There are times when that deer will be a bit smarter than you. But don’t be frustrated by that white-tailed salute when the deer gets away. Sit back and try to figure out why it happened, and with the knowledge become a better hunter. Jim Cole/Associated Press

To the uninitiated, deer hunting might seem rather simple: find a parcel of woods, scout for signs and then hunt. Those are the ABCs, but as you advance, the lessons become more difficult. In time you begin to learn, and learn to recognize the subtleties and soon you’re ready for a graduate-level course.

You’re slipping quietly along trying to spot a deer before it sees you when one suddenly jumps from cover and bounds away with a white-tailed salute. You curse yourself for being hasty, but you haven’t failed this part of the test yet as it’s more like a lab practical than a written test.

Much of a deer hunter’s education involves trial and error. What could you have done differently? You vow to slow down and look more carefully ahead and to the sides. That will get you a C-plus.

Ask yourself, “Why was that deer there?” Stop and look around. Maybe there’s a food source nearby. Perhaps it was in a patch of thick cover that offered better concealment. You just improved your grade to a B. Quiz yourself, “Which way do prevailing winds blow? How could I approach without being seen, heard or scented?” Now you’re up to an A. Great work. For extra credit, connect the bedding area to a feeding area.

You’re scouting has paid off. You found a hotspot and a favorable approach route. Like most hunters you’re eager to get in, climb up to your stand and get settled to let things quiet down before the deer become active. Seems like that deserves at least a B, right?

The best I can give you is a C-minus as it’s sort of a trick question. You chose that stand for a reason; because it’s likely to have deer nearby. If you go rushing in, you’ll only scare them off. It’s OK to go at a good clip partway, but as you near your stand, slow down, then sneak in the final distance. That will help your grade immensely.


Let’s go back to the first question for a moment. While scouting where you jumped that deer, you find a heavy trail leading out of the bedding area. You check the wind and find a good tree just downwind and set a stand. That’s going to get you a C-plus, slightly above average because that’s what most experienced hunters would do.

Trails are tempting. They obviously indicate heavy deer traffic, but think about it: how many times have you actually seen a deer walk directly on a trail during daylight? Far more often their route is random and hardly straight. The oldest, biggest and wiliest ones tend to avoid trails, especially in open areas. They’re more likely to be farther downwind and in the thick stuff.

You already have a hint for this next one. While on a scouting mission you find a fresh scrape, the ground pawed bare and a nearby sapling stripped of bark. Do you set up just downwind of it? If you answered, “No,” you’re obviously paying attention to the lesson. Short answer question: Why not?

A buck may revisit that scrape, but the research and a whole lot of trail camera photos tell us that most scrape visits occur at night. However, that doesn’t mean bucks don’t use scrapes during the day. Like you approaching your stand, they come in slowly and quietly. They also have a much better sense of smell than you so they can scent-check the area to see if other deer are or have been nearby, without ever coming within sight of the scrape. Get back in the thick stuff well downwind and you get an A.

This is only a small part of the lesson plan but even wrong answers and failed experiments teach us something useful. In time we learn and become more proficient but perhaps the greatest lesson is that in the school of the outdoors, graduation day never arrives.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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