The Beginner’s Comprehensive Guide to Hunting Whitetail Deer

Whitetail deer with big horns

As a new Whitetail hunter you most certainly have questions in regards to where and to how hunt, the best type of gun or bow and what other gear you need. Realize that every Whitetail hunter who has ever taken a deer was once in your shoes. While volumes have been written on each of the following subjects, this comprehensive guide to hunting Whitetail deer is designed to get you up to speed quickly by answering all your Whitetail-deer hunting questions.

Locating Habitat

Finding a quality place to hunt can be a challenging task, but is one of the major keys to success. You need to find those special places that are the perfect combination of accessible land and quality Whitetail habitat.

Whitetail deer are found in every one of the contiguous 48 U.S. states and live both far away from people and in their backyards. Record-book bucks are taken so close to major highways you can hear cars whizzing by and so far back in the woods you would be wise to think twice about having to drag him out. In most cases, finding a good place to hunt just takes some legwork.

The vast majority of Whitetails across the U.S. are hunted on public lands. These lands include National Forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, State-owned lands and property owned by local municipalities. In some states, like Vermont, you can also hunt on private property provided the land is not posted against trespass. In other states, like Montana, you must have landowner permission, whether the land is posted or not. Many private landowners will allow you to hunt on their property by simply asking for permission.

Other types of private property where you may find easy access is owed by timber companies and railroads, especially in the West. You can look for hunting lands online for free with Google Earth, or you can find and purchase state-specific maps online by doing a Google search.

Scouting

While not essential to success, scouting will provide you with a plethora of valuable insight into both you quarry and hunting area. Scouting will allow you to learn the lay of the land, including where the feeding, watering, bedding areas and travel corridors are. This is highly valuable information when selecting a stand location.

It is crucial you cause the least amount of disturbance possible when scouting an area. Don’t scout the same area too often, otherwise you risk spooking your quarry out of the area. Studies have shown it can take several weeks for deer to feel comfortable enough to return to an area where they have repeatedly been spooked. When scouting look for:

Tracks and Game Trails

While finding a single track or two is always a good sign, you want to focus on looking for clusters and strings of tracks in a given area. This means deer are congregating there, instead of just a solo animal that just happened to be passing through. Game trails are well-used paths that have numerous hoof prints, designating a route that deer use on a regular bases. Make note of any spots where two or more well-used trails intersect, as this can be a very good spot to ambush a deer.

    • Rubs: Just prior to breeding season, Whitetail bucks will “rub” the bark off small trees, generally two to three feet off the ground. Bucks do this to leave their sent on the tree and to strengthen their neck muscles for fighting other bucks for the rights to breed with does.
    • Scrapes: Like rubs, scrapes are made prior to and during breeding season. These are spots on the ground, often beneath a tree limb, where a buck has cleared away debris. Bucks will often return to check their scrapes.
    • Feeding Areas: Whitetails will feed on the tender young buds of trees and bushes, young ferns, in agricultural fields and orchards, along edges where two different types of habitat meet and in groves of mast-producing trees, such as oak, beechnuts and chestnut.
    • Watering Holes: In dry areas, where there is not an abundance of lakes, ponds, rivers or streams, a watering hole can be a magnet for deer.
    • Bedding Areas: After feeding, Whitetails will seek out an area where they will feel secure, typical an area of thick cover, to bed down and ruminate. Look for trails that connect feeding areas with spots that hold thick vegetation. However, you should never enter a bedding area, as deer will put up with human scent in a lot of places, but not in their bedrooms.
    • Human Traffic: Unlike the other signs, this is one you prefer not to find.
      Go further away from the road if you find a lot of indications of human activity. It may be best to look in a different spot if there is a heavy pattern of human traffic.
    • Wind: Wind will often come from a prevailing direction in some areas at certain times of the year. For example, during late summer wind may blow predominately from the west, but change direction in the fall. In some areas the wind will randomly change direction every few minutes. Because wind can be hard to predict, look for places that are sheltered, like a ravine or the lee side of a hill. Thermals are air currents that will carry your scent upwards during the morning and downhill in the evening.
Starter Tip: To a deer, you stink! Be conscious of wind and thermals and always hunt with the wind in your face.

Whitetail Behavior

Whitetails are cathemeral by nature, being active both during the day and night. However, the main time deer are active is when they are feeding in the late evening and early morning, and these are the times you will have the best chance of taking a deer.

Feeding

Deer are ruminators, like cows, and will actively feed for a couple of hours and then find a place to bed down and chew their cud.

