Field & Stream Online Editors

Deer season is here (or almost here). While we may be content to use the same tactics each year, a quick review of basics (and a look at new research) can only make us better hunters. Hunt hard, hunt smart, hunt safe. The deer of your dreams may be around the corner.

After waiting an eternity for deer season to open, most hunters zealously forge deep into prime whitetail habitat with visions of heavy antlers dancing in their heads. The problem is, early-season bucks are not as eager as early-season hunters. In most instances, a bullish approach does little more than put mature bucks on alert.

Pressured bucks travel less during daylight hours and become more elusive than ever. This is especially true early in the season, before rutting urges overwhelm a buck’s cautious nature. Savvy hunters strive to put themselves within shooting range before a buck knows he’s being hunted.

Even if you don’t spook deer on your initial outings, your lingering scent lets them know the game is on. How do you avoid detection? Consider an approach that has helped Ohioan Steve Shannon tag several Pope and Young bucks.

“I back off early on,” Shannon says. “I regard my first hunts of the season as scouting opportunities. My primary objective is to sit in tree stands that let me see where deer are traveling.”

Observation stands overlooking crops and other open feeding areas are excellent sites from which to spot deer, but Shannon avoids such places. He reasons that many trophy bucks only step into the open under the cloak of darkness. Instead, Shannon sets up observation stands overlooking thick bedding areas, because this is where he most often sees trophy-class bucks. A bedding area is the first place a buck leaves in the afternoon. It’s also his last stop in the morning. Bucks in hill country, Shannon has learned, typically bed on ridge tops. The ends of points extending from ridgelines are particularly good.

“I see more big bucks in the morning,” Shannon says. “A lot of them sneak back to their bedding areas within 30 minutes after daylight. And there isn’t much shooting light left when they leave in the evenings. I try to take advantage of these windows of opportunity.”

Shannon also sets up observation stands overlooking travel routes between feeding and bedding areas. These are of secondary importance, but they do pay off. They become more worthwhile as bucks enter the pre-rut phase and begin to monitor does more closely.

How does he know where to put observation stands? He learns the general whereabouts of deer by scouting unfamiliar hunting grounds before the season. However, he doesn’t set foot in areas he knows well from hunts in previous years. He relies, instead, on past experience.

“Only after a buck shows me what he’s up to do I move in and set up for a shot,” he says. From his observation post, Shannon attempts to determine a suitable place for a tree stand that will intercept the buck. He then stalks the area as if hunting, using the wind to his advantage.

Along with his bow and arrows, Shannon packs in a hang-on stand and a dozen screw-in steps (where permitted). Practice has taught him how to erect the stand quietly enough that he can hunt from it immediately. If he sets up in the afternoon and doesn’t get a shot, he leaves the stand and returns in the morning 45 minutes before daylight. The first morning hunt from a new stand site affords Shannon his best opportunity for getting within range. His odds for success diminish each time he returns.

“It doesn’t take a buck long to catch onto you,” Shannon says. “That’s why observation stands give you a decided edge.”