The feeling of angst begins deep inside about the same time every autumn. As a confirmed farmland deer hunter, I suspect I am not the only one with such concerns brewing as October heads toward November.
It starts with watching weather forecasts nightly. Is the weather going to be dry? Is some frost coming? Though, I don’t want a real hard freeze. It continues with frequent visits to small-town newspaper websites in southern Wisconsin, western Minnesota, the counties bordering the Missouri River in South Dakota, the river breaks and table lands of eastern Nebraska, and anywhere else I might be hunting in the upcoming rut or gun seasons.
I’ll even stream in radio stations from afar to hear the announcers give local agricultural reports. So, what am I so intent on learning? The progress of the local corn harvest and how the army of combines is doing at bringing in the golden kernels.
Such concern spreads far beyond the regions mentioned. Visit places like Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, certain portions of Pennsylvania and western New York and you’ll hear the same mantra wherever hunters gather — we’re going to have some tough hunting if the corn is up.
When much of the corn crop is standing, whitetails have almost everything they need — cover and food — in one place. Water is the only part of the habitat equation that could be in short supply, but that problem is easily enough solved under the cover of darkness.
Therein lies the challenge: How to hunt whitetails in a jungle of cornstalks. Whether it’s a 5-acre corn patch tucked away on the backside of a farm, a 40-acre field of the stuff or a full quarter-section of 160 acres, it is downright challenging to kill a deer in standing corn. However, that doesn’t mean the task is impossible. The most important thing I learned about hunting deer in standing corn when I shot my first whitetail in the stalks is that I would not have killed that buck had I been sitting in the deerless woods or, worse yet, sitting at home feeling like the cause was lost.
Here are five ways to shoot a whitetail when the corn is up.
Stalk the Stalks
A field of standing corn is a daunting thing. But sometimes it is best approached on your own and on the move. It’s time to stalk the stalks.
While I’ve done the majority of my solo corn hunting with a slug gun, the technique also works with a centerfire rifle (crank that scope power down for close-range aiming), muzzleloader and even archery gear.
Ideal weather for solo cornfield stalking consists of a good breeze that blows along (parallel with) the rows. Hunt into the wind so deer don’t scent your approach. Damp ground helps quiet your approach. A little snow on the ground — for spotting deer against dark ground and tan stalks — is perfect but not essential. The breeze also rustles the stalks and masks any inadvertent sounds you may make.
Start at the downwind end of the field, off to one side. Sneak across the rows, sticking your head into each opening to look up the row (into the wind) for bedded deer. Take your time, don’t knock down stalks and cross the field this way. Then head into the wind 30 or 40 yards along the outside edge — far enough that you will be covering new ground as you cross the field again, this time heading across in the other direction and peering up the rows. Keep repeating this process. Whitetails like to bed within the rows. Look for pieces and parts of deer on your peeks up rows — a haunch, a flicking ear, a twitching tail, or the slope of a nose. Look hard. That “sparrow” you saw flit might have been a deer’s ear twitching, for example. If you spot a deer, back up a few rows (count them), sneak up that row in the deer’s direction, then cut back to the deer’s row for a closer shot.
Bowhunters especially have to be patient now, perhaps waiting for the deer to shift position, or stand up, for a better shot. Firearm hunters can find a good angle and plant a slug or bullet in the deer’s boiler room.
Dress the part. Light-colored prairie or desert pattern camouflage works well in corn. So does waterfowl camouflage, with its vertical reed-and-cattail patterns. Quiet fabrics — fleece or wool — are essential. No blue jeans or canvas. Wear a facemask and gloves.
There are several ways for a duo of hunters to team up and effectively hunt standing corn. For starters, two hunters can stalk a piece of standing corn at the same time, as described above. You won’t get in each other’s way, and one hunter might push a deer toward the other. The best approach is to divide the field in two and have each hunter stick to their half. The safety rules for double-teaming a standing cornfield are simple: Never shoot cross-rows toward your partner’s half of the field.
