Most of us cut our teeth deer hunting. The fact is, whitetails are favored among sportsmen because they are abundant, accessible and a challenge to hunt. North, south, east and west, hunters of all ages pursue this enchanted ungulate each fall. Despite the wealth of information available in all sorts of media - whitetailed deer remain among the most mysterious animals known to hunters; and if you're fortunate enough to take a true trophy of the species well, that's an accomplishment. From biology to strategy, following are 20 things every deer hunter should know before entering the woods.
Often Invisible/Sometimes Vulnerable
Savvy hunters know that trophy whitetails don't get big by being stupid. Virtually invisible through most of the year, they only become vulnerable when called to breed.
Body sizes and weights vary depending on local variations in the herd and area-specific game management practices. For instance, hunt the western Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan and you'll see some of the biggest whitetails on the continent. There, an average mature buck will weigh in around 275 lbs. The largest can top out at over 400 lbs. live weight.
An integral part of a buck's annual lifecycle is the shedding of old antlers and growing of new ones. The shedding process begins a few weeks after the rut. In the northern states and provinces, some bucks begin to drop their antlers as early as mid-December, but most will shed by the end of February. The further south you go, these prime times will be offset a few weeks.
New antler growth begins immediately after the previous set is shed. By spring, velvet antler growth is visible and by the end of summer growth is nearly complete. Generally by the end of August or beginning of September, velvet is shed and bucks begin to polish their newest set of antlers in preparation for the upcoming rut.
Adaptable, whitetailed deer thrive in a wide range of biomes across North America. From coulee environments to river bottom flats, foothills, and even some mountainous regions, whitetails can be found wherever good cover and nutrient-rich food is available. That said, agricultural and forest fringe areas laced with either deciduous or mixed forest cover are favored habitats. Where there are poplar trees, willow scrub, oak trees and nearby cereal crops, chances are you'll find healthy whitetail populations.
In its most general sense, the metamorphosis from soft to hard antler is indicative of the beginning of the start of the pre-rut. Representative of this phase is a switch into inventory mode. As soon as deer shed their velvet, they become increasingly mobile. No longer fixed in their daily prolonged feeding, meandering, bedding, feeding patterns, they instinctively begin to monitor resident doe groups.
This is the time of year when bucks are keeping an eye on the does and assessing where they should focus their breeding energy. As pre-rut activity heats up throughout October, bucks will often test the waters and step up their efforts to inspect the pheromones given off by does. Frequently, bucks on the prowl during the late stages of the pre-rut will jump the gun and attempt to mount does, only to get shrugged off or given the literal run-around. At this point, does may tease a bit, but they are not yet ready to accept the physical advances of their male counterparts.
Along with this growing urge to breed, bucks become more interested in checking out their competition. Sizing up their peers, sparring to establish dominance and posturing, are all part of the pre-rut ritual. By this time, bucks are becoming more vocal and visibly testing each other to establish dominance. The odd sparring match complete with posturing and, periodically a chase or two, can be witnessed. A word of caution though, if it's a bruiser you're after, be advised that these old boys will often let this stage of the game be played by their younger, less-experienced counterparts. Not until things really heat up, do these established dominant bucks begin to participate with heart and soul.
To maximize pre-rut hunting time, focus on staging areas in heavier cover adjacent to prime feed sources like pea, hay and corn fields. Using your grunt tube every once in a while, during the pre-rut can attract curious bucks and does, just as rattling lightly every hour or so can prompt the same type of curious attention. Keep in mind that breeding season is just around the corner, and every deer knows it!
From the coldest northern Canadian whitetail range to the warmest southern range in Mexico, there can be as much as a two-month variation in timing of the peak rut. In Canada, it occurs smack dab in the middle of November. In fact, I can set my watch by the arrival of this festive period of the breeding cycle. My personal rule of thumb is that unless afflicted with terminal illness, locked in chains or worse yet, my wife assigns household chores, nothing keeps me out of the woods between the 11th and 18th of November. This one-week period in my home province of Alberta, has produced more respectable bucks and brought in more bruisers to my rattling efforts than any other time of the year. That said, the 48 to 72-hour first estrus cycle may occur as late as the middle of January in southern locales such as Alabama, Florida and down into Mexico. Regardless of timing, bucks literally travel around the clock in search of hot does during the peak rut.
