Thousands of young men and women have pleasant childhood memories of going to the woods with parents, uncles, or grandparents to learn about the rich tradition of deer hunting.
Deer remain one of the most popular game animals in the United States.
The tradition sustains previous generations of Americans and provides a chance to connect with our ancestral roots.
Deer hunting encompasses a huge range of skills. Each skill warrants a separate article.
In this article, we hope to impart many years of experience, with what we have learned from successful hunts and also being humbled by these remarkable animals.
We will provide information on some of the more important aspects of how to hunt deer. Then we will give details on the aspects where both the beginner and the experienced hunter can benefit.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, where Trek Warrior makes a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Deer Hunting Basics
Two of the major species of deer in the United States include the Whitetail and Mule deer.
From these two species, there are also subspecies such as Black Tailed deer and Coues deer. All of these are highly prized game.
While these different species and sub-species of deer can be localized to certain geographical regions of the country, deer are distributed throughout the contiguous 48 states, Alaska, and Hawaii.
Though at times these deer might seem ghostlike in their elusiveness, deer populations remain relatively stable throughout the last 100 years. The population has increased in some areas.
While there are definitely similarities in equipment and hunting strategies that reach across all of these deer species and subspecies, some differences also exist.
We would love to cover every aspect of each species, but it would make this a very long article.
Instead, we are going to keep the tips and strategies in this article specific to whitetail deer hunting. This is the most heavily hunted deer species in the United States.
Most of the tips in this article are universal and part of deer hunting 101.
The topic of deer behavior contains a deep reservoir of knowledge. For some behaviors, we have only hypotheses of why deer act the way they do.
While deer can be found throughout the day, they feed most actively at night, in the early morning and in the late afternoon.
As far as the home range, it appears that the quality of land and food sources is the biggest contributing factor.
If cover and food are plentiful, then many deer stay within one to three miles. If food is scarce in the area, deer travel further distances to reach the type of food needed for survival.
For the most part, hunters track deer to know where deer are, what their travel lanes are, and when and where they are feeding.
The biggest driver of deer behavior is finding the correct type of food source to complement the needs of the deer throughout the year. Factors such as weather alter their daily routine.
With practice and a lifetime of experience, hunters sharpen their skills to predict deer behavior. Hunters must put themselves at the right place at the right time.
The period of deer mating, commonly referred to as the rut, provides the most drastic change in deer behavior throughout the year. Bucks disperse from bachelor groups and fight for dominance. They seek does that are ready for mating.
During this period, deer will be active throughout the day. Bucks can travel for miles looking for and chasing does.
Deer’s keen vision allows them to spot you moving. They hear and smell you long before you come into their visual range.
Because of this, hunting involves a high level of woodsmanship, understanding of deer movements, and attention to wind direction and even weather patterns. Do not let hunting shows fool you.
Experience comes with its own hard knocks and learning curve.
However, it is well worth the small disappointments along the way.
For most of the hunting season, deer travel in small herds. This is both beneficial and challenging for the hunter.
It makes finding and mapping deer movement much easier.
However, at the same time, each extra deer in your vicinity increases the chances of the herd spotting, hearing, or catching your scent.
Even without factoring in the deer, weather fluctuates wildly within a single deer season. Rough terrain, heat, bitter cold, and driving rain or snow are all environmental conditions you will likely encounter during the season.
Because of this, it is critical that you have the proper gear to keep you out in the woods.
Deer Hunting Gear
We will briefly touch on some tips for success and some mistakes to avoid when using a bow, muzzleloader, and rifle.
The most important tip is to have hours of practice on the range with your weapon of choice before attempting a shot in the field.
Many hunters make the mistake of setting their draw weight too high on their compound bow. They want as much power and distance as they can get.
However, you also need to be able to draw the bow with minimal movement and effort. While hunters have the skill to make longer bow shots, the majority of us want to stay within 50 yards. This distance does not require 100 pounds of draw pressure.
Another common mistake made by bow hunters is failing to practice the type of shots they are going to be taking. Most will practice shots straight on and at broadside.
While this is great for sighting in your bow, it does not replicate the angled shots taken in the woods, especially if you are using a stand.
You also want to get good performing broadheads. You can find a nice round up of them over at Dead Bulls Eye.
