Deer hunting in North America has an illustrious history; this longstanding practice spans back hundreds of years and numerous generations, since our great country’s very beginning. Native American stories passed down for generations are riddled with tales of hunting and harvesting deer, while the pilgrims themselves captured deer for their meals in the New World.
Deer hunting remained popular for both food and sport purposes until abruptly halting in the 1900s. When the country saw a sharp decline in whitetail deer populations in the 20th century, it became apparent that overhunting was a serious problem. Thanks to swift action and diligence on the part of numerous conservation departments and dutiful hunters, there is now an overabundance of deer in much of the country— many states now boast over 200,000 harvested deer each year.
Have you ever wondered what draws the most seasoned deer hunters back time and time again? Over 11 million hunters seek that proverbial trophy buck each year, and for good reason. Beyond the thrill of the chase, the payoff of patience and determination, and some seriously good meat, deer hunting plays an important part in conservation efforts. Hunting helps maintain deer populations; overpopulation can lead to overgrazing, which has a ripple effect on numerous species of animals.
The most sought-after deer in North America include the white-tailed deer and the mule deer, with white-tail deer populating areas east of the Rocky Mountains, and mule deer dominant in areas west of the Rockies. No matter your desired game, you’ll find that many states around the country offer amazing opportunities for successful deer hunts. Let this essential guide to deer hunting help you get started in one of America’s most revered traditions and make your upcoming hunting season the most successful yet.
A hunter is only as great as his gear allows, and a deer hunter must be equipped with the proper essentials before heading out to the stand. The gear required for any given hunt is dependent on a variety of factors. If you’re heading out to hunt in early season, you’ll be battling high temperatures, which may call for hot weather apparel. If you’re hoping to bowhunt, you’ll have a very different list of necessities than a deer hunter that plans to head out with a firearm. Regardless of your hunting interests and parameters, the following gear should have you well on your way to success.
Packs and Luggage
You’ll want to take a large gear bag that can hold all of your hunting essentials without ruining your back. You’ll also need a day pack for trips outside of the stand, and a sleeping bag for those cold nights spent under the stars.
There are two major types of hunting apparel to consider: warm weather and cold weather apparel. Most hunters find they need cold weather gear, especially hunting during and after rut. It’s important to build on thin layers; this allows you to add or remove clothes as necessary during those long days spent in the stand. Always bring insulated clothing options, including hats, gloves, and jackets, but be wary of using material that’s too thick, as excessive bulk can hamper your flexibility and movement. If you’re hunting in warm weather, be sure to wear breathable layers and also stock up on odor blocking scent—anything you can do to decrease your human scent is essential, especially in temperatures that lead to excessive perspiration.
Remember to stock up on your fair share of camo no matter the temperature—you’ll want to blend in with your surroundings from head to toe. Also don’t forget to grab rain gear, as the weather can change in an instant, and you don’t want to be caught out in the field unaware and unprepared.
The Good Stuff: Equipment Needs
If you’re hunting with firearms, you have your choice of handguns or long rifles. You’ll need plenty of ammo, as well as a gun hoist or bipod to help steady the shot. Perhaps you’re a bowhunter; you’ll need a bow or crossbow, arrows or bolts and broadheads, a case, an arm guard, and a bow sling.
Beyond weapon necessities, the list of equipment essentials is long: scent killer, tree stands, ground blinds, GPS device, cleaning kit, deer lure, and deer scent are all sure to set you up for success—but these items are only the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to optics, you’ll want a rangefinder, binoculars, and a spotting scope for starters.
Once you’ve made your kill, you’ll need a bevy of equipment to handle dressing and carting your game. From deer carts and drags to a folding saw, gutting gloves to game scales, there’s an endless list of items that can make transporting and dressing your kill much easier.
Hunting Licenses and Tags
Every deer hunter must secure a hunting license before they can pursue game, regardless of where they plan on hunting. Hunting and fishing licenses are only valid in the state in which they’re issued, but it’s possible to have multiple valid licenses at any given time. Generally a hunter must pass a Hunter Education and Safety training course; these vary by state and conservation department. Generally, you’ll take a 4-hour course, then a written exam. Once you’ve passed the written exam, you’ll be permitted to purchase the license of your choice. Some states offer general licenses that allow hunters to hunt all types of game, while in other states you’ll need to purchase a specified deer hunting license.
While a hunting license is required for deer hunters, it often isn’t sufficient. In many states, deer hunters must also acquire tags, which are additional permits that allow a hunter to hunt certain animals. This is a physical permit that you must keep on your person during a hunt. Once you’ve connected on a deer, you’ll then need to attach the tag to it immediately. Tags can be very specific; you may need a certain type of tag if you plan to hunt with a standard firearm, while hunting with a bow and arrow can require an entirely different tag type. Tags can regulate a variety of aspects: the sex of the deer, age, method of capture or take, and geographic area in which you’re hunting.
