We need to know if you’re with us or against us.” Stern. Accusatory. Ominous.
The email came from a group advocating for mandatory antler point restrictions here in Michigan. They were “fed up” with those who would “work against them” (including me, apparently) and tried to make it clear they had the backing to impose their will. Resistance, they implied, is not only futile but may result in public humiliation, banishment from their social media community, and, perhaps, an effort to end the careers of any who speak out against them.
The topic at hand? Deer hunting. Seriously. Very, very seriously.
Used to be talking politics was the quickest way to raise hackles. Now, deer hunting debates can cause similar reactions. Another measure of the seriousness of hunting: the “swagger.”
A scan of social media reveals a certain “look,” perpetuated by hunting “ambassadors,” that requires these grim-faced considerations:
Don’t hit the woods without warrior face paint.
Don’t think you’re ready if your efforts didn’t include pain, suffering, burpees, and concrete-laden packs, all shared via your commemorative “I survived the really super bad ass bowmen challenge” t-shirt.
Do post selfies and hashtag your signature catchphrase.
Of course, after sharing that photo of your buck on social media, one of two things will happen: Ridicule by the keyboard cowboys for killing a substandard animal or, if the buck is a big one, a calling-out by gurus who know FOR A FACT the image was Photoshopped and the buck was taken behind a high fence, or was poached.
There’s nothing wrong with holding out for a mature buck. But here’s a sobering fact: You’re roughly five times as likely to be struck by lightning as you are to kill a Boone and Crockett–qualifying whitetail. In some states, the odds tip more steeply in favor of a lightning strike. Another fact: Each of us is blessed with only so many seasons in our lifetime. So why not enjoy them?
It’s time to put the fun back into deer hunting. We’ve assembled a collection of 15 experiences, challenges, and tactics designed to help you do exactly that this season. And we have a request: If you decide to tackle one of the challenges, please share photos of it with us on Facebook, Instagram, or SnapChat, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
We promise not to cry “Photoshop” if you happen to kill a bigger buck than we do…— T.H.
No. 1: Hit the Road
Growing up and hunting patchwork real estate in central Wisconsin, I found that deer hunting eventually began to feel more like a chore than fun. I’d invest countless hours in deer “work” each year but was rarely rewarded for my efforts. Eventually, hunting around home was no longer cutting it. I felt my once-blazing passion for whitetail hunting starting to sputter. I needed a change.
In my late teens, I took my first whitetail road trip, to South Dakota’s Black Hills. I arrowed a fat doe on the final evening of the hunt. There was nothing magical or extraordinary about it, but I walked away from that experience with a new attitude toward and appreciation for deer hunting.
During the four-day hunt, I’d done some new things. First, I stepped on ground I’d never seen before. That alone was invigorating. Second, I hunted solely on Forest Service lands open to public hunting. Something about hunting on ground open to everyone provides more satisfaction when success is achieved. I wanted to do this road trip thing again and again.
Since that inaugural hunt, I annually crave the adventure that awaits in far-flung destinations. I’m not hunting known areas with pre-hung stands or waiting for a trail-cam legend to wander by. No, I’m hunting the unknown, and often have only a week to make something happen. So, I hunt aggressively. I play the wind as best I can, but with limited time, I take chances. Something about that is stimulating. —D.M.
Road trip costs can add up in a hurry—but they don’t have to. Curtail food and lodging expenses with some creative thinking. Some state parks feature cabin rentals, and off-season rates are low. An RV may seem make sense until you add in the additional cost of fuel, making those cabins an even bigger bargain. Prepare food ahead of time at home and freeze it. The slow cooker is a penny-pinching hunter’s best friend. Dump in a frozen meal, plug it in, then hunt.
No. 2: Get on Your Feet
Devote an entire season to hunting solely from the ground. No treestands. No box blinds. No elevated shacks. less gear. Just you, the dirt, and the deer. Ratchet up the challenge by placing a moratorium on the use of store-bought blinds or synthetic materials. All natural, all the time. —T.H.
No. 3: Go Back in Time
Remember the first buck you tagged? Relive the experience by devoting the season to tagging a buck from that exact same location if you can. Even better, if you took a photo of you and your first buck, re-create the scene with this year’s deer. But remember: It’s not just the camera that adds 10 pounds… —T.H.
