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Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Updated: January 17, 2:12 PM ET
A few observations about deer (and hunters)

By Ron Schara
Host of ESPN2's "Backroads with Ron & Raven"

If I were a deer-hunting expert, I'd never admit it.

Too easy to be wrong.

Minnesota's deer-hunting tradition is alive and well today for many reasons. Family. Camaraderie. License cheaper than a Vikings ticket. Nothing else to do around Grygla, Minn.

There's a good number of deer hunters whose inspiration to hit the woods is as simple as gathering meat for the freezer, a k a venison.

I suspect, however, the majority of us will go deer hunting for a whitetail experience.

We'll adorn ourselves in sexy blaze orange attire. We'll act for hours like a tree stump. We'll spray ourselves with urine from fox, skunks or pseudo horny doe pee — all for the privilege of spending time with whitetail deer where they live.

And where they live is the only place to really discover (or try to discover) what an amazing animal we are fortunate to have in our midst.

It's been almost 50 years since I began to call myself a deer hunter. First with a bow, followed by a firearm. Didn't always bag a deer (seldom is a more correct), but always have had an interesting time.

If I didn't learn something about deer (because I didn't see any) than I learned something about myself.

A few observations about deer (and deer hunters):

Wind

A deer hunter who doesn't take note of the wind's direction and adjusts his or her hunting strategy is a … well, a fool.

Yes, you can spray yourself and the woods around you with dozens of expensive concoctions designed to fool a deer's nose but I wouldn't trust any of 'em.

This is not saying they don't work. In the right situation, scent aids both do and don't attract deer, bucks or does. Scent-blocking aids, sprays or clothing, might minimize human body odor.

Nevertheless, a deer hunter's No. 1 rule is hunt with the wind in your favor because the world's best cover-ups might not cover up.

Keep in mind, deer seldom panic at the whiff of human odor. They might bound a few bounds, but seldom bolt to the other side of the woods.

If you have no choice but to walk downwind to reach your hunting spot, it's not a total problem. A bowhunting friend of mine often walked downwind into a woodsy spot but then made a small circle and walked back into his key hunting area upwind. The ploy often worked.

On the subject of wind and scent, I often wonder what downwind really means. Do we leave a stream of human scent downwind? Is it a scent cloud? How wide a path does our scent travel with the breeze?

I don't have the answers, but I have been surprised at the point a deer detects danger in the air. It's usually earlier than the downwind line I had imagined.

Yet, there are times when you think a deer will detect your presence but it doesn't or isn't disturbed enough to change course.

Cigarette smokers often are told smoke is a no-no in the deer woods. I suspect a deer that smells the smoke also will smell your hair and the like. Moving your hand from cigarette to mouth, which is akin to waving hello, may be a greater sin as deer are quick to detect unusual movement.

  Hints for the deer woods
Without starting any unnecessary arguments, it's assumed that most deer hunters agree that bowhunting requires more knowledge of the animal to be successful.

In other words, the time required of bowhunting gives archers more experience in observing deer behavior.

John Larson of Burnsville, Minn., is a veteran of more than 35 deer seasons with bow and arrow. John Brand of Rushford, Minn., has more than a half-century of deer hunting experience with firearm and bow.

With uncountable hours in the woods, Larson and Brand have reached a few conclusions about the trials and tribulations of seeking whitetails.

  • If you're hunting on unfamiliar ground, it can be an exercise in futility. Scouting is extremely important before the season unless you rely on luck on opening day.
  • Trophy bucks march to a different drummer. In pre-rut, bucks have fairly predictable patterns of movement. In rut, bucks may be found almost anywhere, although bucks tend to be where does and fawns are most abundant.
  • Bucks seldom are found on main deer trails. Rather, large bucks tend to utilize trails in thick brush, ravines and so forth.
  • Wind determines what deer stand to use. Choose stands that can be approached upwind.
  • Select deer-stand locations long before the deer season opens. The higher the stand, the better, depending on laws. A high stand, 16 feet or better, minimizes scent, especially in the morning, when the air is rising.
  • Carry a safety harness and wear it in the stand.
  • Weather can determine deer movements. Light rain often means deer will move earlier in the evening and move more.
  • Never bust into a deer bedding area during the day. The deer may not return to that spot for days.
  • In the evening, does and fawns tend to arrive first to feeding fields. If you're buck hunting, wait farther from the field in evening. At dawn, bucks tend to leave fields before does and fawns.
  • While bowhunters seldom still-hunt, the technique is effective for firearm deer hunters. Remember to walk and stop often. Look for flicking ears or tail.
  • Learn to use your ears, as well as your eyes. Binoculars are a handy tool for spotting deer movement. Make sure of your target before you shoot.
  • Weather

    While some weather patterns tend to increase or decrease deer movements, I've never known an absolute rule regarding deer and weather.

    Snow. Rain. Strong winds. No winds. East wind. West wind. No moon. Full moon. You name the weather and a deer somewhere will be up and walking around in it.

    Veteran hunters do contend that a full moon will impact deer movements, especially early and late in the day. During a full moon period, some say, deer move more at midday.

    Speaking of noon, if you've never hunted over the lunch hour, you're no deer expert.

    I also remember one Thanksgiving morning when I said to myself, "What am I doing out here?'' I was bowhunting in a dawn wind that was dangerously high — 30 mph gusts, for sure.

    No deer in its right mind would be out and about in such gusts, I figured. Then … here he came, a nice whitetail buck, walking with the wind.

    The experience was a lesson I've never forgotten. Remember, the authors of how-to-hunt-deer books don't grow antlers.

    Basic hunting strategy

    At the break of day, deer will be feeding as they contemplate moving slowly to bedding habitat. In late afternoon, the reverse movement occurs.

    Typically, the best hunting ploy is the place yourself on trails leading to and from bedding and feeding places. Trails leading from a swamp to a cornfield is a simple example.

    Consider the cornfield-swamp scenario:

    In late afternoon, my choice might be the cornfield edge as this is the location deer are seeking at dusk.

    On the other hand, my morning choice would be the swamp edge as the deer will leave the picked cornfield and mosey to the swamp grass to bed down for the day.

    It's a good strategy, but it doesn't always work.

    Which brings up another deer hunting lesson. Grunting or rattling antlers to attract deer is a nifty ploy. But it doesn't always work. There are many hunting techniques that can be effective, but don't always work.

    That, too, is the beauty of hunting whitetails: You can be a deer expert one season. And bubba the next.


    Ron Schara may be reached at ron@mnbound.com.

    Schara's 250-page book, "Ron Schara's Minnesota Fishing Guide" (Tristan Outdoors; $19.95) is available by clicking here or by calling 888-755-3155.