The smartest deer in the woods aren’t necessarily the ones with big head hear. That’s right, although big whitetail bucks are certainly crafty, they don’t have anything on wise, old does. In fact, I’ll stick my neck out and say mature does are the smartest deer in the woods.
Think about that for a minute. A mature buck only has to look out for himself, and, even then, he becomes unglued at least once every hunting season — during the rut. The same cannot be said for a fully mature doe. She’s always on high alert, probably because she usually has to watch out for more than just herself. With fawns usually in tow, a matriarch is often the leader of the pack when doe groups congregate. Add it up, and it makes for an ultra-wary critter.
Where to Find the Smartest Deer
Find a productive food source, and you’ll find antlerless deer. However, mature does – like mature bucks – aren’t pushovers. Field edges, water sources, food plots and orchards are great spots to kill big does during the early archery season, but these spots quickly dry up when the older deer start feeling the pressure. To outsmart mature does, you need to hunt fringe cover as the season progresses. My most productive stands are essentially staging areas – patches of thick cover adjacent to feeding areas. My best spot is a select-cut pine forest that abuts a clover field. The varying stages of regrowth provide fantastic cover and good hunting spots. Afternoon hunting is usually best in these types of areas, because deer congregate in the thicker cover, seemingly waiting for darkness to approach so they can enter the field. Some of these areas might only be an acre or so in size, but older does seek them and use them routinely.
Field hunting is frustrating because does use fields as open-area feeding havens throughout summer. They enter the fields from positions that allow them to scan for danger well in advance, and they oftentimes just pause at the woods’ edge and then jog or sprint until they’re 50 to 75 yards into the field. I believe this behavior indicates they instinctively know they’re safer when they can see for long distances in every direction. Such wary deer are hard to kill, but several tactics help improve a hunter’s odds. One tactic I use is to hang a stand so it overlooks a well-used trail 20 to 50 yards inside the woods. Place the stand 10 to 15 yards off the primary trail.
The most productive stands are those that provide shooting coverage to a main trail as well as one or more secondary trails. Once pressured, mature does often adopt buck-like behavior in that they’ll “bring up the rear,” allowing younger deer – typically fawns – to enter food sources on primary trails, while they hang back and enter from secondary trails. Another proven tactic involves glassing the food source throughout the off-season and learning the exact spots where deer enter it.
Next, you need to find a stand location that’s within shooting distance of the entrance route and one that takes advantage of prevailing wind currents.
How to Hunt the Smartest Deer
Hang stands well in advance of the first hunt, and only hunt the spot when the wind is perfect. Young deer might make repeated mistakes, but older does will not. As a result, it’s crucial to have two or three backup stands to cover various wind conditions. When hunting mature does at field edges, bowhunters need to be on constant alert. When a big doe steps into the field, the hunter usually needs to whistle or bleat with his mouth to get the deer to stop before she trots toward the field’s “safety zone.”
Remember, devising tactics to outsmart individual deer doesn’t need to be exhausting. With some planning and legwork, hunters can quickly assess how doe groups use the terrain. Draw maps for noting terrain features and deer sign. Major runways are easy to find, and they can tell you a lot about deer movements. For example, a runway that connects different cover types, such as oak forests and pine thickets, likely indicates preferred feeding and bedding areas. However, don’t be fooled into believing a well-used deer trail is your ticket to a filled tag (and hard-earned venison is in the freezer).
Bag the Smartest Deer in the Woods
To outsmart wise, old does, use main runways as starting points, and scout the area for parallel trails. In fact, these are the types of trails where hunters are most likely to connect on first- or second-time sits in farm country. On the other hand, big-woods does are much harder to kill. When targeting matriarchs in vast forests, hunters are best served to hunt oak ridges and swamp bottlenecks early in the archery season and travel corridors and clearcuts during the firearms season and late bow season.
Big-woods hunting requires much more scouting and trial-and-error hunting. When targeting wilderness areas, I’ve found that morning hunts near bedding areas are more productive than afternoon hunts. Unfortunately, with the increasing popularity of baiting in many Northern states, hunting deer one-on-one has become a bit more difficult in recent years.
Here’s an example of one mature doe that I’ve bagged that was extra wary when traveling to and from her daytime bedding areas:
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