December is here, and you’ve caught yourself sitting in the same old stand, watching the same old food plot grow. If the season isn’t going as you had hoped, perhaps it’s time to become proactive about deer hunting.
As motivational speakers of the last generation liked to say, “It’s time to think outside the box.”
Make a list of your hunting habits. Don’t be skimpy. Put everything on the list, including all those things under your control, and some not under your control that you’ve noticed. Covering the bases takes a little while, but as soon as you make this list — in fact, as you are making it — you will recognize areas where you can begin to be proactive rather than reactive.
The analysis can impact your success the rest of the season.
Understanding what deer are doing in December is the first priority. Does will be entering estrus, and bucks will be losing some of their inhibitions as they follow their hormonal journey to procreation. The acorn fall should be complete, or very near so, and food plots should be green and growing.
The time to plant has passed, but some no-till radishes, turnips or similar crops will germinate and flourish if the weather is mild, offering some attraction quality. Going out ahead of a rain and adding ammonium nitrate to a food plot will give it a boost within days.
At some point, the area you’re hunting will be in one of three phases of the rut, but even in this active period of a deer’s life, there is no guarantee of taking a trophy. Yes, it’s the best chance you’ll have to get a shot at a big buck during daylight hours, but those older bucks didn’t get that way by being stupid.
“Photoperiod, sex ratios, genetics and hormones are just a few of the factors that start the rutting period,” said William McKinley, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks’ deer-program leader. “If a hunter can take the time to be in the woods as much as possible during (the) rut, his or her chances of seeing a mature buck are the best they may be all season. Does want to be bred by the best male, and males are looking for the hottest doe they can find.
“My advice is to stay in the woods and hunt through the mid-day. Stick to active areas where does are frequently seen. This may also be the time to allow does to walk. Shooting a doe now may ruin your chances of killing a mature buck that is just out of sight.”
Noted biologist and hunter Larry Weishuhn, aka “Mr. Whitetail,” gained his reputation from knowing deer behavior.
“Deer have some of the keenest senses of any wild animal,” Weishuhn said. “They have the five senses we humans have, plus a few that seldom get talked about. In addition to sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, they have the ability to taste the air, picking up pheromones does have left at a scrape, or the presence of another buck working the same scrape line. And, don’t overlook their ability of conditioned response — maybe the one a hunter overlooks the most.
“Humans are creatures of habit. This is true no matter what state you hunt in. Too many hunters like to ride an ATV or drive a pickup to a designated point, then walk as short a distance as necessary to reach a stand. The more this is done, the more deer relate the noise of the machine to the presence of hunters and danger. Hunters will do well to change their habits in December, or anytime they see good sign but never see the deer that made that sign.
“Let’s say you are hunting a scrape line along a tree line; in the Southeast, deer like tree lines along open areas to make scrapes and licking branches. You have a stand location in mind and hang your climber downwind of the scrape line and wait. If you approached your stand without regard to the most-likely bedding area, you have told the deer where you will be hunting — first, if you used a motored vehicle and second, if you are not completely scent and sound free. If you are busted, you may never know it. They just know danger may be there, and since they know where every scrape in the woods is located, they will just visit others.”
Deer may have been out of earshot when you set up, but your wait for them to feed and travel into your area may last hours. The savvy hunter will know the area, watch the weather for approaching fronts and weather systems and hunt a stand only when conditions are optimal.
Most hunters of private property have stands already in the woods. On most public lands in Mississippi, hunters are allowed to put up stands two weeks before the season opens and leave them until two weeks after it closes.
In the end, make the least amount of noise necessary to approach the stand, even if it includes a mile-long walk.
Barrett Van Cleve regularly kills bucks in Mississippi that most hunters would consider once-in-a-lifetime trophies, and he does it with a bow. One of his greatest concerns is scent control.
“As far as I’m concerned, the most proactive thing a deer hunter can do is try to become invisible in every sense of the word,” Van Cleve said. “Many hunters take a stab at being scent-free but never really get there. They may spray their outer clothes with a scent killer but use a scented shampoo or shaving cream. Others ignore their boots and socks, thinking rubber boots don’t pick up scent. Some I know put good effort into scent control, then stop at McDonalds for breakfast and defeat the effort they put forth.”
Barrett is serious when it comes to covering or eliminating human scent. He starts with his body, using unscented soap from top to bottom. Fabric softeners and scented detergents have no place in his laundry room. His clothes are stored in a scent-free bag and he dresses just before entering the woods. His boots are scent-proofed inside and out, as are his backpack, bow and accessories. Nothing is left to chance. Van Cleve uses Vapor Trails Scents that are made in Natchez.
The popularity of camo patterns ebbs and flows with the trends in the market. I’m a fan of Mossy Oak, but Realtree and Longleaf share my closet as well. In my humble opinion, one is as about as effective as the other. Deer don’t care if your boots match your hat or your shirt and pants are from different eras. Camouflage clothing is for humans to see and to disguise your profile from deer, which see movement extremely well.