Front-stuffers are another excellent option for hunting enthusiasts. These give you a bit more range early in the season before rifle season opens.
Muzzleloaders today along with powder pellets and better-designed bullets give ranges up to 150 yards with ease.
Where many novice hunters make mistakes is matching the proper bullet design and pellet loads to the situation.
Playing around with bullet weights and powder loads on the range lets you match your loadout with hunting situations in the field. This increases your chances at dropping deer.
With some experience on the range, you gain more distance, flatter trajectory, and more stopping power.
For rifles, numerous chamberings are more than capable of taking down deer humanely. There are several key components to selecting the right deer rifle. Let's look at some of the key points next.
- Match your rifle with the terrain and shot distance.
- Do you have a preference for certain actions? If not, handle as many as you can to get a feel for what you are comfortable with.
- Go light as possible without sacrificing accuracy and lighter recoil.
- Whatever you pick, become familiar and comfortable with shooting it before heading into the field.
For each caliber, there is another set of options on bullet design, bullet weights, and powder loads. Many hunters eventually turn to hand loading their spent cartridges. This opens up another range of options regarding your cartridge.
What we are trying to get at is that there is no one best caliber for hunting deer. You need to take into account your experience, the recoil, the distance of the shots you will be taking, and the terrain you are hunting.
Some of the more popular whitetail calibers include the .243, .270, .30-30, 6.5 Creedmore, 7mm-08, .308, and .30-06.
Some of these calibers perform similarly when looking at ballistic performance while others are better suited for longer range shooting or more knockdown power.
The rule of thumb is that you want the energy of the bullet to be above 1,000 foot pounds when it hits the deer in the right area.
Since most hunters take deer within 300 yards, we put together a ballistics table of the top cartridges out there and their energy on target at 300 yards. The energy will be greater for ranges less than 300 yards, naturally.
300 Yard - Cartridge Comparison - Federal Fusion Ammo
300 Yard - Energy (ft-lb)
30-06 Springfield - 165 gr
270 Win - 150 gr
308 Win - 165 gr
6.5 Creedmoor - 140 gr
7mm-08 Rem - 140 gr
243 Win - 95 gr
30-30 Win - 170 gr
223 Rem - 62 gr
Note that both the 30-30 and the 223 fail to deliver enough energy at 300 yards. On shorter ranges, they may be enough, but you should check your ballistics if you use these.
For the others, we do not think one is better than the other. However, each caliber fills certain niches better than the others do.
If you just want a simple solution for your rifle, the Remington 783 is a great choice in one of the calibers mentioned above that deliver over 1,000 ft-lb of energy for your desired range.
Proper clothing for hunting includes much more than just the quality of camouflage. The type of material and how you wear it can be the deciding factor between a successful or a ruined hunt.
Deer season encompasses a wide range of environmental conditions, with some areas showing a lot more fluctuation in weather types than others.
Deer hunters experience weather conditions from muggy and hot during fall hunts to near zero temperatures in the winter. As you can imagine, this calls for several pieces of hunting gear to hunt the entire season successfully.
For the early season hunts, you might only need one or two layers. In some states, you might even go with a single layer including just shorts and a t-shirt.
For hunts where temperatures are going to be hitting the upper 80's and 90's, camo shorts and a t-shirt with a bug suit is a great option. If you do not like mesh, some pants and long sleeve clothing options are highly breathable and insect proof.
We like a good scent controlling base layer that wicks moisture effectively. Many synthetic materials are suitable for hot weather hunting.
Pair these layers with a merino wool second layer for cooler morning hunts. This combination keeps you comfortable throughout the day.
Colder weather is a little easier to prepare for as you can always add more layers. Still, there is an art to layering correctly and efficiently. Keep in mind when layering that you do not want to restrict your movement.
Merino wool is one of our favorite cold weather materials for base and mid layers. Not only is it a great insulator, but it does a great job of wicking of moisture and drying quickly.
Polyester base layers are also an option for wicking properties. They are not great insulators compared to other materials. In addition, polyester items are more difficult to clean.
The number of layers needed depends on the temperature and your activity level. One important layering tip is to always layer from the base to the outer layer with increasing thickness and thermal properties. Wool and fleece also make great cold weather layers.
