Sweat the Small Stuff: Whitetail Hunting Primer - Part 2
Continuing from the first article that primarily covered how to find the right spot for your deer hunt. If we chose wisely and set up correctly it's simply a matter of time before game will pass by. When it finally does, you have little time to wonder or be surprised. You must simply react and do it as quickly as possible. No, this doesn't mean we jump up, raise our gun and release the safety right now. It does mean we need to formulate a game plan (pun intended) immediately, however. Make sure your movements won't be seen as you ready your rifle and make sure you do not slide your safety off until you know you want to shoot and also you figure it will (the safety) not be heard.
Sounds silly, I know, but it is tougher to remember at that moment than you can believe. If you've decided to not harvest a doe, but rather wait for an opportunity for a buck, your reactions will be different than if you are wanting any flavor of venison. If the deer in sight is a doe and you are wanting a buck, now you must place your attention around the deer in sight, looking in front, to the side or most likely behind that doe for a trailing buck.
Throughout many gun deer seasons, the main rut may well occur at some time causing a big increase in deer (buck) movements. Even if the main rut has passed in your area, or perhaps even before it's typical timing, a passing buck may well have caught the scent of an early doe or one that missed being bred in the main rut and is now in a 2nd estrus period. Bucks will search out any doe out that is in or near estrus, period. So, your job now as the doe(s) passes by is to maintain your vigilance and search the woods for that trailing buck (hopefully).
He may show up right on the tail of the doe (as one did for me twice in the last 10 days) or perhaps an hour or two later, you simply must wait and see. I once left my stand (at my planned time) en route back to my camper and had a doe run right by me pretty much oblivious to my presence. I wondered what had caused her to do that, then figured she might be chased by a buck and decided to maintain my spot and be still. No more than 2 minutes later, here came a buck, nose to the ground trailing that doe. He got a ride in my truck after that!
The buck may come in many times on full alert, so be careful of your movements at that time. Wait until he passes behind a tree or group of trees and move as he is shielded. If it's a shooter buck, best to be careful but quick about readying your gun. One whiff of human odor might cause a full-scale retreat. Get your gun to your shoulder and safety off before he gets TOO close. Pick out an opening he will pass through, that is devoid of trees and brush. I rarely shoot at a moving deer. I normally get ready and grunt any moving deer to a stop. I've NEVER had this trick backfire.
If you've ever watched a deer hunting show, then you've likely heard some versions of the "grunt" used to stop a buck in range for a shot. Mine is a gutteral grunt, similar to what a grunt tube makes. Trust me in that it matters little just what tone your grunt has. After all deer sound a lot different while doing it, too. Simply practice the sound and be ready to quickly imitate it when a deer is spotted. I have used time traveling to my hunting area driving in my truck to practice doing it. I will suggest, however, not doing that when you have a new hunting partner along for the ride. Don't ask how I know that.
Another way a buck may pass your stand is with his head down, like a hound dog, trailing a doe's scent. If you see a deer poised like this, and walking steadily (even jogging) GET READY NOW! He has no idea what else is in his world and may not stop, short of you tapping his shoulder to awaken him from his trance. Get ready and try the grunt technique, but it may not work here especially if he's walking loudly. A sharp whistle may be needed in this case, but only after your rifle is shouldered and safety is off.
Take a good shot. After finding a spot with excellent big buck sign, the author's
friend, Jared Hill, saw this monster Tennessee buck from his stand on opening day of
the 2010 Tennessee M/L season, but could not get a good shot angle on him. Back to his
stand the next day, Jared managed to put a killing shot in the boiler room and take this
absolutely gorgeous 13 point 200 pound (dressed weight) brute home. It all comes down to the shot.
