Bowhunting Deer – A Beginners Guide

Anthony Cote
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Why hunt deer with a bow?

There are many reasons to go deer hunting with a bow and arrow. It's challenging, and as a result, the majority of hunters who start out, find this type of hunting intrinsically rewarding. Deer hunting is an outdoor sport that is done either solo or in a team. Beginners might get trapped thinking that bow hunting is different from handgun hunting, but the fact it is similar.

During the bow hunting season, a bowhunter must sit in a discreet location where he would not be detected by the deer. Once a deer is spotted, the hunter must approach the prey quietly. The best thing to do to avoid detection is to shoot the deer in a vital part like the heart or lungs; this ensures a quick and efficient death.

To become a good bowhunter, you must learn the deer behavior. Knowing about the deer's living patterns is critical to bagging a deer during the bow hunting season. The more you know about the game, the easier it is to shoot accurately.

Today, bowhunting is one of the fastest growing hunting activities in the world. It could take weeks before a hunter could spot a deer and kill it. When bowhunting, the hunter concentrates on the ground, avoiding any distractions that could disturb the game.

What types of deer do people hunt?

It is widely accepted that there are dozens of subspecies of deer around the world.

Much like the variety of dog breeds, species of deer vary greatly in size, appearance, behavior, habitat, and habits.

They range in size from the Pygmy Rabbit in Asia to the Giant Eland, which can be as tall as 6 feet tall at the shoulder!

There are also numerous deer subspecies that are very similar to one another and are incredibly difficult to identify.

These include Whitetail and Mule deer, for example, which are incredibly similar in habitat and overall appearance.

What is important to remember, is that not all deer are fair game. Many types of deer are endangered, or otherwise protected.

The animals that are most commonly hunted today are three whitetail types, including the:

  • White-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus
  • Mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus
  • Sitka black-tail deer, Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis

Many people also hunt miniature red deer in the US and in various European countries.

Scouting

Scouting is a mainstay of bow hunting, so if you are a beginner, you should definitely research online and read about the topic before heading out to the woods.

Scouting is not only useful if you are hunting for deer, but also any other animal.

I used to go scouting once a week to identify deer trails, get to know deer activity, and to look for good shooting spots.

I usually go scouting before a hunting trip, so that I can better plan my hunt.

Rubs and Scrapes

The first and most important thing to do if you’re bowhunting deer with the use of tree stands is to go around your hunting property and look for rubs and scrapes.

Buck rubs and scrapes are collected throughout the year, but the majority of the collecting occurs during breeding season. The minerals and oil in the saliva the buck uses when scraping the bark from trees are rubbed on the tree by the buck for a variety of reasons: marking its territory, to show status, and to draw in does.

The scrape is where a buck will urinate to try to spread its scent. Bucks will scrape and that scraping will often be followed by rubbing. You’ll find rubs and scrapes in thick cover near food and water sources.

Using your binoculars, you should be able to spot these on trees. You can also find scrapes on the ground, around thickets, and at the bases of trees.

General Signs

Deer are easily tracked and sign is easy to find after they cross a trail, due to the hind hoof being larger than the fore hoof and pointing in a different direction, thereby turning the toes out. Also, deer have sharp hoofs and make a clear print whereas a cow and hogs have flat hoofs and therefore make a dull print.

By observing rubbing against a tree looking for antlers makes the deer not only leave their sign but also sign of activity (flehmen response).

A deer’s sign will be subtle and will be only feet after leaving their trails. A sign will be a footprint, part of a deer hair or some grain that has fallen from their antlers. A sign will be where a deer’s head rested on a tree and where their feet went into water before they got any deeper, making an impression.

When on a fresh trail you will step in deer sign without even knowing it, as they can be an inch or less in diameter but still be a sign that deer has been there.

Transition Zones

These are areas that are hunted to either close to the ground or too far up to the treetops. This transition zone is a spot that you need to identify in your method of hunting. If you shoot high, a deer is more likely to take off and escape. If you shoot low a deer could be stopped by a leg or even your arrow. Take these transition areas into consideration when you are hunting so that you are sure to have a quick and successful shot.

Trails

Hunting from a tree stand, or a ground blind, or any form of elevated seat, is a form of vertical hunting, and almost always it’s the most productive way to get your deer.