Finally, think about an outer shell layer that blocks the wind and provides a good layer of protection from rain and snow. Gore-Tex is probably one of the best outer shell materials, but it can get a little pricey.
Besides your bow or rifle, your boots might be one of the most important pieces of gear in your inventory. Boots are especially important if you are working backcountry on public land where you might be putting many miles in each hunt.
Match your boots with the terrain and the weather. Nothing can end a hunt quicker than cold, wet feet or a sprained ankle.
If you hunt swampy areas, waterproof or water resistant boots are a necessity.
Rough terrain calls for insulated, breathable boots with high ankle support.
We recommend the Irish Setter Deer Tracker Boots, which meet all of the requirements.
Regardless of the type of boots you go with, always break them in a bit before taking them out into the field. It takes a few miles to work the new out. You want your shoes to conform comfortably to your foot.
Don't forget to get some thick wool socks to prevent blisters. We recommend the Darn Tough Hunter Socks, which perform extremely well.
Other Useful Accessories
The hunting industry is doing very well with a plethora of equipment available. Some items are more useful than others are. In fact, some are just downright gimmicks.
When you have the budget, these items will provide you even more of an advantage in the field. We will look at them next.
Light, light, and light. No longer are the days of dragging a 50-pound piece of equipment with you. Now, great tree stand options can be hauled into the field with no problem. They can give you incredible safety, stability, and movement.
If you are hunting in heavy brush or thickly wooded areas, there is no need to splurge on a high-powered variable scope.
Match your magnification with the type of shots you will be taking. It is hard to beat a 3‑9x variable scope for Whitetail hunting.
3-9x will get you a nice shot within 300 yards.
Before buying, be sure the scope is purged, sealed, and has treated lenses.
We recommend the Nikon Prostaff 3-9x40 as a great budget scope that will meet all of your needs. If you want a bit more quality and have the budget, check out the Leupold VX-2 3-9x40 scope.
Attractants And Masking Scent
There are tons of scent masking products from sprays to detergents to deodorants. You can also get several options for deer attractants and scent maskers.
There are also recipes to make your homemade masking scent if you want to go that route.
As you progress in your pursuit of North American deer, you will eventually gather quite a large assortment of gear.
A durable backpack is the most efficient way to haul your gear in and out of the woods.
For backcountry hunts, a true hunting backpack is essential for packing out meat efficiently.
We recommend the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander & Pack Bag as a great solution for a backpack.
There are tons of options available when it comes to deer calls.
Most of the well-known hunting equipment manufacturers have their line of calls and rattles.
Two important points are to be sure you are hearing natural sounds.
Then, you need to practice before heading out into the field to mimic them.
A great option is the Illusion Extinguisher Deer Call, which comes with an instructional dvd.
Trail cams can be an invaluable tool for scouting.
Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. The top end trail cam can be expensive.
They can also change the game when it comes to understanding the deer you are chasing.
We recommend the Maxful trail cam as a great performer for a great price.
Deer Hunting Tips
Locating Deer Habitat
Like any living creature, deer need food, water, and shelter.
Deer are herbivores and ruminants and have the ability to feed on and digest a wide range of food sources. While deer will feed on grasses when other food sources are limited, it is not their first choice.
Deer will key in on leaves and twigs of woody plants such as greenbriers, dogwoods, white cedars, and maples. Deer also feed on forbs.
Another favorite food of deer is mast, such as fruits, nuts, and mushrooms. Deer also key in on certain agricultural plants such as corn, soybeans, alfalfa, sorghum, clover, and wheat. These winter plants are critical to deer in the late season.
Water is also an important factor when locating deer habitat. There does not necessarily have to be a cold, clear flowing stream through the woods. While deer would welcome that source of water, just about any water source will do.
Streams are excellent sources as well as larger rivers, ponds, and lakes. Even low spots or dried creek beds that hold water after large rains is enough to sustain deer.
Deer also need shelter that protects them from the elements as well as predators. Dense vegetation and timber provide cover and prime bedding areas for deer during the daylight hours.
Also, look for hills or other pieces of land that have distinct changes in elevation and allow for deer to bed out of the wind and away from or in the sun depending on the season.