Sense of Smell

Whitetail deer have one of the keenest senses of smell of any animal, with their noses being better than a bloodhound’s. Studies have demonstrated Whitetails are able to detect human scent from up to a quarter mile away. Because of this, it is imperative to be aware of how your scent affects your hunting and to do everything possible to reduce it.

Starter Tips: Take a shower and wash your clothes with unscented soap. Hang your clothes outside. Walk slowly to keep from sweating.

Hunting Methods

Stand Hunting

Here you find a likely looking ambush spot to wait for your quarry. Good places for a stands are along an edge, on a ridge overlooking a grove of mast-producing trees, where game trails intersect, where a trails leads to a feeding or bedding area and near a watering hole.

Standing Location and Placement

Wind direction plays an essential role in choosing where you should place your stand. If you know from what direction the deer is likely to come from, it is a simple matter of placing your stand downwind of that location. However, one of the really fun things about hunting is the wind loves to change direction in the blink of an eye. Tree stands can help to mitigate this, as every ten feet you get off the ground you reduce your sent presence by 50 percent.

Starter Tip: Don’t place your stand too close to where you expect to see your quarry, or you risk spooking the deer with movement and human sent. Put up tree stands or ground blinds at least two weeks before opening day, if possible.

Still-Hunting

Still-hunting involves walking very slowly, into the wind, while looking for deer. The problem with still-hunting is most hunters walk way to fast, and the deer sees them first.

Native Americans have a saying, “White man walks a lot and sees little, but Indian walks a little and sees a lot.” A good rule of thumb when still-hunting is to take three slow steps and then stop for 10 minutes to thoroughly scan the area, then repeat. Plan you next three steps while you are standing still, to avoid making any noise. If you are covering more than a quarter mile in an hour, you are moving too fast.

Spot and Stalk

This technique is best suited to more open areas, where you can use binoculars or a spotting scope to find game. Once located, plan a route to the deer that will take advantage of the topography to keep you hidden from your quarry’s view until you are close enough for a shot.

Starter Tip: Be mindful of the wind direction during your stalk.

Tracking

Tracking requires you be in good physical condition. While tracking works best when there is snow on the ground, you can also track on bare ground.

Look for a fresh tracks in areas with plenty of accessible land to hunt on, as deer can cover many miles in a short time. You will be able to tell a fresh tracks from old with practice, but an older set of tracks will be more filled in with debris and the edges of the track will be crumbled and worn away.

One of the best ways to find a fresh track is to drive or walk along back roads, logging roads, skid trails and clearcuts. Once you find a fresh track you need to be able to tell if was made by a buck or doe. While this won’t matter if you are hunting during an either-sex season, you may waste valuable hunting time tracking a deer you can’t shoot.

Very generally speaking, the tips of a bucks toes will be more rounded off than a does, whereas a doe will have more pointed toes. However, the only way to tell for sure if you are tracking a buck is by the sheer size of the hoof print. A mature buck will weigh almost twice that of even the biggest doe, so his tracks will be huge by comparison, sink much further into the ground and be almost as wide as a typical doe’s is long.

Deer have basically two types of locomotion, travel and feeding. When traveling, a buck is headed from point A to point B and doesn’t waste much time meandering about. This is when you can walk fast and close the distance on him. However, when the tracks start to meander, almost aimlessly, the deer is feeding and you need to be on high alert.

After feeding the deer must bed down to ruminate. Most often, the deer will already be bedded down, watching its backtrail for the likes of you, by the time you notice he has gone into feeding mode. At this point you must move slowly and methodically, one step at a time, while tearing every inch of the woods apart with your eyes. If you come upon an empty bed, without seeing the deer, it has already moved on and you need to start the process anew.

Starter Tip: You will quickly forget the sound of a snapped twig, but the deer will not. If you make an inadvertent noise, stop and remain motionless for at least 20 minutes.

Deer Driving

Here a group of hunters work together to cover a section of woods. Some hunters will post up on one side of a woodlot with the other hunters entering the opposite side, attempting to drive the deer to the waiting hunters. This tactic typically has a low success rate and driving deer is illegal in some states.

Dogs

Hunting deer with dogs is a time-honored tradition in the Southeast, especially in states like, Florida. Hunters use dogs trained to chase the deer to them, the same way hunters use a beagle to run rabbits. Some hunters look down on using dogs, feeling it is unfair to the deer. Hunting deer with dogs is illegal in most states.

