As firearm season rolls out across Mississippi in late November and December, some deer hunters have already had opportunities at deer. After two months of archery season, three weeks of youth gun season, and the early primitive weapon season, whitetails are feeling the hunting pressure. 

Gone are the days of deer not thoroughly checking out open areas before deciding to step out, and, in many areas, the rut is still far enough away that deer sightings are on the decrease.

What’s a hunter to do? 

Most of the problem may be with the way you’re hunting deer rather than the deer themselves. While some hunters are patterning deer, deer are doing the same to you and may have figured out your pattern, which is why your paths aren’t crossing as often as you’d like.

To assist, Mississippi Sportsman talked with several veteran deer hunters across the state to find out what they’re doing differently. If you find yourself reflected in the “what not to do” column, it’s OK. There’s still plenty of time to set things right and get back in the game.

Provide sanctuary 

Trophy deer hunter Leslie Smith of Senatobia used to go out into the deer woods in Panola County and was lucky to see a deer or two in a weekend of deer hunting. These days, when Smith steps foot on his 900-acre deer land, he regularly sees 30 to 40 deer in an afternoon and several of thsse deer will be bucks in the 120 to 130 class. 

These deer stay on his property on a year round basis. Why? Because Smith provides them with sanctuaries that he refuses to step foot in. 

“It takes a lot of commitment and fortitude on the part of the hunter to have land that never gets hunted,” said Smith. “We don’t go into our sanctuaries for any reason other than to recover a deer that’s been shot. A lot of hunters don’t understand that, especially since there’s quality deer sign — rubs, scrapes and natural forage — all over those sanctuaries. 

“The truth is, if you do the right thing with the doe herd, your food plots, and your stand locations, at some point that mature 5½-year-old buck will come out into your hunting grounds and you’ll get a shot at him.”

One of the most important facets of keeping and growing quality deer on any property is providing areas where the deer are safe from harm and human intrusion. Smith points to security as just important a need for deer as food. In fact, of the 900 acres under his management, two thirds are restricted deer sanctuary.

Scout unobtrusively

Madison County hunter Robert Goins believes there is a wealth of information and advanced technology available to hunters, helping them scout while rarely having to set foot in the habitat. In-depth topographical maps and aerial photography make it easy. Numerous internet cartographers offer close-range detail maps as well as photographs in high resolution. Armed with one of these, a hunter can narrow his “field scouting” down to just a few hours.

“First obtain an aerial photo of the land you intend to hunt” said Goins. “You’ll want to see how the land lays, I’m looking for draws, like bedding areas and feeding areas. Then I want to find travel corridors that run between these two locations. Once I’ve marked likely bedding, feeding and travel routes on the map, I’m going to look for choke points. These are fingers of trees or funnel areas where I can put a stand and I know the deer will have to walk by these locations traveling from one area to the other.”

Goins can eliminate a lot of unproductive land while gaining useful information of more-promising land, all from looking at the area on the map. He says the key is to “be the deer” and look at the land the way a deer would. Once that’s done, he wants to get into the area to verify what he’s found and get out without alerting any of the local deer to his visit.

“The worst thing you can do to an area you want to hunt is stomp the woods up” he said. “On the day I’m going to field scout I want to find the most direct route to walk to that area with the wind in my face, even if it means taking the long way around the property. I’ll walk directly to that area, find what I need to find including a good tree to climb, then turn and walk directly out the way I came.”

Vary hunting hours

Veteran Jasper County hunter Charlie Parsons suggests that hunters should abandon their normal hunting hours of daylight to 10, and 3 to dark and pattern deer based on the weather.

“The weather here may not get all that extreme in December but we often get an early cold front that will bring overnight temperatures down for several days,” said Parsons. “If that happens, my experience is that deer will stay bedded down at night, especially if the wind gets up. After a day or so of relatively cold temps, deer will get up and move during the middle of the day to the closest food. 

“He may not have to go more than 100 yards, but he’s out in the open and moving and that’s plenty of opportunity to kill him.”

During these weather patterns, Parsons will stay in the stand all day or go into the stand late and hunt through the middle part of the day. Another option on cold nights is to slip quietly into a stand well before daylight and hope to catch deer moving back into bedding areas after they’ve fed at night. That was the situation last season when he scored his best deer of the season, a 10-pointer of near record-book proportions.

