“Clack, clack, clatter…clash, clack, clatter, clack.”
The sound of antler on antler resonated through the woods. Then, I gave my best rendition of a Whitetail buck tussle by adding a few soft, but deep, grunts.
Moments later, I heard a branch snap. Waiting patiently, I recognized that I had the attention of a buck. I grunted again. Minutes passed before the buck finally stepped out from behind thick cover. Slowly making his way under the spruce trees, he stopped and meticulously sniffed the trail.
I recognized then that I had made one of the most critical mistakes in the book. Choosing to walk to my stand on the heaviest deer trail, this giant 160-class four-by-four was clearly disturbed by my scent. Now at full draw, all I could do was watch and hold as his vitals were covered by a thick tree. All I needed was three more steps and I’d have a clear 15-yard broadside shot. Unfortunately, as soon as he caught a whiff of my boots, it was game over. He didn’t like it one bit and literally stepped backward, then slowly made his way in another direction. My simple oversight had just cost me a truly exceptional shot opportunity.
The fact is, every season, deer hunters make a long list of mistakes that cost them deer. Here are six of what I consider to be the most common deer hunting mistakes. Avoid these, and you’ll be well on your way to closing a tag on your next hunt.
MISTAKE #1: Ignoring Scent Control
One of the top mistakes when deer hunting is improper scent control. Wearing clothes that smell like cigarette smoke or eggs and bacon can be the kiss of death. In fact, a hunter’s clothing or skin doesn’t even have to be noticeably smelly to us while it can still be highly offensive to deer. A Whitetail’s nose is ultra-sensitive. For this reason, keeping your hunting clothes (including a base layer, an insulating layer, and an outer layer) clean, and spraying them down with a scent eliminator, like Dead Down Wind, helps. However, you’ll never get rid of your human odor entirely.
The same holds true for footwear. If conditions allow, rubber boots can help minimize human odor, but, again, you’ll never get rid of it. One of the cardinal sins committed by many deer hunters involves wearing their hunting clothes and footwear when they fuel up at a gas station. With spills and the high chance of transferring fuel droplets onto your apparel and boots, this is a major no-no.
As I shared earlier, walking on deer trails–especially those you anticipate deer to travel near your stand–can kill a shot opportunity in a hurry. Know that if you are walking on heavily used deer trails, chances are any deer that uses those trails within 24 hours will more than likely pick up what you’re laying down. Think strategically about where you’re depositing your human scent, both from your footwear and from clothing brushing up against foliage. It doesn’t take much to make it happen. Simply allowing your leg to make contact with grass or leaves can be enough to deter a deer from continuing on a given trail.
Wise deer hunters always consider the wind. I like to use the Windy App. It provides real-time wind conditions and forecasts for your location of choice. Most hunters will set tree stands for specific wind conditions and hunt those stands only when the winds are right. The worst thing any deer hunter can do is allow their human scent to blow or even waft into bedding or transitional areas. Carefully analyze air photos before you hunt to evaluate where your scent will be carried. Whether you are hunting on foot, in a blind, or from a stand, this consideration will help you make good choices to minimize the chances of being detected.
MISTAKE #2: Not Maintaining Equipment
I’ve seen more deer hunts ruined by faulty rifles, bullets, bows, or arrows than I care to remember. For rifle hunters, sighting in and practicing to understand the firearm and the ballistics of your chosen ammunition is vitally important.
As a professional outfitter and Whitetail hunting guide, one of the protocols I insist on when hunters first arrive in camp is shooting to make sure their rifles are properly zeroed. I can say with confidence that at least 50% are not. They require some fine-tuning and periodically even major adjustments to dial them in for precision shooting. Too many deer hunters grab their rifles once a year and expect them to be accurate when that’s not necessarily the case.
Similarly, many bowhunters fail to routinely check and properly maintain their bows, arrows, and broadheads. As a rule, it’s always wise to go over your entire setup, certainly before the season, but also every day that you hunt. Your goal should be to ensure all screws are tight, nothing is broken, all fletching is intact, the broadheads are screwed tight and razor-sharp, and that no strings, cables, or other components are damaged or loose. Failure to do any of these inspections makes it only a matter of time before poor maintenance catches up and costs you a deer.
MISTAKE #3: Moving too Quickly
You’ve heard the phrase, “Speed Kills?” In the world of deer hunting, speed soften kills your opportunity. Whether you are walking into or out of your stand or blind; Kevin Wilson with his 2021 Whitetail. He was able to take this deer as a result of pre-season scouting, trail cam images, and proper stand placement. whether you are hunting your way through a woodlot, or even if you’re doing a deer drive, slowing things down will invariably work in your favor. No hunter wants deer to explode from their bedding area and race away.
