25 Old-School Skills Today’s Deer Hunters Should Master
If you're like most modern deer hunters, you know every buck on your property by name. But do you still know your old-school woodsmanship skills? Here's a refresher
We are more knowledgable than ever as deer hunters. Today’s typical whitetail nut not only knows every buck on his property but also how old the animal is and what its rack scores to within 10 inches. We understand the nutritional needs, habitat preferences, and behavioral tendencies of whitetails far better than our predecessors. But how many of us still know how to estimate yardage anymore? How about age a track, walk over brittle leaves without spooking deer, or slip up on a bedded buck? With our modern reliance on rangefinders, trail cameras, food plots, tree stands, and the like, are we losing our old-school woodsmanship skills?
Not if F&S can help it. Here, adapted from our archives, are 25 old-school skills every deer hunter should master, with plenty of tips and instruction for those of us who may need to brush up a little.
1. Judge Yardage Without a Rangefinder
One method that’s popular with 3D archery tournament shooters who must precisely estimate unkown distances is to break the span down into smaller increments. By practicing to become ultra-proficient at judging 10 yards, for example, they can mentally measure the full distance 10 yards at a time, adding or subtracting up to 5 yards for in-between ranges. It works for gun hunters, too, who can fine-tune their eye to say 50-yard increments in the big woods and 100-yard increments on the prairie.
Maybe you have a rangefinder but want to sharpen you skills for those situations when there isn’t time to take a reading of an incoming buck. Okay. While you’re scouting, make a habit of guessing the distance to random objects, such as trees, rocks, stumps, in a variety of wooded and open terrain. Then use your rangefinder to test your accuracy—which, you’ll find, will quickly improve. –Dave Hurteau
2. Sneak Through Crunchy Leaves
At times it’s impossible to still-hunt silently. This can be an advantage, however, because deer will also be easier to hear. Get into the best deer-holding cover you can, as quietly as you can. Once there, go ultraslow, and use a grunt tube or fawn bleat to cover the sound of your steps. Listen for the four-legged step-step, pause, step-step pattern of walking deer, and try to intercept them. Since you can’t avoid making noise, you want to sound like a deer. Push down sharply with the toe of your leading foot, then promptly bring your heel down. Step-step. Repeat with the other foot. Step-step. Do not hesitate. Take an angle that will put you within range of the deer, but don’t move directly at them—and be ready to shoot. –Lawrence Pyne
3. Follow the Logger to Hungry Deer
Experienced big-woods hunters know of a late-season food source every bit as reliable as any modern hunter’s plot of brassicas: freshly cut treetops left by loggers. To find them, simply drive back roads looking for fresh cuts or logging machinery or check with state and federal forestry offices, as well as timber companies in your area. If there’s snow, it will be obvious where the deer are feeding. Scout at midday and set up for an evening ambush. –Gerald Almy
4. Stalk A Buck in a Cornfield
You don’t have to hunt a standing cornfield by sitting in a stand overlooking one corner. You can actually get down and cover the whole thing. Pick a day when a steady wind is blowing straight down the rows, and start your hunt on the downwind edge. Starting 15 yards from the end of the field, stick your head between the stalks in the first row. Search left, then right for bedded deer. If you don’t see one, slip into the first row, poke your head into the next, and then repeat until you’ve crossed the field. Then move upwind a ways, re-enter the corn, and head back the way you came. Repeat the drill until you cover the whole field—or you fill your tag. –Scott Bestul
5. Slip Up On A Bedded Buck
One of the best ways to spot a bedded buck is to get above the deer in the morning when thermals are rising. Bucks love to bed on south-facing slopes, typically about a third of the way down from the top near a blowdown or thicket, usually facing downhill. If you work along a ridge top, side-hilling just down from the crest to keep from being silhouetted, you can glass downhill to spot an unsuspecting buck. Alternatively, if there’s little cover near the ridge top or the walking is too noisy, you can slip along the backside of the crest and intermittently peak over the edge to glass downhill. Pay special attention when you get near the end of the ridge, as bucks love to bed there.
