There's more than one way to skin a cat, and certainly more than one way to bag a whitetail deer with bow. The biggest problem with most of us is that we get stuck in a rut, hunting the same old stands, doing nothing to actively change our luck even when we only see a few deer. Sometimes you need to change gears, think outside your current thought processes and try something different to get the job done.
It's not that the tried-and-true methods for earning bowhunting success aren't still valid. It's just that the most successful bowhunters are also those who are the most flexible and dip from the deepest bag of tricks.
With that in mind, here are a handful of offbeat methods, or at least a few tricks of the trade to help you solve difficult whitetail hunting dilemmas.
Hunt Inside Cover
Our automatic tendency is to hunt edges, as we are continually reminded whitetail deer are edge creatures. So we set up our stands predominately on agricultural field or meadow flanks. This is a sound approach much of the time, unless you're dealing with ultra-savvy bucks or those with nocturnal tendencies.
Even the sagest of bucks typically arrive at major feeding points later than smaller bucks and does. In other areas hunting pressure is such that most of the herd waits for nightfall before emerging into open areas. You can beat this tendency by hunting deeper into cover, especially looking for staging areas deer use to await darkness before emerging into open fields.
Follow conspicuous trails 200 to 300 yards away from field edges and set up there. Doing so gives you the jump on evening deer arriving late, or morning deer departing early. Most importantly this allows you to slip into morning stands and out of evening stands with less chance of detection.
You'll be coming in from behind the lines in the morning — preferably using a ditch or creek bed for cover — and across completely vacant fields to access evening stands, avoiding deer feeding areas on your way into stands. Another deadly ploy is to create staging areas consisting of postage stamp food plots well inside cover, giving deer quick check-in points on their way to bigger food sources.
Don't Forget Water
Whitetail hunters automatically think in terms of food and cover, but often forget the element of water. Like all living creatures, water is the mainstay of life for whitetail deer as well. Of course, how effective water becomes to the deer hunter is largely dependent on terrain, climate and the general availability in your hunting area. Obviously, there are areas where water is too widely available to make it useful as a bowhunting focal point.
This isn't always the case. From my perspective as a western whitetail hunter, waterholes, windmill tanks, secreted springs and ponds are my number one ploy during hot early seasons. One of my best bucks came from a windmill spillover puddle in Eastern Colorado not during a hot early season, but during the peak of the cold November rut.
Water is abundant enough in other areas, but deer pick only particular watering spots to slake their thirst. This could be a matter of comfort (the right combination of safety and cover), palatability (clean spring water versus sullied cow ponds), or simple accessibility (sloping banks versus steep, walled banks). Scouting should quickly reveal obvious sign at active watering sites, just make sure a confusion of tracks that might indicate a hotspot were made recently (fresh in soft mud right at the water's edge) and not during warmer periods (set higher up the bank in cement-like dried mud).
Be it the warmest days of early season, or the fevered days of the rut when deer run themselves hard, rest assured at some point deer will want a drink. Figure out where he's taking that drink and you're in the game. Trail cameras are a huge boon for scoping out potential action.
Funnel The Action
We're consistently told to hunt funnels, natural pinch points coaxing deer past stands reliably from wider surrounding areas. The problem arises when confronted by areas with lots of deer movement but little topography to help us with our cause. This could be wide ridge tops, field edges sloping into wide plains or agricultural fields surrounded by inviting woods. These are only examples, as possibilities are unlimited.
In these cases take a proactive approach during the offseason, rearranging the landscape to create useful funnels. Here's a couple examples of landscaping to create successful bowhunts: In North Idaho I hunt a wide, rounded ridge spilling into nasty 'swamp ' that deer use as a safe-haven bedding area. Deer filter up the ridge each day to access adjacent agricultural fields one mile away. The entire ridge, maybe 300 yards wide, is a literal whitetail highway. You could set a stand anywhere along that ridge and see deer, most of them out of range. I set out to change that, dragging logs and cutting brush to build a 'fence ' with an opening only at the most wind-friendly point. The iffy ridge turned into a hotspot.
