Urban Deer Hunting Strategies

News & Tips: Urban Deer Hunting Strategies

I'd covered a lot of real estate hunting whitetails over the years, and no question, I was now studying the biggest buck I'd ever seen. He was a giant, with a wide, extremely heavy 10-point rack. His neck and body were solid, like an athlete's in prime shape. He was truly a magnificent animal, and perhaps most startling, he was on my own farm, no more than 500 yards from my backdoor.

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Big smiles and nice bucks are two results of hunting deer on the edges of suburbia.

I studied the buck with binoculars for several minutes. It was early September, and he was on the back edge of my sweet corn field, munching on nubbins left over from summer. I think animals have some sixth sense about when they're in danger, and when they're not. As long as I stayed in my pickup and kept my distance, this monster buck was content to chew and watch me in those last few minutes before darkness descended over north-central Tennessee.

I had difficulty containing my excitement. Bow season would start in three weeks, and I'd located the deer of a lifetime. If he'd stick around, and if I could pattern his movements, I might bag a whitetail the likes of which I'd hunted for all over the country. Now, I'd greet opening day in a treestand just a short hike from my house.

There is one more interesting point to add. Our farm used to be in the country, but no more. When I was growing up, we were near the edge of town. Today, suburbia has long since surrounded it. A business park borders one side. Sprawling subdivisions line the other three sides. Our 150 acres are an island of fields and woods in a sea of buildings and pavement.

They are also a haven for wildlife. I see deer, quail, doves, rabbits, raccoons, foxes, coyotes and other game and non-game critters frequently. But I'd never seen an animal like this! This buck was truly outstanding by anybody's measure.

Which brings up a point! Whitetail deer are some of the most adaptive of all animals. They have learned to live — make that thrive — in a broad range of habitats, including urban and suburban settings. Once considered animals of the deep forest, deer now abound in small woodlots, thickets and gullies in the middle of town. I believe that if a piece of cover is large enough to support cottontails, whitetails can live there too.

In forest and farmland areas, deer usually get plenty hunting pressure, and most bucks are cropped before they hit maturity and achieve peak body size and antler development. But there is little pressure on in-town deer. Restrictions on hunting/shooting allow them to grow older than many of their country cousins. Thus, some giant bucks grow up jumping sidewalks and browsing in subdivision backyards. (The best example is a non-typical whitetail which was found dead in 1981 in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. This magnificient buck carried a 44-point rack that scored an unbelievable 333 7/8 points on the Boone & Crockett measuring system.)

This presents hunters with a unique opportunity. Those who understand this situation and who plan a strategy around it can have some prime hunting virtually to themselves. Sure, sitting on a stand close to a busy highway, a bustling subdivision or a construction site may not be as aesthetically pleasing as watching a trail in the Big Woods. But the heightened anticipation of having a chance at a real trophy buck more than makes up for the detractions of hunting next to town.

For those hunters interested, here is a list of tips for finding and setting up on big "city slicker" bucks that most other hunters bypass.

Scouting and Hunting the Early Bow Season

Begin scouting in mid-summer, when crops are lush and deer are unpressured. This is when they are most visible and most predictable in terms of location and movements. This is when I "take inventory" of small, individual herds and pinpoint big bucks that I'd like to hunt when the season opens.

In summer, finding food is the controlling influence in whitetails' lives. The first signs of rut are still several weeks away. Through August and early September in most of the country, bachelor groups of bucks usually feed early and late and laze the hot mid-day hours away in a cool thicket a short distance from their feeding area.

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Some giant bucks live in small woods, gullies and thickets in suburbia; so hunters should keep alert for sign of these "city-wise" deer.

Scouters can locate these animals by checking feeding areas at the edge of town (agricultural fields, meadows, etc.) in the last few minutes of daylight. I typically do this from my truck. I'll drive into a field and scan it quickly with binoculars. If deer are present, I'll keep my distance. Usually, they will watch me curiously and continue feeding, or they will get nervous and ease back into the cover.

I hope to learn two things from these scouting efforts. Again, I want to know the number and quality of bucks using a given area. And when I find a huntable buck, I want to know where he's entering/exiting the field. This last bit of "intelligence" is crucial to formulating a successful hunting plan.

Once I locate a big buck and the bowhunting season is drawing close, I'll continue to keep tabs on him in late afternoons, but I'll also do some scouting in the mid-day, when he's not around. This minimizes the chance that I will disrupt his daily feeding/travel patterns.

I will slip in where I've seen him and look for the trail he uses to come and go. (I should have a good idea where the trail is from my in-truck observation.) I'll confirm this through the presence of fresh tracks and droppings. I'll follow the trail a short distance back from the field to see where it leads, and I'll check out possible spots for hanging a stand on both sides of the trail.

My game plan is to try for the buck on the first good weather day after the bowhunting season comes in. Specifically, I'll hunt in the afternoon. By hunting in the morning, I'd risk spooking the buck going in during the pre-dawn. But by waiting for afternoon and going in when I'm sure he's not in the field, I can avoid tipping my hand to him.