You may already be in rifle range when you see the buck. But if you’re carrying a bow, put a large tree trunk between you and the buck and then slip straight up to the tree and repeat until you’re in bow range. Peek around the tree to picture your shot. Using the trunk as a shield, come to full draw. Then go for it: Take a step out and shoot. –Bill Vaznis
6. Age a Deer Track
Punch an ungloved fist into the snow right next to the track you want to age and compare the two. If the track is fresh, its imprint—in terms of how distinct the outline and edges are—should visually match that of your fist print, in any conditions. Now compare the two to the touch. A buck’s hoof, like your skin, gives off a small amount of heat that slightly melts the snow, which eventually hardens. The inside vertical walls of your fist’s print will give easily with pressure, as should that of a fresh track. The harder a track’s vertical walls and midline ridge are to the touch, the older it is. –Dave Hurteau
7. Size Up a Deer Track
A mature buck (3-1/2 years old or older) will leave a track measuring 5 to 6 inches from toe tip to the back of the dewclaw (hoof length from 3 to 3-1/4 inches). Adult does and immature bucks seldom leave a track more than 4 inches in length (including dewclaws). Width is an even better giveaway. If you can lay a .30/06 cartridge crosswise inside the hoofprint or dewclaw spread, the deer that left it is fit for the wall. –Keith McCafferty
8. Find The Freshest Acorns
While other hunters are sitting over their food plots, you can kill the deer they are not seeing by keeping track of the acorn crop. Deer prefer their acorns fresh. To stay one step ahead of the deer (and other hunters), learn how to predict which trees will drop their crop when. One key is sunlight. Trees on south-facing slopes tend to get the most and almost invariably produce the first available mast, followed by those on east- and west-facing slopes, and finally by trees on north-facing hillsides. Also keep in mind that oaks higher up a knoll or ridge tend to mature faster than those below. –Jeff Murray
9. Tag a Spooked Buck
According to Maine tracking and stalking expert Randy Flannery of Wilderness Escape Outfitters, you’ll improve your stillhunting success tenfold if you cross-cut the wind instead of working into it, largely because it gives you a better crack at bagging a spooked buck. “If you jump a deer and he doesn’t blow, open the action on your rifle and run forward at a 45-degree angle toward the downwind side about 75 to 100 yards. Then drop to one knee and wait 10 to 15 minutes. When that buck circles downwind to see what spooked it, you’ll often get a shot within 30 to 60 yards.”
If the buck does blow, Flannery says, run right at him 100 yards or more. “He’ll be running at the same time, so he won’t hear you. Then, usually somewhere between 75 to 200 yards, he’ll slow to a trot or even stop as he starts to swing downwind. If he makes that swing early, there’s a good chance you’ll tag him.” –D.H.
10. Bag a Buck on Your Back Trail
Another good reason to cross-cut the wind when stillhunting is that is allows you to lure a buck onto your back trail without getting winded. Put some doe-in-heat scent onto a drag rag and freshen it often to put down a good scent trail as you walk. Each time you make long pause to listen and glass—as you frequently should when stillhunting—be sure to check your back trail. There may be buck hot on your heels. –D.H.
11. Size Up A Rack Without a Trail Camera
When you find a buck rub that shows collateral damage on adjacent saplings, brush, or trunks, take a measurement from the middle of the main rub to the outermost tine mark. Now double it. Your buck’s rack is at least that wide. Also, when a buck paws through snow to feed, buries his nose deep into a doe track set in snow, or even when taking a long sniff of a scrape, he may leave an impression of his rack in the snow or soft dirt that can tip you off to the size of his headgear. –D.H.
12. Pattern Deer Pee
Not quite sure if the track you’re on belongs to a buck or doe? Look for yellow snow. Does stop and squat to urinate, leaving their mark behind an imaginary line connecting the back of the rear hoof prints. Bucks often whiz on the move, dribbling urine as they go. When a buck does stop to urinate, he shoots a yellow hole into the snow a little forward of that line. Bucks are also more likely than does to defecate on the run, leaving a line of pellets. –B.V.
