North America’s white-tailed deer has emerged as the world’s most popular big-game species.
Whitetail deer hunting across North America has emerged as the world’s most popular hunting opportunity. No other big-game animal has created such an economic institution and deep-seated obsessions, whitetail hunters annually spend upwards of $38.3 billion pursuing big-buck passions, or simply supplying healthy venison for the table. This could be viewed as a reflection of the animal’s widespread availability, but also the United States’ undisputed prosperity. The white-tailed deer has proven so popular it has been introduced to foreign countries such as New Zealand, Norway, Eastern European countries such as Croatia and Slovakia (and others), and the U.S. Hawaiian islands.
Why Whitetail Deer Hunting?
Ready availability is the whitetail’s biggest selling point. From the most populated states of the East to the eastern flanks of the Rocky Mountains and northward into the Northwest you will find whitetail deer hunting possibilities, with deer populations reaching huntable numbers across the board. This is particularly pointed in the Great Plains, Midwest, Northeast, Atlantic Seaboard, and Deep South, where little else is available in the way of true big game species.
Whitetail deer are true backyard game, pursued even in true suburbia settings to help reduce property damage and vehicular collisions. Save a major catastrophic event, such as a nationwide outbreak of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), whitetail should continue to thrive across its entire range and provide untold metric tons of organic meat and countless hours of sport for millions of hunters across the country. Whitetails are also the most intensively managed big-game animal on Earth, with biologists working hard to assure a balance of maximum sporting opportunity, minimal depredation to agricultural interests and insurance-company expenditures, and general wildlife viewing.
The backyard element of whitetail hunting cannot be stressed enough. In whitetail strongholds of the East and Midwest, for example, it’s not uncommon for die-hard deer hunters to pursue whitetails before and after work. During fall seasons, dyed-in-the-wool deer hunters dedicate weekends to little else, risking matrimonial bliss and financial security. This can be attributed largely to hunting from stationary stands or blinds, making it easy to slip in and enjoy a couple of hours in wait during prime hours, while still addressing the demands of modern living.
Whitetail History & Biology
Part of the whitetail’s widespread availability is its extreme adaptability. Where other big-game species whither under man’s encroachment, the whitetail thrives. Whitetails, as hinted, do quite well in suburban areas, feeding happily on landscaping and handouts from those who enjoy watching their antics. It is safe to say whitetails, with few exceptions (such as the lean days of the Great Depression), have flourished since the arrival of Europeans on the North American continent.
Local populations may peak and trough, but overall whitetail numbers have never been higher than they are today, nor found in such a wide variety of habitats. With the introduction of modern agriculture and logging, whitetail have pioneered regions they never occupied historically. Farming provides abundant food in areas where there was once very little and logging removes old-growth trees that provide no nutritional value, resulting in the regeneration of deciduous browse and forbs ungulates prefer.
There is some debate as to the number of whitetail subspecies, a common number of 36 distinct subgroups including herds isolated on islands and cut off from other herds. In the big picture, subspecies include distinctive Coues and Carmen Mountain whitetails, desert subspecies found in Arizona, New Mexico, southwest Texas, and northern Mexico surrounding Big Bend National Park, respectively. Whitetail deer hunting of most species is possible.
Additionally, there is the “Northern Woodland” found from New England south into the southern Appalachians and west into the lower Midwest; “Dakota” found from northern Colorado northward through the prairie states and provinces; Northwest found in eastern Washington and Oregon, north Idaho and western Montana and Wyoming; “South-Central Plains” residing from Nebraska and Iowa south into Texas and west into New Mexico; “Southeastern” occupying The Land of Dixie, and smaller groups like “Gulf Coast” found along the Gulf of Mexico rim and “Seminole” found in the remainder of Florida. The best trophy quality is typically found in northern and South-Central Plains herds, though trophies truly become relative according to region.
Whitetail Deer Hunting
Sitting For Whitetails
No matter the whitetail range or subspecies basic hunting approaches remain nearly universal, with a few localized exceptions. In simpler days still-hunting slowly through wooded areas, stump sitting and organized drives dominated the sport. The modern whitetail hunter is more likely to take a stand, either an elevated perch in the form of a treestand or a ground blind, homemade or portable pop-up. In some states baiting (including mineral licks) is legal and allows hunters to choose their site.