Calling

Calling deer involves using a grunt call or a pair of “rattling” antlers, and these two techniques can be effective if used together. Calling will typically only work during the rut, but can bring a curious deer in at other times.

A grunt call makes a dominant buck think a challenger is in his domain, trying to breed “his” does and he will come in to defend his turf. Rattling a pair of antlers together, to simulate two deer in battle, will have the same effect, as a dominant buck will want to know who is fighting. Smaller bucks will come in to both types of calling out of curiosity.

Get into position, downwind from where you think the deer will come from. Blow on your grunt call two or three times and wait for at least 20 minutes. Likewise with rattling. Always begin calling and rattling softly, in case a deer is close by. Increase the volume, incrementally, every 20 minutes.

Decoys

Decoys can produce almost magical results, but are not legal in all areas. There have been numerous reports from hunters that bucks have come in and attacked a buck decoy, thinking it was real rival, and tried to mount a doe decoy. Place your decoy in a spot that will offer you a good shot. Decoys can be used in conjunction with other techniques, like calling.

Starter Tip: Always carry your decoy in and out of the field in a blaze orange bag, so you don’t get shot.

Scents

Both doe-in-heat and buck-in-rut scents can attract bucks. The idea is to make the buck come investigate a hot doe or rival buck. Follow the manufactures instructions when putting out scents. Also note that using scents are illegal in some areas.

Hunting Season and Regulations

Hunting season for Whitetail deer runs from early fall through February, depending on the area. Typically, hunting season will overlap the rut in most states. Some states have staggered seasons or varying open and closing dates in different parts of the state.

Many states allow for the harvest of only a single deer per year, whereas others allow you to take a number of deer. Some states have restrictions on the number of points a “legal” buck must have, whereas others have open season on any deer. Always check with your state game agency for up-to-date information.

Starter Tip: Hunting season dates and regulations can be found online, on your state’s game agency’s website.

Gear and Equipment

Hunting Weapons

Approximately 75 percent of Whitetails are taken with firearms, including rifles, shotguns, handguns and muzzleloaders. The other 25 percent are taken with archery equipment, including compound bows, traditional bows and crossbows. Some states have restrictions on the type of weapon you can use, with more populous areas only permitting shotguns or bows. While it is easier to kill a deer with a firearm, archery hunters enjoy the luxury of greatly expanded hunting seasons with increased bag limits.

The argument over what the “best” deer rifle is has raged for centuries and Whitetail deer have been taken with everything from the diminutive .22 to the most powerful magnums. However, with few exceptions, this is more a point of philosophy then actual functionality.

Killing any game animal is about bullet placement, and being a good marksman is more important than the type of gun you choose. Any firearm producing a muzzle energy of at least 1,500 foot-pounds will drop even the biggest Whitetail with one well-placed shot.

The most common Whitetail calibers include the 30-06, .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .35 Remington, .35 Whelen and the 30-30 Winchester. The first three are better suited for long shots of over 100 yards, whereas the latter three are more than adequate for hunting where shots of less than 100 yards are the norm. While the choice of action is really a personal decision, bolt actions are the most accurate for long shots and pumps and lever-action rifles are best for fast follow-up shots. Ironically, semiautomatics are not the best choice for hunting, as these take the longest to get back on target for follow-up shots.

Bullets should be in the 130- to 180-grain weight class. Anything lighter may not provide sufficient penetration and heavier bullets generally won’t expand properly on game the size of Whitetails.

Scopes

A good 3-9x variable-power, or thereabouts, rifle scope will allow you to make close-in shots in the woods as well as take long shots in open areas.

Bows

For archery hunting, any vertical bow with at least 45 pounds of pull is powerful enough to put and arrow clean through a deer. However, check your area’s regulation as crossbows are not legal in all areas.

Basic Gear

There are new hunting accessories hitting the market every year. However, if you are going to be effective in the woods you will want to keep you gear to the bare minimum. Here is a list of the essentials:

Hunting Clothes
You will need to dress accordingly for the type of hunting you plan to do. The more you plan to be moving the lighter weight your clothing should be. The three universal criteria for all hunting garments are:

  1. Quiet
  2. Waterproof
  3. Breathable

Stay visible to other hunters by wearing bright colors. Florescent orange is mandatory in most areas, and just good sense in the others. Florescent pink is now legal in some states, because women hunt too. However, during archery-only seasons your favorite camo pattern is sufficient, and there are florescent orange and pink camo patterns as well.

