In a perfect world, we'd all own 200 acres of prime deer habitat. We'd all have time to scout year-round, and when deer season rolls around, we could hunt whenever we want.
In reality, however, most of us live in homes on small city lots or in apartments. Many of us who do own acreage have only a little, often in neighborhoods where hunting is either impractical or illegal. Some of us have generous friends or relatives who allow us to hunt their land, but the rest of us, especially newcomers to the state or community, hunt public land where competition can be tight for prime spots.
Even for those who do own good hunting property, scouting is often a luxury and not an integral part of our hunting strategy. Most of us work jobs that eat up most of our waking hours. Family obligations and other pursuits compete for whatever remains.
Even so, that doesn't mean you can't hunt successfully without devoting half your life to it. You just have to hunt efficiently. Look at it this way: There are nearly a million deer in our state. They're easy to find, but only if you look in the right places.
A good friend of mine owns a farm in central Missouri that produces venison every season. On his wall is a set of antlers that scored nearly 150 Boone and Crockett points, but they didn't come from his farm. He killed that buck on an Conservation Department area where he hunted before he bought his property.
"I'd heard all about how these public areas were overcrowded," my friend said, "but I went out there late in the season and didn't see another soul. I'd just moved here, so I didn't have time to do any scouting. In fact, I'd never set foot on the place. I was there only a couple of hours when this buck walked by, and I thought, 'Wow! This is easy!' It was a good introduction to Missouri deer hunting!"
Of course, when my friend took his buck to the check station, he told the people there where he'd shot it. The next year, he said, the area was teeming with hunters, so he never went back. Nevertheless, his experience illustrates what's possible at public areas, most of which contain good deer habitat.
What helped make my friend's experience possible was his extensive knowledge of deer habits, movements and behavior based on a lifetime of observations gathered hunting in other states. A deer acts pretty much the same in Missouri as it does anywhere else. That's the first lesson in hunting on the fly.
Even if you're hunting your own property, you may not be familiar with every nook and cranny. However, you may see deer in the same places every morning as you leave for work or when you come home in the evenings. Those are basic patterns that can help put you in the right place at the right time.
Now, take a closer look and see what attracts them to those places. Are there lots of acorns in that area for them to eat, or perhaps some sweet clover or succulent grasses? Are there persimmon trees or some other type of soft mast, such as muscadines or wild plums?
Widen your vision and survey the terrain and vegetation. No matter where you hunt, this is the key to finding deer.
Except at night, dusk or dawn, deer generally don't frequent open country. Instead, they prefer areas that offer concealed travel routes, such as wooded creek bottoms separating small, narrow bottomland fields and pastures.
In short, deer thrive in areas with a lot of edge habitat. Edge is any type of feature, either organic or topographic, that separates one type of terrain or habitat type from another.
Imagine a 200-acre cow pasture with nothing on it but fescue grass. That's poor deer habitat, and it would be fruitless to hunt in the middle of it. Instead, look along the edges of the pasture. If it's bordered by woods or thickets, that's edge habitat. Deer might not travel across the middle of the pasture, but a wooded border might be a veritable deer highway, especially if it leads to a larger patch of woods, an overgrown field, or a creek or river bottom. Wooded edges are even more attractive to deer if they contain a mixture of mature trees and brushy thickets. Deer use these types of areas for bedding cover, and they can also move through them virtually undetected.
Let's go back to our hypothetical fescue field. Chances are it's not completely flat, but has rolling humps, swales and shallow ravines that crisscross the plain. Now, envision those swales and ravines covered with mature trees and brush thickets that partition the open areas into 10- to 20-acre parcels. That patchwork of cover practically screams deer.
Conservation areas contain a lot of edge cover, but if you hunt public land, it's important to get as far from the roads and accesses as possible. You can pinpoint secluded areas on the maps that the Conservation Department publishes for all its conservation areas. You can assume that the easily accessible lowlands and ridgetops are going to be crowded, at least on opening weekend, but you can often have the remote highlands all to yourself. These areas may not have a diversity of cover, but their diversity of topographic features often serve as travel routes and funnels.
