If you’re hunting for game meat, few animals give you as much bang for your buck as a deer. Deer are found in all 50 US states. In many states, particularly in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, there are so many deer that they’re considered a pest. As a result, hunting licenses are widely available, oftentimes allowing a single hunter to harvest several deer in a season.
There are two main species of deer in the US: mule deer and white-tailed deer. Broadly speaking, white-tailed deer live east of the Rockies, and mule deer live west of the Rockies, but there’s significant overlap in places like Colorado. White-tailed bucks average around 150-300 pounds, while mule deer weight about 50 pounds more on average. Both species tend to be larger the further north you go.
If you live in a state where both species are present, you’ll need to learn to identify which species is which, since tags are usually issued specifically for one species.
Below is a short video comparing both species of deer;
Fortunately for the rest of us, the two species are very similar in terms of behavior. While whitetails are more aggressive when fighting each other, this isn’t really relevant to hunters. As a result, the tips we provide here are equally applicable to mule deer and whitetails.
We’re going to start by going over some general advice, then get into the nitty-gritty of harvesting a deer in the wild. Grab a cup of coffee, because we’re about to cover everything you need to know about deer hunting.
Beginner Must-Know Tips For Deer Hunting
There are as many ways to hunt deer as there are deer hunters. That said, we can broadly divide deer hunting into two methods: hunting alone, and hunting as a group. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages.
Hunting alone means you get to keep everything you kill. On the other hand, you’re more likely to walk away with nothing at all, and you’ll need to pack your deer out by yourself. You’ll also be alone all day, which is less fun than hunting with friends.
Group hunting tends to deliver more consistent results. However, it puts some hunters in a position where they’re almost guaranteed not to shoot anything. Make sure your group agrees to share whatever they catch, and you’ll have a great time in the woods with your buddies.
Solo Deer Hunting
If you’re hunting on your own, you’ll need either a blind or a deer stand for shooting from. Take your weapon into account when you’re choosing a shot. For example, a thick stand of tall grass in a big field is a perfect location for hunting with a rifle. It’s a terrible spot for bow hunting, though, since you have limited range.
Conversely, all weapons are useful in the deep woods, but you won’t be able to take advantage of a hunting rifle’s range. We’ll talk more about locations in a little bit, but at the end of the day the rule is to choose a spot where you’re most likely to find a deer.
Your own smell is your worst enemy on a deer hunt. While deer don’t see as well as we do, they can sniff out a human from a quarter mile away if they’re downwind of you. This can be frustrating if you’ve chosen a perfect blind, only to find on the day of your hunt that the deer are downwind of your blind.
To minimize this, you’ll want to shower with unscented soap before you leave for your hunt. If possible, bring some leaves and twigs home from your stand while you’re scouting locations, and store your hunting clothes with them in a sealed bag.
Change into your hunting clothes as late as possible before your hunt. This will go a long way towards masking your scent. Finally, once you’re in position, spray yourself down with odor eliminator, paying particular attention to your hair and hat.
Hunting With Friends
If you’re hunting with friends, you can use your smell to your advantage. You can do this by splitting into two groups. One group should take positions downwind of suspected deer beds, while another should walk around and approach from upwind.
The idea is for the second group (the “drivers”) to slowly advance towards the first group. When the deer pick up their scent, they’ll leave cover and start walking towards the hunters who are concealed downwind. This is called “driving” the deer. While it’s controversial in some circles, we don’t have a problem with it. It’s just a way to use your numbers to your advantage.
The most important thing here is communication. The drivers will need to wait until the shooters are in position before they start their advance, or the deer may start moving before the shooters are ready.
The drivers also need to move very slowly. If they advance too quickly, the deer may spook and run, which makes them almost impossible to shoot. The whole idea is to make the deer nervous, but give them plenty of time to move to new cover. If your drivers advance at a very slow pace, the deer will need to move, but they won’t feel the need to run. That’s exactly what you want.
The safest way to do this is to drive the deer downhill if at all possible. This ensures that your shooters have the ground as a backstop, instead of open air. It also eliminates the risk of an errant shot accidentally striking a downhill driver.
