Are you prepared for deer hunting season this year? From scouting the field to meat processing back at home, there are many things you can do to help ensure a successful trip for you and your hunting crew. Here, we'll share some of our best deer hunting tips for beginners and seasoned hunters, including advice from a few leading experts in the industry: Danny McVay and Jeff Danker from BuckVentures and Mike Stroff from Savage Outdoors.
The Best Time to Hunt Deer
Before stepping foot into the woods, you'll want to get to know your target. Learning as much as you can about these animals helps make it easier to predict where they roam, what they'll be doing, and your chances of harvesting a mature deer during your trip.
Most hunters will tell you that the best time to hunt for big bucks is rutting season (mating season). During this exciting time, buck activity is at its peak. Mature deer will often cover miles of ground looking for a doe in heat – making them more vulnerable to hunters like yourself. But keep in mind that buck patterns and behaviors will change throughout the rut.
Deer mating season includes 3 primary phases:
- Pre-rut: While feeding and bedding activities typically remain the same, pre-rut is when bucks start to show interest in female deer. This phase begins as early as October in the North but can be as late as December in southern U.S. states.
- Peak rut: Lasting just 1 to 2 weeks, peak rut is when the majority of does are in estrus – or in heat and ready for mating. As bucks defend their territories and pursue females, hunters can take advantage of this boost in activity. This phase occurs in early to late November in northern U.S. states or late January in the South.
- Post-rut: As the rut winds down, so does deer activity. Bucks are taking care of themselves, tending to defensive wounds sustained from fighting other males, and resting. During this time, hunters should focus on popular deer feeding areas.
Strategically set up your deer stand before sunrise. This gives the wildlife in the area plenty of time to settle into their routine before you begin your hunt. And keep in mind that a deer could pass by at any time – so be prepared for a full day.
Scout Out the Ideal Hunting Area
Where do deer typically feed? Are you familiar with their travel routes? A big part of hunting is finding the best location to set up shop. This means getting the lay of the land and finding areas where the deer are most likely found.
Danny McVay from BuckVentures recommends these essentials for your deer-scouting checklist:
- Game cameras: Position trail cameras to determine when deer are most active and how many use local trails. Keeping tabs on your target's typical patterns can help you create an informed hunting strategy when the season begins. And don't forget to have extra batteries and memory cards on hand to ensure they’ll capture all the action.
- Digital and paper maps: Many hunters use the map apps on their smartphones for routing and marking locations. But it's also a good idea to carry a waterproof paper map for those prime areas deep in the woods without signal.
- Binoculars/spotting scope: When you're out scouting, a quality pair of binoculars or a good spotting scope is sure to come in handy.
To help you prepare, we've created our own hunting gear checklist. Take a look to make sure you have everything you need before, during and after your journey.
Taking inventory is equally as important as scouting in terms of maximizing your returns. And this doesn't just mean making sure you have all the equipment you need – this step involves monitoring what kind of deer you can get in any given spot. Here are a couple of tips:
Use Deer Feeders
True game changers for hunters, wildlife feeders help bring the herd to you. The key is placing it in the right setting. Below are some things to consider when choosing where to place your deer feeder:
- Deer routes: A good starting point is to place your feeder in a high-traffic area. That way it's sure to draw attention.
- Coverage: Many hunters use the map apps on their smartphones for routing and marking locations. But it's also a good idea to carry a waterproof paper map for those prime areas deep in the woods without signal.
- Food/water sources: Avoid placing it too close to alternative food sources but close to a nearby water source.
- Easy access: Make sure you can easily reach your feeder when it's time to refill it.
How can a wildlife feeder fit into your hunting strategy? Coordinate its location with yours. Place it about 35 yards away from your treestand or ground blinds. Whether deer are coming in to feed or walking away afterward, this will help ensure you have a clear shot.
Use Trail Cameras
For hunters like BuckVentures' Jeff Danker, monitoring the traffic around a feeder helps improve your chances of catching the biggest deer on your property. Using a game camera, you can make an informed decision about the specific deer you're targeting – after all, you don't want to shoot a 140-in deer when there's a 165-in deer just 10 minutes behind it.
If you're not sure which trail cam to get, check out our game camera buying guide. Academy can help you find the best model for your property.
Don’t Be Seen by Using the Correct Clothing
Whether you're high up in your treestand or hiding lower to the ground, wearing the right gear helps ensure you remain undetected in the wild. Camo boots and clothing from brands like Magellan Outdoors balance comfort and concealment to suit the modern hunter.
Stock up on camo shirts and pants with features like UPF sun protection and moisture-wicking technology, and stay warm on chillier days with camo hoodies, jackets and base layers. Most hunting apparel comes with ample pockets, so it's easy to keep the essentials on hand, as well as a natural-looking pattern that helps you blend in seamlessly with your surroundings.