The slow and easy approach usually comes out on top. Whenever you approach or exit a stand location, take your time. Walk like a deer, with lots of pauses, and climb in and out quietly. The same tactics hold true for still hunting. Think and move like a deer. Take a few quiet steps at a time, then pause for a minute or so, then repeat. Move slow enough, and nearby deer will often either sit tight or just stand and look around to see what’s disrupting their peaceful seclusion. This situation often offers the hunter a great shot opportunity.
MISTAKE #4: Poor Stand Placement
Most of today’s deer hunters use tree stands. Whitetails are cagey; hunters know that sitting in a good ambush location is a proven hunting method. The key to getting a shot opportunity from a stand is choosing a good location and setting it up correctly. Picking the wrong tree, setting your stand too close or too far from main trails, setting it up at an awkward angle, and situating it either too low or too high can ruin your opportunity.
Sometimes, stand placement involves experimentation. It can take some time observing movements to discover that you need to tweak your location. I’ve had many situations where my initial intuition was close, but not perfect. Moving the stand just 50 yards was the ticket.
I’ve also seen many hunters place their stand less than eight feet off the ground in wide-open areas. For most situations, 18 feet is about as low as one should be hanging a stand. Many hunters hang their stands at least 24 feet high, but shot angles become extreme the higher you go. That’s why extreme caution should be taken when shooting at these steep angles.
Likewise, I find that 15 to 20 yards is just about the right distance to place stands from trails that I anticipate deer will walk on. The problem is, these perfect stand locations aren’t always available, so you must compromise. And, of course, setting stands at the proper angle for right- or left-handed shooters is equally important. My ideal tree stand is hung 20 feet high in a coniferous tree, at a nearly right angle to a primary scrape or main trail intersection 18 yards away. When I find stand locations like this, my confidence soars.
MISTAKE #5: Rattle and Call Incorrectly
Rattling and calling Whitetails can be a very effective tool for attracting eager bucks and creating a shot opportunity. If it’s done at the right times, with the right cadence, the correct vocalizations, and the right frequency, this technique can work out great. If it isn’t top-notch, you may as well stay home.
Too often, I see hunters haphazardly bashing and smashing antlers together with no intentionality. This can do more harm than good and can actually repel bucks rather than attract them. Always consider how and why bucks approach each other to lock antlers. Early in the pre-rut, it is often a posturing event. Confrontations are relatively short in duration, and they serve to establish dominance. As we move into the first estrus, lockdown, and the second estrus, confrontations between bucks can become more intentional and violent. Some even fight to the death. Think about this as you rattle. Essentially, during the pre-rut in late October, I rattle less aggressively. As we get closer to the first estrus that occurs generally between November 11th and 14th through most of Canada and the northern states, I’ll do a sequence of one-minute rattling sessions with a five- or 10-minute pause between each one. Each session becomes increasingly more aggressive, ultimately emulating an all-out brawl. To add to the realism, I’ll add in a few grunts as well.
Aside from rattling and grunting, nothing beats using a doe estrus bleat. If you can entice a buck into range using only a bleat before you rattle, you’ll be in better shape. The biggest thing to remember is that bucks coming to the antlers know exactly where that sound came from and that means they are coming to your exact location. They will be looking to find what made all the commotion. This means your movement must be kept to a minimum. As soon as you finish rattling or calling, put those antlers and calls down and hold your rifle or bow. For rifle hunters, this is not as big of a deal. For bow hunters, it means you have to really be careful when going to full draw.
MISTAKE #6: No Pre-Hunt Preparation
Last, but not least, another mistake made by many hunters involves a general lack of preparation. There is no doubt that luck is a part of any hunt, but those who prepare properly inevitably have more frequent success.
So, what does pre-hunt preparation look like? It simply involves researching quality habitats that hold good populations of the kind of deer you want to hunt. Once you find that ground, secure permission to access the site (either by the good graces of a landowner, or through a formal lease arrangement, where allowed by law).
Once you have access to that real estate, it’s time to study air photos. This is done most efficiently using an app such as X hunt or iHunter. Satellite imagery allows you to identify likely feeding and bedding areas, thermal cover, pinch points, funnels, ridges, and lowlands.
Your next step is unavoidable. It’s time to lace up those boots and walk the terrain you plan to hunt. Nothing replaces hiking the properties you plan to hunt. Look for old and new signs. Note food sources, tracks, droppings, old and new rubs and scrapes, ridges, water sources, and the most heavily-used travel corridors. While you do this, place trail cams to monitor movement and learn what deer are living and traveling. This will allow you to document and record the buck-to-doe ratio and age-class structure of the deer herd. That is all information that will help you become more efficient as you hunt the property. Again, decide if you want to hunt it on foot or from a stand or blind. Then, get to work setting up whatever infrastructure you need to be successful. Do this and your chances of success will increase exponentially.
While the list of mistakes made when deer hunting is seemingly endless, avoiding these six should help you fare better than staying home.
By Kevin Wilson