Tips for hunting pressured deer in Pennsylvania and beyond
While more deer are harvested during the fall archery season than ever before, firearms season is still the bread and butter for whitetail hunters. That means plenty of orange-clad optimists will be heading afield in hopes of notching their tags during this prime window of opportunity.
When thousands of hunters take to the woods on the very same day, the resident deer take notice, and they quickly alter their daily routines to avoid the influx of danger. Wise hunters can use deer’s evasive tendencies during this time — as well as the pressure of other hunters — to exploit the situation and put themselves in a greater position for success.
Whitetails know the safest place they can take refuge is wherever they can’t be seen. That means once the first boots hit the leaf litter, deer will be hightailing it to the thickest, nastiest cover around, and they’ll likely stay there until they feel the need to flee.
In mountainous terrain, this is often a laurel thicket or recovering clear cut where early successional forest provides dense groundcover in the form of briars and saplings. In low lying areas, it could be a stream bed or swampland thick with evergreens. In agricultural country, the sides of a steep hollow, tall CRP grass fields, or even a plot of standing corn can provide the security cover whitetails seek.
The least likely place for a deer to be is in big open timber and wide open, harvested fields, although they may run across them from time to time or head to these clearings to congregate after dark. But during legal hunting hours, they are far more likely to keep their heads down and stick to the cover to stay out of sight.
Therein lies the problem — how do we get a shot at a deer we can’t even see?
While it may be difficult to get into the cover where deer take refuge without spooking them, it is much easier to post up on their escape routes and let other hunters do the dirty work. Invariably, some hunter will get restless and go for a walk. When he or she does so, deer have a fair chance of either hearing, seeing, or smelling them and evacuating the area.
The trick is to be in position to intercept their escape routes and stay ready for a shot that could materialize at literally any moment. If deer have the option, they prefer a strategic escape – one that utilizes cover to their advantage. That means they are more likely to follow terrain features that help conceal their movements.
They may flee along a narrow bench on a hillside, cross at a prominent rock outcropping that hides their form, or transition from one hillside to another via a dip or saddle on the connecting top of the ridges. They’ll use draws that cut up from hollows, follow fencerows or creeks, and often stick to extensions of cover as long as possible before breaking across any opening.
That means slivers of cover, low spots in terrain, and other natural funnels are dynamite locations to post up for an ambush. On the flipside, little open travel corridors in very thick plots of cover can be equally good as it’s more efficient to travel through these narrow gaps than battling the brush.
Being in the right location and being able to get a shot are two different things, and it’s just as important that hunters position themselves with clear shooting lanes. In some cases, that means taking an elevated stand to get above the cover, so you can see and shoot further than staying at ground level.
In other situations, it might be more helpful to simply hunt the transitional edges of cover, where deer will skirt the brush before connecting to another dense tract of refuge. Try to set up where you can see into the thick of things, even if not completely, but in a way that it still provides a few clear windows to shoot into as they move through the area.
Don’t overlook atypical locations that other hunters might not have considered. The first buck I ever shot was jumped on the hillside right behind our family barn. It knew hunters were piling into the big woods and held tight to the building where it felt safe. The same goes for small, secluded islands of cover where farm equipment has been left to rust, near housing developments, along roadways, or even close to parking lots.
If these areas can be hunted safely and legally, even if it means stepping down to archery equipment during firearms season, they are certainly worthy of consideration.
The fundamental key to hunting deer under pressure is to find the cover they are using, take a smart vantage point, and hunt their escape routes. Do that, and the rest often falls into place — even with thousands of other hunters sharing the woods along with you.