A GRAY-COATED BUCK PICKED his way cautiously down the slope, heading right where I’d expected him to go. I counted nine heavy, bone-white tines as he moved through the transition area toward an alfalfa field. But at 80 yards out, the buck suddenly veered away from my tree stand, his tall rack slowly disappearing into a thick swale.

Was I disappointed? No. I’d shot some nice video of the buck before he vanished, which I reviewed at home, allowing me to age him as a 3-year-old. And I hadn’t spooked the buck because I wasn’t in the tree stand. Instead, I was on the opposite slope across a creekbottom, watching it. The season was still days away.

This was a dry-run hunt, with no bow, no arrows, no gun, no bullets. But when it was over, I knew exactly what I had to do to get that 9-pointer: move my stand 60 yards north, where a small dip in the terrain and a bit more brush made it a more appealing route for that old, cautious buck.

Deer hunters follow a predictable routine every season: Find some promising sign, put up a stand, and hope our hunch is right when the opener arrives. Too often, though, we find that our chosen site is almost on the money. The solution is to make a dry-run hunt, and get your stand in exactly the right place.

THE SETUP Start where your scouting has turned up good sign and pick a potential stand site based on your usual criteria. Then, watch that site and the route any buck may take through the area. Where you do this from depends on the terrain, visibility, and wind direction. In open country, I might settle down on a hillside half a mile away. In the open woods, my lookout could be a climbing stand on a ridge only 200 yards off. If the cover is thicker, I’ll get even closer, and although I avoid it when possible, occasionally I’ll sit in the stand itself.

THE HUNT When you’re ready to make a dry run, it’s critical that you treat it like an actual hunt (minus a firearm, of course). Wear full camo and scent control, monitor the wind direction, sit still, and make a commitment to watch a potential afternoon hotspot, for example, until the end of shooting light, just as you would during the season.

The goal is to see your buck, but while you’re waiting ask yourself these critical questions:

  1. [1] What is the sun’s exact angle in relation to your stand site?

Ideally it should be at your back, or at least at your side. If it isn’t, plan to reposition the stand so there’s no chance the sun’s rays will compromise your vision during the actual hunt.

  1. [2] Does the wind follow the prevailing currents?

If you see branches and bushes blowing in a random or circular pattern around the stand–indicating an irregular air-current pocket caused by the topography–move your stand out of the pocket and into the prevailing wind, where your scent won’t be carried to the buck’s nose on shifting breezes.

  1. [3] Are there does milling directly downwind that might catch your scent and alert a buck?

If you can move the stand downwind of the does and still have clear shooting to the buck’s route, that’s the best solution. Otherwise, move the stand up or down along the route so your scent is carried to one side or the other of the does, rather than directly to them.

  1. [4] Is there more than one route the buck may take past your stand?

If so, consider piling up some brush to block one of the trails.

  1. [5] How will you get to and from the stand site without spooking deer?

Take the time to carefully study the topography, cover, and wind to plot out your entry and exit routes. Err on the side of caution, even if it means circling widely or climbing a steep ridge.

When your buck does show, watch and listen closely. The trail you’re staking out might turn up only does and fawns, with your buck taking a different route farther back in the brush. If your buck appears after dark, you may want to move closer to the bedding area. Or perhaps a slight adjustment is all that’s needed.

Sure, you can learn these things during the season, but why waste valuable hunting time? A mature buck won’t tolerate much trial and error once other hunters are in the woods.

Oh, and that 9-pointer: It didn’t happen on the opener, but a day later he was hanging behind my cabin, ready to be cut into steaks, roasts, and burger.

The Preseason Hunt WH1

Your Deer Season Planner WH4

Brush Guns Buyer’s Guide WH6

Promising Signs WH8

The Big-Forest Hunt WH11

Button-Buck ID WH12

Deer Hunter’s Spy Tools WH14

Bachelor Parties WH16

No Stinking Way WH18

Common Senses WH20

Buck Hideouts WH22