What goes into a good deer season? There are the obvious things, like a robust Instagram feed of filtered sunrises and treestand selfies. But it’s OK to admit that during deer season, you’d like to kill a deer—and all the better if one of them is a good buck. Learning something, so that you can replace this year’s bone-headed mistakes with completely new ways to spook bucks next year, is always good too.
On all fronts (except Instagram), I had a fantastic 2018 deer season. I killed a couple good bucks of my own, put plenty of venison in the freezer, and was able to help some close friends and family fill tags as well. As for hunting lessons learned, I don’t know that I’ve ever had a richer year than 2018.
Here are my takeaways, in no particular order.
1. Does Make Great Bait
The Quality Deer Management Association did a good job educating hunters on the importance of shooting does to balance a herd’s sex ratio. Problem is, some hunters latched onto that lesson to the exclusion of everything else in the QDM manual. Shooting does is admittedly more fun than testing soil—but it’s not necessary or even advisable everywhere. Filling your doe tags at the wrong part of the season can really screw up your buck hunting too.
I hunt in some high-deer-density areas, and I shoot my share of does. But I try to do it in September or December. Home ranges can change for family groups of does in early October, same as for bucks. When a group settles into a routine at that time of year, they’ll pretty much stick to it until the chasing starts, unless they’re disturbed. There is simply no better place to be during the rut than near a bunch of does.
I shot a big 10-pointer this season in Kentucky while hunting a food plot where, in October, I was routinely seeing 10 or more ladies per evening, both from the stand and on camera. Interestingly, I wasn’t seeing a lot of buck traffic there—until about Halloween. Then it turned into an antler factory.
2. Calling Works
While interviewing Georgia hunter Jay Maxwell for our December-January deer feature (The Closers), I was inspired to do more calling. According to Maxwell, most hunters have minimal success calling deer because they do so little of it. This year, starting in October, I gave it hell, making a couple rattling sequences on almost every sit. I called bucks to the base of my tree in Kentucky, Kansas, and Tennessee. Not all of them were big, but a couple were—and it was a ton of fun.
3. No Such Thing as Too Much Trouble
There was a vacant house for sale down the road from my own, and during the summer a professional lawn crew was coming in once a week to keep the grass tidy. The house sat on the edge of a 10-acre hayfield, which was part of the property. That hayfield bordered a massive beanfield that was slap full of deer and owned by an old man who’s legendary in his refusal to allow any hunting.
Yet evening glassing showed me that enough of those deer spilled into the hayfield at dusk to make it worth hunting. I tracked down the owner of the house and offered to cut the grass for the remainder of the summer in exchange for hunting permission on his 10 acres. He saved a bundle on lawn-care fees, and we got another spot to hunt. I killed a big doe there in September, and Michelle passed on a nice, full-velvet 8-pointer that she probably should have shot, but I’m finished arguing over it.
The home sold just about the time the rut kicked in, and so we didn’t hunt the place as much as we would’ve liked, but I knew there was a chance of that going in. We got a few excellent sits in, and to me, the tradeoff was well worth it.
4. Don’t Get Stuck on a Buck
Hunting one buck exclusively will result in the occasional giant. It’s also the surest way to end a season bitter and disappointed. Michelle had been after a heavy, long-tined 8-pointer for a couple seasons, and it seemed like just a matter of time before she got him this year. But she became so wrapped up in that deer that she missed out on some other pretty good opportunities to kill a buck elsewhere. Just as the rut was kicking in, “Michelle’s” buck got killed by another hunter a mile away, and she had to make a hard reset on her season outlook.
Meanwhile, we had pictures of another deer—a giant non-typical—that would’ve been my buck of a lifetime. But he was nocturnal and erratic. I never was able to dial into his habits. I had other bucks on camera that, while not as big, were big enough and moving about during the day. Of course I hoped that giant would cruise by my stand looking for a doe, but when one of the smaller bucks did it first, I killed him without a second thought, and was damn proud.
5. Setup is Everything
For every stand, there is a shooting area in mind, be it a scrape, hot trail, food plot, or a giant pile of apples or corn. Make a practice of accessing all of your stands in such a way that you never cross the area where you plan to shoot—unless it’s to retrieve a bloody arrow or dead deer. That includes during the entry and the exit. If you can get into and out of a stand without ever spooking a deer, you can hunt it all season, and the odds of killing a good one go way up. Of course, it’s not possible in every spot—but “how will I get in here?” has become the very first question I ask myself when considering a new setup.
