The following information on group hunting comes from Chapter 7 of How to Hunt Deer by Edward A. Freeman. How to Hunt Deer is also available to purchase in print.
While hunting alone, I have often wished for a companion who could circle ahead and intercept the deer that I was trailing or who could replace me on the trail so that I could make a stalk on some position which seemed particularly promising. This idea of companionship is good, but it is difficult to find a hunting companion who will be a help rather than a hindrance. Two people in the woods will double the amount of scent and noise and unless they are equally used to the woods and to each other’s hunting methods, they soon become two individual hunters instead of a team. Unless they work as a team, the chances of either of them sighting a deer depends more on luck than it does on hunting skill. I have had a few companions that were able to hunt with me and we have shared many a pleasant and successful trip. Others I have hunted with in an effort to give some hunting experience.
There are several ways in which two hunters may work as a team in deer hunting. They may go into the woods and travel a short distance apart in an effort to stalk feeding or resting deer. If they start a deer, they may separate, with one man on the trail and the other off to one side so that he may sight the deer if it should turn in an effort to evade the trailer. They should keep in touch with each other so that as soon as the deer’s course may be predicted, one of the men can circle and cut in ahead of the deer and intercept it on its expected course. This is where most hunting teams become individual hunters. If the deer fails to show up at the expected place at the expected time, the watcher is apt to start hunting aimlessly instead of trying to intercept the deer at another point or rejoin his companion in order to determine the deer’s new course. If two hunters are able to contact each other occasionally, they may be able to alternate on the trail and may hunt all day without too much fatigue to either.
A large part of my hunting has been done in a farming country where deer were in patches of woods which varied in size from several thousand acres down to practically nothing. When hunting the smaller of these wood patches, one man would start and trail the deer, and his companion would watch the place where the animal could be expected to leave the woods. In this type of hunting, the man who jumps and trails the deer should not try to stalk or to intercept the animal, but should confine his attention to the trail unless he should overtake the deer and have a good chance for a shot.
When the trailer hunts as he would if alone, he is apt to cause the deer to change its course enough so that his companion will have no chance to prevent the animal from reaching another piece of woods and prolonging the hunt. Of course, when hunting with a group that is large enough to cover all probable crossing places, it is not so important for the trailer to stick to his trailing. In such cases it is probably better to organize a “drive” which is a different type of hunting and requires different tactics.
While group hunting, it is desirable to have a plan and for each man to play his part in that plan until the deer’s actions prove it to be useless and the hunters have a chance to meet and devise another plan. Nothing discourages a trailer more than to follow a trail to the place where a man has been stationed only to find that he is gone. Nothing is more exasperating to a watcher than to stay at a stand for hours only to find that the deer has taken some other direction and that nobody has informed him of the change. The hunters must work as a team or they will lose confidence in each other and in that case it is better that they hunt individually.
Lack of planning has turned many a hunt which might have been an enjoyable and successful affair into a series of frustrating events. I joined in one of these hunts one Thanksgiving morning when the four men involved should have been able to bag four deer. The actual results were somewhat different.
There had been about a foot of snow on the ground for two days, making tracking conditions almost ideal, but the hunters had had very little luck in finding deer or their tracks. There were quite a few deer in the area, but they were not in their usual haunts. I had not been able to hunt during this period, but had kept in touch with the overall situation by contact with hunters and by checking the roads for tracks.
I had decided that some of the deer had taken refuge in a piece of woods which had not been hunted since the last snowfall. This piece of woods extended north and south for about two miles and was at no place over a half-mile in width. Swamps, with considerable water, bounded the tract on the north and about half of the west side. Wide fields separated it, in most places, from woods to the east and southeast. Most of the deer which used this tract were those which ordinarily ranged in the woods to the east and southeast, and if started, could be expected to travel in an easterly direction.
There were three trails that deer usually used when traveling to and from this tract. One was located at the extreme north end and crossed a shallow swamp or meadow. Another crossed some two hundred yards of open fields at a point about a half-mile south of the northerly crossing. The third, the best protected and the probable choice of the deer, was near the south end of the tract. There was nothing to prevent the deer from traveling to the southwest, except their instinctive urge to stay on, or return to, familiar territory. With one man on each of these three trails and a fourth in the woods to start the deer and to keep them moving, there was a situation in which someone was almost sure to have a chance to do some shooting.