Footwear

Don’t skimp on hunting boots. Boots that are comfortable, warm and waterproof will keep you in the field longer.

Optics

A good pair of lightweight binoculars are indispensable when trying to tell the difference between a branch shaped like an antler and an antler shaped like a branch.

Knife

A fixed or folding knife with a four- to six-inch blade and a “gut hook,” to help with field dressing, is optimal.

Drag Rope

A length of rope about eight-feet long to drag your deer to your car.

Pack

A good pack to carry all your accessories and your food. Fanny packs work better than daypacks as daypacks can cause shoulder strain and your back to sweat.

Compass

Just in case you get turned around. Take a reading when you leave your vehicle so you will know what direction your car is in if you should get lost.

Flashlight

A small flashlight can be a lifesaver if you get stuck in the woods after dark. Try not to use the light while walking to your stand, as it can spook deer and may be illegal to use a light during hunting season.

Phone

Be sure your phone is fully charged in case of emergency and so you can call your buddies for help dragging your deer out!

Starter Tip: Take time to thoroughly familiarize yourself with you gear before heading afield for the first time.

Practicing

Sighting In

As a neophyte, you should have your scope professionally mounted and boresighted. Then, at the range, fire a three-shot group at a target 50 yards away. Take the middle hole in the group and adjust the windage and elevation turrets on your scope, according to the manufactures instructions, so the crosshairs line up with the middle hole. Take three more shots to confirm the adjustment and repeat the process if necessary. Once you have you rifle zeroed at 50 yards, repeat the process at 100 yards.

Dry Firing

You can become a crack shot through the magic of “dry firing.” Confirm the rifle is not loaded by checking the chamber and the magazine, and then double check both. Place a target on a wall, cock the gun and shoot at the target. While dry firing will not harm a center-fire gun, it will damage the firing pin on rim-fire guns.

The “Controlled” Jerk

You have probably heard you should “squeeze” the trigger, however, this is bad advice. A rifle is heavy and the longer you hold it up the more it will waver. Instead, learn to “jerk” the trigger in a control manner so you hear the firing pin drop, during dry-fire practice, at the precise instant the sight picture is perfect. If you think this advice is all wet, consider it came from the man who set a new world 500-yard bench-rest record in 2012, longtime Shooting Editor for “Outdoor Life Magazine,” Jim Carmichael.

Calling Your Shot

Learn to call your shot by deciding at the spilt second the firing pin falls if the crosshairs were on target, or if not how far off the sight picture was. This will help you in the field to know whether or not you hit your mark.

Shot Placement

The best place to shoot a deer is in the heart-lung area, directly behind the front shoulder, about halfway up its body. This is the largest vital area on the animal and will result in quick, humane, one-shot kills.

Field Judging a Deer

Many hunters judge a buck by its antlers, but the way to properly field judge a Whitetail is by his body configuration. A Whitetail buck hasn’t reached his full potential until he is 5 1/2 years old, and his age can only be determined by carefully examining his face, neck, chest and belly.

The face on a mature deer will look short because it has filled out, whereas a young deer will have a longer-looking snout. Additionally, a mature buck will have a huge neck, barrel chest and big pot belly. Conversely, an immature buck will be sleek looking, almost like a racehorse.

Starter Tip: The only secret to shooting a big buck is not to shoot the little ones.

The Case for Antlerless Harvesting

While every hunter dreams of a trophy buck, it is important to harvest antlerless deer wherever possible and legal. Every study ever done shows deer herds are the healthiest when the buck-to-doe ratio is close to 1:1, meaning one buck for every doe. As a conservationist, it is up to you to do your part.

Starter Tip: Does tend to be better table fair then bucks.

Safety First

Accidents can be avoided by using a healthy doses of common sense. The most fundamental rule of gun safety is to always know your target, what is behind it and to never, ever, point your gun at anything you do not intend to shoot. This includes noises that sound like a deer and shapes or shadows on a foggy morning. Do not shoot in the direction of another hunter, even if the buck of a lifetime is standing broadside. Remember, once you pull the trigger you will be responsible for whatever happens.

Fisher

Growing up in Vermont, Fisher began exploring the outdoors with his father when he turned nine. He hunted all over the U.S., including whitetails and turkeys in Vermont and Florida; elk, mule deer, whitetails, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, black bears and five species of grouse in Montana; caribou in Alaska; and Coues (properly ponounced kouse - like "house" with a "k") whitetails in Arizona.

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