Hiking Downwind While Hunting Whitetails, Part I

Logically, to avoid being smelled by whitetails (and thus avoid being avoided by them), a hunter should always approach any trail or site where a deer is known or suspected to be currently located (or likely soon will be), from downwind. Whitetails routinely take this same precaution, traveling into the wind so they can use their superior sense of smell to avoid short-range encounters with potentially dangerous predators or hunters ahead. Wherever whitetails go while traveling into the wind, to a feeding area, for example, to get back to where they started from afterwards, a bedding area in this case, they must travel an equal distance downwind. Equal distances of traveling into the wind and downwind during a day afield is generally characteristic of us deer hunters as well. This means, of course, half of our time afield while afoot is spent making it easy for those 15–30 deer per square-mile that live in our hunting areas to smell us approaching from upwind, in turn making it easy for them to avoid us without us realizing it is happening. A study I conducted between 1960 and 1980 revealed the average hunter passes within easy shooting range of eight or more unseen whitetails per mile traveled on foot—on opening weekend only for randomly wandering hunters, sneaking hunters and hunters making drives (who quickly chase whitetails out of their ranges) but up to two weeks for skilled stand hunters.

Downwind travels on foot do not need to be ruinous to next day whitetail hunting, however. Done properly, such travels can actually improve odds for hunting success, even when intending to take older bucks. For example, let’s imagine an unremitting adverse wind direction has been keeping you from approaching the very promising stand site you selected and prepared well before the hunting season began. Rather than head to that stand with the wind at your back, you’ve been waiting for the wind to change direction. My sons and I often experience this.

When I can stand it no longer here’s what I do. After lunch in camp (when I can see where I’m going to go in the woods), and after studying one of my satellite maps of the area, I will select and use a  series of deer trails 200 yards or more to the left or right of my originally prepared stand site approach trail, coursing directly downwind until directly crosswind of my stand. While traveling along this alternate route, deer in the vicinity of my stand site will either be unable to identify me via my widening triangle of airborne scents, or if they do, I’ll be far enough away for my weakening scents to be ignored by them. Upon reaching a point crosswind of my stand site, I will turn and head directly toward my stand. Along this route, only deer downwind of my stand site will be able to smell me, and upon reaching my stand, as soon as mature, downwind, stand-smart whitetails realize I am no longer moving (characteristic of a non-aggressive stand hunter) those deer will only avoid a circle a with a radius of about 100 yards around my stand site. By taking important precautions such as walking non-stop, softly, at a moderate pace and keeping my head pointed straight ahead—displaying no hunting behavior—deer unknowingly encountered along the way will merely freeze in adjacent cover and then resume whatever they were doing after I am out of sight and hearing. I will thus finally reach my special stand site without causing hunt-ruining alarm among upwind and crosswind deer in the vicinity.

Watch for Part II

A New Stand Site For Hunting Deer in November

There are two ways to go about selecting a stand site for hunting whitetails in November: 1) select a convenient spot to use one or more store-bought attractants (lures) claimed to make bucks and other deer helplessly vulnerable to stand hunting or 2) select a spot adjacent to a trail or whitetail feeding or bedding area that will be frequented by bucks and other deer, based on deer signs, expected whitetail habits and range utilization and locations of foods (especially browse) favored by whitetails at this time of the year. Hardly anyone uses the second method these days because it requires learning more about whitetails and extensive old-fashioned scouting. Is this a mistake? It depends on the kind of deer you would prefer to take: a young and inexperienced fawn or yearling (buck or doe) or a mature whitetail 2-1/2 years of age or older, likely a trophy-class buck. If taking a mature buck is your goal, your odds for success will be considerably greater if you use the second method. Why? One reason is, because millions of American whitetail hunters have been using attractants to try to lure dream bucks to stand sites since the mid-1980s, there is hardly a surviving mature buck in America today that does not recognize the danger of popularly-used attractants (including foods and minerals) during hunting seasons. If the first method is your accustomed method of selecting a stand site, sooner or later the mature bucks in your hunting area (their numbers not particularly threatened by you or any other hunter) will have you believing the buck/doe ratio in your hunting area is very low and something should be done about it.

When this happens, it’s time to get serious about learning truths about whitetail habits and the rut and scouting. If you’ve never done much knowledgeable scouting, once you begin you will soon be amazed by knowing what to look for can do for hunting success. Things like: this stand  site has never been used before, very fresh tracks and/or droppings of a mature buck are within easy shooting distance and this area is loaded with favorite whitetail browse plants such as red osiers and/or sugar maple suckers growing from stumps (in a clearcut) or scattered broken shells of acorns are three of eight characteristics my three sons and I keep our eyes pealed for when scouting because they contribute so greatly to making our stand sites mature-buck-effective. Like our hunting successes (101 mature bucks taken since 1990), your hunting successes sure to follow knowledgeable stand site selections will likely begin to fool other hunters in surroundng areas into believing your hunting area, originally thought to be devoid of mature bucks like theirs, must now be unfairly loaded with mature bucks.