Photo courtesy of: Mandy Hill
Pick out a spot on the deer you want to shoot. At this point, I'd feel the best target to be the center shoulder shot. If you miss this target a tad back, you have a solid double lung shot (broadside deer). If you miss it a tad forward, you have what I call a point of the shoulder shot, or by another name, base of the neck shot. If you hit Mr. Buck right where you aimed, you have at least one broken shoulder, plus double lung. Some hunters argue against the shoulder shot as it "ruins" too much meat, they claim. I say there's a lot more ruined meat on any deer lost to a shot slightly offline due to any number of circumstances.
Not all deer cooperate and give us full broadside shots. When a deer is quartering either towards or away from you, I simply envision his off shoulder and shoot the onside so as to drive my bullet through the center of the off (unseen) shoulder. This shot will penetrate a deer's vitals, if you have a heavy for caliber bullet, that's powerful enough. This is the shot that gives me doubts about a .243's all around performance on deer. Some .243 shooters say, just don't take that shot; I say HOGWASH! Use enough gun and shoot it well and the quartering shot with proper rifle is venison in the freezer.
A steeply quartering shot, almost facing towards or directly away is the most difficult/chancy. I will not even consider a "Texas heart shot" (shot facing directly away, or very nearly so), but honestly, I normally carry plenty enough gun to make it happen. I will not hesitate to shoot a deer facing directly at me though, and think this a good shot angle for a good marksman. I'd likely not make this shot at over 125-150 yds though, as it's a fairly small window. If the deer's head is up, find his white throat patch. Aim at the bottom middle of that patch and you have a dead deer.
If you prefer, find the middle of his chest, vertically. His vitals lie mid body (side to side), about 12-14 inches deep from that angle. A good bullet will devastate his insides and likely he will drop in place. From some of these recommendations you might see why I like rifles of substance. I see NO reason to carry a rifle I cannot figure will make any killing shot I'm capable of making.
We simply don't have that many opportunities in most seasons. A well stoked .257 Roberts or 6.5x55 will easily kill any deer that walked out to 250 yards, or more. With some of the more difficult, angled scenarios, perhaps 150 yards is a good limit, but then again, the windows on those shots are narrower too and pretty much limit their use anyway, in my opinion.
If you're anything like me, the sighting of a deer, readying for the shot and then dropping the hammer are as exciting as it gets (well, maybe grand kids are a tad better). Your actions at these critical moments, after having sat bored for perhaps hours up until that moment, will now culminate in finding and tagging your deer, OR maybe not finding the buck of a lifetime. It's totally up to you to make sure you do the recovery process correctly, as I doubt many of you will have a camera man along who will be able to replay both the shot and exit direction of your deer!
I've shot a good number of animals in my time, well north of 50, but still likely less than 100 at this point. One thing I have learned is that no matter how good your shot looked to be, there is still an excellent chance your animal will run off at least some distance after being hit. It's my opinion that a deer's reaction is as much about it's demeanor prior to the shot as to exactly where the shot was.
Case in point: I was lucky enough to shoot two very nice eight point bucks in my favorite Kentucky area, in very nearly the same spot. One was shot opening day of early muzzleloader (that drew a mixed review after consideration, as only one buck per season is allowed) and the second eight point was shot on the 2nd day of the November rifle season. The rifle used was a .338 Fed M77 shooting a 200gr Fusion bullet and the M/L was a CVA Optima in 50 cal shooting a 295gr Powerbelt bullet over 100gr of 777.
I would bet money, knowing only those facts and that the shots were to nearly an identical spot on both deer, that the deer shot with the very powerful .338 Fed would have dropped sooner than the one shot with the much less powerful M/L. This, of course, was not at all the case. The ML buck was shot in '06 while he fed along at about 50 yards from my ground spot (simply sitting, leaning against a tree). He was in clear sight, in an area we had bush-hogged. I waited for him to come a bit closer than the original 75 yard range he appeared at, and then dropped the hammer as he fed at no more than 50 yards.