What Types of Guns/Bows Are Best For Deer Hunting?
In most states, deer can be hunted with any weapon that’s sufficiently powerful. Generally, rifles and shotguns will share the main part of the season, while bows, pistols and muzzle loaders will have their own separate, short seasons. Let’s look at the best weapons from each of these categories.
Deer Hunting Rifles
By far the most popular weapon for deer hunting is a rifle. They have the longest range and pack more punch than anything other than a short range shotgun slug.
To begin with, you’ll need a gun with sufficient caliber. A .22 LR will get the job done if you’re a perfect shot, but there are a couple of problems with this. To begin with, a body shot won’t work at this small caliber. Okay, it might work. If you get lucky. But lucky is not a plan.
You’ll need a head shot which most people can’t consistently make under pressure. Missing by a few inches can hit the deer in the jaw or nose, maiming it but not killing it, which is just cruel. Even if you’re an Olympic-level sharpshooter, hunting deer with rimfire rounds is illegal in most states.
To take a deer properly, with a heart/lung shot, you’ll need a high-caliber rifle. .30-06 Springfield, .300, .300 Win. Mag., .308 and 6.5 Creedmoor are popular calibers. You can go larger with a .45-70 Government, or even a .50 caliber, but that’s overkill.
Most hunters prefer a bolt action rifle over a semi-automatic, since semi-autos transfer some energy into cycling the action instead of into the bullet. Lever actions are also a viable choice, but they’re less readily available.
Finally, you’ll need a good scope that’s properly zeroed in. 3X magnification is sufficient for any reasonable deer hunting range, but higher magnifications can’t hurt.
Deer Hunting Shotguns
There are two reasons for using a shotgun as opposed to a rifle. First off, there’s not a rifle in the world that rivals the stopping power of a 12-gauge, 3-ounce slug at short range. Hit a buck with one of these, and he will go down.
The other reason is safety. Many counties and municipalities ban rifle hunting because of population density. Rifle rounds can be deadly at long distances – upwards of a mile in many cases. While slugs and buckshot pack a lot of punch, they drop off quickly and aren’t going to accidentally hit someone 1,500 yards away.
If you’re using buckshot, there’s no replacement for a 12-gauge shotgun with 00 shot. It will drop anything it hits within about 50 yards. Slugs are lethal up to about 100 yards, depending on the load. A 12-gauge is preferable, but a 20 gauge will also get the job done provided you’re at least somewhat accurate.
A scope isn’t strictly necessary for a shotgun since you won’t be shooting at anything past 100 yards. Still, a 3X scope can give you an edge, and they’re not terribly expensive.
Deer Hunting Bows
The rule of thumb for deer hunting bows is that 40 pounds of pull is powerful enough for deer. This covers most commercial bows, with the exception of light training bows. Of course, more is always better. A heavier bow will keep the arrow in flight longer, and give you even more power.
You’ll want to use broadhead arrows for deer. Expandable broadheads are your best choice for a guaranteed kill. The higher the quality, the better; you don’t want your blades to fail to deploy.
Muzzle Loaders and Pistols
Muzzle loaders usually shoot a .50 caliber mini ball. These are more than powerful enough to bring down a buck, provided you’re using plenty of black powder. If you’re shooting a muzzle loader, you probably know your gun a lot better than we do. A whole article could be written on muzzle loaders alone, so we’ll leave it at that.
Pistol hunting is a unique sport in its own right, and you’ll need a specialized hunting pistol to pull it off. Modern semi-autos like Glocks are made for home defense and concealed carry use, which means they’re designed for shooting very quickly at a close target. They’re terrible for shooting at any appreciable range.
Good hunting pistols are designed like very short barreled rifles and usually come with a scope. A .45 caliber hunting pistol can drop a deer at 50 to 100 yards, provided you’ve spent time on the range getting the scope zeroed in.
When and Where Can I Hunt Deer?
Deer season runs from mid fall through early winter. In most states, it kicks off at the end of September and runs through mid December. This covers the deer mating season, which hunters call “the rut”. Depending on when exactly you’re hunting, you’ll need to use different tactics.
