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Deer Hunting Tips


Hunting from a tree-stand gives hunters several advantages. It places them above the forest floor, which deer continually eyeball as they move about. That means hunters can get away with more movement than they typically would on the ground. Being in a tree-stand also provides hunters a better, usually less obstructed view, giving them more time to get into the proper shooting position for the approaching deer. Tree-stands also tend to keep a hunter's scent well above the ground, allowing it to disperse more quickly and giving deer less opportunity to detect it. But tree-stands are not perfect. Let's look at some of the cons associated with them. First, they limit your movements to a platform once set-up, which can be bad news if you have the chance to sneak up on an approaching deer. Tree-stands are somewhat heavy to carry for people who walk considerable distances to reach their hunting areas. They're also an expensive piece of equipment, which makes them vulnerable to thieves if left in the woods. Tree-stands also increase your risk of having an accident in the woods, regardless of whether you're proficient using one, simply because you're hunting from an elevated position on a tree and climbing and descending on a manmade contraption. If you choose to use a tree-stand, consider these safety tips: Always use a safety harness or strap; never climb with a gun or bow (use a hoist rope); don't climb trees when they're wet or icy; don't climb dead trees; hunt on the ground on blustery days; and inspect your tree-stand regularly for worn or broken parts. One final note on tree-stands: They cannot be occupied or cause damage to trees unless you have the landowner's written permission. Breaking branches, or cutting through the bark into the cambium layer are tree damage.

The Rut

The rut consists of several phases extending over a three- to four-month period in Pennsylvania. It begins in September when bucks, still often in small groups, start playfully sparring with one another shortly after the velvet has been shed from their antlers. Bucks also make rubs at this time, more it seems as an energy release than to mark a territory. Sometimes they revisit these rubs, often they don't. Bucks usually split up in mid to late October and become interested in following or chasing does. Older bucks tend to start earlier than 1.5-year-olds. At this time bucks become less tolerant of one another. Scrapes begin to appear when bucks become interested in does. The larger and more active the scrape, the more likely it is that bucks will return to them. The height of the rut -- when the greatest number of does have come into heat or estrus -- is very short in duration. In Pennsylvania the peak of the rut usually occurs in mid November. But that may drift to a week earlier or later from year to year. If a doe in her estrus period, which lasts 24 hours, isn't bred, she'll come into heat again in 28 days. The rut continues into late December, sometimes early January.

Where Are the Deer?

The deer population's size in your hunting area influences how many deer you may see afield, but it isn't the only factor. There's no disputing that an area overrun with deer would probably provide hunters the most encounters. But that's not guaranteed. A hunter who sets up on a well-used natural food source in an area with few deer may see just as many whitetails as a person still-hunting in the rain on the last day of antlerless deer season on a property loaded with deer. Many of us measure the success of a hunt by how many deer we see. But in our assessment, we often make unfair comparisons of one hunting day to another. No two hunting days are alike because conditions change. And deer react to those changes in different ways. On the first day of the firearms deer season, more hunters are afield than at any other time. Hunting pressure is at its highest and consequently so is deer movement; the result is normally more hunter-deer encounters. It would be unfair to compare this day to the first day of the early muzzleloader season (fewer hunters, who are distributed differently), last year's firearms deer season opener, or any other day in our hunting seasons, but people do. Many factors influence how many deer we see. Some, like the size and distribution of local deer populations, rut activity and hunter pressure and distribution, are a given. But let's not forget that weather conditions -- fog, deep snow, rain, extremely cold temperatures -- and deer habitat conditions -- good escape cover, availability of mast and other foods, adequate shelter -- can also affect what we see afield. Considering these factors, individuals must occasionally change their hunting strategies to improve their chances of seeing deer. Finally, let's not forget that whitetails are cagey and elusive. Studies in Pennsylvania forests have shown people have difficulty finding them in fenced areas (from 10 acres to a square mile) even when they know deer are there. Deer have an innate ability to blend with their surroundings. Sometimes we don't give the animal enough credit.

