Reflections On White-tailed Deer

By my calculations, each decent-sized white-tailed buck I’ve killed with a bow has required a total of 50-75 hours of sitting in a treestand or ground blind. Even reading a good book can get tedious after all that time!

My mind wonders, and, as I suck on yet another Jolly Rancher, I reflect on many things. The most common subject is the animal I’m waiting so patiently to see.

Whitetails are special. They are skittish, beautiful—and good to eat. They’re also found in more places than any other North American big game species. Mature bucks can hide in tiny woodlots beside shopping malls and housing developments, and thrive within earshot of traffic jams. It’s fortunate for all of us that the “King of Big Game” is so accessible and commonplace.

Even though the whitetail is common, its ability to survive is not. I was thinking about this a few years ago as I waited in a brush blind near a line of fresh scrapes. I’d seen a 150-class 5x5 in the area 2 weeks prior, but since then it had been a thin parade of does, fawns and puny males. This was my 15th sit in the same blind, chiefly because I just knew the buck was nearby. The rut was in full swing, and the thicket upwind from my blind held plenty of female deer. As is always the case with whitetails, all I could do was command a corridor of real estate 30 yards on either side of me and HOPE. Like one whitetail-hunting pal of mine is fond of saying, sitting for whitetails is merely waiting for an accident to happen. Sooner or later, the right buck accidentally wanders inside bow range.

Actually, I prefer to believe that scouting, smart stand placement and patience give me more control than that. But control can be an illusion. After 14 days of dawn-till-dark sitting, my patience was frayed and my buns were sore. Another few long waits and I’d probably go somewhere else.

And then the magic moment arrived. Just after sundown, the polished antlers of a really large buck came floating above the brush. I recognized the oddly twisted brow tine I’d seen 2 weeks earlier, and I was at full draw when the buck vacated cover to paw a nearby scrape. I aimed for the heart, let the bowstring go, and watched the arrow disappear high through both lungs. As usual, this deer had heard the string and crouched a bit before the projectile hit.

Thanks to persistence and a great place to sit, another whitetail “accident” had just occurred.

Spooky By Nature
Whitetails are born wound-up like watch springs. Mule deer, elk and many other animals can be ultra-wary of man, but only whitetails are on edge every minute of their lives. They walk on eggshells, flinching at the slightest real or imagined danger. In my experience, it doesn’t seem to matter whether these deer are heavily or lightly hunted. They’re all spooky by nature.

I once obtained hunting permission on a private tract adjacent to a national wildlife refuge. Whitetails were never hunted on the refuge and seldom bothered where I was allowed to hunt. Yet the very first buck I shot at from my treestand turned 90 degrees before the arrow arrived from 25 yards. Fortun­ately for me, the buck took my arrow squarely between the hams as he hiked his tail and fled. With both big femoral arteries sliced, he staggered less than 50 yards and collapsed.

On a calm day, simply drawing your bow on a whitetail can be tricky business. As you move, your clothes can rustle, your arrow can make a scraping sound as it passes across your arrow rest, and your treestand can squeak. Unfortunately, close-range deer hear such sounds, and they’ll rocket away or skitter into nearby cover and blow an alarm. Either way, your bowhunt is ruined for awhile.

On a recent sit for whitetails, I tried to draw on three deer during a single morning of hunting. I had multiple doe tags in my pocket, and I wanted some meat. Yet every close-range doe heard my arrow slide across Teflon in the crisp, dead-calm autumn air.

I solved the problem by smearing Chapstick on my arrow rest. This thin lube lasted only one draw before another application was required, but I needed only one draw to fill my freezer with venison.

A Southern Wonder
In my opinion, White-Tailed Deer meat is better than most others. Moose ribs are hard to beat, and elk can be terrific if you shoot a young bull or cow. I also like wild sheep. But mule deer, blacktails, pronghorns and most other wild edibles pale in comparison to white­tails fattened on alfalfa, soybeans or corn. Your taste buds must speak for themselves, but I’ll choose whitetails almost every time.

