Deer Hunting: Getting Started
This fact is hard to imagine: By 1925, unregulated hunting and changes in habitat had reduced Missouri’s white-tailed deer population to an estimated 395 animals statewide. At the time, many wildlife managers thought whitetails were likely on their way to elimination from the state. Proper conservation, however, prevented this tragedy.
Today, Missouri’s white-tailed deer population is estimated at more than 1 million animals — more than existed in the area before settlement by Europeans.
Hunting opportunities for white-tailed deer in the Show-Me State have never been better. If you want to give it a try, here’s how.
A Little Natural History
It pays to know the life history and habits of the animals you hunt. Here’s a quick rundown on whitetails.
In Missouri, most white-tailed deer are born in late May and early June after a gestation period of six and a half to seven months. Twins are most common. At birth, white-tailed fawns have their eyes open and can stand and walk, though feebly. For three to four weeks they tend to remain hidden in cover while their mother stays close by. After this time, fawns travel with their mother and begin the process of weaning. Three to five months after birth, fawns begin the process of molting and growing their winter coat, which results in losing their white spots.
The most obvious difference between male and female white-tailed deer is that most males have antlers. Under the influence of hormones, antlers grow and are shed every year. Bucks shed their antlers in late winter or early spring and immediately begin growing a new set, a process that takes five to six months.
Fawn bucks typically have “buttons” that by fall can be seen as slight swellings under the skin. By 11/2 years of age, almost all bucks have antlers that are visible externally. Depending on a number of factors, including diet and heredity, antlers during a buck’s second winter may be unbranched “spikes” or multi-pointed. As bucks age, their antlers grow larger and heavier. White-tailed bucks tend to be in their physical prime between 21/2 and 71/2 years of age. Past that, due to old age, antler size decreases.
The daily routine of white-tailed deer varies with the season and weather, but generally follows a pattern of movement from feeding to bedding areas early and late in the day. Much deer activity occurs at night. Mature bucks are often almost entirely nocturnal, except when does are in heat during the fall rut or breeding season.
Missouri offers a variety of deer-hunting seasons. Check and make sure to buy clothing that complies with hunter-orange regulations.
Missouri also allows you to hunt deer by way of a variety of methods. Regardless of method, purchase quality equipment. If you decide to hunt with a bow, get a good one. All bows require implements that reduce the sound of the string when you release an arrow. Compound bows also have cables, which make noise when the bow is drawn and shot. Without quieting implements, deer hear bow noise and bolt — hunters call it jumping the string. Cheap bows tend to make more noise and are more difficult to quiet.
If you decide to hunt with a rifle, again, buy a quality one. You need an accurate rifle with a good trigger. As far as caliber, pick one that is readily available at most places that sell hunting supplies. Know that some bullets for some calibers are quite expensive — more than $2 a shell. The 30-06 is a favorite of many deer hunters, because it is moderately priced and versatile.
Most deer hunters like their rifles equipped with a telescopic sight. Scopes make sighting for a shot far easier. They also gather light, which makes for better shot placement under the low-light conditions of early morning and late evening. Scopes are available for a wide range of prices. Avoid the cheaper ones. You can buy a good scope and mounts for $200-$300.
Tree stands, such as ladder stands and climbing stands, offer three big benefits: They can place you above the line of sight of deer, so deer are far less likely to see you; they help keep your scent off the ground; and they often give you a wider field of view.
The big problem with tree stands is that they can be dangerous. Every year hunters are seriously injured—sometimes fatally—by falling out of tree stands. Most hunters fall when they are climbing in or out of their stands.
If you decide to hunt out of tree stands, don’t hunt out of homemade ones. They are prone to fail. Buy one that meets the standards of the Treestand Manufacturer’s Association (TMA), and buy and use a fall-arrest system that meets TMA standards. Use the system the moment you leave the ground, throughout the hunt, and when you descend to the ground. Once in your stand, you will also need a haul line to raise and lower your gear including unloaded firearms, bows, and arrows. Safety, when hunting out of a tree stand, cannot be overstressed.
Walk into any store that sells deer-hunting gear, and you will face an array of scents and calls designed to attract deer. While they do work, it’s important to remember that these products will never replace proper stand placement, woodsmanship, and patience.
If you kill a deer, you need a quality knife to remove the internal organs. The knife should be stout and made of steel that will hold an edge. Both fixed bladed or models with a locking blade work well. Blade length of 4 to 5 inches long is all you need. Longer blades just get in the way. Rubber gloves to keep blood off your hands is a good idea. A small hatchet also comes in handy to cut through the pelvic bone.
