Top 10 Lessons from the 2019 Deer Season
Tough bucks, beaver moons, new spots, and more takeaways from another great fall
Last month, I was shivering in a climbing stand in northern Ohio. It was around 2 p.m., cold as a well-digger’s butt, and I was into my third all-day sit. I was in a great spot, but the rut was mostly over and sometimes the deer just don’t move. That was part of the problem that day. The other problem was that I’d already hunted 50 or more days since September, and I’d about had my fill of treestand time for the year. I went home without a buck, temporarily thankful that my season was finally over.
But then I had a little break, to open Christmas presents and do some duck hunting. And now I’m looking back on the fall and realizing that it was great season. Like any, it had low points and slow spells. I’ve never had the discipline to keep a hunting journal up to date, but I do like to take stock of the things I’ve learned at the end of each year. It’s a practice that’s made me a better deer hunter. And so, here are my top 10 takeaways for 2019.
1. Trying something new on a place you’ve hunted your whole life can really work.
I killed my 2019 Kentucky buck on November 3, and he taught me a bunch of lessons, starting with this one: If you hunt the same places year after year, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. On our family farm, we’ve always planted food plots in mostly the same places, and then fine-tuned stands around them based on deer movement and accessibility. We’ve killed plenty of deer like that, so why change, right?
Except this year my wife, Michelle, mentioned a place on the farm where we always see deer movement, and where access would be easy. “Why don’t we ever hunt that?” she asked.
That side of the farm is bordered by creek that’s accessible by canoe. The creek bank is grown up, with a few trees just big enough for a stand. Just beyond is a 5-acre thicket that was once a field, but after a few years of flooding and tractor trouble, we let it get away from us. We’ve kept a 15-yard-wide perimeter path around the outside of that thicket that was intended as a firebreak, but the place is never dry enough to burn.
This year, Michelle planted a quarter-acre brassica plot right in that firebreak, and we hung a lock-on stand in a poplar on the edge of the water. The spot is hundreds of yards away from our usual food plots and access roads on the farm. But you can sneak in to the base of the tree by boat, undetected, and catch a buck cruising through that plot for does—which is exactly what happened the first time I hunted it. I shot the big 8-pointer pictured above at 5 steps.
Good idea, Mish.
2. Trail cameras can really spook deer.
There’s a giant old buck that spends a little time on our place. (I wrote about and showed a picture of him in takeaway No. 4 in 2018.) He’d be the deer of a lifetime, but I consider him virtually impossible to hunt. He makes a few appearances on cameras early in the season, always late at night, and then disappears.
I’ve suspected the buck was camera-shy, and this year I got proof. I hung a cam over a mineral spring that gets a lot of activity in the early fall. The camera is angle-adjustable, and so I used a climbing stick to get it about 7 feet up a nearby poplar tree, pointed the camera lens down at the water, and set it to video. Countless does and other bucks came in, watered, and ignored the camera. Not this this old bastard. You can see in the video that he walks in, looks straight up at the camera, and bolts without taking a drink. I didn’t see him again on camera last fall, and maybe I never will.
3. Turns out, October is not all bad.
I used to hate everything about October hunting until about the 25th of the month. September and November have both been so much more productive for me that I have purposely avoided my best stands in October. But this year’s tenth month was punctuated by a couple cold fronts, and we made a point of being aggressive on those days. It paid off.
Michelle killed one of her best bucks ever, an ancient 9-pointer, on the evening of October 6th. It was drizzling rain that night, the temperature had fallen 15 degrees, and the wind had switched from the south to the northwest. Michelle climbed into her favorite ladder stand overlooking a food plot—another one that’s accessible by boat—and saw five bucks that evening (including the deer in the photo below from one of my favorite trail-cam shots of the year; you can see Michelle glassing the buck in the background).
Her buck came out a half hour before dark and strolled past her tree at 30 yards. She made a perfect shot with her crossbow. That cold front combined the predictability of the early season with some frisky, pre-rut behavior. I’m coming around to October.
4. Sometimes photos of does are as good as photos of bucks.
My best strategy for early November has always been to figure out where a few mature bucks are generally hanging out, and then set up around concentrations of does, which are easy to pattern around major food sources in mid-October. It’s a deadly strategy until the first few does enter estrus; then food plot edges and bait sites can become ghost towns, and hunting tighter to cover becomes more productive.
