The following information on legal deer hunting strategies comes from Chapter 2 of How to Hunt Deer by Edward A. Freeman. How to Hunt Deer is also available to purchase in print.
In order to enjoy the sport fully, a deer hunter needs a thorough understanding of the animal and, to a lesser extent, of the country to be hunted. This knowledge cannot be obtained in one short hunt, but must be acquired by years of hunting, by reading or by listening to other hunters who have this knowledge.
Many successful hunters never acquire this knowledge, depending solely on luck in their hunting. In a territory where deer are plentiful, this results in their bagging a deer with fair regularity, yet the actual shooting of a deer is only a small part of the enjoyment that a sportsman finds on a hunt. When a man goes into the woods, meets a deer in its own element, outwits the animal and succeeds in killing it with a well-placed shot, his satisfaction will be much greater than in the mere killing of a deer that he has accidentally encountered. To be sure, he can return home and embellish his story, belying the fact that it was more or less an accident that he bagged the animal. He has the deer for proof of his tale, but until he comes to believe the story himself, there will always be a slight feeling of dissatisfaction about that particular hunt.
A very successful hunter once told me that deer hunting was ninety per cent luck and ten per cent good marksmanship. He had hunted for a good many years and should have known what he was talking about.
“All that a man needs to do to shoot a deer,” he said, “is to be in the right place at the right time and to be able to hit any deer that he sees.”
This man believed it was luck that placed him at the right place at the right time, but I am sure that the knowledge that he had unconsciously acquired about the habits of the deer in the territory where he hunted had a lot to do in enabling him to shoot most of his deer. While luck certainly plays an important part in deer hunting, the man who depends entirely on it is very apt to be disappointed at the end of the hunt.
The need for hunting knowledge varies with the method used while hunting. It requires little knowledge to shoot a deer in the nighttime with the aid of a light. This is nothing but butchery of a bewildered defenseless animal. On the other hand, the man who enters the woods armed with a bow and a few arrows, who attempts to outwit an animal in full possession of all its faculties, must have a thorough knowledge of that animal to be successful.
I am not in favor of bow-and-arrow hunting for everyone, for, although the hunting arrow is deadly in the hands of an expert, the average hunter is too unfamiliar with the weapon to make clean kills—a necessary part of good sportsmanship.
Quite a few men, with more patience than I possess, bag their deer by continually watching some popular game trail, or crossing, until a deer comes along. There is one man whom I have often met at the same place in the woods where a deer trail crosses a small stream. I think that he is there every morning during the season, from daybreak to midmorning, until he shoots his deer. I would estimate that he has killed ten or twelve deer at that crossing. One year there were very few deer in that immediate area. As far as I knew, there was only one doe which had raised her twin fawns within two miles of that spot. There were plenty of deer in the surrounding country, but for some reason, they seemed to shun that particular area. One day I mentioned the scarcity of deer to him, suggesting that some other crossing might be more productive that year. He merely said, “I’ve done pretty well here in the past and I reckon that I will give it a few more days before making a change.” The next day I met him on the road and he had a nice buck on his car. I had forgotten that his crossing was one that was favored by bucks traveling across country from one herd to another, in search of does.
Although this crossing-watching requires more patience than the average hunter possesses, it usually pays off with a deer. Quite a bit of knowledge of the country and of the movement of deer is necessary, yet patience is the most important qualification that a man must have in order to be consistently successful in this hunting strategy.
A hunting method favored by many is to walk the woods roads and trails as quietly as possible, usually against the wind, with the hope of jumping a deer to shoot. I enjoy this type of hunting in the less heavily populated areas. By traveling quietly while constantly watching for game, a man will see many wilderness sights that will often repay him for the walk even if he fails to bag a deer.
I have killed quite a few deer by using this method and have seen many others that I did not shoot. On two occasions I have seen sleeping deer before they awoke. I permitted one of these to make a successful escape without firing a shot, but I killed the other—a nice eight-point buck—as soon as it started to run. I have always considered that these two hunts were equally successful, although a memory was the only reward for one of them.
One of the most important requirements for this type of hunting is good eyesight. Not necessarily 20-20 vision, but the ability to evaluate the constantly changing scene and to distinguish the difference between shadow and concrete objects. The ability to pick out one of the best camouflaged of animals in its natural habitat. This hunting vision is not a thing that we are born with. It must be acquired and cultivated by hunting experience.
