More often than not, whitetail hunters head home empty-handed—and that’s not surprising. Every day, deer cope with the possibility of being preyed upon, making them extremely elusive. And because of their acute senses, which far exceed our own humble faculties, the tiniest mistake can quickly put an end to a hunt. With that in mind, here are 10 all too common oversights that are sure to result in failure. Learn to avoid them, however, and your chances of bringing home a big buck are bound to improve.
1. Get Caught Up Wind
Nothing gets past a deer’s nose. If you’re hunting with the wind blowing from you to the deer, or if the wind direction changes and puts you upwind, you might as well be competing in Canadian Idol—unless you’re a closet singing sensation, your odds will be just as slim. And it’s easy to forget about scent. Sure you notice obvious odours, but you simply don’t realize how much you smell like a human being when you’re in the bush. You may think you’re scent-free, but to any downwind wild critter—save a skunk—you smell big and bad.
Only hunt from stands downwind of where you expect the deer to emerge. As you head out to your stand, check the wind direction by holding up a piece of thread or, if it’s cool enough, watch your breath. I always make sure to have at least two stand options wherever I hunt—essentially on opposite sides of where I hope to see deer. That way, no matter which direction the breeze is blowing, one of the treestands should be in an ideal location. Remember, if there’s one golden rule of deer hunting, it’s to never get caught upwind.
2. Eat Smelly Food
Whether it’s the day before or the morning of your hunt, avoid eating food seasoned with garlic, curry, hot sauces or the like. Their strong smells have a way of clinging to the body, making it all the harder to avoid being detected by your quarry. Even when considerable effort is put into reducing your human odour—by using scent-free shampoos and soaps, and washing hunting attire in fragrance-free detergent—the smell of strong food can still seep from your pores.
Obviously you’ll need to avoid eating such spicy foods before and during your hunt. Just as important, keep your hunting clothes away from cooking areas. For example, avoid wearing them into camp for breakfast if bacon and eggs are on the stove. It takes a little extra effort, but I keep my hunting clothes in the truck when I’m at camp. And at home, I keep them in the garage or shed, well away from human food smells. Considering how much time and effort you put into deer season each fall (from pre-season planning to booking time off work), it only makes sense to do a little bit extra to keep such odours to a minimum.
3. Scout Too Much
I highly recommend pre-season scouting. Scout too much, though, and the deer will actually learn to pattern and avoid you. And if you’re regularly out in the bush, you’ll leave enough scent behind and cause enough of a disturbance to potentially force big bucks to move out of the area.
Avoid scouting or heading into the bush during the two weeks before deer season, and that includes visiting your stands. Instead, do your scouting in late winter and early- to midsummer. Late winter will reveal the late-season travel routes and bedding areas (as highlighted in the snow). Summer scouting, meanwhile, can usually provide actual sightings of deer when they feed during the early-morning and evening hours. This is especially true in farm country. The sign you find can also help you understand roughly how many deer are out there, as well as the size of the bucks. Make sure to wear scent-free (or scent-reduced) clothing, gloves and rubber boots that haven’t been worn to the gas station or anywhere else that may have left strange odours on them. All of this will help minimize leaving scent behind.
4. Use Different Gear
Many deer are missed when a hunter borrows someone else’s gun or bow and heads afield without first practising with it. It’s possible that your buddy eyes up the yardage pins through his bow’s peep sight differently than you would. Or the crosshairs on his gun may not be what you’re use to, causing your shot to be off a couple of inches. The same goes for a new gun or bow, or a firearm you haven’t fired in a while. Confidence in your firearm plays a considerable role in making a clean shot during that split second of adrenaline-charged, heart-pounding excitement.
Visit the target range before the season gets underway. Spend a few hours firing and sighting in, and generally getting acquainted with your firearm of choice—whether it’s new, borrowed or just out of storage.
5. Move Too Soon
It’s tempting to slowly raise your gun or bow when a deer has its eyes locked on you, but rare is the occasion the animal won’t spook and run off. The vast majority of the time, one movement is all it takes to make it vanish as though it was never there. And if the deer has turned to look at you because it’s downwind, your odds of getting off a shot are even lower: deer rarely linger if they’ve picked up human scent (see #1 on previous page).
Hold absolutely still when a deer is staring your way. Take silent breaths and try not to move a muscle. Wait it out. If the deer is looking in your direction because it heard you or caught a glimpse of movement, it may stay around long enough to look away momentarily before leaving. And if it does look away, that’s your opportunity for a shot—your only chance, in fact, unless the deer relaxes enough to resume what it was doing. In one fluid motion, raise your gun or bow, aim and fire.
