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Deer Hunting Basics

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 9, 2010

The second Saturday in November, close to 400,000 orange-clad hunters will head to the woods for the opening day of the firearms deer season. It's likely that during the firearms, muzzleloader and bow seasons combined, Missouri hunters will harvest about 240,000 deer.

Such big numbers make taking a deer seem easy. Harvest data compiled by the Conservation Department confirms, however, that deer hunting is anything but a sure thing. To harvest that many deer in a few months, Missouri hunters put in about 3 million days of hunting. By the end of the season, 62 percent of firearms hunters and 83 percent of archery hunters won't take any deer at all.

Successful deer hunting results from a mix of planning, perseverance, improvisation and good fortune. The last plays an essential part. Any time you are in the woods, a deer may run or wander within range. The first rule of deer hunting, then, is to hunt as often and as long as possible.

Good luck, however, isn't guaranteed. The only sure way to improve your chances of harvesting a deer is to learn all you can about deer and deer hunting.

Know Your Prey

Deer are prey animals and have evolved an arsenal of abilities and behaviors to avoid predators.

Above all, white-tailed deer are wary. They spend almost every moment trying to see, hear or smell danger.

Deer can spot movement in all directions with only a slight turn of the head, and they can see almost as well at night as they can during the day. Although they are thought to be almost completely color-blind and don't have good depth perception, some people believe they can see ultraviolet light.

Deer are acutely aware of unusual noises. A deer can rotate its ears to focus in on a sound and determine its direction. Deer hear sounds of a higher frequency than can humans. The flicking of a deer's ear responding to a sound seems to alert other deer.

A deer's nose is an amazingly sensitive instrument. It has about 40 times more scent receptors than human olfactory systems, and researchers believe deer are more than 4,000 times as sensitive to odors than people are. Deer use their uncanny sense of smell to locate food and other deer and to alert them to danger. Some people believe that a frightened deer emits an odor that warns other deer.

When deer sense danger, their usual response is to flee or try to remain hidden. Deer can run up to 40 miles an hour and jump as high as 8 feet. Witnesses have seen them leap 15 feet across a creek from a standing start. When they are still, deer blend into the background so well that's its difficult to spot them.

Given their exceptional abilities, it's hard to fathom how hunters manage to bag so many of them. Deer are vulnerable to hunters, however, largely because their behavior, while not perfectly predictable, usually has a pattern.

Deer Biography

A deer's life revolves almost entirely around food. Up to 95 percent of a deer's active time is spent foraging. When deer aren't eating, they usually are resting or ruminating the food they've eaten. (Ruminating doesn't mean thinking about food, but actually rechewing it, like a cow chews its cud.)

Deer eat a variety of foods, including fruits and nuts. They focus on what's available and what tastes good to them. They may, for example, eat apples when they are ripe.

Deer also browse young plants or new growth on older plants. They love acorns. They also like many grasses and, of course, row crops. One study found that, in the fall, up to 80 percent of Farm Belt deer's diet consists of crops.

This doesn't mean you should hunt over crop fields. Even if deer are feeding almost entirely on corn, wheat or beans, they usually remain in forested areas during the day and only venture into the fields toward evening and during the night. The best places to hunt these deer are along travel routes between feeding and bedding areas.

On average through the year, deer bed down more than 16 hours a day, although they seldom remain bedded for more than two hours at a time without at least getting up to stretch. Deer almost never go into what we would consider a deep sleep.

Deer bed in areas that provide both cover and comfort. A deer usually beds with its back to the wind, allowing it to see anything approaching from downwind and smell upwind danger. On hot, sunny days, deer tend to bed in shady areas. On cold, windy days they'll find a place that's protected from the wind. They often rest just over the downwind edge of a ridge. They sometimes return to the same bedding areas and, sometimes, the same beds.

Deer keep different hours than we do. They are considered crepuscular animals, which means they are active around twilight and sunrise. However, researchers have identified other peaks in daily activity, one near midday and one or two peaks during the night.

Because they eat and rest in the same general areas, deer tend to travel the same routes between bedding and feeding areas, forming and following trails. Deer trails may be easy to spot-even rutted from hooves-or they can be almost indistinguishable, except to deer.