Find Your Hunting Spot
Having a great place to hunt is the most important key to consistent deer-hunting success. What makes a great deer-hunting spot? Two things: a healthy deer population and limited hunting pressure. White-tailed deer, if pressured by hunters, change their habits and become very difficult to hunt. Many of the best deer-hunting spots are privately owned by landowners who limit hunting. The very best spots are those where you are the only deer hunter allowed. How can you connect with such a hunting area?
If money is no issue, you can buy one. For most deer hunters, however, this is not an option. The easiest way to gain access to a prime deer-hunting spot is if you have friends or relatives who have land that supports a healthy deer population. They know you and will more likely give permission. Asking landowners you don’t know for permission to hunt deer is tougher, particularly if they are landowners who limit deer hunting. It helps if you have a friend who knows a landowner. The friend, then, can serve as a character reference. Sometimes, it’s best to first ask permission to squirrel hunt. If you receive permission, then, over time, the landowner has an opportunity to know you, which may result in your receiving permission to deer hunt. Any way it goes, when seeking permission to deer hunt on private ground, expect to get turned down a fair bit before you get a “yes.”
When you receive permission to hunt a great deer-hunting spot, treat the permission for what it is, something precious. Tell few, if any, people about the spot. Before you do anything, such as putting up stands or cutting shooting lanes, check with the landowner to make sure it’s ok. Find ways to thank the landowner for hunting permission, such as helping with chores. There’s always work to be done on a farm, much of which requires two sets of hands.
If you are unable to secure a place on private land, don’t despair. There are lots of great public lands available for hunting as well. Find a list, as well as information on urban and managed hunts, and all things deer-hunting related, on the Department’s Deer Hunting page at mdc.mo.gov/node/2458.
Among deer hunters there occurs a small subset, highly skilled (and a little lucky), who tag deer every year. If you had the opportunity to ask them for hunting advice, here’s what they would say.
In preparation for the hunt, do everything you can to prevent deer from ever knowing of your presence. Scout and prepare stands well ahead of deer season. Right after deer season is the perfect time to prepare for next season. Deer will still be on their fall/winter patterns. If the area doesn’t change, these patterns won’t change either. And if you spook deer, they have a year to forget about it. A productive time to scout is when snow has been on the ground for several days, leaving tracks easy to spot.
Place stands between feeding and bedding areas, preferably where several trails come together because of a terrain feature, such as a bluff or a body of water, which confines deer travel.
Movement and Scent
A deer’s vision is very sharp at picking up movement. If you sit still, however, you can fool a deer. Not so with a deer’s nose. One whiff of human scent, and deer either bolt or slip away undetected. A deer’s sense of smell is its main defense, and that’s what you must strive to overcome.
Establish several stands, which will allow you to keep the wind in your favor. If possible, place stands on high points, where wind currents are more predictable. Winds tend to swirl in draws and creek bottoms. Plan approaches to your stand that minimize the chance of spooking deer. And no matter how heavily deer are using a spot, don’t hunt it if the wind is not in your favor.
There are deer-hunting products on the market that claim to mask human scent. They may reduce human scent, but they don’t mask it. The only way to beat a deer’s nose is to position yourself downwind from where you think deer will approach.
Pace and Patience
If you plan to bowhunt, don’t make the mistake of hunting hard at the beginning of the season and burning yourself out. Your best chances of seeing deer are at the peak of the breeding season or rut, which is usually the first 10 days in November. Serious bowhunters often take vacation time this week and hunt every day up until rifle season. When a doe comes into standing heat, she does so for just 24 hours, but for several days before and after this receptivity, she is releasing pheromones that spur bucks into attempts at breeding. Since the does aren’t willing to breed, a lot of chasing goes on.
The peak of the rut is the time to stay on the stand from first light until dark, for deer can be up and moving at any time. If you don’t have patience for long sits, develop the patience. Bring food, water, books — whatever it takes to keep you on stand. Patience is a skill. The best deer hunters have it.
Become an Expert Shot
Practice with your bow or rifle until you are an expert shot. Being an expert typically takes lots of practice. Work at it. If you are a bowhunter, and plan to hunt from an elevated stand, make sure you practice shooting from one. From elevated stands, you must bend at the waist to prevent shooting higher than your point of aim. When a deer approaches you want to make the most of the situation.
The only shot to take on a deer with bow and arrow is the heart/lung area. With a rifle, the same area is a good choice. Though it wastes a little meat, a shot through both shoulders is also good because it hits the heart/lung area and drops a deer in its tracks.
Cleaning and Cooking Deer
When it all comes together and you tag a deer, you face a little work. Your first task is to remove the deer’s internal organs. This is easily accomplished. Under the excitement of the moment, however, it can be easy to cut yourself. Be careful. It also helps to have someone with you who is skilled at cleaning, skinning, and butchering a deer the first time you do it. With the deer on its back, and using just the tip of a sharp knife, cut a small hole in the skin and muscle tis-sue found in the center of the abdominal cavity.