6. Avoid the Rain
It used to be common practice at our hunt camp to head back to the cabin as soon as it started to drizzle. Who wants to sit out in the bush in the rain during hunting vacation, after all? Nowadays, though, I look forward to wet weather. Sure, calm, bluebird days are good for whitetail hunting, but if there’s one thing that I’ve learned about big-buck behaviour, it’s that they feel far more at ease sneaking around on rainy days than on clear, dry ones.
Don’t be a fair-weather hunter; head out on the wet, drizzly days of fall, too. Scent is significantly reduced on rainy days, as is sound. This diminishes two of the whitetail’s key defences, and I’m sure mature bucks have grown accustomed to the woods emptying of hunters once the rain starts. (If they can learn to pattern you and expect you in certain stands, then surely they know that hunters avoid the woods when the weather’s unpleasant.) Staying afield on foul-weather days is easy if you plan ahead and pack a rainjacket, poncho or portable camouflage umbrella that quickly mounts to a tree.
7. Use Calls Often
The bush is quiet, no deer seem to be in the vicinity and there’s a pair of rattling antlers lying by your feet. Time to make some noise? Perhaps, but making too much noise, or the wrong kind of noise, is far worse than making none at all. Calling can sometimes make deer suspicious, not to mention help them pinpoint your position—increasing the odds you’ll be busted as they circle downwind.
Using rattling antlers and grunt tubes to lure unsuspecting deer within range has become an effective tactic for whitetail hunters. But make sure you spend some time practising before opening day. I also recommend that you watch a few how-to videos on calling, complete with the sounds of different deer vocalizations and the smashing antlers of fighting bucks. Becoming familiar with these sounds is the first step in learning to mimic whitetails with calls. Remember, too, that deer—being the prey species they are—remain relatively quiet and don’t call a lot. That means you should also keep your calling to a minimum. For example, I only call once every half-hour or so. You only need to get the deer curious in order to lure them in your general direction.
8. Ignore the Weather
So you don’t pay much heed to the weather, other than to only head out when it’s sunny. Too bad—few natural events cause as dramatic a spike in deer movement as an incoming low-pressure system. When the weather changes from high-pressure sunny conditions to a low-pressure overcast day, animals increase their movement and feeding activity so they’re well fed and prepared for the foul weather. This is especially true just before it snows. Since the whitetail’s survival strategy for snowy conditions is to seek shelter and bed down, there’s always a push to feed as much as possible beforehand. And trust me, they have a built-in barometer—as soon as the air pressure starts to drop off, they feed much more actively.
Always watch your local weather forecasts and try to time your hunts so you’re afield as the barometer starts to drop. The hours leading up to foul weather are some of the best, as you’re almost guaranteed that the deer will be more mobile and visible.
9. Give Up Early
You’ve been on the stand for hours and have seen neither hide nor hair of a deer. And it’s raining. And you’re hungry. Time to pack it in? Maybe, but by not hanging tough and spending as many hours afield as possible, you dramatically limit your chances. And don’t just hunt the shoulder hours of the day. What if the big buck in your hunting area is more active in the early morning, for example, but you only hunt the evenings after work? Even some nocturnal bucks can often be seen at the crack of dawn sneaking back to their bedding areas.
You simply have to persevere. Persistence is one of the key factors when it comes to consistent success in deer hunting. The more hours you spend in the woods, the more animals you’ll see and the better your odds of taking home a deer. And this especially holds true for those hoping to harvest a trophy buck.
10. Rush Your Shot
Want to completely miss the mark? Or worse yet, wound a deer and lose it? Then rush your shot. But if you want to ensure a clean kill, don’t pull the trigger or release the arrow if there isn’t enough time to take an accurate shot. Just chalk it up as one that got away—or as the buck you’ll see again next fall when he’s even bigger.
Breathe—that’s the first thing I remind myself to do when I’m looking through the crosshairs at a nice buck. In short, I take my time. Patience and a well-timed shot is how every whitetail hunt should finish. After all, we should all respect these amazing animals enough to ensure a clean kill. Not only is it more respectful to harvest the animal cleanly and minimize the chance of wounding it, but a well-placed shot also means none of the meat will be lost or spoiled. And when it comes to filling the freezer, that’s all that counts.