To go from getting lucky to actively increasing your chances of killing a deer, locating fresh signs of deer activity is necessary. There are several signs, other than actually seeing deer, that help you pinpoint where deer are ranging.
When looking for deer signs, go ahead and mark these signs on your map. Give yourself a head start on mapping out their movements.
The most efficient way to locate deer sign is to use your topographical map or Google Earth. These are excellent for locating hot deer locations.
These include water sources, hollers, saddles in ridges, benches, power lines, logging roads, field edges, and points leading from higher to lower terrain. Drainage ditches or other dips in elevation running through fields are also deer corridors.
One of the first signs of deer is scat and tracks. Deer are hooved animals with easily recognizable tracks. Bucks have larger prints with the two hoof marks spaced widely apart. A doe's hoof marks are directly beside each other.
Deer droppings are also easy to identify. The consistency can change based on their diet. This helps you pinpoint what they are eating.
Deer may leave oval shaped pellets found in a tight pile, which kind of look like coffee beans. These pellets are similar to rabbit droppings, but there should be more of it. The pellets have a much tighter cluster.
Fresh droppings are going to be dark and still moist while older droppings will take on a lighter tan coloring.
Scrapes & Rubs
Two other signs you should look out for include scrapes and rubs. Finding these two signs and being able to read them will give you a good indication of the maturity of the bucks that are making them.
Scrapes are made when bucks turn over leaves and dirt. These are usually found beneath a low hanging tree. They deposit their scent in this area to mark it as their territory. They also provide you with a sure sign of deer activity in the area.
Rubs are another method for bucks to mark their presence and territory. They will rub their head and antlers on trees to work out some aggression, build muscle, and shed the summer velvet.
Rubs are found on younger trees, but larger bucks will scrape larger trees. Rubs are easy to identify with most occurring two to three feet above the base of the tree.
You will see where the bark is removed down to the phloem. The height of the scrapes can also give you an indication of the size of the deer.
You might also run across beds that look like small clearings—about 3 to 4 feet by 2 feet. If you run across a fresh bed, mark it on your map and try to stay away from this area except for certain situations (which we will cover later).
Being around deer bedding areas too much causes them to move.
Mapping Deer Movement
Once you have located prime deer habitat, your next step is to begin scouting to understand where deer are bedding, where they are feeding, and where travel lanes are located.
Mapping Travel Lanes and Times
To help track deer feeding times, one of the best pieces of advice that we can give you is to get a topographical map of the area you are hunting.
Another option is to use Google Maps and print out the satellite image of the area. Armed with good maps and intensive scouting, you can lay out almost exactly what the deer are doing.
Look first for natural travel lanes and hangout spots such as hollers, creek beds, benches, fencerows, wood clearings, logging roads, and power line clearings.
These are areas where deer travel heavily and give you a higher chance of finding signs and tracking deer.
Some good mapping and planning keep you from walking aimlessly in the woods.
Follow these paths and mark additional signs that you see along these routes.
If you know where the possible food sources are, follow the signs towards the food source.
Some good advice while you are tracking where deer are moving is to identify funnels or pinch points along the way. These are some of the best areas to hang a stand because deer will use them rather than take harder routes.
One of our favorite funnels is a shallow shoal along a river or a wide creek. Drainage ditches through fields, small paths through rock outcroppings, and small tracts of woods between open fields are all great funnels.
If you have the means, trail cams are invaluable. They give you an idea of what times deer are in the areas you have scouted out. You also see what the deer look like.
So, to recap, look at known deer travel corridors, follow signs towards known food sources, identify pinch points, and keep a detailed record on your map. Successful hunting begins and ends with proper scouting.
The Environment and Deer Movement
There is probably a scientific correlation between deer movement and the lunar phases.
However, our best guess is that more light, cool temperatures, and less hunting pressure make it a prime feeding time. Mornings after new moons or crescents often have higher deer activity than mornings after full or gibbous phases.
Does this mean you should not put yourself in the woods during these periods? Of course not! The deer are still out there. The more time you put in, the higher the chance of you putting yourself in a position to take one.
Temperature affects deer activity. Like any warm-blooded animal, extreme temperatures on either end of the spectrum slows deer down significantly.
Of course, the area of the country where you are hunting dictates what is considered extreme temperatures for the hunters and the deer.
