By: Warren Gray
“Now, therefore, take your weapons…and go
out to the field and take me some venison.
And make me savory meat…that I may eat.”
– Genesis 27:3-4.
After hunting whitetail deer for the past 17 years, I’ve acquired some limited knowledge based upon vast experience in the field and lessons learned from various hunts. The successful deer hunter must combine accurate shooting skills with patience, instinct, keen eyesight, prior research, careful preparation, a certain amount of luck, and the ethics of a wildlife conservationist.
Choosing the Hunting Ground
You should select your hunting site carefully after researching your prey’s daily feeding and travel patterns. Look for obvious deer trails in the area, hooved tracks on the ground, matted, bed-down areas where they sleep, and deer droppings (round balls mean does; clumpy droppings are left by bucks). Deer seem to be most active at dawn and dusk, so hunting opportunities will be generally better then, but it all depends upon the local herd and their daily habits. Try to learn their direction of travel and when to expect them.
Along an active travel route is the best place for your tree stand or ground blind. Tree stands work better on private property, where there is ample time in advance to install them. When hunting on public lands, a concealed, ground blind may be more practical.
Tree stands come in various heights, but normally, 10 to 12 feet is high enough to avoid detection from below. The 16- and 20-footers may offer a better view, but if you fall, and it happens all the time, the survival rate is much better from a 10-footer. I use a very sturdy, 10-foot, elevated, hunting blind on my own property, and a 15-foot, one-person tree stand on a neighbor’s land, with his written permission to hunt there sometimes.
Before the actual hunt, be sure to research the hunting laws and regulations in your state, and have a current, valid hunting license in your possession. Know when the different hunting seasons are (archery, rifle, and muzzleloader), and the bag limits for each season.
Most hunters are going to want to hunt bucks (male deer), and not just for the antlers as a trophy, but because the bucks are the greatest challenge, the most sporting to hunt. They’re cagey, elusive, clever, and quick to sense danger, whereas the does (female deer) and fawns (baby deer) will often just trot right out in front of you.
But as much as hunters like to hunt the bucks, most states prefer that you harvest the does instead, because they reproduce and expand the herds. In my state, for example, we’re allowed to take only two bucks per year, and sometimes a third, bonus buck in one region. We’re allowed to take up to 35 does per year, though, and that’s enough to virtually wipe out three local herds, so it’s certainly not a practical or reasonable bag limit. As Jeff Goldblum’s character said in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should!”
A good hunter is also a good conservationist and does not take any more deer than necessary.
Deer Hunting Ethics
This inevitably leads to a discussion of the ethics and morality of deer hunting. It’s really about two things: the thrill of the hunt and putting meat on the table for your family.
Don’t kill a deer unless you’re going to eat it. But, how much do you really need? And how do we conserve wild game for future years, future hunts, and future generations? If your state won’t draw a reasonable line, you’ll have to do it yourself and make your own rules. For example, I don’t hunt in archery season, although it’s perfectly legal, because a bow and arrow doesn’t drop the deer fast enough for me. One of our neighbors just killed an eight-point buck with an arrow this year, and it ran for nearly a quarter-mile before it went down. They had a hard time finding it. Yes, it’s perfectly legal, but it’s just not my idea of a quick, clean kill.
Use enough gun: I hunt with a Remington .30-06 rifle, and a CVA .50-caliber muzzleloader, which make very rapid, humane kills without being excessive. The weapon should develop at least 1,200 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, and the .30-06 develops 2,910 fps and 2,820 foot-pounds, while the muzzleloader develops 1,726 fps and 1,655 foot-pounds, but makes a much bigger hole. My favorite deer loads are the Remington Premier Scirocco 150-grain, .30-06 round, and the Powerbelt Aerolite 250-grain, .50-caliber muzzleloader bullet, over two pellets of Alliant Blue MZ pelletized powder. These are both fast, accurate, flat-shooting loads that expand well.