In Kansas, a friend's newly-created food plot attracted tons of deer, but access was so abundant they might appear at nearly any point. So while expanding the top end of the field, which had grown over with thorny Osage, he used his tractor and a hayfork to shove cut brush into holes and gaps in the wall of brush surrounding the plot. This left inviting openings only where he wanted them, mostly to accommodate predominate winds. Problem solved and big bucks tagged as a result. You can accomplish the same thing by creating strategically placed fence breaks, stringing survey-tape-draped rope fences or simply brush-hogging or chopping out a path of least resistance through high grass or brushy areas.
Subtle Social Calls
Outdoor writing is filled with hyperbole — dramatic ploys garnering dramatic results are a central feature. An entire industry has emerged around aggressive buck grunt calls, magnum rattling horns and such nonsense as snort wheezes and challenging roars. I guess this stuff works in the Midwest where herd dynamics are ideal, bucks given half a chance to reach maturity and rifle-hunting pressure's tightly controlled (and most of today's whitetail 'authorities ' live to hunt). But when was the last time you had any luck with aggressive calls in your backyard where buck-to-doe ratios average 1:50 (instead of 1:3), few bucks live past three years and intense hunting pressure is the rule?
The rest of us can also enjoy deer calling success, but we just have to tone it down a bit. More subtle social calls don't challenge, aren't aggressive and are also calls deer hear regularly, sometimes daily. They don't set deer on edge. At best a deer will swing by your stand to make contact with a perceived deer; at worst they'll ignore you and calmly go about their day.
Here we're talking basic, single-tone maternal doe bleats — something every deer's heard from birth, mama reminding fawns not to wander — and two-tone 'come-here ' grunts (calls mama used to tell junior to come to her). Bucks also make quiet contact grunts, most often to keep tabs with one another when still in bachelor groups. Antler tickling's another safe bet (a rattling bag is a great tool for this), imitating two bucks shoving each other around while establishing pecking orders, like two junior high boys pushing at each other with no intent to fight.
The best part of such calls is they work early or late (sparking social curiosity), but they're also deadly during the rut, bringing bucks beneath stands seeking the source of doe bleats or grunts. Unlike dramatic calling ploys, social calls won't bring deer running with hackles on end and nostrils flaring. Instead, deer are more likely to slip in silently. Not as dramatic, but it still produces the same results.
Hunt Does (During The Rut)
The rut can be as hectic and hard on deer hunters as it is on the deer themselves. We lose sleep scheming and run ourselves ragged checking trail cameras, scouting out new stand locations and trying to outmaneuver that dream buck. There have been reams of material offered on the ins and outs of outsmarting trophy bucks, but during the rut you need only remember one thing to stay in the action: hunt does.
Does have what bucks desire most during the rut. Where there are does there will soon be bucks when mating urges kick in. This may seem overly simplified, but we do spend an inordinate amount of time during the rut scouting scrapes and rubs, trying to make heads or tails of what trail cams are telling us and so forth. It's easier to simply watch what does are doing and adjust our stands accordingly, or quickly scout from the comfort of our truck cabs (where we remain much less threatening and spread much less scent) than get into the woods and risk pushing deer out of hunting areas.
It is true that the does you see today may not be immediately receptive, or even the slightest bit interested in the opposite sex for the time being, but where there are concentrations of does you can bet your best bow bucks know exactly where they are and are hovering at the fringes waiting for one of them to come into estrous. Bide your time and play it safe, taking great pains to avoid alerting those does and soon enough bucks come along for the ride.
Deflect With Decoys
I guess the ultimate whitetail decoying experience would involve a direct attack by a trophy-sized buck, that after kicking your decoy's ass would, of course, stand still just long enough to give you a clean shot. But in the real world of whitetail hunting this just doesn't happen all that often in your neighborhood (unless you live in better regions of the Midwest). In fact, even in areas where buck-to-doe ratios, herd dynamics and hunting pressure best facilitate direct approaches to deer decoys, they can just as often deflect deer as lure them.
