Deer Hunters: 5 Tips to Break the 20-Yard Barrier

If you can see the colour of a white-tailed deer’s eyes, you’ve probably broken the 20-yard barrier! When we think of close range deer hunting, we typically think of bow hunting. Imperative for the archer, make no mistake, gun hunters too can capitalize on these five close-encounter tactics.

1 Understand the Feeding & Bedding Areas

The first and most important thing we can do is identify the feeding areas. Both whitetails and mule deer invariably visit the most accessible food source with the highest protein value. On agricultural ground where most of us hunt deer, this might be an alfalfa field, pasture, a barley or oat crop and, if you’re really fortunate perhaps even a pea or corn field. In heavily forested timber areas, a similar, but usually less pronounced feeding phenomenon occurs. Sometimes the food source will be clover on roadsides, oil lease sites, clear cuts or south-facing slopes.

Likewise, studying the land you hunt will help to identify the bedding areas. Walking the area will give you an immediate impression. Begin at the food source and follow the most heavily worn trails into the cover. Ultimately those trails will dissipate. More often than not, you’ll find yourself approaching thicker cover. Invest time looking around and you should eventually discover beds.

2 Choose Stand Sites Carefully

Stand hunting is the preferred approach of most whitetail hunters. Whether you use a ground blind or an elevated perch like a tree stand or platform, in order to break the 20-yard barrier, the hunter has to learn where the deer will move and when. Identifying the most heavily used trails is a good start, but pinpointing the trails used by the deer you’re specifically hunting is most important. With the introduction of today’s trail cameras, you can scout year-round by placing and moving trail cams to learn which trails the deer you’re after is using most frequently.

When you confirm where your deer is travelling, dig deeper. Locate the most heavily used trail intersections. By doing this, you maximize your odds by covering multiple travel paths. I’ve placed stands in trees overlooking locations where three of four different trails intersect. With this strategy, I have effectively covered off a good percentage of the potential movement in a given area.

Placing the tree stand or ground blind correctly is equally important. A well-placed stand allows the hunter to avoid a deer’s direct field of vision while also using thermals to carry scent away from the immediate area. Knowing when, where and how to situate a tree stand can literally make or break a hunt. Set up within 20 yards of these trail intersections, along ridges, natural movement corridors, funnels, and, yes, sometimes even field edge locations. Ground blinds should always be brushed in to look as natural as possible.

In the early season when the temperatures are extremely warm, don’t dismiss water holes. They can be great locations for an ambush. Build your ground blind or mount your stand close to, or between trails leading to the water.

3 Focus on Prime Times

Early on in the season deer are still in their summer bedding and feeding routines, making them someone easier to pattern. Determine which trail he uses most frequently, set up a stand or blind there and you’ve got a good chance of breaking the 20-yard barrier for a close-range shot opportunity. Early in the season, your best chances are in the early morning and late evening with little movement occurring during the mid-day hours.

As bucks shed their velvet, they begin preparing for the upcoming rut. Over time, their travel routines expand as they inventory doe groups within their home range. By late October, the pre-rut is well underway and movement is no longer restricted to just morning and evening; they can be seen moving throughout the day.

4 Rattle, Call, Use Scent Attractors & Decoys

During the pre- and peak rut, rattling and calling can work very well. While rattling can attract bucks for any number of reasons, it generally works best in areas with a higher buck-to-doe ratio. By emulating the natural sounds of a buck or a doe along with a physical antler-on-antler confrontation, we can attract a buck. It’s important to understand why a buck is attracted to, and then why he may be willing to engage in a sparring match.

As a rule, I use a grunt tube, doe bleat and rattling antlers, especially in the pre- and peak rut. Alternatively, learning to do a snort-wheeze is a last-ditch, but often effective strategy that can bring hesitant or disinterested bucks in for a closer look. Rattling and calling can work from mid-October on to the peak of the rut in mid-October. Bow hunters in particular rely on drawing bucks in to close range, so they learn quickly that those magical two to three days when the majority of does go into estrus can produce the absolute best shot opportunities. That first estrus cycle typically occurs in the mid-west Canadian provinces sometime between November 9 and 16. In the areas I hunt most frequently, I can literally mark my calendar by the estrus as it invariably occurs between the November 12 and 14. No, the rut does not happen early or late depending on weather; it is a biological response to photophase. If you are having a tough time breaking that 20-yard barrier, pay close attention to this peak rut period and you’re certain to tip the odds in your favour.

Add scent and a visual attractant like a doe or buck decoy to the calling and rattling equation and you may well end up with a combination bucks simply can’t resist. Doe-in-estrus scents and sometimes dominant buck scents carefully applied to existing or mock scrapes less than 20-yards from your stand or blind are one of the best tools a hunter can use to break that distance barrier.

If you really want to flip the switch, don’t dismiss the almighty decoy. I’ve seen great success with a Flambeau full body doe decoy. As long as visibility is good and the bucks have plenty of warning (i.e. they can see the decoy from afar), they will often come over to investigate. Place the decoy 15-yards from your stand or ground blind and you’ve got a great opportunity to bring a buck in under the 20-yard barrier. In the pre-rut I’ll sometimes use an antlered decoy as bucks will more readily approach one of their peers at this stage of their annual cycle. A the rut crests and starts to slow down, put away the antlered decoy for the season as it poses more of a threat than an attraction for other bucks in the pos-rut. Doe decoys can still work if used correctly.

5 Be Scent-Free & Use the Wind

Last but not least, deer have a hypersensitive nose. If you want to break the 20-yard barrier, you need to do all you can to fool their nose. Odour-eliminating sprays, scent-blocking garments, scent-free soaps and deodorants can all help but they must be used properly. Neither is a catch-all solution but they can help to some degree. In the end, the smartest move any hunter can make is using the wind to their advantage. Select ambush sites carefully based on understanding of deer movement patterns, ensure that air currents will carry scent away from the game, and you’re well on your way to breaking the 20-yard barrier.

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