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.

While Whiling Away Your Deer Hunting Time…

While whiling away your deer hunting time in the woods this fall, here’s some things to think about:

Though you have tried using every buck hunting gadget, potion, article of clothing, lure, bait, mineral block, portable tree stand and ground level blind now available in your favorite sporting goods store that is supposed to improve your odds of taking a big buck, why are those mature bucks you recently photographed with your trail cameras as elusive as ever? Could mature bucks be that smart?

Is your problem actually a low buck-to-doe ratio or is it simply bad luck, not being in the right place at the right time? If like you, 98% of other whitetail hunters seldom see trophy bucks (worthy of taxidermy) during a hunting season, much less take one, which is true, how in the world could there be a shortage of trophy class bucks?

Not being able to recognize a mature-buck-effective stand site or not knowing how long a stand site can remain mature-buck-effective might be your problem.

What about being unable to recognize a current favorite whitetail feeding area (the most productive of stand sites if properly hunted) in forest habitat, except of course, any food plot you created yourself? Is your food plot out in front of you right now a favorite whitetail feeding area today?  Why did your trail camera prove one or more mature bucks and other deer regularly visited your food plot before the hunting season began, but except for fawns and yearlings, not much now, at least not during daylight hours, if at all?

What about ensuring you are hunting within easy shooting range of a trail or site favored by a mature buck right now, today, every day you hunt? Yes, this can actually be done.

Maybe you’re goofing up somehow with airborne and trail scents. Can whitetails actually smell hunters high in tree stands? Did you know K-9 dogs can find a human using any scent killing product available for deer hunters today as quickly as a human not using them?

Do you hunt on the way to a stand site, sneaking and often halting (to scan ahead), believing this enables you to fool big bucks and other whitetails ahead into thinking you are a harmlessly feeding deer? This is a big one.

Do you believe breeding is in progress when bucks are most actively making ground scrapes and antler rubs? This is a big one too.

Your answers to such questions and their validity (whether they are long believed myths or not) has everything to do with how many mature bucks you see, if any, while hunting.

Today, there are cures for rarely successful buck hunting—provided by a yet avid 84-year-old deer hunter and long-time MidWest Outdoors Magazine writer, Dr. Ken Nordberg, who happens to be well educated for doing hunting-related whitetail research. He’s been at it since the early 1960s, scientifically since 1970, full time since 1980. In the process he has discovered major differences in habits and behavior between bucks and does and whitetails of six age classes, discovered annually recurring activities of antlered bucks related to the whitetail rut between September 1st and the end of first week in January (knowledge vital to successful buck hunting) and created six new fair chase hunting methods, made productive by thirty-some precautions, that make it possible to be regularly successful at hunting mature bucks.

A visit to Doc’s website, www.drnordbergondeerhunting.com, and clicking on “store” for a review of his latest, biggest and most comprehensive book on buck hunting, Whitetail Hunters Almanac, 10th Edition, will get you started on the right track to great buck hunting. If you are a beginner or you became a whitetail hunter during the past two decades and therefore do not yet know as much about Dr. Nordberg like hundreds of thousands of serious North American whitetail hunters got to know him at nationwide hunting seminars before the year 2000, take time to click on “YouTube” at the top of his home page and prepare to be amazed.

About Walking on Deer Trails

Every now and then I receive an email from a deer hunter who is troubled by my recommendation of using deer trails to get around the woods during hunting seasons. Back in the 1960s when I first began my hunting-related studies of wild whitetails, I also felt it was wrong, especially within 100-200 yards of stand sites. I therefore made lots of 30-inch-wide trails for my kids and I back then.

By the time it became illegal for hunters to make trails on public lands in Minnesota, I wasn’t terribly troubled by being forced to use the only other available trails that could provide the silence needed (most important) to get our stand sites, namely, established deer trails. The reason was, as I discovered over and over again earlier, many older bucks with antlers wider than their bodies (and other deer) didn’t hesitate to adopt my trails (man-tall and 30-inch-wide tunnels through cover), often beginning within a few hours after making them. The probable reason was, my trails enabled them to travel from place to place with much greater silence than their own deer trails. Via repeated passages, mature does and their young make most well-tracked deer trails (tunnels through cover) seen in the woods. Mature bucks, being much larger animals and often having antlers wider than their bodies, can find it very difficult to travel far with stlence on less-tall, less-wide tunnels through cover made by smaller does and their young—one of the reasons older bucks often travel off-trail. Older bucks therefore readily adopted my trails, despite being initially laced with my fresh trail scents, though with caution. Thus I knew most older bucks wouldn’t react with hunt-ruining alarm upon discovering I had adopted portions of some of their own favorite trails.

