By Dylan Tramp
Prior to any given deer hunt, there are an endless amount of factors that race through my mind before committing to a stand location, and it’s no surprise that every season my dad heckles me about thinking too much and needing to trust my gut.
While there is no perfect recipe for success, below is a list of tips and tactics that have helped me become a better whitetail hunter over the years. Mix and match some of these strategies with your own, and give yourself an edge for the upcoming deer season.
1. Obey The Wind
The whitetail’s No. 1 defense is undoubtedly its olfactory sense. In order to have a chance at killing a mature whitetail, you must beat its nose. This is precisely why understanding wind direction is at the top of the list whenever I start preparing for a deer hunt.
In the most basic sense, think about where your scent will be blowing throughout the hunt. You obviously don’t want the wind blowing in the direction you expect deer to be coming from. To expand on this, find a direction where deer are not likely to be traveling — a no-travel zone, if you will — and ensure that you only hunt this location when the wind is blowing in this direction. Examples of no-travel zones deer avoid would be landscape features such as steep ravines, highways, a body of water, a well traveled hiking trail — basically anything that would inhibit a deer from traveling that direction.
To stress the importance of the wind, I would go as far to say that I would rather hunt a C-grade spot with no chance of being winded than an A-grade spot with a 40 percent chance of being winded. This is especially true if I plan to hunt the area multiple times in any given season.
Wind direction is also important for scouting, and you can’t cut any corners here, either. In fact, I’ve recently changed my way of thinking when scouting new areas. In the past, I would place a higher importance on finding areas with the highest amount of deer activity. Now, I place a greater emphasis on pinpointing ambush locations that will allow me to fool a deer’s nose.
2. Keep Your Hunting Areas Fresh
You have likely heard bowhunters say that your best chance at killing a deer is the first time you sit that stand. You’ve likely witnessed this firsthand as you begin seeing less and less deer activity each time you hunt a given location.
Even if you aren’t witnessing deer reacting to your presence, your scent will remain long after you leave. Any deer passing through or intercepting your path could be tipped off to your existence. The best way to combat this is to have numerous treestand or ground blind locations to choose from.
If the average hunter spends 12 days in the field, having six hunting locations would give you enough options to hunt each of your locations only twice. On top of having multiple options, I’ve learned the hard way that it is very important to have predetermined locations for each wind direction.
To further decrease your felt presence, be very conscious of your entry and exit routes. Do everything you can to minimize the potential of bumping deer on the way in and taking routes that deer don’t typically travel. This decreases the odds of a deer crossing your path and becoming alerted to your presence.
Oddly enough, wind direction is often overlooked when planning an entry route. If you need a north wind to hunt a particular location, but you pass by a bedding area to your south upon entry, those deer already know you’re coming before your hunt even begins.
3. Cheat the Wind
There are rare occasions, however, when it can be a worthwhile risk to roll the dice and cheat the wind. As a precaution, I wouldn’t recommend getting careless or deploying this tactic when you only have a few hunting locations to choose from. However, this tactic can be an ace in the hole when things get tough.
This tactic is best used in a location where deer traffic is highly predictable and you are very confident that you know from which direction the deer will be approaching your stand location. When using this strategy, you want to put the wind almost in the deer’s favor. The key word here is “almost,” as you still need to be certain that your scent never finds its way toward approaching deer.
My favorite example of this is a setup in which the wind is consistently altered by terrain. Deer are much more comfortable moving with the wind in their face. If you can find a location where you can take advantage of terrain or topographic features that cause wind direction to change consistently and seemingly blow in a different direction, sharpen your skinning knife. However, be careful of locations where the wind is known to swirl, as these locations wouldn’t be good candidates for this tactic.
4. Chose Hunting Locations Based on Seasonality
You might have a favorite tree picked out that you love to hunt when conditions are right, but as the season wears on you might be left scratching your head and wondering why you aren’t seeing more deer.
Because you see lots of activity in late September doesn’t always mean you’ll see the same number of deer in that area come November. Deer have certain needs specific to the time of year, and when those needs aren’t being met, they move elsewhere. The most common example of this would be food sources. The best food source in late September might completely change in a matter of days when the calendar flips to early October. This is also evident when bucks change their priorities from food and sanctuary to breeding.