At least 50 percent of the time, the deer drop on the spot, and the other half of the time, they don’t run very far – no more than about 100 yards. I don’t shoot fawns, ever, and I don’t shoot does with fawns, either. They have to be allowed to grow and mature. I also don’t shoot button-bucks, two-pointers, four-pointers, or most six-pointers, if there are any larger bucks available in the area. In fact, my state only allows us to harvest one buck per year that has less than six points, so it’s also a legal consideration.
Last October, my wife was watching from a distance as two large bucks emerged from a deep forest onto my wooded property, with a six-pointer in the lead, followed closely by an eight-point buck. I took the eight-pointer at fairly close range with my muzzleloader, but it instantly turned back into the forest and disappeared from view. My wife thought I was shooting at the six-pointer, and called out, “You missed!”
But I didn’t miss, and we found the eight-pointer on a steep, heavily wooded slope within the next 10 minutes. Getting him out of there was another story altogether, though.
Typically, I prefer to take bucks, but I’m only allowed a maximum of three bucks per year. So the artificial conservationist limit that I set for myself is three bucks and one doe. (Last year, it was mandatory to take two does to get the bonus buck stamp. That restriction no longer applies.) It’s a whole lot better than the 38 deer that I’m legally allowed to take, and this way there are plenty of deer left for next year, or for other hunters, and the six-pointers may grow up to be eight-pointers next year. Last year, I harvested three eight-point bucks and two does. This year, my goal is one fewer doe, because of the rule change. Four deer may not be enough for macho bragging rights, but it’s more than enough to fill your freezers with healthy deer meat for the coming year.
There’s also the ethical consideration of baiting deer with food, versus hunting them in their natural state. This is a controversial topic, since laws vary from state to state, with baiting remaining illegal in 28 states, and only 14 states allowing baiting statewide. I prefer to err on the side of caution, so I don’t use bait while hunting, even though it’s technically legal on private land in my state.
The deer stand I occasionally use on a neighbor’s property (again, with his written permission) has no feeder nearby, so I’m hunting the deer completely in their natural habitat there, in their normal patterns of feeding and movement, which is far more satisfying than any baiting scenario.
You’ll need to sight-in your rifle and muzzleloader very carefully before deer season begins to assure a quick, humane kill when the time comes. Most deer in the United States are taken at a range of 100 yards or fewer, so depending upon the terrain in your hunting zone, that’s the optimum range for sighting-in your weapons.
Using a scope is preferable, for the best possible accuracy, and you’ll want it zeroed to within an inch or two at 100 yards. If your eyes are still good enough for plain, iron sights, you’ll need to adjust them so you’re consistently hitting within about two to three inches of your point of aim at 100 yards. This is also a safety consideration, so the bullet goes where it’s supposed to, keeping any other hunters in the area safe from harm.
There are always some people who think deer hunting is “barbaric,” but they’re completely wrong. Nature is harsh, and most wild game do not die of old age. In the woods, in their own habitat, they stand a very good chance of escape, which is far more than I can say for cattle sent to the slaughterhouse, with a 100-percent mortality rate. I could tell you exactly how they kill all of those cattle that we eat, but someone might think it was “barbaric,” so deer hunting is actually incredibly humane by comparison.
Aside from keeping the height of your tree stand down to a reasonable limit, it’s a really good idea to carry a cell phone (turned off) with you up into the stand, in case you fall and can’t get up due to an injury. Depending upon the design of your stand, you may want to use a safety strap or harness in case you fall asleep up there and go tumbling out. Many hunters also use a long rope or paracord to pull their rifle and gear up into the stand from the ground. Personally, I climb and descend with my rifle over my right shoulder, but I’m very, very slow and careful about it, even after the excitement of shooting a deer. Tree stands can be dangerous, so always be extra cautious.
When hunting with friends, relatives, or any other fellow hunters, you should wear an international-orange cap or vest, or both, because people are unfortunately prone to getting “trigger-happy” and shooting at anything that moves. You should always, clearly identify your target as a deer, and make sure there is a backstop behind it (the ground or a large tree) to safely halt your bullet if it passes through the deer, as it often does. Don’t shoot at deer atop a ridgeline with only sky in the background, because you never know what, or who, might be just over the ridge, out of sight.
