Sweat the Small Stuff: Whitetail Hunting Primer-Part 1
There have been hundreds of books written on the subject of hunting whitetails. In no way am I about to give anyone a thorough lesson that will make you a complete whitetail hunter. After all, I am still learning myself. I have been hunting deer for over 40 years, but must admit to having lost most or all of 12-15 seasons while I was a pilot in the U.S. Army from the late '70s through the late '90s.
What I have attempted to gather here are some simple pointers that will at least give a novice hunter some starting points to consider, and perhaps use and also maybe remind some more experienced hunters of some things they may have forgotten or gotten lax about. Again, I do not claim to be an expert and simply pass on some basics that I have come to depend on and that have brought me some pretty good success.
Two of the most important things that many new hunters don't always remember are to always practice both scent discipline and noise discipline. You'd be very surprised how many serious hunters start their hunts by stepping out of their truck, slamming the door and speaking in normal tones to each other as they begin their hunt.
I've sat untold hours on stand and have seen (heard) first hand just how far noise will travel when it's a calm still day, especially early in the morning. A car door slamming can easily be heard at four hundred plus yards and so can normal volume conversation. In the type scenarios you may be hunting in, slowly latching the car's door and whispering as you depart to hunt can be most important. The wind is, as most have already learned, important also especially when walking and hunting (still hunting).
Noise discipline works! A good two hours after the author crept quietly to his stand
and climbed up in the pre-dawn darkness, this chunky little Tennessee 8 point stood up
from his bed in full view at about 60 yards. He stretched for a bit before simply
plopping back down. He was shot lying in his bed 5 minutes later on opening day 2009.
Photo courtesy of William Allen
I'm not always so paranoid about a breeze when I'm on stand (ground or raised) because it seems no matter just how sure I am as to what direction deer are going to approach from, invariably some will approach from another direction, so wind is not quite as important while sitting, although looking into any prevailing breeze present, is always the smartest thing.
Many states have a rule where 400 square inches (or thereabouts) of orange are required. If there's not a requirement that an orange hat MUST be worn, a vest will normally suffice. Your head and hands will be the parts most apt to move and I normally will not wear an orange hat unless required and will never wear orange gloves. I always wear gloves, however, as your white hands moving are more easily seen too. Where solid orange is not a requirement, I always wear blaze orange camo as my orange.
I do use scent spray, which covers or removes odors and also am a big believer in hanging my hunting clothes outside to air out as much as possible. If we cook breakfast before we leave in the early morning darkness, I won't wear my hunting clothes when I eat, fearing they will pick up smells from breakfast. I will dress/change after eating at those times. I like a small LED light which attaches to my hat to see as I walk into the woods in the dark and I prefer a greenish tint as it's harder for game to see in the dark. A small hand-held LED light, the size of a pencil also works very well. Always be careful NOT to shine the light around unnecessarily, as game will see it more easily when you do that.
Either of these lights is a great thing to have if you shoot late and have to leave your dead deer to get help in dragging too; simply leave it at the deer. Clothes that are soft enough to not make noise when a fingernail is dragged across the surface work best as they rub against trees and brush and among my favorites are fleece, microtex, and wool.
It's also a good thing NOT to wear your hunting boots except while in the woods hunting. Wear something else around, inside, at camp and especially if you ever have to stop and gas up. Keep the soles more scent-free. One last tip. Your hunting hat is likely a treasured possession, but trust me, it does NOT smell like one. I always carry a second hat to wear on stand after walking/sweating in old faithful.
A quick word here about how one "enters" the woods to begin hunting. If you are intimately familiar with the area, having hunted it before, perhaps, then you may not need any specific precautions, but for a hunter hunting a new area for the first time they need to be at least a bit cautious. Use a new-fangled GPS if you want, to set your position (or your truck's!) or simply use a compass to figure what direction you headed into the woods, thus what reciprocal you need to head out later on. It does you no good to shoot a monster buck, if you don't know which way to drag it out! Enough said.
Picking a Spot
Some of my favorite places to sit are a slightly elevated spot, back to a big tree to break up my outline and in an area (of course) where some fresh sign has been found. By far the best places to sit are at known crossings of fences or streams, or what are known as funnels. Funnels are simply places where terrain (due to both natural or man-made causes) narrows so that deer are likely to be routed into a smaller area, as they travel through. Funnels are GREAT during the rut as bucks are searching for does to breed and many times will travel between thickets and woodlots via these funnels.
We looked at some prime places to look for or wait for whitetails a bit already. Finding an area with a lot of fresh sign is always a good start and hunting funnels will lead to deer sightings as well. How then, do you set up in this new area? The easiest and most mobile stand is to simply pick out a tree and sit against it, letting the tree break up your outline and maybe giving some shadow to sit in as well.
The type tree matters not, but using one at least as wide as your shoulders, say some 18- 20" in diameter is always the best bet. To improve your chances, always try to face the wind, making game spotted upwind of your position and hopefully unaware of your presence since they should not be able to wind you. Try to find a tree with no other large trees directly in front of you, as this will block your vision and ultimately limit your visibility.
Play the sun card by keeping, whenever possible, the sun behind you and wind in your face. This means that the same spot found good for a morning sit will likely not be as good for an afternoon sit. Best bets are facing westward (generally) in the morning and then facing eastward (generally) in the afternoons. This also makes the deer have to look into a rising or setting sun to see you, giving you an excellent advantage. On days mostly devoid of wind or significant breezes, be sure to play the thermals game too.