From the beginning of deer season up to around October 10th, deer are still in their summer foraging pattern. This is the best time to find deer grazing in wide-open fields. The good news? You can find them out in the open. The bad news? They’re alert and will spook at the slightest sign of human activity.
Stands of tall grass are a great location at this time of year. Water sources are another good area to set up a blind or a deer stand since the animals will need to drink. Look for hoof prints and wallows near creek beds to see where they’re liable to appear.
The pre-rut runs from around October 10th to the 22nd. By this time of year, deer are moving into their winter range, which means thicker woods. They’ll have all but disappeared from open fields, which is why you’ll hear hunters talk about the October lull. Those hunters are still looking for deer in the open.
If you can find an area where bucks are bedding down, locate a nearby food source. Acorns are one of their favorites at this kind of year, so setting up near some oak trees is a good way to increase your chances of seeing a big buck.
The Seeking Phase
From October 23rd to around November 1st, the deer are starting to go into rut. Big bucks aren’t ready to mate yet, but you’ll start to see young bucks getting bolder and running around in the open. Scraping activity will start to pick up.
A common mistake of beginning hunters is to post up near a scraped tree. Since bucks typically scrape at night, this is a bad idea. Instead, see if you can find a drag trail from the scraped tree to their bedding area, and continue to set up between their bed and the nearest food source.
From around the 2nd of November through the 10th, deer are in full rut. This is the time of year when the bucks are most careless. There’s only one thing on their mind for this week: finding a doe in heat.
During the rut, set up about 20 to 30 yards from a game trail, making sure you’re on the downwind side. Decoys and calls are at their most effective now, since bucks are liable to chase after anything they think they can breed with.
Hunting near food sources is less effective during the rut because bucks often go the whole week without eating. Instead, look for doe bedding areas. If you’re lucky enough to find one, congratulations! You’ve hit the jackpot. Post up nearby, and you’ll see a buck sooner rather than later.
The Lock-Down Phase
From about November 11th to the 20th, territorial disputes have been resolved, the bucks have claimed their does, and they’re bedded down, mating. This is the hardest part of the season since the deer are generally in deep brush.
If you have no choice but to hunt during the lock-down phase, look for a bedding area, and wait as close as you can on the downwind side. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a buck stand up, and you’ll have a clear shot. Forget about calls at this time. Deer aren’t calling, and the call will just scare them off.
After the lock-down phase, deer are basically going into winter mode. Your best bet now is to go back to food sources, although hunting near trails and water sources can still yield some results.
An important thing to keep in mind during the post-rut is that the deer have been pressured for several weeks by now. You may still see some young bucks in the open, but the large, experienced bucks are smart enough to stay under cover. There’s a reason they’ve lived long enough to get so big!
Another important thing to remember is that there’s actually a second, smaller rut around the first week of December. Some does won’t have bred during the first rut and will come back in heat. This is particularly true for very young does who have just reached sexual maturity. Since these does are inexperienced, they’re much more likely to spend time in the open, drawing eager bucks right out into your sights.
Regardless, food sources are still the best place to hunt, since that’s where the does will be. If you spot a doe, consider it a bonus. Because of the does, calls will be somewhat effective during this time.
Time of Day
The best time of day for deer hunting is just after dawn when they’re getting up to forage and going to water for a drink. The key is to get to your blind or tree stand first – preferably an hour or two before dawn. The reason for getting there so early is that you don’t want to stumble across an early bird and spook it.
If you’re not hunting first thing in the morning, the next best time for deer hunting is in the late afternoon. As the day starts to wind down, hungry deer will get more eager to fill their stomachs and may wander into more open areas they would otherwise avoid. Thirsty deer are also likely to go back to water sources at this time of day.
During the rut, any time of day will work. Bucks are chasing down does from sunup to sundown during this week, which makes it a great time for all-day hunting. If you’re lucky enough to go hunting during the rut, take advantage of all the daylight you can. If you find a particularly active trail, you may even harvest a few bucks in a single day.
Preparation For the Hunt
Preparation for a deer hunt comes in two phases: the weeks leading up to your hunt, and the day before. Let’s look at each of these separately.