But planned deflection, in my mind, is where whitetail decoys benefit the average bowhunter most. This plays off of the whitetail deer's natural tendency to scent check foreign or suspect objects. By scent checking I mean the automatic inclination to swing downwind of calls or decoys to put their number one defense — their noses — to use.
Use this to your advantage on wary or non-dominant deer by placing your decoy well upwind of your position and hanging a stand to ambush deer swinging below the decoy to scent-check it. The distance established between decoy and stand depends on terrain and vegetation, less in thronged or broken areas, more in open or flat topography. This may vary from 75 to 100 yards in thick forest or 150 to 300 yards in open terrain. The bowhunter can further improve his odds by laying down a scent line from decoy to shooting lane for deer to intercept and follow beneath your stand.
Still Hunt Nasty Weather
The modern bowhunter has been stand (more recently blind) hunting so long that we forget early bowhunters pursued whitetail afoot most of the time. Today, most bowhunters think of still-hunting as a ploy used to intentionally handicap themselves while seeking additional bowhunting challenge. Under most circumstances this might be true, but when weather turns truly nasty still-hunting can become deadly effective.
Waking early one cold, wet morning to find Mother Nature in a snit complete with blowing rain or wet snow is the best time to make the best of a potentially miserable stand visual by still-hunting. Wet conditions quiet ground to silence movements, especially in areas with abundant leaves. A bit of wind and dripping forest tossed in creates distraction making it more difficult for alert bucks to pick up movements.
Now, many seem to have a false idea of what still-hunting is about. It's not just moving through the woods slowly and silently, as some seem to believe. Those elements are certainly part of it, but still hunting done correctly is as much a state of mind as a physical activity. There's a bit of Zen involved, becoming part of the woods to the point you soak up all sensory information; pausing frequently to seek the movement of a flicking tail or wiggling ear or the tell-tale outline of a bedded deer, heeding signals being sent by scolding squirrels or ravens as they address passing deer. It requires a big dose of patience and woods skills. It requires a concentration so complete three hours is my absolute limit in this kind of hunting.
But this is also whitetail hunting's most rewarding ploy, as when it all comes together you know you've succeeded in the time-honored way of Fred Bear and others who came before us.
Don't Discount Late Seasons
In the western fringes of whitetaildom we hang most of our hopes on early seasons when bucks still wear velvet antlers. In the rest of the whitetail's range — and the West, in particular — the rut is everything. Mostly the rut's the be-all, end-all in whitetail hunting. But even in the best of times trophy bucks often slip between our fingers, leaving us with unfilled tags as November wanes and our season comes to a screeching halt. But in most instances this need not be the case. Don't give up just yet; you likely have a late season to look forward to.
There are a couple inescapable truths here. Yes, by December deer have been subjected to all manner of hunting pressure. Yes, many of the best bucks are now resting in freezers and taxidermy shops. And yes, it's going to be cold, sometimes darn cold. But its also true that deer are still out there to be had. And you're no quitter. I mean, really, what else are you going to do? Watch football? Really? Besides, today's cold weather gear is more efficient than ever, meaning there really is no reason to risk hypothermia.
There's only one thing you need to remember to succeed in late seasons: follow the food. Bucks are replenishing fat reserves lost during the rigors of the rut. All deer in general must stoke the furnace to simply survive bitterly cold nights. Sure, deer may be very wary by late season, but when the mercury dips a grumbling belly and hypothermia become more immediate concerns than the possibility some crazy bowhunter will brave Old Man Winter to take a shot at them. In the big picture, the woods are largely abandoned during late seasons. Look to crops such as leftover corn and soybeans, late-season acorns like blacks or even a farmer's haystack for focal points when temperatures plummet.