The trails often skirt open areas, parallel creeks and rivers or follow the contours of hills. Some trails are used primarily at night. Others are terrain trails that deer naturally use to travel from one woodlot or habitat type to another. Other types of trails include escape trails, which deer use to quickly leave an area, and mating trails, which bucks use to scout for suitable females during the mating season.

Hunting Deer

You can wait for deer to come to you or can try to go to the deer. The former method is called "stand hunting," the latter method is called "still-hunting."

Still-hunting involves moving through the woods-preferably into the wind-extremely slowly with frequent stops to search the terrain ahead. Wet ground, windy weather or soft snow work to your advantage when still-hunting. During any other conditions, the deer have the upper hand.

Many more deer are taken by stand-hunting than by still-hunting. It's easier to be quiet when sitting and, if you place yourself where deer can't smell you, your odds of surprising or ambushing one increase greatly.

Much of the actual hunting of deer can be done before the season begins. Experienced hunters scout potential hunting locations well in advance to learn about deer density and deer travel patterns.

Deer trails in open woods are not always conspicuous. Many times as you walk through the forest, unconsciously taking the route that offers the least resistance and fewest obstacles, you'll be surprised to discover that you're following a deer trail. It only becomes obvious when the trail leads through tall grass, soft dirt or extremely thick cover.

The best time to find deer trails is following a snowfall. That's also the best time to follow deer tracks to learn where deer are going. Following trails in the fall right before you hunt risks saturating them with your scent. Many hunters wear rubber boots when scouting and hunting to minimize the amount of scent they leave in the woods.

In addition to tracks on or near a trail, you may find deer scat, which looks a lot like chocolate-covered raisins, rubs and scrapes (see sidebar on page 23), signs of browsing and cozy places in the leaves or grass where deer have lain.

For hunting, position yourself downwind of a well-used deer trail or, better yet, an intersection of busy deer trails. In the fall, winds often blow from somewhere between north and west on cool days and between south and west on warm days. Taking your stand somewhat east of the trail, then, would keep your scent from deer most of the time. However, there will be exceptions. Scent also has a tendency to move up a slope in the morning and down a slope in the evening.

The distance you set up from the trail will depend on your weaponry. Bow hunters should try to remain within 20 yards of a trail. Muzzleloader and shotgun slug hunters can move out to 50 yards or so and a rifle hunter can move back even farther. Every stand position involves a compromise between how much you'd like to remain hidden from the deer and how well you can see the trail and have a clear shooting opportunity.

Taking a stand for some simply means sitting or leaning against a tree and waiting. Many hunters bring cushions, stools or chairs into the woods to make sitting more comfortable. Hunting on the ground is easy and secure. Look for a place where natural elements, such as brush, tree trunks or branches, break up your silhouette. Also make sure you clear leaves from the immediate area so you don't crinkle them at an inopportune moment.

Although they are more difficult to put up and relocate, tree stands improve a hunter's ability to see deer and shoot deer. You can choose from climbing stands, ladder stands or stands that use cables or chains to hold them to the tree. Permanent stands attached to trees with nails or screws are not allowed on public property. It's still important to conceal your silhouette when hunting from a tree stand.

The Art of Waiting

Being able to sit still for a long time must be learned. You'll find your ability to remain on stand increasing through the hunting season.

Some hunters pass the time observing nature. Others read a book or magazine. A few fall into a state resembling sleep, underscoring for all of us the need for a safety belt when hunting from a tree stand.

Sitting still means exactly that. Notice how your eyes quickly detect flickering bird wings, scampering voles or bobbing squirrel tails. Deer are likely many times more able to pick up movement. Discipline yourself not to turn your head in response to every noise and not to scratch every itch.

Remaining on high alert for hours at a time is fatiguing. Better to relax and let your adrenaline pump only when a sound or movement alerts you. During calm conditions, especially when the leaves are crunchy from dryness or cold, you'll almost always hear deer before you see them. When the ground is wet or when the wind is blowing, you'll likely see deer but never hear them.

Deer have no appointments to keep. Any you see will probably be walking slowly and taking frequent stops to browse on vegetation and to scan their environment. You'll usually have plenty of time to get ready for a shot and then to shoot.

