Science offers tips for filling a deer tag

If you want to kill a deer this firearms deer season, go deep into the woods, but not too deep.

The firearms deer seasons – at least in those states where whitetails roam, and that’s most of them – are the busiest and most anticipated of the hunting year.

You know what that means.

If you’re a sportsman or woman, one question is coming. It will be repeated over the next several weeks, at holiday parties, impromptu gatherings around the office water cooler, at the store, everywhere you go, by the well intentioned and the genuinely curious.

Did you get your deer?

Of course, you desperately want to be able to say yes. For your own sake, more than anything.

Well, fear not. While nothing guarantees success, there are some things you can do to increase the odds you’ll fill a tag and have an answer – one you’ll enjoy sharing – to give.

Here are a few things to keep in mind this deer season.

Get in early. Deer season, and opening day in particular, draw big crowds. Use all those other hunters to your advantage.

Get to your stand an hour or two before daylight, which is when most hunters enter the woods. That way, you effectively turn the competition into drivers. They’ll spook deer in the minutes just after legal shooting time, and you’ll be ready to take advantage.

Stay through lunch. Whitetails wise up pretty fast once hunting pressure builds. Research done by Penn State University reveals their home range shrinks from about 640 acres to 100 acres during hunting season.

But they still move.

Researchers tracked the movements of bucks collared with GPS transmitters. They found bucks to be most active between 12 and 1 p.m. – or when most hunters or out of or leaving the woods for lunch.

Stay on stand then and you may catch deer moving on their own, or benefit from other hunters bumping them as they satisfy their stomachs.

Hunt the quiet days. Deer move at some point every day. But they move more on some days than others.

Research by Auburn University found that weekend days – when most hunters are in the woods – are when deer move less. Quite simply, they hunker down to avoid detection.

They stay relatively still for a couple of days after hunters leave, too.

But, researchers found, deer spooked on a Saturday return to their normal routines starting Wednesday or Thursday.

So if you think you know where deer are, and aren’t relying on other hunters to move them for you, Thursdays and Fridays are the days when deer are most likely to be moving on their own.

Get into the thick of it. Studies looking at deer movements, using GPS collars, show one thing consistently. Deer go where most hunters won’t.

They find a hiding place that people avoid.

It might be a nasty thicket or a swamp or even a steep hillside. But it’s a refuge.

Hunt those places, even if that means just getting on the edges and trying to ambush deer as they move in and out of their sanctuaries.

Go deep, but not too deep. To find the really big bucks you’ve got to trek far into the woods, beyond where other hunters are willing to go, right?

Sometimes, maybe. But not always.

That Penn State research on deer movements found that hunter harvest is highest in the zone between 500 and 1,000 yards from the nearest road.

There’s a reason, scientists said. There are deer in those places, of course. But it’s also where hunter pressure is highest. That mix of deer and deer hunters keeps whitetails on the move and therefore vulnerable.

So go deep, but not so far in that you leave everyone else totally behind.

Feel the burn. There was a time when any fire that broke out in the woods was a bad one. Policy all across the nation was to stamp fires out immediately.

Things have changed.

Now, state and federal wildlife agencies, as well as private landowners, use prescribed fire – intentionally set, but controllable – blazes to create habitat.

And boy do deer love burns. They often turn to them within hours or days of them being done for the bounty they provide. Some studies show burned over areas produce 400 percent more food after burning than they did previously.

It’s unlikely anyone will be burning in deer season, but areas recently burned can still be productive. If deer seem to be using a burn, post around its edges.

Clear out. Another habitat feature whitetails flock to are timber cuts, commonly called clear cuts. They provide lots of browse and can, on a deer per square mile basis, hold more whitetails than many other areas.

Areas cut within the last five years after often best.

Now, they’ll be thick and nasty, as a general rule. But deer use such places to hide and feed. And – to the benefit of hunters – landowners trying to grow the next generation of forest know it. They often make concessions for hunters, opening roads, allowing camping or otherwise promoting access.

Stay late. Remember we talked about getting into the woods before anyone else, so that they push deer to you?

Use those same hunters to your advantage on the other end of the day, too.

Stay on stand until the last minute of legal shooting time. Only then leave to walk out.

Deer are naturally active right before dark anyway. And hunters looking to get back to camp or their vehicle start walking out of the woods in that half hour before sunset bumps them.

That can send deer past your stand. So wait things out as long as you can.

After all, the questions are coming. What’s a few more minutes if it means being able to give the answer you want?

Bob Frye is the Everybody Adventures editor. Reach him at (412) 216-0193 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at