to dial-in buck patterns and bedding areas.
“Often if a buck is using a certain field just after dark, that will tell me which beds he likely came from,” Infalt said.
Because he has pre-scouted many bedding areas in the places he shines, a nighttime sighting in a specific field allows him to make assumptions about a deer’s route to that food source and the nearest bedding areas. Shining and spotting a buck creates a physical confirmation that can help connect dots from previous scouting efforts.
You can fine-tune this guesswork even further by considering the timing of a nighttime sighting. Joe Rentmeester, another avid Wisconsin bowhunter and Hunting Beast team member, pays particular attention to this. It allows him to narrow the list of core areas a buck might have come from and discern how likely said buck might be moving in daylight somewhere he can be hunted.
“If you’re shining an animal right after dark, he is probably bedding very close by,” Rentmeester said. “If you’re shining him close to sunrise, he is also probably very close to his bedding, but heading back to it rather than away from it.”
On the flip side, if the buck you’ve sighted is using that spot in the middle of the night, it’s possible he travelled a long distance and may not be daylight active in a huntable area.
How to Spotlight Deer
If you decide to add shining to your scouting repertoire, getting started is as simple as purchasing a high-powered spotlight, double-checking your state regulations, and hitting the roads at dark near your hunting locations. As Rentmeester alluded, spotlighting just after dark can provide more accurate info as to where a buck is bedded.
Begin your drive soon after dark and visit the best feeding areas on the outskirts of the property you can hunt, taking mental note of which bucks you see, what cover they’re closest too, and their direction of travel.
“If you understand the deer’s direction of travel, you can return later and start working your way into the cover he came from using other scouting tactics,” Rentmeester said.
But be careful, he warns, not to be fooled by a buck’s travel direction if he’s spooked by your vehicle. Only take note of direction if the deer is undisturbed.
One way to reduce the chances of spooking deer is to not stop your vehicle. Deer are used to vehicles passing by in the night. Bring a buddy with you to drive while you operate the light, slowly pass a field with the light on, take note of any natural travel and deer locations, and then move on without spooking anything in the field.
The location of a buck, his direction of travel, the time of day he was spotted—all of these factors can help when trying to hone in on his daytime range. And with all of these new pieces of the puzzle at your disposal, you can subsequently use other scouting methods in a more educated fashion, such as glassing, trail cameras, or in-person sign finding.
Finally, if you plan to do this, in addition to following all local regulations, please be considerate when shining near any residences. A blinding light through the dining room window is obviously not appreciated by most folks, and in most cases it’s even illegal.
While spotlighting deer has historically held negative connotations, there’s a growing number of well-intentioned hunters working within the law to use these tools for positive purposes. If you want to learn more about your local deer, and if it’s legal in your state, give shining a try. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn.
Feature image via Captured Creative.