Most of the 98 mature bucks my three sons and I have tagged since 1990 were taken in or near forest feeding areas during the first legal shooting hour of the day, beginning one-half hour before sunrise. To avoid wasting a minute of this most productive buck hunting hour of the day, we get to our stand sites one-half hour before first light or one hour before sunrise. This means we head to our stands in darkness. Because whitetails begin feeding shortly after 4 AM in the morning, mature bucks accompanying does will be near our stand sites when we arrive. Getting there without alarming those deer is crucial, of course. To accomplish this, My hunting partners and I take a number of precautions.
First, we select stand site approach trails that will make it very difficult for feeding whitetails to identify us via sight: coursing through dense cover and/or behind intervening hills or ridges right up to our stands.
Especially within hundred yards of our stand sites, 2-3 weeks before the hunting season begins, we remove dead branches from our approach trails, existing deer trails, to make them as silent underfoot as possible. We thus eliminate as much as possible one kind of identifying sounds so characteristic of approaching human hunters: sticks frequently snapping loudly underfoot.
While doing this trail work, we mark our approach trails with fluorescent tacks which light up like Christmas tree lights in the beam of a flashlight. We place them low on tree trunks about 10-20 yards apart to keep the beams of our flashlights low. This ensures we will not stray from our trails in darkness. A triangle of tacks along the way marks the nearest we can approach without deer beyond our stand sites spotting our approaching flashlight beams. From this point on, we depend on starlight, moonlight or northern lights to light our way. When light is inadequate, which isn’t often, we silently wait at this spot until the widening band of growing light along the eastern horizon finally makes it possible to see our way.
Avoiding being smelled by whitetails near our stand sites is simple: we always approach from downwind or crosswind only (it has been proven by recent research with K-9 dogs nothing available today can completely eliminate airborne human odors).
Until whitetails can finally determine something approaching (detected by soft footsteps and or visible motions) is dangerous, they won’t abandon the area. Knowing it is nearly impossible for human hunters and even wolves and bears to keep whitetails ahead from hearing their approaching footsteps, one thing we routinely do is deliberately avoid dragging our feet, foot dragging also being characteristic of human hunters. Especially when within 100 yards of our stands, we bend our knees with each step, raising our feet well clear of the ground, and then put them down lightly.
We Also use a ruse regularly used by the gray wolves of my hunting/study area: act as if not hunting, appearing currently harmless. Like hoofed animals the world over, whitetails do not routinely flee upon spotting a predator that is not hunting – merely resting or walking past without interest in nearby prey, passing nonstop at a moderate pace while keeping its head pointed straight ahead. While on our way to a stand site, we place our feet down as lightly as possible and also walk nonstop at a moderate pace while keeping our heads pointed straight ahead (even in darkness). By doing this, as we have repeatedly proven, whitetails ahead simply move aside and wait (usually in cover) until we have passed, thereafter resuming whatever they were doing. As long as we do not halt or suddenly change direction, they do not react with ruinous alarm – bounding away with tails up, snorting and/or abandoning their ranges. Whitetails feeding near our stand sites do the same thing. Upon reaching our stand sites from downwind or crosswind and then becoming motionless and silent, it will take up to a half hour, if nothing more we do is detected, before nearby whitetails will decide, whatever we are, we are now resting and therefore harmless or we have left the area without being heard. Though cautious and extra alert at first, they will finally resume feeding and move freely about the area, likely soon becoming visible. Right about then, legal shooting time begins.
This is why the alarm clock in the Nordberg deer camp always rings at 4 AM.
Note: For more about how to do all of the above, go to my newly publihed Whitetail Hunters Almanac, 10th Edition.