In general, by the fourth week of November, on into December, the post rut period is defined by a frantic last-ditched effort to breed. By this time, most does have experienced their first estrus and gradually begin to move into winter feeding patterns. Those not bred during the first cycle will experience a second estrus approximately three to four weeks following the first. While no longer as willing to meet the challenge of intruding bucks, most bucks ignore rattling efforts and continue their intense search for a hot doe. The best strategy at this point in the game is to focus on primary scrapes or trails on route to prime feed sources. Continue to focus on doe groups. Chances are big bucks will still linger in proximity to the does hoping to catch an unbred doe experiencing a successive estrus cycle. Combine this knowledge with a stand site located between the best available food source and nearby protective bedding cover, and chances are you're in the zone.
A lot of hunters set their entire hunting plans by the moon phase. As a whitetail outfitter I believe moon phase can certainly influence deer movement, but I don't believe it is as critical as many would have us believe. As a rule, deer limit their visible movement and stick to cover more during the full moon. All things being equal, outside of this four or five day period, deer movement is generally improved. This influence is more or even less pronounced depending on the time of year and whether or not the rut is in full swing.
Temperature is one of the most important environmental conditions to consider as a whitetail hunter. Early season bowhunters and even those confronted with abnormally high temperatures during the rut can attest to the influence of heat. To simplify - the colder the temperature, the better the deer movement.
Calling & Vocalizations
Deer, like other animals, make a variety of sounds. From alarm sounds to challenges and dominance vocalizations, bucks and does alike emit several different sounds and each has a specific meaning. Most commonly known are the buck grunt and doe bleat. Commercial calls can be used to make both of these sounds and both can be productive throughout the different stages of the rut.
Rubs & Scrapes
Bucks rub their antlers on both deciduous and coniferous trees throughout their territory. Beginning at the end of the summer, as their antlers become fully grown, bucks begin to strip the velvet and polish their antlers on mostly smaller trees, i.e., ½" to as large as 8" diameter trees. As the weeks progress and deer move into the pre-rut phase, boundary rubs get more concentrated in each buck's core rutting area. Generally showing up in sync with scrapes, rubs are both territorial markers and workout apparatus. In preparation for the rut, bucks continue to work on their rubs to polish antlers and strengthen neck muscles, which in turn, help in their physical confrontations with other bucks as they strive to establish dominance and breeding rights.
Scrapes are, for lack of a better term, the focal point for communication between bucks and does. Hormone saturated urine left by does in scrapes communicates a clear message. Whitetail bucks detect this message and acknowledge that the doe is ready, and that their recent efforts to breed will finally be satisfied. To a trophy whitetail hunter, this vulnerability will often be the deciding factor in providing that rare shot opportunity. Wise hunters pay close attention to the disappearance of boundary scrapes and focus on pronounced daily use of primary scrapes indicating well-used travel routes. These primary scrapes are indicative of concentrations of does using the scrapes to leave scent messages for the bucks. Scrapes less frequently serviced by does are abandoned as the rut progresses, does are progressively serviced and the cycle moves into the post-rut period.
Sense of Smell
As the most acute of the deer's senses, scent dictates virtually all of their behavior. Scent reception, interpretation, and deposit are key elements of a deer's most important mode of communication, particularly during the various stages of their annual rut cycle. It's no secret hunters are learning to capitalize on this fact in a big way. One need only consider a simple anatomy lesson to recognize the important role scent plays in the world of the whitetail. Their multiple glands and prominent black nose are key anatomical features. They urinate in scrapes and deposit glandular secretions on rubs and licking branches to communicate dominance and breeding readiness.