However, there are those that prefer to actively search for their quarry, and you can make a very effective hunt by using trails.

First, trails are easier to make, requiring less time to set than any type of hunting blind.

Second, if you use the same trails you’ll be improving them as you walk.

Third, trails give you an excellent chance for a close, uninhibited view of your quarry, which can be difficult to obtain from a tree or from the ground.

Fourth, trails can be used when the wind is right for stalking, which means in most cases you’ll have a better chance to get within bow range of a buck than from any other form of hunting.

Fifth, the tree stand or blind hunter must almost always make a shot with his chin or his back to the direction he’s moving. Trailing hunter leaves his quarry behind and can shoot facing forward.

⿿Finally, there’s another advantage from using trails while bowhunting in the Arkansas mountains, and that’s the lack of all terrain vehicles.

The Seasons

Archery hunting for deer is done from September 1st through December 31st.

September 1st through October 15th: Males may be taken during daylight hours only with bow and arrow and only antlerless deer may be taken during the hours of 9/1 through 10/15.

October 15th through December 31st: Lighted sights are allowed during daylight hours and bow and arrow hunting is permitted during these times.

December 31st through February 28th: Males may not be taken during the antlerless season and lighted sights may not be used. During this period antlers of bucks must be at least 2 inches in length.

Early Season

If you do not live in an area where the seasons are split, early season is probably the most frustrating part of the whole archery deer hunting season. This is due to two important factors. The first is that bucks are still in their bachelor groups and generally do not separate. So it is difficult to get a good setup with a buck you would like to hunt.

The second factor is that the majority of the bucks haven’t had to deal with any kind of hunting pressure yet so they have been able to wander and relax. This means that they are spending time in the comfort of thick cover, eating as much as they want, and acting generally lazy.

The first step to hunting these early season bucks is to find out if there are any that are not acting like a deer that is used to having pressure placed on it. So a good place to start is to get all of the pictures you can of all of the bucks in the area. Study all of their patterns. Which ones are moving during daylight, which are staying in the security of heavy cover, and which ones are heading toward the safety of heavy cover after dark?

Pre-Rut

The pre-rut season is the period right before the rut begins. During this time you will have a lot of does come into your hunting area. If you can get up close enough you will be able to shoot a doe during this time of the year. You will also be able to harvest a decent buck during this time too. However, this is one of the times of the year that can be very dangerous.

The bucks in the area are not yet in the rut, they aren’t all worked up and they are still careful. So they are going to be very protective of their territory and of the does in the area as well. This means that you need to go slow and be very cautious.

You should be shaking out your big tree stands and making sure that you are using the best cover that you can find. Wear some kind of cover scents and grunt a few times to make sure that the buck in the area knows that you are there.

You will want to put out some fresh urine during the morning…make sure that it is fresh and make sure that it is not leaking. The buck is not going to know that you have deposited the urine and most hunters will not go near a stand that has urine on it.

The Rut

While deer don’t always get bowhunting right, for the inexperienced there are a few observable characteristics of the rut that can give you a boost when bow hunting season comes around.

First of all, it’s not the season of the year, it’s the season of the rut. This can lead to confusing results, with peak bucks still out and about during hot summer weather.

The prime months for bow hunting in North America are August through October, with a peak in mid-September. During this peak, the males are either in full-on rut mode, or they’re still on guard while their harems are deep in molting. In general, the best time to see bucks is when they have shed any velvet they still have. The deer in the area should range from a few-moons-old to having a full-grown set of antlers.

Post-Rut

If you “miss” a kill shot and made a clean kill, you need to know that all you did was drive them. Now, you need to go back to that blood trail and get on down the road. The next few hours are critical.

First, you need to determine where they are going. Bobcats, feral cats, coyotes, and dogs are known predators of white-tails. Additionally, we have the sumac and rhododendron that may all drive deer. Because of the heat, you need to get in front of these guys and push them out of the area. You can do this with one or three people. For one person, it is important to get on down the road and walk a fast pace to reduce the distance between yourself and the deer. Once they are moving, you want to call often to keep them moving. The single tactic of hunting away from this area will greatly increase your chances of catching a good buck, because you are telling these newborn deer to leave.