Alternatively, one partner can push a corn strip or patch while the other hunter lingers outside the stalks, hoping to cash in on any deer that jump up and try to exit the field. Perhaps counter intuitively, one of the best places to post is back at the start of the field. Whitetails love the back door and will frequently squirt out there.
In the small town where I grew up, everybody strung up their deer in a tree in the yard for a few days. It was fun to tour the streets and see who shot what. But those make-do meat poles were always pretty empty when the corn was up — that is until families started joining forces to push deer out of the corn and into posting hunters’ sights.
The ideal hunt was in the contour strips of corn that wound around the rolling hills. These patches were easy to cover and relatively simple to boot a deer out of, but most any small patch of corn will do. If the field is too big, the whitetails will circle around the pushers and bed back down.
The rules for success on a cornfield push are simple. While a push into the wind is best, working cross-lots to the breeze can be effective, too. Pushers spread out and walk along their row, keeping any pushers to the sides in view. Keep a walker on either outer edge of the field to shoot deer that squirt out of the sides. Place posters at strategic points at the end of the field. It’s not a bad idea to have someone post up where the push began, as well.
The safety rules for a successful cornfield push are also simple. Hunters in the corn are only there to push. No one in the corn shoots, ever. No one outside of the corn shoots into the corn, ever. Posters know where each other are, stay put until the drive is over and never shoot in the direction of other posters.
Watch A Seam
Thus far we’ve taken the hunt to the deer. That’s an excellent cornfield approach. Whitetails in the corn are settled in there for a reason. Hunting pressure has pushed them there, and/or the jungle of cover is preferable, for now, to what else is available.
But maybe you’re hunting solo and don’t want to step into the close confines of a standing cornfield. Perhaps you don’t want to risk moving the deer out of your hunting area. Or, the farmer might not want someone rustling round in his crop, potentially knocking over stalks and costing him cobs and kernels (money) that the combine cannot glean.
There are ways to hunt standing corn from a stand. The best spot is a seam between the corn and other cover — usually in the form of timber, a brushy fenceline, or a brush-filled or cattail-choked ditch. Whitetails use these field margins for traveling at any time of the day. You get at least some view here. If you can hang a treestand and watch the edge zone and perhaps into a couple rows of stalks, that is a great stand site.
To identify a prime micro-site for a stand on the edge of the corn, look for shaded areas, wet spots or other zones where the corn didn’t grow as tall. Any additional field of view you can glean is invaluable.
Stake Out A Point
Here’s another productive site for stand-hunting the corn: look for points and peninsulas of cover (timber, prairie grass, wetland cattails) that jut into the corn. In a nutshell, seek out pieces of cover that the corn wraps around. Whitetails will readily use these swaths of cover to travel between sections of the cornfield. Place a stand right there. Unfortunately, these kinds of spots don’t always have trees, so your best solution might be to haul in a portable tripod stand and set it up.
It’s hard to beat this tactic. A swale of grass, cattails or other cover provides the kind of edge habitat that whitetails love. Because they are surrounded by corn, the deer feel safe and move freely here. A tripod stand gives you the ability to get a little vantage point and hunt the spot.
So, about that first buck in the corn.
It was actually a pretty simple hunt. My father and I were working through contour strips of corn high on a Wisconsin hillside, three or four days into the gun season of an extremely wet autumn that kept the combines out of even these ridgetop fields. No deer hung from our meat pole at home and we had gotten discouraged hunting traditional spots in the woods. “We’ve got to go into the corn after them,” was all dad had said.
We had been at it a couple of hours. I was working through a new patch of the stalks, crossing a weedy swale, when I stopped in my tracks. Strangely, maybe 15 yards away, was what looked like a rock with a blanket over it. Of course, it was a bedded deer and not a rock. The whitetail was as perplexed as I was, probably wondering what would or could be in the corn with him. As I started to realize all this and slowly raised the shotgun to my shoulder, the buck started to stand up. The old Remington pumpkin ball slug flew true and reached the whitetail before he reached his feet. It was over. The fat 6-pointer was a real trophy to a couple of hunters in need of some pride on the meat pole and venison in the freezer. We proved we could shoot a whitetail even when the corn up.