Place two fingers in the hole to push back the internal organs, and continue to cut forward toward the chest. If you plan to have a head and shoulder mount of your deer, you stop cutting when you reach the sternum or breastbone. If not, continue cutting up to the neck.
It may take two hands and some force, but a stout, sharp knife will cut through the breastbone. To finish opening the body cavity, cut down to between the hind legs. A small hatchet helps split the pelvis. The urinary bladder lies under the pelvis. If it is full, be careful at this point not to puncture it. With the body cavity opened, roll the deer on its side and pull out all the internal organs. To remove the large intestines, make a final cut around the anus. With this chore done, many hunters take their deer to a meat locker to have the deer skinned and processed. You can do this work yourself. If you can skin and quarter a squirrel, you can do the same with a deer. Deer are just bigger.
To skin a deer, cut a hole behind and tie ropes around the large tendons found at a deer’s ankles. Use the ropes to hang the deer at a convenient height, then skin the deer starting at the hindquarters.
With the hide removed, cut the front shoulders off of the body, saw the feet off, and put the shoulders in a cooler with ice. To remove the back straps, make a long cut, right next to both sides of the backbone, from where the hindquarters meet the backbone to where the neck starts, then fillet out the meat. Inside the body cavity, close to the lower back, are two tenderloins. Cut these out, and then separate the hindquarters from the backbone, saw off the feet, place the hindquarters in a cooler, and the work is done.
With fresh ice, the meat will keep for several days in the cooler. The chore that remains is deboning the meat and placing it in individual bags with water for freezing, or wrapping in butcher paper. In deboning a deer, it is important to remove as much connective tissue and fat as possible, for both impart an unpleasant taste to the meat. Allowing the meat to soak in water for a couple days, and changing the water twice a day to remove blood from the meat, also improves meat flavor.
Missouri offers a variety of deer-hunting seasons as well as methods. Purchase quality equipment to make the most of out your hunt.
Check and make sure to buy clothing that complies with hunter-orange regulations.
Pick a caliber that is readily available at most places that sell hunting supplies.
Scopes gather light, making better shot placement under low-light conditions possible.
Bow Make sure to purchase a quieting implement to avoid jumping the string.
Tree stand Buy one that meets TMA standards and use the fall-arrest system throughout the hunt.
Knife and hatchet
Knife blade length of 4 to 5 inches long is all you need. A hatchet comes in handy when you need to cut through pelvic bone.
Help Us Stop CWD
Practice proper carcass disposal. Deer hunters play an important role in preventing the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD). The disease can spread through carcasses of diseased deer, which can remain infectious for years. Carcass parts known to concentrate CWD include brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, and lymph nodes. Moving harvested deer that still have these parts can spread CWD to other areas.Hunters who harvest deer in the Containment Zone (Chariton, Randolph, Macon, Linn, Sullivan, and Adair counties) should not take whole deer carcasses out of the Zone, or carcass parts that contain brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, or lymph nodes. Items that are safe to transport are:• Meat that is cut and wrapped,
- Meat that has been boned out,
- Quarters or other portions of meat with no part of the spine or head attached,• Hides or capes from which all excess tissue has been removed,
- Antlers, including antlers attached to skull plates or skulls cleaned of all muscle and brain tissue, and• Finished taxidermy products.Deer hunters throughout the state should properly dispose of car-casses from harvested deer to prevent the spread of infectious dis-eases, such as CWD.
- Remove meat in the field and leave the carcass behind. Bury the carcass if possible.
- If processing harvested deer in camp or at home, place carcass parts in trash bags and properly dispose of them through a trash service or landfill.
- Take harvested deer to a licensed commercial processor to ensure proper carcass disposal.
- For taxidermy work, use a licensed taxidermist to ensure proper carcass disposal. Learn more at mdc.mo.gov/node/16478
In the Kitchen
Learning to turn wild game into fine cuisine is a joy in itself. Check the Internet for recipes. With practice, you will develop an eye for the good ones. Here’s a venison stew recipe that’s easy and delicious:
- 2 pounds venison stew meat, cubed
- 1 can condensed tomato soup
- 3 medium carrots, sliced
- ½ can water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 potatoes, peeled and quartered
- 1 cup each of frozen peas and corn
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/4 cup dry red wine
Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Put all ingredients into a large pot with an oven-safe lid. There is no need to brown the meat first. Mix ingredients together. Cover tightly and bake in the preheated oven for 5 hours. Serves 6.