Certainly, the most popular game in North America, the whitetail deer (Odocoileus Virginianus) is not a favorite for no reason as it is the most widely distributed Cervidae on the territory.
This species of deer vary greatly in size. A buck (male deer) usually weighs between 100 lbs and 200 lbs and can go up to 300 lbs in rare instances and exceptionally above.
The taste of a wild deer is outstandingly delicious when well cut and prepared. The meat is the healthier you can get, more than beef or other red meat; it contains higher levels of proteins, vitamins, and minerals while being lower in fat and sodium. As long as the population is well controlled, it is also a much better choice for the environment than livestock.
The whitetail deer is a ruminant mammal who feeds essentially on leaves as well as shoots, grasses, fruits, and fungi to name only a few. Unlike cattle, the deer live on a nutrient-rich diet instead of low-grade food which is responsible for the venison's high-quality meat.
To gather your own white-tailed deer, what is best than bowhunting? It allows you to go back to your roots and it requires some serious skills and practice in order to be able to take the game down honorably and bring it back to your table and feed your family. It is not only a sport but also a way of life. Plus, bowhunting eliminates the only true risk associated with deer meat consumption which is the risk of lead contamination when shot with bullets. High concentration of lead in the blood can cause serious health problems such as kidney damage and anemia, to name only two. Other risk factors can be eliminated with proper sanitation and techniques when cutting, storing and preparing the meat.
I am sure I did not really need to convince you with all that stuff but still good things to know. Now let's have a deeper look at the tips for bowhunting a whitetail deer.
Get the right equipment
Whether you are planning on hunting with a recurve bow, a longbow, a compound bow or a crossbow, you want something that will shoot arrows with a good combination of weight and speed to generate the amount of kinetic energy (KE) it requires to take down a deer.
Note that the minimum draw weight required to efficiently hunt a deer is generally around 40 pounds or greater. Although, be sure to check out the law in your area to know exactly what is the minimum poundage allowed for deer hunting, sometimes no less than 45 lbs is authorized only.
Choose proper hunting arrows; they are usually heavier than target shooting arrows. You will often see a total arrow weight (with tip) anywhere in between 400 gr. and 500 gr. and even more, sometimes less. Make sure to have an arrow weight of at least 5 grains per pound of draw weight at all time or otherwise indicated by the bow manufacturer. So if you are shooting a bow with 70 lbs of draw weight, the minimum arrow weight should be 5 gr./lbs. x 70 lbs. = 350 grains.
As per the kinetic energy recommendations, you would need between 25 ft-lbs and 41 ft-lbs to take down a deer fair and square. So, as an example, if you are using 450-grain arrows, you should be flinging your projectiles at around 180 fps or faster to get a decent enough kinetic energy value for deer hunting within a 30-yard distance. This is only suggestions to give the big picture of what is needed and some bowhunters may have been successful with other kinds of setup.
Although important, KE is not the only thing that matters, momentum is also important. Momentum represents the penetration potential; the greater the momentum is, the harder it is to stop the arrow in its track. In other words, a heavier arrow favors momentum (penetration) while a lighter arrow favors KE (speed). But keep in mind that a lighter arrow has a more consistent flight with less drop over distance than a heavy arrow does. Balance is key! Find your sweet spot!
Use reliable high-cutting broadheads that are suited to deer hunting. Both mechanical and fixed blades are a good pick for this type of game but verify if mechanical broadheads are legal in your area if you want to go for them. For the same quality, mechanical heads are proven to achieve better blood trails and better flight performance while fixed heads are proven to be stronger and more reliable.
If you are using accessories, be sure to have them installed and properly tuned to make accurate shots. Get used to your release aid if necessary and develop a consistent anchor position and release technique.
Important things to remember
- Use 40 lbs of draw weight or more (check your local laws for the legal minimum).
- Select adequate hunting arrows; minimum 5 gr. per pound of draw weight - lighter arrows = more speed (KE) and less drop while heavier arrows = better penetration (momentum) and more drop. If located at long range, using lighter arrows may be a good idea to get optimal precision.
- Recommended Kinetic Energy (KE) for deer hunting: 25 ft-lbs to 41 ft-lbs.
- Use high-cutting broadheads to pass through the game. Mechanical or fixed blade (If choosing mechanical, check your local laws if it is legal).
- If needed, install and tune your accessories (sight, peep sight, arrow rest, silencers...).
- If needed, choose a release aid (glove, tab, release) and get used to it.
Practice makes perfect!
There is nothing like practice to become a good shot. Before you go for a hunt, make sure everything is perfectly tuned; not because it was the year before that everything is right the following year. Take out your equipment and try.
Use the same arrows for practice than the one you will be using for hunting. Also, match the weight of your field points and broadheads so you get the same results during flight and once reaching the target. A different arrowhead weight could also affect the spine you need for your arrows so stick with the same weight for both all the time to get consistent shooting on target and on game.
