These three elements are the key to every deer hunt.
You see the titles every year in hunting magazines: “A Dozen of the Deadliest Deer Hunting Tricks,” “10 Tips for Tall-Tined Monsters,” “Six Can’t-Fail Treestand Tactics,” “Five Sure-Fire Methods for Big Bucks.” You’d think you have to be a master strategist with a genius-level IQ to be consistent at bagging bucks.
While studying whitetails will certainly make you more successful, the fact is deer hunting isn’t rocket science. Rather than a dozen tricks or 10 tips, there are really only three basic elements that influence a white-tailed buck’s behavior. Understanding those, combined with a little common sense, can go a long way. We’ll help with the former. The common sense is up to you.
The three basic components of wildlife habitat are food, cover and water. All come from the earth. Plants deer use as food and cover grow and receive nutrients from the soil. Similarly, how lush and nutritious they are depends on how rich the soil is. In general, whitetails will be most abundant and healthiest where food is most abundant and nutritious.
But just finding the best food often isn’t enough. One key to finding deer is to find the resource that is most scarce. In agricultural areas of the Midwest, for example, food is everywhere, which means deer can feed almost anywhere. If you hunt food sources, you need to determine which, among all those present, are most preferred.
I observed a prime example several years ago while hunting Kansas’ early muzzleloader season. As is common in big-buck country, the land was dominated by cornfields and soybeans. Temperatures were high, and hunting the fields at dawn and dusk was slow. Then we discovered a patch of ripe persimmons. For the next two evenings, I watched a parade of deer that began in early afternoon and included several rack bucks.
Other things such as slope, aspect and topography also influence food, cover and deer behavior. In hilly northern areas, north- and west-facing slopes tend to be dominated by softwoods, while south and east slopes have more hardwoods, particularly mast-producing trees like oaks. In colder climates, deer also spend more time on the warmer, sunnier exposures — east in the morning and west in the afternoon.
A much easier and more reliable approach in the Midwest is to target cover, which is often located around rivers and streams, or land that is untillable. That is where deer feel most comfortable bedding. These water-based travel corridors also tend to be linear, which channels deer movement into narrow funnels. It doesn’t hurt that these areas also offer the best, and often the only, trees large enough for a stand.
A similar, though more subtle, situation exists in the big woods.
Northern Maine, for example, consists largely of mixed softwoods and hardwoods in various stages of growth. I once plotted 10 years’ worth of records from the Biggest Bucks of Maine Club on a map and discovered a very clear pattern. The majority of deer were killed in proximity to some sort of major river drainage.
Sometimes it’s not so much the water, but literally the earth itself that attracts deer.
Rather than large tracts of rural land, Connecticut is characterized by a mosaic of suburbs mottled with urban centers and rural pockets. Good habitat occurs pretty much wherever development hasn’t despoiled it. Land use, more than anything, influences deer densities.
According to deer biologist Howard Kilpatrick, there is one recognizable pattern. A larger proportion of bigger bucks come from the northwestern part of the state, an area with limestone-rich soil. You can find this information on soil and geology maps, which you can get from your county extension office.
You can bring that logic back to agricultural areas. Ever notice that deer sometimes show strong preferences for one field over another, even if they’re planted with the same crop? Ever wonder why? The simple answer is soil. Odds are one landowner is treating his soil better than the other. As was already mentioned, more soil nutrients means more nutritious plants. Deer recognize the difference.
The whitetail lives by its nose. Everything from detecting danger to finding food and a mate are all done through this super-power-like olfactory organ.
Overcoming a deer’s ability to smell is a key element to hunting success. From carbon clothing to sprays and powders, there are many methods for masking human odor. Even with the most effective, the best you’ll ever accomplish is odor suppression. You’ll never completely eliminate human odor. Use the wind to your advantage to make whatever measures you take more effective.
At the most basic level, you can simply look at prevailing wind direction and establish your ambush site downwind of where you expect the deer to travel. However, moving air seldom travels in a consistent linear pattern. Like flowing water, it follows the path of least resistance, swirling around obstructions and funneling through channels such as draws and valleys.
You can get by with hunting prevailing wind patterns, but you also need to know what’s happening right around your stand. You can do a fairly good job of predicting wind currents if you know how to read a topo map. Look at the changes in elevation and try to imagine how water would flow if the whole area would suddenly flood. Wind will probably follow the same path.
River bottoms can make great ambush spots, but they also can be counter-productive to your efforts. In steep terrain, wind will collect and funnel down these woody draws, carrying your scent with it.
Thermals are another form of wind. As the morning sun warms the ground and the air above it, that warm air begins to rise on currents that not only go straight up, but also follow gradients in the landscape. In hilly country, start the day up high. Fortunately, deer tend to follow a similar pattern, leaving the lush, nutritious bottoms in the morning and heading for the hills to bed. The opposite pattern occurs in the afternoon, with both cooling air and hungry deer moving downhill. Again, be mindful of this in steeper draws and stream bottoms, where thermals can trap human scent.
Wind, or scent, is also the key to hunting the rut, but that takes us to our next element.
In the early season, hunters focus more on earth (food, water and cover), but as the rut approaches, you should shift emphasis to fire. Fire is the passion that burns in every whitetail buck during the rut. Okay, maybe that’s a little corny, but you get the point.
In the grand scheme of things, the whitetail’s sole purpose on this earth is to pass along its genes, and they will attempt to do so with single-minded determination.
In the pre-rut, a buck will begin advertising his eagerness to breed by making scrapes. Books have been written about scrape hunting, but one thing to remember if you’re going to hunt scrapes is the pre-rut is the best time.
It’s also a good time to hunt rub lines — and there’s an important distinction between rubs and rub lines. A single rub isn’t of much value, but a linear succession of rubs is something to work with. You can expect that at least one buck is following this trail with some frequency.
To the hunter, the rut can be magical. To the deer, it’s a gamble in which they unwittingly play the percentages. Moving during daylight increases a deer’s vulnerability, but also offers higher odds of encountering a prospective mate.
More daytime movement should up a hunter’s odds, but playing with fire can sometimes be a double-edged sword. While the rut increases daytime movement, predictability goes right out the window. You never know where a rutting buck might show up. Or do you?
Remember, he’s looking for a hot doe. He doesn’t reason, but experience has taught him the greatest probability of finding one is where deer numbers are greatest. That brings us back to the beginning, where the best food, cover and water exist.
A buck doesn’t have to approach every doe to see if she’s ready. He can be a lot more efficient and expose himself less by scent-checking bedding areas from downwind. This is where wind has nothing to do with human scent and everything to do with a whitetail’s ability to learn everything it needs to know just by checking the scents in the air. Once again, a hunter can take advantage of the rut by studying the terrain and the area’s wind patterns.
You see, you don’t have to be a genius to consistently tag whitetails. Earth, wind and fire are the three basic elements that influence their behavior. That’s the way of the world. Apply a little common sense to understand how it works and you’re a shining star, no matter who you are (hopefully at least one of you will get that reference).
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This article was published in the August 2010 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.