We have also seen high winds keep deer bedded down. We are talking about winds hitting 25+ miles per hour. With winds less than that speed, the deer should still be up and moving.
Again, we are not saying there is no chance of taking a deer in these conditions, but they do not seem to be as active.
Practice Makes Perfect
If you have done your homework and have a good idea of where deer are and when they show up there, then your next step is to be as efficient as possible at getting into this area without alerting the deer to your presence.
This often means sneaking into your blind or stand before sunrise.
However, that alone does not always mean you are in the clear.
If you can put thick timber or a rise between your stand and where deer are going to be coming from, you increase your chances of getting in unnoticed.
If you bump deer enough times trying to get to your stand, those deer are going to begin finding new routes to and from their bedding and feeding areas.
Woodsmanship is a component of hunting that is near impossible to convey to you through an article.
For a hunter to become efficient at quietly maneuvering through the woods, reading the signs, reading the weather, and then compiling all of that information into a game plan takes experience.
Many mistakes will come with it. Do not sweat it though. Learn from it and continue to learn from your first through your thousandth hunt.
In addition, marksmanship is important to successful hunting. Be sure you have sighted everything in and can place shots at all distances where you might have to cover in the field.
Spending several hours and several cases of ammo at the range is going to save you a lot of grief in the field. It will also give you a lot more confidence when a deer is in your crosshairs.
Hunting Strategies - Phase to Phase
The first few weeks of the season—starting around the middle to end of September—is reserved for archery. This requires getting in close to the deer. During this season, deer are hitting feeding areas extremely hard.
We do not recommend ambushing deer at their feeding areas just yet. Doing this might bump them to other sources and even different pieces of land where you might not have access.
Large fields are not a problem but stay away from small food plots until late in the season when you still have a tag left.
Remember all the deer movement mapping you did previously? Now is the time to utilize that information. Set up a stand or blind along those travel routes heading out to feeding areas.
Some of the ideal places are funnel points. It is all about feeding now. We recommend hitting them during their travels from the bed to the feeding area and back.
The best hunting times are the first few hours after dawn and the last few hours of the day. This is especially true in areas of the country that might still be experiencing pretty hot and humid weather.
Be prepared to track and clean deer in the dark as many shots during this phase are going to be in the first and last hours of daylight.
The Pre-rut bleeds over from early season. Many of the tactics from early season apply here as well.
During this time, we like to utilize scents and rattles. Unlike the full rut, we lean more towards buck smells rather than doe estrous. We think these do a great job of bringing in mature bucks who think some young gun is trampling on their territory.
Whether deer seek to align themselves in the pecking order or are just curious, scents, rattles, and calls start to be effective at bringing in deer.
Using a drag or hanging scent is a great tactic during this phase. We also think this is the best opportunity for some rattling.
If you have trail cam photos or signs of a mature buck in the area, rattling in his perceived territory brings him into your position hot and ready to brawl. It gives very exhilarating encounters with deer.
Deer are still using many of the same travel lanes from the early season while gearing up for the rut. Pre-rut is a good time to start locking down which travel lanes bucks use to check up on groups of doe.
These might be different from the routes they were using to get to food. This is often downwind of doe herds. Do not get stuck in between the two. Look at areas where you found evidence of scrapes and rubs and work some of those areas.
Deer rut is the most coveted period of hunting around the country. When you hit it right, the deer activity is high. They are often blinded to your presence.
The rut is one of the best periods to utilize doe estrous deer scents. During this period, grunting can be highly effective. The early season and pre-rut strategies can be thrown out the door.
Unlike other phases we have discussed, if you can get in the woods during the peak of the rut, you have a shot at taking deer throughout the entire day.
While travel lanes are still important, knowing which areas bucks are patrolling and where does are bedding is key to rut success.
Not all does begin their first estrous cycle at the same time.
You need to be observant of doe behavior to find groups that are ready to mate. Hotheaded bucks will be in the immediate vicinity.
When mating has occurred, deer bed down and hold to cover tightly for the next two to three days. You might find yourself in the same woods where deer activity was high the day before. Now, it seems like all of the deer have moved off to some other tract of land.