Caught Short of My Stand

During my 73 years of whitetail hunting, I’ve been caught short of stand sites by upset deer plenty of times. The last time it happened, I only had 10 feet to go when a doe began snorting repeatedly out in the dark clearcut ahead of me. I knew it was a doe because about five minutes later a buck grunted out there three times. At first light, of course, the clearcut was devoid of deer. While tiptoeing to a clump of spruced overlooking a browse area a shortly before first light few years earlier, I was suddenly brought up short by another doe repeatedly snorting on my left, downwind. Shortly after on my right, upwind, a buck began uttering gurgling grunts. I was caught between them. Though always a supreme disappointment, I at least then always knew I had picked a stand site that would have put me close to a big buck.

Such experiences taught me some serious lessons: always approach from downwind or crosswind, for example, never select a stand site that can’t be reached without being seen by deer in an adjacent feeding area and always turn off my flashlight well before its beam can be seen by deer feeding ahead. Nowadays, while scouting two weeks before a hunting season begins, I always mark my trail at the spot where I know I will need to turn off my flashlight. Deer encountered well away from a stand site are less bothered by a flashlight as long as I don’t stop.  They’ll usually simply move aside and watch me pass (as almost routinely revealed by tracks in snow later). When you stop at your stand site, however, that’s another matter. There a flashlight beam provides mature whitetails in the near vicinity absolute evidence of your identity and what you are up to. They won’t stick around the area after that, all hunting season.

Even after taking every conceivable precaution, unfortunately, being identified by nearby whitetails as I approach my stand site still occasionally happens, maybe more than I realize. Wherever whitetails are currently active, it is always likely one or more of them will be downwind as you approach. If a deer along the way that identifies you via your airborne scent isn’t close to your stand and if you aren’t acting as if hunting (sneaking and stopping often), chances are no serious harm will be done, unless, of course, the deer nonetheless begins warning all other deer within a half-mile of your approach via one or more snorts. Years ago, I knew a doe that was particularly skilled at identifying my son, Ken, and me at ridiculously long range while we were heading to our stands in early morning darkness. All we had to do to make it start snorting its head off in a densely wooded valley a good 600 yards ahead was cross the summit of a high hill east of the valley. After a few of such withering surprises, we learned to take the long way around.

Adjacent to one of my stand trails was a pond in which lived a beaver that amused itself by repeatedly making thundering slaps on the surface of the water with its tail each time it spotted my flashlight beam approaching. It would then follow me and continue pounding the water until I was finally out of sight. Needless to say, this ruined a nearby stand site that had great great buck hunting promise. I finally had to move that trail. Wildly flushing grouse and red squirrels barking at the last minute have been equally ruinous at times.

The point is, though you can actually become skilled enough to get to stand sites without alarming deer ahead much of the time, you can’t accomplish it every time and sooner than you realize after you do manage it, deer living in the vicinity will soon find you one way or another regardless, most often without your knowledge. This is no reason to quit trying to do it right, however. You only have to succeed in getting to a well selected stand site without alarming deer once per hunting season to become regularly successful at taking even the most wary of bucks.

Continuing to use the same stand site throughout a hunting season, even if you feel you have never alarmed a deer while hiking to and from that stand site, becomes a hopeless mistake much more quickly than you realize, particularly if it is your intention to take a mature buck. Every time you return, it gets worse.  Whenever you move to a new (unused) stand site 100 yards of more away near a trail or site marked with fresh mature-buck-sized tracks and/or droppings—where a mature buck is active now, today,  and has not yet discovered you—your odds for success immediately swing back in your favor. Sooner or later, keeping your odds for success high with silent moves to new unused stand sites almost always pay off.

Camo Head Nets: Pure Magic

Back in 1960 when I began hunting whitetails with a bow, few hunting aids were available to help keep archers from being identified by deer short distances away (within accurate no-sight bow range). Portable tree stands were unknown then, camo clothing could only be found in war surplus stores and about the only thing available for covering the bright skin of our faces was burnt cork—applied by rubbing the burnt end of a cork on our faces (yes, more than anyone back then, us archers knew we needed to do this). Being an avid brook trout angler, it finally occurred to me that the olive-colored mosquito net I was forced to wear while threading my way through the alders bordering my favorite trout stream would make a great head covering for deer hunting. Right from the outset I was astonished by how well it worked. Time after time, nearby whitetails (and black bears) as close as 10 feet away glanced directly at me without showing the least bit of recognition or alarm.

Today while hunting whitetails, fall or winter, I carry two camo head nets, one with a horizontal eye-hole and one with no eye-hole. I personally prefer them over camo face masks because they also cover my neck and on a frigid November morning with no wind, they seem to keep much of my body heat inside, eliminating the need for ear coverings. I wear the one with the eyehole most of the time, rolled up beneath my hat or cap brim while hiking and pulled down over my face and neck the moment I sit down to begin stand hunting. While my head net is down in cold weather, my breath sometimes steams up my glasses. To halt this, I pull the lower edge of my eye-hole down beneath the tip of my nose. This does not seem to change its effectiveness. Whenever I find myself facing bright sunlight (not having a dark shadow cast by a tree across my face), to keep my glasses from reflecting sunlight toward deer out in front of me, I wear my no eye-hole head net. The dark netting does not hamper my sighting with a rifle or bow.  Inside both head nets is an elastic band, which keeps them tight enough against my face to keep them from accidently tangling with my bowstring when releasing an arrow. That’s a comfort.