Most states specify that hunting takes place only during hours of visible daylight, from a half-hour prior to dawn to a half-hour after dusk. Don’t shoot unless you can clearly identify your target as a deer, and don’t guess. Spotlighting deer in the dark is usually illegal. You may, however, climb up into, or down from, your tree stand during hours of darkness, so wearing a battery-operated headlamp becomes a very good idea to keep your hands free for climbing the ladder wrungs.
I also often hunt with binoculars, to help identify eight-point bucks from six-pointers at a distance, or simply to make sure that my target is really a deer, and not the neighbor’s large dog. But last year, the Bushnell 7×35 binoculars that I used were a bit large and clunky, and they sometimes snagged the ladder as I was climbing, often in the dark, which is not a good thing. So, this year, I’ve been wearing a smaller set of camouflaged, mini-binoculars for improved safety.
The Thrill of the Hunt
Now comes the actual hunting day, and you’re safely in your tree stand or ground blind, dressed warmly enough for the weather conditions, since most deer hunting with rifles and muzzleloaders takes place between mid-October and early January. If you’re going to be up there for a while, guys (sorry, ladies, I can’t help here), you might want to bring a wide-mouthed bottle for answering the call of nature, so you’re not leaving your scent on the ground near your stand. The whole idea is to take the deer by surprise, so they don’t see you, hear you, or smell you, until it’s too late.
Some hunters use deer calls to lure the animals in, and I tried this for about three seasons, experimenting with different tones to simulate bucks, does, or fawns, but it always seemed to scare them away instead of bringing them closer, so I gave up on deer calls two years ago, and now I just let them come to me on their own.
Camouflaged clothing is a definite plus, but not absolutely essential. Any subdued earth tones, such as green, brown, gray, or even black, will work nearly as well. I wear Remington camouflaged gloves to cover my hands and a mesh veil over most of my face, but not my eyes, to cover my skin. With whitetail deer, an upraised white tail is a sign of sensed danger, and also serves as a “follow-me” flag when fleeing rapidly though the dark forest, so anything white on or near your tree stand isn’t a good idea.
Where I live, the best time of day for successful hunting is from roughly an hour before sunset until a half-hour afterward, which is normally the last light of day. I’ve never had any luck at all with morning hunts, but I still try from time to time. Last year, all five of my deer kills took place between 4:15 p.m. and 5:20 p.m.
Typically, the fawns appear first, with no experience or regard for their own safety, but since I don’t hunt them, this doesn’t matter. The does will usually hang back inside the edge of the forest, watching and waiting to see what happens, and they’ll finally wander into my line of fire about 10 to 15 minutes later. But if any of the does appear to belong with the fawns, I don’t shoot them, either.
My state has one week in October, during early muzzleloader season, when only does may be hunted, and this is usually the only time I harvest does, watching my intended targets for several minutes to ensure they have no babies roaming around the area, even out as far as 100 yards away. With my luck, this will be when an enormous, eight-point buck will boldly walk right out in front of me, seeming to somehow know that I can’t shoot him this week.
Otherwise, I’m strictly a buck hunter, and the bigger, the better, although here in this East Coast region, they rarely grow much larger than about a 160-pound, eight-pointer, at least where I live. I’ve seen bigger 10-pointers and 12-pointers dashing wildly through the woods in Montana, South Dakota, and Washington state, but not here in the east.
The prize bucks are the greatest challenge of all, because they’re careful, cagey, and very elusive, usually remaining hidden in the forest until the does and fawns have been out in the open for about 20 minutes. The bucks just seem to instinctively know they’re being hunted, so when you finally see one, the excitement level goes up.
In fact, some hunters get so excited that their hands and whole bodies may begin to shake or tremble involuntarily. This is known as “buck fever,” and it happens to nearly everyone at one time or another. It happened to me once unexpectedly last year, and there was nothing I could do except wait for the shaking to subside. But it did subside, and that huge, eight-point buck was my fifth and final kill of the season.