When using a compound bow; if you successfully group your arrows but the location is off the center, adjust your sight accordingly so your groupings move to the bullseye. The same advice goes for the crossbow but, use a shooting stick or a bipod for optimal precision.
Don't forget about scent control
Scent can ruin your chances of sighting antlers. Never underestimate the sense of smell a whitetail deer does have, which may be about a thousand times better than human.
This outstanding sense of smell can even be enhanced by weather conditions such as high humidity and temperatures as well as the wind.
You really don't want to be placed in a way that the wind is blowing toward where you are expecting whitetails to come from. If it does, you are done! Be careful not to be sending your scent toward feeding or bedding area while reaching your stand or deer could be alerted from your presence. As long as your scent is blown by the wind in the direction of a deer-free area, you are good to go. Speaking of wind, don't expect whitetails to be going toward where it is blowing either, this is a way for deer to protect themselves from predators.
You should also be trying to mask your own scent; don't wear clothes with an odor of soap or perfume, same goes for your skin.
Additionally, you should be using either commercial or DIY scent. If you go for DIY, you can try things such as crushed pine needles, apple juice or cider, and even smoke from a campfire. If you choose to buy cover scent, you can pick deer urine, it is also a great way to attract deer during the rut and pre-rut. If you want to save on deer urine, you can collect it from a deer you just gathered.
Know where to find them!
Whitetail deer can be found just about anywhere in America but you may be interested in looking at the Top 10 Places to Hunt Whitetail in the U.S.
You can find them on public land or on private land. Of course, a large number of hunters just have no other choices than going for public land and although it may be more difficult to hunt, it must not be seen as a disadvantage if you are ready to put in the effort and do your homework.
On public land
First, you must find the land. This is quite an easy task which can be done with some online research according to the area you want to be hunting.
For instance, if you type in a search engine "Public land for hunting in Michigan" as a result you will find the website of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources where you have access to the different hunting maps of the state.
I have also found the Mi-HUNT application, an interactive map which offers many tools and layers you can control to target your own interests. The map shown on the app looks like this:
There is a lot of possibilities for a hunter looking for a place to hunt; Federal lands, State lands and even private lands open to the public.
Now that you know how to find a public land, you must find one subject to attract big bucks.
Remote and difficult to access areas are most likely to hold bigger and older whitetail deer. Though you may want to consider how to get there and especially how you will get out of there with a 250 lbs buck.
Locating some food and water sources are also a great way to potentially find an area where they hang out.
On private land
You may be looking forward to having your own piece of paradise, wake up and go for a hike on your own land for a day of hunting. This is definitely the cherry on the cake! Which hunter would not dream of that?
Maybe the budget does not allow you to do so just yet though, but it doesn't mean that you can't hunt on private land at all.
Indeed, many leasing agreements exist nowadays so you can get a property in exchange for a certain price per acre. Many landowners are likely to do that, it may be a good place to start and maybe get your own piece of land eventually.
The nice thing about private land is that you can do a lot to improve it and have whitetails to stick around.
You may already have water and food sources such as browse and mast but you can also introduce other sources to enhance their habitats; food plots, crop fields and even bait sites when legal.
Know when to find them!
The early season
The early season starting date varies widely from one state to another but the archery hunting season across the USA opens between the end of August and October.
It is a good time to start hunting as deer have not been under stressful situations caused by hunters in a while so they are relaxed and vulnerable.
Bucks are hanging around in groups.
The changes in the food sources of the whitetails make them more predictable because of the low varieties available.
Acorns, food plots, and crop fields are the most popular food sources during early season and it is the best time for baiting where it is legal.
Finding the food deer are eating and ambushing them make the early season the easiest time to hunt.
The pre-rut takes place around the first and second week of October and is the toughest yet most comfortable time of the year to hunt deer.
Groups of bucks are breaking apart to establish their territories and start to become more aggressive towards one another.
Females are almost ready to breed and interest of bucks is increasing consequently.
Scrapes and rubs are undeniable signs of bucks marking their territories.
The time has come to use decoys, calls, and scents to lure deer in your setup.
After the pre-rut comes the rut. Depending on the area, it usually starts around mid-October and lasts until the second or third week of November.
The rut usually goes through different phases; the seeking, the chasing, and the tending or lockdown phase.
It is an exciting time to hunt, bucks are looking forward to mating with a doe which brings them to move around during daylight a lot more.
The seeking and chasing phase is perfect for calling and rattling to attract bucks.
Doe bedding areas are ideal spots to hunt nearby, especially when comes the lockdown phase.
A buck will stick with the doe for some time after breeding, but when the buck leaves, he will seek another hot doe. Calling and rattling can still be a good practice.
With that being said, you may want to have a look a some of the best tactics for hunting the rut.
The post-rut happens around the last week of November.
Most does are already bred and you may think that the best time of the hunt is already behind you but not if you want to score on the biggest antlers.