After covering or disguising your scent, the next step is hiding movement. It may sound trite, but deer live in the woods all the time. They know how things are supposed to look, and part of their defense mechanism is to detect irregularities in their surroundings. Deer will see an unfamiliar outline and try to figure out if it is friend or foe. Head-bobbing, foot-stomping or a quick jump to one side is an attempt to get the object to move so the animal can identify it.
Move, and you will be pegged. Game over.
Breaking up your outline or silhouette is the best hope of defeating a deer’s excellent eyesight. With a little forethought, stand placement will become a snap. Permanent stands are easily shrouded with burlap or one of the new, tent-like covers that doubles as a rain shield. It’s the next best thing to having a portable shooting house. Limbs or vines can be attached to the ladder on a stand to further disguise the stand.
Climbing stands are a bit more of a challenge. Finding the right tree is tough enough; then comes the decision of facing the tree and losing some of your field of view or sitting with your back to the tree for comfort. This is where limbs and smaller trees come into play.
Joshua Hawkins hunts public land on a regular basis, and he’s devoted to climbing stands. He likes the portability a lightweight climber allows and the fact they is adaptable to a wide range of options.
“Once I find an area I want to hunt, I look for a tree that is mid-range for the stand I have, with (the straightest) sides as I can find,” Hawkins said. “If the tree tapers too quickly, it will not be a comfortable sit. If the tree has too many limbs, I’ll have to spend too much time trimming. So the perfect tree is a straight trunk with few limbs that affords a 20-foot ascent with relative ease.
“With luck, there will be some smaller trees that have canopy tops that will break up my outline against the sky. This way, deer are less likely to be concerned about that big, new knot on the side of the tree.”
Hawkins said even if he has to push a few smaller trees out of the way as he climbs, he prefers the natural camouflage. Using a full-body, fall-arrest system is the law on Wildlife Management Areas in Mississippi and are prudent for hunters using elevated stands.
Vocalizations and attractants
In less than 10 minutes, I counted 31 different deer calls in a parade of magazines this fall; I’m satisfied most of these are made to attract hunters rather than deer.
Not wanting to step on any toes, but none of the bucks I’ve heard in 55 years of hunting have sounded like a 300-pound, steel-hoofed, fire-breathing behemoth. I’ve heard the snort-wheeze a few times and have used it to call in bucks. Most were 2-year-old satellite bucks I think were trying to steal a doe from a dominant buck. The bucks I have seen, head to the ground, aggressively following a doe were grunting a sound that sounded something like a pig.
There was no set pattern, and the volume was pretty consistent. The bucks I have seen fighting were not locked in mortal combat, but doing a lot more pushing and shoving. There was clicking and rattling, but no loud, slamming sounds. Some grunted when they fought, others never made a sound other than the antlers. There was stomping and crashing as the combatants tore at the ground for better leverage.
Vocalization can increase your odds during the pre-rut, before the actual buck/doe chasing period, when a buck’s concentration is on the hot doe.
I only rattle from a ground blind. Deer can course a sound far better than people think, and they know bucks don’t climb trees to fight.
A realistic decoy may be the ticket when combined with rattling and grunting. It’s worth a try.
Making a scrape or a line of scrapes is another proven technique, as is adding estrus scent to several existing scrapes. Use artificial doe urine, not the real deal. No matter how emphatic retailers are, real doe urine can contain the prions that cause Chronic Wasting Disease. As of this writing there is no test for live deer to prove they do not carry the disease. CWD will no doubt come to Mississippi; do your part to make it later rather than sooner.
Bucks do not always walk to every scrape they check. They have a gland in their mouth that can taste the pheromones a doe produces and leaves in a scrape. With the air always moving, bucks can check a scrape from 50 yards away
Keep your eyes open. Even if the leaves are not shaking, the air is moving. Using a puff of powder or a few cotton fibers will indicate the air direction. And yes, deer like to travel into the wind.
This is probably something you have never considered. Mindfulness is pretty difficult to explain, but I’ll make it as simple as I can. If you are sitting in a tree stand, become one with the tree. Think of yourself as a knot or a limb.
Be conscious of everything around and concentrate on that until it becomes a meditative state. Become aware of the birds, squirrels, sounds and sights that are part of your environment. Attempt to clear your mind of thoughts other than concentrating on being a part of the tree. Leave your cell phone in your pocket. Don’t fidget, and be aware of the slightness movement
Remember, you are part of the tree.
Notice the sun and the shadows; move your eyes, but not your head. The more you move, the more deer and other critters you will see. Count breaths as you remain motionless, striving for a higher number each time your concentration is broken. Once you have mastered this technique, you can remain motionless for long periods of time.
When you do move, be fluid, calculated and slow. If you can allow a flock of turkeys, a solitary bobcat or a herd of deer pass without being detected, you may just have the technique down pat.