Bowhunting Deer – A Beginners Guide
Bowhunting is about as old as humanity itself. For thousands of years, our ancestors sustained themselves by the careful art of stalking their prey and getting close enough to loose an arrow on it. Today hunters all over the world continue this tradition. They use one of mankind’s greatest inventions to feed their families, enjoy the outdoors and help local conservation efforts.
Getting into such a storied sport can seem overwhelming, but any bowhunter will tell you it’s more than worth it. It can be a lot easier to get started if you know all the different parts of the process. Take it step by step and before you know it, you’ll have antlers on your wall and venison in the freezer.
Why hunt deer with a bow?
The main thing that draws people to bowhunting is the challenge. It’s a lot harder. A bowhunter has to be a lot closer to his kill than a hunter with a rifle. For example, common wisdom says a bowhunter should put his stand up 20 yards from where he expects to see a deer. A rifle hunter? Two hundred. A rifle hunter can be ten times as far and still have a good shot.
It’s also harder to aim a bow. You can get a sight and sight in your bow, but arrows will naturally fall off course more easily than bullets. They’re lighter, longer and slower, all making things like air resistance more significant.
Plus, bowhunters get a kind of bonus. The bowhunting season is usually much longer than the rifle season. It begins before and lasts after. Depending on the year and location, this also means you can hunt a lot more of the rut with a bow than a rifle.
What types of deer do people hunt?
In the US and Canada, the main deer hunted are whitetails and mule deer. Whitetails dominate the deciduous forests east of the Rocky Mountains, and mule deer run the show out west. People also like to hunt larger targets like elk and moose, but they are less common and have shorter seasons. They’re primarily found in colder northern climates. Other parts of the world have different species of deer, all with different features. Some of them have been imported to the United States where you can hunt them on private reserves.
Male whitetail and mule deer are called bucks. People especially like to hunt bucks because in addition to the venison, their beautiful antlers make trophies. The females are called does, and people hunt them as well just for meat. The babies are fawns, and it’s illegal to hunt them. Other species have other names for the sexes. Males might be called bulls or stags and females cows or hinds.
Male deer have a strong dominance hierarchy. More dominant bucks, stags or bulls can claim more territory and mate with more females. Dominance is determined by age, antler size and personality. Competing males may result to combat to determine dominance in an area. Mature males that have achieved a high status in the hierarchy are dominant bucks, and hunters seek them not only because their large antlers are coveted trophies, but because their wisdom makes them tougher challenges. Males with a lower status, usually so low that they simply avoid other bucks rather than challenge them, are called subordinate bucks.
The first step of your hunt starts before the season does. You have to scout out the area where you’re going to hunt and figure out the patterns of the deer that live there. You should treat scouting just like hunting. You should try be quiet and cover your scent. There are few things you can look for that’ll illuminate where the deer and traveling and feeding.
Rubs and Scrapes
Bucks make rubs and scrapes to mark their territory. When his antlers have finished growing, he rubs the velvet off onto a tree and leaves his scent there to tell other bucks he’s around. For a scrape, he digs into the dirt a little and urinates. Rubs and scrapes let you know for sure you’ve got bucks around, and they can tell you which way they’re moving from their bedding to feeding areas.
You can figure out where deer of all kinds are moving and feeding by looking for their footprints and droppings. Pay close attention to mud or snow.
You can also look for where the deer bed. This will usually be an area that has both cover but also a wide view of the surrounding area. Leaves will be matted down where the deer sleeps, and if you look closely, you can find its hairs. Once you know the deer’s bedding area, you know where it will be coming and going from.
Deer feed at night, so they move to their feeding zones in the evening and go back to bed in the morning. While there is still twilight, the deer will wait in transition zones. These areas lack dense forest trees but still have growths of grasses, saplings and bushes. Look in areas like these for signs of deer movement, and you’ll know which feeding zones they’re using.
Deer take trails from their bedding areas to their feeding zones and back. Places where trails meet or converge on a feeding zone are some of the best spots for your deer stand or blind. They can be easy to see or not so easy. Deer are like everything else and prefer the path of least resistance. Find a way without much uphill climb or obstructing trees and look for grass that has been worn down and leaves that have been broken.
Deer hunting season is different in each state, but it always covers the fall. Bowhunting is the longest season. It usually lasts from September till as late as February. Rifle season falls in the middle of that. It often begins in the middle of November and ends in December.
A long season, especially like the one for bowhunting, means it covers a lot of stages of the deer life cycle.
The early season is the time period from the beginning of the season till the middle of October. In this phase the bucks’ testosterone hasn’t totally amped up yet. They may still be in their bachelor groups, and they probably still have velvet on their antlers.
In the early season, deer are still used to their easy summer routine. Their schedule is a lot more structured. They pretty much just go from their bedding areas to their feeding areas and back.
The early season is a great time to harvest an unsuspecting deer before the hunters come out in droves and put pressure on them.
