It takes no more than a day or two of hunting pressure to drastically alter the daytime habits of deer, and that's when the head-scratching begins. There's a problem with that ubiquitous question, though: It assumes that deer--big bucks in particular--are no longer where they were when the season opened. Contrary to popular opinion, when hunting pressure intensifies, deer don't up and leave their territory. They hunker down in the thickest cover they can find and limit their movements to nighttime and the fringes of daylight. And that's not merely anecdotal opinion.
In 1990, the New York Department of Conservation began a telemetry study of 21 radio-collared deer in Steuben County, in which I live. Of the three button bucks that were included, one was killed as a yearling, but the other two survived for three years, and tracking their behavior over that period proved to be revealing.
During those three years, the two bucks were seldom seen by any human at any time-not even by the researchers who were armed with their telemetry equipment. In fact, over the last two years of his life, one of those maturing whitetails was seen only once, which was when a hunter participating in an organized drive shot him.
Call that elusive? Let me tell you just how elusive. When "The Phantom," as the researchers had dubbed him, was little more than 21/2 years old I asked the study team if I could tag along on one of their attempts to spot him. On March 14, 1993, four state wildlife personnel and I surrounded the woodlot where The Phantom was bedded. Quite honestly, I felt that sighting this elusive buck would be a cinch: The bright radio collar he still wore would show up well on the snow, we had picked up his signal loud and strong on two radio transmitters and each of us was a seasoned hunter. All told, 25 deer were identified as they filtered through our drive. The Phantom, however, was not one of them. We later figured out that he must have slipped through our sweep via a diversion ditch.
This didn't surprise the technicians who had been monitoring The Phantom all along. For more than two years, he and the other surviving buck had been pulling similar escapes on the researchers--and on hunters. One technician told of how this particular buck had spent a great deal of the previous gun season holed up in a cornfield that was partially surrounded by woods. On several days of monitoring, while hunters beat the bushes in the adjacent woodlots (no doubt where there was plenty of sign), The Phantom patiently waited out shooting hours in the cornfield, a rifle shot away. There's no question the buck knew exactly where he should go-and where he shouldn't go-when the pressureÃƒÂ¦was on.ÃƒÂ¦The hunters, evidently, weren't as savvy.
The Pressure Game
I learned a lot from those deer in the study. My buck sightings increased dramatically once I accepted the fact that when hunting pressure mounts, mature deer don't leave my property, but bed down in thick cover and usually remain there most of the day.
Since that time, my approach to pinpointing such haunts has evolved into a routine. It starts with aerial photos, which I use specifically to locate thick cover. Then, I reference those spots on topographic maps, looking for occasions of dense foliage coinciding with steep elevation lines on the topo. Whitetails love to bed just over a ridge edge with the wind at their backs, places where they can see approaching danger downwind and smell it from behind.
You've heard it before, but it bears repeating: Whitetail bedding areas are extremely sensitive areas, and they require a sensitive, inconspicuous hunting approach. When I'm stand-hunting in areas with bedding potential, I have three unbreakable rules: 1) Limit the number of trips into the area before hunting it; 2) Place stands either near known escape routes or where sign and cover is thickest; and 3) EEstablish hidden and/or downwind entrance and exit routes to the stand.
When bedding stands fail to produce, I resort to silent drives. My favorite is the cloverleaf drive, in which one hunter climbs into a tree stand in the heart of prime bedding cover while his partner stillhunts out from the stand. This hunter makes a big loop, returning to where he can barely see the first hunter. Then he makes another loop and continues the process until he has completely encircled the stand--a pattern that would look like a cloverleaf from overhead. The size of the loop is dependent on the size of the bedding area (bigger cover means bigger loops), but as a rule of thumb the loop should extend out about 400 yards from the stand. Hunter orange is mandatory when you're hunting this way.
Two other bedding-area options: Keeping the wind in your face, stillhunt with a partner single-file into a bedding area, maintaining 75 to 150 yards between you. Deer jumped by one hunter will often circle back, providing the second hunter with a shooting opportunity. If you've got more people in your group, try stillhunting toward each other from opposite sides of a bedding area. Be quiet, take your time and scan every inch as you pick your way through the brush. And most important, believe that the deer haven't taken off for the next county. Because, whether you can see the deer or not, they're probably right under your nose.