The Weeks Before the Hunt
This is the time for scouting out good deer hunting locations. A lot of hunters make the mistake of scouting a day or two before their hunt. This is not smart. Setting up a deer stand, clearing a field of fire and generally making a ruckus is a good way to scare the deer away from your patch of woods, almost guaranteeing failure.
Instead, scout the area a couple of weeks beforehand. Look for tree scrapes, drags and muddy patches in trails with a lot of hoof prints. All of these things are signs of deer activity. If you’re going to do any prep work, do it now.
Clearing a field of fire, for example, can spook local deer, but they’ll get used to the broken branches in a week or so and come back. Similarly, a deer stand suddenly appearing in their neck of the woods can make them wary. If they have time to get used to its presence, they’ll be well acclimated by the time you’re ready for your hunt.
The Day Before the Hunt
This is when you want to go back and make sure there are still deer in the area. It’s also a time to be as unobtrusive as possible. The goal is to look for tracks, scrapes, and rubs to make sure the deer are still active. Any necessary prep work should already be done.
Bring a plastic bag with you to gather some leaves and sticks from around your stand or blind, and store your hunting clothes in that bag with them when you get home. Shake it up and rub it around in your hands to make sure your clothes are covered with the local scents.
And go to bed early. You’ll need to get up in the wee hours, and you’ll also need a good night’s sleep. Imagine the embarrassment if you fell asleep in your tree stand and lost out on a prize buck!
Important Gear to Bring With
Obviously, you’ll need your gun or bow. Without them, you’re not a hunter, you’re a nature watcher. But what else should you bring with you?
Your hunting clothes are a good start. A blaze orange hat and vest are also necessary unless you’re bow hunting. They can increase your visibility, but that’s a good thing. The last thing you want to do is end up in the news as a victim of a hunting accident.
Bring a flashlight with you. You’re trying to get to your blind or deer stand well before first light, and you’ll make less noise if you can see what you’re doing. If you’re in deep woods, a GPS or map and compass are also essential.
You’ll also want to bring gear for field dressing the deer and taking it home. At a bare minimum, you’ll want a sharp skinning knife, a rope, a tarp, and some rubber gloves. Get some elbow-length gloves if you can; reaching deep inside a deer’s body can get messy.
How do You Attract Deer?
There are two main ways of attracting a deer: sight and smell.
For sight, decoys are a great way of getting their attention. Pre-rut or post-rut, you can use either does or bucks. These can make deer curious or territorial depending on which one you choose. They tend to work better pre-rut because deer are extra-cautious after the rut due to a full season of hunting pressure.
If you’re using a decoy during the rut, use a doe decoy that’s specialized to look like she’s in heat. A regular decoy will look wrong at this time of year, and the deer will pick up on it. If you can, attach a real deer tail to your decoy’s backside, and angle it off to one side. This will present a realistic image of a doe in heat, and impulsive bucks will come running towards it.
As for the scent, there are two ways to go about it. Buck urine is useful outside of the rut, but its utility is limited. Younger or smaller bucks are just as liable to run from a potential rival as they are to get angry. On the other hand, big bucks – the ones you’re dying to hunt – will get absolutely livid if they think another buck is horning in on their territory.
During the rut, switch to doe estrus. This is a hormone that does secrete when they’re in heat, and it drives rutting bucks insane. Don’t just dribble some on the ground. Doe’s apply estrus to branches and bushes as they walk past, so put your estrus in a spray bottle and spray bushes that are between chest and waist height.
If you can get two different brands or samples, use both, and make a trail leading to your stand. Bucks will think there are two single females in your direction, which is a sure way to get their attention.
How to Shoot a Deer
The ideal killing shot on a deer will be a broadside shot to the chest. This will pierce both lungs, as well as the heart, leading to an almost instant death. If you can get a broadside shot, take it. It’s the closest you’ll get to a guaranteed clean kill.
If you can’t get a shot from the broadside, the next best angle is called “quartering to”, which means the deer is facing you at an angle, partially exposing the chest. In this case, aim for the shoulder. A perfect shot will go through the shoulder and into the vitals. If it misses their vitals, the hit to the shoulder should immobilize them enough for you to make a clean follow-up shot.