The pre-rut is when the bucks’ testosterone levels really start to rise. They’re all going solo by now and will begin making a lot of scrapes and rubs to mark their territories. They also might do some light sparring to begin determining who’s dominant and who’s subordinate. It occurs from the middle of October until the beginning of November.
A few does might go into estrus in the pre-rut, but not most. The bucks will have changed their range, but they’ll still be fairly routine. They will respond best to calls and smells of a challenging buck.
The rut is the exciting part of the season everyone waits for. The average peak day in the US is November 13. The bucks are raging with testosterone and chasing does to mate. They’re willing to risk a lot to find one. This might include fighting other bucks or running through an open area where you you could be waiting. They respond easily to doe estrus scents or calls as well as the scents and calls of other bucks.
While most hunters consider this the best time to get your trophy buck, you do have to be careful of one thing. Once a buck finds a doe in estrus to mate with, he’ll bed down with her for up to 72 hours. During this time, he won’t even leave. You have to be sure to get him before he finds her.
During the post-rut all the deer are starting to calm down again, but that doesn’t totally mean it’s over. If a doe didn’t breed during the rut, she’ll go back into estrus. Bucks will still go crazy to find these last few females.
The post-rut covers the end of the November and a little of December. It’s actually one of the best times to hunt a large mature trophy buck because there are fewer does. This means that the competition is higher, and only the really dominant males will be trying.
The late season is the middle of December through the end of the season. The deer are returning to their habits, and they’re hungry to build up fat for winter. Bucks especially need to eat because they’ve lost a lot of weight chasing after does in the rut. During this time you can effectively hunt deer going to and from their feed areas. They’ll mainly feed at high-carbohydrate sources like corn or bean fields.
Another interesting thing happens in the late season. Some of the fawns born the previous spring may have matured enough to go into their first estrus around this time. Keep an eye out. You might still be able to catch a buck chasing after one of them.
Scent Control and Camo
Outfitters make different camo patterns for most environments. If you’re hunting mule deer out west, consider winter camo with sparse green, since you’ll be in mountain and snow environments. Forest tan is best for whitetail deer in the east because you’ll be hunting when all the leaves have fallen, and the forest is nothing but a dead brown.
Your appearance isn’t the only thing you have to camouflage when you’re deer hunting, though. Deer smell a lot better than they see, so you need to make sure they can’t find you out that way either. The first step to this is to try and get rid of as much of your human smell as possible. Wash your clothes and body with scent-free soaps and detergents specifically designed for hunting. You can also keep your clothes and gear in a box with pine needles, leaves and other items from the forest for a few days before you go hunt. In addition you can get cover-up sprays that help hide your scent when you’re out in the woods.
Decoys, Scents and Calls
A decoy is a fake, realistic-looking deer that you set up to attract other deer. They are usually either fake does or fake immature subordinate bucks. In the rut you can use them both to bring in bucks. They’re looking for does to mate with and bucks to drive out of their territory. Doe decoys can also attract other does, which are social and like to form herds. You can convince whatever deer you’re hunting there’s a real deer there by combining your decoy (see our top picks) with the right scent and call.
Since deer smell so well, they use it to communicate. There are a lot of different deer scents that all lure deer in different ways. The scents of does in estrus and rival bucks will attract dominant territorial bucks during the rut. There are even calming scents that smell like deer bedding areas and attract all kinds of deer throughout the season.
Deer are vocal animals too. You can mimic their noises to attract them–or potentially scare them off. The grunt of a dominant buck for instance will attract another dominant buck but send a subordinate buck running. Doe bleats will attract bucks in the rut, and fawn bleats use a doe’s natural maternal instinct to bring her to you.
Tree stands have a few primary advantages over blinds. Because they’re high off the ground, you get a better view of your surroundings and also a better shot. The height also helps conceal your scent. Deer don’t look for threats from above either, so you’re easily hidden as well.
Tree stands work well on ridges and places where deer trails converge on feeding areas or on each other. If you’re using a ladder stand and hunting on land where you’re allowed to, you should put the stand up well before your hunt, maybe even before the season starts. Climbing stands are designed to be put up the day of, but you should go set them up before the deer begin moving, which means early in the morning while it’s still dark.
A downside of tree stands is that they can be dangerous. You have to be sure to enter them safely. This means using a tree harness to fasten you to the tree in case of falls and using the footholds and proper form to climb the tree.
What do ground blinds have over tree stands? Well, they’re on the ground. This means they’re easier to get into. Plus, they hide you more completely and give you a little bit more room to move around.
Like stands, put your blind where a trail leads into a feeding area or where a few trails converge. For the bowhunter make sure it’s about 20 yards from where you expect your target to be. Ridges don’t work as well for blinds because the blinds stick up against the sky, and the silhouette is apparent to deer.