The amount of tags hunters can acquire are limited; in certain hunting regions, only a few thousand buck tags are distributed, and any one hunter can only have so many tags of a single type per season. If you’re attempting to hunt in an area where demand exceeds supply, you’ll likely enter a lottery system in which names are drawn for tags. There are generally point systems to help spread tags more fairly between all the hunters in a given area, but there are cases in which you may not receive a tag in said area for multiple hunting seasons in a row.
While deer populations are abundant in North America, there are restrictions regarding where you may hunt. Luckily, there are plenty of location options sure to appeal to every deer hunter.
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service, over 84 percent of hunters choose to hunt on private land. Far and above the most popular location option, hunting on private land is advantageous for several reasons.
Safety First: Many hunters feel that hunting on private land provides a measure of safety that public grounds cannot offer. This is due to a variety of factors; you’ll know who’s in the area and have insight to when and where they might be hunting, which can help you avoid unintentional run-ins and miscommunications between hunters.
A Better Ratio: When hunting on private land, there are generally a limited amount of hunters on the property at any given time. This keeps the deer-to-hunter ratio in your favor and increases your likelihood of success.
Better Land: Private land owners are more likely to cultivate their land to better suit hunters. This may be accomplished through food plots, annual clearing of timber, and the creation of ground cover aspects that can benefit both deer population and hunter on the land.
So the question stands: How do you access private land for hunting purposes?
Asking Permission to Hunt on Private Land
As a majority of quality deer hunting property is now owned, many hunters must ask for permission. If you are planning to approach landowners, there are a few key rules to keep in mind.
Leasing Private Property
Even if you follow all the above-mentioned steps, sometimes asking for permission just won’t cut it. Unfortunately, private landowners have become increasingly hesitant to allow hunters access to their property for a variety of reasons. However, money talks, and many hunters have now found that leasing private land is a useful tactic when public land and asking for permission leave you wanting.
As public hunting land is in short supply, hunting leases have become more common. Essentially, a hunting lease is an agreement between a hunter and private landowner. This contract sees the hunter paying a specified fee to hunt on the property. There are different types of leases you may encounter, including daily, short-term, and long-term hunting leases.
Daily Leases: Daily leases are less formal, and typically aren’t that detailed. Because the hunter will have less time to understand the lay of the land, many daily leases may include stipulations or provisions requiring the use of guide services, specific transportation options, and/or hunting dogs.
Short-Term Lease: Short-term leases may span weeks or seasons, and they’re generally used by landowners that host multiple hunters during the year.
Long-Term Lease: Long-term leases generally span anywhere from a year to several years. Generally this will provide a hunter with exclusive access to the property during any and all specified hunting seasons.
What do hunting leases cost? There’s no singular answer to this question, as cost can be influenced by a variety of aspects, including location and acreage of the property in question, the maturity of the land, the quality and size of wildlife, and the number of hunters allowed on the property at one time, among many other factors. It can be difficult to determine whether a landowner is offering a fair market price, so it’s good to shop around and talk to hunters who may have secured leases in nearby areas.
There are also many opportunities to hunt on public land. Often a simple inquiry with your state conservation department can guide you to public lands that allow hunting. You’ll find a mixture of property types when hunting on public land; some may be publicly-owned, while others may be private property that are accessible through special agreements. The downside to hunting on public land is competition; seeing as it’s free and easily accessible, you’ll be in the field alongside numerous other hunters, which can decrease the likelihood of tagging that trophy buck you’ve been dreaming of.
Ways to avoid this? Pour through maps of the land parcel, and try to head to remote areas that are less populated with hunters—but still known for populations of whitetail deer or mule deer. Whether it be federal land, state land, or local land (think that owned by counties or cities), do your research. Oftentimes, it’s all about luck and tenacity. You may find that spending time hunting for lesser known hunting areas on public land can result in a great harvest a few seasons down the road.
The list of animals that can be hunted year-round is a short one, and deer are no exception. In the United States, deer hunting is regulated at the state level, and these regulations have resulted in an array of deer hunting seasons that vary by location.
Most states have detailed charts that display opening and closing dates for a variety of hunting seasons, like this interactive map from Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, or these simple charts from New Hampshire Fish and Game. A simple Google search of your desired state’s hunting season will garner you numerous results.
