Deer hunting on the go can put you into the action and provide in-your-face excitement, but doing it successfully takes a careful approach.
It was a mild day on the Iowa prairies. After many fruitless treestand hunts, I hadn’t seen a big buck and was burnt out. I checked in with a friend over the phone, and he said something along these lines: “You need to do something different, man. Try driving around and see if you can spot a buck from the road. If not, pop in and out of some different spots. With the rut going on, don’t be afraid to get aggressive.”
The very next morning, my wife and I broke away from our stationary approach and assumed a nomadic strategy, as my friend had suggested. Let’s just say that we got a lot more going than we had while hunting from treestands. That morning, we encountered multiple bucks, including two 2 1/2-year-olds, which cluelessly followed a doe to within 15 steps of us. That afternoon while driving to another location, we spotted a nice buck as he pushed a doe into a thicket along a road.
I got into the thicket and grunted the buck to within 15 yards. He didn’t present me with a shot opportunity, and as a result of the grunting, a larger buck came in behind me. I was pinned down and couldn’t turn my head initially. I heard him kicking away the dirt as he made a scrape. I finally turned my head and saw his big 8-point frame. Before I knew it, both bucks had faded away, but the encounter fueled my jets. I went from burnt out to rejuvenated.
I bow-killed the smaller of those two bucks at 15 yards the following day in a different thicket when he responded to my grunting. The following year, I shot two more mature bucks — each at about 20 yards — from the ground with my bow on public land. Yes, I’ve also had numerous encounters that ended with my head in my hands as a big rack faded away in the distance, but I’ve had enough success on quality bucks to know that this hunting style can be very effective for hunters with the right personalities, an ability to make many decisions in a short period of time, and an ounce of curiosity. Should you try your hand at this aggressive hunting style, you’ll want to heed the following pointers.
Wind Is Number One
I don’t leave my truck without a bottle of scent-checking powder. Even a buck locked down with a doe during the rut doesn’t make many mistakes. It takes only a hint of human scent to send Mr. Big running away. For that reason, I don’t go to great lengths to stay scent-free when I’m hunting actively on the ground. Instead, I focus on playing the wind the best I can. Whether I’m hiking in a mile and tucking into a cedar or hiking and glassing, I always enter the parcel I’ll be hunting with the wind in my favor.
A tool that helps tremendously with scent monitoring is HuntStand’s HuntZone feature. It provides wind detail — direction and speed — for your exact location. It also displays your scent cone so that you can see how your scent will disperse from your location. Of course, shifting winds complicate things, but this typically isn’t a factor unless the weather is changing or you’re hunting in topography where sidehills unpredictably divert winds or when thermals are overriding the wind itself. In any case, always stay in tune with the wind.
Tailor Your Aggressiveness to the Time of Season
Other than situations in which you must run to cut off a traveling buck using the terrain, there isn’t a whole lot of room for getting aggressive during the early season. Early-season deer are typically best hunted by patterning them and intercepting them on their routes between bedding areas and food sources. So, dial back your aggressiveness during this timeframe. The worst thing you can do during the early season is get too aggressive and inadvertently change a buck’s pattern. Sometimes, grunting and lightly tickling the rattling antlers will attract a curious buck, but I’d suggest that as a last resort.
As bucks begin to get on their feet more often during daylight with the rut’s onset, you can afford to turn aggressiveness up a notch. If you’re hunting on a whim without any prior on-foot scouting, I suggest spending time in the evenings after dark studying HuntStand’s Satellite and Terrain Maps. With a little know-how, you can identify potential bedding areas. If you’re up for covering some ground, you can move from one to the next and rattle on the downwind edges of them. You’ll typically want to attempt this during the day when bucks are bedding down. Obviously, the effectiveness of rattling diminishes as bucks hook up with does, which brings us to the next season phase.
During the peak rut — the period of time when the most does are being bred — you can’t always predict where bucks will be. I’ve caught bucks locked down with does in thickets along roadways, out in the middle of prairies, in the middle of ag fields, in tall grass and other obscure places that they wouldn’t be found outside of the rut. This is when I turn my aggressiveness dial to the max setting. Of course, when I get into situations that require patience, I slow down. But, I usually move in aggressively or try to decoy and call the buck to me.