13. Walk On By a Buck
When I lived in Grayling, Michigan, I had the honor of meeting legendary bowhunter Fred Bear. He pointed out that deer were quick to react to hunters who skulked through the woods but often stood still for humans who appeared to be out for a walk. The trick, he said, was to avoid eye contact and wait until you had passed the deer before turning smoothly to draw your bow. I never became proficient enough to take a deer with an arrow this way, but the trick has worked several times when I had a rifle in hand. –K.M.
14. Sex a Deer Track
Another clue to consider when trying to determine is track your on is that of a buck or do is the trail’s pattern: The rear hooves of all deer tend to overlap the front hooves. But due to differences in pelvic structure, the rear tracks of a buck often land slightly inside the front hoof prints and sometimes fall a little short of them. A doe places her hind hooves on top of the front track and slightly outside of them. The toes of a heavy buck may splay out a little to each side, giving the impression of a widely spaced, staggered stride, whereas a doe’s neat tracks point to where she is heading. A heavy buck is also more likely to leave the impression of his dewclaws, as well as drag marks between prints. –K.M.
15. Pattern Buck Movements Without a Trail Camera
Believe it or not, you can nail down seasonal buck movements entirely without the use of batteries—by keeping a log. “It’s not hard to do,” says Kentucky whitetail guide Pat Willis, “and you won’t believe what it can accomplish for you.” In a journal, he writes down the date, wind direction, weather, high and low temperature, and moon cycle. Next to that he reports all deer activity for all of his stands sites. And over time, patterns emerge.
“It’s definitely worth your while,” Willis says. “We have several stands that the average guy would never hunt judging by the visible sign and cover. Yet if the log says it’ll get hot from say Halloween to Nov. 7th, we hunt it. And sure enough, the big bucks show.” —D.H.
16. Learn If a Buck Trail Is Active Without a Trail Camera
In big-woods habitat where deer densities are low, according to veteran Adirondack whitetail hunter David Allen, it isn’t always apparent whether a certain known runway is active. To find out, he places a good-sized stick right in the trail. “Other animals will leave that stick alone, but for whatever reason, a whitetail buck will kick it right out of the way.” –D.H.
17. Stalk Silently Through the Woods
Still-hunting is all about spotting deer before they see you. That means you have to move as slowly, quietly, and inconspicuously as possible. Take short, balanced steps. Keep your weight on your back foot and use the ball of your leading foot to test the ground for noisy leaves and sticks. Once you find a quiet footing, gradually transfer your weight onto your leading foot, rolling it onto the heel until it can take all your weight. Then repeat the process. Look for silent footholds of moss, flat rocks, pine needles, bare earth, or wet leaves, and plan your route accordingly. Time your steps when passing planes, gusting winds, distant log trucks, and the like will help drown out the sound. Conceal your actions by staying in shadows and the margins of brushy cover. If deer are about, it’s almost impossible to go too slowly, and it’s also true that still-hunters who never seem to see deer are moving way too fast. –L.P.
18. Shoot Off-Hand With Iron Sights
You don’t need a 16x scope with a 50mm objective lens to kill deer, especially if you’re hunting from the ground in wooded cover where most shots come close and quick. Maine guide Randy Flannery shoots his iron-sighted Winchester Model 94 like a shotgun. “Keep both eyes open and concentrate on the front sight.” To practice, he walks as though stillhunting and quickly pulls up to shoot plastic milk jugs placed 20 yards apart at 40 to 50 yards away. “This teaches you to mount the gun properly, get the front sight on the target quickly, and shoot accurately. When a deer jumps up in front of you, you’re reaction will be automatic.” –D.H.
19. Learn Where Deer Are Now Without a Trail Camera
With deer numbers at historic highs in much of the country, traditional scouting tactics often lead to information overload. Ground that’s too well-trod won’t tell you anything. The solution is to take advantage of a well-timed storm. Overnight rain or snow that ends before daybreak, for example, obscures or erases old tracks just before deer move from their feeding areas back to their beds, making for productive morning scouting of these travel patterns. Also after a storm, bucks are quick to reopen the hottest scrapes covered by snow or leaves, or washed out by rain. –Steven Hill
20. Use A Natural Deer Lure
You don’t have to have the latest $25-dollar bottle of ultra-fresh deer urine. Old-time hunters have been using the tarsal glands of killed deer to lure in live ones for decades. You can, too. First, collect tarsal glands from fresh deer kills whenever you can. Tell your buddies you want the hocks of the deer they harvest, assuming they don’t. Then freeze them until you need them. Vacuum-packing is the ideal way to go. Otherwise, put the glands in a pair of doubled-up sealable plastic bags and squeeze out as much air as possible. –J.M.
