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Deer-Hunting Lessons Learned

By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2021

“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.

Since Gunpowder Magazine kindly published my original article on a similar topic, “Deer Hunting for Success,” on December 8, 2019, field experience over the past year and a half has taught me several unanticipated and worthwhile lessons to be passed on to others. I’ve been hunting whitetail deer for the past 19 years now, with resulting changes in equipment, techniques, and overall hunting philosophy over time.

If you refer to the previous article, the first thing you may notice is that I look different between the two photos, taken almost five years apart. I’m obviously older and a lot thinner now, just trying to be healthier and live longer! The weapons are also different, but we’ll discuss that below. Now, let’s move on to the deer-hunting lessons learned over these past 17 months or more, in chronological order.

First of all, over the years, our vision may not be as sharp and clear as it once was. I’ve owned a muzzle-loading, black-powder rifle for quite some time, and at first, I used the ordinary, iron sights, with fiber-optic inserts, for that sense of macho, primitive, deer hunting. My youngest son took a small buck with it one year, so it seemed to work well for a while. But I’m a military retiree, and my eyes aren’t quite as good as they once were, so I had to eventually begin using a scope. They’re not really all that expensive, and a decent, very accurate, Bushnell Banner 1-4X scope only cost me $59 four years ago. More than 90 percent of all deer harvested worldwide are taken at 100 yards or less, so 4Xmagnification is all that most of us really need.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once declared, “When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.” Any responsible deer hunter extends the same courtesy to his prey: When you kill a deer, it costs you nothing to be humane about it. Be highly accurate, and make it a quick, clean kill, so the deer does not run very far, or suffer. Quoting from my previous article: “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...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.”

My state has three separate and distinct, hunting “seasons” each year, separated into archery season, muzzleloader season, and rifle season, and generally running from mid-September to the end of January for all three seasons. My first muzzleloader rifle was a bolt-action, CVA Elkhorn Magnum in .50-caliber, with a fluted, 26-inch barrel, a nice, accurate firearm, made in Spain, and I took one deer with it, after mounting a scope. But it was just a little too long, at 41 inches overall, for comfort in my tree stand, awkward to install a primer using a special tool, and quite complicated and tricky to disassemble and reassemble the spring-loaded, bolt mechanism for cleaning the rifle.

So, in 2017, I acquired a brand-new, CVA Wolf .50 Magnum for only $279, with a camouflaged, synthetic stock, black-nitride-coated, stainless-steel barrel (very corrosion-resistant), open sights (fiber-optic), and break action, with a screw-in, muzzle plug for very easy unloading and cleaning. It’s only 39 inches in overall length, with a 24-inch barrel, so it’s handier and more portable than the old Elkhorn Magnum, and I installed a DuraSight Z2-alloy Dead-On, one-piece, scope mount, and Bushnell Banner 1-4X32mm scope. I’ve taken two bucks and two does with it since then, with ordinary, non-magnum loads, and it works quite well.

My preferred, hunting load for this rifle is the Powerbelt Aerolite 250-grain, .50-caliber bullet, over two 50-grain pellets of Alliant Blue MZ pelletized powder. I had previously used IMR White Hots, which are basically the same composition of pelletized powder, but the Blue MZ pellets (50-percent potassium nitrate, and 25-percent potassium perchlorate) seem to be just a tiny bit larger, and have a higher advertised, muzzle velocity with this particular bullet, at 1,726 feet per second for Blue MZ, versus 1,648 feet per second for White Hots. The two powder loads are otherwise nearly identical, very clean-burning and efficient, but I’ll gladly accept the extra 78 fps (4.7-percent faster) for basically the same cost.

In 2018, I had my best deer-hunting year ever, harvesting three eight-point bucks and two does, but I only took the does because my state had a rule that after killing two bucks, you had to take at least two does in order to apply for the “bonus,” buck stamp to take a third buck for the year. I should also point out that my state allows hunters to take up to 35 does per year, which is neither practical nor reasonable, and would literally wipe out entire herds if we really did that. As Jeff Goldblum’s character said in the 1993 movie, Jurassic Park, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.” So, a good hunter is also a good conservationist, and does not take any more deer than necessary.

Fortunately, the nonsensical, two-doe rule was eliminated during the following year, and now hunters may take up to three bucks per year, without any excessive restrictions otherwise. We do, however, have a week-long, “antlerless” hunt in mid-October, and this is the only time that I’ve ever taken any does. From my previous article: “So, the artificial, conservationist limit that I set for myself is three bucks and one doe...and this way, there are plenty of deer left for next year, or for other hunters...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.”

