It wasn’t more than a few thousand years ago that our ancestors were quietly walking through the woods with a spear or bows and arrows looking for their next kill. This scene of deer hunting played out in most regions of the world. Although the details might have looked different than today, hunting deer is one of the most human activities (other than childbirth!)
Hunting bigger game is rewarding both as a sport fraught with challenges, but also the gratification and bounty of a successful kill.
In this complete guide, you’ll learn exactly how to start hunting deer, all the nuances involved, and some advanced tricks to save some time.
A successful deer hunting trip can mean different things to different people. Whether you are new to hunting, advanced, or you simply want a resource to get out of your urban environment and get some venison in the freezer, this will be exactly what you need.
Deer Hunting: Trophies vs. Meat
Depending on your goals, deer hunting can look very different. Generally, people fall on two sides of the spectrum. Either you’re after trophy bucks that have big antlers or you’re focusing on gathering meat in the freezer. Many people do both.
In the United States, each of the two deer hunting approaches is different.
#1. Pay to Play Hunting (Outfitters)
Paying to be on someone else’s land can be expensive, but it can ensure a much higher chance of success. Usually the land is managed so that animals are within a certain area and the outfitter is there to help you find specifically what you are looking for.
This can be especially useful for trophy hunters who seek to find the perfect buck to mount at home. Bucks can otherwise be a challenge to find so paying to go on land can make it a lot easier.
In some states, such as Texas for example, there is even greater opportunity because there are many “high fences” where deer are penned in. This usually means the land is managed by professionals and your outfitter can ensure a higher likelihood for success.
Note that paying to play can get expensive fast especially if you are hunting for trophies. While a whitetail doe (female deer) might cost $500, it could be $8,000 or more for a buck of the same species. You can learn more about booking hunting trips here.
#2. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Public Hunts
In the United States, hunting on public land is one of the most affordable and easiest ways to get started deer hunting. It can be more challenging to be successful, but it is a good option especially for sophisticated hunters.
Some states have a high percentage of public land. Alaska, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho are all good examples where you could hunt for free on YOUR land. Other states like Kansas, Nebraska, Rhode Island, and Texas don’t have much BLM land.
#3. Private Land
There are plenty of ranch owners who are willing to let an avid hunter utilize their property, but you will want to create friendships or pay them beforehand. Deer hunting on private land is somewhat like an outfitter experience (in that it is not publicly hunted), but it will probably be more challenging.
To hunt on private land, simply start speaking with friends or getting involved in a community of hunters where people are willing to allow you.
Whatever you decide, a hunting license is the most important. Most states have different regulations and hunting seasons so it is important to check with the state wildlife organizations. The regulations often depend on the species. For example, a native species in Texas (like whitetail deer) has a very specific season. A non-native (exotic) species is available to hunt year-round.
Types of Deer
There are numerous types of deer to hunt all over the world. Many of these deer have been introduced by humans into new environments, but each animal has some unique characteristics.
The popular deer you will most likely find are:
- Whitetail deer – Native to USA. Most plentiful and average weight.
- Mule deer – Native to USA. Larger than whitetail.
- Axis deer – Native to Asia, but brought to USA in high quantities. Considered high quality meat and trophy.
- Fallow deer – Native to Europe, but introduced to USA in high quantities.
- Sitka deer – Native to East Asia / Japan, but introduced to USA in high quantities
- Red deer – Native to Europe and Asia Minor, but introduced to many other regions in the world. Considered one of the largest deer you can find.
Spot and Stalk Deer Hunting
Spotting and stalking deer is pretty self-explanatory. With a pair of field glasses or binoculars, you can spot deer at a distance and then try to stealthily get close enough for a shot. This requires a lot of skill to be successful consistently.
The main priority of spot and stalk deer hunting will be the spotting, which is also referred to as “glassing”. Because spot and stalk hunting usually covers a vast territory, glassing from the right place might mean finding game that is worth pursuing.
Typically, a good spot and stalk area allows you to survey the surrounding area well. This is often higher in elevation, but not always. Next, ensure whatever spot you choose is comfortable for extended stays. You may be sitting here for hours.
Deciding a good spot to glass animals requires you to keep multiple things in mind:
- How long will it take to get off your vantage point to stalk game?
- Which way is the wind going? If it is at your back, you may be spooking game before you even get a chance
- What kind of cover do you have? Try to find shrubs, rocks, and blend in
- Are you in direct sunlight? It’s usually best to be in the shade unless you’re too cold. If you are in the sun, make sure no shiny metallic objects are betraying your position
- Can you spot an animal with enough time to stalk it? Consider how far the animal is. If it is outside of range before the sun goes down, reconsider where you spend time glassing
Once you find a suitable spot where you’ve checked all these items off your list, it is time to start glassing. The easiest way for most people is to break up the terrain into chunks and glass each part separately.
When deer hunting, you might question when to stay put and when to move on. There is no right answer to this, but it will depend heavily on the time of day, the deer you’re hunting, and the terrain you’re in.
Deer are often most active around dawn and dusk. You’ll see 75% of game within this period. If you take the typical work day of 9 – 5 doing a spot and stalk, there is a good chance you’ll be looking for deer when they’re staying put in the shade.
Game On: Stalking Deer
Assuming you’ve done everything right and found some deer, now comes the hard part. Stalking an animal as skittish and intelligent as deer can be challenging. The first decision to make is whether you can realistically stalk the deer at all.
