Learning & Relearning the Whitetail Basics
You'll never know everything about deer, but remembering the simple things can reboot your focus.
During The second half of November, the morning temperatures were in the low teens and clouds blocked every sunrise. This was my eighth morning in a row perched in a treestand. Optimistic and alert, I absorbed every sound and movement. I swiveled my head to peer behind me for the hundredth time, and my heart rate took a jump when I saw the shooter 5x5 walking directly at me, still 35 yards out. Time froze as I waited with longbow in hand. The buck turned north, and in one smooth motion I pivoted 180 degrees and placed my left hand on the bowstring. I learned long ago not to look at a buck’s antlers at close range. The buck was screened by the snapped off top half of a box elder tree. It was hard to focus on a spot behind his front shoulder through the maze of limbs. Then his nose hit the trail of a doe that had run through earlier, and he turned straight away from me. My internal panic alarm went off, as I feared the buck was about to walk out of my life…
Whitetail deer hunting is a lifetime pursuit for the hardcore bowhunter. In my world of western Nebraska and Kansas, and eastern Colorado, the second week of November is the start of the holiday season of bowhunting and my favorite time of the year — the rut.
I’ve been hunting whitetails for over 40 years, but my education on the endeavor never ends. In 2018, I learned some new things, and I also relearned a few more things I’d forgotten. And now I’d like to share them with you.
Deer Move Midday
I’ve observed deer moving at midday for years. The reason most hunters don’t, is that they aren’t in their stands. A few years ago, I came back to the cabin at 1 p.m. and found my hunting buddy taking a nap. He got out of the tree at 10:30 a.m. because the deer “weren’t moving.” I’d seen three large-antlered bucks between noon and 12:30 p.m. that day. Last year, I sat a new stand where I saw seven bucks between noon and 1:15 p.m. Don’t waste the precious minutes of November in bed, or at the local diner.
Grunt Calls And Doe Bleats
Midafternoon, I was sitting peacefully in a ladder stand when a buck cruised by at about 130 yards. I bleated at the buck, and then grunted three times. The buck came to me like I was pulling him on a string. He was too young, so I passed on him. I realized I’d never done that sequence of calls before, and it really worked! An hour later, a big 5x5 made a scrape 100 yards to the east and then turned around to leave. Right when he disappeared into the woods, I repeated my new sequence of calls. Realizing that I couldn’t shoot to my left (I’m left-handed) if he came in, I stood up in the ladder stand and rotated 180 degrees. It was windy, so I couldn’t hear or see anything approaching. I made one more series of calls, and then decided it was a lost cause and sat down. Right before my backside hit the seat, the buck stepped out, looking right at me. I relearned something at that exact moment — patience!
Every year I complain to myself that I just can’t fit everything I need for an all-day sit in my 2,000-square-inch pack. Last year, I knocked the dust off an older 3,200-square-inch pack, and it was fantastic. A full-sized Thermos and rattling horns fit inside the pack, as did my extra gloves, down vest, SLR camera, lots of grub, and books. If a bowhunter is going to be sitting all day, a large pack is a must.
Many bowhunters tell me they don’t hunt mornings. Excuses range from not being able to get to their stands without disturbing deer to the fact that they’ve killed most of their deer in the evening. It makes sense that if you only hunt evenings, you won’t kill many deer in the morning or at midday.
One morning, I pulled up my bow and unlaced my boots to insert toe warmers. When I looked up, a shooter 4x5 was walking right at me. Grabbing my longbow, I came to full draw as the buck passed below me, and I filled my tag. In 2018, I also took a morning buck. I’ve relearned that you can’t take a buck in the morning if you don’t hunt mornings.
Move Your Stand
Everybody has done it. A buck, or numerous bucks, walk under a tree just out of range. It crosses the hunter’s mind that the tree sure looks like a great place for a stand, but most hunters don’t make the effort to move. Twenty years ago, I observed a buck walking under the same tree two days in a row. On the third day, when he did the same, I was above him drawing my bow.
Last year, I remembered a big 5x5 buck walking south of me 60 yards several times in the same spot. In July, I hung a new stand right where I observed the pattern the year before. It’s now my new favorite stand, as I was covered up in deer at close range.