Unless you're stuffed with kapok, the sight or sound of a deer will likely quicken your pulse and breathing. As your adrenaline level rises, you'll feel an urgent need to act quickly to dispel the tension of the moment. The moment demands, however, that you move even more slowly and deliberately.

The short amount of time that you are in range of a deer and prepared to shoot it is the essence of hunting. Your actions during this period decide whether the deer escapes, is wounded or is harvested.

Hours of target practice should have given you confidence in your bow or gun and, especially, in your ability to hit a target. The best target on deer is its chest cavity. All other targets on a deer have less chance of making a clean kill.

Raise your weapon when the deer nibbles at plants, looks away or moves behind a tree trunk or brush. Wait for a clear broadside or quartering-away view of the deer's chest.

Don't aim at the whole deer. Instead, sight precisely onto a spot just behind the deer's shoulder and about five inches up from the bottom of its rib cage. Aim slightly higher if shooting from an elevated stand.

After the Shot

Even a perfectly placed shot will not always immediately down a deer. A surge of adrenaline may give a mortally wounded deer the ability to run a hundred yards or more before expiring.

Don't move after shooting the deer. Instead, watch the deer intently as it runs away. Mentally mark the exact spot where you last saw it. Keep listening, for you may hear its final struggles. Some deer, of course, may fall immediately or only take a few steps.

The surer you are that you made a good shot, the less time you need to wait before trying to find the deer. It's a good idea to wait at least 15 minutes to give the deer-and you-time to settle down. If you think you may have had missed the vital area, you should wait an hour or more. A wounded deer will tend to lie down, but if pressured it will keep moving.

Depending on where it is hit and the type of wound, a deer may or may not leave an easy-to-follow blood trail. Marking the trail with bits of paper towel as you follow it will make it easier to pick it back up in case you lose it. The trail of paper will also give you a better sense of the deer's direction of travel.

Approach a downed deer carefully. It may not be dead. Be ready to shoot again. Before deciding the deer is dead, touch the end of the gun barrel or the point of an arrow to its eye. If you get no reaction, the deer has become venison. Punch your permit and attach it to the deer.

Field dress the deer the same way you would eviscerate a chicken before putting it into the pot. After carefully cutting through the stomach skin, remove all internal organs and the deer's digestive system from stomach to anus. Most of it will roll out in one big mass. Take care not to puncture any parts, which could leak unpleasant tasting juices onto the meat.

Drag the deer out with a rope attached to its head. Carefully mark the location and get help if the deer is exceptionally heavy. A deer can be dragged out easily if you tie it into a plastic snow sled.

Take your deer to one of the official deer checking stations listed in the back of the Deer and Turkey Regulations booklet. This is a quick stop, and your participation helps biologists manage our deer population more effectively.

You can cut the deer up yourself at home or take it to a meat processing facility. You will usually get a combination of steaks, roasts, stew meat and hamburger from your deer. For an extra fee, most processors will make specialty products, such as jerky, salami or sausage, from your meat. Savor the venison as you have savored the hunting experience.

Deer on the Move

  • During the fall, deer tend to stay in forests during the day and move to open areas at night.
  • In mild weather, deer activity decreases with wind speed.
  • Through the fall season, a large buck will be on the move about two hours a day more than a small buck.
  • In the fall, bucks and does move about the same amount. However, bucks are more active than does at night, while does are more active than bucks during the day.
  • Daily deer activity peaks around the time of sunset. Another peak occurs just after sunrise. Researchers have also identified a midday peak and two nighttime peaks.
  • During cold weather, the post-sunrise peak becomes less prominent.

Rubs and Scrapes

  • During the pre-rut and rut, bucks make both rubs and scrapes. Rubs and scrapes are often found in the same general area.
  • Rubs are places on trees or brush where bark has been worn down to the inner wood.
  • Scrapes are areas of pawed ground that are usually from football to beach ball size.
  • Bucks make rubs while removing velvet from their antlers. While making them, they also deposit a scent that marks their territory.
  • Bucks also sometimes spar with small trees and brush, rubbing them clean of bark.
  • Large-antlered bucks often make their scrapes on larger diameter tree trunks than do smaller bucks.
  • Does and other bucks may visit a scrape made by a buck, but usually only the buck will visit a rub line.
  • Bucks primarily make their scrapes at night

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