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The Ultimate Guide to Hunting Big Woods Deer

Posted: November 24, 2019

Five years of blog knowledge wrapped up in one post! Will it help you this hunting season?

Too many years ago, I did a deep dive into the variation in the age structure of deer harvests in Pennsylvania. Looking at the percentage of 6-month-old, 1.5-year-old, and >2.5-year-old deer field checked by PGC personnel, I found a small, but statistically significant, difference in the age structure of deer on public lands versus private lands (in some counties). 

Surprisingly, more older deer were harvested on public lands than private lands!

All this was before antler point restriction regulations were even a whisper. I didn’t give these findings much thought because (a) no one would believe me, and (b) I had no other data to support why this might be or whether it was just some artefact of sampling.

Conventional wisdom, as we all know, is that harvest rates on public lands are higher than on private lands.

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, however, you know that we have learned some things about deer that might explain how some deer survive longer on public land.

If you’re not a long-time reader, you’re in luck! We put all the good stuff in one post to catch you up. 

First things first

To get older you must survive. Obviously.

To survive, you must avoid being harvested (the #1 cause of mortality for deer in Pennsylvania). The harvest rates documented on The Deer-Forest Study are some of the lowest we’ve seen since we began radiocollaring adult deer in 2002 in different management units across Pennsylvania. 

And we have multiple examples of study deer living into their teens! Check out the tale of the Katniss Everdeen of the white-tailed deer world - a 13-year-old doe we captured as a fawn in 2001 in WMU 2G.

Winning strategies…of deer

Deer have a few tricks up their sleeve to avoid hunters. The most critical is a safe zone. Deer that survive discover a spot within their home range where they don’t get disturbed by hunters. 

It might appear to be reasoned behavior, but it’s not - just a learned behavior. When deer are disturbed, they do what deer do - run away. If they run to a spot where they don’t get disturbed again, then they will run back there next time. Memory is a wonderful asset for us all. 

Let’s take Hillside Doe, for example. One of my favorites. Her home range was essentially the side of a ridge. By 4 am on the opening day of rifle season, she was settled into her hiding spot. And late afternoon each day, she left it to walk around the camps all night long. Day after day. Brilliant!

If you want to see what that hiding spot looked like, here’s a photo of the spot. 

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Think you could find this doe and her hiding spot? I scouted it out. Even the dogs were tired!  

Bucks do something similar, but maybe even more devious. Their hiding spots tend to be on ridgetops with a steep slope to the east or south. To see it in action, check out this post we wrote back in 2014.

The other strategy deer use to avoid hunters is to move less. While you’re sitting still in your tree stand, they are lying still in their hiding spot. Home ranges of deer in our study area average about 1 square mile (640 acres) for both males and females outside the breeding season. During the rifle season they average about 100 acres. You can read more about that here.

What you DON’T need to worry about

  1. Vampires – deer don’t go nocturnal. In fact, some of our bucks generally exhibit more movement in the afternoon than the morning. We wrote a couple of posts about this phenomenon. Check out Early Bird gets the Buck and Vampire Bucks to see for yourself. 
  2. Werewolves – deer don’t howl at the full moon or any other moon for that matter. It doesn’t “phase” them. It shouldn’t “phase” you. Jessica Hepner, an undergraduate whose grandfather had always told her that deer were less active during the day when the moon was full, set out to answer that question using data on female deer in October. She found they walked just a few meters more or less – the equivalent to an extra bathroom break during the day for us. 
  3. Witchcraft – regardless of the storm that is conjured, rain and wind are hardly a bother for deer. Jessica tackled this question as well and concluded that you have no excuse to stay home when the weather is terrible!  My personal experience on a rainy and cold opening day was that the deer outlasted me but seemed to move just as much!

Can hunters win?

Hunters are clearly at a disadvantage. Should you just play the odds and hope you’re lucky? Or is there some strategy you can follow to get one of those older bucks? 

Well, our most famous deer of all time, Buck 8917, had a hiding spot on a ridgetop that I visited. Check out his story and review the reader comments that follow. There may be a successful strategy, but it will take a lot of investment on your part!

We wish all hunters a safe and successful hunting season. May the odds be ever in your favor. We’ll be back on the flip side of deer season to see who bested deer at their own game.

-Duane Diefenbach and Jeannine Fleegle

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