The duration of open deer hunting season varies, but generally follows phases dictated by deer breeding season. When hunting for whitetails, September and October are generally representative of early season. Many bowhunters find great opportunity in early season, but warm weather can be a deterrent for novice and seasoned hunters alike. However, there’s much to be said about hunting in the early season. For one, deer that haven’t felt the pressure of hunters for six months to a year are more vulnerable in the early season—they’re less on their guard. During the early season, deer are more likely to worry about finding food, and as food sources shift during this season change, they’re fairly predictable. This can make it easy for hunters to bait deer and scout their most frequented locations with ease. One last thing to consider: if you’re really looking to secure that big buck, early season might be your best bet. Why? During this time, bucks travel in groups, often containing one to two larger, older bucks, and two to three subordinate bucks, leaving you set to capture a great trophy.
When cooler weather arrives in October, bucks begin to keep tabs on bunches of does, resulting in what is sometimes called October Lull, in which deer activity seems to take a sharp nosedive. During this time, groups of bucks break apart as they begin to mark their territory—you may even spot some aggressive fights between males competing for position. By this time, deer have likely run into at least a few hunters, so they may be more cautious than you would have seen in the early season. Until late October when the bucks become receptive to calling, this is generally the toughest time to hunt. However, if you’re looking forward to pleasantly cooler weather, this is a great time to be in the Great Outdoors.
Hunting During Rut
Finally, rut arrives—the deer are moving, branches are clear (providing for a great shot), and bucks’ desire to mate often supersedes their usual caution. This is when you’ll see a large flurry of deer activity, as bucks shirk their cautious nature and gallivant across open landscapes in order to find does to breed. During this season, you’ll run into your fair share of other hunters, as it’s the most popular time of year to hunt and coincides with firearms hunting season in most areas. If you have done your scouting correctly, you should easily be able to hunt near doe bedding areas during daylight hours.
You can be outfitted with the latest and greatest gear, but if you don’t have your scouting skills down, you’re likely to come away from an upcoming deer hunt emptyhanded. It’s important to understand both the lay of the land and how the deer will use the property in question in order to increase your chances of success.
If possible, always scout long before you pack up your bag and head out on the trail. Scouting is the foundation of a quality hunt, and the sooner you get started the better. Take a look at Google Earth to get detailed aerial shots, and make use of topographical maps to gather more detail about the terrain you can expect. As you scour your maps for great locations, keep a few features in mind. Find rivers and creeks, fields, thickets, and any evidence of travel ways that deer may use regularly.
After arriving at the property, take a walk. It’s really as simple as that—as you go, note the spots you listed on your map studies, then make notes where applicable.
Stop Them Dead in Their Tracks
Now that you’re out in the field, it’s time to search for the practical hints. First things first—look for tracks. If you see a track that’s well-defined, it’s likely fresh. Take a look at the size of the hoof print, and measure the distance between tracks. This will help you determine the size, age, and even sex of the animal that has recently passed through.
Once you’re hot on the trail, make sure you don’t overlook animal droppings. If you see large patches of droppings, you may be near a buck or doe’s bedding area. Other obvious signs to look for are the freshness of the droppings, and how many piles there are in a given area. If you do suspect you’re near a bedding area, look for trails that may lead to potential feeding spaces.
As the pre-rut kicks in, bucks will begin to make scrapes along fence rows and in wooded areas. These scrapes will generally have a licking stick hanging overhead and are accomplished by a buck pawing at the ground then urinating in the cleared area with hopes to leave his tarsal gland scent behind.
As rut season heats up, bucks will continue rubbing their antlers with vigor. Look at nearby trees to find evidence of a buck residing in your area.
You’re in the field, you’ve found what you hope will prove to be the sweet spot, and you’re prepared with all of your equipment essentials. Follow these tips and ensure your hunt is everything it should be.
Get Ready to Wait
Hunting deer is a game of patience. Find a comfortable spot, take a seat, and get ready to wait. Be consistent, be hopeful, and stay calm. Do all you can to get comfortable from the get-go. You’ll be sitting in one spot for hours on end, and you’ll need to be ready to shoot in the blink of an eye.
Whether you’re sitting in the open or hidden in a treestand, make every effort to remain completely still. Deer don’t have amazing eyesight, but they’re constantly on guard, meaning they’re very capable of spotting any type of movement.
The Wind Can Be Your Best Friend—or Worst Enemy
Deer have a keen sense of smell, and the moment they catch a whiff of human scent, your kill is as good as gone. Always take the wind into consideration before setting up your stand or blind. Be downwind of the area where you assume deer will enter your range. If your carefully-scouted spot has a terrible wind forecast for the day, cut your losses and find somewhere else to stake out.
If you’re hunting during rut, calls are going to be invaluable. Whether you use grunt calls, estrous bleats, or snort-wheezes, the right calls can see that trophy buck trotting quickly into view. Practice with your calls before heading out to the field—deer can be surprisingly intelligent when it comes to sussing out the real from the fake.
Deer hunting provides a world of opportunity, and with constant innovation and technological advancements, the sport continues to evolve. Put this advice to good use and you’ll be well on your way to tagging that trophy buck or doe in no time.