Since there are very few females left to breed, bucks are ready for battle. Keep rattling to attract them over.
Deer had lived through a lot of pressure since the beginning of the season so they may be less likely to move as much during daylight.
Once the phase of rut is finished for many deer, families will start hanging out together and some bucks will start forming groups again.
A second rut phase, a tough time for hunters, is entered during the beginning of December.
The unbred does will start a new cycle of breeding about a month after the first cycle.
Although bucks are growing a need for food and safety, some will be likely to answer calls of hot does. This is the right opportunity to get another chance of taking down a whitetail.
Everything passed mid-December can be considered the late season.
Deer have been pressured aggressively on a consistent basis through the whole season and may not be so adventurous anymore.
Chances of killing a big buck went down drastically but nothing is impossible. It is still time to fill a tag but it might not be the antler of your dream.
Still, with the right scouting approach and the right setup, you may be able to score a whitetail before the season ends for good.
Time for scouting
So now that you know where and when to find deer, you must still actually find them and know a few things in order to scout effectively.
Start scouting early! Spring would be a good time to do so instead of beginning your scouting a few weeks before the season starts so you don't ruin your chances of taking down a big buck. Remember that the closer you get to the opening day, the less likely you are to see a whitetail when the time comes, if you get spotted during your scouting.
Take out a map
Spot areas where whitetails are most likely to hang out.
Deer won't travel over hills, it exposes them and requires more energy they want to keep for other purposes, so low points between two hills are good travel corridors to look for. Google Earth can be a useful tool to have a 3D look of the terrain.
Crop fields are deer magnets for feeding so they might be sticking around with bedding areas not too far off in the wood.
Rivers often hold deer trails following the contour.
Deer might choose a dense group of bushes or trees for bedding areas as it offers them good protection standing at higher elevations.
Get on the ground
Once you hit the ground in a right location, look out for fresh tracks. Obviously, bigger ones are most likely to belong to a mature buck, same goes for the distance between tracks.
Check for scrapes, especially the ones made earlier because older bucks tend to mark their territory before the younger ones do. Find lines of scrapes that define travel corridors. Scrapes are made by buck; it consists of leaving scent on overhead branches and leaves with their heads, antlers, and saliva. Most of the scraping is done during night time.
In September, mature bucks are beginning to rub their antlers against trees, leaving bigger marks than younger bucks, about 3 inches and over. Following the rub that you identify and the topography of the terrain, try to guess where the buck was going to find other rubs in order to determine a travel corridor. Mark what you find on a map so you get a clearer picture of the movements in order to find a perfect spot for your setup.
Look for acorns in mature hardwood forest (white, red, and black oaks). White oak drops acorns earlier but gives smaller nuts than red and black oaks. Favor moisturized soil over dry rocky grounds.
Spotting droppings will tell you a lot about the size of the deer and will help you locate bedding areas since they are often left nearby.
Locate food sources and identify signs of deer feeding in the area; droppings, chewed leaves, and fruits are a few examples.
Choose your setup location
With all the information you've gathered, you can now define a proper location to set up your stand, such as near a travel corridor between a feeding and a bedding area in order to be downwind and wait for your buck to pass by.
Have a pre-shot routine
It is all nice and easy to read in a blog post but once a whitetail shows up within bow range of your stand, things slightly get a little more complicated than it seemed with the stress kicking in. Hitting the bullseye shot after shot in your backyard was so easy not long ago but now this shot looks much more difficult to achieve. This is why you need a pre-shot routine, it will help you keep focus and remember what you must do and not just react to the situation.
- Your stance; be well balanced on you legs and always adopt the same form and orient your whole body so you can aim at your target in a proper position.
- Place and nock the arrow
- Hook up your release
- Set your bow hand without torquing the bow, loose it up.
- Lift your bow and pre-aim at the target
- Draw your bow at the anchor point while aiming. Always use the same memorable position.
- Start squeezing your shoulder blades together (back tension release technique), this would allow you to keep aiming without rushing the release by punching it. Or use whatever technique you are used to, do not attempt to do something different once in your stand.
- Keep aiming until the arrow releases.
- Find your second anchor point with your release hand; somewhere behind your head or touch your shoulder once the arrow is expelled while keeping your position and your eyes on target for better follow-through. This one happens after the shot but still affects the accuracy and consistency so I've included it as being part of a pre-shot routine.
Take the shot!
Now that you are all setup and ready, it is time to take the shot. Before you do, it is important to know the deer hunting kill zone so you make the best possible shot that delivers a quick and respectful death to the animal about to feed you and your family.
As you can see on the picture, the small red area is the heart, obviously, which is the prime deer kill zone you can aim for. The light pink area represents the lungs of the deer, a shot placement within this zone will bring the game down within sight. As long as you stick to the zones shown above, your whitetail deer hunting will be successful.
Enter your email below to get new posts straight to your inbox.
Share this post