Then I can ease a few yards into the cover back from the field edge, hang my climbing stand (quietly!!) beside the trail and be ready when the buck leaves his bed and comes back to feed in late afternoon. If everything goes according to plan, if I've patterned the deer properly, haven't alerted him setting up, and have hung my stand downwind from where he'll approach, I've got a good chance of bagging him.

Muzzleloader Season on Whitetail Deer

Many states around the U. S. now offer an early muzzleloader season on whitetails, before the "centerfire army" takes to the woods. Where I live, this season offers perhaps the best opportunity of the whole year at quality bucks, and again, the edge of town is where to find them.

Now breeding is taking over from feeding as the chief influence on bucks' daily activities. In Tennessee, bucks begin actively making and checking scrapes by late October, but does don't start coming into estrus until mid-November. Thus, the 3-4 week span between the start of bucks' rutting activity and does' readiness to breed is a great hunting time. Bucks are seeking receptive does, and since there aren't many around during this period, the bucks are moving almost constantly in response to their growing urge to mate. This is the period when they are the least cautious and the most visible to hunters.

This is also when our muzzleloader season comes in, and on opening morning you can find me in a stand watching a trail with my "smokepole" in hand.

I'll probably be hunting the same areas as I did when bowhunting. My favorite spot is a neighbor's 300-acre farm that is now inside the city limits and which has subdivisions on two sides. (Local regulations allow the use of a muzzleloader inside the city limits.)

This farm also has the only corn and soybean fields for several miles around. These crops pull deer in from a broad area. The bucks are going to be where the does are, and the does are attracted by the grain. Thus a "bees-to-honey" situation exists, and this makes this farm a prime hunting spot in the pre-rut.

Now, though, I move back into the woods, and I hunt where rut sign — specifically fresh rubs — are prevalent. I've learned through hunting this farm repeatedly that bucks will frequent the same trails and areas year in and year out. One of my favorite stands is in a grove of hardwood trees on a knoll in a big fescue pasture. Another is on the spine of a ridge, where a thicket complex is bordered by an open meadow. And a third favorite stand is next to a ravine that is a natural travel route into and out of this farm.

All three of these stands are several hundred yards from the feeding area where does congregate. Yet all three have an abundance of rubbed-up trees each fall. I don't know why, but they all have some combination of topography and habitat arrangement that bucks like. When the pre-rut is going strong, there's hardly a day when a legal buck can't be taken off any of these three stands, and real quality animals show up frequently.

Hunting City Deer: Two Other Recommendations

For either the archery or muzzleloader seasons, hunting on the outskirts of town warrants two additional considerations.

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Whitetail deer are some of the most adaptive of all animals — able to thrive in broad range of habitats.

One, these spots are usually convenient enough to allow for short, frequent hunts. I have a buddy who hunts almost entirely on timber company land in the next county, an hour's drive away. He likes the company's large tracts of mixed hardwoods and pines, and he's taken several nice bucks there. But his hunting is confined primarily to weekends and vacation days.

On the other hand, most of my hunting spots are within five miles from where I live. If I can spare an hour or two from the office in the morning or afternoon (and I usually can!), I'll be on the stand in 20 minutes. This ready access allows me to hunt more, and it improves my odds of being out when deer take a notion to move.

Second, because urban/suburban deer aren't targeted as much as animals in more traditional hunting areas, landowners don't feel as much pressure to allow hunters onto their property. This means they're more likely to grant permission or an inexpensive lease to one individual who approaches them in a considerate, responsible manner. The main things a hunter must do is convince the landowner that he will hunt in a safe manner and that he will respect his property, including helping patrol it against trespassers.

And you don't need a huge tract to hunt on. Again, any little island of cover can be good. Just a few acres of woods or thickets can hold a surprising number of deer. In fact, hunting such undersized patches is like looking for needles in smaller haystacks. The fewer places deer have to hide, the greater your chances of seeing them consistently.

Storybook Ending?

I wish my tale about the giant buck on our farm had a storybook finish, but it doesn't. I saw him three times, but he disappeared before bow season opened, and I never viewed him again. I hunted in the woods next to our cornfield anyway for a few afternoons after the season came in, hoping he'd show back up. With a deer that size, sometimes you buck the odds.

I have bagged several other very nice bucks almost in the shadow of the local downtown. One, a heavy 9-point, came one Saturday afternoon from a stand close enough to the local university's football stadium to plainly hear the play-by-play over the PA system. Mid-way through the game, as the home team was driving, the buck strolled nonchalantly down the trail I was watching.

I've shot several quality whitetails on the farm where I muzzleloader hunt. I have a friend who arrowed a buck that almost made Boone & Crockett along a gully bordering her (yes, her!) subdivision. Last year a son of another friend downed a nice 8-point next to a creek less than 150 yards from his back door.

Big bucks are where you find them, and more and more, they're being found in town, or next to it. These deer aren't pushovers, but because of the nature of their habitats, they are perhaps more patternable and predictable than their country cousins. This is why hunters in towns and cities should turn their attentions closer to home. City-raised deer are treasures just waiting to be claimed!