Most people seem to be looking for a picture-book deer when in the woods and fail to recognize the real thing until it starts to run. It is often too late then to do anything except to take a snap shot, through the brush, at a target which is hard to hit.
When hunting in this manner, I do not look for deer, but watch for anything that seems to be unusual or out of place. By doing this, I see many things, as well as an occasional deer.
Motion, of course, is the first thing which attracts the eye, but motion in the woods seldom indicates a deer. I do not know of any place where deer so outnumber other animals that a person could expect all motion to be that of deer. Squirrels, rabbits, foxes, minks, weasels, grouse and other birds and animals will attract the eye, so that I have always had a slight feeling of surprise when motion in the woods turns out to be a deer. Nobody should have any trouble in identifying the motion of a deer which is startled and leaves the area in a rush with an upraised flag, but the one that tries to sneak off, or stands undecided, is a different matter. These deer may appear to be something other than deer and must be positively identified before it is safe to shoot.
Sometimes motion that is thought to be something else turns out to be a deer, and in such cases the person who is able to see well will benefit by having a good hunting vision.
In one case, I was able to shoot a deer that I thought was a squirrel when I first saw the motion. I located the object that had attracted my attention, apparently on a branch of a blow-down. While waiting for it to move again, for positive identification, I noticed what seemed to be a knothole a few inches below the object that had moved in the first place. There was no tree where the knothole seemed to be. Suspecting that I might be looking at a deer’s ear and eye, I took one step forward and the other ear and eye could be plainly seen. The rest of the deer’s body was completely concealed from view by the blow-down. That deer had seen me, but thought it was concealed enough so that I would pass by without noticing it. Deer do this more often than many might realize, but they can usually tell just when the hunter becomes aware of their presence and nearly always will run as soon as they are seen instead of staying around to see what will happen, as this deer did. If that deer hadn’t moved its ear when it did, I would have, in all probability, walked on past unaware that there was a deer watching me and it would have lived.
Deer do not need to be behind a blow-down in order to be hidden. I have seen feeding deer vanish temporarily while in an open field where their color blended with that of the dead grass in the background. Even feeding motions would not reveal their presence on cloudy days until they moved into a place which gave them a different background. Naturally an animal that can blend into the landscape of an open field would be doubly hard to see in the shade of the woods where it would be partly concealed by underbrush. If it were not for their habit of standing broadside to approaching danger, many deer would be overlooked or mistaken for tree stubs by even the sharpest-eyed hunter.
Two deer, standing broadside, fooled me completely on one occasion. I knew they were in the vicinity and I was proceeding very cautiously so as not to alarm them. There was a low ridge of ledge between me and where I thought that the deer might be waiting and I stayed behind this ridge until I came to a place where I could climb it and scan the opposite side. With my head and shoulders above the ridge, I could look into a grove of soft wood trees (mostly hemlock) with practically no underbrush for at least a hundred yards. I looked this grove over very carefully and decided that there was nothing there and I started to cross to check on another location. I saw the deer before they left the ground on their first jump and they had been standing broadside to me about half way through the open grove. Their camouflage had been so good that I had failed to see them until motion gave them away. The vertical tree trunks broke any horizontal lines and the shade under the softwood trees neutralized any contrasting color which they may have had so that they remained next to invisible as long as they remained in one position. Incidentally I never tried to shoot either of these deer.
I have seen many standing deer in the woods. Some of them before they saw me, but probably five times as many have seen me first and all that I saw of them was a flag, bounding off through the woods. Some of these deer were practically invisible, while others were so obvious that it didn’t seem possible that they were wild animals. I have seen a few deer that neither ran at my approach nor stood to be identified, but that tried to sneak off before I could see them. These deer are the most difficult to identify and shoot. They move silently, without raising their flag, and are usually partly obscured by underbrush. All that the hunter sees is an indistinct shadow which disappears even as he looks, leaving him unsure that he has seen anything until he finds the track where he saw the shadow. I can not remember shooting any of the deer which have sneaked away from me in this manner.
Anybody who travels the woods quietly in search of deer will have an enjoyable time, and if he is in a section where deer are plentiful, has a good chance of bagging a deer.
