By P.J. Reilly
The best way to get really good at taking whitetails is to ... take lots of whitetails.
Every deer hunter wants to take home a giant buck.
You spend weeks scouting and hours upon hours at the range honing your skills with gun and bow. If someone handed out grades for pre-hunt preparations, you’d get an A+.
But are you really ready? Do you have what it takes to get a shot, kill and recover a whitetail? Unless you’ve punched a pile of odocoileus virginianus tags, the answer is probably not.
No amount of scouting or practice is a substitute for actually taking deer. Filling a tag is the ultimate practice, and it cannot be simulated. That’s not to say scouting and shooting targets are pointless. Quite the contrary. Scouting puts you in the game, and practice allows you to become proficient with the tools of the trade.
But to be a consistent, well-rounded deer hunter, you have to shoot deer.
No matter how much your practice target looks like a deer, it doesn’t have a heartbeat or a brain. A deer is biologically engineered to detect and avoid danger. Its eyes, nose and ears are finely tuned to detect danger.
Every hunter has been told to be scent-free and play the wind, but you never truly appreciate that advice until you’ve been winded a few times.
Being still and quiet are the keys to defeating a deer’s eyes and ears. If you could draw your bow or level your firearm at a deer without moving a muscle, going undetected would be a piece of cake.
During Illinois’ first firearms season in 2010, a big 10-pointer snuck in on me in a rain-soaked woodlot and got to within 15 yards before I saw him. I was seated, and my muzzleloader was hanging on a hook in the tree. Timing and patience were critical.
My rifle hung from the left side of the tree. Keeping one eye on the buck, I lifted my muzzleloader off the hook when the buck passed behind my tree.
Once I had my rifle in hand, I slid to the left and brought the gun to port arms. Then I eased back to the right side of the tree and pointed the rifle at the deer. He saw the movement and froze, but it was too late. I squeezed the trigger before he could identify the movement.
Being close to deer and remaining undetected is an art. You have to know when to move and, more important, when not to.
Like all prey species, a deer’s eyes are positioned on the sides of its head. Basically, the only place it can’t see is directly behind. If you can see a deer’s eye, it can see you. Learn to draw your bow or raise your firearm only when you can’t see either of its eyes.
Studies have shown a whitetail’s hearing isn’t much better than ours, but they have an intimate knowledge of every normal sound within their environment. Any strange noise raises their suspicion.
Probably the best way to stay undetected by a whitetail’s eyes and ears is to move slowly and deliberately. A deer has much more trouble noticing an object that is moving slowly, and you’re much less likely to make accidental sounds while staying calm and controlling your movement.
HITTING THE BOILER ROOM
Aim behind the shoulder.
We’re all taught that’s the best place to shoot a whitetail. True enough, a broadside deer’s heart and lungs are located behind the front shoulder. So are its liver and stomach. While shots through the latter will eventually be fatal, no one ever says “I gut-shot that deer” with pride.
Sending a bullet or arrow through a living, breathing deer’s heart or lungs is something you can’t fully learn on the target range. With each step a deer takes, its skeleton shifts and the exact spot where you should aim can change.
While bearing down on a live deer, you might have to reconsider your aim point as that deer moves through the timber and goes about its business. That can flat rattle folks used to settling in on the bench. In a hunting scenario, you take the shot when the deer presents it.
Knowing how to read a deer’s body language is important, too. When a deer is tense and alert — ears locked forward, neck outstretched with a stiff body and legs — it’s probably not going to stick around. And if you’re bowhunting, expect a tense deer to drop when it hears the bowstring snap at release. Aim a few inches lower than normal to score a vital hit.
A relaxed deer, on the other hand — calm demeanor, swiveling ears, normal gait — will give you plenty of time to pick your shot. Be patient and wait for the best opportunity. Inexperienced hunters often rush shots at relaxed deer or wait too long when dealing with a tense deer, resulting in misses or poor hits.
Hit several deer in exactly the right spot, and you’ll come to recognize when and where to shoot in various situations. When you make a good hit, study the deer’s body and organs to see how your arrow or bullet performed on impact.