Patience, Please!

One of the most important characteristics of a good deer hunter is patience. It's his drive, his source of inspiration, his ability to hang in there when others are ready to head home or start looking for deer in other areas. Patience is usually learned by most hunters, they're not blessed with it. And it comes from being successful, proving to yourself that sitting still -- even in the coldest weather, or rain, or for more than two hours -- often leads to seeing deer. Think about it. Unless you're an accomplished still hunter (one who slowly sneaks about), the moment you move, deer usually gain the advantage. Remember, you're sneaking around in their backyard, and deer are quick to notice things that don't belong, namely you. But if you can learn to sit still and remain quiet -- and it takes practice, deer are less prone to see you. Stake out areas where deer feed, travel ways between feeding and bedding areas, near scrapes and other places deer frequent. In the rifle seasons, especially on peak hunting days, it often pays to sit, because all those other hunters who can't sit in the cold will be out there moving deer for you. With some luck and proper positioning in escape cover, you can increase your chances.

How Can I Stay Warm While Hunting?

The secret to staying warm while hunting is dressing in layers of quality outdoor clothing. Wool, for years, was the standard in Pennsylvania. But it's heavy, and when it gets wet, it's even heavier. But unlike cotton, which losses its heating properties when wet, wool continues to retain your body's heat when wet. There are countless clothing items on the market today that can help you stay warmer on those windy, cold days. Cold-weather outer garments - coveralls, parka, jacket - should have a quality lining of goose down, Thinsulate, Thermolite, Thermoloft or Hollofil. A waterproof outer shell is very beneficial in wet or snowy weather. A warm hat is also important; 70 percent of body heat lost in cold weather goes through the head. Clothes should be comfortable, not tight-fitting; a cotton-polyester (50-50) blend holds body heat well. A hooded fleece or cotton sweatshirt will keep the wind off your neck. Wearing a turtleneck is also a plus. Long underwear and socks made of polypropylene, Thermax, Thermostat or silk serve hunters well in cold weather. Good gloves help ensure your fingers don't get stiff, if you don't keep your hands in your pockets. Footwear should meet your hunting style. The longer you sit while hunting, the higher rated the boots' heat-retention qualities should be. Hunters should flex their muscles frequently while on stand to keep their warmth-producing blood circulating. It's a good idea bring along a few hand-warmers for some instant heat. Eating breakfast will help your body produce heat, as will not smoking, not drinking alcoholic beverages the night before hunting and getting plenty of sleep. Candy bars, especially those containing peanuts or peanut-butter, are great source of heat-producing fuel while on stand.

Buck Like Thick Stuff!

Hunters have a habit of setting up to hunt deer from vantage points where they can see for a long ways in the woods. These places, particularly in the firearms season, tend to strike out, or provide hunters with passing shots at deer as they race across them. It's important to remember that deer -- bucks in particular -- are sneaky. Bucks prefer to travel where cover -- mountain laurel, saplings, evergreens, multiflora rose bushes -- masks their movements, even when hunting seasons are closed. They don't seem to be very comfortable in woods without an understory. So when hunters are in the woods, bucks are even more slippery. When the hunting pressure's on, buck are usually found in the thickest vegetation around, or in places where hunters or other people don't bother them. Through pre-season and, if necessary, in-season scouting, find those travelways or thicket sanctuaries bucks are using. Then set-up an ambush. And, don't feel like you have to go great distances off-the-beaten-track to find these places. Sometimes they're next to the place where hunter's park their cars, or in the hollow behind your house. Look for tracks, beds or rubs to determine if buck are using a location. One final note: Get out early in the morning to hunt these places. Bucks often move through or slip into them at daybreak or before.