The actual trailing, overtaking and shooting of a deer is a difficult and often disappointing method. It can be done if there is a good tracking snow and if there are not too many other deer tracks to confuse the hunter.
Very few hunters can resist following the trail of a deer which they have jumped yet failed to shoot. Knowledge of deer habits can be of great value in obtaining a shot when trailing these deer.
When first jumped, a deer seldom travels far before stopping to learn if whatever startled it is something which will follow or some harmless accidental encounter. It will run for a short distance and then will stop, usually on some elevated spot to watch its back-trail without being seen from that trail, waiting until it can determine the hunter’s intentions. This is probably the best chance that the hunter will have, for some time, and it will pay him to be doubly cautious in locating and approaching the spot where the animal is waiting. Both deer and man are on the alert and no hunter need be ashamed of a deer that is shot under these circumstances.
Usually when I jump a deer, I do not follow directly on the trail, but note the direction of the deer’s flight. Then I move down wind for a short distance, not over a hundred yards, and less when in thick brush, and travel in the same direction. This often brings into view a deer which is hidden from any point on its trail and creates an uncertainty, in the deer’s mind, as to my intentions. This will, sometimes, give me the opportunity for a standing shot. As I am down wind from the deer, it lacks my scent and it seldom depends on sight alone to warn it of danger. Since I am not directly on the track, there is the possibility that I am unaware of, or indifferent to, its presence. Its natural curiosity, together with its indecision, often causes it to wait long enough for me to spot it before it can make up its mind to run.
If a man fails to shoot the deer on the second start, he is in for a long and sometimes discouraging job of trailing, but there is nothing which I know that will give a hunter a more thorough knowledge of a deer’s actions than trailing the animal. I am never discouraged when I follow a deer all day and fail to bag it. I feel that the knowledge gained that day will be of help, if I ever again hunt the same territory.
I have been told that a man can outlast a deer on the trail. I can believe this for, although I have never followed one to the point of exhaustion, I followed two for a period of three days and they were very tired deer before the end of the chase. On the third day, they were continually seeking a chance to rest and on several occasions, they actually lay down when they knew that I was close on the trail and would soon force them to move. I saw those deer twelve times on the third day and they were within shotgun range each time that I saw them.
I do not think that it was muscular fatigue that permitted me to tire them out; I think that it was more a matter of their digestive system revolting. A deer’s feeding habits demand a period of rest and tranquility in order for it to chew its cud and to dispose of the roughage that fills its paunch. I do not know how long this food will keep in the first stomach without spoiling, but I am sure that, in time, this undigested food will cause distress.
Deer feed normally twice a day, night and morning, with the intervals between feeding devoted to rest and digestion. If the animal is forced to move soon after the morning feeding time, the digestion of this food is delayed until the deer has a chance to rest, and if the deer is kept on the move all day and every day, the feeding routine will be disrupted so that the evening feeding period becomes a digestion time. This restricts the deer to one feeding time each day, forcing it to travel with a full paunch at the start of each day’s chase. Perhaps this is why it is easier to shoot trailed deer late in the day than it is earlier in the chase.
Possibly this theory is all “poppycock” and trailed deer merely become accustomed to the trailer and lose some of their natural fear after being followed for some time without being harmed. If a man should ever try to trail a deer to the point of exhaustion, he should not take out after some ranging buck that tries to leave the country. He will go so far and so fast that he will have hours of rest before the hunter can overtake him and will start out again as fresh as a daisy while the trailer will be about ready to call it a day and go home.
One of the most sporting deer hunting strategies, as well as one of the most difficult, and one that requires the most knowledge of deer and of the country to be hunted, is to travel the woods until a deer is found and started, and then to anticipate its course so as to be able to circle the animal and shoot it as it approaches a predetermined spot.
In order to do this the hunter must have the ability to find deer at different times of day. He must know what they will do when disturbed, how far they will travel, where they are most apt to go and how to take advantage of the terrain so as to arrive at a spot before the deer can get there. This requires a great deal of walking, often through thick brush and over rough ground, and often quite a bit of hurrying in order to head off the deer, but the man who bags his deer in this manner has a right to be proud of his feat.
These several methods, often used in combination, are the principal legal ones.