Like I said above, my head nets are pure magic. Because they cover the one part of my body most likely to be spotted and identified by a nearby deer (sticking up above the dense natural cover that normally hides the rest of my body while seated on my stool, they’ve improved my stand hunting success (and whitetail, bear and wolf studies) so much that I wouldn’t dream of heading afield without them.

Two in, One Out

Whether hunting deer (even clever old bucks) or black bears (even wise 300-600 pound boars), here’s a trick that works too often to not include in your hunt plans. It’s a reason beginning youngsters sometime take trophy-class bucks.

A feeding 10-pointer hears a far-off dad leading his son or daughter (or a hunting partner) to a tree stand that happens to be near the downwind or crosswind edge of the buck’s current favorite feeding area (Dad’s a lucky or knowledgeable preseason scouter). Since they are moving steadily, not sneaking and halting often as if hunting (not making sounds characteristic of hunting humans) and because they are noisy enough to be kept track of by hearing alone, the buck feels no great alarm, knowing it can easily sneak way from the area with no great haste and avoid being detected by the approaching hunters if and when needed. Always cautious, however, it steps into nearby cover to watch and wait to see what happens—hoping those hunters will soon simply pass, after which it can resume feeding.

Oh-oh, they stopped. They’re right over there by that big pine tree ten yards back in those thick spruces fifty yards away. The buck is becoming nervous, its tail slowly rising and spreading. The hunters then suddenly begin moving again. Sounds (soft footsteps and sticks breaking softly underfoot) indicate they’re now moving away, back in the direction from which they came. The buck’s tail relaxes, dropping back to its usual position. The sky is beginning to brighten in the east.

It’s full light. Having heard, seen or smelled nothing that indicates a hunter is near during the past half hour (big bucks commonly wait 15-30 minutes to be sure), the buck flicks it tail once from side to side, indicating it has finally decided what to do next. It steps out into the opening and resumes feeding.

Five minutes later, Dad hears a shot in the direction from which he had earlier led his son or daughter to a tree stand. He can’t wait to return to see what happened.

Note: This works best in dense forest cover. If a big buck (or bear) actually sees two hunters approach and only one depart, it won’t be fooled.

Best Hours To Hunt Whitetails

As rightfully claimed by those who prefer to move constantly about on foot while hunting deer—still-hunters, sneakers and hunters making drives—whitetails are active all hours of the day, though abnormally. This is because such hunters force whitetails to frequently move about during midday hours when they normally rest. The trouble with these aggressive styles of hunting is, they soon force most or all surviving deer to abandon their ranges. Antlerless deer, especially if young, may attempt to return within 1-4 days, but most whitetails 2-1/2 years of age or older, especially older bucks, are then likely to remain off-range until the hunting season is over. Refuges, parks, posted lands, swamps, bogs and other lands where whitetails seek relief from such hunters can be as far as six miles away from their home ranges.

Where all hunters are stand hunters, hours whitetails are active (up and about feeding, watering and engaging in rut-related activities) are fairly normal—from about 4 AM to 10 AM and 4 PM to 10 PM, chewing their cuds and resting between these hours. There are a number of conditions that can change these hours.

Take winds. When winds are calm or light, whitetails are active longest. Hours they are active are progressively shorter as winds become stronger. When winds exceed 14 mph (except in west Texas), whitetails generally skip feeding (remain bedded).

Take precipitation. Whitetails are active longest when there is no precipitation or precipitation is light—foggy, drizzling or raining or snowing lightly. They generally remain bedded while noisy sleet in falling or while it is thundering. They are less active while rain or snow is moderate. Though I’ve seen some notable exceptions, they’ll generally remain bedded (skip feeding) while rain or snow is heavy. Following the first heavy snow of winter (six inches or more) they are likely to remain bedded until the second evening after the snow has quit falling.

Temperatures can have a dramatic effect. After our northern whitetails have grown their winter coats, generally complete by mid-October, they are unlikely to be active long during daylight hours while temperatures exceed 50 degrees. At least until they become acclimated to sub-zero temperature in December, they’ll be most active while temperatures range between 40 and 10 degrees F. As it becomes colder in November, their morning and evening feeding hours will become shorter. While temperatures are 10-below or colder in November, particularly if it is windy, whitetails are likely to remain bedded throughout feeding hours. When a thaw or near thaw occurs with the wind calm or light following a period of frigid temperatures in November or December, every deer in the woods will be on the move, feeding for 1-2 hours sometime between 11 AM and 3 PM. This is one of the most productive of periods to stand hunt adjacent to a current favorite whitetail feeding area in fall and early winter.