The Spot

Some stationary hunters consistently take deer year after year. Usually it's because they have a spot where, over the years, they've learned deer go when hunters pressure them, or they've found a busy trail intersection or a place -- food source, sheltered area -- deer just naturally gravitate toward. They call such places hot-spots. To determine whether a location qualifies as a hot-spot takes many hunting seasons of observation. But once you know you're sitting on one, it's a great feeling. It usually means you'll be seeing deer afield for a long time to come. But bear in mind that hot-spots can, and do, go cold. Why this happens varies, but it can include changes in hunter distribution, deer uncovering your repeated presence, or changes in habitat, the deer population changes or land uses.

Do Hunting Gadgets Work?

There's no short cut to becoming a successful hunter. So long as you  know that, and if you've got the money to spend, then there's nothing wrong with experimenting with the latest gadgets manufacturers have developed to make hunting easier or more productive. Bear in mind, though, there's no substituting for hunting experience and time in the woods. More often than not, gadgets become unnecessary noisemakers, extra baggage to carry, deer chasers, or items you don't have time to use when deer are approaching. In addition, some gadgets sold in sporting goods stores and catalogs are illegal to use in Pennsylvania. If you feel like investing in hunting gear, consider buying: quality rainwear or other clothing, a backpack, optics and cutlery. A dependable flashlight is also a good investment. The secret to successful hunting, if there is one, is knowing where to go, when to be there and making your shot count. Your actions and marksmanship, more often than not, determine whether you'll be successful, not something you've bought in a store.

Getting in Shape and Shooting Straight

The week before your hunting begins is the wrong time to start getting into shape and practicing with your firearm or bow. Climbing mountains and trees, hiking for miles and dragging a harvested deer back to the truck are taxing feats for people in shape. And, if you're not, you may be increasing your risk of serious injury, even death. Get physically fit before hunting season. Your hunting will be more enjoyable and your family will have less concern to worry about you. Talk to your family doctor about what exercises would provide you the most benefit. Then do them! You also have a responsibility to ensure you're proficient with your sporting arm before season arrives. The only way to do that is through practice. When you practice, make sure you shoot from positions similar to those you'll be in while hunting. That may include shooting without a rest, sitting, around a tree or from a tree-stand. Preparation is a key to successful hunting. And, there's no better place to start than with your body and sporting arm.

Being Ready

Whitetails have an uncanny ability to pop up in front of you without warning. They also disappear in the same fashion. The secret to reducing these surprise entrances and exits is to remain alert and continually watch your surroundings while on stand. The longer you're on stand, the more your mind drifts. And eyes and ears working without the brain concentrating on what they're collecting is like hunting asleep. To minimize drifting check out every noise and movement. Systematically search your surroundings for deer. Bush by bush. Tree by tree. When you've completely covered the area you're hunting, start again. If drifting continues to be a problem, stand up, or partially unbutton you coat. The activity or cool air should help snap your body back to attention. Hunters can gain an edge by having their sporting arm at the ready or across their lap. That will cut your response time and reduce the moves required to take a shot. This is especially critical for bowhunters, who must make more moves than firearms hunters. Of course, it's not always comfortable to hold that sporting arm, but it pays.

Blowing in the Wind

The wind can help or hurt a hunter's chances of taking deer. When used to your advantage, wind can blow away the odors your body releases while you're on stand. If ignored, wind may carry your scent downwind to deer long before you'll ever see them. And if that happens, you probably never will see them. When they can, deer use breezes and winds to monitor what's happening in front of them. But breezes don't always accommodate deer in their movements. Often they must depend on hearing, eyesight and trail-sniffing to determine what's happening around them. If you know deer movements in your area, then it's simply a matter of positioning yourself in a stand where you'll be upwind of the deer. If you don't know where the deer will come through, you're playing a guessing game. And remember, deer always have the home-field advantage!

Cover Your Tracks

One way to try to reduce a deer's ability to uncover your presence in an area is through the use of a cover scent. It's always best to walk into your stand on a route deer won't cross. Sometimes that's not possible. Sometimes deer come from an unexpected direction. The solution maybe spraying a cover scent on the soles of your footwear. These scents, available at most outdoors stores, come in a variety of smells: animal urines, earth scents, forest odors. When using cover scents, try not to touch or brush against branches and other vegetation. And, walk in as quietly as possible. Sound travels a long way on a cold day. Once you reach your stand, it won't hurt to spray a shot of cover scent on the tree you're sitting against or climbing. It may help mask the odors your body's releasing.

