Remote areas frequently contain low densities of hunters. Deer populations, though smaller, usually have a better buck-to-doe ratio and more mature bucks than heavily-hunted areas. I felt a sense of relief and a surge of excitement as my flashlight beam finally settled on the spot from which I hoped to shoot a whitetail buck. It was opening day of the firearms deer season. The hike had been a long one in the dark.
My stand was more than a mile from where I parked the car. The effort would be worth it, however, because there would be few, if any, other deer hunters back this far. But there were deer. After setting my rifle and back pack aside, I sat on a boat cushion put there several days before, and leaned back against the roots of a downed tree.
A half-hour remained before it would be light enough to see. I was on schedule. Then I thought about the other deer hunters who would be in the area that day, but closer to the roads. Some were probably just getting out of bed. Others were eating breakfast, and still more, no doubt, were driving to where they would park their cars. Most of them wouldn’t enter the woods until it became light enough to see.
During the course of the day, I probably wouldn’t see any of them, but perhaps one or more of them would unknowingly help me get a deer. I wouldn’t have to rely solely on someone else chasing a buck to me, however. My stand had been carefully chosen. It overlooked a runway marked by several scrapes, a rutting buck’s calling cards. That doubled my chances of scoring. Those are the advantages of getting away from the crowds when hunting for woodland whitetails. The deer try to do the same thing and often run into me or a member of my party in the process. Or, it is possible to intercept a buck on a daily routine, undisturbed by the influx of redcoats close to roads. Our rate of success speaks for itself. In recent years, all of us filled our tags. I can’t recall a year when only one of our party scored.
We prefer to hunt whitetails away from most other deer hunters for several reasons. First and foremost, we like a little privacy. Being where other hunters are frequently in sight or passing by distracts from the quality of the experience. If we wanted to see people, we’d stay home or go to town rather than go deer hunting. We also feel a greater sense of security by being away from crowded areas.
Unfortunately, not all deer hunters are sportsmen, and some lack proper respect for handling firearms. The further we go from roads, the less chance of encountering these individuals. Additionally, few whitetails hang around for long in localities where hunter densities are high. At least not the older, wiser animals who survived a previous season or two. In locations where hunting pressure is consistently low, bucks also have a better chance of growing respectable racks. Like most individuals who hunt whitetails, we are satisfied to get a chance at any legal buck, but we try to improve our odds of seeing and bagging bucks with big racks.
We hunt deer in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but our techniques can be successfully used just about any place where tracts of unbroken woodlands exist. Here is how we operate. We usually begin preparations one or two months in advance of the deer season. However, there are advantages to beginning even sooner. Early spring (as soon as the snow melts) is a perfect time to get a jump on fall scouting because deer sign made the previous fall is usually still clearly visible. Every year we check out at least one unfamiliar area that looks promising. We search for a tract of public land, without any drive able roads penetrating it, at least one square mile in size. Hunters with access to private land with restricted hunter access can concentrate on smaller chunks of real estate. We also keep up with annual harvest reports and concentrate our efforts in counties with the highest deer populations. This information can be obtained from the Department of Natural Resources of Fish and Game Office in your state. In recent years, I’ve been shifting emphasis from woodlands with high deer densities towards counties that produce big-bodied, big-racked bucks.
Deer numbers are often low in these locations, but so are hunter numbers. For this reason, areas with low deer densities often offer the best opportunity to get away from other hunters while upping the odds of getting a crack at a trophy buck. Hunting such an area isn’t without its drawbacks, however. Hunters must be content with seeing fewer whitetails in such a setting. Possibly going some days without sighting any deer. When a deer is seen though, it’s more likely to be a buck because the buck-to-doe ratio usually approaches one-to-one where deer populations are low. Whichever circumstance hunters choose, the process of site selection, scouting and eventual choice of stand location remains the same.
To locate parcels of land for investigation, we consult county maps that show road less tracts of land and then scan plat books to determine the ownership of certain acreages. Keep in mind that most county maps won’t show logging roads constructed in recent years. Once we pinpoint an area, we plan a trip to scout the terrain. A variety of small game seasons are open in Michigan from mid-September through mid-November.