Many hunters also match their hunting boots with the camo patterns on their clothing to ensure they're covered from head to toe. Some boots even have built-in snake protection and rugged soles for an added layer of safety on unpredictable terrain.
It may sound obvious, but it's also important to be super stealthy during the hunt – you don't want the crack of a tree branch or rustling of the leaves to give you away. Some hunting equipment is even designed with silent features, helping to ensure your gear won't give away your position either.
Reduce Your Scent Footprint
One of the biggest deterrents for approaching deer is human odor – a deer's nose is highly sensitive to any smells that aren't native to its territory. Hunters who take the time to prep their gear beforehand have a better chance of success in the field. Here are some deer scent tips from Mike Stroff from Savage Outdoors:
- Prep your clothes: Scent-elimination detergents deep clean your clothing while masking your scent.
- Spray your gear: Scent-killer sprays make it easy to ensure your odor isn't on any of your gear. Just make sure to cover everything you're taking into the woods, like your pack, clothes and boots.
- Air out your apparel: Odors from your storage shed, the bacon you ate for breakfast – you'd be surprised at what scents will stick to your clothing. Make sure to give it time to air out.
Some hunters also use special soaps and wear camo clothing with scent-eliminating technology to provide another layer of concealment.
Use Scents to Attract Deer
In many states, hunters can use artificial scents to their advantage. Some of the most popular products include buck scents and estrous-doe scents from brands like Tink's. While attracting deer may be easiest during the rut, BuckVentures' Jeff Danker recommends using deer scents at any time of the year. According to this expert, it's a great way to:
- Assess big bucks in your area
- Start mock scrapes in strategic locations
- Create a setup that works in your favor – even when you're not there
Deer scents are available in single bottles of liquid or gel shots, as well as solid scent products. Some hunters also use deer scent kits with droppers and diffusers for easy dispersion.
Have a Calling Strategy
A successful hunter puts a well-crafted calling strategy into play. Deer use a variety of sounds to communicate with each other and you can use their language to your benefit. Types of deer calls include:
- Grunt: This is the sound a buck makes to showcase his dominance over a doe or another buck. Use it to attract a buck in the mood for a challenger.
- Snort-wheeze: Rarely used by bucks, this is another sound that signifies dominance.
- Rattle: When 2 bucks are fighting, they create rattle sounds. Use this one to make a dominant buck in the area feel challenged and come toward you.
- Bleat: This is the sound a doe or fawn makes and is used to attract bucks or other does.
Choose a Tree Stand Location Early in the Season
Before each hunting season, take stock of your property. This is the time to hang your treestands and check in on the ones that are already there. BuckVentures' Danny McVay recommends the following for your treestand prep checklist:
- Make sure your equipment is secure
- Create a clear shooting path between the branches
- Remove some of the underbrush to carve a clear route to the stand
- Establish easy-to-reach places to hang your hunting gear
Pick the Right Hunting Stand
If you're in the market for a new perch, there are several models to choose from. Hunting stands keep you high off the ground, keeping you out of your target's line of sight and providing a broader view of the landscape. From this vantage point, it's much easier to spot a buck before it sees you. The four major types of hunting stands include:
- Climbing stands
- Ladder stands
- Hang-on stands
- Tri- and quad-pods
While most of the stands listed above are treestands, the last type is freestanding. Depending on your environment and personal preference, one may stand out as the ideal one for you.
Disguise Your Treestand
After you've found the right treestand, it's time to disguise it. Just as important as concealing yourself, this step helps ensure your equipment doesn't deter deer. Try to imagine what you're going to look like to the animal while you're up there.
BuckVentures' Jeff Danker shares some of his best deer treestand backdrop tips. First, try not to out-climb your cover. Large openings make it easier for deer to see you. Next, close any prominent gaps with additional branches. You can simply chop them off one area and re-attach them to the limbs that surround you.
To avoid silhouetting against the sunlight, try to select a tree with a wide base that hides the shadow of your body shape on the ground.
How You Will Get to Your Stand's Location?
You've scouted the perfect tree and cover, but how will you get up there without alerting wildlife? The successful hunter can get in and out without being seen, heard or smelled. Savage Outdoors' Mike Stroff offers some helpful tips for treestand placement.
Depending on wind direction, you may need to have alternate locations to avoid detection. He recommends mapping out multiple ways to approach your stand and also hanging 2 - 3 sets in a prime hunting area.
Put Safety First
Whether you're performing your pre-season check or targeting in the middle of hunting season, remember to always put safety first. A quality harness can help prevent serious injuries as you navigate your spot high above ground. What's more, make sure you're comfortable using your treestand at home before it's in the woods.
If you need a helping hand, just ask! It may be easier for you to set up and test your hunting stand with a buddy who knows the ropes.
