10 Lessons from the 2020 Deer Season

Looking back on a fantastic deer hunting season during one crazy trip around the sun

Nobody’s going to forget 2020 anytime soon. Pandemic aside, I’ll remember it as a hell of a good year of hunting, and a good deer season in particular. I filled my own buck tags in Kentucky, Texas, and Tennessee. My wife, Michelle, killed her best buck ever in Kentucky in September and followed it up with another solid Tennessee 8-pointer in late November. My dad went deer hunting for the first time in several years and shot one of the best bucks of his life. Running an outfitting business on the side had challenges in a year like this, but we nonetheless guided several successful clients, too. And the season highlight was watching my 6-year-old son, Anse, learn the ropes. He killed two deer, including a big 10-pointer for his first one that would make even a veteran hunter green.

Deer hunting the way we do it is a lifestyle, with land management chores beginning almost immediately after the season ends. I wouldn’t know how to live any other way. But after decades of doing this, I still learn new things every deer season. Here are 10 lessons that I’ll take away from 2020.

1. Early-Season Bucks Can Break the Rules

A group of hunters kneel behind a large whitetail buck with velvet antlers.
Brodie Swisher killed this big velvet buck while hunting with us opening week in Kentucky. Realtree Image/Kerry Wix

Our flagship outfitted hunt is opening week of Kentucky’s bow season, when many of the bucks are still in velvet, and they’re all still in summertime bachelor groups. At that time of year, big deer are as predictable as big deer get—but they’ll still throw curveballs.

Through July and early August, getting daylight pictures of impressive, full-velvet bucks is pretty easy. But sure as the days get shorter, patterns begin shifting in late August, and we’ve come to count on some bucks going AWOL just before our hunt begins. Another near guarantee is that 90 percent of the shots at good bucks will happen in the final few minutes of legal light.

But sometimes curveballs work in your favor. This year Brodie Swisher, editor of Bowhunting.com, sat in one of our lock-on stands on opening day, where we’d been seeing a bachelor group with a pair of good bucks throughout the summer. It was an ugly little spot—18 acres of timber between two houses and a county road, with all the noise that goes with such a place. I told Brodie he’d know he was getting close to the stand when he saw the discarded toilet laying in the woods.

But the bucks live where they live. One of the two shooters in this group sported a lopsided rack that wouldn’t score much, but he was a genuine monster of a deer. And, of course, he disappeared from that bait site in early August, and then we didn’t get a single picture of him. There were still plenty of deer hitting the bait pile, and we knew good ones were around, so Brodie hunted it. Two hours before dark, with lawnmowers running and kids screaming in the background, that buck strolled right into the corn pile, and Brodie heart-shot him at 18 steps. It was a damn-fine kick-off to the year.

2. Behind the Shoulder is Not a Perfect Shot

A whitetail deer with a bullet wound behind the shoulder.
A close look at the shot placement on Michelle’s 2020 buck. Most would think that’s a perfect hit, but the deer ran 711 yards, and we didn’t find him until after he’d spoiled. Will Brantley

I wrote in my 2018 takeaways to “not fear the shoulder.” In 2020 I’m doubling down to help lead the charge in changing the way hunters think about a “perfect” shot on whitetails. On a broadside deer, it’s not behind the shoulder. To be clear, that’ll kill them—but they can run a good way first.

On the other hand, if you follow the front leg a third of the way up the chest on a broadside deer and place your bullet or broadhead there, you’ll hit the front half of the lungs and the major pulmonary vessels. “But that’s a shoulder shot and full of heavy bone!” you say. No, it’s not, and if you don’t believe me, you need to carefully examine the front-leg anatomy on your next deer. The bones of a deer’s front leg make a forward-facing V, and the perfect shot is just inside the widest part of it. The leg bone on the point of that V is the only impediment to a good broadhead or bullet of any substance at all—and if you hit that, you’ve missed the spot I’m talking about by about 4 inches.