A great example of this was when three bucks disappeared into a cattail slough on November 12 a few seasons ago. I waited for about 10 minutes, then parked the truck right where they crossed a road. With the wind whipping in my face, I set off toward the slough. There, I knelt down and grunted loudly. 10 minutes later, I arrowed a dandy 10-pointer at 20 yards as he circled my decoy. I was patient when I first saw the bucks, but once they disappeared, I pulled out my aggressive tricks and got my buck.
Plan a Tentative Route, But Stay Flexible
I don’t head out onto a piece of ground without first studying it on my HunStand Pro Whitetail app. I want to assess the entire property as well as adjacent properties. I want to predict where deer will be and where they’re coming from and going. I use the Monthly Satellite Imagery map to see what’s in the area for agriculture (sometimes I can tell if a food source is green or grain and sometimes if it has been harvested). I use the Satellite and Terrain maps, as mentioned earlier, to identify potential bedding grounds.
Based on my quick mental summary of the property and how deer use it, I plan a tentative route for how I will thoroughly cover the parcel without leaving a big human impact. Some folks who hunt actively on the ground overlook this, especially on public land where they feel they have nothing to lose. Well, this leads to a lot of bumped deer, and considering ethics, keep in mind that you’re not the only one hunting the public parcel in most instances.
Having a route in mind as I enter and work a given property is crucial to working the ground methodically and without bumping lots of deer. The only thing that changes my route is a wind shift or spotting a deer I want to pursue. So, have a plan, but be flexible and ready to adapt to situations as they arise.
Hunt Where Other People Don’t
I tend to hunt on the plains and prairies, though I occasionally hunt timber and have encountered plenty of deer within point-blank range using a nomadic ground-hunting strategy. In open country, I try to hunt where other deer hunters don’t. Commonly, most hunters head for trees where they can hang a stand or get into their tree saddle. To their credit, trees certainly draw deer. But I don’t want to jeopardize others’ hunts. So, I gravitate toward open ground with some rolling topography and occasional thickets. I rarely bump into other deer hunters, though run-ins with bird hunters are more likely. Still, I try to get far enough from roadways to avoid bird hunting pressure.
By hunting away from traditional river bottoms and draws with trees, I usually don’t see as many deer, but I tend to find some nicer bucks. I also don’t run into a lot of other hunters. The open areas and thickets aren’t for everyone, and it can make for some tough hunting. Deer in the wide open are extremely tough to stalk, and the thickets can be so thick that you can’t shoot 10 yards at times. But, for the right hunter, it can be an enjoyable challenge.
Hunting whitetails on the go can provide some exciting opportunities for the detailed and skilled woodsman. Doing it successfully, though, requires nearly constant attention to situations so that you can address them as they unfold. Even though I’ve taken some big bucks this way, I don’t always make the right decisions, and I’ve had a couple of different encounters with 160-class (and possibly larger) whitetails that didn’t pan out because I acted too quickly or not quickly enough. I guess that’s why they call it hunting and not killing.
When an encounter falls apart, I try to assess what went wrong, salt my wounds a little and keep plugging away. The beauty of nomadic deer hunting is that when things fall apart, you didn’t ruin a hot stand location. You have a big playground in front of you to keep going, and sometimes you can get on another buck in a matter of minutes or hours rather than days or weeks. Nomadic deer hunting isn’t for everyone, but if you have the desire and follow the tips I’ve outlined here, success is achievable.
Ground Game Checklist
- Keep the wind in your face.
- Move when the wind picks up and disguises your commotion.
- Be aggressive during the rut. Have a unique idea? Now’s the time to try it.
- Always be prepared to shoot. Opportunities can unfold when you least expect them.
- Use your optics often. Look for pieces of a deer, not necessarily the entire deer. In the open country with gentle terrain contours, look around as you hike. Deer can appear suddenly without warning.
- Stop and listen frequently, especially in areas with noisy vegetation. Hearing deer and getting set up and ready to shoot before they appear is a huge advantage.
- Don’t quit after you bump deer, especially during the rut. Even a snorting deer doesn’t mean the action is totally over.