Don’t Forget About Hunting Blinds
Hunting blinds can be just as effective as a treestand. As explained by Jeff Dankers with BuckVentures, different hunting locations suit different circumstances. Knowing which one to use can help you make your best shot. Dankers shares his recommendations:
- Deer calling: If you're using a deer call to lure in bucks, a treestand can help make those sounds carry naturally.
- Fields and feeders: Hunting blinds work well near fields, feeders and other locations.
- First-time hunters: Ground blinds are also great for parents teaching youngsters how to hunt.
Always Be Aware of the Wind
While setting up, pay attention to wind direction. Many scents and scent eliminators are on the market today, but it's going to be tough to mask your odor if the wind isn't on your side no matter what you use. Staying downwind – in your stand or blind and on the way to these locations – helps ensure the deer won't sense your presence first.
Bring the Right Optics
As part of your gear, the right optics can make all the difference. Most hunting optics boasts fog, scratch and moisture resistance. These and other durability features help ensure your equipment can withstand the outdoors. Straight from Mike Stroff with Savage Outdoors, these are the deer optics to consider:
Binoculars make it easier to scope out an area from a distance. Many hunting binoculars gather light efficiently, helping you see in dimly lit conditions when deer are most likely to be active.
Range finders are used to calculate the distance between you and your target with a high degree of accuracy. Whether you use a bow or firearm, a range finder helps you make quick, informed decisions.
Sighting in your target is quick and easy thanks to a riflescope. Look for models with coated lenses for crisp, clear visibility in unpredictable settings.
Of Course, Choose Your Weapon Wisely
Hunters today have a host of weapons to choose from. And for the most part, it's all about user preference. From bow to shotgun, the right tool can enhance your experience. Here are the most common types of hunting weapons:
Recurve bows are a great choice for both bowhunting as well as target shooting. Typically, they’re often used by more experienced bow hunters. This type of bow usually operates without sights and arrow rests — although you can certainly add these modifications to personalize your bow to better suit your needs. Arrows are shot using your fingers to draw and release the bowstring.
Jeff Danker from BuckVentures also offers tips on bow hunting for beginners. Check them out before getting started.
Composed of cables, pulleys and cams, compound bows are easier to draw and hold because they don’t require as much energy as other bows. They use a bow sight and shoot with a high degree of accuracy, yielding quick, clean kills. The design of a compound bow is distinct and complex; however, this bow is much easier to control and tends to have better accuracy.
Crossbows have greater firing range capabilities than a traditional longbow. With a style that combines the bow and firearm, the crossbow is simple to shoot. It also eliminates the risk of being caught while drawing your bow – all you have to do is pull the trigger. Compared to other bows, the crossbow requires its shooters to have very little experience to have decent accuracy.
Rifles are long guns that fire a single projectile. From deer to other types of big game, rifles come in a variety of calibers to suit the target. Popular calibers for white-tail deer hunting include:
Ideal for shorter ranges, shotguns shoot multiple projectiles from a single cartridge called a shell. Shotguns are a great option for deer hunting! Common gauges for shotguns include 10, 16, 20, and 28 gauge. One important thing to understand about this type of gun is that smaller gauge numbers have the larger barrel interior.
Where To Shoot A Deer
Now that you have a deer in your sights, what part of the animal should you aim for? As any experienced hunter will tell you, it's important to ensure each shot counts. Depending on its angle and your weapon, here are the prime spots to target:
- Quartering-toward shot: The area behind the elbow of the lead leg
- Quartering-away shot: The same area, but with the target facing away from you at an angle
- Broadside shot: With the deer perpendicular to you, this area is just behind the lower shoulder
What to Do After the Kill
Once you've shot a deer, the hunt isn't over. You'll have to track it down if it wasn't mortally wounded. When you've located the animal, here are your next steps:
Field Dressing Your Deer
Field dressing is the process of removing the internal organs from the body cavity. This allows the body to cool faster and makes it easier to get it back to your cabin. Field care products are available to help make this task go smoothly. This process is also easier with help from a friend.
Drag Your Deer Out of the Woods
When you're finished field dressing the animal, it's time to drag it out of the woods. For a buck, you can simply grab onto an antler. But for a doe, wrap a rope around its neck and then start dragging. To help make this task easier, some hunters load the deer onto a sled first.
Process Your Deer
When it comes to butchering a deer, there are two options: you can either process the animal yourself or take it to a professional who can do it for you. If you're a beginner, have an experienced hunter show you how to do it the first time around.
Enjoy the Adventure
Using these deer hunting tips for beginners and seasoned hunters, it's time to start planning. Academy Sports + Outdoors is your one-stop shop for hunting equipment and apparel. Find everything you need online or visit an Academy near you for in-person guidance.