I was eating breakfast when three men called to ask my opinion about the probable location of the deer and to see if I would hunt with them. I gave them my idea about where the deer were located and, instead of waiting for me, they started for the woods with no plan except to see if my idea was right. When I found that they had gone on without me, I hurried along on their trail with the hope of overtaking them before they could alarm the deer and destroy an almost perfect setup.
I had only covered about half the necessary distance when I heard a series of rifle shots that sounded like the start of a small war. At least fifteen shots were fired in the initial fusillade and after a few minutes another series of eight or ten shots. It didn’t seem possible that deer could be the target for all of this shooting unless they had been caught in the open and I knew there was a large field about where the shooting seemed to be located. When I came to the opening, I expected to see dead deer all over the place, yet all that was there were tracks of the three men heading in a straight line across the five hundred yards of open country towards a small pine-covered knoll at the edge of the opposite woods.
Tracks and an occasional empty shell in the snow showed where the men had first sighted the deer and opened up at a range of about five hundred yards. The only gun in the party which was capable of throwing a bullet that distance with any chance of a hit was a .30-30, and with such a gun equipped with open sights, and sighted in for two hundred yards or less, any fatal hit would be the result of an accident. As it was, the initial shooting failed to drive the deer to cover and they permitted the men to approach to a point about two hundred yards nearer and to fire the other eight or ten shots that finally caused the deer to take cover in the woods.
When I came to the place where the last shooting had occurred, I decided that no deer had been killed and, since all of the others had apparently gone into the woods leaving all of the crossings open, that it was up to me to take all possible advantage of the situation. I would not have time to reach the crossing to the north in case the deer decided to use that route, so I headed for the nearer to the south. The contour of the land was such that I was able to approach without being seen to a point which was about seventy-five yards from the place where this trail emerged from the woods. When I reached a position where I was forced to expose myself, there was a doe standing in the field near the woods looking out over the crossing, apparently undecided about chancing the open territory. I shot her and, as she dropped, several other deer showed their flags as they retreated from the edge of the woods. I did not follow them, but did a quick job of woods-dressing the dead doe and headed for the other southern crossing. I met another hunter who had been attracted by the shooting and we arrived in sight of the crossing in time to see three deer cross, but not in time to shoot at them.
After a time I left the hunt and returned to the place where I had shot the doe, only to find that some other hunter had dragged her to his car and had gone.
The first mistake which these men made was shooting at the deer when they were out of effective range. (The bullets from one of the guns, a .38/55, struck the snow at a point which was less than half the distance between the hunters and the deer.) Their second mistake was their all following the tracks instead of trying to get into position on their probable course. (I found later that one of the men abandoned the chase before they ever took up the trail because he had used all of his ammunition.)
I made two mistakes. The first was in shooting the doe. This was the natural thing to do, yet had I known, as they did, the number of deer involved, I would have waited until all of them had entered the field before shooting. My second mistake was in dressing my deer before heading for the next crossing. This action delayed me long enough so that the deer crossed before I could get into position.
The procedure these men should have followed is obvious. On sighting the deer, they should have separated, leaving one man to stalk the animals in an attempt to reach a position where his bullets might be effective. If he failed in his attempt, he should have followed their trail, driving them into the range of his companions, who should have placed themselves in position which would intercept the deer.
Lack of a plan, lack of team work and a selfish desire to be in on the expected kill, spoiled this hunt. None of the men involved were able to kill a deer except for my doe, and some other hunter received the credit for that kill.
Planning for a hunt of this sort should be done as soon as a deer has been located in a particular patch of woods or as soon as tracks are discovered which indicate the presence of deer in the area. The first thing hunters want to know is where the deer will go, if started. This is hard to predict if the animal is a lone buck, but it is better than an even chance that he will join a doe at the first opportunity. A doe’s probable course may be predetermined, if the hunters have a fair knowledge of the range of the deer in that vicinity and of the trails which they usually follow. There is always a good chance of error which should be corrected as soon as the deer’s actions are revealed.
