The path to becoming a better deer hunter is a long one filled with false-starts and dead ends. It’s a path full of credit-card charges for gear that won’t deliver on marketing promises and flavor-of-the-month hunting strategies and tactics. There's plenty of failure and frustration because much of what we are led to believe will make us more successful, actually won’t.
This might sound discouraging, but there is hope because there is a way to become a better deer hunter, no matter where you live or how flush your bank account is. It’s not as sexy as a lot of the flash-in-the-pan products and cutting-edge strategies, but it does work and it can help you develop a higher level of woodsmanship and become more whitetail savvy.
Learn new ground. That’s it.
I’m sorry if that comes as a letdown. The hunting industry promises easy success in a variety of ways, most of which will leave you a little lighter in the wallet. It is, after all, an industry. You can buy your way into a lot of big deer, but that won’t necessarily make you a better hunter.
For the average hunter who just wants to become better, or the good hunter who wants to be great, the simplest route involves learning new ground. Public land or private, it doesn’t matter. Learning to hunt deer in a variety of places, through a litany of conditions, is the ticket.
Better yet, it’s available to all of us.
Data-Driven Deer One of the best hunters I know is Pennsylvania bowhunter Clint Campbell. Campbell hosts The Truth From The Stand Podcast, and spends a crazy amount of time scouting and hunting public land. He is also dedicated to learning new deer ground every single season so that he can keep filling up his whitetail hard drive.
“I view woodsmanship like data in the tech world,” Campbell said. “Amazon is valuable in part because of their sale’s numbers, but the real value lies in their data—both the amount and diversity. I see hunting or scouting new areas as the same thing.”
Every time Campbell walks a new property, he’s adding to his whitetail database. This helps him recognize patterns or similarities across properties. The more knowledge he gains this way, the better he is at making real-time decisions in hunting scenarios, no matter where he is at.
This also distills the land and the deer down into easily digestible, familiar chunks. For example, a river crossing in Oklahoma isn’t much different from a crossing in Pennsylvania. (At least, in respect to how deer use it, and how you should hunt it.) Pressure avoidance tactics by mature bucks in the big woods of northern Michigan aren’t much different from how the swamps dwellers of Louisiana use their terrain to survive another season.
If you need help deciding where to start, check out Spencer Neuharth's article on the best states for DIY whitetail hunters, or Tony Hansen's article on the most underrated states for DIY whitetail hunters. Those two fellas know a thing or two about killing bucks in states where they don't live.
While you might not be able to hunt your way across the US to see if this is true, you can start to pick apart new properties in your home county, or your home state. The same rules apply on the micro scale, as well. But first, you’ll have to acknowledge a character flaw that most of us possess.
Defaulting & Defeated Nearly all hunters have the tendency to default to what they think they know. Their beliefs stem from two sources—experience and the internalization of common deer hunting wisdom. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but can be pretty limiting for folks who can sum up a lifetime of deer hunting on a single 40-acre property, or who only have three seasons in the rearview mirror.
A lack of deep, diverse experience often leads to complacency in choosing stand sites, and usually, doesn’t lead to a bunch of dead bucks. Conversely, the more experience you’ve got to draw from, the easier it is to make the right call no matter where you’re hunting. According to Campbell, this is most evident when he starts freelance hunting a brand new chunk of public land.
“When I’m on new ground I’ll inevitably come across sign, or habitat, or some terrain feature, that feels eerily familiar,” Campbell said. “I’ll immediately know how to hunt it. Even if I’m in country I’ve never seen before, past experiences inform my future approach, and make it so much easier to trust my eyes and my gut.”
In a roundabout way, Campbell is simply describing what it’s like to have been-there-done-that confidence in the whitetail woods. There are some intangibles that all great whitetail hunters possess, and confidence in the decision making process is one of them. Faith in yourself as a deer hunter is no small thing, and stacking up scouting and hunting experiences on a variety of properties will get you there.
Commit Yourself Here’s the problem—most hunters don’t want to learn new ground.
They’d rather hunt the same 60 acres they’ve hunted since high school, often while complaining about how it’s not as good as it once was. That’s fine, but if you’re sitting there wondering why your hunting success has flatlined, some self-reflection might help you find a faint pulse.
You simply might not be learning anything new. You reason, like many of us do, that the deer will eventually show up to your stagnant stand sites. The deer, on the other hand, have learned exactly what you like to do, and they’ve shifted their patterns to avoid you. It’s a simple dance—one the whitetail always leads.
To avoid this, tap into your network to gain access to new parcels, or fire up your onX and start looking for a piece of public worth exploring. The latter is tough for folks who already have private ground, but it’s the best way to level up. If you can start fresh on public land and get yourself around some deer on a semi-consistent basis, you’ll realize why your hunts on more familiar ground are so stale.
Remember, this isn’t about finding the easiest place to kill a big deer, which is so common in the hunting industry. It’s about challenging yourself to learn about whitetails in a way that isn’t limited by what a single, familiar property has to offer.
Gather the data. Gain the confidence. Get ready for more enjoyable, more productive hunts—no matter where they occur.