After 10 minutes I was familiar with the buck’s actions. I knew what caused this 7-point whitetail deer to flinch, and how and why he moved. He was feeding at the base of a wild apple tree that my dad and I knew often attracted deer. We had set up nearby to wait.
But how did we know where to set up?
That’s a legitimate question. Think about how the size of our planet. The world is home to about 36.8 billion acres of land, and each acre covers 4,840 square yards. As bowhunters, our mission is to get within 30 yards of game animals to make an ethical shot. So how did we settle on that tiny little parcel with the apple tree?
By having fun with it. Breaking down the world into hunting-size pieces is a process of personal discovery that’s within reach of anyone willing to learn, identify and understand an animal’s behavior and patterns. These discoveries come through scouting and spending time on the land. Learning to connect an animal’s basic survival needs to food, water and cover can take months of preparation and observation. A simple example is to learn an animal’s preferred food sources, and then locate them on lands where you have access rights. Figuring out what each species eats and where it seeks food requires never-ending study for serious hunters.
1. Get a Map
First, look at aerial photos and topographical maps online to better understand the land you’re hunting. Learn to identify potential travel corridors by locating field corners, creek bottoms, ridge lines and saddles. These natural travel lanes often correlate with two key elements in a deer’s life: food and cover. This is where you must put boots to dirt and go hiking. But, don’t just take a stroll. Hike with a purpose, which means scouting. The purpose is to find each property’s food, water and cover. Learn more about scouting here.
2. Which Foods Do Wildlife Crave?
Learning to identify deer food is a critical puzzle piece. Three foods to recognize immediately are acorns, apples and natural browse.
Acorns, especially white-oak acorns, are a whitetail favorite because they’re high in carbohydrates. Red-oak acorns are also high in carbs, but taste more bitter than acorns from white oaks. White-oak trees are easily identified by their rounded leaf tips. Learn more details for identifying white oaks here.
Apples are apples, so you should have that down if you’ve ever visited orchards or grocery stores. Keep in mind, however, that wild apples taste like candy to deer because they’re high in sugar. Wild crabapple trees grow throughout the country, often in areas with heavy brush. If no crops are available early in the hunting season, wild apples can be your front-row ticket to deer action. Learn more here.
Identifying browse can be simple enough. Browse consists of the leaves, shoots, twigs and stems of trees and shrubs that deer like to eat. That last part about deer preferences can get tricky. Northern deer, for instance, like to browse on oaks, maples, birch, aspen and white cedar; but they’ll avoid spruce, black cherry and balsam fir. When scouting, look carefully for nipped twigs and stems. They should look torn, not snipped. Deer don’t have upper teeth in the front of their mouths, so they tear and pull while biting. In contrast, rabbits snip off food with scissor-like precision.
And don’t forget about water. In Western states, water consistently proves the best deer attractant. But water sources can also be productive in Eastern states, especially small ponds in quiet, secluded habitats near bedding sites. Yes, deer can satisfy their water requirements by eating natural browse, but they’ll still go out of their way for a real drink. They’ll even linger at quiet ponds, but seldom relax along noisy creek bottoms with loud riffles and swirling winds.
3. Deer Seek Cover for Survival. What’s Good Cover?
Deer are prey and they never forget it. Security cover is as important to identify as food. That means finding thickets and other dense or secluded cover, rather than wide-open spaces. Look for areas thick with briars, tall grasses, stands of saplings or low-growing coniferous trees. They all provide security. Deer are creatures of habit and, for most of the year, they can be patterned by using trail cameras. Try to make connections between food and cover to help pinpoint a spot to hunt.
Time spent unraveling the mysteries of animals interacting with the land reveals a clearer understanding of our place on the food chain. By thoroughly preparing, hunting feels more like a natural relationship between predators and prey, and helps us appreciate wild places. Bowhunting also helps hunters blend into the wild and learn about life within the timberlands and creek bottoms most people only see from highways while driving by.