We mentioned that not all does begin their estrous cycle at the same time, but it is tightly grouped. Because of this, there might be some dead time during the rut. The rut can be unpredictable with regard to deer movement and behavior.
However, there is still the chance of a deer crossing by your stand in these periods. If you still have several tags to fill and need some meat in the freezer, getting in bed with the deer is your best bet when it seems the action has died down.
This is where having an idea of deer bedding areas is important information.
There is no clear point of transition from one part of the season to another. All of these sections bleed over into one another. The transition from rut to post-rut is the most evident.
While the majority of does will begin their estrous cycle around the same period, do not be surprised to find some mating happening a week or two after the main round.
Often, if a doe has not been bred, they are likely to go through a second estrous cycle. This sends bucks back into a frenzy. So do not put away your scents just yet.
Do not head back to deer camp to get an early lunch. Sticking it out through the afternoon is a good chance to put you into some late rut action.
During this time, additional scouting is a good idea, as food sources and bedding places will have changed. As you did for the early season, nailing down movement times and feeding areas gives you a much higher chance of crossing paths with deer.
This scouting is going to be critical for being successful as deer are adjusting to hunting pressures. They are also actively seeking food for before the brunt of winter rolls on in.
Outside of human interference, this is one of the most dangerous times for the deer. The bucks have spent a tremendous amount of energy during the mating season. Deer will turn back to feeding on anything they can find.
If you are hunting on land that receives a good deal of pressure, the deer can be extremely skittish and will often become very wary of hunting pressure.
With some careful scouting, woodsmanship, and proper stand placement, this is a great time to harvest deer before the season closes for the year.
In most areas of the country, deer will be seeking high energy food sources constantly while they are off bed. Since the food supply is now limited, this makes the late season a great opportunity to hunt.
If you can lock down where deer are feeding and how they are getting there, you can just about set your clock to their movements.
Two main strategies are very useful during the late season. Both of these strategies may yield filled tags and filled freezers before the end of the season.
The first is to hunt large sources of foods if they are available. Standing winter crops are an excellent choice along with areas of woods that have heavy mast production such as chestnuts and acorns.
Another good spot is near alfalfa or winter wheat. Deer will move miles a day to get to these types of food.
The second option is highly aggressive and runs the risk of bumping deer. This option involves getting in close to bedding areas and thick vegetation where the deer are holding.
While this can be effective, you have to have superb woodsmanship and have a firm grasp of the land area. Anything less and you are going to bump deer. This option might be saved for the last few days of the season when you are desperate to fill your tag.
After the Harvest
Don't forget the deer meat.
One of the most rewarding experiences of taking a deer is completing the process of harvesting the meat. While it can be a time-consuming process, there is a deep sense of satisfaction when you can fill the freezer with hard-earned meat.
It also has other benefits such as having full control of the type of cuts you want, the portion size, and the security of knowing it is your meat. You will need to learn or already know how to clean and process a deer. We will outline some of the key tips next.
- Field dress the deer as soon as possible!
- As often as you can, cut up on the deer when opening the animal and when removing the hide. This aids in keeping hair off the meat. Removing hair before processing and packing is often a problem.
- If possible, remove the inside tenderloin and get it cleaned and in a bag as soon as possible. It tends to dry out quickly.
- Use a good bone saw to get through the sternum.
- Do not neglect the heart. It is a wonderful piece of meat. When prepared well, this may turn into your favorite muscle of the deer. We are not kidding. Just try it!
A good skinning knife will make all the difference in the world when cleaning and processing your deer.
If you do not have a knife that is up to the task, then check out the Buck 110 or the Buck 119, which are awesome options.
The Buck 110 has been a long standing favorite among deer hunters everywhere.
It is a folder, which will be a lot more convenient to carry on you as you make your way through terrain.
Deer hunting is a worthwhile pursuit.
We believe that hunting in general, is more than a chance of pitting yourself against the wilderness and an animal that at most opportunities will put the moves on you.
It is an opportunity to take yourself to a place where our ancestors stood decades before us hunting the same game.
It draws you closer to the land around you and gives you such a unique and different perspective of what the land and these animals represent.
Hunting is a fraternity of men and women who share tight bonds with each other and the wildlife. It is without a doubt a worthwhile pursuit.
And when you want even more of a challenge, consider checking out elk hunting.
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