Most white-tailed deer live in heavy cover offered by woodlands, and hence, are most abundant along rivers and in forested areas of eastern Nebraska.
The easiest way to harvest a whitetail is to spend an evening waiting for one to arrive at its dining room: a crop field adjacent to heavy cover. Chances are you found one of these feeding areas while you were looking for a place to hunt. All you need to do now is find a spot to sit that is within rifle range of the location where deer most often walk out of the woods and into the field. Don’t get any closer than you have to – the closer you are, the more likely it is that deer will see, hear or smell you and spook.
Most whitetails bed in heavy cover, be it a woodland, tall grass or a cattail slough. Go into one of these areas during the day and chances are all you’ll see is a deer waving its white tail at you as it runs away. That doesn’t mean you can’t hunt bedding areas, but doing so means getting there and on your stand well before first light, while the deer are still out feeding, and waiting for them to come back.
A spot 100 yards away is close enough to offer a clean shot. Look for a tree to sit against that will break up your outline and make you less visible to deer. If that tree is on a hillside overlooking a creek bottom, you will have a commanding view and an easy shot at any deer that walks out of the woods within 100 yards of either direction of your location. If there are no trees, look for other vegetation, hay bales, old farm buildings, machinery or terrain that can hide you from sight.
Deer start moving into crop fields an hour or more before sunset. The first to appear are usually does, fawns and immature bucks. Trophy bucks might not move into the fields until well after legal shooting time. That might be the case for all deer in a heavily hunted area during the season.
You can hunt crop fields in the morning, too, but you will have to approach quietly in total darkness, wait for shooting light and hope the deer are still feeding. Get to your stand at least 30 minutes before legal shooting time if you plan on hunting in the morning.
Another tactic for whitetail hunting is to hunt in the woods near the spot where deer are leaving the woods to feed. Deer will often mill around on the edge of cover before they walk into an open field. Walk the edges of fields, look for well-worn trails and follow them into the woods a short distance. From the trail, look for places where you could sit or hang a tree stand that provide a clear shot to that trail and possibly others. Don’t wait until the eve of the opener to do this scouting, as you could easily spook deer out of the neighborhood.
If you do decide to go for a hike in the woods during the day, walk softly and slowly, making as little sound as possible and stopping often to scan the cover for deer. Walk with the wind in your face or to your side so deer won’t smell you coming. They might still see you before you see them, but if you’re lucky, they will stand up and stare at you for a few seconds before bolting at breakneck speed. Be ready to shoot, and you might just get to.
If you aren’t seeing deer in the area you are hunting, but have seen them there in the past, be patient or check other nearby fields. Deer have a home range in which they spend most of their lives. But two studies in Nebraska have found this annual home range can be as small as 170 acres and as large as 1,500 acres – more than two square miles. Most whitetails use the same core bedding area throughout the year and move from there to the best available food source during any particular season. If they aren’t where you found them in July, keep looking, because they haven’t gone far.
Mule deer prefer wide-open grasslands and are primarily found in the western half of Nebraska, especially the Sandhills, Panhandle and southwestern regions.
One study found that crops made up half of the diet for mule deer in the North Platte River Valley during the fall. So like whitetails, a good strategy is to look for deer in the morning and evening around fields that abut large grasslands. But mulies don’t necessarily bed in the same area each day and hence don’t always follow trails like whitetails do, which makes it difficult, but not impossible, to find a stand location near a field. Also, a western Nebraska study found the winter home range of mule deer does to be more than three times that of white-tailed does, although the home range of mule deer bucks was actually smaller than that of white-tailed bucks and much smaller than mule deer does.
The technique most often used to hunt mule deer, however, is commonly known as spot and stalk hunting. In theory, it’s simple: spend a lot of time looking for deer through your binoculars while driving or walking through mule deer country and then try to figure out a way to sneak within rifle range of one when you spot it. In practice, it’s not that simple.
Rather than using heavy cover to conceal themselves, mule deer often bed on an open hillside with the wind to their back, using their eyes and ears to detect danger approaching from downwind and their nose and ears to detect anything coming from behind them. All of a deer’s senses are sharp, but if hunters can stay out of sight and prevent their scent from blowing to the deer, they can usually close to within the range of a high-powered rifle.
With practice, mule deer are easy to spot with good optics, especially when they are up and moving in the morning or evening, or during midday when they rise to browse and stretch. When hunting on foot, don’t walk on hilltops where it’s easiest for deer to spot you. Creep slowly over hills, scanning cover a slice at a time as it comes into view. If you get close enough and the deer is still bedded, a whistle will typically get it to its feet without sending it running. If you happen to spook a mule deer from its bed, you can often take advantage of a fatal flaw in the species behavior. Unlike a spooked whitetail, which will run long and hard until it is out of sight, a mulie will usually bound away for a short distance and then stop and look back at whatever spooked it. Be ready to pull the trigger when they do, and you’ll be grilling tenderloins for dinner.
This is an excerpt from an article which first appeared in NEBRASKAland Magazine in November 2008. Purchase an issue here.