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Gun Season in the Big Woods

If hunting a highly-pressured parcel of public land, instinct tells us to walk farther than the competition. That can put you into fresh territory, but how far do you really have to go?

According to findings posted on the Deer-Forest Blog, researchers have noted major shifts in deer patterns immediately prior to first day of gun season in Pennsylvania. Some bucks were known to leave their home ranges entirely and hunker down in places they’d never visited the rest of the year. Other deer returned to the same places where they’d survived previous seasons. Many deer not only moved deeper into the woods and away from the roads, but also climbed to higher elevations to avoid hunters.

Much of this goes back to what I've said about traditions. For decades, gun hunters have gone to camp a few days before opening day, sighted in their rifles, and spent a day or two traipsing around the woods looking for sign and a place to sit. This sudden influx of human activity can have a profound impact on deer behavior. Almost as a rule, bucks in high-pressure areas bed in places that offer a distinct vantage point. They have the prevailing wind from the west and a steep slope to the east. Also, the habitat is thick, making it practically impossible to sneak up on a buck without him seeing you.

Details like these have influenced my gun season strategy. I don’t necessarily worry about hiking deep into the wilderness. Rather, I search my maps for the type of terrain that might provide sanctuary to wary deer. Sometimes those spots can be right next to the road.

Good friend and hunting guide Steve Sherk told me a story about a mature mountain buck that his dad was after. They figured out that the deer was bedding on a thick, steep hillside right up from the main parking lot where hunters accessed the area. The first day, Sherk, Sr., crept around and approached the hillside from the ridge. Sure enough, the buck was there, and he got a shot, but the brush was so thick that he missed. Second day, he tried the same tactic, and again the buck was bedded on the steep hillside. And again Sherk, Sr., shot and missed. By day three, the buck figured out his safe spot wasn’t so safe and found a new hiding place.

There’s a lesson to be learned from that story. That buck bedded within sight of the parking lot. It watched hunters come and go, all of whom took the easy route around the steep hillside to access the ridge above. Also, despite being bumped and shot at on the first day, the buck still returned the following day. No doubt it’s where the buck had spent previous hunting seasons and survived. It’s proof that once a mature buck feels secure in a bedding area, it takes a lot to convince him to leave.

Finding the nooks and crannies that other hunters neglect is easy with the help of topographical maps. Find where contour lines bunch up close together, signaling steep terrain -- this is often referred to as where "positive" meets "negative" terrain. East and south-facing hillsides are preferred due to predominant wind direction, but don’t overlook any steep ground that has thick, quality habitat. Mountain laurel, cuts, and other types of early successional forest can all be good bedding areas when hunting pressure increases.

Sometimes the hardest part about the process is ignoring whatever sign you find when scouting. Those big rubs and scrapes are hard to walk by. They get the blood pumping, and they’re proof that bucks have been there, but they don’t mean bucks will be there now. Depending on hunting pressure, the rut, or any number of factors, bucks that made those rubs could be miles away by now.

Unless they're smoking hot, most rubs you find were likely made weeks earlier, and depending on the amount of pressure the area receives during archery season, there's a good chance the deer that made that sign might not even be around anymore.

Several of my favorite gun stands are ones where I find very few rubs or scrapes. They’re just rugged terrain, usually steep, with plenty of thick cover to provide deer sanctuary, and they’re usually places that other hunters avoid.

-- By Ralph Scherder


* This is an excerpt from my book "Hunting Mountain Whitetails," available as a PDF digital download from the First Fork Bookstore. To learn more about this book, CLICK HERE.

Hunting Big Woods bucks is my passion. Few things excite me more, or deserve more respect, than a cagey old mountain buck.

Yes, this book will help you in your quest for Big Woods bucks, but these techniques can also be applied to hunt whitetails wherever they are found. The concepts and tactics found in this book have been learned the hard way, through times of success as well as those of utter failure. But no matter what, I've always found joy in the Big Woods and savored every moment pursuing one of the most difficult trophies in all of hunting -- mountain bucks.

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