An hour before the start of deer season, we walked to our stands following just the illumination of flashlights. We had been the only vehicle in the parking area when we started, but as we climbed we could hear many more vehicles, probably all loaded with hunters, making their way to their hunting areas. They, we figured, would be out unwitting drivers, pushing deer by us as they entered the woods.
Ninety minutes later, season had been open for 30 minutes, but under a heavy layer of snow-laden clouds it was just barely light enough to shoot. Two groups of deer had already passed my stand, but I had not been able to make out antlers. The next group, however, came a few yards closer and stopped running. The first four were does and fawns. The fifth, trailing behind, was a buck. It paused to look back, posing broadside. A 140-grain Nosler Partition bullet from my .280 Remington dropped it instantly.
Probably the most successful deer hunting tactic on heavily-hunted public land is waiting for other hunters to push deer. On the opening day of hunting season, on weekends and holidays, the times when hunting pressure is greatest, hunters who pick good stands and stay put have the best odds for success. The trick, of course, is picking good stands.
Nothing beats experience for learning where deer move when they are pushed by hunters. Deer tend to use the same routes year after year, changing only when there is some significant change in their habitat. Deer might run randomly when they are first scared, but once they put a little distance between themselves and the source of the scare, they fall into their normal escape routes. Herein lies a clue for picking stands when you are hunting an area for the first time, the fact that deer use the same escape routes with some regularity. There are things they like about these routes.
You can predict where frightened deer will run by first examining topographic maps, and refine your knowledge by looking at the actual terrain. You should be looking for three main factors. Deer will be running from hunters. They pick escape routes which provide as much cover as possible. And finally, they will head for a refuge area.
Drive around your planned hunting area, if possible completely circling it. Look for the parking areas and camp sites. This shows you where hunters will enter the area, and the direction from which deer will begin moving. This tells you a great deal of value, and you can plan a hunt with just this simple information. But you can plan a hunt with much higher odds of success if you also have a good idea of where deer are going and how they will get there.
Now look for refuge areas. These are generally places that provide good cover with either wind direction to carry odors, or a view to detect approaching enemies, meaning you. Along the Appalachians ridges, this might be laurel or rhododendron thickets. On lower country it might be brushy overgrown farms. Recently logged areas are almost always good. Swamps are likely refuge areas. In open forests, look for high points at the ends of ridges, or small fingers that protrude from the sides of ridges, which give deer a long view.
Some of these features can be detected on topographic maps. Others must be located by scouting, and they should be marked on your topographic map. Now, draw pencil lines connecting the refuge areas to the places where hunters will enter the woods.
The routes deer use might not follow the most direct routes. However, they will probably follow the nearest routes which provide cover, or those which take advantage of the terrain.
In mountainous or hilly terrain, deer escape routes can often be determined just by using the topographic map. When deer are pushed off a ridge, they often run down the end of the ridge or down a small valley on the side of the ridge, and they probably use these same routes to go up the ridge. If they must cross a ridge, look for a low point on the ridge which often connects two small valleys on either side. These small valleys-- you might call them draws, gulleys or hollows are key locations for stands.
Even smaller depressions, sometimes just ditches or natural drainages, may be escape routes on less irregular terrain. Vegetation can also provide cover, things like wind rows, thicker vegetation along a wet area, or conifer plantations. Anything which might hide deer will attract them as they are fleeing hunters.
The best stands are close to refuge areas because escape routes converge as they get closer to the refuge areas. However, if you are uncertain about the location of refuge areas, your chances might be better closer to the areas where other hunters enter the woods.
With this information you should be able to find a stand that will give you a chance at a buck. The only problem will be choosing a place that gives you the opportunity to see a deer long enough to make a good shot. The stand hunters' not-so-secret equalizer is a tree stand, or any other type of elevated stand. This allows you to look down into cover, rather than trying to look through it. It also hides you, and might keep your odors above deer.
Learning how to use hunting pressure to your advantage takes some clever detective work. But it gives you your best chance of tagging a buck on heavily hunted land. Once the hunting pressure drops, try other methods. Often as not, though, you will already have your buck.
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