Distance plays a huge role as does the direction of the wind. In time you will learn the nuances (or bring a guide who does) to learn what animals are worth pursuing and which ones are not.
Sometimes stalking an animal means going all the way around them in a wide circle, approaching from the other side, and crawling around in the mud. It’s a physical challenge, but that’s why so many people love it.
Deer Hunting From a Blind
Another way of deer hunting is from a blind (also referred to as “ambush hunting”) and while this may seem like an easier task, it is by no means a sure bet. Game animals, and deer especially, are highly reflexive and instinctive creatures.
Their senses of smell, sight, and sound are quite attuned to predators and if you are not at your best within the blind, they are going to know something isn’t right.
There are many places to ambush a deer, but the best is where they feed. Most blinds or deer stands are set up in a position within 10 – 40 yards of a feeder. Sometimes the best spot is in a tree stand, which is above the deer’s line of sight and out of their range of smell.
In an ambushing spot while deer hunting, you will be closer to the animal than spotting and stalking from a distance. Because the animals have such acute senses focus on these areas:
- Smell – to simplify things, try and stay downwind. Ensure that you have thoroughly used the restroom or else the smell of urine might be a dead giveaway.
- Sight – camouflage helps as does stillness. The more still you are the better. In some cases (as with compound bowhunting), it is even best to cover your face because many deer can discern what human shapes look like. If you can get 10 – 15 yards above the ground in a tree stand, even better.
- Sound – wherever you are, remaining as still as possible is your best bet. Try to get comfortable, get your bow or rifle ready to fire, and be prepared to move very slowly.
Finally, be prepared to wait. A lot. Even if you maximize your chances of hunting a deer by getting into the blind an hour or so before dawn and dusk, it will still be plenty of sitting still. Get comfortable quick and then try to allow the stillness of nature wash over you.
Hunting Deer With a Bow
Deer hunting with a bow is an added challenge, but with added reward. In order to get close enough to a deer with a compound bow, it requires skill and tact. The spot and stalk method is surely possible, but for inexperienced bowmen (and even experienced alike) it is very challenging.
Bow hunting from a blind is a bit more manageable, but by no means easy. Unlike a rifle, which may only require a few rounds of practice to sharpen your skills, bow hunting requires a lot of practice beforehand. If we want to ensure a quick, clean kill, it is best to practice above and beyond what you believe is necessary.
Get as close as you can to shooting before you see the animal. If you are sitting in a blind, that may mean knock an arrow and set it on your lap.
Where to Shoot a Deer
There are many schools of thought when it comes to shot placement and deer hunting, but they all stem from one main focus: how do we hit the vital organs cleanly to ensure the animal dies quickly?
Standard philosophy holds that a broadside shot on the deer is the best one you can take. The vitals are the most open in a broadside shot, but there are alternatives as well. A deer that is quartering away (see picture) can provide a perfect opportunity as well.
This provides a clear picture of where to shoot the deer no matter which direction you’re facing the animal. It is best to stick with broadside shots or quartering away (animal facing slightly away, but not perpendicular to you). Don’t try to shoot the animal quartering towards as you’ll likely hit shoulder, lose some meat, or just injure the animal.
A moving animal is hard to hit in the vitals without a lot of practice. If you need, simply whistle and the animal will stop to look. Be prepared to shoot within 1 – 3 seconds, though. Otherwise that animal is probably going to leave in a hurry.
After the Shot: Tracking and Dressing a Deer
Once you have made the shot, deer hunting is not over. Assuming you hit the animal, there is a process of tracking it and cleaning it. If you can see the animal is dead on the ground, that’s a relatively easy one.
If the animal bounds into the woods and you cannot find it with binoculars, it is best to set a 20 minute timer and wait to find the deer. A wounded animal may lay down to rest and bleed out in that spot, but only if you let it. Spooking a wounded deer might have them run off to a new spot that is harder to detect.
After waiting, go directly to the spot of the shot. You should notice some indicator of where you hit the animal by the blood:
- Lung / heart shot – a shot to the heart or lung will be pinkish with bubbles. This is usually a good sign that vitals were hit.
- Muscle shot – hitting the muscle is not good. This blood will be crimson and will drop in splatters. It may still be killed, but it may also just be injured.
- Gut shot – a shot to the gut will have food particles and grass. It may also smell unpleasant. This isn’t terrible, but it probably renders organ meats inedible and it can spoil some of the meat. You may want to wait longer if you see this type of blood so as to allow the animal to expire.
- Liver shot – a liver shot will have a dark red color that looks almost black. This can lead to a kill as well, but will take some time like a gut shot.
- Grazing shot – blood that has hair or fur is likely a grazing shot that hit the outside of the animal. It’s possible to find fur in a kill shot, but usually a grazing shot will not lead to a death.
The key is, if you are going to shoot an animal, you need to take as much time as needed to ensure you find it. Sometimes it will be challenging (or impossible), but an ethical and conscious hunter is committed to considering his or her own needs and that of the animal.
This will be an exciting time, especially if you find the dead deer. It will probably be a semi-spiritual experience; taking life is a serious responsibility no matter how many times you have done it before.
Be grateful for the bounty of meat, thankful you had the experience, and hopeful for deer hunting to come… and know that your work isn’t over.
The process of gutting and dressing a deer is the next and final step before enjoying the bounty. For that, I’ll leave the details to Steven Rinella, one of the greatest hunting educators of our time.