I’ve done it, and I’m sure you have, too. Archery deer season is only a few weeks away. You sit 300 yards from a farm field with your eyes glued to binoculars. The sun dips low, and deer begin to pop out from the forest edge. During the next hour, you see lots of does and several bucks. Just before dark, a genuine whopper steps out. This is the place to hunt!
Then opening day arrives. You’re perched 20 feet above a well-traveled deer trail on the field edge. A few does and fawns file by, and maybe a skinny spike buck, but the big boys don’t show up. A few days later, you start moving stands along the edge of the field. The honey-hole has run dry.
Field-loving deer are everywhere. Muleys in Wyoming and Montana flock to stretches of late-summer alfalfa. Whitetails and mule deer in Alberta, Canada, and in the Dakotas lurk along river-bottoms near vast wheat fields. Blacktails in California and Oregon sneak across rolling foothills planted with barley and oats. Whitetails in Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa appear along patches of soybeans and corn. The same thing happens in almost every other state and province from east to west. Wherever there are commercial crops, deer are certain to be nearby.
Trouble is, mature bucks aren’t foolish when it comes to hunters. They might seem placid and predictable before opening day, when the biggest ruckus is a pickup parked behind a tree at the far end of a field. But archers tramping along edges of croplands, erecting treestands with telltale clanks, and leaving heavy doses of human odor never go unnoticed.
As a result, wary bucks drift into the woodwork. They still feed in fields—you can count on it—but laying eyes on them during shooting hours can become a chore, and getting a shot might seem impossible.
Farm-field deer are smart, and they usually know when hunters are around. They avoid usual ambush spots and make most bowhunters look like fools. But they aren’t unkillable—you just need to stop making mistakes. Here are four quick-fixes to get you started on the right track.
No. 1: Get Your Head Screwed On Right
No matter what you might believe, deer continue to eat farm food throughout hunting season. Corn, soybeans, grain, alfalfa and food plot crops are buck magnets. Deer are addicted and cannot stay away.
But much of the feeding occurs at night. How visible deer are in fields depends on weather patterns, hunting pressure, moon cycles, the rut and a dozen other factors. At best, mature bucks become inconsistent about when and where they visit fields—that’s how they survive.
Take for example the most famous deer I’ve ever laid eyes on. The “Space Monster” was a legendary whitetail buck in southern Alberta. This tall-antlered non-typical was as dependable as a moo-cow in alfalfa fields along the Red Deer River before early fall hunting seasons. Then he vanished like fog. After deer season, the massive buck appeared again, wintering in the same farmer’s stockyard and dropping his huge antlers year after year. Dozens of people saw the buck alive, but almost never during bow or gun season. Even more people handled the matched sets of sheds, marveling at the 20-inch brows and forest of tines per side; the gross score of every set was more than 230 Boone and Crockett Club points.
In 1998 I bowhunted the ranch where Space Monster made his home. Early one morning, through my spotting scope, I saw the buck jump a fence corner and vanish into the badlands a mile from fields where he’d fed all night.
It was a rare sighting, and it gave me an idea. I dug a pit blind along the fence where I’d seen the buck. There were hundreds of tumbleweeds against the wire, giving me great cover. The very next morning, I watched in amazement as Space Monster sneaked toward me in the dull light of dawn.
The giant buck paused by the fence corner, then jumped my bowstring like a track star when I took the shot from 40 yards. I never saw him again.
The point is, even huge old deer feed in farm fields. The key to taking them is guessing where they’ll be during dawn and dusk—not where they actually eat.
No. 2: Set Up Away From Fields
Field edges are danger corridors for deer. Predators such as coyotes, mountain lions and people are drawn to these focal points, so deer are usually on high alert near fields.
One key to taking farmland bucks is hunting well away from field edges. It’s best to set up treestands or ground blinds at least 100 yards inside the forest edge. During the evening, farm-field bucks often wander in heavy cover until dead dark. They vacate open ground again before good shooting light. If you set up well back between a field and heavy-cover bedding areas, you’ll see relaxed, secure deer that aren’t acting terrified of predators. You’ll also see larger bucks that avoid field edges like the plague during daylight hours.
Even when deer do stay in fields after dawn, it’s still best to ambush them in heavy cover. For example, I shot a beautiful 5×5 Wyoming mule deer just last year. The November rut was in full swing, and I spotted the buck chasing does in a huge alfalfa field. The deer was preoccupied and rut-goofy, but his female companions were edgy and alert because the area was loaded with coyotes, wolves and cougars.
Finally, after hours of watching the big buck, I saw him push his harem toward a rough and heavily overgrown ridge to the south. I hustled deep into the brush where I thought the animals might pass by. Luckily, I was in the right place when a mob of does and fawns meandered into view, and the herd master was right behind. The entire bunch was noticeably more relaxed in heavy cover, and I had little trouble drawing my bow for a close shot. Had I waited right along the field edge, I’m sure one or more wound-up deer would’ve busted me.
No. 3: Move A Lot
Perhaps the single greatest sin when pursuing farm-field deer is hunting the same place over and over again until you tear your hair out. If you’re stand sitting, erect at least four or five ground blinds or treestands in widely separated locations. Don’t sit the same place 2 days in a row because deer will always smell a rat if you pound the same area hard.
Think about it: A few deer will run away as you walk to and from the stand. You’ll leave human odor around, alerting even more deer. You’ll make noise at the wrong time, spooking a buck you might never even know was there. After a couple days of this constant interference, every mature deer in the neighborhood will know to avoid your stand site.
A few years ago, I shot a nifty wide-racked whitetail from a ground blind. I had seen the buck several times before hunting season, but I sat for nearly 2 weeks and saw him only twice. The rut was going full blast, which makes big bucks even less predictable. But I continued to rotate between seven stands scattered far off the edges of the only nearby feeding field.
Finally, the thick-necked 6×6 wandered past, 25 yards away. Had I continued to sit the same place day after day, I suspect he would’ve seen me, scented me or heard me before I could get a shot.
In my experience, the first sit on a stand is usually the most productive. Things usually go downhill after that if you continue to hunt the same treestand or ground blind too often.
No. 4: Pay Attention To Scent
Farm-field deer are accustomed to smelling farmers on tractors, joggers on roadways and commuters in automobiles. But you cannot give deer uncut snootfuls of human odor without seeing them run away. More than any other factor, excess human odor will drive farmland deer into deep woods and complete darkness.
Learn wind patterns where you hunt and try to stay downwind or crosswind from deer. Cover your lower body with time-proven products such as Scent Shield or White Lightning so you don’t leave human scent trails to and from your stand. Wear all-rubber boots or commercial scent-barrier boots to help keep odor off grass and bushes near your stand. Wear activated carbon clothing from ScentLok, Scent Blocker, Cabela’s or another reputable company to eliminate most of your body odor as you hunt.
Farm-field deer are accustomed to some human scent. If you keep your body odor to a minimum, you’ll get more shots at animals that linger rather than racing away in fright.