Improve Your Woodsmanship by Thinking Like a Deer

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There’s a difference between anthropomorphism and common-sense hunting tactics. Of course, the latter is quite the oxymoron.

As baseball great Paul Molitor once said, “If common sense were so common, wouldn’t everyone have it?” It should also be noted that many great hunters fail miserably when trying to predict deer behavior based on “what should happen.” This is highly evident on many blood trails, where deer behavior is highly inconsistent. However, all things equal, hunters can routinely outsmart white-tailed deer by applying a dash of common sense with helping heapings of patience and persistence.

buckpole17-dan-schmidt-nebraska-buck-horton-crossbow-oct-2016Know Your Surroundings
There’s a fine line between predicting what a deer will do and out-thinking yourself. Today’s hunters spend way too much time analyzing maps, plat books and aerial photos trying to guess what deer will do “on paper.” These items are great tools to get a starting point for a piece of property, but they do nothing to put a deer on the ground. The only way to truly learn deer behavior and travel patterns is to make a few educated guesses, then get your butt in a treestand or ground blind and see firsthand how deer use that particular property.

Some basic knowledge of flora and fauna can help a hunter jump on the fast track to instant success. Specifically, intimate knowledge of a property’s tree, shrub and plant communities can eliminate a lot of the guesswork. If a hunter knows what deer eat and when they’ll eat it, he can start thinking like a deer and quicken the learning curve.

There are many defining moments in a deer hunter’s career. One of mine came a decade ago when I shared an Alabama deer camp with Dr. Ray McIntyre, a bowhunting legend and former owner of the Warren & Sweat Tree Stand Company. McIntyre, now retired, is a master archer who was killing whitetails with his bow and arrows long before he was in the hunting business.

As a credit to his uncanny woodsmanship, and thanks to liberal Southern bag limits, he had bow-killed more than 300 whitetails. As previously mentioned, no hunter can rack up numbers like that without having some prime places to hunt. However, in McIntyre’s case, success was definitely linked to his ability to read and understand woodland environments that brought him endless close encounters.

Understanding food sources and how deer use them is a key to knowing where and when to hunt during the season.

Understanding food sources and how deer use them is a key to knowing where and when to hunt during the season.

Deer hunting has changed a lot over the past 30 years, but woodsmanship never goes out of style. McIntyre’s many seasons of experience taught him how to instantly identify preferred food sources and instinctively know when and how to hunt them.

“Few people fully understand all the favorite early season food of the whitetail,” he said. “Fewer still can identify them. If you can’t find them, you can’t hunt them.”

Talk about a wakeup call. When I met McIntyre, I’m sure I came across as a punk kid who thought he knew all the answers. Needless to say, his words were humbling, because, frankly, I really hadn’t a clue about how deer used natural forages throughout autumn. I was certainly one of those hunters who wasted my time by looking for old rubs, scrapes and even shed antlers during March, June, July and August scouting trips.

“That information might serve you well during the rut, but it don’t mean diddly when you’re trying to kill a deer during the early season,” McIntyre said.

I spent five days with McIntyre, following him around the woods like a true apprentice. Instead of looking for buck sign, we focused on identifying each plant and tree species. These lessons took place in a true Southern classroom, but what I learned there has paid huge dividends in my home deer haunts of Wisconsin – and every other whitetail location I’ve hunted ever since. The most important lesson was how deer use oak woodlots.

How many times have you walked in the woods, realized acorns were falling and returned to camp proclaiming you’ve finally located the mother of all deer hunting spots? It happens to all of us. Unfortunately, merely finding acorns isn’t enough, unless, of course, your goals set are extremely low. Not all oaks produce acorns annually, and deer prefer some species over others.

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Acorns fall under two basic categories — white and red — with white oak nuts being most preferred by deer because of their lower acid content. It gets a little tricky after that, however, because there are literally dozens of varieties spread across both categories. Production also varies. Some white-oak strains can produce annual crops, while red oaks need at least two seasons to produce just one crop.

Soybeans and corn are great hunting locations but knowing your area's native forage is even better so you can key in on changes as they're occurring.

Soybeans and corn are great hunting locations but knowing your area’s native forage is even better so you can key in on changes as they’re occurring.

That’s why it’s important to know exactly how many oaks grow in your woods; how productive they are; and their recent histories for mast production. If you haven’t paid attention, merely map out your hunting area and approach future hunts with at least the knowledge of location and current mast conditions. This approach will at least get you started on the fast track for next year.

Oaks are easy to identify. Reds have pointed leaf fingers, while whites have dull, rounded points. Red varieties include the general red oak and the lesser strains of jack, pin, scarlet, black, blackjack, scrub and turkey oaks. White varieties include the general white oak and the lesser strains of post, bur, swamp, overcup, live, laurel, water, willow, chestnut and chinquapin oaks. Even seasoned veterans have trouble positively identifying all of these species. Therefore, it’s wise to invest $20 or so into a tree identification guide such as those offered by Houghton & Mifflin.

Mississippi’s Will Primos is another master deer hunter whom I admire greatly. In fact, if it wasn’t for him, I might have never learned how to key off of locust groves during the early season. Although they’re abundant in the South, locusts can also be found in the North. These thorny trees grow tall and produce bushels of banana-shaped pods during autumn. Deer absolutely love locust pods, but don’t run out and plant a grove of these trees tomorrow. They’re a highly invasive species that will quickly choke out more preferred trees and shrubs. However, if you happen to have a locust grove on your hunting property, you should definitely look at it more closely.

My first taste of deer hunting in a locust grove came in the mid-1990s when I bowhunted with Primos at Mississippi’s Tara Wildlife Area. It was early November – weeks before the rut – and deer were bulking up on acorns, wild pecans and nearly every other kind of natural forage. Feeding patterns changed, however, midway through our hunt when honey locust pods started raining from the trees.

Dan Schmidt of Deer & Deer HuntingOne afternoon I watched in awe as five yearling bucks approached an ancient tree that was dropping pods by the dozen. The deer tolerated each other’s presence while dining on the tasty treats. Locust pods are similar to pea pods; they contain legume-type fruits. A deer will use its front teeth to pick up a locust pod, then positions it sideways and begins chewing. The deer keeps chewing until all of the fruits pop from the hull. The hull eventually exits the opposite jaw.

Watching these deer eat locust pods reminded me of how a ticker tape is dispensed from a machine. The Southern honey locust can grow as tall as 80 feet. Its Northern cousin is the somewhat shorter black locust, which often drops its pods during early autumn.

I didn’t capitalize on black locusts until a few years after I hunted with Primos. It was late September, and I was hunting a small private woodlot sandwiched between a winding river and a busy county highway. I obtained hunting permission just four days before the season opener and, therefore, had little time for scouting. My goal was simply to put some venison in the freezer, so I tossed a plat book and my knee-high rubber boots into the bed of my pickup before leaving for work one morning.

The plan was to walk the 80-acre parcel and find at least two stand sites for opening weekend. That didn’t take long. While skirting the property along the riverbank, I noticed a small ridge that wound toward the north property line. I climbed the ridge and found an old logging road that was lined with mature black locusts – branches drooping from bumper crops of pods. I returned the next afternoon with my climbing stand and high hopes. The hunt didn’t last long. Deer literally poured out of the surrounding cover as the sun inched toward the treetops.

They headed straight for the locust pods and were soon munching them at a frenzied rate. I had several doe tags in my pocket, so I waited for the largest one to feed her way toward my stand. The shot was true, and she didn’t go far. That was probably the most satisfying early season bowhunt I’ve ever had, because I used newfound knowledge to outsmart a whitetail.

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