In the early morning, as the sun rises (hopefully behind you) and the air begins to warm, your scent will rise with the warming air. So, the best scenario is to sit high early (near the top of ridge, etc.) and conversely sit lower late (afternoon) as the sun's strength wanes and the air cools and flows naturally downhill. Do not sit high enough early though, as to be skylighted against a ridge top, but rather sit just under the crest, so you'll have a good view and will not be skylighted against the bright sky.
When you've found such a spot for a morning's sit, 3/4ths up a ridge, facing west, with the breeze in your face and against a large tree, now it's time to prepare your new spot. I like to carry small pruning shears to use to cut small brush that might bother my vision or deflect a bullet you're trying to thread through the woods to your deer. These shears are invaluable and taking just 5 minutes to trim overhanging or low nearby brush. It can help a lot in making some shooting "lanes."
The next thing is to clear all the leaves away from your spot alongside your tree. This allows you to sit and move much more quietly while awaiting game. I usually clear a 3-4' diameter circle of ALL leaves and sticks before I sit down. Doing this also gives your immediate area a "fresh earth" smell, helping cover any human odors too. Your seat can be as plain as a small cushion for your butt, or as nice as a seat that attaches to the tree, elevating you slightly above the ground.
Summit stands makes a very nice seat called the "Trophy Chair" that is a sling seat with attached arms for comfort and I have spent many a comfortable hour seated in just such a seat. Other types include small seats that also rotate or swivel so you can easily change the direction you're facing when seeing or hearing something. Either one puts your butt 18" or so above the ground.
I've also had success sitting directly behind a tree and using it as kind of a blind as I looked around it too. A small folding stool works well for this method. Simply sit facing the tree, with the tree immediately in front of you, a tree trunk screen so to say. Once you are settled on the ground, on a stool, or in a hanging seat, simply find a comfy position for both you and your rifle.
I always hold my rifle, knowing the moment I lean it against the tree next to me as I sit relaxed, one of two things is going to happen. Either an unseen deer will pop into view so close as to not give you a good opportunity to grab your rifle, OR your rifle will simply, all on its own, fall and smash your new scope into 1,000 pieces. Not as far-fetched as it sounds, trust me!
So our perfect spot(s) will be high on a ridge, against a big tree, with all leaves cleared away allowing us room to maneuver quietly to get a shot; breeze in our face and all close brush trimmed back and sun at our back for morning and lower in the terrain, sun setting on our back in the afternoon. There is little worse than finding a very likely spot getting there in the early morning darkness and finding an hour later that you are blinded for that first, very productive hour, because you're facing a bright, rising sun.
Sitting for two hours waiting for sunset and then finding yourself blinded for 45 minutes as the sun settles behind the ridge you're facing is no fun either. Use your GPS or a good old compass, or merely check the early rising sun or setting sun to decide which time your new spot is best for, morning or afternoon.
Patience, patience, patience! The author (right) and his host behind a nice Indiana
buck taken by the author on day #2 at the same stand. Spending time in areas known to
be good does pay off. Total time in that stand was over 12 hrs. Shot November 14th 2010.
When you've been sitting, sometimes for hours, with no action seen from your location there are times when you begin to doubt yourself and wonder if there's a better spot, just over the ridge. This is especially difficult if you are hearing shots, from other hunters, coming from all other directions. All I can recommend is DON'T move on because no deer have passed your chosen spot as yet.
So, patience, patience, patience is what's needed as we wait at our chosen spots. I have good friends I hunt with that wonder why they do not see as many deer as I do, most days. Well, whenever I go to a stand site, I always force myself to be patient and simply wait out my planned time there. Sooner, or sometimes later, something's likely to wander by. But I've learned my chances of seeing that something are greatly diminished if I choose to move two or three times in my 3 or 4 hour sit.
One of my buddies is always moving, just a bit, to another, "better" location, and I cannot tell you how many times he sees a deer when he's in the process of moving 25-50 feet to another tree, when he would have seen an undisturbed deer instead of a waving tail, had he simply stayed put. Have some faith in your scouting and the sign you found. Of course, on the other hand, if you've had an army of other hunters pass through your area, after setting up, they have likely spoiled the spot with scent and noise and in a situation like that; perhaps it is best to move. If this happens, it's a good idea to now move as quietly as possible to an alternate spot.
A bit of hunter "etiquette" discussion here might be a good idea. Many of us will hunt on land, other than privately owned and not only hunted by ourselves and perhaps some close friends. So, this means that sooner or later, a "stranger" is going to either pass through our chosen area, or has even chosen it as his stand site. Remember, chances are that he has just as much right to that piece of ground as you do, and react accordingly.
If someone is already sitting or set up in your chosen spot, he has simply beaten you to the punch as the saying goes. Without speaking, let him know that you will be departing and give him a gesture showing which direction you'll be departing in. If you are already set up and someone approaches, not knowing you are there already, simply give a soft whistle and when they look a wave so they know where you are already located.
Rarely will anyone still choose to stay at a spot close to another hunter; try to remember it's safety first! If you are the "intruder' in this delicate situation, motion your direction of departure (as already mentioned) and move away as quietly as possible to your alternate spot which should be no less than 400 yards from your original area. Simply moving a hundred yards and out of sight is not what an ethical hunter should do. Again, enough said!
Watch for Part 2, I will review the tactics for shooting, trailing and recovering your deer.