A head-on shot is difficult, but not impossible. Aim straight for the chest, and you’ll have a good chance of hitting the vitals. This is a risky shot, though. If you’re a bit low, you’ll miss completely. If you’re a bit high, you could have a messy shot to the neck or jaw. These can be fatal, but if they’re not you’ll end up chasing a maimed deer through the woods.
The last kind of shot is called “quartering away”. This is the reverse of a quartering to shot, where the deer is facing away from you at an angle, partially presenting their side. Aim for the chest, forward of the abdomen. A good shot will either pierce the vitals or fracture their shoulder, allowing you to make a clean follow-up.
Never shoot at a deer that’s facing directly away from you. You’re almost certain to put a hole in the intestines. This doesn’t kill the deer right away, which means you’ll have to follow the blood trail of a suffering deer until it bleeds enough to collapse. Almost as bad, the contents of the intestines are liable to foul the deer’s loin meat, which is one of the most delicious cuts.
Should I Field Dress My Own Deer?
There’s no hard and fast rule saying that you have to field dress your own deer. If you want to pack out the whole animal, by all means do so. But there are a couple of reasons you should seriously consider doing your own field dressing.
The number one reason is weight. A big buck can weigh upwards of 300 pounds. That’s a lot of animal to pack out, especially if you’re hunting by yourself. By removing the organs, you’re effectively cutting that weight in half. 150 pounds is still heavy, but it’s not too heavy to drag.
The second reason is keeping the meat clean. The deer’s digestive system, just like ours, is full of bacteria. As soon as it dies, the bacteria will start eating the deer itself, starting with the digestive system. We’re not saying this will ruin your meat in an afternoon, but it doesn’t help. It also makes the contents of the intestines get fouler by the hour, increasing the risk of contamination when you or your butcher finally get around to dressing it.
Finally, there’s the issue of price. Butchers aren’t cheap, and like any craftsman they charge more for more work. If you ask them to dress your deer as well as butcher it, expect them to charge a premium. Especially because they’re working in a house or shop, and will need to dispose of the guts in a sanitary fashion.
Rules, Regulations and Licensing
Depending on where you live, there will be different rules and regulations surrounding deer hunting. The one thing all states have in common? You’ll need a license.
Some states allow you to harvest several deer, while others only allow one or two. Some allow doe hunting, while others restrict hunting to bucks. The only way to know for sure is to check your local regulations to make sure you’re hunting legally.
Some states also require you to pass a hunter safety course if you’re a first-time hunter. These courses are usually free. If not, they’re very cheap. Get signed up well in advanced of hunting season, though. Spots can be limited, and you don’t want to miss out on a whole season just because you waited too long to sign up for training.
One thing we should mention, and it should be obvious by now. This guide was written with an eye towards hunting bucks. Hunting does is a bit different during the rut, but outside of the rut you can find them the same places you’ll find bucks: between their bed and their food.
As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into a successful deer hunt. Timing, location and your gun or bow are all major factors. But so are your calls, decoys, gear and other accessories. The most important thing, though, is a solid understanding of deer behavior, and how to use that to your advantage.
A good deer rifle, shotgun or bow can make the difference between a successful kill and a wounded animal. Good technique can help you out here as well. But none of that matters if you don’t get to draw a bead on a buck to begin with.
Calls can make or break your hunt. They can attract deer to your stand when they would have otherwise passed the area by. But you’ll need to know when to use which calls. Doe calls are useful during the rut, but during the pre and post-rut you’re going to have more success with a buck call to take advantage of the real bucks’ territorial instincts.
And don’t forget about bringing the rest of your kit. Killing a deer is one thing. Properly field dressing it for the butcher is another. A knife, gloves, tarp and rope are a bare minimum for a good kit.
We hope this guide answered your most burning deer hunting questions. We’re not saying you’re guaranteed to bag a big buck – even experienced hunters have dry seasons – but you’ll be well on your way to a successful deer season. Whether you’re hunting alone or with a friend, enjoy the great outdoors!