Get in your blind before the deer start moving, just like tree stands. One thing you also need to do is clear all the debris you can from around the blind so you don’t make any accidental noise that could scare off an approaching deer.
Bowhunters have a specific ethical obligation. Since an arrow from a bow can potentially severely injure an animal without killing it, it’s your obligation to make sure you get the best shot possible. If you’re using a sight, you should check to make sure it hasn’t moved or come loose. Check the rest of your bow too and test it to see if you’re in a position to make an accurate shot.
Once you’re in your stand or blind, it’s also a good time to make sure you’ve covered up your scent everywhere. If you brought cover scent, reapply it where you can, from your boot laces to your cap.
Is your phone still working? Do you have service? You might need your phone if you have an accident or if you had scheduled a call and your silence could worry someone. If you know you won’t have service, be sure someone knows where you’re going.
Finally, are you well oriented? You’ve been scouting these deer. Where will they be coming from? Take a moment to picture the deer’s movements and imagine what a deer walking through the area would probably do. That way you’ll have a better idea of where your shot will be.
It’s a virtue even more so in hunting than everyday life. You will at least be waiting in your stand or blind for several hours, from just before dawn to around noon, when many hunters leave to get lunch. If you’re really ambitious, though, you can stick it out. Deer often take what some call a noonday stroll, partially due to all those hungry hunters walking through the woods. Deer are active again at dusk, so you could end up being in that stand or blind for the whole day.
My advice? Bring a book or two. Many hunters just fiddle with their phones the whole time, but besides wasting the battery, this is a perfect time to learn something. Get one of the many great books on hunting to sharpen your skills or look for any other part of your life you’re looking to improve. You can even just get a novel that interests you and exercise your imagination.
When Your Prey Gets Close
Deer are pretty skittish animals. No matter how angry the buck is you’ve gotten to come charging towards you, he’ll still be watching for danger. This means a lot of sniffing and looking around.
Experienced hunters can usually smell approaching deer, especially bucks in the rut that are giving off a lot of scents. Deer usually move silently, but a buck in the rut could be grunting or snorting if he thinks he’s approaching a rival. Be on the lookout–or hearout or smellout–for these things. When your deer starts approaching, you need to get in position and be as still and quiet as possible.
Shooting is what makes bowhunting the exhilarating challenge that it is. You have to be much closer to your target, and your aim has to be much better. Your maximum range will be different based on your bow and where you are, but it’s rarely over 30 yards. It’s more likely around 20.
Shooting accurately means hitting the deer in the right spot. Like we said, you actually have an ethical obligation to hit the deer where you’re sure to kill it. You should aim for the vitals. These are the heart, lungs and liver, and they’re located in a roughly plate-sized area centered in the deer’s body just behind the front legs.
Your maximum range is how far you can shoot and still consistently hit a target as small as a deer’s vitals area. When you’re scouting in the pre-season, take your bow and stand with you and try to determine what that is.
Once you know your maximum range, you also know when to shoot. Make it a rule for yourself that outside that range you definitely won’t shoot and within it you definitely will. This way shooting will not be an impulsive decision. You have an objective criterion for when to shoot.
Following the trail…
A big mistake hunters make is jumping up out of their tree stand or blind after they make a shot. You should actually wait about 30 minutes before you go looking for the blood trail. A deer that’s been shot in the vitals will usually not run more than a few hundred yards before bedding down to die. If you go running after it, it will have motivation to continue running. You’ll just be more likely to lose it.
Instead, when you make the shot, make a mental note of exactly where the deer was. Wait half an hour. Then, from your stand or blind, make your way there and find the blood trail. Follow that blood trail carefully until you find the deer. If you don’t find the deer quickly, and the blood trail begins to get sparser, begin marking it with colored flagging tape or toilet paper. That way if you lose the trail you can go back to your last point and look again. Be sure to look everywhere. Blood gets surprising places, even above you.
Field Dressing / Transportation
Once you’ve found your deer, you need to field dress it. Field dressing is removing the internal organs of the deer in order to rapidly lower the temperature of the carcass. This prevents bacteria from growing and conveniently makes it lighter to move. It involves cutting the deer open on the underside, severing the digestive tract from the hide and removing the digestive tract along with the heart and lungs.
After you field dress the deer, you have to get it out of the woods somehow. Deer are heavy and not exactly shaped to be carried. You have a lot of options for help, including sleds and carts. Sleds are like tarps you can place under the deer and then harness to your back. Carts make it really easy since they have wheels, but they’re more of a hassle to take in the first place and sometimes don’t work well on woody terrain.
From the woods you have to get the deer home or to a processor quickly. If you take it home, it must be cooled immediately to 40℉ (4℃) to prevent bacterial growth. You may even consider packing the carcass with ice for the trip home. Of course, trucks are the easiest way to transport your deer, but you can also strap it to the roof of your car. Some people even put it in the back of their car on top of a tarp.