Nonetheless, I felt using deer trails should be kept to a minimum during a hunting season. What we needed, I decided, was a single looping series of connecting deer trails to be used often, even daily, as a main trunk route to get to our stand site approach trails in each square-mile we hunted. From this looping trail would branch our stand site approach trails, each of which would only be used once or twice per hunting season. These are the only trails we now use during a hunting season. This provides our deer with enormous areas in which they will not be alerted or alarmed by us or our fresh trail scents. This, plus stand hunting only, keeps our deer from abandoning their ranges and/or becoming nocturnal. We thus we gain the silence we need to get to our stand sites (dead branches tossed aside from selected trails while scouting two weeks or more before opening day) and the looping trail provides us with a means of finding fresh tracks and/or droppings made by mature bucks (vicinities of next stand sites) daily beginning on day three of a hunting season until we take our usual four mature bucks. By being predictable to whitetails in this regard—only using certain trails—our deer continue to do predictable things at predictable places (near stand sites) during predictable hours right up to the last day we hunt. What could be better? We therefore no longer have qualms about adopting limited deer trails for our own use during hunting seasons.

Mid-Summer Scouting

Every now and then, I get the notion to head north to my deer hunting/study area in mid-summer, mostly to see what I can learn about our deer and their current state of affairs with gray wolves. Scouting is never easy in mid-summer and I don’t ordinarily recommend it to deer hunters.  Aside from the usual array of blood-crazed insects and ticks to deal with, grasses and foliage of shrubs and trees are then at their peak of making it difficult to discern deer signs. In mid-summer I must depend wholly on seemingly sparse deer tracks and droppings to provide answers to any questions I have. Though tracks of wolves are rarely seen, their droppings (scats) are common in clear spots on logging and forestry trails where foliage does not interfere with squatting to empty their bowels (a requirement shared by my dog). Though at this time of the year tracks and droppings made by mature does accompanied by their fawns of the previous year (yearlings) and their newborns are not uncommon, tracks and droppings made by mature bucks are. This is because wolf country forest bucks with growing antlers covered with fragile and sensitive velvet (from May until about September 1st) are apparently reluctant to travel far (or fast) from their secluded summer hideaways except to drink water (usually located within 100 yards). Yet, long knowing where I’m almost certain to find their tracks and droppings—in or near previously known buck bedding areas, favorite graze areas, watering sites and damp soils of nearby trails—by the time my wire-haired pointer, Harvey, and I can no longer stand mosquitoes, deer flies, black flies, gnats and ticks, I’ve usually learned what I had hoped to learn in a large portion of my study area (it takes several trips to assess the entire area). Because my deer hunting partners and I hunt mature bucks only where wolves subsist on venison year around, determining where these bucks (age classes revealed by lengths of their tracks and droppings) are currently alive and active is always a top priority.

Keeping track of locations of mature does and their young is also important for a couple of reasons. First, while the first of the three two-week periods of breeding during the whitetail rut is in progress in November, the period during which we hunt deer, trophy-class bucks of each square mile will be spending almost all of their time in doe feeding and bedding areas in home ranges of adult does and their accompanying yearling does when in heat—each in heat only 24–26 hours snd generally on different days.

Second, as summer progresses, numbers of fawns normally drop off in my study area—revealed by waning numbers of identifying fawn-sized tracks and droppings accompanying identifying tracks and droppings of mature does. The pair of wolves that have denned in my study area for many years (packs don’t form until early November) have killed three or more of four of our fawns by November first every year since 1990. All summer long, their droppings contain much deer hair, fawn teeth (unworn and unstained) and fawn-sized dewclaws and hooves—a logical consequence of chronically low deer numbers wrought by long overabundant wolves in Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region. In the early 1960s there were 22 deer per square mile in my study area. Losses atributable severe winters, wolf depredations of fawns in summer and mature whitetails in winter reduced the overall deer population to 11 per square-mile by 1990, the year I bagan hunting and studying whitetails there. Since then, we have taken fewer than one deer per two square miles annually—all bucks, about 75% of which were mature, non-breeding bucks. Only about one deer was taken by hunters per ten square miles in the surrounding region for several years, In 2017, there were only 5 deer per squre mile in our hunting area, about a third of it barren of deer. Thus, as you might imagime, I am ever anxious to finally discover an improvement in deer numbers, which is unlikely to happen as long as our long overabundant wolves remain over-protected.

Actually, thanks to Deet and a headnet for me and tick and insect potions for my dog, mid-summer scouting is often a pleasant outing. While Harvey is busy sniffing a myriad of interesting scents, often indulging in marking tree trunks with scents of his own and sometimes locking up on a point upon sighting a ruffed grouse, I revel at the occasional sight of deer in red summer coats, a blackish fisher bounding across the trail ahead and the excited croaking between pairs of ravens ponderously winging overhead—the sight of me likely reminding them the important season of increased opportunities to devour fatty deer entrails is drawing near. Fat is needed by ravens (and other birds) to survive Minnesota winters and they are quick to find it when available, likely keying on gunshots and human voices during hunting seasons and on our barking and howling wolfpack when excitedly pursuing a deer or moose. Meanwhile, I keep an eye peeled for potential mature-buck-effective stand sites that may be useful wherever I find fresh tracks and droppings made by mature unalarmed bucks during the coming hunting season, adding enormously to the value of my long trip north.