How badly can a behind-the-shoulder hit go? We nearly lost Michelle’s buck in September. She shot him at 25 yards with a crossbow and a big hybrid-mechanical broadhead. The entry wound is right there in the photo for you to see. The deer was nearly broadside, quartering a half-step to her. The arrow blew through the rib cage and the blood trail was heavy—and yet we jumped that buck from his bed two hours after she shot him. We didn’t recover him until the following afternoon, 711 yards away, and by then the meat was spoiled. I’ve tracked hundreds of deer in my life and have never seen one hit that well make it that far.

3. Seriously, Sit Still

A woman hunter kneels behind a large deer and holds its head by the antlers.
Michelle’s buck was her best one to date. Will Brantley

Everyone worries about a deer’s nose. It’s the critter’s primary defense, after all, and there are a bunch of hunting products sold in the name of defeating it. My philosophy on scent control is to wash your nasty self daily, hunt the wind as much as you can, and then hope for the best. Deer will walk in from unexpected directions, and thermals will swirl. When it comes to getting winded, there’s only so much you can control.

But you can control sitting still—and I’m convinced that when a deer spots you in a tree, it’s more detrimental than when it catches a whiff of you. Moving around is the number one way our guided clients spook deer, partly because we hunt a good bit over bait sets, and deer walking into corn piles are already wired. If you’re reaching for a bow, binoculars, or a video camera when the deer is 50 yards away and walking in, it’ll bust you nearly every time. You’re better off letting the deer commit and settle down, and timing your movements when its view is obscured. I think that’s good advice for hunting any food source, bait or not.

4. Don’t Call Unless You Want a Buck to Show

A hunter in the woods kneels next to a large buck in the woods.
I rattled up this Kentucky buck with my climbing stand, shortly after bumping him out of his bed. Will Brantley

How many times have you made a few grunts just to pass the time during a long rut sit? I’ve been guilty of it.

Just remember, if you make a call that a buck can hear, especially during the pre-rut, he’ll probably come check it out. On the afternoon of October 25, I was putting my climbing stand on a tree and as the cables were raking bark, I thought to myself, “Man, that sounds like a buck thrashing a bush.”

I no more than completed the thought when I looked up and saw a good one trotting through the woods, looking for a fight. I dropped to my knees, nocked an arrow, and killed him at 40 yards. He’d broken both brow tines and a G2, and might’ve netted 105 inches. But I didn’t care, because it was such a cool hunt.

A few mornings later in Tennessee, I saw a buck cruise through the timber 150 yards away, but couldn’t tell much about him. I made a few loud grunts, and then took a sip of coffee from my Thermos. As I did, I thought to myself, “Stand up and at least be ready, idiot; you just called at a cruising buck.”

So I dropped the Thermos into my pack, stood, grabbed my bow, and leaned against my tree. I saw a flash of antler within seconds, and there he was, walking right to me. I clipped up, drew when he stepped behind a bush, and shot him at 25 yards. He ran a half-circle scramble and fell dead right under my stand. He’s the biggest buck I’ve ever killed in Tennessee, and I’m glad I put that coffee away when I did.

5. Bumping a Buck and Then Hunting Him Can Work

A hunter stands beside a Polaris General UTV with a dropped whitetail deer on the tailgate.
We put a Polaris General XP 1000 Pursuit through its paces this fall. Cool rig. Runs fast. Will Brantley

That buck I rattled up with my climbing stand? I spooked the sh*t out of him about an hour before I shot him. It was a good cold-front evening, and I wanted to check out a series of hardwood finger ridges on a farm I’m still learning. I knew that deer bedded on the ends of those ridges, and so I’d never tried pushing in to hunt them. But with the front coming and October ending, it seemed like a good time to be aggressive and learn something. When I walked in, deer exploded off those ridges like a covey of giant quail. I almost pulled the plug, but decided the damage was done at that point—and so I snuck in for a closer look. There were rubs everywhere, and a reeking fresh scrape line.

I picked out a good tree to climb, snuck back to my truck, grabbed my bow and stand, and killed that buck mentioned above before I ever got off the ground.