The tastiest whitetail—don’t ask me why—seems to be the Coues’ deer. I’ve dined on these desert-dwelling dwarfs taken in Sonora, Mexico and Arizona, and harvest location doesn’t seem to matter. Coues’ deer tenderloins, backstraps and roasts are even better than those from a farm-fed Midwestern whitetails, which is saying a lot.

When I think about the Coues’ white­tail, I also reflect on the extreme difficulty in hunting the subspecies. It was no accident when a former president of the Pope and Young Club hunted Arizona for 2 full weeks, never got a shot at a Coues’ deer, and declared after returning home that he believed any Coues’ deer with two ears and a skull should be eligible for the record book.

When you take a basically jittery whitetail and drop it in semi-open country with decaying rock underfoot and stiff foliage everywhere, you have a supreme bowhunting challenge. When you give that same deer an unpredictable and nomadic nature, chase it with mountain lions most days of its life, and provide no trees for classic bowhunting from an elevated stand, you’re left with what I consider to be North America’s most difficult foot-hunting challenge. If you don’t believe me, try it!

Coues’ deer and standard whitetails have excellent eyes. In the case of Coues’ deer, simply lurking behind saguaro cactus and mesquite bushes might not be enough to avoid being busted. The year I shot my former world record typical archery Coues’ deer, I nearly gave up after dozens of stalks in the brush. I sometimes got close, but never could draw my bow without being seen. Finally, I decided to stalk only with solid rock or dirt between me and the deer—I walked away from all other opportunities. A few days later, I drew my old Hoyt Pro Van­tage compound bow, rose head and shoulders above the rim of a cliff, and shot the largest Coues’ buck ever taken by an archer. Problem solved.

When I reflect on the five Coues’ deer and 40-50 standard whitetails I’ve shot with a bow, I remember how important it is to remain concealed. Head-to-toe camo clothes, such as Realtree Xtra Gray, Realtree All-Purpose HD and Advantage patterns, have helped tremendously, and so has attention to natural concealment behind limbs, leaves, rocks and brush. On the ground or in the air, most whitetail bowhunting “accidents” occur because an archer stays downwind, wears camouflage and tucks himself in natural cover. Com­mercial equipment and good hunting technique should always go hand-in-hand to fool North America’s wariest game animal.

Winning The Ground Game
A surprising number of bowhunters believe whitetails are invincible at ground level. I beg to differ. Certainly, the best place for an archer in most situations is a tree, but if the hunting ground is South Texas, eastern Wyom­ing or another place devoid of trees, a commercial ground blind or natural brush blind is usually the way to go. Whitetails can be had on the ground by a sneaky archer under the right circumstances. Windy days and standing corn create great sound cover for lurking along field edges, and a light rain allows still-hunting across normally noisy carpets of leaves. In rolling or broken open country, soft grass or soil can allow for quiet walking and crawling.

As I described in a previous column for North American Hunter, I stalked one of my best whitetail bucks in the sandhills of southern Kansas. It was a cold and windy day, and the country buck bedded in a depression below a ridge. I crawled within 30 yards and nailed the buck where he lay. As is often the case on sharp-eared deer, the wind was my friend that day.

The wind, however, can also be an enemy. I don’t believe it’s possible to completely cover your human scent, because a whitetail’s nose is better than most archers can imagine. I’ve seen bucks smell a human from 1/4-mile and run. I’ve seen careful bowhunters launder their clothes in scent-free soap, bathe minutes before they headed field, slip on head-to-toe carbon-based clothing, walk to their stand … and get busted by the first downwind deer that came walking past.

Commercial scent precautions can reduce your chances of being smelled—especially if you walk a short distance to prevent excess perspiration, but there is no substitute—none at all—for good hunting habits. Most whitetails, even in our modern age, are shot upwind or crosswind by archers who subscribe to basic breeze management and use scent-control suits, laundry tactics and odor-masking sprays as backup to improve their chances even more.

As I said earlier, white-tailed deer are special. If they didn’t see, hear and smell so well, and if they didn’t run from the slightest hint of danger, we wouldn’t value them so much. Such a common animal, yet such a rare bowhunting prize—who could ask for more?

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