The Whitetail Playbook

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Whitetail hunting may not be an exact science, but follow the unwritten playbook and you’re sure to score this fall

Break just one rule, and that elusive buck you are after immediately gains an even bigger home field advantage. No, there is no formal playbook for deer hunting. Volumes have been published, and many have tried, but no one has come up with a definitive manual guaranteeing success in the whitetail woods. In fact, just when we think we’ve figured them out, the pros release some new theory to either dispel a myth or shine new light on the enigmatic world of the whitetail deer.


By the book

Proficient whitetail hunters pay their dues. Long days and countless hours in the woods most often produce that rare and fleeting shot opportunity. Those who stay the course are frequently rewarded with venison for the freezer and occasionally a fine trophy.

Pursue mature bucks long enough and you quickly learn that they don’t come easy; most are hard earned. Indeed, if you consider the general hunting population, every fall a handful of giant bucks are taken by chance. But for the most part, the really big ones are few and far between.

For most of us, whitetail hunting is a puzzle. We want to know when, where and how to get close to one of the most elusive big game animals known to North American hunters.

I have the privilege of immersing myself in the woods for almost three months a year. I know where big deer live and I have a lot of ground to hunt. With so much investment, you might think if anyone can take a Booner every year it would be me. Sadly, that’s not the case; I wish it were, but it’s not. My wife, Heather, and I spend most of our time bow hunting, so that in itself is an enormous handicap. Furthermore, like most serious whitetail hunters, I often hunt specific deer and, if those bucks don’t materialize, as the season comes to an end, I sometimes settle. That’s just how whitetail hunting goes.

We all have our own way of hunting whitetails. Aside from the hardcore crowd, most recreational hunters learned from someone before them. Those individuals passed on the methods that, to a greater or lesser extent, brought success. Think about how you were introduced to whitetail hunting and your own evolution as a hunter – perhaps you were taught to do organized deer drives; maybe you’re a stand hunter or a still hunter who prefers to slowly walk through the woods. Regardless of which strategy you use, someone before you either told you or showed you how to do it.

Even still, if you’re reading this article, you are probably wondering if there is more. Rest assured, there are things you, as a hunter, can do to make your own experiences afield that much more enjoyable and productive. If every whitetail hunter took the following six steps, success in the field would increase exponentially.


Leave your vehicle

To an impassioned whitetail hunter, the notion of road hunting is absurd, and yet an astounding number of people still do it. Before I proceed, let me say that in some remote wilderness areas, when logging or oil and gas roads allow us to cover ground, one can argue that it is an effective strategy. I’m not big on spending my own days behind the wheel, but this strategy does work in certain circumstances. Indeed, burning roads in developed agricultural areas during the first and last hour of the day can produce sightings and yes, even the odd shot opportunity. Certainly, from time to time, road hunters get lucky and see a buck standing along a tree line, out in a field or on ground where they have permission to hunt. These open fields may be where deer spend their time feeding under the cover of darkness, but it’s not really where they live during daylight hours. If you want to rely on more than luck and want to hunt a whitetail where he lives, it’s time to leave the truck and step into the woods.


Access prime ground

In Canada, we have many options to hunt crown land at will during open seasons. Conversely, private land presents a whole different possibility. In most jurisdictions throughout Canada it is still unlawful to pay for access, so getting permission to hunt prime whitetail habitat on private property requires us to put on our public relations hat and start networking. Here is how I do it: several months before the start of any deer season, Heather and I do up an inventory of the various properties we have hunted in the past and follow up with the landowners to make sure we have continued permission to hunt for the year at hand. Remember that most landowners want you to renew permission each and every year and before the actual season opener. If at all possible, take care not to bother them during their busy harvest.


Study maps and photos

With a little practice, you can learn to identify high odds locations for stand or ground blind placement simply by taking a look at a topographical map and air photo of the ground you will be hunting. Google Earth is a fantastic resource. Corners of feeding fields, pinch points, bottlenecks or natural funnels and poplar or pine ridges can all be ideal places to explore further. Remember that deer, and especially mature bucks, will focus on the best quality habitat, which means the most nutrient-rich food near prime bedding cover. Your next step is to lace up the boots and take a walk.


Spend time scouting

After you’ve pinpointed quality deer-holding habitat, secured access and taken a look at maps and photos, scour the area. Be thorough and make sure you evaluate every nook and cranny. Pay close attention to the areas you identified on the maps and in the photos. I like to print out and bring hard copy photos with me so that I can cross-reference as I walk around. Most often, you’ll be able to confirm suspicions, but there will always be a few surprises.


Identify sign

As you scout any given property, take note of deer sign. In particular, mark down game trails and keep a record of tracks, droppings, rubs and scrapes, both old and new. Identify the most heavily used corridors and take note of significant trails and trail intersections. Pinpoint old and new rubs and scrapes in proximity to these trails and intersections and more than likely you have discovered a high-percentage location to encounter deer, especially during the pre- and peak rut.


Choose ambush sites

Whenever you look at new ground, begin in the areas that you feel will probably concentrate deer to eat and sleep. As a rule, you want to hunt the transition or staging areas between those two locations.

Your first consideration when choosing an ambush site involves considering the time of year. For instance, in the early archery seasons you will want to place your stand or ground blind on or near the edge of a feeding field. Whitetails are usually still in their relaxed bedding and feeding patterns for the first couple weeks, but as soon as bucks shed their velvet and antlers harden, routines quickly change. When this happens, I tend to select sites that are anywhere from 20 to 50 metres inside the trees. Deer will often move with confidence under the lush foliage, even during daylight hours.

As the active pre-rut heats up in late October, look for scrape lines, but focus on identifying primary scrapes. Primary scrapes are generally larger than the rest of the scrapes on a buck’s line. They are bigger and sometimes deeper than all the others and both does and bucks visit them much more frequently. If you can locate these earliest primary scrapes, you will undoubtedly be focusing on the best locations for an encounter with bucks. On many occasions I have located primary scrapes while guiding. When I do, I almost always set a stand nearby. Like clockwork, as soon as I sit a hunter over that primary scrape, he or she sees or even shoots a decent buck. This is one of those unwritten rules that tend to produce consistently.

Otherwise, locating and setting up on or near the most heavily a used trail is always a smart move. I hunt several properties where the deer traffic is regular and constant along ridges and in transition zones between blocks of timber. These, too, can be exceptional locations during the peak rut as bucks use these travel corridors extensively, frequently visiting primary scrapes during this period of heightened activity.


Rattle, call and use scents and decoys

Finally, whether you are an active hunter that prefers to be on foot, or you prefer to sit and wait, be sure to capitalize on every tool available to communicate with whitetails. Rattling and calling are by far the most effective tools you can use to attract bucks. They offer no guarantee, but they can be effective, particularly during the pre-rut from mid-October through to the peak estrus in mid-November. Using a bleat can attract does and bucks throughout the fall, but it can be especially effective during the latter two weeks in October, as bucks begin to actively look for hot does and on into the early November pre-rut. A doe bleat becomes especially productive during the primary and secondary estrus periods.

Combine the use of doe estrus scents, in active natural or mock scrapes, with rattling and calling, and add the simulation of a potential breeding partner by placing a doe decoy in a visible location and you will be putting some of the best tools to work. Buck decoys can be effective during the pre-rut and up until the peak rut, but after that, it’s time to put them away for the year.

Follow these simple steps and you’re sure to fill a tag this fall!

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