He dropped on the spot. He kicked a few times, but as I frantically reloaded my CVA, he simply could not even come close to regaining his feet, dying within a minute. The shot was to the point of the shoulder. The rifle buck was shot in '08 was also at a range of about 50 yards and very nearly in the exact same spot. He had seen a smaller buck walk by the thicket he was apparently bedded in and he came crashing out of the thicket into the same bush-hogged area already described and I whacked him on the point of the shoulder as he was slightly quartering to me, nearly broadside.
I could tell he was hit and hit hard, but he decided running was now his best course of action. At about 45 yards, having already bolted in another round I found him in my scope and fired again and he dropped on the spot less than 5 feet from the uncut portion of the power line which held very thick cover, seven feet tall. The .338 likely hit that buck with nearly double the energy of the ML bullet, but yet he ran! After seeing this happen many times over the years, I have simply found that the deer's status or disposition as he is shot; be it calm, nervous, spooky or hopped up on testosterone, means as much as the shot itself as to whether that deer runs after being hit (on all but a shot that interrupts some part of the central nervous system, of course).
Some hunters claim that a well hit deer will drop in its tracks and insist that it's bullet type and shot placement that causes that to happen. I say they simply have not hunted (killed) enough as yet. I've dropped plenty of deer in their tracks. Actually 6 of the 8 looking at me now in my study, pretty much fell on their legs. The other two shots were just as good, I promise. The deer were simply already charged up from something (one is the '08 buck) and had enough adrenalin to make a mad dash of about 40 yards each.
These examples are to simply drive home our next important lesson. You need to know, absolutely, which way your shot deer departed the area, should he not have dropped at the shot. You also MUST ready your rifle for shot number two immediately after your initial shot, even if your deer dropped at the shot. Yes, I have had a deer shot at close range get up and run off, leaving no trackable sign after dropping in place at the first shot (M/L). Ready your rifle like I did with '08's buck and you might just save yourself an hour's search, or better yet and hour's extra drag!
If you cannot get a second shot as he runs off (the only running shot I normally take is shot #2) ensure you watch closely his position as he leaves your sight. Mark a tree in your mind, or a rock, log, etc., and then move your eyes back to the exact spot he was standing when you dropped the hammer on shot #1. Do not worry about his position at shot #2 now as that may make things too confusing at this moment. So, memorize those two spots; original shot spot and departure spot!
I always wait ten full minutes, in place, before tracking any wounded deer's trail. This serves two purposes; it allows me to calm my nerves and also to intimately memorize those two very important places, shot spot, and last spot seen. I remove my extra layers as appropriate (after all, we will soon be gutting and dragging a deer!) and get my orange surveyor's tape out of my pack. Reload my gun, shoulder my pack and tie a piece of tape at my exact location before leaving, headed for spot #1, shot spot.
I slowly walk, stopping often to look back rechecking my progress towards the deer's initial position. Two things are important here. One, the exact distance from your spot to spot #1 and the rock, tree or whatever you picked out as a marker. Hopefully you have been able to keep this marker in sight, but this is not always possible due to interlaying gullies, etc. When you believe you are just short of spot #1, pull out your rangefinder (if you have one) and recheck the distance you took from your reading at the shooting position.
If it's pretty much on, now is the time to be very deliberate and careful. Bend over and very carefully scour the ground ahead for hair or blood. Also look at any nearby trees as they may hold blood, hair or lung material blown out the off side of the deer. There will be sign, if the deer was hit, period. Using a double lung shot as an example, we will find bright red (oxygenized) blood and also white lung material on both the ground and any brush/trees nearby and behind his position.
If you find odd looking matter, such as greenish or yellowish goop on the ground, you may well have a gut-shot deer on your hands. Your reaction now will be to NOT continue to follow the blood trail (usually scant for a gut-shot deer), but rather to wait at least an hour or more if at all possible. If a gut shot deer is pressed it will get up and run, and run a very long ways! Again, it will not leave a very good blood trail and recovery after bumping it will be extremely tough even for the very best of trackers. The only exception might be if there is new snow on the ground so as to be able to simply follow the tracks. Now, back to a typical blood trail scenario.
