Opening Day Forever: Best Deer Hunting Stories and Tactics

For a deer hunter, it is the only day that really matters.

Illustration
Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

Most of us wait for this day all year. Some of us wait all our lives. Opening morning, the beginning of a season in which everything is new again and all things are possible: a memorable buck, wild meat for our table, a shared moment with friends that will be retold (and embellished) every opening morning for the rest of our lives.

We asked a number of contributors to explain both the method and the magic of opening day of deer season, to talk about tactics that have worked and about memories that have endured. Because the best opening days are a mix of the two: success and reflection.

The Traditions // Stories that remind us why deer season matters

Hunter
Photo by John Hafner

The First Time
By Bryce M. Towsley

Back in the Dark Ages, before Enlightenment brought its many changes, Vermont deer camps were a man’s domain, a masculine world where a guy could cut loose and act as men always have out of range of civilization.

I longed to be a part of it so much that I thought I would burst, but I was deemed "too young." Finally, though, somebody figured out that the only way to shut up a yappy 13-year-old was to cave in to his demands. I will never forget that first night, as the camp seemed to grow a life of its own, one fed by the power of these men. It was, I now understand, the power of anticipation, and it permeated the camp and filled all the available space. [ View story ]

A Father's Support
By John Haviland

My dad believed you should find your own way through life. So when my four brothers and I were boys, he'd drop us off one at a time in the mountains to hunt mule deer. On my first opening day, a deer came trotting over a ridge, surprising us both. I shot the deer and hiked out looking for a helping hand. My dad stood at the mouth of the creek, like he'd been waiting for me all morning. [ View story ]

Big Bucks
Photo by Mark Raycroft

My Lousy Brother
By Frank Miniter

I wanted to shoot my older brother. Okay, maybe I didn’t really want to plug him, but there has to be a punishment for such an intrusion. There I was, seated against a white birch on a rocky embankment, watching where three logging trails came together. The overgrown skid roads were bright with fresh rubs. I had already seen a dozen deer and it was the opener, so I knew anything could happen at any time.

Then I heard this little noise that turned out to be leaves crunching. [ View story ]

A Gift Buck
By Steve Hickoff

My father introduced me to both turkey and deer hunting—but it was turkey hunting that really took a deep hold on me. He’d always puzzle over this glitch in his oldest boy’s personality (my brother Dave hunts only deer), as if I’d let him down in some way.

I was hunting fall turkeys high on a ridge behind our house a week before deer season when I suddenly saw a buck moving slowly down in the hollow. I watched from above. Handsome head, bragging rack, big body, and the crouched stealth of a bird dog slipping through thick cover, surely a shooter: a rare survivor of the "brown it's down" mentality in my deer hunting community of north-central Pennsylvania. [ View story ]

Hunter's Kill
Photo by John Hafner

The Sharpshooter
By Michael Pearce

As a kid, I thought my dad could do just about anything, and usually he could. If I broke something, he could fix it. If there was a sport, he could coach it. When I sought advice, his was almost always spot-on (though it’s taken me years to realize it), no matter if it was about money, girls, or grades.

But we both always knew he was a piss-poor shot. I remember boxes of shotgun ammo shot for a lone dove. He was usually worse with a rifle. [ View story ]

My Dad, The Butcher
By Ron Spomer

Walt Spomer wasn't a hunter. Still, his was a bloody business. Town butcher. He converted farmer's steers and hogs into steaks and bacon, speaking calmly to each animal as he coaxed it to its demise. "Poor Bossy," he'd coo, keeping the animal relaxed until the .22 cracked and the animal fell. Then he began expertly flensing the hide, instructing his two small boys: "Keep the blade against the hide and sweep it." [ View story ]

Fall Buck
Photo by John Eriksson

A Hunter's Therapy
By Christopher Batin

I never thought opening day mattered that much. Until it looked like I might never see
another one.

The routine surgery I had scheduled for mid-summer resulted in severe complications. I regained consciousness in an intensive care unit, fighting for my life. And if I survived, I faced eight months of physical therapy. Deer season was in three.

Forty-six years of hunting mountain deer had kept me in shape. Tough. Focused. Invincible. Yet the setbacks were severe. The phantom of discouragement crouched low in the shadow of my bedside for weeks, like a hungry wolf sniffing around its weakened prey, waiting patiently to move in and finish it off. [ View story ]

Closing Day
By Tom Carpenter

At 87, Dad was slowing down. My mom, his wife of 53 years, had passed away in April. When I arrived home Friday for our traditional whitetail opener, Dad apologized: “Tommy, I don’t think I’ll make it out in the dark tomorrow, but I’ll try to drive out later.”

From my stand in a southern Wisconsin creek bottom, I spotted his station wagon tooling along the township blacktop at eight the next morning. I jogged a half mile up the road to meet him. Twenty minutes later he had his big orange suit on and was in a lawn chair tucked into a fence line, not far from the vehicles.

"Go hunt," he said with a smile. The November sun was warm. [ View story ]

The Tactics // Tips for making this season an unforgettable one

Buck
Photo by Erik Ruf

One-On-One Blacktails
By Scott Haugen

When there were fewer hunters in our Oregon woods, my family used to gather on opening day and beat the brush for reclusive Columbia blacktail bucks.

Then came decreased logging, less access, and more hunters squeezed into fewer areas. Nothing forces a blacktail into seclusion faster than opening-day pressure. [ View story ]

The Ridgeline Gap
By Frank Miniter

Ridgeline Gap

Some deer stands you can't forget. They were so perfect, you go on looking for them in all the forests you hunt. My first opening-day stand was one such gem. It was a ledge at the top of a break in a cliff of white conglomerate rock on the west side of a ridge New York mountain climbers call The Gunks.

I've learned that stand wasn't a once-in-a-lifetime spot. Finding such an opening-day pressure point simply takes three steps. [ View story ]

Dawn-Side Muleys
By Wayne Van Zwoll

When I fired, the buck tumbled from knife’s-edge basalt onto a moonscape of rubble. The season before, I’d dropped a deer just below, in scree devoid of anything with roots. My friend Vern had killed a huge buck nearby, in a bed of dust wallowed deep by generations of mule deer.

After we routinely found bucks well above forest and meadow, I looked closer. Tiny rivulets trickled from snow patches that shrank slowly throughout the summer. Alpine deer nibbled succulent shoots in shaded nooks irrigated by this melt as forage below turned yellow and rank. [ View story ]

The Rung Above
By Michael Pearce

Rung Above

The millions of private Conservation Reserve Program acres many prairie and plains states have leased for walk-in public hunting can hold some great whitetails and mule deer. That’s no secret.

This means a season's first hours offer a well-prepared hunter the best chance of tagging a buck on CRP land before the masses start pounding the public grasses. [ View story ]

Hunting the Tangles
By Bryce M. Towsley

I hunt opening morning on public land just as I would on private land. That is, I ignore the other hunters and pretend they don’t exist or annoy me. Or I use their predictability to my advantage. At least for the first day.

I no longer hike for hours in the dark to get past the huddled masses on opening day. Later in the season, sure, then it's good strategy. But not on opening day. [ View story ]

Be a Better Pusher
By Gordy Krahn

A Better Pusher

I scanned the string of orange-clad North Country types that made up the Ravndalen gang. It was the whitetail opener and we were lining up for the first deer drive of the morning. Some of the hunters shuffled their feet in the subzero temperature. Most were uninspired, viewing their brush-buster role as a required exchange of labor—the dues paid to swap places with the posters on the next push. They considered their odds of killing a deer while tromping through the woods remote. [ View story ]