A buck losing its velvet. / Gary Engberg/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
Iíve harvested my share of deer over the years using many different tactics and techniques while bow and gun hunting. Iím not a professional hunter like Jackie Bushman, Bill Jordan, or Steve Waddell, but Iíve spent much of my life in and around the deer woods and in the outdoors.
Having spent a considerable amount of my adult life in the state of Wisconsin has given me the opportunity to see and study whitetail deer throughout the four seasons of the year. I live in southcentral Wisconsin which is a mixture of agricultural land and scattered woodlots. Since the 1960s and 1970s, many deer have made the transition from the older pine forests and hardwood stands of northern Wisconsin to the agricultural lands located in the southern half of the state. Iím lucky enough to see deer most every day and can walk a few hundred yards from my home and be in deer hunting country.
The deer herd in Wisconsin is currently estimated to be somewhere between 1.1 and 1.2 million deer. The state DNR would like to have the over-winter deer population at 700,000 deer, but the chances of that happening is virtually impossible. The combination of milder winters, does having multiple births, an aging hunting population and the whitetails ability to adapt to living near man have all contributed to the large deer numbers. Hunters have shown that they will kill and harvest only so many deer despite many liberal seasons and the emergence of CWD.
Most of my early years hunting were spent in tree stands and I believe that hunters will still kill more deer when hunting in a tree stand than hunting on the ground.
This column is for hunters with guns or with bows because the basic that Iím writing about applies to both kinds of hunting. When bow hunting, you may need a little more cover to hide your movements and time to draw your bow versus aiming and pulling a trigger while gun hunting. But, the odds of harvesting a deer and putting venison in the freezer are much better when hunting from a tree than the ground.
But there is something that is much more exciting and challenging then climbing 20 feet in the air and sitting in a tree stand. That challenge is hunting on the ground whether from a ground blind, sitting on a fallen tree or hiding in the brush.
While hunting on the ground, a hunter is able to get in touch with their game and experience some of the most exciting and exhilarating encounters with wildlife. What a hunter sees and experiences from being close to deer are memories that will last a lifetime. Imagine a nice buck coming within 10 yards of you and not knowing that you are there? Youíre able to see the deerís mannerisms, its sounds, physical characteristics, color variations and movements! When hunting on the ground, a deer may see your form and think that ďsomethingĒ is not right in the woods, but if you remain motionless and quiet a deer can go from bolting with its white flag up to back one second later and browsing just yards away from you the next second. Good camo, proper concealment, scent elimination and the ability to remain motionless will go a long way when hunting on the ground.
Researchers now say that as we get older we learn to appreciate more about these animals that most of us have hunted for decades. This is not to say that I donít want to have some venison in my freezer every year, but Iíve learned that I like to get up close and personal with these magnificent creatures whether I kill them or not! I know that I can shoot a deer most years because I have access to quality hunting land and my home state has a huge deer herd, but harvesting a deer at close range from a ground blind or from a concealed location is the ultimate challenge and rush! This is not an easy route to follow, but give it a try and you may find that you like it and the challenge that it brings whether you harvest the deer or not.
Prior to writing this story, I talked to some friends who I consider excellent hunters and they have taken numerous trophy deer. Most hunters prefer to hunt from trees, but many hunters will hunt on the ground when itís necessary and particularly when they travel out west for elk, mule deer and antelope where all hunting is ground-orientated.
Before you enter the woods and your hunting area, there are things that the ground hunter must do to ensure a safe and rewarding hunt. The goal is always to harvest deer, but some of the memories and visions that one gains while 'just' hunting are never forgotten.
First, use the Internet and your computer to research the area that you are hunting before you even set foot on the land. This can be done by using Google Earth and getting topographic maps of the hunting land. By looking and studying the topographic maps, you can find the natural pathways, corridors and funnels of the land that will give you a good idea of where deer will be and where they will move.
Try to understand the 'lay of the land' and how the wind currents blow where youíll be hunting. When ground hunting, the wind can and usually is your greatest enemy! A steady breeze is fine since it wonít carry your scent like a swirling wind can and a constant breeze can often help a hunter by disguising a hunterís sounds and movements.
Second, you must make sure that you have the proper clothing, have a scent-free body and the necessary equipment and gear to spend a day in the woods. Itís of utmost importance to have a scent free body. Take a shower before hunting using a scent free soap and shampoo. Brush your teeth and when you are done eating and drinking rinse your mouth with a baking soda and water mixture before going hunting. Donít have todayís breakfast, coffee and or tobacco on you or your clothing for a day of hunting. Remember, to deer humans stink and you have to do whatever is possible to cover up, mask, and eliminate your scent and smell.