Late Season

The prime time for hunting deer with a bow is during the months of September and October. While few would argue with that statement, there are the exceptions. December can be an exciting month for bowhunters. During the rut, especially in northern states, hunting can be great. Bucks are vocal and aggressive and with some luck, an exceptional trophy can be taken.

Which bow do you use?

Until this past year, my go-to bow for hunting was a recurve. I took a nice nine-point in Ohio in November and it was killed on the second shot. It was shot at only about 20 yards and the arrow went in just behind the shoulder and penetrated both lungs causing a fatal hit. If you use a recurve, you must take two back up arrows with you and be sure and carry them on each and every hunt.

Now I mainly bowhunt with a compound. I take a few recurves along just for the fun of it, but I prefer a compound bow. It’s not always about that first shot. In fact, in most cases a compound bow will out shoot a recurve.

Scent Control and Camo

Being able to smell game animals is as important to the deer as it is to us. Deer are very active animals and their sense of smell allows them to identify exactly what is in their surroundings. Deer will identify food sources, threats, and even mate with their species with the use of their nose.

As humans, we have two very strong senses, sight and hearing. We are able to smell, however it is not quite as strong as our other two senses. When hunting deer, your goal is to eliminate your ability to be detected.

Scent control is very important when hunting deer, especially if you are using a bow. When you start hunting deer with a bow, you may not want to wear a forest green or brown camouflage suit. Deer can see very well, and your brown and green suit may stand out like a sore thumb. If at all possible, you should wear a camo suit that is similar to the environment you are hunting in. For example, if you are hunting in the forest, wear a blue or green camouflage suit.

Deer can smell oils that humans produce on their skin. One way you can eliminate that is to apply an odor neutralizer to your body, and your clothing. This will help reduce your odor and give you the best chance of not being detected.

Decoys, Scents and Calls

Broken down into categories*, if you understand the differences between these three hunting tools, you will be better equipped to know what you are looking for and then make the best possible decisions for your situation. Decoy, scent and calls are a hunters simplest tools for gathering in close range game. Just as effective as they are simple.

Deer decoys come in a wide variety of styles, shapes and sizes. They can be as simple as a doe, or as complicated as a lifelike buck. There are plastic and paper options, that are displayed both high and low, that can be placed using the ground stake or the treestand mount. You can even cut the feet out of an old pair of blue jeans to make a lifelike mock scrape. Artificial or natural, these decoys can be used effectively to bring in the bucks.

Tree Stands

If you’re just beginning to bowhunt, there are some basics you’ll want to consider. Make sure to ask the proprietor of any place you go hunting for permission. Having the landowner’s permission can prevent you from facing charges of trespassing.

A tree stand is a great way to watch for your deer. If you choose to use a tree stand, you can get a ladder that hangs in front of the tree. You can then attach a platform to the tree stand so you can add your own comfort level.

However, some experts, such as outdoors writer Harvey Hamilton, advise against using tree stands. It’s better to be sneaky, he suggests. Someone sitting in a tree stand is more likely to be discovered by a deer, while someone who is moving about is less likely to be heard. Asking a local hunting expert is a good idea if you’re considering a tree stand.

Hamilton also recommends using a hunting weapon with a single, heavy arrow. The arrow is less likely to be deflected by a deer or other wild game, and is better for clean kills.

Ground Blinds

  • You have two options when it comes to ground blinds. One is a traditional pop-up blind that will set on the ground and is semi-free standing. Another option is a roll up blind, which is attached to stakes that are driven in the ground. The roll up blind can be placed in an opening that is already in the woods or positioned in an area where you want a spot to hide.
  • As for materials, both of these options come in a variety of materials, but the most popular are usually canvas and a mesh material that is usually made out of a blend of fabrics that are water resistant.
  • The primary point of these blinds is concealment. However, this doesn’t mean that you are hidden from the woods behind them. Your point of survival would be in this blind as the gunfire and smell of blood are sure to bring deer running.
  • Like any other blind, make sure that grass is cleared or pulled out of the area. This will make sure you are covered from all sides. Make sure your blind doesn’t stick out from the surrounding scenery as well.
  • These blinds are typically used in open areas where the trees are spread out and you can see a distance in all directions.