One of the best lessons I ever learned dealt with shotgun slugs. I selected the brand of slug for my 12-gauge as most hunters do, by testing several varieties on the range. I chose the one that produced the tightest groups.
In the field, I shot several deer perfectly through the boiler room, but the animals ran a long way. I was hunting a heavily pressured area and really wanted to put my deer down quickly.
Upon inspection of the first few deer, I discovered the slugs were zipping straight through the animals without mushrooming, leaving only pinholes in the body cavities and vital organs. The shots were fatal, but pinholes in the lungs don’t kill nearly as quickly as holes the size of bottle caps or larger.
I could have chosen softer slugs that would have caused greater damage, but I liked the accuracy of the ones I was using. Once I figured out how my slugs performed on deer, I shifted my aiming point from behind the shoulder to directly on it. Every deer I hit after that dropped nearly instantly with one or two broken shoulders.
Some deer drop in their tracks when shot, but every bowhunter and most gun hunters, at some point will have to track a deer that runs off after it’s been shot.
Deer react in a variety of ways when hit. Every reaction tells you something about the hit. Mule kicks followed by straight, fast runs, where the deer barrels over anything in its path, are indicative of solid, fatal hits. A deer that hunches in the middle and trots away slowly, or one that runs a short distance and then stops for a time before walking off slowly, often are the result of poor hits. Shoot enough deer and you’ll learn to judge a hit by the deer’s reaction.
The color, location and amount of the blood is critical evidence, too. Pink, frothy blood usually means a lung shot. Bright red blood can mean a heart shot, while maroon blood is indicative of a liver hit. Blood mixed with green or brown semi-solid material that smells bad almost always means a gut shot.
A blood trail that’s only on the ground means you’re looking at a shot that didn’t hit the lungs. It still could be a fatal wound that pierced the heart, but if you score a lung hit, you’re likely to find blood sprayed on vegetation up off the ground.
The amount of blood can be deceiving. Many hunters assume they’re looking at a lot more than they really are. A 160-pound deer has about 4.5 quarts of blood. In order to bleed to death, the deer would have to lose about 1.5 quarts. Dribbled along the ground, that would look like a river. Trauma is more likely to kill a deer. Still, you need to be able to distinguish between a lot of bleeding and a little. The only way to do that is to see a lot of blood trails.
The amount of blood is not the only indicator of hit quality, however. A deer shot through the heart could bleed internally, leaving just a few drops on the ground. Also, leg shots tend to bleed like crazy but aren’t fatal.
How aggressively you take up the trail after shooting a deer is something you have to determine after taking all available information into consideration. Start tracking a poorly hit deer too soon, and you risk pushing that deer and never finding it. Leave a well-hit deer for too long, and the meat could spoil or predators might find it. Even if you see a deer fall, inspect the trail and become familiar with the sign left by a fatally hit whitetail.
So just how is a trophy buck hunter supposed to gain all this experience killing deer? Trophy bucks don’t grow on trees, and even if you do tag one, that might be the only deer your state allows you to take until next fall.
Quite frankly, don’t be a trophy buck hunter until you have many kills under your belt. You could benefit in the long run from not passing up that legal, average buck that offers a gimme shot. Take him and learn.
Before I had killed a single deer with my bow, I decided I wanted only the biggest buck in the woods and passed up several deer that came in close. I told an experienced bowhunter friend about my plan, and he gave me the best advice I ever received. “Kill a few, then get picky,” he said.
That’s what I did, and the lessons I learned from those 4-pointers, 6-pointers and ratty 8s have been worth their weight in gold.
Don’t limit yourself to bucks, either. A deer is a deer. Scarf up as many doe tags as you can and do your best to fill them all. You can learn just as much about shooting and recovering deer by taking a doe as you can from a buck. If your state limits the number of deer you can take in a year and you have the means and the time to do so, consider hunting neighboring states.
Basically, do whatever it takes to get lots of practice taking deer — legal practice, of course. The lessons you learn from each successful harvest will pay off when you finally get the buck of your dreams in your sights.
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• A Balanced Herd: Is there a formula for the perfect whitetail herd? This article was published in the September 2011 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.