“It had been really cold toward the end of the month and I opted to go in really early and sit along a well-used travel area and try to catch one moving out of the field,” he said. “If I hadn’t already been there and let everything settle down, I’d have never killed this deer. He was walking along the edge of the wood line and I barely caught a glimpse of him because there wasn’t much light. 

“That’s where paying the extra money for good optics paid off. Fortunately he had to cross an opening and I saw his rack outlined against the open area and I was able to see him pretty clear and dropped him right there on the spot.”

Hunt invisibly

Lester Smith hails from Coldwater, and hunts private land near his home.

Two tactics that help Smith see more deer on stand is to remain invisible by placing his deer stands where he can make the most of available cover while hunting, and a near religious attention to remaining scent free prior to and during the hunt. The hunter dons himself in camouflaged Scent-Lok clothing before heading out into the woods and is careful to remove any scent he may pick up by spraying down with scent-removing products before the hunt.

“I also have a certain type tree I prefer to hunt from,” he explains. “I want a straight tree, like a pine. that has smaller trees, cedars or some other leafy tree cover that has grown up maybe 12 or 15 feet around the tree I’m in. This way if the deer looks up, I’m hidden by the ground cover. Another tip is to find a tree that gives me a view both well into a food plot and also allows me to see a ways down the trail leading to the area. 

“Smaller bucks may come right out into a food plot, but as the season progresses, bigger bucks will hang back along the trail waiting till full dark and you may not get a shot at him in the field at all.”

Make some noise

Veteran deer hunter and master taxidermist Jody Shults prefers to get on the ground to stalk big bucks when gun season comes in.

“Most hunters think rattling is only something that works in big open areas like Texas or Montana,” said Shults. “I’ll rattle for bucks once the conditions get right but I’d prefer to do it in tighter areas where I have a better chance of seeing the deer before he sees me. I only want to be able to see about 50 yards around me when I start rattling. That way I can tell more about what a buck is doing. If he runs and goes the other way, it was probably a smaller buck. A good buck will often charge right in and start pawing around and rubbing trees or a smarter one may circle around and try to get in behind the rattling sound.”

Shults suggests that north Mississippi deer hunters forget the big plastic rattling antlers commercially made for deer hunters and go with a real set of horns that came off of a smaller rack deer. He prefers something that had a 12- to 15-inch spread and sported a smaller 6- or 8-point rack. He believes a buck responds better to a smaller deer that invades its territory than a monster and that bucks judge the size of the invading deer by the sound produced by its rattling antlers.

“It’s very similar to turkey hunting,” he said. “I’ll sit down next to a tree wearing a 3-D leafy camo suit and start rattling the horns, thrashing the bushes and pound the ground next to me to make it sound like hoof beats. Then I’ll wait a couple of minutes and do it again. If nothing shows up, I’ll pick up and stalk into another area where I can get a change of scenery and start all over.”

December’s best bet — an old clear-cut

“Once the nighttime temperatures consistently stay cold, you won’t find me hunting deep in the woods where it stays dark most of the morning,” said Neshoba hunter Ron Emery. “For one thing when it’s cold, and I figure if I’m cold, the deer are cold so they’re going to go somewhere they can get warm. But they’re not stupid; they’re not going to stand out in the open. So if we’re talking about a place that deer can warm in the sun and still stay hidden — I’m heading for an old clear-cut.”

Across many parts of the state, forested areas that used to hold stands of hardwood trees have been harvested and given over to growths of re-planted pines. Pine grows faster so it can be harvested more quickly than hardwoods and it’s usage in lumber, pulp, and paper makes them a highly marketable commodity. Once planted pines reach maturity, they are in turn harvested, resulting in a clear-cut or cutover area. 

Now it’s ready to be planted with the next crop. The slower growth cycle of tree crops means clear-cut areas take time to mature and in the interim provide beneficial ground cover until replanted trees grow up. This provides a 2- to 5-year window when clear-cuts provide ample cover for deer yet can still be hunted from above by hunters.

“Naturally a clear-cut that has some elevation to it works out better than one that’s completely flat,” said Emery. “A hillside provides a good wind break, plus the southern side is usually facing the sun in the morning so it will warm faster. It’s also easier to see deer on a hillside clear-cut than one on a long flat area. 

“That doesn’t mean you can’t hunt a flat area, it just means you can’t cover as much ground so you’re hunting closer, and if you’re within 100 to 150 yards you’ll have to pay more attention to the wind.”