No. 4: Close the Gap
Gather up a group of hunting buddies and pass the hat. Everyone tosses in $10. The challenge: Achieve the closest kill of the year. The kicker: The encounter has to be captured on video. GoPro-style cameras are ideal for this. They’re relatively inexpensive and can easily be strapped to your head or chest. The video footage can then be used to note the exact location of the hunter and the deer at the time of the shot. Use a tape measure to record the distance. The one with the closest shot at the end of the season wins the pot. —T.H.
No. 5: Smoke ’Em Out
Arkansas resident Mike Yancey doesn’t just believe in the adage about how some hunters will advance through five phases during their hunting careers—he’s living them. Yancey has killed plenty of deer, and he went through the trophy phase. Now it’s all about method. The result: He’s having more fun than ever.
“I started hunting primarily with primitive muzzleloaders. While they’re deadly weapons, they’re far more intricate than modern rifles. It’s not as easy as bolting a cartridge into the chamber,” he says. “The excitement I experience when I hunt with a primitive muzzleloader is comparable to the excitement I experienced when I first started hunting.” —D.M.
Yancey uses a .54-caliber Lancaster-style flintlock with open sights that he assembled. He charges the rifle with 85 grains of loose Goex FFG black powder. His patch is made from pillow ticking that’s soaked in olive oil to aid in loading. He casts his own lead balls, which weigh 224 grains each.
No. 6: Hand It to Them
In Michigan, November 15 marks the start of the state’s gun season. It’s a time of celebration for most, but not for Adam Millard.
“I’d actually get grumpy when gun season rolled around,” says Millard. “The ‘pumpkin army,’ and the commotion they create—it wasn’t really like deer hunting anymore. I needed something to rekindle my anticipation for opening day.”
So Millard, who spent four years as a full-time handgun instructor, found a solution: hunting with a handgun. Fun that goes boom.
“I love handguns and the challenges they present. To kill a deer with a handgun, you need to be surgical,” Millard says. He puts his bowhunting experience to use when he’s handgunning for whitetails.
“I keep my shots close—it’s a lot like bowhunting in that sense. My average shot distance is 45 yards, although I’ve shot deer cleanly out to 70 yards under ideal conditions.” Millard’s key to accuracy? Off-season practice that includes plenty of trigger control.
“Dry-firing is one of the best ways to become a better shot. It doesn’t cost anything and you can do it anywhere,” Millard says. “Learning to control that trigger is a big key to shooting more accurately.” —D.M.
Millard’s tool of choice: A Glock 29 in 10mm. But it’s not a straight-off-the-shelf model. The gun he uses has a 4.6-inch Lone Wolf barrel for increased velocity and accuracy, a ghost trigger connector, and all trigger internals are polished for a smoother trigger pull. A Burris Fastfire lll red-dot sight allows for quick aiming, and a heavier spring handles the higher velocity and recoil generated by Buffalo Bore’s 180-grain XTP loads.
No. 7: Go Old School
We’ve all heard old-timers tell the tale: “Back in the day, we didn’t wear camo and did just fine.” Well, put that claim to the test. Forgo camo for the season. Fall back on plaids and natural solid hues, and sit still. To really up the ante, combine this with challenge No. 3. —T.H.
No. 8: Get Closest to the Pin
Golfers will enjoy this in-season challenge. When you’re hunting with a group of buddies, place a marker, or “pin,” somewhere in the area you’re hunting. It can be as simple as a piece of flagging tape tied to a sapling. Then everyone throws a few dollars into the pot at the start of the season to get in the game. Whoever shoots a deer that falls closest to the pin wins the pot. To keep things fair, choose a location for the flag that’s of equal distance from most stand sites. —T.H.
No. 9: Use Dad's Gun
Hunting should be as much about memories and mentors as it is about antlers and meat.
The challenge: Grab one of your dad’s (or mom’s or grandfather’s or uncle’s) rifles or shotguns. Even an old bow will do. Any gun or bow with a story behind it. Then commit your deer season to trying to tag a deer with it. Maybe you’re targeting an old swamp buck. Or a long-nosed doe. The quarry doesn’t matter. The memories you’ll recall as you make some new ones do. —T.H.