Body Language

Deer will tell you a lot about what they're thinking if you'll only take the time to watch. If a deer's tail hangs down, un-flared, it's content. If it flares out the white underside, it's suspicious. When it raises and flares the tail, the deer's alarmed and may leave, or begin sounding a warning snort, any second. If a deer stomps its front leg or does a couple head-bobs, it's unsure about something it sees (usually a hunter), and its trying to coax it to move. Hunters must remain still, and try not to make eye contact with a deer during such encounters. Even if the deer blows a warning snort, it's best not to move. Who knows, it may attract an amorous buck! He won't care whether that doe is content or feels threatened.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

This is an age-old question that stand hunters frequently ask themselves. If they're out there shivering on the north side of a mountain in 20-degree air and staring into a 25-mph wind, they ask themselves almost every minute! As a rule, it's best to stay put on the first two days and first Saturday of the firearms deer season. After that, it's your call. Stand hunters depend on other hunters to move deer after say 9 a.m. and before 3 p.m. That usually happens on the aforementioned days. But on the other days, hunter participation drops dramatically. So it may be in your best interest to sneak around some, especially if you can do it quietly.

Whose Deer Is It?

Every year somewhere in Pennsylvania a couple of hunters shoot at and hit a deer, it goes down and both believe they've delivered the killing shot. Usually it works like this: The first hunter shoots and hits the deer. The deer stays on its feet and runs in front of the next hunter, who shoots and the deer goes down. By law, that deer belongs to the hunter who inflicts the mortal wound allowing that person to take possession of it. Sometimes it may take some time for the hunters involved to sort out who delivered the fatal shot. But if the second hunter tags the deer before the first hunter arrives on the scene, that hunter has taken possession. Game Commission officers do not arbitrate who should get, or is entitled to, the deer.

Sit Tight

Opening day hunters can help themselves by sitting tight for the last hour, especially if drives have occurred in or near the area they're hunting in. During that last hour, deer have a tendency to move. Some are heading back to the area they were chased from. Others begin foraging for food -- they're hungry after hiding all day -- or begin moving to agricultural fields. Sitting tight gives you the chance to intercept these deer.

The Rub on Rubs

Some hunters religiously hunt around buck antler rubs, figuring a buck will drop by and inspect its rubs on a regular basis. But you can hunt around a rub all season and never see a buck. Bucks make rubs to communicate with other deer and to release energy. Many are made and never visited again by the maker, so setting up on one rub may not provide any action. Also, studies have found that the size of a rub has no relationship to the size of a buck's antlers. Buck rubs are best used to establish what direction deer travel through an area. Look for a rub line, then set-up on the travel-way, not the rub. One last point: Although a rub may not be revisited by its creator, it may attract another buck or doe. Usually, though, buck scrapes tend to get more attention than rubs, primarily because they're freshened regularly, making them more discernable to other deer.

Scrape Lowdown

Scrapes, by definition, are pawed depressions in the ground, usually under an overhanging branch that a buck mouths, often breaking a twig or two. The buck also marks the branch with its preorbital gland, found in the eye's tear duct. Scrape size varies, based upon a buck's age and size, time of year (in relation to rut's peak) and location (a feeding or bedding area, along a travel-way). Scrapes can be a hot-spot to hunt before and after the rut's peak. During the peak, bucks tend to spend more time chasing does, instead of checking scrapes to see if does have been visiting. Bucks make scrapes to announce their availability to and attract does in heat; they personalize them by urinating on their tarsal glands (located below the hocks, inside on the legs) and allowing the resulting mixture to drip onto the scrape. It's believed deer can smell this odor for more than 100 yards. Does check scrapes, seemingly analyzing the odors emanating from them, and sometimes hang out near them when in heat. Bucks follow the trail of any doe visiting their scrape. Bucks will sometimes circle scrapes before visiting them. They also occasionally approach them from downwind. Disturbances near scrapes and the buck's age typically dictate how a buck will behave. Some bucks march right into scrapes. Few are so lovesick that they pay little attention to what's going on around them on their approach.

