An interesting thing takes place in the days following the deer season opener. Bucks that causally pranced through fields and strolled through open woods during daylight hours have vanished. Some are already converted to steaks, roasts and burger, but plenty are still out there, just not where you happen to be looking.
Instead, they have got nocturnal, diving head-first into places few hunters dare go and venturing out to feed only under the veil of darkness. Numerous studies have shown exactly that. In fact, in several instances, hunters walked within yards of bucks bedded down in super-thick cover.
Whether you hunt Southern pine plantations, Heartland farm country, Western river bottoms or the big woods of the North, pressured bucks have one thing in common: They know where to hide to avoid hunters. Surprisingly, however, many hunters continue to hunt open country with the expectation that if they sit long enough, a buck just might come walking by. Odds are they won’t, at least not a mature buck with a few seasons under his belt.
So how do you get to them? First, you have to identify those places that qualify as escape cover. In a nutshell, if it looks too thick for a rabbit to squeeze through, it’s probably exactly the type of cover that whitetails favor. Even a buck with a gnarly crown on his head can slip through dense briers, thick young trees and willow thickets. You’d be surprised.
Wise hunters plan well ahead of the season and do plenty of scouting in advance of opening day. That way, they know exactly where to go once the deer figure out the game. Whether you scout early or start looking after opening day, the only way to find a good spot is to pull on some brush pants, a pair of leather gloves and a canvas jacket and plow head-first into the cover. Surprisingly, dense cover is often super-thick only on the outside edges where sunlight touches the plants. Inside that edge, however, the cover often opens up, revealing a dark, damp world that few hunters ever see. It’s hardly similar to the wide-open woods you are used to hunting—a long shot might be 20 yards. Still, it can be open enough to stand up and walk, but not always.
Once you get into a thicket, you have to find obvious travel routes and not-so-obvious trails. When you do find good sign, look for a place to sit. A tree stand is out of the question, so plan on sitting on the ground 20 or 30 yards away from the trail. The farther away from travel corridors the better, but don’t hesitate to get within 10 yards, even less, if you don’t have a choice. A good way to create some additional distance is to hack out some shooting lanes with a brush axe or even a chain saw. Don’t get too crazy—deer like that cover because it’s thick.
So what do you shoot? A shotgun loaded with buckshot is hard to beat, but buckshot does have its drawbacks. Its effective range is limited to about 40 yards and the pellets can lose a fair amount of energy if they have to bust through vines and tree branches. A better choice might be a scoped shotgun loaded with slugs. A properly matched gun and load will give you more range than you’ll need, and a slug has enough punch to knock down any deer at close range. Even a scoped rifle will work, but make certain your scope is screwed down to the lowest magnification possible. It’s tough to find the vitals on a deer at 30 yards with a 9-power scope.
Any time you hunt thick cover, it’s wise to wear lots of blaze orange, even if your game laws don’t require it. (Many states don’t during special muzzleloader seasons.) As long as you sit still and stay quiet, you’ll be invisible to any deer that passes within range. And even if a buck does see you, it will be too late because thick cover is the last place any deer expects to see a hunter.