But that new creek-side stand I mentioned earlier had the best of both, with a tiny, secluded feeding area surrounded by thick cover. I checked a camera there when the adult does I’d been seeing on the bigger plots started disappearing. On November 2, I had multiple photos of a lone mature doe, coming into and out of that plot multiple times that morning and all of the previous day. There were tons of little bucks cruising through too.
I suspected that doe lived right there in that thicket, and that she was about to be the most popular girl around. I paddled into that stand the next morning, and I heard my big 8-pointer grunting in that thicket. She stepped into the plot around 8 a.m., dragging him right behind her.
5. You can get away with a lot if a deer is directly underneath you.
I hunt a lot of thick country, and many times, deer are within bow range before I see them. The natural reaction is get ready to shoot as soon as you can, and that’s when you get busted. We deer hunters stress a lot over the wind, but we frequently underestimate a whitetail’s eyesight. I know I have in the past, and I’ve been busted by reaching for my bow or my binoculars more times than I’d like to admit. Becoming a proficient bowhunter means learning when to move decisively, and when to sit completely still.
Interestingly, one of the best times to move is when when a lot of hunters actually freeze—while a deer is directly underneath the stand. Whitetails are masters at catching movement, but they can’t see above and behind them. I noticed that this year in particular, and made it a point to stand and draw on several deer that were walking right under my tree, even if I wasn’t planning to shoot, just to see if I could. So long as you don’t make a sound and don’t cast a shadow, it’s crazy what you can get away with if you’re looking down on the backs of their heads, particularly if you’re 20 feet-plus off the ground.
6. The Beaver Moon can wreck the rut.
After killing my Kentucky buck on Nov. 3, I was looking forward to hunting the rest of the rut in Tennessee, where I still had both my buck tags. I was also stoked for my brother, Matt, who was planning to take some vacation time and bowhunt on the 7th and 8th, and then hunt the Kentucky gun opener that weekend.
“They’re on fire,” I told him. “You’re going to kill a good one.”
Instead, he barely saw deer, and definitely no big bucks. Same story in Tennessee. In fact, despite near-perfect weather—we even had an almost-unheard-of November snow—the 2019 rut was one of the slowest I’ve ever seen. Anecdotally, I talked to a bunch of other hunters throughout the Midwest and Midsouth, and many of them agreed. This year’s rut kind of sucked.
I might know why. There was a giant full moon during what is normally the seeking-and-chasing phase around here. Reading up on my lunar lore on NASA.gov, the second full moon of the fall season was traditionally called the Beaver Moon by the Algonquin tribes. Last year, it happened on Nov. 23, and next year, it happens on Nov. 30. This year? It was Nov. 12.
Say what you want about the moon. I don’t fully understand all of its effects on deer movement, but I’m convinced the effects are real.
7. Even the best farms can go cold.
My buddy has a farm in northwest Tennessee, right on the Kentucky state line. I’ve hunted it for years and love the place. It’s a couple hundred acres of creek drainage and thickets, and it’s surrounded by crop fields. Historically, you could expect to see 10 or more deer on any given sit.
This year, we had a bunch of sits without seeing anything. To be fair, there were probably too many deer there at one point, and my buddy and I both like to shoot. It’s possible we’ve been a little, um, aggressive. It’s also possible that the carrying capacity of the place is actually what it should be now, and seeing those piles of deer every sit had us spoiled.
But another landscape-level change happened too. Many of the thousands of acres of nearby crop fields that were formally planted in corn and soybeans are now planted in industrial hemp. While hemp fields can provide food and cover for small game, they don’t offer much for deer.
Sometimes, the hunting on a place just changes. Maybe you can control a few of the reasons why, but often you can’t. You have to adapt, and be thankful for the good old days while you’re doing it.
8. A “dead” buck can get up and run.
Michelle and I started a part-time outfitting service this year, specializing in Kentucky September bowhunts. On the third evening of the season, my first paying client shot a nice 10-pointer, right at dark. His arrow was soaked in red blood, and he felt good about the hit. I was ecstatic about the prospect of bringing our first buck into camp. We gave it an hour, and I followed up with my tracking dog, Levee. I wanted to work him after a long summer off, and I was sure the buck hadn’t gone far.
And he hadn’t. We found him lying about 150 yards from the hit site. His head was down, and I’d have bet good money he was dead. But when Levee got to him, the buck stood up and staggered away. We immediately turned to leave. I was sure we’d find the deer the next morning—but I was also sick over getting too excited and taking up the track too soon.