No. 10: Hunt a Single Deer
Creating a “hit list” of bucks to target each season is an ideal made-for-TV storyline. But what do you do if you don’t have a dozen five-year-old bucks running around where you hunt? Simple. Choose one deer that you would most like to shoot and commit to hunting that animal.
It might be a distinctive or mature buck, but it can also be a dominant doe with a unique identifier. Employ trail cameras to take an inventory of the deer in your area, then pick one out and hunt it. —T.H.
No. 11: Stickbow It to Them
As a longtime videographer/producer in the hunting industry, Michigan resident Gabe VanWormer has laid down plenty of footage of big, mature bucks over the course of his career. Some of those bucks even went home with his tag on their antlers. But along the way, something changed.
“I grew up with compounds, and by the time I was 30, shooting a deer with sights didn’t have the same appeal. The leg-shaking excitement was gone,” he says.
Traditional archery brought the excitement back, but it also brought a new set of challenges. “I had some compound habits that hindered instinctive shooting. I would doubt myself and try aiming the arrow,” VanWormer says. “I had a fall turkey tag and had a gobbler fly through the woods and land just behind me. I drew my bow and shot the bird without thinking of anything. I hit right where I was concentrating. That’s when the whole traditional thing clicked.” —T.H.
VanWormer uses a Two Tracks Ogemaw 54-inch hybrid flat bow that pulls 54 pounds. His arrow setup is modern: Black Eagle X Impact 400 shafts and 300-grain Valkyrie Jagger centerpin broadheads.
No. 12: Start a Local Deer Pole
Revive an old tradition. Many communities used to host a buck pole during deer season. Area hunters would gather there in the evenings as successful hunters brought their bucks to be hung from the community pole and admired.
Lack of participation, however, has community poles on the decline. Perhaps it’s because hunters are leery of displaying their buck for fear of being ridiculed because it’s not big enough. If your town doesn’t have a communal buck pole, start one. Recruit local sportsmen’s groups, Quality Deer Management Association chapters, and other such groups to help with the event.
Instead of focusing on trophy antlers, however, open the pole to all deer—big bucks, small bucks, does. Collect donations for prizes. Every deer registered earns a shot at one of the prizes in a random drawing. —T.H.
No. 13: Share It
Odds are you’re hunting deer this fall because someone once shared their love of the sport with you. It’s time to return the favor. This season, commit to spending some time in the woods with someone who has never hunted before.
Take the time to show them what it is about deer hunting that’s so special. Who knows? Along the way, you just might rediscover what it was that made you fall in love with it in the first place. —T.H.
No. 14: Hit a Season Slam
Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. It’s also a path to fun. For many hunters, whitetails are not only their favorite game animal—it’s the only game they pursue. This makes it a bit easier to understand why folks fall into, shall we say, a rut. A solution? Diversify. Many of the areas that hold whitetails in the fall are also top-notch locations for other species. Take advantage of this wild bounty by creating your own “slam,” and then make it happen.
For example: Say you’re a Wisconsin hunter. You could start the day by targeting walleyes from a canoe in a local river. With a little luck, you might jump up a few ducks as well, so keep your shotgun handy. Then beach the boat and chase grouse after lunch. Finally, wrap up the day with whitetails in the evening.
Another combo: Hunt early-season geese in the morning, pheasants at midday, and deer in the evening. Live in the Great Lakes region? Perfect. You can combo up on river-run salmon, grouse, fall turkeys, and whitetails.
Choose your own adventure, and make the most of the options available. —T.H.
Besides rods, reels, guns, and bows, you don’t need much to pull off this challenge. Pack layering apparel so you can adapt throughout the day. And be sure to have a cooler on hand to keep the fish and other game you collect on the outing fresh.
No. 15: Play Hooky
Remember the days of the rut flu? Yeah, me neither. Our lives are busier than ever, and work is seldom contained in a 9-to-5 package anymore. Personal days, vacation days...they exist for a reason. Take a hunting holiday, even if it’s just a single day. And then make sure that you spend it actually hunting. —T.H.