For instance, it might be assumed at the beginning of a hunt that the deer being followed are deer which belong on a range which is mostly to the northeast of the deer’s location. But after following the deer for a time, we find from the course of their trail that they are heading for a range that is southeast of the area.
There is no object in following these deer until the watchers have been changed to a new position where they may intercept the deer on their new course. It is usually safe to leave a doe’s track long enough to warn the watchers of any change of plan, for doe seldom travel far unless followed. A lone buck is a different proposition and will travel for greater distances regardless of the hunter’s actions.
Three of us found the tracks of a doe and a young buck where they had crossed a north and south road. I knew of such a pair of deer which had a range in the area west of that road. As these deer were headed northeast, I assumed that they were those particular deer and that they would recross the road if followed. There were two crossings north of the place where the deer had crossed, one about a half-mile and the other nearly a mile away. I decided that these deer would not use the nearer of the two crossings because it was close to a house and was seldom used except at night and then mostly by deer which were traveling to the east. I sent my companions to the other crossing without giving them any reasons for thinking deer would use that place.
I followed the two deer through the woods where they crossed the road within fifty feet of the car of my companions. They had gone to another crossing which the deer would have used if they had continued on their northeast course.
My failure to share my intimate knowledge of these deer resulted in the failure of any of us to obtain a shot. There is the possibility that I was wrong in my deductions and that the presence of my companions prevented the deer from proceeding on the northeast course.
Another time, a similar pair of deer were seen in a field near a road and I was asked to help hunt them. There was no snow on the ground so the actual tracking was out of the question. They had entered a fairly narrow piece of woods and I thought that if a man zigzagged along and did not hurry, the deer might be nudged along much the same as if trailed. I had no knowledge of these deer and the only facts that I could use to predict their course were that they had not crossed the road and that they had apparently arrived from the north.
The woods which they had entered extended to the east for about three-quarters of a mile, made a right angle turn around a pond, and then extended north for about the same distance to a road which separated this woods from a much larger wooded area to the north.
There were two family groups of deer in the area to the south and one to the east, and I was uncertain of the number to the north. These deer could belong in any of these areas, but as they had apparently arrived from the north, I decided that they would return to the north. None of the others would agree with my deductions, yet one of the men agreed to travel through the woods to a point where I would be waiting unless he or one of the others shot the deer before that time. The other men would cover the east and south crossings in case I was wrong.
Two hours later I shot a spike-horn buck as it tried to follow a doe across the road into the larger piece of woods. The doe reached safety before I could shoot.
I will admit that there was a lot of guesswork in my deciding the probable course of these deer, but I was positive I was right. I stayed at my post and killed the deer, while the others who had covered the other crossings had gone home long before my shot.
I was hunting with three companions when we came to the track of a doe where it crossed a road and entered a large piece of woods. Deer were scarce that year or we would not have bothered with that one, for the piece of woods which it had entered was a very difficult place to hunt. There was a good tracking snow, so the deer could be followed; nevertheless, the woods were such that it would be nearly impossible to predict where the deer would stop to observe its back trail. The under-brush was also so thick that it would be difficult to obtain a clear shot anywhere except at a few small clearings which the deer would probably avoid. Because of the size and shape of the woods, it would be impossible to drive the deer from there without the aid of a small army of hunters.
I predicted that the deer would stay in the woods until near sunset unless it followed its back trail as soon as it was started. I picked the place where the deer would cross a road if it should decide to leave the woods. I refused to follow the track until I had the assurance of the one hunter in whom I had confidence that he would cover that crossing from sunset to dark.
One of the others accompanied me into the woods, the fourth man circling to a place where he thought the deer might cross a woodroad. I saw the deer several times that day, but the man whom I had stationed on the road killed it after sunset at the crossing I had predicted the deer would use at that time.
It is unusual to be correct in making long range predictions such as this unless the hunter is familiar with the actions of the particular deer which he is following, the deer’s range and its feeding grounds. In the above case, I had followed the same deer in the same area several days before and I was quite sure it would leave the large piece of woods for a favored feeding ground as soon as it was hungry. In order to reach this feeding area, it would have to cross a road, and the crossing which I selected was the most probable of the ones which crossed the road.
