How to hunt the wariest deer in the woods
Strategy 5: Hunt watery hideouts
When hunter pressure is at its heaviest, mature bucks will gravitate toward water. Wet areas trump all others when it comes to whitetail security, because water eliminates their scent trail—a necessity when predators such as wolves are in hot pursuit.
Deer also know humans are almost never willing to cross wet areas or wander into swamps, and that’s exactly where big, smart bucks hide when they feel overexposed in their mainland bedding areas—a small rise 40 yards out into the cattails can be enough of a safe haven for the biggest buck.
Tactical tips: Your best bet is to find a small, swampy island a short distance from shore where humans likely haven’t tromped for generations, if ever. It should be just a few acres in size, with some dense thickets. Think ahead and stow a canoe nearby so that when the deer do head for their watery hideouts, you’re at the ready to access the island.
When setting up, hunker down in tall grass up against an evergreen or some cattails. A small ground blind or a folding chair is sufficient. Be careful not to park yourself too close to where the deer enter or exit this hidden sanctuary. To fool ol’ mossy horns, minimal disturbance is essential. And once you’ve discovered one of these moat-protected bedding areas, it could be your secret buck-hunting haven for years to come whenever hunting pressure ramps up.
Strategy 6: Use confidence decoys
A decoy can make a deer feel more at ease as it emerges into a field or approaches your stand. Indeed, the sight of a realistic-looking buck or doe decoy can be as effective as hypnosis to a deer with surging hormones. Testosterone-charged bucks are most easily fooled by decoys during the final two weeks of the pre-rut, as well as throughout the rut and for the first two weeks of the post-rut (typically mid-October to the end of November).
Decoys are best placed in a highly visible area. A cruising buck may swing off his intended path, lock onto the decoy and trot in, presenting you with a shot. Visible portions of feeding areas, staging areas, travel corridors and bottlenecks are all great locations to set up decoys.
Keep in mind that bucks will usually circle 20 to 30 yards downwind on approach, so always place the decoys upwind or crosswind from your planned ambush position. And place them so that the buck will have to expose his vitals in order to circle downwind of the set-up. Also make sure to firmly stake down your decoys so the wind doesn’t topple them over once you’re up in your treestand.
If you’re hunting a field edge, another tactic many successful hunters are now employing is to place three or four non-strutting wild turkey decoys in the field. The sight of what appears to be turkeys calmly feeding can instantly convince deer the field is safe. Turkey decoys can be used alone or in combination with a deer deke, but resist placing the two species within 40 yards of one another—they may trust one another’s instincts, but they don’t necessarily enjoy spending time together.
How about setting up two deer decoys? Does this create twice the attraction? I believe it can. During the past couple of seasons, I’ve had great success with a doe deke appearing to be pursued by a buck decoy set up 10 yards behind it.
Tactical tips: My favourite dekes feature a head and tail that sway with the slightest breeze, not unlike a bobble-head. This brings some lifelike movement to the otherwise static stance. You also want decoys that are realistic-looking, lightweight, compact and portable. Do you have long hikes into your stand? The farther you have to walk, the more portable and compact the decoys should be.
As with most new products, decoys are rarely scent-free when you purchase them. Apply scent-eliminating spray to their entire surface, then place them outdoors to air out for a few weeks before putting them to use on a hunt. Always wear scent-free gloves when handling your decoys, and make sure to store them in sealed, scent-free containers or bags. As well, never carry them on your ATV or store them in your garage—exhaust does not smell like a doe in heat or a rutting buck.
As for stashing your decoys in the field when you’re not hunting, don’t do it. Any deer living in the area will find them and check them out, all but eliminating the chance they’ll get fooled the next time you set out the decoys.
Some new versions have become so realistic they can even fool other hunters, so deploy them with caution. I never use decoys during gun season in areas with a lot of pressure, for example. For the hike in or out of the bush, always strap a blaze orange vest over the decoy’s head and back, even during bow season. And while setting up, make sure the vest remains visible by draping it over a nearby branch until you’re ready to climb into your stand.