The most-significant changes to the hunting dynamics in my semi-rural neighborhood took place a year and a half ago, just as the first article was being written. Within a half-mile radius of my home, there were previously only two active, deer hunters, my next-door neighbor and myself, but major, local changes led to at least seven hunters (one of whom seems to be a poacher, taking a lot of deer, including the only 10-point buck in the area) now searching for the same deer herds on the same tracts of land, next door to a national park. So, in 2019, I only got one deer all year, a 10-point buck with one antler missing after a fight, so he had just five remaining points, and two of those were sheared off at the tips. He must have been quite a fighter before I located him that December!

This greatly-increased, neighborhood competition for a finite number of deer led me to make some necessary changes in equipment, techniques, and hunting strategy that I had not previously considered. First of all, my neighbor and I had never hunted during archery season before, but after a new, 18-year-old hunter up the road took a beautiful, eight-point buck on the very first day of archery season in 2019, I was immediately convinced that in order to remain competitive for deer in my area, I needed to start hunting with a crossbow, which I finally purchased that December, but by that time, there was only one, highly-elusive buck left alive among the local herds, and no one was able to take him.

Meanwhile, I sold my fully-exposed, Cabela’s 12-foot tree stand that same October (within just four hours of posting it online), and had a raised, wooden, hunting blind installed on my wooded property, instead, for less than $2,000. It’s a six-foot-wide, brown-painted, camouflaged, octagonal blind on a 10-foot-tall tower, constructed and expertly installed on-site by Ervin Esh, a very hard-working, Amish gentlemen from southern Pennsylvania (www.eshsheds.com.)

Inside, and centered upon the floor, is a fully-adjustable, previously-owned, rolling-and-swiveling, granite-gray, office chair in excellent condition, with lumbar support, height adjustment, and raised armrests, acquired from a local thrift store for a mere $30. This allows me to rotate and rapidly track moving, wild game while resting my elbows upon the armrests as I steady my weapon.

This new hunting blind keeps me safer, better-concealed from the deer, has more room inside, even for two or three people, and allows me to hunt in the rain or snowfall, so I can be hunting more often, with reduced risk of personal injury, and increased odds of bagging a deer. I initially ordered it without plexiglas windows, thinking that I could react and move faster from one open window frame to the next, if deer suddenly showed up. It was still cold and windy, drew in rain and pine needles, and small birds even tried to nest inside the roof rafters, but it worked that way for the next year and a half, and I shot two bucks from up there, so it was a successful endeavor.

Last year, 2020, was a wild, crazy, unpredictable, tumultuous year of COVID-19 virus and vicious politics, as we all remember, unfortunately heralding the beginning of the “Great Ammo Shortage” of 2020 to 2021, and incredibly, the public supplies of almost all ammunition, especially including everyday, hunting calibers, such as .30-06, which is no longer used in any modern, military weapon, simply disappeared. Who would ever have imagined such an inconceivable scenario?

Chris Metz, the CEO of Vista Outdoor, which now owns Federal, Remington, Speer, and CCI ammunition companies, did not mince words, telling the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine staff in mid-December 2020 that, “Ever since Joe Biden was named the presumed, presidential-election winner, we have seen a reaction in the marketplace, and it hasn’t subsided at all. So, through all (of) that, we’ve been producing ammunition flat-out, and yet our retailers are not able to maintain any inventory to speak of...any type or caliber of handgun ammo; small rifle, big rifle, hunting rifle; even rimfire, all of it really picked up. And we’re not seeing an end...we don’t foresee any slowdown in the demand in 2021.”

During that raucous, unbelievable, roller-coaster year of 2020, I began experimenting with solid-copper, rifle and muzzleloader bullets, and I even wrote another Gunpowder Magazine article on “The Copper-Bullet Debate,” published on September 24, 2020. The very valid reason for this is that any high-velocity, rifle ammunition exceeding the “fragmentation-threshold” velocity of about 2,260 feet per second (Mach 2.0) can potentially lose as much as 40 percent of its mass through fragmentation into microscopic particles that can contaminate the deer meat, and lead is definitely a toxic substance, so all-copper bullets become an environmentally-friendly option that can also reduce any possible lead poisoning from your venison.

Understanding solid-copper bullets, however, takes a learning curve for most of us, because copper is 26.6-percent lighter than lead, given the same volume of metal, so a 150-grain, copper bullet will be approximately the same size as a 190-grain, lead bullet, and will behave in much the same manner, penetrating more deeply than a 150-grain, lead bullet. Writer Clint Wirick aptly noted that, “With this said, you can step down in bullet weight, and still see penetration as good or even exceeding lead-core bullets.”