21. Steal A Buck Scrape
Neither do you need a mock-scrape kit—complete with the $25-dollar bottle of ultrafresh deer pee mentioned previously—to fake this buck sign. Just go find a fresh scrape in an area where you don’t have a stand, such as a field-edge where bucks typically work scrapes at night. Then use a small spade to shovel the aromatic dirt into a plastic bag and transfer it to a mock scrape near one of your stands back in the woods. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can steal the licking branch, too. –D.H.
22. Call to Chasing Deer—Without a Deer Call
Don’t have the latest grunt call or bleat can? That’s okay, especially during the chase phase when deer make plenty of non-vocal noises. Tapping or scuffing the leaves with a long stick to imitate the footfalls of a nearby doe, for example, can bring a buck running. Another good trick is to rub a small, dry stick against a sapling to imitate the sound of a buck taking out his frustrations on a young tree. If there’s enough cover at ground level to keep you hidden, waggle the sapling’s crown back and forth. A buck that sees this from a distance can hardly resist investigating.
Raking leaf litter with a stick or your hand as if making a scrape can also be very effective. I always toss the duff high into the air, as the sound of debris pelting the forest floor seems to bring these bucks running. —B.V.
23. Drive Deer Like a Pro
The savviest old-timers make an art form out of driving deer. Here are a few tricks they keep up their plaid-flannel sleeves:
1. Have drivers get in position and just hang out upwind for a while, especially on small drives. Their scent may be all it takes to nudge deer slowly past the posters for easy shooting.
2. Put a few choice areas of security cover off limits from day one. Bucks pressured elsewhere will move into your sanctuaries and be there when you’re finally ready to push it.
3. Take advantage of any natural features that block bucks from fleeing in a given direction, thus helping steer them toward your posters.
4. When you have a draw or a finger of woods that juts out from the main cover, try driving into the wind. That is, slowly still-hunt toward the narrow end as another hunter or two posts downwind to catch bucks slipping out the back door.
5. At the end of each drive, get everyone together to discuss what they saw. Over time, you’ll learn exactly how bucks escape certain thickets and be able to put your posters in the perfect spots. –G.A.
24. Track a Doe
An estrous doe is a buck magnet. Get close and you can tap her drawing power. But first, you have to get on the right track. When you find doe prints in the snow, follow them a ways looking for rose-colored urine stains. This is a dead give-away that she’s in heat. Also, look to each side for the tracks of a flanking buck or two. If she’s close but not quite ready to stand, bucks will zigzag her trail like water skiers running a slalom course, each using his eyes, ears, and nose to keep tabs on her exact whereabouts. If that estrous doe does not have flanking bucks, she soon will. Either way, follow her tracks. –B.V.
25. Read a Topo Map
Google Earth is cool. But a topo map is all you really need to locate big-woods buck hotspots. Here are four:
1. Dead-End 4×4 Trails: The best lead to abandoned farmsteads. Look on your topo for clusters of small black boxes at trail’s end indicating old outbuildings.
2. Steep Ravines: When traveling between high bedding areas and low feeding areas, wilderness bucks routinely follow the contours of steep wash-outs, making the head of a ravine a nexus for deer activity. Look for tight contour lines.
3. Old Beaver Ponds: Recently emptied ones, with all their young, tender growth, draw hungry deer. Also, beaver dams themselves make natural crossings and can be a top stand location, especially during the rut. Look for marsh symbols near water.
4. Right-Of-Ways: New growth attracts deer wherever gas, power, or telephone companies cut wide swaths through the big woods. Hone in on features that allow bucks to cross undetected, such as creek beds, gullies, and strips of thick vegetation. –B.V.