The firearms deer hunt begins November 15. We usually combine small game hunting with scouting. The same thing is possible, of course, to prepare for bow hunting. In fact, time spent in the field with bow and arrows helps prepare the two-season hunter for the firearms hunt.
Since we generally don’t have marked trails to follow, we use a compass to find our way around. On the initial visit, we get a feeling for the lay of the land, determine the type of cover present and try to pinpoint spots toward the interior where deer might head to once the shooting starts on opening day. These same spots often serve as favored haunts for the biggest bucks in the area. And not surprisingly, these spots usually are the thickest and roughest in the area. Past experience has taught us that what looks forbidding to a hunter is home-sweet-home to a buck interested in keeping his antlers intact. Separating an area into cover types often makes the scouting deer process easier.
Deer activity is often concentrated in certain spots, not uniform throughout. We look for these centers of activity and find that whitetails frequently travel along the edges that separate two different cover types. On the first visit we try to figure what the hunting pressure will be like. Before going in on foot, we drive around the perimeter, where possible (sometimes roads don’t traverse all sides), to see if there are any unmapped roads penetrating the area. If we find one, and it goes in very far, we go elsewhere.
Easy access usually means there will be plenty of company. While scouting a potential hunting area on foot, we look for signs of hunter activity such as blinds, trimmed shooting lanes and discarded cans or bottles, in addition to deer sign. If evidence of hunter pressure is concentrated near access points, we’re all set. We always avoid locations where other blinds have been constructed. Ideally, we like to find features along the borders of an area we hope to hunt that discourage other deer hunters from entering.
Rugged terrain or a thick marsh or swamp usually has that effect, and so does private property. These features decrease the likelihood of heavy hunting pressure to some extent. We don’t mind the extra effort required to reach a spot, because it increases the odds that we and the deer will have it to ourselves. We located such a spot a number of years ago. A half-mile-wide marsh surrounded a tract of upland terrain containing evergreen swamps and stands of beech trees mixed with other hardwoods. The marsh was so wet we had to wear chest waders to cross it.
After reaching dry ground, we stashed the waders until the end of the day and the return trip. We didn’t see another soul on that parcel of land the entire season! For our efforts we got a spike-horn and six-point bucks. I’m sure bigger, older bucks lived in the vicinity, based on the sign, but they eluded us. As we check out the terrain in a promising tract of land, we keep our eyes peeled for well-traveled run ways, possible feeding or bedding grounds or anything that might tell us something about the deer patterns in that locality. What we see is committed to memory, but we don’t get serious about this and the movements of the deer until a later date. From experience, we’ve found that whitetails can change their habits in the span of a month, and some most certainly do after opening day of the firearms season.
We usually have several areas in mind by early November, then start the process of elimination to single out what we feel will be the best location. We tour each area, looking for buck scrapes and rubs, and we concentrate our search around the more remote reaches of dense cover or rough terrain located earlier. We can usually tell what runways the deer are using and, in certain cases, how big a rack a buck is carrying. The diameter of trees which a buck rubs with his antlers can indicate the size of his rack, especially if it is wide.
When bucks polish their racks, they usually get the tree or sapling between both beams. Brow tines out the middle of the trunk and main beams rake against the sides. Normally, rubbed trees are saplings no more than a few inches across. However, big-racked bucks often use full-fledged trees. If you locate scarred trees up to a foot across, you can bet the animal that did the job is worth trying for. One fall I located buck scrapes and a series of abnormally large trees that had been rubbed. I knew the buck that made them had to be a dandy, so I chose a stand in that locality. The second evening of the season he showed himself and I got him. To date, that is one of the best white-tailed bucks I’ve collected, and certainly the best as far as antler width. The rack carried eight points and the inside spread of the beams measured about twenty inches.
The final choice of stands depends upon where I find the most encouraging buck signs. While we look at both scrapes and rubs, I always locate near scrapes. That way I know we are in the ballpark of at least one buck. I might add at this point that while I concentrate on hunting away from roads, if I find a promising spot close to a woods road where there is no evidence of other hunter interest, I will hunt there. There is little likelihood the animals we home in on will be disturbed enough to change their movement patterns once the season opens, since they live far away from roads and most other hunters. In addition, the remote setting attracts other bucks pushed out of their normal haunts by the opening day influx of hunters in easy-to-reach locations.