Look in the direction you think he ran, and see if you see any drips/drops leading away from the spot #1. It is very likely you will not. The deer's lungs may need to fill up with blood before any more is expelled out one or both holes from the shot. I've seen lung shot deer go well over 25 yds before dropping even one more drop of blood. But, once they start, it will normally pump out blood to trail very well, leaving lots of sign from there on.
Look for drops of blood from 1/4 to 1" in diameter. When a deer is moving, the blood will actually "splash" some as it contacts the ground. These little "waves" point towards the direction of movement. In other words, just the opposite of what we see in pictures of things pushed on by wind or something. The blood will have momentum as it hits a leaf, rock or whatever and it will make little streaks in the direction of the momentum, forward and pointing to the deer's movement direction.
As you follow the blood trail, it is imperative that you also maintain a habit of looking ahead of your basic direction of travel (direction of blood trail) for the deer itself. A badly wounded deer will bed down pretty quickly if not pressed immediately. The 10 minutes you have waited initially will be plenty of time to have it bed down and this is partly why we wait a full 10 minutes at that time. It may still be alive when you are following the blood trail to it. Keep looking ahead as you move, and follow the blood and you just might spot it 25 -30 yards ahead lying there, head up.
It is a very good practice to mark (with your tape, or some use TP) the last spot of blood found, if you cannot see another from it. Mark the spot, continue in the same direction, and slowly search for more blood. Hopefully by now you have something of a pattern, blood spots 10' apart, for example. If you cannot find another spot, say 20' or so from the last, carefully backtrack to your previous position. Then, simply stand and look about. Does the terrain change there? Does a trail seem to branch off away from the previous direction? Sometimes we can help ourselves out by simply pondering for a few moments, rather than blindly stomping about and perhaps covering some sign that was there.
Continue on in this pattern until you either find your deer or can simply no longer find any sign. At this point the best technique to try is circling, and continuing that in ever widening circles until you finally pick up some more sign or find your deer. Your marking of the last sign of blood is very important now.
Now, back to actually finding the deer as you are trailing it and finding it lying, head up. If you see the deer in a position like this be advised it's a very tough shot, shooting a deer lying on the ground like that. I would find a clear route towards the deer, ready my safety and ease very slowly ahead rifle at the ready one step at a time. Then as the deer hears or sees you and tries to get up and run (he will be slow and clumsy, likely) shoot him as he regains his feet, or just before he does.
If the deer is lying, head down, approach very slowly to 15-20' and when you have a clear shot as above, stop, be ready to take off your safety and whistle. Look for an ear to move or some other reaction to the sound. If there is none continue to about 4-5', approaching the rear end of the deer, and whistle again. If still no reaction, touch the deer's rump with your muzzle. If there is still no reaction move around and touch the deer's eye with the muzzle. (Note here: If the deer's eyes are closed the deer is alive and may need to be shot again. If they are open he will likely be dead already, but still touch one with your gun's muzzle and look for a reaction.) A deer will not die with its eyes closed.
If your deer is indeed dead, congrats! And remember, now comes the real work. Unload your rifle, or at least make sure the safety is on and gun in a safe position. Take a moment to make your peace with your trophy and then enjoy the moment and silently congratulate yourself on this most difficult achievement. Handle your trophy with respect and perhaps situate it in a nice position on the ground so as to enjoy the beauty there. Get your camera out and record this special accomplishment, and remember to include you new best buddy, your rifle!
Perseverance pays off. A very cold November morning almost had the author climbing down
from his perch but an additional hour on stand allowed this Tennessee buck to come by
chasing a doe. The Optima M/L dropped the buck in his tracks and warmed the morning right up.
Buck shot on opening morning of Tennessee's early M/L season, November 2010.