6. Use an ATV
It seems counterintuitive, using a 4-wheeler to keep from spooking deer. But on our farms—and in a whole lot of whitetail country—there’s UTV, truck, or tractor traffic almost year-around, and particularly during the summer ahead of deer season. Deer get used to that disturbance in a way that they never get used to seeing and smelling a human on foot. This season, more than ever before, I’d pick Michelle up (or vice versa) after dark on the edge of a food plot by driving right up to her tree. Deer would scurry out of the field upon seeing the headlights and hearing the noise, of course—but they’d come back a short time later without ever associating ambush points with danger.
7. Persist Smartly
Not hunting until everything is “right” in the name of managing pressure is a good strategy in theory. Just don’t be so afraid of messing up that fail to log enough time in the tree. To kill a buck, you have to be there when he walks by. Just a few weeks ago, during our late muzzleloader season, my buddy Miles was visiting. Miles is an elk guide in Colorado, and so he’s seen his share of early mornings this fall. After a couple slow days here in the deer stand, he almost skipped an evening hunt to catch up on a nap and e-mails. But I encouraged him in the way good buddies do: “Get your lazy ass in the stand.”
He grabbed his gear and was out the door—and that night, he shot the best buck we’ve ever taken on our farm. The point is, hunt smart. Don’t sit a stand on a bad wind. Don’t try to slip into a feeding area during an early-season morning hunt. Plan your access. Those are all good ways to manage pressure. Not hunting at all is the last resort. Go, even when you don’t really feel like going. Persistence in a good spot is really all it takes.
8. Management Takes a While
A lot of my hunting is on our 72-acre farm. Michelle and I have owned it about six years, and we’re constantly working on incremental improvements. Food plots are part of the mix, but so too is cover and management of existing vegetation via prescribed fire, mowing, and disking. We try to shoot does and mostly leave the young bucks alone (mostly being the key word).
Land management is very labor intensive, expensive, time-consuming—and all told, pretty frustrating. You can’t judge the success of your efforts at the end of a single season, particularly early in the game. A mature buck won’t abandon his former home range because you planted a new turnip plot, and a doe may not raise her fawns in your field the first summer you let it grow up. In six years, you’ll spend a bundle on diesel fuel, fertilizer, lime, and equipment repairs. But in that time, you’ll have a lot of fun. You’ll also expose a generation of whitetails to your efforts and a young buck, if you let him grow, can become downright cozy on your place by the time he’s old and big. Miles’s buck was a great example. I had a hundred pictures of that deer a few years ago (he was unmistakable), but then, for two seasons, he seemed to vanish. This year, he came back to a place where he was apparently comfortable.
9. Don’t Fear the Shoulder
Many hunters are terrified of hitting a deer in the shoulder, and so they aim behind the shoulder crease. That works, but it can mean a liver hit and a long track, too.
The thing is, aside from the front edge and the leg bone, the shoulder isn’t difficult to penetrate. With a bow, keep your aiming point low, just above the elbow, and you’ll pierce the heart, catch the front half of the lungs, and see your deer pile up 50 yards away. Often, your arrow lodges in the offside leg and breaks, but that’s a small price to pay for a short track. I’m not shooting a Hammer-of-Thor setup—60 pounds with a 450-grain arrow and hybrid broadhead—but it works.
With a gun, just put it on the lower third of the shoulder and let fly. Just the other day, I shot a big Tennessee doe that was quartering to me, with a .357 Magnum carbine. That’s pretty puny as deer guns go—but it crushed her shoulder, destroyed the heart and lungs, and she ran all of 10 feet.
10. Just Trust the Dog
Of course, not every shot goes as planned. My tracking dog, Levee, is a little over 2 years old now. I wrote about him—and tracking dogs in general—in the August-September 2018 issue (https://www.fieldandstream.com/how-to-train-blood-tracking-dog/). Though tracking dogs are gaining rapid acceptance, the experience of using one is still new to most of us—me included. The process doesn’t usually look like you’d envision, with a dog’s nose to the ground until it walks up on a dead deer. When a trail gets tough, there’s doubling back, rechecking—and sometimes the dog heads down a path where you’re all but certain the deer did not go.
This year, Levee and I were on the track of a doe that was hit high in the chest with an arrow. I was pretty sure the shot wasn’t lethal, but we were giving it a chance. Levee kept pulling me toward a path where I couldn’t imagine the deer would have gone. Finally I gave in and followed him. Hundreds of yards later, we crossed a small creek and he worked his way into a thicket, birdy as hell. I assumed he’d picked up the track of another deer—and then I noticed a single, eraser-sized drop of blood in the leaves. The doe boiled out from her bed at our feet, and ultimately escaped—though we chased her a good ways. I have no doubt she survived. It reinforced a lesson I wrote in my feature, and that I’ve passed along to others who’ve called for Levee’s help. The dog’s nose is better than my eyes, and he knows what we’re after. Trust the dog.