Since we normally hunt in or on the edge of heavy cover, a spot to sit often lies within thirty to fifty yards of where we expect a buck to show. I simply look for a large tree trunk or stump (downwind) that will break our outline and serve as a backrest, perhaps with some natural cover around. On the other hand, you could build a blind, and there are advantages to having a blind constructed far enough ahead of the season that deer get used to.
Hunters in blinds can often move more freely without the risk of being seen by deer. We also remove dead leaves from the ground around our stands to avoid the possibility of making noise as we stand up or shift our feet. Any dead limbs and branches that obstruct our view or might be in the way also are eliminated.
A number of years ago, I learned the hard way about the benefit of clearing away twigs on all sides. I was sitting with his back against a stump late in the morning when I heard what I thought was another hunter walking behind me. When I peeked around the stump, there stood a beautiful ten-point buck. I slowly raised his rifle and swung around to face the deer, but as I shouldered the gun, the barrel hit a twig and snapped it off. The buck fled before I could get a shot. We can usually find our stands without the aid of a compass during the daylight hours, but finding our stands in the dark is another story. In the past, we wasted valuable time stumbling around in the dark when getting off course.
We overcame that problem by marking trails to our stands using red or orange flagging over the last 100 to 300 yards, where going is usually the roughest. Blaze marks are sometimes cut on trees, too, and the white inner wood often shows up better in a flashlight beam. We carry many of the heavy clothes necessary for sitting comfortably during cold weather in backpacks. This reduces overheating on the hike to our stands. Heavy clothing is donned once we reach our destination. We carry lunches with us, too, so we can hunt all day. We like to be in position fifteen to thirty minutes before first light.
This gives us a short time to relax before fully dressing and any commotion we create is usually forgotten by daylight, if any game was disturbed. If we position ourselves properly, we frequently get a chance at a buck the first few hours in the morning. The day I sat against the roots of that downed tree was no exception. First a doe and her youngster went by no more than thirty feet away. Ten minutes later a single whitetail approached from the direction they had gone. Just as it was about to enter a small opening twenty yards in front of me it stopped. That’s when I saw antlers!
My grip tightened on the rifle. The barrel was already pointing to where I expected the buck to step out. He moved forward and I added pressure to the trigger. At the shot, the whitetail flinched, but instead of going down he came right toward me and passed no more than ten feet away! Without aiming, I leveled the rifle at his shoulder, extended it toward him. I saw hair puff up as my .30-06 slug entered. The buck never broke stride. I sat there in disbelief as he continued running.
Finally, another twenty yards further, he collapsed. His rack carried six points. I suspect that part of the reason that buck stayed on his feet so long was adrenaline he had pumping from having been jumped by another hunter. Of course, not all the stands we select produce. Sometimes we see only does, or a buck gets away and doesn’t return. Two days is usually the maximum any of us sticks with a spot without scoring. One or more of us often bags a deer by then. Those with unfilled tags have the option to take over the successful stand, stay put or move to a new area.
The same stand sometimes accounts for two bucks during the same season. After one or two of our party score, they spend most of their time moving around, either tracking deer, making informal drives or checking out unfamiliar patches of cover. This keeps some deer moving, increasing the chances that members of the party with unfiled tags will see action. Additionally, the roving hunters become more familiar with the territory and, on occasion, stumble onto a spot that might make a good stand for next year. That’s precisely how I located the spot where I shot the wide-racked eight-pointer mentioned earlier.
My tag was already filled and there was snow on the ground, so I started following deer tracks in the hopes of moving some animals past my partners. The whitetails I followed led me to a patch of high ground surrounded by heavy swamp, and there was plenty of buck sign on that patch of ground. I blazed a trail through the swamp to the hot spot and hunted there the next year.
The further away from a road we hunt, the further we have to transport deer. We used to drag them, and sometimes still do, if the distance involved is reasonable. However, for the longest hauls, we either cut the carcass into pieces for carrying on pack frames or drag carcasses to a nearby river and haul them out in a canoe. Whenever carrying deer on pack frames, the hide and antlers are covered with bright orange material to avoid being mistaken for a live deer. Getting away from the crowds to hunt whitetails can be a lot of work, but can be rewarding and fun, too. If you like to be where the deer are and other hunters aren’t, as we do, the technique is worth a try.