In other states, baiting is strictly forbidden and deer hunters stake out agricultural field edges, food plots planted with the express purpose of attracting deer, rut-time deer markers such as rubs and scrapes, or simply a well-worn trail traversing ground deer regularly frequent. Many hunters leave it at that, sitting patiently and waiting for Lady Luck to call.
A new age of whitetail hunters has learned to be more proactive. Such ploys include calling, decoying, and the use of attractive scents, including glandular concoctions. How you approach these activities really depends on local herd dynamics, season dates, and hunting pressure.
Calling techniques must take into account local buck-to-doe ratios, herd age structure, and rutting schedules. Aggressive calling techniques, such as antler rattling, buck grunts, and so-called buck roars and snort wheezes, require competition, and bucks with enough age to confidently approach potential fights. This points to buck-to-doe ratios approaching near even (encouraging competition for limited does) and defined rut dates that make breeding more urgent.
In areas with far more does than bucks, where bucks can find receptive does easily, and where there are fewer fully-mature bucks, more subtle social calls prove more productive. White-tailed deer are more vocal, and social than most realize. Soft doe and fawn bleats, buck contact grunts, and gentle antler tickling, like a couple of bucks shoving to sort dominance without real malice, bring more deer beneath stands in lesser habitats.
Much of the same rules apply to decoying. In ideal habitats with plenty of mature bucks, plugging in small to medium-sized antlers — combined with challenging calls — is more likely to elicit an approach or even outright attack as a dominant buck ventures to ward off competition. In lesser habitats a doe decoy set upwind of your position can coax deer to swing downwind to cautiously scent-check the fake, placing them beneath your stand.
Whitetail Scent Sense
Scent success is also subject to herd dynamics and rut dates. There are certainly curiosity scents that will stop deer in shooting lanes during any season — a useful tactic in itself — but luring direct responses to sexual scents (dominant buck or doe in estrous, for example) delivers the best results in areas with healthy buck-to-does ratios, a higher incidence of confident mature bucks and during rut dates.
Taking scent regimens to more proactive heights (largely in ideal whitetail habitats) deer hunters create draglines of hot-doe scent, dosing a clean rag or wick in buck lure, tying it to clean cord and creating converging drags upwind and beneath stands, or simply deploying a drag while entering your stand in hopes of casting a wider net. Another often productive approach is creating mock scrapes or seeding existing scrapes. The idea is to create the illusion of competition, though scrapes, strictly speaking, aren’t territorial markers.
Scrapes are used by every member of a deer herd to leave calling cards that reveal social standing, as well as a place for estrous does to advertise the fact she is receptive to breeding. Bucks discovering this scent trail these does in hopes of a tryst. Creating or seeding scrapes is also more likely to result in daytime visits, as bucks become more attentive when they perceive competition. Scent drippers make this approach the most rewarding, continually dispensing scent while you are away and only during daylight hours when ambient temperatures change abruptly, namely as morning sunshine arrives.
Our Nocturnal Foe
Nocturnal movement is the whitetail hunter’s biggest dilemma. In areas where hunting pressure is intense and nighttime movement rules, your only chance of seeing deer before legal shooting hours pass involves pushing deeper into cover to intercept earlier movement. This requires great caution and scent-control care, as alert savvy bucks but once and it is game over.
At best, in pressured areas, hunters can expect low-light crepuscular movement at the edges of the day. Bowhunters prepare by adopting bright fiber-optic sights, sight lights, or tritium-illuminated pins; where legal, rifle hunters use high-objective-lens optics. This is the biggest advantage of lightly-hunted private lands, the higher likelihood of daytime movement.
Depending on habitat and weather conditions never discount hunting afoot. On open prairies, spot-and-stalk ploys still bring results, especially if you’re willing to conduct uncomfortable belly crawls. Still-hunting (slipping through habitat slowly and quietly) is most productive following quieting snow or rain, especially during wind storms.
There are many ways to tag a whitetail, just another reason why whitetail deer hunting remains so engaging, and North America’s perpetual big-game favorite is the whitetail.