But waiting all night wouldn’t have made much difference. The next morning, Levee and I jumped that buck again out of a creek bed a couple hundred yards away. We followed him for more than a mile before the deer crossed a highway and a property line, where I couldn’t follow him.
I don’t know exactly where that deer was hit, but I would’ve agreed with my client: The arrow looked perfect. Had I initially approached the blood trail more carefully, without the dog, my client maybe could’ve shot the buck again. But maybe not. Odds are that buck would’ve gotten away no matter how we’d approached.
The not knowing is the worst part of this one, but that’s the takeaway—in deer hunting, there are no do-overs, and even if there were, you might not change the outcome.
9. Whitetails are incredibly resilient.
Sometimes it’s just unfathomable what a deer can survive. You can have killed hundreds of them and have the very next one you shoot get away, with you convinced that you made a perfect hit.
A few weeks ago, I pulled a card from a trail camera that had been out for a month over a corn pile, just off the edge of a small food plot. The photo was taken Nov. 28, which is the late rut around here, and it shows a buck—which I’d never gotten a picture of previously—feeding in the daylight with an obviously horrific wound. This was immediately following our rifle season, and it could be a bullet wound. Could be from a car. But my guess goes to a big mechanical broadhead and a steeply angled shot.
Probably, there’s a deer hunter out there who followed what was a pretty good blood trail, but lost it. He or she assumes this deer is dead in some unknown thicket, never to be found. A thing like that can ruin a season.
But for now, that deer is up and eating corn and clover, and surviving. Bad as that wound looks, our winters here are mild. I’ll bet he makes it.
Sooner or later, every deer hunter has to deal with losing an animal. Despite our best efforts, none of us is perfect. When it happens, here’s one takeaway to keep in mind: Above all else, deer are good at surviving.
10. Keep fine-tuning, because there’s always next season.
I have a new, 80-acre lease that I’m still learning. It’s all timber but surrounded by crop fields, and it’s jammed full of deer. I’ve hung a couple stands there and killed two does off the place. But with each hunt and trail-camera adjustment, I have noticed things that could be a bit better. Because the area is all woods, the entry and exit routes, in particular, have been tricky. I’ve bumped deer going in, both on morning and evening hunts. I’ve now moved those stands four times, and each time, I’ve felt better about things. For next season, I think I’ve dialed in on a couple creek drainages that I can use to sneak in and out—but if not, I’ll keep shifting stands.
It’s easy to talk about moving a stand, but actually doing it is a hassle. But it’s an absolute necessity in learning a new place. No one shot a buck on that place this fall, and I’m as excited about the prospects there as anywhere else next year.
My Favorite Gear of the Season
I get to try a lot of new stuff each season. Rarely is any of it bad, but I’m not a gear head, and I don’t use stuff just because it’s new. But I did wring these new (and newish) things out this season and liked them all so much, I’ll keep using them when they’re old.
Wild Game Innovations Shadow Micro Cam
Wild Game Innovations’ Shadow Micro Cam is an excellent value. Wild Game Innovations
This new camera is tiny and will run a long while on four AA batteries. It’s nothing fancy—just a 16-megapixel infrared camera that’s easy to set up and use. It has a magnetic, pivoting ball-head mounting system that lets you place the camera just about anywhere, at any angle. It takes good photos, has 720p video capability, and the street price is usually less than $100. I don’t know of a better value going in trail cams right now. $109; wildgameinnovations.com
Thiessen V1 Whitetail Clothing
Thiessen’s V1 Whitetail Clothing is quality stuff for less. Theissens
You don’t need a $300 technical mountaineering outfit to sit in an early-season deer stand. Thiessen’s V1 whitetail clothing is lightweight gear that is at once a big step up in quality and function from bargain-bin camo at big-box stores, but at a price just about every serious whitetail hunter can afford. $30 for long-sleeve tee, $60 for pant; theissens.com
Millennium M250 Aluminum Climbing Sticks
Millennium’s M250 Aluminum Climbing Sticks are lightweight, quiet, and sturdy on the tree. Millennium Stands
These were new last year, but they remain my favorite climbing sticks. Being aluminum, they’re lightweight and quiet. Their design bites better into the tree and provides a surer platform for your boots than any sticks I’ve tried. I can hang them quickly and easily, and they’re absolutely secure. They’re expensive, but worth every penny. $47.24 per stick; millenniumstands.com