Deer Hunting

Photo of a white-tailed deer courtesy of Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service,

As deer hunting seasons throughout the Appalachians get underway, hundreds of thousands will take to the woods and enjoy some of the world’s most beautiful terrain. Unfortunately, declining numbers of hunters are leading to burgeoning deer populations across the Appalachians. Perhaps this is because younger generations are finding it easier to pop a “Deer Hunter” game disc into their Sony Playstation than braving the cold, early dawn hours in the forest to test and hone their outdoor skills against a real deer’s speed, agility and superior senses of hearing and smell.

For those thinking of making the jump from virtual deer hunting to the Appalachian Forest this fall, they’ll be relieved to know that that deer don’t really have the advantage in the interaction. And hunters don’t need to spend a lot of money on scents, special clothing, calls and other products. Our capacity for reason provides the main advantage we have over the deer’s superior senses of smell and hearing.

Our brains can make sense of the forest.

At any one time, there are thousands of sounds carrying through the woods. The wind rustles through leaves, birds sing, woodpeckers pound away at dead trees and squirrels bark, fight and crack nuts. At any one time, there are many audible footsteps in the leaves. Squirrels, oddly enough, make the loudest.


Let all these sounds fade into white noise. Listen for the sounds unique to deer. They take a few steps, stop to browse and repeat this process all day. The only wild animals that move this way are deer, but never shoot at sound alone. Wily hunters often move this way so they can approach a deer, who can hear it all, without spooking it.

Seeing Patterns

When it comes to making a visual contact, the advantage is yours as well. God gave deer a brown color that matches the forest, but a shape that sticks out in the forest like a stone jug of North Carolina corn liquor in a Paris wine cellar.

A good hunter looks for patterns in the forest. Trees may branch off in all directions, but near the ground (where the deer are) your eyes see the trees as thick vertical lines. Organize these sights in your mind and virtually all fit into one category: vertical rectangle. A standing human is a vertical rectangle shape, which is one reason why deer can’t spot a motionless hunter unless something else seems out-of-place to them.

Deer, however, are shaped like horizontal rectangles. Look not just for deer, but also for that shape and you will see more deer, even if they are far away and not moving.

Reading Sign

After the first couple of days of firearms season, deer begin to change their habits to avoid hunters. One way big bucks survive season to season is by going places hunters won’t or can’t go. A pair of pruning shears can help a hunter move through thick patches of multiflora rose that would otherwise be impassible.

Let the Kit Carson in you come out and learn to read sign.

It’s really not that hard, regardless of what old westerns might have you believe.
When many hunters look for sign, they look for scrapes and rubs, which only bucks make. However, you don’t know if a buck only checks that scrape at night or if he may have abandoned it altogether unless you study it carefully.

Look for fresh, moist dirt, tracks, urine or feces, anything that might indicate recent activity.

When the soil is dry, fresh tracks will be free of debris and have sharp edges. In wet weather, the inside of the track will have the same moisture content as surrounding soil. The older a track is, the more moisture collects in the bottom.

Deer droppings are the most telltale sign of all. Fresh droppings look moist and lustrous, while old droppings look dry and grayer. Bedding areas, where you might want to take your pruning shears at lunchtime instead of hanging around camp with your buddies, are full of droppings and matted grass or leaves where deer lay.

Although concentration and stealth are key factors, I’ve found one situation where you can make some noise. When you can’t get a shot at a deer because it is moving and about to disappear from view, put your sights on the deer and yell “yo deer!” As long as the deer hasn’t noticed you before, it will look in your direction to assess the danger. Make this shot count as you won’t get another. You might have four seconds before all you see is a bouncing white tail.

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