I usually wear a facemask to camouflage my bright-white face from the sight of wary bucks. Those thin, lacy facemasks are good camo, but they kill me when the icy north winds slap me in the face. I bought a Smartwool balaclava for an Arctic hunt years ago. This past year, I threw it in my gear bag. It’s said that a hunter loses most of his heat through his head, and a face is just as big as the top of the scalp. I was sitting warm and happy last season wearing two facemasks.
When I was a kid, I wore coveralls to do farm chores in the winter. They were always warmer than a pair of jeans and a coat. Last year, I woke up one morning, looked at the thermometer on the porch, and it was 11 degrees Fahrenheit. After breakfast, I checked again, and it was 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I trotted upstairs and put on my insulated and windproof coveralls. Sitting in a treestand, I was still warm five hours later, and it never got above low double digits.
Binoculars are always with me when I’m hunting deer. In many of my stands, I can only see 50 or 100 yards, so it’s hard to justify carrying 10x40 or 10x50 binoculars around my neck — not to mention the bulk and weight. Last year, I acquired a set of Zeiss Terra ED 10x25 binoculars. They don’t look like much, but boy are they clear. I easily can hold them steady with one hand, allowing me to hold my bow in my other hand. It’s easy to size up an approaching buck without getting out of shooting position. They’re not as good at gathering light as my big glass, but that’s the only drawback.
You Can’t Always Pick The Right Stand
Get over the frustration of wishing you were in “the other stand” every time a big buck chases a doe under a different stand. All a hunter can do is get a weather forecast, check deer sign, and pick the best stand for the conditions. I have two stands in the same creekbottom, about 50 yards apart, and I’ve shot good bucks out of both. Twice last year I watched bucks walk under the stand I wasn’t in. It isn’t completely random; a bowhunter should take note of the time and wind conditions on each observation. Just play the odds with an educated guess, and it will work out.
Trail Cameras Lie
I enjoy checking my trail cameras and recording what nature does when I’m not around. The pictures of fawns and young bobcats are almost as valuable as seeing trophy bucks. However, a hunter should not rely on the cameras completely, as even the best ones only pick up limited fields of view and distances. Last year, I hunted a morning stand on the edge of a bedding area. My trail camera had only a few pictures of mediocre bucks. However, the sign on the ground and rubs on the trees said, “Hunt me now.” I did, and I was watching buck action all morning. Trail cameras, where legal, are fun and helpful. But don’t forget to do some scouting the old-fashioned way. Don’t forget past observations and the importance of fresh buck sign.
Deer Hunting Is Fun
I relearn this every year — deer hunting is fun! Sure, there are slow days, cold days, and humbling days when a hunter is in the wrong tree, wrong bedding area, or picked the wrong wind…but it’s all good. Make the best of it, read an interesting book, eat tasty snacks, and take a few pictures. Remember, a bad day can take less than 30 seconds to turn into a great day, especially if a hot doe comes running through the leaves with Mr. Right on her heels.
As I started to describe at the beginning of this article, the buck walked dead away from me, lowered his head, and sniffed the tracks of several does that had passed through earlier in the morning. He turned right and started circling me, still sniffing away. I was losing it, trying to pick a hole in the mass of hackberry limbs blocking any hope of a clear arrow path. I’d learned many years ago to pass on such shots, as a deflected arrow cannot benefit animal or hunter.
The 5x5 then walked up to a large ash tree and rubbed his swollen neck against the bark. Luckily, the buck was walking to my right, so I was finally in a comfortable shooting position. Would he come my way? I wondered. What should I do if he walks away? Grunt, or rattle? I was starting to panic, as I only had one more day to hunt. My mind zoomed a hundred miles an hour. With my heart pounding and my nerves a wreck, the buck turned and headed down a trail 15 yards in front of me. I slid my string back to full draw and focused on his chest. I don’t know why it’s always like this, but intensity helps me keep it together when it seems like everything is falling apart. It was happening. The buck passed the last tree, and my arrow was on its way. It found its mark, closing out another great rut hunt. I learned and relearned a lot last year, which is good…because no one ever knows it all.
The author has taken all 29 species of North American big game animals with a longbow, but he still can’t wait for November and rutting whitetails.