For example, in recent seasons I have spent the majority of my time in the whitetail woods hunting the rut. When I do my scouting and treestand preparation, I do it with rutting whitetail bucks in mind. I seldom focus on food sources. Instead, I target densely wooded areas between bedding areas and other terrain features that concentrate deer movement. These spots often make for lousy hunts during the early season or in the late season after bucks have made the transition to food sources in preparation for winter. But during the rut, they can be dynamite.
5. Sit All Day
Patience is a virtue, and this is especially true when it comes to attempting an all day hunt. This was something that was nearly impossible for me to accomplish in my early years of bowhunting. Every time I tried, the action died down by midmorning and then I would stop seeing deer for hours on end, causing me to pack up and head for home.
There’s certainly a time and place for an all day hunt, but it took me a while to learn the why behind the when and where. If deer aren’t moving throughout the middle of the day, you’re in for a long day. The only time I deploy this tactic is during the rut when sleep-deprived bucks have one thing on their mind and are continuously in search for the next doe in heat, even in the middle of the day.
The other important factor when considering an all day hunt is your location. I’ve learned the hard way that a wide open ag field makes for a lousy all day hunt. If you’re hunting during the rut, pick a location that is adjacent or within a known bedding area or along a travel route within the timber. Additional keys to accomplishing an all day hunt are confidence, snacks, fluids and warm clothes. If you are hungry, cold, or doubting your decisions, you likely won’t last much longer than the next guy.
6. Scout During the Spring
Often the last thing you are thinking about in March or April would be your fall hunting strategy. If you’re like me, you’ve probably switched your focus to strutting gobblers.
However, spring is arguably the best time to be in the woods learning your deer hunting area. Fall deer sign is still evident, because green up hasn’t taken over and rubs, scrapes, trails, beds, etc. are all as visible as ever.
Possibly the best aspect of spring scouting is that you don’t have to worry about spooking deer and spoiling your upcoming fall hunts. This is a great time to check out places you’ve always wondered about.
7. Go Mobile
Something that I’ve added to my arsenal in recent years is a mobile hunting setup. I’ve invested in a lightweight set of climbing sticks and treestand that allows me to be mobile and hang sets on the fly. The advantage of this is being able to hunt fresh sign.
Sometimes we get complacent, or too confident in our old trusty spot, and watch deer activity from afar. It seems obvious, but I’ve been guilty of this before, as well. Why not take the fight to the deer? Or, if you simply aren’t seeing any deer activity, carefully scour the area until you find sign of recent deer activity. An added bonus is that your hunting area will always be fresh, as this is often the first time you’ve set foot in this area. Deer will be none the wiser if you slip in undetected.
8. Use Hunting Pressure to Your Advantage
While I prefer low-impact scouting in the spring, there is also a time and a place for scouting during the fall seasons. If I find myself with time to spare, I often spend it checking out new areas during the heart of the season.
The biggest benefit I get from deploying this tactic is surveying the local hunting pressure. It is no secret that mature deer inhabit areas that hunters don’t frequent. If my scouting reveals heavy hunting pressure from other hunters, I will likely cross that spot off my list for seasons to come.
My ideal hunting setup is an area where little to no other hunters step foot. In highly pressured public or private hunting areas, deer tend to gravitate toward these areas with low chances of human intrusion. On heavily pressured public lands, my way of thinking often changes from studying the deer to studying the hunters. Where are you least likely to find hunters? This is often the best place to start looking for deer.
9. Hunt Water Sources
Hunting water sources is often overlooked, which is strange, because it’s no secret that deer need water to survive. If you find yourself hunting an area with limited water sources, water can be an attractant as powerful as a lush food plot. During the early season when it’s warmer or during the rut while bucks are cruising for does, a water source can be a prime location to place your stakes.
10. Don’t Burn Out
Sometimes spending less time in the woods results in more deer on the ground. There is something to be said about self-preservation. If you become sleep deprived and run yourself ragged trying to tag a buck, you may be doing more harm than good, not to mention your deer hunting sites may also be taking a hit due to increased human activity.
While you can’t kill a deer from the couch, there are more productive days to spend in the woods than others. If you only have enough time, resources or energy to hunt a certain number of days, it may be in your best interest to take a day off and hunt a more productive day with a freshly charged body and outlook. If you find yourself completely exhausted trying to solve the puzzle that is the October lull, consider spending your resources elsewhere in exchange for cool November mornings that promise an uptick in deer activity.
About the Author: Dylan Tramp is an avid angler and public-land bowhunter from Rapid City, S.D.