For example, I was hunting on a large public area in central Missouri last fall when I became intrigued by a tall ridge overlooking a major river bottom. I had to bust through about 30 yards of thick cedar brush, scrub hardwood and greenbriar at the base of the ridge, but the cover opened closer to the summit. The ridgetop was shaded by a canopy of tall oaks and hickories, and visibility was excellent. That ridgetop connected with another ridge running in two other directions that funneled into three separate valleys. From the air, this convergence of ridge lines would look like a thin three-leaf clover. Deer sign was everywhere, but I saw no evidence of humanity.
I didn't stay long, and frankly, I was thankful I didn't kill a deer up there because I'd probably still be trying to get it back to the truck. Still, it's a great spot because it contains ample food and provides easy access to several different types of areas. Not only that, but its remoteness offered refuge from the hunting pressure in the lowlands.
Always look for that patchwork/edge effect when you're looking for a potential hunting spot. When you find it, you'll find other sign, such as tracks, rubs and scrapes. Set up at the intersection where two or three different types of cover meet, and you'll eventually encounter deer.
Unless you're hunting a large corn or grain field, most of your shots will be less than 200 yards. If you're hunting ridgetops and creek bottoms, most of your shots will be less than 100 yards. Therefore, select your armament accordingly. A 7mm-magnum rifle with a 10-power scope is way too much firepower for most Missouri hunting situations, and it might even be counterproductive. Select a gun and round designed for short range work, such as a lever-action rifle chambered for .30-30 Winchester. I use a featherweight bolt-action rifle chambered for .308 Winchester. It's light and short for quick handling, but it has adequate power to take deer at any reasonable range. I also use a 2.8x10 variable power scope, but I usually keep it on either 4X or 6X. A straight 4X scope is adequate for most short- to medium-range hunting, and its field of view is wide enough to allow you to attain and hold your target, even in thick cover.
For short-range hunting, it's hard to beat a shotgun loaded with slugs. With a rifled barrel or a special slug choke tube and a good scope, a shotgun can deliver a lead slug into a saucer-sized target up to 125 yards. If using a smoothbore slug barrel, limit your shots to 50 yards or less.For hunting woods or small fields, many hunters prefer handguns. Light and portable, a handgun will allow you to hike to prime hunting areas without the arm and shoulder fatigue that comes from lugging long guns over hill and dale. If you kill a deer, you can secure the handgun in a holster, which frees both hands for handling your kill.
The proper round, such as .357-magnum, .41-magnum, .44-magnum or .45 Long Colt, will give you enough firepower to drop a deer in its tracks out to 150 yards. A good scope with strong, steady scope mounts will improve accuracy immensely. The slightest movement or vibration in a handgun barrel will throw your shot completely off your target, so steady your muzzle with some sort of support.
While scouting isn't essential to deer hunting success, accurate shooting is, so practice often.
If you hunt deer on public land, a map is your most valuable tool.
The Conservation Department publishes informative brochures for all Department-owned conservation areas. Each brochure includes a topographic map on one side and a description of the area and summary of rules and regulations specific to the area on the other side. You can download maps for most MDC-owned conservation area on the Department's website.
The "Conservation Atlas," published by the Conservation Department, is another excellent resource to guide you to some 800,000 acres on nearly 1,000 MDC conservation areas. It costs $16 and is available from the Nature Shop, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180 or online.
The most detailed maps are the 7.5-minute topographic quadrangle maps published by the U.S. Geologic Survey. They show everything, from the smallest creek to the highest ridge to the deepest hollow. You can look at a quad map for an area you've never seen, and by studying its topographic features, you can make an educated guess at where you would most likely encounter deer.
To obtain USGS topo quad maps, contact the U.S. Geologic Survey at 1400 Independence Road, Rolla, MO 65401; (573) 308-3500.
For maps of the Mark Twain National Forest, contact the Mark Twain National Forest Supervisor's Office, 401 Fairgrounds Rd., Rolla, MO 65401; (573) 364 4621.
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