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Increase Harvest Success: The Science Behind Hunting

Alyssa Meier | Master of Science in Biology | AWB®

There are many schools of thought when it comes to how to hunt white-tailed deer. Some hunters prefer to use a well-placed tree stand or ground blind and wait for the deer to wander by, taking advantage of stillness and camouflage. Other hunters may prefer the slow, methodical movement of stalking or still hunting through a drainage or along a treeline. Many of you might have learned these methods from a mentor while growing up—knowledge that has been passed down through the generations. Or others of you might just now be getting into deer hunting, so you are unsure what works best for you. For novice hunters, it is often difficult to know where to even begin.

Then the question is: What does the science say about different hunting methods? Has there been any research to show what leads to a successful hunt?

deer in atv

When it comes to studying the behavioral interactions between predators and prey, science often neglects to account for humans as a source of predation, or at least study it in the same depth that they might study coyotes and white-tailed deer. However, hunting by humans is the primary source for meeting deer population management goals. So not only is it important to examine the effectiveness of hunters as a source of management, but also as a means to recruit, retain and reactivate hunters, especially for their role in conservation.

My research, as part of a much larger study examining deer-hunter relationships, focused on white-tailed deer hunter behaviors during the rifle season (2008 and 2009) on a private property in southcentral Oklahoma. My goal was to determine if and how different methods of hunting changed the number of deer observed.

For my study, hunters volunteered to carry GPS units to track their movement. Hunters also recorded their hunting method (tree stand, ground-blind, or stalk hunting), every observation of deer including sex and estimated age, and the start and end times of their hunt. The number of deer seen was used as an indicator of hunter success instead of actual harvest—a realistic assumption, considering the more deer you see the more likely you are to harvest a deer. Hunters were allowed to harvest does and a limited number of un-tagged bucks each year.

Are These Boots Made for Walking?

hunter getting in ground blind

Hunters that moved regularly like in still or stalk hunting tended to observe more deer. If you consider the average walking pace to be around 3-4 miles per hour, results showed that hunters had the highest chance of observing deer when moving at half that speed—about 1.5 miles per hour. Moving hunters are more likely to encounter deer that remain hidden than hunters that stay in tree stands and rely on deer movement for their opportunity to harvest.

But does this alone make you a better hunter? Slowly working your way through the landscape did increase encounters of deer, though this could mean hunters were simply flushing more deer without the opportunity to take a shot. Flushing deer can still be used to a hunter’s advantage, especially on subsequent hunts and if planning to hunt from a stationary location. Other research during this study has shown that deer will alter their behavior patterns by decreasing movement as the hunting season progresses, especially during the day, and use habitats where they can remain out of sight. Considering this, the key to a successful hunt is to identify the habitat in which deer are flushed or observed and prioritize these areas for stand placement or future efforts. Finding the deer’s backyard might just give you the opportunity for success.

Over the River and Through the Woods

Equally important is where you hunt. Choosing what habitat to focus your energy on can determine how successful you are in your hunt. Making careful observations of where you encounter deer can help identify areas to give the majority of your time.

The study area in southern Oklahoma consisted of forests, shrubs interspersed in grasslands, riparian drainages, and grasslands. Hunters that spent all of their time within the forest were more likely to see deer than hunters that spent no time within the forest. In these situations, hunters were typically trading greater visibility of more open areas such as grasslands to habitat actually used by deer. 

Once again, if we consider deer behavior, this result makes sense. During the hunting season, deer also increase their use of the forest to avoid hunting pressure by concealing themselves within denser vegetation. The first rule of hunting is to go to where the prey are, so it makes sense that hunters using similar habitats as deer would have a higher chance of seeing deer.

hunting from tree stand

Best Way to Begin

Many choices and decisions go into a single hunt that can lead to success or failure. Decisions such as where and how to hunt can be the most difficult part for new hunters. Hunters using slow, methodical movements through forests were more likely to observe deer than hunters that remained still or used only open habitat. However, this may be limited to areas similar to southern Oklahoma where there is a mixture of concealing habitat and open areas. In places like the Sandhills of Nebraska, you might have a better chance of seeing deer if you focus on topographical features (in place of forests for concealment), spot them from a distance, and then plan a stealthy stalk.

Hunters have devoted years to understanding deer behavior, and more recently, how deer change their patterns in response to hunters. Deer are smart so they alter how much they move, where they go, and when they forage to avoid predation. Sometimes the tried-and-true methods don’t seem to work anymore because the deer have caught on to our games. Understanding deer behavior, deer response to hunters, and our own hunting behavior is the best way to increase your chances of a successful hunt.

This study was supported by Noble Research Institute, LLC and the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture at Mississippi State University. Project collaborators include: Ken Gee, Steve Demarais, Andy Little, Stephen Webb, and Dustin Ranglack.

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