North America remains home to more whitetail deer than most hunters ever dreamed of before the 1990s. Sure, deer numbers dropped in some areas in recent years, but it was probably unrealistic to think most habitats could hold record numbers of deer for long. Meanwhile, there’s also less competition for deer in many areas. Hunting populations have dropped in many states, and many hunters who remain are seeing old age creep up on them, restricting their mobility for the first time.
Many hunters might grin at the prospects of more deer and less competition, but they realize good deer woods — and access to them — can still be challenging. Malls, suburbs, industrial parks and road systems keep pushing across the landscape. As urban sprawl changes or destroys deer habitat, it also introduces more metro values and attitudes. Many of these new suburbanites view parks, refuges and wildlife areas as sanctuaries and don’t realize the properties have long been hunted, and that it’s possible to have too many deer.
No wonder, then, that so few of them speak our language, and even try to have us removed from many public lands. OK. They can be a pain, but let’s concede a few things before feeling too sorry for ourselves:
First, access to private land has never been easy for most of us. Have we ever seen “Hunters Welcome” signs on private property? No matter how good our manners and how nice our sales pitch, we’ve usually had few opportunities to hunt private land unless we, or our friends or family, owned the property.
Second, much of our continent’s wealth lies in its large, diverse public lands. Granted, those properties are not always near home, but proximity alone doesn’t explain why some hunters avoid public lands. They often cite crowding, safety and “lack of game,” even though such claims often arise from hearsay or one incident and an unwillingness to venture far from the pavement. Even with GPS units, deer hunters seldom venture more than one-third of a mile from the nearest road.
Third, even though whitetails remain abundant, their only loyalties are to habitat, not land title, government agencies or individual taxpayers. We must know which habitats meet the deer’s food and cover needs and follow them to lands they deem worthy.
Rekindle the Flame
No matter where you hunt or how long you’ve hunted there, beware of complacency. Success becomes more random and eventually declines if you don’t continually improve your knowledge of the land and its whitetails. Assume nothing, and start from scratch each year. Walk longer and scout farther as you reconsider dead zones, review reliable setups, and push deeper into new territory.
Are you certain your land offers no overlooked gems? Maybe it didn’t three years ago, but habitat changes so gradually it often escapes notice. Sumac, briars, blackberries, prickly ash and other brush can quietly claim ravines, fencerows and field edges, converting them into prime escape cover. At the same time, critique your knowledge of the land’s plants, trees and topography, and how they relate to a whitetail’s needs. If you can only identify sign left by deer — whether it’s rubs, beds, hair, tracks, scrapes or pellets — you’re only reading indicators, not explanations.
For instance, deer bed in dense habitat and travel through corridors defined by cover and terrain to reach acorns, alfalfa and natural browse produced by new growth. Do you know where to find all the elements that combine to provide safe travel and stomach-filling browse? Although it’s important to study topographic maps and aerial photos, it’s best to view both simultaneously to analyze field edges, wooded ridgetops and fertile valleys.
Better yet is knowing how to identify tree and brush species in aerial photos and pinpoint a woodland’s internal edges where different cover types merge. For instance, your chances of intercepting mature bucks improve along edges where a regrowing clear-cut meets mature woods. Your odds further improve if those edges follow a ridgeline or a hillside’s transition into a valley. And they improve even more when those edges include natural foods and good cover so deer not only want to be there, but they move through leisurely because they feel safe.
Constant analysis can also steer you away from sites where the habitat has grown mature and less suited to deer. Winter is a good time for such assessments. In northern climates, snow reveals a habitat’s shortcomings even more starkly than bare trees and naked underbrush. If you can look 100 yards through a woods in all directions, ask yourself where a deer would hide. If most trees are tall, mature and sporting large canopies, they’ll choke out undergrowth. You might waylay an occasional deer as it flees other hunters, but odds are it won’t be there in daylight of its own accord.
Your analysis must also include you and your hunting partners. Cast a cold eye on favorite stands, especially “old reliable” setups. How is the surrounding habitat changing? If you don’t know, pay more attention. And what about the deer’s response to hunting pressure? Do you record your sightings?
You might assume that hunting from the same site only once or twice a year won’t educate deer, but Bryan Kinkel, a Tennessee deer researcher, found otherwise when reviewing his group’s deer-sighting reports. Despite documenting bucks 3 1/2 years and older on their properties, Kinkel’s group never spotted these bucks from their stands.