Returning to my original, “Deer Hunting for Success” article, I wrote, “This is when my Remington 700 in .30-06 comes into action, and I’ve been using premium, bonded, Remington Premier Scirocco, lead-core bullets in 150 grains until now, mainly because they are very-high-quality, extremely accurate, and they typically expand to twice their original diameter...But...it is still prone to approximately 25-percent fragmentation of tiny, lead particles, which is a very-valid, environmental and human-safety concern. So, once I’ve finished shooting my very last box of fairly-expensive, Remington Premier Sciroccos, I’ll be switching to Winchester Deer Season XP Copper Impact ammunition in 150-grains...‘engineered specifically for deer hunters...(for) more impact trauma, better energy transfer, and large wound cavities for faster knockdown.’”

The Winchester XP Copper Impact round shoots precisely to the same point at 100 yards on my target bullseye as the Remington Scirocco, requiring no scope adjustment whatsoever, and I recently acquired two boxes of SIG Sauer Elite Performance Copper Hunting ammunition (solid-copper hollowpoints, or SCHPs) in 150 grains, even during the current ammo shortage, so I’m now well-stocked with copper hunting ammunition for the foreseeable future. I even purchased a pack of 250-grain (lightest-available weight), Thor Lightning solid-copper, ballistic-tip, muzzleloader bullets in .503-caliber for black-powder season.

This brings us to my first, and so far, only, deer kill using my new crossbow, a Barnett/Wildgame XB370, with 185 pounds of draw weight, and a velocity of 370 feet per second. It fires 20-inch, Barnett Headhunter, carbon-fiber bolts (short arrows) that are about .303-caliber in diameter, and weigh 415 grains overall, including a 100-grain, Allen Stryke Impact or G5 Outdoors Montec, three-pronged, steel broadhead tip. The scope supplied with it had a lot of confusing and distracting range lines, however, so I quickly replaced it with a very simple, AimSports 4x32mm, mil-dot scope, for $45. This type of weapon is most-effective at 25 yards, where it sighted-in perfectly, right through the bullseye, and it hits about 9.5 inches low at 50 yards, so in the field, I just estimate that distance on the deer’s body as I aim.

I’ve always had reservations about bow hunting, concerned that it may not kill the deer quickly enough, especially with just 75 pounds of draw weight on a regular bow, but a high-quality crossbow is another matter entirely. On September 17, 2020, only six days into the initial hunting season of the fall, my new XB370 was put to the test when a beautiful, eight-point buck (see the photo at the top of this article) stepped out in front of my raised, hunting blind at a short range of just 20 yards. He only stopped moving for about two seconds, and I fired quickly at a downward angle, hitting him just a little higher than I would have preferred. He ran like the wind, directly away from me for about 50 yards, turned once to look back at me for a second, and then disappeared into the thick forest to the right.

I slowly climbed down from the hunting blind, thinking that I might have a long, arduous trek ahead of me to track him down on the steep, wooded hillsides and across a local ravine and creek, into the nearby, national park. The crossbow bolt had passed completely through him, out the other side, and into the ground, totally undamaged, and I recovered it and cleaned it, to be used again next year. Following the large buck on foot, I was stunned to find him dead on the ground, only about six feet into the edge of the forest.

The crossbow had killed him just as quickly as my mighty, .30-06 rifle took that one-antlered buck the previous year, validating the effectiveness of a powerful crossbow for me. Hunter Ron Spomer noted in 2016 that, “Speed doesn’t kill...(Deer) do not care if this was done by a bullet racing (at) 3,400 fps, 2,400 fps, 1,400 fps, or 400 fps (crossbow velocity)...None of those are going to bounce off!...And that takes us back to tissue destruction...putting a bullet (or arrow) in the right place.”

Adding archery hunting, which I’ve never done before, now extends my available, hunting time from a mere 41 days, for rifle and muzzleloader seasons combined, out to a full 4.7 months, more than tripling the effective period that I’m allowed to hunt, with golden opportunities for silent hunting over a month before muzzleloader season officially begins.

Of course, the unintended consequence of broadening my hunting skills is that my next-door neighbor now intends to begin crossbow hunting, which he’s never done before, either, having seen and helped to lift my big, healthy, eight-point buck last September, and he has also ordered his own wooden, Ervin Esh hunting blind, not quite as high as mine, but the unofficial competition for deer in our overhunted area is clearly influencing him, as well.