Deer’s eyes are attuned for detecting movement, so you’ll need to sit very still in your tree stand, trying to look like part of the tree behind you. Even if a deer looks directly up at you, staring intently for as long as a full minute, if you remain perfectly still, patiently staring back and controlling your breathing, the deer will eventually assume you’re part of the tree, and will go back to its grazing again.
Your rifle or muzzleloader should always be loaded, but with the safety on, or the hammer down, while hunting, even while you track your intended target once you get a clear line of fire and positively confirm it’s a deer. Flicking the safety off with your thumb or cocking the hammer is usually the very last thing you do, committing yourself to making the shot, just before you center the crosshairs of your scope on the deer’s heart/lung area, just above and behind the front legs, and pull the trigger.
There will be some recoil (soft recoil pads are helpful), and maybe visible flames (and smoke from the muzzleloader), and if you’ve zeroed the scope properly and aimed accurately, your deer should go down either on the spot, or it may run up to about 100 yards, but usually not much farther. Even with its heart totally destroyed, a deer (or any large animal) can potentially still live and react for about eight to 20 seconds, but they normally go down pretty quickly.
The weapon’s report is very loud, especially the .30-06, which sounds like a small cannon, even from far away, so I usually hunt with Sonic II ear valves in my ears. They allow air and noises to enter most of the time, so I can hear the sounds of the forest, even deer footsteps on leaves, and only close their valves when they detect the incoming shock wave of a loud noise. I can highly recommend them for saving your hearing.
Harvesting Your Venison
Now comes the messy part, because once you retrieve your deer, it must be “field-dressed” to remove all internal organs before taking it to the meat processor. If you’ve never done this before, it’s best to have an experienced hunter show you the first time.
You’ll need a very sharp, hunting knife (mine is Turkish, a souvenir from a military assignment there), and some plastic field-dressing gloves (I use Mossy Oak brand, available at Walmart) are a really good idea to keep the blood off of your clothes. Also, a flashlight is quite handy, if it’s evening outdoors. This is best done as a two-person job, with an assistant (friend, neighbor, or relative) to hold the legs apart and help keep the body cavity open while you slowly and carefully remove the internal organs.
Begin like a surgeon, making very shallow cuts from the sternum, straight back toward the hind legs until the organs are exposed. It’s warm and very bloody inside, so be extra careful not to cut your own fingers with the knife as you move things around. Once you remove all of the organs, you can leave the gut pile where it is. Birds and other animals will usually consume it completely within about three to five days, often fewer.
Don’t forget to register the harvest right away, usually online, with your state’s Department of Natural Resources, which will give you a confirmation number. You’ll need that number when you take your field-dressed deer to the local meat processor.
How good is fresh venison? Alex Robinson wrote for Outdoor Life Magazine on May 1, 2013, “The Ultimate Red Meat: Most people can’t even tell the difference between a beef steak and a venison steak…It’s way healthier than beef is…Deer are leaner and wilder animals…less fat than beef (about half the fat, and one-sixth the saturated fat)…Venison has more protein…more vitamins and minerals. I conducted a blind taste test…Venison crushed beef eight-to-two…Venison taken from a healthy deer…might be the safest, red meat on the planet…chicken and ground beef were the ‘riskiest meats’…Wild venison is the ultimate red meat. It’s healthier, tastes better, and is safer than any meat you can buy in a store.”
Last year, I took five deer and gave half the meat from the first buck to the neighbor who helped me all season with the field-dressing, heavy lifting, and loading the deer into the back of my SUV (use a tarp to catch the blood), and the meat from my last buck went to some extended-family members. The tasty venison (steaks, tenderloin, ground deer, bologna, and deer sticks) from the remaining three and a half deer pretty much filled our two freezers, and we still have about 10 pounds of venison left from last year, even as the new season is now well underway.
This responsible, conservationist approach to deer hunting ensures a fun and successful hunting season, healthy meat on the table for your family for many months to come, and the preservation of the sport for future years and future generations.
So, good luck and good hunting!
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism, and is an NRA member. He served in Europe, Turkey, and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author, historian, and avid deer and turkey hunter. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.webs.com.