Firearms deer season can be rough, here's how to deal with it.
For many dedicated archery enthusiasts, the start of firearms deer season signals the beginning of the end for white-tailed deer hunting. More deer hunters purchase a hunting license for firearms season than any other out there. Some states like Michigan have robust deer populations, but with half a million people hitting the woods on opening morning, it's hard to not get down about your chances.
Because in many states, the change from archery season to gun season is like flicking the switch in a darkened room. Everything changes immediately, and it's usually not for the better with so many people banging away with shotguns, rifles, and muzzleloaders.
In more than 20 years of hunting Michigan's firearms deer season I have picked up a few tips which should help you see a lot more deer this season in your state. If this stuff works for Michigan, it will work anywhere. Trust me on that one.
Head for the thick stuff.
This one is especially true for public land. Once the shots start popping off on opening morning, the mature bucks know what's going on immediately. Most are going to head for cover right away. One of the best ways to set yourself up for success firearms deer hunting is to get into the thickest cover you can find. Specifically, try to find pinch points and escape routes deer might take while fleeing from other hunters. In heavily pressured states, it is sometimes more effective to hunt based on where you see other hunters setting up than the big game animals themselves!
Here in southern Michigan, my experience is deer on public land won't go near the open areas after opening morning. They stick to the edges of swamps in the heavy brush and will not break cover until well after dark and hunters have left the area. It's true that sometimes a buck will make a mistake with a hot doe and break into the open during gun season, but you cannot rely on that happening. A better plan is to go in after them. The swampier and the thicker the better seems to be the rule for my part of the state.
If your firearm season falls in November like Michigan's does, most of the big bucks are going to be holed up in cover with a doe in the middle part of the month. They're going to be perfectly content to lay on their bellies with her until she's ready to breed. Most will not move a whole lot until after dark. Sometimes you may need to get to the extreme edge of where you know the deer are holed up just in hopes of catching the buck and doe moving before dark.
Even if your goal is not a buck, and is simply venison for the freezer, you're going to see less hunter orange from competitors the deeper into the woods you head. It makes for a tougher pack out, but the hunters who dive in usually have more success than those who pick the easy spots one hundred yards from the parking area.
Scent control becomes more important.
The number of antlered deer sightings I have during gun season every year has gone up since I went to a more regimented scent control routine. I used to see nothing but antlerless deer through the bulk of gun season. Many gun hunters are casual hunters who only go once a year and they do not spend a ton of time prepping their gear or clothing, which makes it easy for the deer to avoid them. Putting in a little extra effort in the scent control department pays when you can seemingly vanish from a deer's nose on an escape route from one of those other hunters.
Personally, I like to use an outdoor scent locker to keep my clothing outside throughout the season. Combine that with an ion field generator running above my head every sit, and my deer sightings and opportunities took a huge tick upward.
Compared to the archery deer season and muzzleloader season, deer are never going to be on edge more than they are during the regular gun. I don't care if you're hunting private land or your local state park. You're doing a disservice to yourself if you stink and do not play the winds properly every time you go out. Why make things harder on yourself if they do not have to be that way?
Lessen the pressure and keep changing locations.
Deer are smarter than you think. If you are getting skunked hunt after hunt, odds are the deer have YOU patterned. Those big bucks don't reach 4.5-5.5 years of age by being stupid. These days, my motto is to stay unpredictable. I may hunt the same tree stand multiple times during the two-week season. However, I never hunt the same spot two days in a row unless I feel confident a buck is going to show. I broke this rule in 2019 and harvested a nice 7-pointer with an 18-inch inside spread as a result. However, that decision was based on a sighting of the buck earlier that morning from a different stand location.
Even if you are shifting positions only a few hundred yards, that's better than sitting in the same stand day after day through the whole season. Because some deer, especially those older does, will learn what to look for. I've observed does inspecting tent blinds in the past to make sure I wasn't in there before they started feeding on a food plot. That's how on edge they are during this time of year.
Michigan's firearms season runs November 15-30 every year and the last few seasons I've found success from the 20-24th simply by easing up the pressure those first five days. In fact, if you are hunting private land, it's sometimes better to stay out completely for two or three days. We know this sounds counter-productive, but if you have neighbors putting pressure on the deer from the outside, the deer are going to go to the only sanctuary around, your hunting area. After two or three days of no activity, you can usually slip in and see more deer than if you were hunting hard every single day. In fact, the two-day break in the middle of gun season may be one of my favorite new tactics. Sure, it lessens the time I have to hunt during gun season, but I almost always see a nice buck immediately following one of these breaks because the deer have been pushed into my hunting area by surrounding competition.
Don't get frustrated, keep it low key.
It's easy to feel like you are doing something wrong if everyone else you know on the property is filling their deer permits and you're still hunting. Don't give up. Remember that deer movement is wildly unpredictable during firearms season and many hunters harvest big bucks on accident as they are fleeing from other hunters. Especially in big state parks and wildlife management areas that get a lot of pressure. As the deer hunting seasons drag on, fewer and fewer hunters will be in the woods. Which simply opens opportunities for the hunters who stick it out until the end.
Because towards the tail end of the season, many of those bucks who were holding tight to cover will start to warily start coming out again because they think the worst is over. I shot my biggest buck ever, a 140-inch, 10-pointer, on November 22, which is extremely late in the year. The last two seasons I have harvested bucks on November 20 and 24th respectively, so the tactics I've been putting in place are working. You just might have to wait a little longer than everyone else.
Try to slip out of your hunting spot as soon as you have an opening after legal shooting time ends. If you can avoid spooking any deer, odds are they will stick around and give you more chances at a shot. Stay patient, try to keep your presence in your hunting area as low key as possible, and the bucks will show, even during the busiest parts of firearms season. In fact, the later part of November is quickly becoming one of my favorite times to hunt once I figured out what worked for my area.
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