6. A Busted Deer Doesn’t Mean a Busted Hunt

A hunter kneels behind a whitetail deer and holds its head by the antlers.
My Tennessee buck came to a grunt call in early November. Will Brantley

Continuing on the theme: Whitetails are sharp, and every hunter gets busted now and again. After a couple seasons of outfitting, I’ve seen many hunters want to change stands after spooking deer.

It’ll be OK.

Getting busted is never ideal, of course. But spooking a deer is rarely the hunt-ending catastrophe that it seems. Michelle had a couple young bucks throw a snorting, stomping fit the evening she killed her Kentucky buck, for example. Her buck walked in an hour later like nothing at all had happened.

While guiding a late-muzzleloader hunt, we had a pair of hunters get busted by 11 does in a row. Eleven. Those deer were hammering a bait site deep in the timber—I’d been watching them for weeks with a Moultrie cellular camera—but they were picking our guys off in the double set we’d hung 50 yards away. When they climbed down for lunch, my buddy Ryan, who guides with me, and I hustled in to that set and built a quick brush blind, tucked back into some cedars just 10 steps from the stands. Those hunters went right back in, and killed a good buck two hours later.

7. The Late Rut is Really Good

A hunter kneels beside a dropped whitetail deer and holds its head by the antlers.
Due to an alpha-gal allergy that prevents him from eating venison, my dad hadn’t deer hunted in years. But he decided to sit in a stand one November evening, and killed this nice 8-pointer. My brother happily took the donated meat. Will Brantley

The first week in November is my favorite one of the season. It’s action-packed, and you typically see a lot of deer. Just prior to gun season, it’s when I’ve killed most of my best bow bucks.

But for killing mature deer, I’m warming up to the latter half of November through Thanksgiving. This year, Nov. 18-27 was on fire. On the evening of the 18th, my dad killed a nice 8-pointer that followed several does into a food plot. My pal Miles Fedinec arrived for a hunt a few days later and killed another stomper 8 from the same stand on the 24th. Three days later, Michelle shot her Tennessee buck when a doe dragged him down the edge of a rye field, past her stand.

A hunter kneels behind a large whitetail buck and holds its head near the antlers.
My pal Miles Fedinec with a good one he shot just before Thanksgiving. Will Brantley

None of those hunts produced the high-volume deer sightings of an early-November sit, but they were all over food sources where we knew does were hanging out. And when bucks did show, they were good ones.

8. Chipotle Mayo is My New Favorite Backstrap Marinade

I’ve been called a simpleton when it comes to cooking venison, so allow me to share this season’s culinary masterpiece: Take thin-sliced backstrap, drop it in a Ziploc, and add to it a good squeeze of Kraft Chipotle Aioli Mayo, plus a little coarse salt, pepper, and olive oil. Mix it all together and then throw it on a red-hot grill for a minute per side to medium-rare. It’s so delicious, I might start an Instagram account just to show it off.

9. Don’t Overthink Hunting with Kids

A side by side collage of a young boy kneeling beside dropped whitetail deer.
Left: My son, Anse, shows off his first buck. Right: Anse, ready for the boat ride back to camp with his first deer. Will Brantley

If you don’t have children and find yourself being too decisive, run along and reproduce. That way, you can second-guess everything. There’s all kinds of angst that goes with teaching your kid to hunt because above all else, you want to “do it right.”

But there is no template for “right.” All summer, Michelle and I had told our son, Anse, that it’d probably be another year at least before he’d be ready to shoot a deer. He’s just 6, after all, and that seemed too young—even though he’s tagged along with us to observe a number of deer and turkey hunts, and handled himself just fine.

Then squirrel season came in. I bought him a little .410, and Anse killed a half-dozen or so bushytails without issue. Why could he shoot squirrels but not deer, he asked? And I didn’t have a great answer.

So, I got my .357 Henry lever-action out of the safe, loaded it with .38 Specials, and let him practice. When he got comfortable with the rifle, scope, and trigger, I let him shoot a 50-yard group with magnum hunting loads—and he put three of them in a silver-dollar circle.