A whitetailed deer's sense of smell is many times greater than that of a human. Deer are capable of detecting odors at long distances, even hundreds of yards away, that we humans can't even smell at close range. So, given that we're stuck with the way we smell, we've come full circle. We basically have two options: the first is to recognize the need to use wind and thermals to our advantage; and the second, to use commercial products to combat our foul odor.
A myriad of commercial scents are available to deer hunters. From dominant buck scent to doe estrus, various cover-up scents and scent eliminators, hunters can drop a bundle of cash in a hurry. Knowing when and where to use them is key. As an outfitter, I've learned that while most can work, the most consistent producer is doe estrus urine. Throughout all phases of the rut I use doe estrus scent both in scrapes and on clothing as a cover-up.
Knowledge, skill, timing, finesse and logic all come into play when rattling and calling whitetails. Simply grabbing a set of antlers and haphazardly banging them together is as productive as playing a round of golf with a baseball bat.
Physical confrontations between bucks are about expressing and determining dominance and subsequent breeding rights. Many bucks will be attracted to the staged sound of their peers sparring, not so much because they want to fight, but out of curiosity. They simply want to know who their competition is. In some circumstances, when posturing and aggressive maneuvers fail to intimidate, physical contact and the eventual locking of antlers commences. This can sometimes be a short-lived encounter, with dominance determined quickly or it can become a sensational battle lasting for hours on end.
Decoys are designed to instill confidence and attract. Their most common purpose is to take advantage of a whitetail's natural inclination for physical interaction during the rut or breeding periods. I've used both full-bodied decoys that stand on their own, as well as a Feather Flex bedded deer facsimile. Many commercial decoys come with removable antlers. Each has a particular application. I find using the decoy as a doe is functional throughout all stages of the early archery and later firearms seasons. Affixing antlers, modifying it into a buck decoy, can work wonders from mid-October to around the third week in November. In my experience, live deer typically respond negatively to the buck decoy during the post-rut period. Focused more on last-minute breeding, they avoid confrontations with other bucks but are usually willing to approach does. While a buck decoy employed in the late season can prompt an unwanted response, a doe has the opposite effect. Bigger bucks will most often still come to investigate.
The most favored strategy for hunting whitetails is stand hunting. Find heavily used trails, ideally at a good trail intersection, locate a sturdy tree and set a lock-on or climber at a minimum of 16 feet and you're well on your way to tagging a deer. Alternatively, a range of other methods including spot and stalk, still-hunting and deer drives can produce shot opportunities as well.
Quality Deer Management
The Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) defines it as "a management philosophy/practice that unites landowners, hunters, and managers in a common goal of producing biologically and socially balanced deer herds within existing environmental, social, and legal constraints." The interesting thing is, from north to south and east to west, quality deer management can mean slightly different things to different people given each unique herd circumstance. In general, it conjures images of a restricted or at least self-regulated harvest. For example, in some areas a quota of does or bucks with less that a 10-point rack can be taken. The rationale here is that by selectively removing smaller-antlered bucks, we can manipulate the herd to ensure genetically superior animals.
Record Book Qualification
The Pope & Young Archery Record Book minimum eligibility score for typical whitetailed deer is 125 inches. Boone & Crockett is 170 inches. And the Longhunter minimum eligibility score for whitetails taken by muzzleloader is 145 inches.
From field judging to shot placement, the best way to learn what you're looking at in the field is through trial and error. Studying photographs and taxidermy can certainly help but many whitetailed deer - particularly those falling in the "trophy" category can be so unique that it can be difficult to score them on the hoof. A good rule of thumb for trophy hunters is that if it looks good, it probably is. I tell my visiting hunters that they should look for 3 things: width (e.g., 17"-24" minimum spread), height (e.g., 10" or greater G-2's with the height carried throughout each point), mass (i.e., 4-6" minimum circumference on main beam). Ideally I suggest folks look for 5x5 racks before hitting the switch, but for those bucks that have width, height and mass, it can be pretty tough to pass up an impressive deer just because he's only an 8- or 9-pointer.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.