On-Stand/In-Blind Checklist

Patience

It's very important to be patient in the field. Don't take shots unless you can do so comfortably. Sometimes it may come down to a long afternoon (or morning) of holding the same spot. Sometimes you may need to sit for several hours waiting for movement. Make sure you have a good tree stand, a comfortable blind, or a well-concealed position and be comfortable.

You need to know your quarry and the area. Be a good detective and know where they are likely to be at the time you plan to hunt and how they are most likely to move.

Just because you set a stand or blind in a certain spot doesn't mean that's where they will always go.

I've hunted the same stand three times in a row, and not seen a single deer. The fourth time, I tried to see what they were doing with the same stand. Seconds after sitting, a buck came crashing through the woods.

Studying your prey from afar can also give you a good idea of where they are likely to be. For example, on a managed preserve I'll hit the trail camera hard. I might only see a few does and a few bucks. But based on their locations it'd tell me where to start setting up a stand. They're usually in the same area each year.

When Your Prey Gets Close

Shoot!

As a bowhunter, you must be careful about shooting a deer at long range, especially if it is broadside. If given the opportunity, it will see you and often take off.

A whitetail is a prey animal just like an animal you would hunt in the wild. It is likely to bolt if it has a chance. You don’t want your deer to see you rustling in the bushes or hear you sneaking through the forest. To prevent your prey from seeing and hearing the approach of a predator, you must remain silent.

Because of the additional energy it takes for a deer to run away, it is often out of range when it finally takes off. If you are a competent archer, you can usually get in a shot within 60 to 80 yards. The bowhunter needs to be aware that a deer might be just out of range and ready to bolt. If you think you are close enough for a shot and your target suddenly takes off, take your shot, follow the arrow, and stop the deer.

The Shot

The two most challenging aspects of bowhunting are the long range and the accuracy. If you can master them, the rest of the steps and the whole process becomes even easier.

  • Foot to Fur. it takes a long time from the moment the arrow hits the target until the time it reaches heart.
  • Exact Spot – Hand indexing technique is used in this shot, which is a very accurate way of doing it.

First, place your bow hand a few inches back from your face pointing at the target. Now, lower the arrow to your bow hand till its tip touches your thumb. Now you have established the exact spot where the tip of the arrow is going to hit.

  • The aiming point should be a few inches above your "pre-measured" spot. Thus, when the arrow falls upon the spot, its tip must be pierced.
  • Now, after finding the precise spot, place your hand a few inches away from your face and place the back of your fingers upon the sides of the release. Now, let the thumb fall directly behind the arrow.

Following the trail…

If you're hunting a big common game animal like deer, as a beginner it is wise to learn all you can before you even throw a single punch at the punching bag, or draw a bowstring. This chapter will break down the basics of scouting a trail, walking quietly and staking out a deer's bedding area.

If the deer has shed its winter hair coat and is living on green forage during the birthing and fawning season, the deer will begin soaking the mineral content out of the soil in a location that feels safe, and is close to water. The whitetail will usually selected the highest ground to maximize safety, the brightest shaded areas (cottonwood trees are usually the brightest shaded areas) to lay in and the most dense vegetation around the bedding location to thoroughly conceal themselves. The bedding areas are also close to an elevated water source to provide an escape and get an easy drink.

When a doe reaches 60 days before the birth of her fawns she will decide where to give birth. Look for the whitetail to lay in its bedding area and not leave it.

Field Dressing / Transportation

If you are planning on transporting the deer in the back of your vehicle it is best to use a suitable meat tub. The tub needs to hold the deer including the antlers and have holes in the bottom for drainage.

Try to get the deer into the tub as soon as possible after the kill to avoid contamination of meat with dirt, leaves and mud.

Try to do this in the shade of a tree where the area is relatively clean to avoid unnecessary blood loss.

Cut the throat and hang the deer by the front legs for an extended time. Do not cut the windpipe as it will pour out blood that you don’t want to spill. Make it as much of a vertical hanging as possible.

Cut the throat in an upward direction. Make an incision at the flap of skin below the jaw line. Use the knife to cut up towards the hide until it meets the skin of the throat.

Make another incision from the side on the opposite side of the flap you cut. This should be from the side of the neck. The two cuts should meet to form a “T.”

Insert your fingers and grab the hide and pull it up until a large enough hole is made for you to insert your hand into. Move your hand around to get a general idea of where the diaphragm is.