I'm Not Eatin' That!

Sometimes hunters harvest a deer that appears not fit for consumption. Usually the deer has an infection, a disease, wound or other injury. After tagging the deer and removing it from the field, contact the closest Game Commission region office to find out if you qualify for a replacement harvest tag. Tags are not issued to hunters who failed to find a deer before the meat spoiled. They're given only to hunters who shoot deer with an existing infection or other injury. The inability of a hunter to find a deer before the meat spoils does not entitle that hunter to another harvest tag. One final note: If you turn in a buck for a replacement tag, you cannot keep the antlers.

Should I Cut Off Those Tarsal Glands?

Some hunters believe if you don't cut off the tarsal glands (found on the inside of a deer's legs below the hams), the strong-smelling liquid these glands manufacture will somehow work its way into the hams, affecting the meat's quality. This isn't true. The only way your can get a tarsal gland secretion on your meat is if you get the liquid on your hands while removing the glands, and then touch a skinned portion of the carcass. Play it safe, gut your deer in the field, and leave the glands where they are until you have water and soap at your disposal for clean-up. If you feel you must remove them while afield, use a pair of latex gloves while cutting away the glands, then carefully peel them off without touching the gloves' surface area. If you're going to have a butcher process your deer, there's no reason to mess around with tarsal glands.

How To Keep A Harvest Ear Tag On Your Deer

In the hustle and bustle of dragging a deer out of the woods, hunters occasionally lose the harvest ear tag they've attached to their deer. You can reduce the possibility of that happening by taking a few additional steps. First, fill out your ear tag. Moving a deer before completely filling out and attaching the tag is a violation of law. Next, make a small hole in the ear, at least an inch from the ear's edge, and run a garbage bag twister through it. Attach the ear tag so it lays inside the ear, then twist tight the wrapper. Next, roll the ear shut around the tag and hold it in place by wrapping a thick rubber band around it. When bringing the deer out, drag it on the opposite side you've ear-tagged to further reduce your chances of losing the tag.

I Think I Got 'Em!

Shooting a deer is only a part of a hunter's path to success. Often, a hunter must also find the deer before he or she can claim the prize. Deer rarely drop when you shoot them, which means after you make the shot there's still work to do. A hunter must make mental note of two locations after shooting a deer. The place where the deer was when you shot, and the last place you saw it after the shot. In rifle season, unless you see the deer drop after the shot, sit tight for 5 to 10 minutes and listen. In archery season, wait at least 20 to 30 minutes. After your wait, head to where you shot at the deer. Look for signs of a hit: deer hair or blood. Check your arrow. If you see partially digested food at the site, wait (rifle hunters, at least an hour; archers, three hours). Next, follow the blood trail, if there is one. If not, slowly move toward the place where you last saw the deer. Check for sign along the way. A deer hit solidly in the chest cavity rarely goes more than a couple hundred yards. Those hit in the paunch may go further, depending upon whether they're pushed or the amount of vegetative cover in the area.

Close Encounters

Whenever deer are closing in on you, there's always a chance they'll pick you out, regardless of whether they see movement or smell you. Sometimes it's your form, other times it's just because you don't look like part of the woods. Moving when you're being eyeballed is a sure way to spook the deer. Another way is to make direct eye contact with a deer. Having deer mill about or pass through the area where you're hunting can lead to seeing more deer, because they often trail one another during hunting seasons. Don't be upset if deer you can't shoot hang out or bed down nearby. Just be quiet; don't draw their attention. Watch and enjoy the show, but remain alert for other deer moving in to join the party. Don't let that big buck slip in and out the back door before you see him

No portlets in this column.
Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Ave, Harrisburg Pennsylvania 17110-9797