Always wear camouflage clothing (like the clothes made by Realtree and Scentlok) that breaks your outline, blends in well with your surroundings and terrain, and eliminates your scent. Dress in layers, so that you can make adjustments to the weather and the wind if they change during the course of the day. Wear multi-layers of camo and orange, so that no matter what you take off you are still safe and legal. Make sure to cover your entire body including your face and hands with a camo face net, face paint and gloves.
Footwear is also an important piece of equipment and the boots that you wear should be waterproof, breathable and not too tight. LaCrosse makes a line of boots that will fit any hunterís needs.
Also, try to have all your gear that you are bringing into the woods scent free, noise free and have nothing exposed that will reflect sunlight. A good idea is to have a back or fanny pack loaded with the items that you are going to want during the day. This may include; your binoculars (Nikon) or optics, a camera, some food and water, an extra jacket, gutting gloves, toilet paper and anything else that can make spending a day in the woods a little easier. Donít be afraid to bring a cell phone with you for emergencies. Just remember to turn it off when hunting. Many cell phones are equipped with GPS, so that people can find you if youíre missing or have any trouble. It can also help when you shoot that big deer and need help getting it out of the woods.
Third, I also suggest that you plan your hunt and hunt your plan. Tell someone or leave a note in your truck of your dayís plans and where you are hunting. This is basically a safety issue, but if something should go south others will know what the plan was for the day. Included here is knowing what your final hunting destination is and how youíre going to get there.
Always, try to have a path to and from your hunting spot that you know well and isnít likely to be an invasion of the deerís bedding, feeding or travel routes. You never want to wander aimlessly in your hunting area. Be prepared to arrive at your hunting location well before sunrise and plan to leave well after dark. Having a handheld GPS or compass is a must! Donít go into the woods without one or the other or both. Get familiar with both a compass and a GPS and learn to trust them. The GPS is the best tool you can possibly have at night and try to use your topographic maps before the hunt to make sure that you have an easy way or waypoint to help find your way out of the woods. Without a directional device, it can be a long and cold night in the woods.
Now, youíve done all the preparation, studied your maps, and gotten yourself and your gear ready for the hunt. Remember, that the sun will always rise and set while youíre in the woods, so try to keep it at your back so that you are always in the shadows while hunting.
Fourth, if youíre going to be hunting from a ground blind, hopefully youíll have the location picked out, leaves cleared and brush cut to clear the shooting lanes and put some brush and branches around the blind to break up its outline. Hopefully, if ground blind hunting, you have been able to set up the blind up a few weeks before you plan on hunting from it. The blind will often spook deer if youíre not careful. Deer always know what is in their home area and will notice any changes. Giving deer a chance to get used to this addition will help when it becomes time to hunt from the blind.
Personally, I prefer to find natural cover close to some major trail intersections, scraps, and rubs and then rely on good camouflage, scent elimination, and the ability to remain motionless. If possible, itís nice to have a large tree to lean against that is larger than your body profile and have some brush or obstruction between you and the direction where you think the deer will come from. The key here is to have something at ground level, so that you are not directly in the deerís line of sight.
Fifth, if you are hunting from a blind, you are most likely to spend most of the day still hunting from it. But, if youíre hunting using the natural terrain and landscape as your cover, you must move slowly and cautiously. The time you spend sitting and still hunting is when your optics or binoculars come in handy and can make or break your hunt.
While you remain motionless in your spot, scan the surrounding woods and fields with your Nikon optics. One of the most important things in ground and all hunting is to see or spot your game before it sees you. Scan in every direction over and over again before you move. If the surrounding woods are thick, try to look into the heavy cover and beyond it. Look for any part of a deer or any movement because you will rarely see the whole deer. This takes time to do properly which is good because it slows you down and teaches the patience needed to have success on the ground. Every time that you move, stop and glass the terrain. Try to become a part of the outdoors and woods because this patience helps the hunter get ďabsorbedĒ into their surroundings and terrain. Being stealthy, cautious and patient will result in seeing and interacting with more game and having a greater chance at harvesting a deer!
You now have the basics and beyond to hunt from the ground for deer. If filling your freezer with venison is your only goal, youíll have better success hunting in a tree. But, if you want to try a challenging and difficult way to hunt while getting close to your quarry, then hunt from the ground up close and personal! Lastly, be safe and take someone hunting with you be it a child, senior, or friend.
Have a great weekend!
Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990ís and has fished the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), North American Walleye Association (NAWA), Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), World Walleye Association (WWA), FLW, and Mercury Nationals in the years since. Gary has hosted the Outdoor Horizons radio show weekly for 14 years in Madison on WTDY 1670 AM and WTDY 106.7 FM Saturdays at 8:05 am. and is also a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal for the last 12 years. Visit http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com for more from Gary Engberg.