One of the most discouraging hunts I have ever experienced occurred when I trailed two deer all day long, knew where they were going for a half-hour before they arrived, was unable to get a companion in position for the kill and was unable to do the job myself. After almost a day of frustration, I sent two men to cover a crossing and they let the deer pass, unseen, between them. When I arrived at the crossing, they joined me on the track long enough to determine the deer’s future intentions. This did not take long, but my companions were uncertain and would not go to the place which I had picked as the next crossing. I left them to follow the trail while I went to a gap in a stone wall which I thought the deer would use.
It would be necessary for the deer to cross a small open field in order to reach this gap so I stationed myself about a hundred feet away where I could watch both field and gap.
The deer came into sight about a hundred yards away, walking towards the gap. They approached at an angle and when they were about a hundred feet from me and about the same distance from the gap, I fired and missed. They broke into a run and I fired five more shots without a hit. Six shots and six misses at a distance of not over two hundred feet was the frustrating climax of a frustrating day.
These incidents have all had does leading the chase. When it comes to predicting what a lone buck will do, we have a different proposition. In the first place, it is difficult to define a buck’s range, and, during the hunting season, he is seldom on that range but off hunting does. If the hunter runs across a buck which is away from his home range, but has not attached himself to some doe, he will probably head for his old range if started and if followed for any great distance. When I run across one of these ranging bucks, I consider myself lucky if I have the opportunity to sight him twice before he heads for home. By the time I am sure of his intentions, it is usually too late to contact a companion and try to get ahead of the deer.
When followed on their home range, bucks usually travel greater distances between stops than does, usually traveling in the thickest and most difficult parts of their range.
When bucks are with does, they follow the does’ lead, and all the hunter must remember is that the buck is seldom at the head of the parade. Quite often bucks refuse to bed down with does, but go off by themselves for their daytime rest. It follows that if a hunter is able to place himself between one of these bucks and the nearest doe, he will have a good chance for a shot—if some other hunter can start the buck.
Two companions and I were roaming the woods one morning, looking for deer or for tracks that we could follow. We came to a place where several deer had been feeding on the previous night. In checking the tracks, we saw where a large buck had left the other deer and headed south. I was quite sure that it would be an easy task to locate and hunt the does, but the buck’s track was a challenge we couldn’t resist, so we followed him in an effort to get a line on his intentions. We came to a twenty-acre field which the deer had skirted to the west. South of this field was a small but ideal bedding where we suspected the buck would be resting.
One of my companions was a young man who had never shot a deer. Wishing to give him some experience, I stationed him at an open gate which was about midway in the fence that ran along the north edge of the field. His instruction were either to shoot the deer or to get out of the way and permit the deer to pass unless he wanted to get run over. I left the other man at the southwest corner of the field to cover the deer’s back track.
I circled to the south so as to approach the deer’s probable location from the south. I did not see the deer when it left its bed, but two shotgun blasts followed and, after a time, a third. This told me that I had made the right moves. The young man did not hit the deer, but we all have a right to a touch of buck fever when we see a ten-point buck heading for the exact spot where we are standing. I doubt if he ever forgot that hunt.
In this case I had made all of the right guesses. I had assumed that the buck would attempt to rejoin the does. (This is usually the case unless they have no further use for him. If that is the case, the buck would be seeking other does and would not bed down in the vicinity of the deer which he had left.) I had assumed that he would return to the place where he had left the other deer, either by the direct route across the field or by his back track. (This reasoning involved the assumption that the buck did not know the exact location of the other deer’s bed and that he must follow their tracks to them. If these deer had bedded in a place where their scent carried to the buck’s resting place, he would have gone directly to them and none of us would have had a chance for a shot.) Of course, if I had had any idea that the buck would not have returned to the other tracks, I would have used other tactics and would have attempted a cautious stalk to his resting place instead of merely trying to jump him out and into the range of my companions.
There is a lot of guesswork involved in deer hunting, but it is surprising how many times the hunter is right, if he has a good knowledge of deer habits and of the country being hunted.