Until last year, I used to hunt with soft, Sonic II ear valves in my ears to preserve my hearing, because my .30-06 rifle is very loud, sounding like a small cannon, even from far away. The valves allowed air and noises to enter most of the time, so I could hear the sounds of the forest, even deer footsteps on leaves, and they only close when they detect the incoming shock wave of a loud noise. But having them inside my ear canals for hours at a time wasn’t exactly comfortable.

Then, just last year, a pistol-instructor neighbor (but a non-hunter) introduced me to camouflaged, Howard Leight R-01530 Impact Sport electronic earmuffs, which are battery-operated, and can be electronically adjusted to almost any sound level, from blocking out all noise, to actually amplifying forest noises up to 82 decibels to help you detect deer movement. Like the Sonic II valves, they instantly block any sharp, loud noises, however, to protect your hearing at all times.

We also upgraded to a larger, downstairs storage freezer last year, to help accommodate extra deer meat. In 2018, we were able to fit the meat from about three and a half of the five deer I took that year into our storage freezer, but with all of the crazy, 2020 food shortages and hoarding that took place, we had very little room left in our 35-cubic-foot freezer, so we gave it to one of our sons, and purchased a 50-cubic-foot model from Lowe’s, instead. Even though I only took two bucks last year, and no does, the additional freezer room proved to be quite essential.

Early this year, in 2021, I had a competent, professional gunsmith shorten the barrel on my Remington 700 ADL hunting rifle in .30-06 from 22 inches, down to 18.8 inches, and 39 inches overall length, because I was constantly bumping it into door frames, window frames, and sometimes ceilings, and worrying about knocking the scope out of alignment. As hunter Ron Spomer observed in a November 20, 2016, article, “Short barrels bother some hunters. They shouldn’t...Deer, elk, moose, bears...don’t know what hit them...Consider saving some weight and making your rifle easier to maneuver...As a general rule, an inch less barrel will cost a bullet between 25 and 50 fps velocity...(but) 50 fps of lost speed isn’t much...anything in the .30-06 class...is a perfect candidate for a short barrel.”

Spomer has a very valid point. It’s definitely not the speed that matters. For any hunting inside of 300 yards (which includes most of us), a handy, short-barrel rifle or carbine will serve you admirably, just as swift and accurate as long-barreled weapons, and much lighter and easier to handle in the brush, or from a hunting blind. As with any hunting scenario, it’s the shot placement that really matters.

My next consideration in this more-competitive, deer-hunting environment is the ethical aspect of baiting a deer with food, versus hunting them in their natural state. As I wrote previously, “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...(and) it’s technically legal on private land in my state.” I’ve never baited deer before, but I’ve also never had to compete with six more local hunters for deer meat. My next-door neighbor has always baited deer, however, and it definitely works!

So, I recently purchased a Moultrie MFG-13220 5.5-foot-tall, 30-gallon, deer feeder ($108 from Walmart.com), which is very simple to load and operate, and dispenses various, pre-selected amounts of corn feed (about $12 for a 50-pound bag.) I haven’t actually used it yet, but I know it works, and I’ll need every possible, legal, competitive advantage now that there are many more hunters in the nearby region.

Finally, my next-door neighbor decided to order his own Ervin Esh hunting blind with sliding, plexiglas windows, so I carefully weighed this option, and had Mister Esh come to my property and install eight vertically-sliding windows in my raised, octagonal blind (see attached photo) earlier this year, at a total cost of $350. I wish I’d done that a year and a half ago, when I first purchased the great blind. The simple, clear, plexiglas windows slide upward silently, and they now keep out all of the wind, rain, snow, pine needles, birds, insects, tree debris, dust, and pollen, as well as most of the external noise, so I can’t praise them enough. They make a world of difference!

However, the lower window sills are brown-painted pine, a fairly soft wood, with a sharp, raised, internal edge to allow rain to drain away, toward the outside. To avoid damaging these sloping sills when I rest my weapons upon them to track the deer, I recently added a single row of soft, camouflaged rope along the top of each lower sill, held in place with four flathead, wood screws, to slightly cushion my rifle or crossbow as I hunt. The great thing about a simple, rustic, wooden, hunting blind is that it’s fully customizable to your own needs.

The ultimate goal of all of these changes and adapting to local conditions, is, of course, a successful hunt, and acquiring fresh venison for your family. So, I’ll close with two important paragraphs from my original article: “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...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...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.’

“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.vistaprintdigital.com.

 
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