Small Woods Deer Hunting – You’re Doing It Wrong

Mike Cullison excels at finding big bucks, often within view of the Indy skyline.

The vast majority of Hoosier hunters are limited to a small woodlot, but that doesn’t limit success if you start planning for the next deer season today.

alan garbersBeing successful next deer season means developing a small woods strategy right now.  I say small woods because most of us don’t have thousands or even hundreds of acres to hunt.
Two guys that know smalls woods tactics are fellow Hoosiers, Scott Parker and Mike Cullison. These guys live deer hunting and mentor less experienced hunters. Both had a great deal of advice to lend to this article.

By mid-January, after the last shot is fired, after the last arrow is cast, the woods fall silent to the footsteps of deer hunters. That is the time to start scouting.

For the sake of argument, we’ll say you have ten acres of woods surrounded by fields and fence rows. Start by making a map or image of the area. If you can, get on Google Earth and print out an overview of the property. Google Earth is a great tool and can open your eyes to features you may not have realized existed and how they relate to your hunting.

Draw the property boundaries and key features like clearings or ridges; things that will help you get you’re your bearings in the woods. When you think you have a good map, go into the woods and look for deer sign.

The leaves have fallen and the game trails become worn and obvious. Rubs still shine, scrapes are still obvious.  Matted leaves and fresh droppings show bedding areas.  Tender shoots and saplings get nipped by browsing deer.  Oaks, hickories, beech, and persimmon trees all provide mast that draw deer. All of this shows where the deer are eating, traveling, and sleeping, so mark it all down on the map.  Once you have everything marked, note the prevailing wind and mark that on the map.

Red: Property Lines, Blue: Deer Trails, Red Circle: Primary Stand Site, Yellow Circle: Secondary Stand Site When The Wind Shifts

Now that the map is a mess of spaghetti lines, you know where the deer are eating, bedding, and traveling. Start strategizing where to place your stand and figure out your access to it.

This is key — deer live by using three senses: sight, hearing, and smell.

If a hunter violates any of them, the deer will find another, less pressured location, perhaps for the rest of the season. The strategy is to find a stand location that your scent is carried away from the deer, not towards them, and to have a route that will take you to and from your stand without disturbing them in any fashion. If they see, hear, or smell you, they will leave without you ever seeing them.

There is nothing more critical than ensuring that the deer feel no pressure. If you blow all the deer out of the woods by getting to your stand, you’re just wasting your time. In small woodlots, your stand shouldn’t be but a few feet away from the edge. If you go deeper, you’re invading the deer’s home, and they’ll leave.

Scott Parker uses rattling to bring in dominant bucks. Photo by Scott Parker.

Don’t limit your thinking to just the woodlot. Do you have permission from adjoining landowners to traverse their property going to and from your stand? If the answer is yes, work it out with them on how you can come and go. Is the adjoining property in crops? Conditions may change with the weather, or with the harvest. Slipping through standing corn to access a stand is a great way to cover your movement. But once the corn is harvested, are the deer going to see you? Farmers rotate their crops, so what’s in corn one year, most likely will be in beans the next.

Is there an overgrown fence row or ditch that can hide your travel to and from the stand location? Being sky-lined by watching deer is an awful way to start a morning hunt.

Rubs are a sure sign of buck activity in an area.

If the neighboring landowner will not allow you access, make that part of your planning. There might be an ideal stand location that you can’t get too. That’s life. Move on, but remember it in case a situation changes. No access might also mean that no one hunts the adjoining property, which allows your woods to be part of a larger deer sanctuary if you work it right.

Once you’ve done all your homework, you’ll know exactly where to put your stand. It has to be near deer travel lanes, where you have access, and where the deer can’t see, hear, or smell you going to or while in the stand. No other location makes sense.

Once you have your stand location, you need to have the willpower to stay out of the woods from spring onward. And, you need to have the willpower to stay out of the stand if the wind isn’t blowing in your favor.

Successful deer hunters, those that consistently get the big deer, have multiple stand locations on multiple properties so that they always have a deer hunting location where the wind is in their favor. Some hunters that have done their homework and footwork, have a dozen or more stands so that nothing keeps them out of the woods.

When season approaches, get your stands in place early. Many hunters like to have their stands in by mid-August. If you wait too late, the experienced deer will notice the fresh foreign smells and may leave until after deer season. The only exception to this rule is when it’s a hard rain. Rain will wash away your scent and mask the fresh disturbance in the area.

To understand why you need to understand how a hunter disperses smells.

Aside from the scent a hunter has naturally from perspiration and other body functions, hunters produce smells in other ways.

Soft mast like persimmons are deer candy, as can be seen by the piles of deer scat.

As a hunter passes through an area, dead skin cells fall off. Bacteria consume the cells and put out a scent. As a hunter passes through vegetation, plant matter gets bruised and crushed. That also puts out a smell. (An example is a freshly mowed lawn.) Fresh soil also is disturbed. When the microbes and molds in it are exposed to the air, more scent is dispersed. (Think of the scent of a freshly plowed field.) While humans can’t smell small disturbances, deer can. All of these things together smell like danger to an experienced buck.

Lastly, change your mindset. Most unsuccessful hunters are impatient. We want something to happen, the sooner, the better. Many hunters sit in a stand for a few hours, then decide they are going to go looking for the deer. They then bust right through the deer’s bedding and feeding areas hoping to jump a deer. If you do that, you just helped a hunter a few woodlots away, because that’s where your deer are going to be the rest of the season.

Hunters need to realize deer utilize hundreds of acres as their home range. They may not be in a certain block of woods for a day or more. This is all the more reason to not disturb the area. Give them a sanctuary as other hunters drive them from other locations.

Another tradition is to head out early in the morning, sit for a few hours, then head back to the truck or home to warm up, eat, and catch a football game. Experienced hunters that regularly get big bucks will tell you that they see the big deer between 10 am and 2 pm when all the impatient hunters are walking out of, or to their stands, pushing the deer into the next township.

Do your home, your footwork, and your mind-work now to be successful next year.

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Alan James Garbers – Alan is passionate for the outdoors. He enjoys fishing, hunting, hiking, canoeing, photography, writing, woodworking, and more. He loves exploring the BWCAW in northern Minnesota, roaming the deserts of Arizona, or hiking the mountains of Colorado. He has lived in Minnesota, Hawaii, Mississippi, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, and Indiana. From hunting rattlesnakes to black bear and fishing for catfish to muskie, he loves it all. Since 1989 his writing credits have included Indiana Outdoor News, Indiana Game & Fish, Muzzle Blasts, Outdoor Guide Magazine, Fur-Fish-Game, Boundary Waters Journal, Boys’ Quest, Fun For Kidz, Mother Earth News, Cricket, Small Farm Today, American Careers, Arizona Hunter & Angler, Old West, and others. Fiction credits include StarTrek Strange New Worlds Anthologies IV, V, and 08.
Alan recently complied an anthology of his popular column, Behind The Badge: True Stories of Indiana’s Conservation Officers. It is available in e-reader format and found at Amazon and other on-line book retailers.
Alan is a member of AGLOW and HOW.

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