All over New England the rifle and/or shotgun deer seasons are just about to open. In Maine the season begins this coming weekend. The Vermont season gets under way Nov. 10, New Hampshire starts Nov. 14 and in Massachusetts the opening day is Nov. 26. Thousands of men and women will be searching the woods for the elusive whitetail in an annual rite that is the highpoint of their hunting year.
It has been my experience that my success in the field is directly tied with my preparation for it. If you want to increase your chances to harvest a really nice whitetail deer this fall, there are a number of things you can do right now to make that happen. These fall into two basic areas.
Where are the deer?
No matter where you hunt, in the wiles of Maine or the tight woods of the North Shore, the same basic question has to be asked. Where are the deer? This question can only be answered through observation. This means you have to get into the field BEFORE deer season.
In the fall the woods are a wonderful place to take the kids for a walk. They can roll in the leaves, get wet in a brook, or chase a squirrel through the underbrush. While this is happening, poke along slowly and look for sign: a runway, a wild apple tree, a notch through which deer must pass from bed to breakfast, a rub, etc. Make it a game. Reward them with a piece of hard candy if they find a deer print.
Once you have found where deer have been moving, try to get the sense of frequency. Is this just the single track of a wandering browser, or a commonly used runway that may have constant traffic. If the answer is the latter, you have found a good spot.
Where can I place my deer stand?
Once you have found sign, try to examine closely the geography of the area to get a general sense of the constrictions where animals will generally move when they are browsing along. Once you find those ambush spots, look for trees in which you can put your deer stand.
There are certain locations that produce results year after year because of their geography. Others are effective because of agricultural practices and food availability. Deer are creatures of habit and, like most of us, they want to take the path of least resistance to both water and food. However, experience has taught them to avoid open areas. They like to walk just inside the tree line. Each year the woods changes, so observation time now will increases your odds of finding the trails that are most in use.
Once you find a trail, STAY OFF IT. Remember that deer have a great sense of smell. If you walk the trail in and out to your stand, the deer will simply not use it. Look for a place that is several yards away from the trail and find a tree that is big enough and straight enough to hold your stand. Once you locate a good tree, only approach it in a way that does not use the trail.
When placing the stand on the tree get it up high in the air. Deer do not generally look up as they walk along. As with any animal, they will see movement, but if you are up fifteen feet or so and keep quiet, you should go undetected. In addition, set your stand in among limbs or behind the trunk so your outline will be broken up by the surrounding vegetation. This works best in a fir tree, It is a bit harder if you are in a hardwood stand, but use what is available to camouflage your spot.
Another good idea is to locate it near some obstacle a deer has to negotiate such as a stone wall, a small creek, or a sharp bend. If they have to concentrate on the obstacle they will be less likely to look up or focus on other things. Also, set the stand so the deer are not walking right at you. They are less likely to observe you if you are high up to their side.
Find three or four good spots and put up a couple of stands if you can. Observe the action on opening day and move to the best spot as the week goes on. However, if the deer are using this trail regularly, do not be too eager to change. There will be a lot of hunters in the woods who will not have your patience. Let them drive the deer by you on your pre-scouted route.
Be sure your deer stand is big enough for you. I am a big boy so I use a Gorilla stand that allows me to stand and move about without it creaking or moving. Be sure to use your safety belt when in the tree. Several hunters each year fall from their stands when they doze off! Have a rope that drops from the stand so you can raise or lower you shotgun and/or pack. You might want to construct a cover over the stand to protect you from the rain.
A deer is very observant of its surroundings. A big deer stand that smells of humans and sticks out from the side of a tree is going to stand out to them. If there are spruces or pines in the area, use their smell to mask your own. Days before you put up your stand, put it in a big box or bag that is full of cut boughs. Store your hunting boots, jacket, pants and gloves in the same box. Let that smell permeate your hunting gear.
Try to get your stands up several days before the season to let them become a regular part of the pattern the deer sees each day. Where they might be a little shy of it the first day, they will get used to it if you do not go to it until the dark of the first morning. To find your stand that first day, put up reflective markers or tape on trees. It is often hard to see a well-concealed stand even when you know it is right there...somewhere.
By doing your research, taking the time to set up a good tree stand, disguising the smell, and staying off the trail coming and going to your stand, you may find yourself reporting in that great buck on opening morning.