Successful Deer Hunting

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A guide to ensure you fill your deer tags

During the past couple of deer hunting seasons, I couldn’t help but think that being successful was equal to the sum of the parts. Why? Simply because there are many strategies which help hunters capitalize on opportunities that are likely to arise during a deer hunt. Secondly, there are several things that can go wrong if hunters aren’t prepared, from not properly sighting in their rifle at a range to not being familiar with deer behavior and biology, not having good optics to spot deer and judge the size of the antlers, not putting themselves in a shooting position, not using a bipod for long-range shots, as well as not following up on shots.

If there’s a breakdown in any one of these fundamentals of success, a hunt can go south very quickly, and a hunter will go home with an unfilled tag in their pocket. I’m going to outline what I do during deer hunts to illustrate my point that hunting success equals the sum of the parts – blow any part and you go back to the start!

 

The gun range

Success starts by ensuring that your hunting rifle is properly sighted in for the weight of bullets you intend to use while deer hunting. I don’t know how many times I’ve been to a local gun range and witnessed shooters improperly sighting in their rifles prior to going hunting. No wonder they miss shot opportunities.

It is absolutely essential that you use a solid rest and follow the established protocol when sighting in your rifle, or when you’re checking to ensure it’s properly sighted in. Don’t use pillows, sleeping bags or cushions from your sofa when sighting in a high-powered rifle; you may as well just stay at home. It’s incumbent to use a shooting stand, or at least sand bags, for a solid rest to make sure that each and every time you fire a bullet during the sighting in process, your crosshairs are zeroed in on exactly the same spot. That way, if you need to make adjustments to your scope, the adjustments are done properly.

Finally, before you leave the range, ensure that you can put your shots in a six-inch bullseye at 100 yards from a sitting position, one of the most common field positions.

Once your rifle is sighted in and you’re able to consistently place your shots in the bullseye, you will have confidence in your ability to hit a target at least 100 yards away. Confidence is the key to being successful when hunting.

To take the guesswork out of the equation regarding sighting in distances, I went through my hunting journal and tallied the average range of the last 30 mule deer and white tail deer that either I shot, or someone else in my hunting party had shot. This sample size is considered statistically significant. The average range of killing shots was as follows:

  • White tail deer (20) – 122 yards
  • Mule deer (10) – 167 yards

Statistics don’t lie. Be prepared for close in shots on white tail deer and mid-range shots on mule deer. I think you’d be fine if your rifle is zeroed in at 100 yards for either species under most circumstances.

Use a bipod whenever possible or shooting sticks if that’s your preference. It’s much easier to score on deer that are over 100 yards away if you have a decent rest. In many cases, you’ll have ample time to set up a bipod or get shooting sticks in position for a well-placed shot.

 

Scouting

Do not expect to be consistently successful hunting deer if you don’t scout your hunting territory. Conditions can and do change and the distribution and number of deer can be highly variable from year to year, depending on many factors such as the condition of the range, winter mortality, cattle grazing, snowfall and more.

In one of my favourite spots, the number of white tail deer has plummeted over the past several years, likely due to winterkill and coyote predation. In another spot, numbers are down at least 50 per cent due to a severe winter in 2010/2011.

You must also spend time getting familiar with your hunting territory, to make sure you know where and when you’re most likely to find deer and what sort of tactics you should employ to get in position or be ready for a shot. Shot opportunities seldom just happen, they’re usually the result of strategic decisions based on knowledge of deer habits and distribution under variable circumstances. You must have local knowledge of where deer feed, water and travel to be successful, which requires scouting. End of story.

I always like to relate a story about one of my favourite stands, where I took nice white tail bucks, while sitting at the same spot, four out of five years. The year I didn’t, several days of ground fog ruined the hunt. It took quite a bit of scouting to figure out where I should take a stand, but once I did I hit the jackpot.

 

Deer biology and behaviour

Books have been written about the biology and behaviour of both mule deer and white tail deer, providing all sorts of tips on how to score on bucks. I’ll try to encapsulate some key traits that hunters should keep in the back of their minds in search of their quarry.

You must be familiar with the habits of deer before, during and after the rut, which should influence your hunting strategy. Your strategy should also vary when hunting mule deer as compared with white tail deer.