“Deer learn to avoid stands within a year, so we move our portable stands regularly,” he says. “The longer a stand stays in one place, the more deer avoid it. By the time a buck is 4½ years old, you’re lucky to even see him during the hunting season, no matter where you go or how you hunt.”
Who’s Your Competition?
No matter how much you know about habitat and whitetails, also consider your tolerance for other hunters. Do you want absolute solitude, steady companionship or something in between? Don’t answer too quickly. Research reveals hunting satisfaction can be highest where other hunters keep deer moving.
During the 1980s, University of Wisconsin researchers controlled hunter densities during public hunts at the state’s Sandhill Wildlife Area to see how crowding affected satisfaction. Although crowding reduced satisfaction for most hunters, the overall experience was often deemed positive if hunters saw more deer. What was the catch? That was especially true for antlerless-only hunts. When hunters could shoot bucks or antlerless deer, increased deer activity did not necessarily offset the negatives of seeing more hunters. Hunters were most consistently satisfied when there was just enough hunting pressure to move deer, but not enough that they often saw each other.
Most of us prefer some solitude, but whether we find it often depends on how much physical effort we and our competition invest, physically and mentally. As mentioned earlier, few hunters venture more than a third of a mile from the road. To be more precise, few hunters travel more than a third of a mile from the nearest road, trail, campsite, parking lot or field. For example, a 1976 U.S. Forest Service study in West Virginia’s Middle Mountain public hunting area found that trails and campsites affect hunter distribution more than all other factors, including roads. In other words, most hunters choose hunting areas based on factors other than finding game.
That research — and most previous studies — relied on the hunters’ estimates of their travel distances and where they went. A more recent Penn State study equipped hunters with GPS units to track their movements. Analysis of that GPS data revealed that deer hunters overestimate their woodland travel distances by 2.5 times, and 80 percent stayed within one-third mile of a road. On that study site, the Sproul State Forest in north-central Pennsylvania, hunters seldom stepped foot on 45 percent of the study area!
“Deer that live about 400 meters or more from a road in the Sproul have almost no chance of being harvested,” said Penn State researcher Duane Diefenbach. “Not only is there limited road access, but the woodland habitat is very steep. If you walk away from the road in some places, the only way back is all uphill. You need a winch to get a deer out.”
In effect, big parts of public land can become de facto deer refuges with too many whitetails. Even if you’re conditioned to hike up hills, over deadfalls and through laurels to seek such sites, there’s a distinction between a smart, efficient bivouac and a long, blind stumble. It helps to know which areas likely hold deer, and which make deer most vulnerable.
That sounds sensible, but the U.S. Forest Service’s 1976 research in West Virginia found many hunters did not know enough about habitat and deer behavior to seek the best cover. Hunters were more attuned to walking trails, even though hiking trails seldom lead to prime deer cover. In addition, the farther good cover was from trails or campsites, the fewer times hunters visited.
In some cases, however, road and trail access is so thorough that no area escapes notice. That doesn’t mean every deer is equally vulnerable. In the Penn State study, researchers in airplanes carried real-time photos and marked the location of orange-clad hunters on the Tuscarora State Forest, southeast of Huntington. Even though hunters dispersed fairly evenly across the landscape, harvest data found those on steep hillsides had the worst success. Researchers plan further analysis to determine whether that low success was a result of wary deer, ineffective hunting tactics or a combination of both.
Realize, too, that our definitions of public lands are changing in many places. This is especially true in publicly owned parks, university campuses and recreational areas near or within urban areas. You might have to take extra steps to gain access, and you might be restricted to bowhunting, but it’s often worth the trouble. In Wisconsin, for example, the state’s second most populated area is Dane County, home of the state capital. The county has 25 properties that allow bowhunting for deer during the state’s 100-plus-day archery season. The number of hunting permits varies by property, and they are awarded in a preseason drawing.
Such sites aren’t your typical deer-hunting locales. I’ve bumped into horseback riders who misplaced their horses, leashed dogs that walked their owners into multiflora rose patches, and cross-country skiers who assumed no one witnessed their humiliating falls.
The one factor that never changes, however, is the importance of pinpointing quality deer habitat. If you’re willing to scout it out and hike cross-country a half-mile or more, you’ll seldom have reason to gripe about hunting opportunities on our public lands.
Featured photo: USFWS