We hunted a lot out of box blinds, where he could move around, play card games, eat snacks, and keep warm. We were hoping for a doe or forkhorn to walk by on opening day of Kentucky’s gun season, but a big 10-pointer was the first deer to show instead. Anse killed him with a heart shot at 40 yards, with Michelle and me both there to watch it. But the kid was perhaps even more excited by the doe he killed in Tennessee a couple weeks later. She was 78 yards, and he dropped her with a single, perfect bullet.

I’d have never dreamed that a first-grader would be ready for that, but kids will surprise you way more than deer.

10. To Fill Deer Tags, Target Spots Not Bucks

A woman and young boy kneel behind dropped deer.
Anse and Michelle show off the rewards of a good late-November evening in northwestern Tennessee. Will Brantley

The most effective way to kill a giant whitetail is to pattern him on trail camera and hunt him to the exclusion of all others. But it’s also a high-odds way to eat tag soup at the end of the season, and possibly suffer real heartache when the neighbor kills him instead (as I wrote about in my 2018 takeaway).

Me? I like to shoot bucks with my bow every season. If a deer flirting with the P&Y minimum gives me the chance, I’m probably shooting. And so with that in mind, I have my best luck by focusing on good areas and putting in time, rather than chasing individual bucks.

I do run a bunch of trail cameras, and I will set up with specific bucks in mind at times. But I never get hung up on one buck, and I rarely use cameras to pattern individual bucks outside of the early season. Instead, I use them to take an inventory of the bucks in a given area, and to gauge where the daylight activity is best. Given the choice, I’ll put my time in on a nice deer moving in shooting hours over a giant on a vampire’s schedule, every time.

Maybe that approach keeps me out of the record books. But it’s damn sure the most fun for me, and last I checked, having fun is why we do this.

Bring on 2021.

Favorite New Deer Gear of 2020

I try out a lot of new hunting gear during the course of a deer season. Here are four products that stood out to me this year.

Polaris General XP 1000 Pursuit

The General XP 1000 Pursuit retails for $24,000. Polaris

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I had one of these on loan all fall, and I keep waiting on the call from Polaris, asking just what the hell we did to stack up all those miles and scratches. In contrast to the more utilitarian Ranger, the General is designed for a smooth, comfortable ride—and with a full 100-hp engine, it’ll flat haul. We had it in some pretty soupy stuff and never so much as spun a tire—and the tight turning radius makes it easy to pick your way through the timber to recover a deer. The cargo rack has hits and misses; it’ll hold a bunch of stuff but it’s in the way when you’re trying to load deer. Still, Michelle and I used the winch to pull my Tennessee buck right up onto the top rack without much hassle. If you do much recreational riding in the off-season—but need a serious work rig too—this is the machine for you.

Hunter Safety Systems Reflective Lifelines

These lifelines are three for $100 on Amazon. Hunter Safety Systems

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I was putting up a ladder stand this year that snapped loose from the tree. Had I not been wearing a safety harness and connected to a LifeLine, I’d have fallen to the ground. I won’t set a stand without a LifeLine any more. The reflective ones are my favorite, since they shine like a beacon in the dark with a flashlight.

Wasp Havalon HV 125

A 3-pack of Wasp Havalon HV heads goes for around $40 on Amazon. Wasp Archery

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The winner of this year’s broadhead test was also my go-to choice all hunting season. I killed five whitetails, two good boar hogs, and a turkey with the Havalon HV 125—all with a 60-pound bow. My Texas buck was quartering away hard, but I hit him at the back of the last rib, and the arrow came out the white patch of his throat and stuck in the ground. It is the sharpest, toughest, most consistent fixed-blade broadhead I’ve ever used.

Elite EnKore

The EnKore retails for $1,099. Elite Archery

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Though I haven’t formally tested it in the way we test bows for our flagship review, I did hunt with this bow all season, and I believe it’s Elite’s best one to date. With a 340 IBO rating it could be considered a legitimate speed bow, but it still has the signature Elite draw cycle. Like the 2019 Kure (the bow I used to kill my Kentucky buck), the EnKore features the S.E.T. Technology tuning system, which makes setting up and getting bullet-hole tears at home about as quick and easy as it gets.