While their ranges may overlap, mule deer are creatures of open country, whereas white tail deer tend to be more secretive and are found most often in or near cover, unless they’re feeding, or, in the case of bucks, bird dogging in the open in search of does in estrus.

Mule deer seldom respond in earnest to deer calls, whereas white tail bucks can be suckers for doe bleats, calls from grunt tubes and antler rattling. I’ve attracted white tail bucks with doe bleats from over half a mile away and have had bucks come to within spitting distance. But not so for mule deer bucks.

Mule deer bucks are very mobile before and after the rut and can be spotted at any time of the day, whereas white tail bucks are more often spotted in the early morning hours or just before it gets dark.

Mule deer are very difficult to pattern, whereas white tail deer are very much creatures of habit, and although almost always wary, are easier to hunt strategically from ground and tree blinds.

Study the habits of both species so you’re on top of your game during your deer hunt.

 

Timing

I’ve written lengthy articles about the pros and cons of early and late season deer hunts and suffice it to say that timing is a personal choice. However, it’s often a very important factor in a deer hunt.

Generally, I’d opt to hunt late in the season, when there is snow on the ground, for several reasons: it’s easier to pattern deer; you can find their bedding spots, feeding areas and travel lanes; it’s much easier to spot them after a snowfall, as they stand out much better than when there’s dry ground; it’s easier to judge the size of antlers; snow makes for better field dressing conditions; and lastly, it’s much easier to follow up on shot deer that don’t drop in their tracks if there’s snow on the ground. I’ve taken a lot of deer and while many have fallen dead after being shot, some have travelled some distance after being fatally shot. It’s a challenge to find wounded deer when there’s no snow on the ground.

 

Optics

It is vital that you have good optics to locate deer, especially when you’re engaged in spot-and-stalk hunts, more so than when hunting from a stand or blind. I recommend 10×42 or 10×50 binoculars for deer hunts, which have high enough magnification to judge antler size at distances up to half a mile away.

If you’re a trophy hunter, a spotting scope is essential to judge quality bucks at a distance.

Rangefinders can be deal breakers – I wouldn’t leave home without one, particularly if you were into spot-and-stalk hunting. Binoculars with a built in rangefinder are a bonus and binoculars with image stabilizers are also an asset. Rangefinders also play a key role if you’re stand hunting – I use them to take the guesswork out of estimating ranges when I first take a stand, not when I spot a deer while on stand. Time is precious when hunting deer. It pays dividends to check the range in your field of view before a deer shows up, so you know in advance what you’re up against.

 

The day of the hunt

I’m not a road hunter and while I don’t want imply that road hunting is improper, I will say that hunters who drive all over private and public land in search of deer give hunting a bad name. They also tend to stir up deer and put them on edge, spoiling hunts for hunters who are on foot, often pushing deer out of sight of the roads. I’d go so far as to say that where road hunting is common, deer become more and more nocturnal in their behaviour.

More often than not, you have to be in a position for a shot before legal shooting time if you want to be successful. There are always exceptions to every rule, and in the case of both mule deer and white tail deer they can be out in the open at any time of the day during and following the rut. But, be on your stand prior to daylight and take advantage of deer being on the move at first light if you want to improve your chances, particularly when hunting white tail deer.

I went through my hunting journal to see what time mule deer and white tail deer were shot, similar to what I did to get the goods on ranges of killing shots. For example, using a sample size of 30 deer, were they shot before or after noon? For mule deer, with a sample size of 10 deer, 40 per cent were taken before noon and 60 per cent after noon. For white tail deer, with a sample size of 20 deer, 80 per cent were taken before noon and 20 per cent after noon.

Furthermore, over 80 per cent of the white tail deer were shot before 9 a.m. On the other hand, 90 per cent of the mule deer were shot after 9 a.m. Shocking isn’t it? Ample proof that the early white tail deer hunter gets his or her deer, whereas sleepyheads will do OK on mulies! I’ve always advised mule deer hunters to hunt all day, especially during the rut or post rut, because bucks, in particular, are on the move throughout the whole day and wander around their home range in search of does.

You can’t just show up and expect to be successful. You have to make your own destiny during a deer hunt, because each and every hunt starts with a level playing field. There are no givens that you should ever take for granted. Furthermore, your reward will also be commensurate with the amount of time and effort you put into the hunt. Act strategically to build success.

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