Throughout the years, I’ve tried about every imaginable strategy to improve my chances of outsmarting wary white-tailed bucks. Unfortunately, some of the strategies I’ve tried didn’t pan out as I hoped they would.
By Charles J. Alsheimer
I’ve also learned some tactics that seem to work no matter where I’m hunting. These tactics usually coincide with one of the following seven key strategies I’ve identified over the past 50-plus years.
1. Hunt Food With Cover
He who has the food has the deer, providing there is ample cover. I know that sounds simple, but it’s the foundation for building a successful hunt.
Each whitetail begins its day with two goals: finding enough food and doing everything in its power to ensure it sees another sunrise. Whitetails need around a ton and a half of food per year to survive, and from late August through the end of October it’s not uncommon for each deer to consume well over 10 pounds of food per day. So, food is the key.
Most whitetails are picky eaters with very distinct preferences. High-protein foods get a lot of press when it comes to preferred food, but come autumn they take a back seat to foods with high sugar content, like fruits and corn. That’s why whitetails often shift their home range to find sugar-laced foods. Hard mast is an exception. When available, foods like beechnuts and acorns will trump all other food sources.
Throughout my years of conducting whitetail nutritional studies, I’ve been able to see firsthand how such foods cause whitetails to change not only their bedding sites, but also how they move throughout the day.
On average, whitetails will eat four to five times a day. Consequently, the amount of cover in and around preferred food sources plays a huge role in whether the food source is utilized, not to mention the amount of activity and sightings that can be expected. In short, finding great food plus thick cover is the starting point of putting together a successful hunting plan.
2. Hunt Bottlenecks
Whitetails are nature’s ultimate survivors. They have the uncanny ability to elude all their primary predators. One way they accomplish this is by keeping out of sight and seeking escape routes that provide the most protection. They particularly like to use the thickest cover that connects their bedding and feeding locations. As a result, ditches, hedgerows and narrow strips of cover are preferred travel routes for bucks and does.
Such locations are my favorite places to hang tree stands because of the way the cover pinches deer into a confined area. This is especially the case where heavy hunting pressure occurs. The hunter who knows how to take advantage of the way other hunters inadvertently push deer almost always puts venison in the freezer.
Of all the places to hunt (especially during bow season) tight bottlenecks located between prime bedding and feeding areas offer the best location to kill a deer. No other location even comes close.
3. Map the Wind
If you don’t have the wind in your favor, it doesn’t matter how great the food and cover are because deer will not appear during daylight. For this reason, after food and cover are determined it is critical to know how air flows over the terrain you intend to hunt.
Weather conditions are never the same from day to day. However, seasonal similarities can help determine what might take place under certain conditions. To help determine the seasonal shifts in wind patterns, I keep notes pertaining to the various stands we hunt on our farm. I list the dates the stand was hunted, wind speed and weather conditions that existed at the time.
I use a child’s bubble-blowing kit to determine how the air flows at various times and conditions. I’m able to see how the bubbles flow around and away from the stand in different wind conditions. This technique is much better than using talcum powder because the bubbles travel much further than powder.
In many cases, after the bubbles get a few yards from the stand, the surrounding trees and terrain cause the bubbles to move much differently than you might expect. Consequently, the flight of the bubbles will allow you to know if the location can be hunted.
4. Know Behavior
A buck’s autumn behavior can be very different than its summer behavior. Come fall, a white-tailed buck’s feeding, bedding, travel and overall personality can change radically. Hence, a buck that was seen using the same alfalfa field throughout summer might disappear come fall. Understanding that a buck’s home range can triple in size by the end of October will go a long way toward laying out a sound hunting strategy.
Bucks not only have a tendency to change their home range, but they also change their daytime travel patterns as the rut approaches. The lunar-rut research that Wayne Laroche and I have conducted during the past few years clearly shows that deer are more active the last two hours of daylight than the first two hours of daylight in early fall (September to mid/late October). After the end of October, movement patterns reverse, revealing the greatest daytime activity taking place in the first two hours of daylight.
When the breeding period ends, deer activity increases during the 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. time periods.
5. Hunt Doe Strongholds
I’m always amazed at the number of hunters I encounter who complain that all they ever see are does. Although this might be of concern in areas where bucks are overharvested, it can be a real plus nearly everywhere else.
If an area is managed properly, meaning a balanced sex ratio and a reasonable mix of older bucks in the population, the amount of rubs and scrapes that are made can be impressive. When the rut begins ramping up, doe sightings will turn into buck sightings when bucks begin to seek out does to breed. As the old saying goes, “if you want to fish, go where there are fish.” If you want to hunt deer, go where the deer are.
Although doe strongholds might not produce many buck sightings in September and early October, they are certain to come during November.
6. Know Your Limitations
Are you honest with yourself when it comes to knowing your limitations as a hunter? How far can you shoot an arrow into a 5-inch circle, four out of five times? How often do you shoot a shotgun or rifle? Are you good enough to put three straight bullets in a 4-inch circle at 100 yards? How high can you hang in a stand without a fear of heights? How long can you sit in the cold and still have arm and leg circulation that is good enough to make the shot when the moment of truth arrives?
These are just a few of the questions you need to ask yourself honestly. When you pursue mature whitetails, there are no audiences to see how well you perform. It’s just you and the deer, and you owe it to the animal to act responsibly by knowing what you can and cannot do. If you don’t have a handle on your abilities and limitations, you, the deer, and the sport of hunting all lose.
My limitations are something I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve grown older. When I was a young man serving in Vietnam, I qualified as an expert marksman with an M-16 rifle. Now that I’m 65, I’m not the shot I used to be. Even though I own rifles that can kill whitetails out to 500 yards, I don’t even think of pulling the trigger at a deer standing beyond 150 yards any more.
The same goes for archery hunting. I used to be a pretty good shot out to 40 yards. No more. Age has a way of making one less stable. Today, I don’t feel confident coming to full draw at a whitetail beyond 20 yards away. And no longer do I stay on stand all day in 30-degree temperatures; my body goes south after about two hours. If you truly want to be a great whitetail hunter, you have to have the whole package. Knowing your limitations is one of the biggies.
7. Beware of Murphy
It might appear otherwise, but I never hunt alone.
It’s true. Murphy always seems to want to tag along when I head to the deer woods. Because he always seems to be looking over my shoulder, hoping I screw up, I’ve learned that I need to go out of my way to prepare for whatever he might throw my way.
Over the years, Murphy’s Law (whatever can go wrong will) has caused me all kinds of mental anguish on hunts. There was the time my arrow fell off the rest just as I was about to release the arrow on a big buck. There was also the time when I lowered my rifle out of my tree stand only to have a great buck trot past as I sat perched 20 feet in the air with the gun hanging on the draw rope, inches off the ground. I could go on and on with true confessions from years of deer hunting, but suffice to say, Murphy has enjoyed hunting with Alsheimer.
Fortunately I’ve been able to consistently beat Murphy by doing everything possible to prepare for the unknown. For example, each year I prepare for how to deal with such things as an arrow falling of the bow’s rest or the arrow’s nock popping off the string while coming to full draw.
This I know: If you don’t prepare for the worst, Murphy will beat you down. As you look to this fall remember these words. “If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”
— Charles Alsheimer has been a D&DH contributor since 1979.