Hunting Big Woods Whitetails by Steve Sherk
During this day and age, it seems as if we’ve got deer hunting figured out. Place stands in between bedding and feeding areas and you’ll have a wall-hanger in no time. At least that’s how it seems to be on the television. Deer hunters have truly taken advantage of food plots and agricultural grounds—being the best woods to hunt whitetails.
Unfortunately, I’ve never been rich enough to own a piece of land to hunt on, nor did I live near farmers or landowners. However, growing up in northwest Pennsylvania I was blessed to live in the heart of the Allegheny National Forest—one of the state’s largest public hunting grounds.
You can’t compare the Allegheny National Forest to those little pieces of farmland full of whitetails. Here, you are lucky to have a dozen deer in a square-mile. Even worse, the hills are steep and rugged, in some places, the woods are impenetrable and it’s not uncommon to hike through a foot of snow. If you hunt a week without seeing a deer you are probably doing nothing wrong. Believe it or not, I’d rather hunt deer in this type of area than anywhere in the world. Harvesting a whitetail has never been my first priority; rather, finding a true challenge is what it’s all about to me. Hunting deer in large forests is the ultimate challenge.
BIG WOODS DEER TRAVELS
I don’t have a degree in education, but I hope I can share my knowledge of big woods whitetails with others. First of all, big woods deer usually have large home ranges. From my experiences, I would say the average deer lives in a square-mile area. However, don’t count on that statistic; I have seen deer travel much further.
During most of the year, big woods deer need food, cover and water. In most forests, all three of these needs are usually available. In large forests, food and cover may be over-abundant which can make it very difficult to pattern deer during hunting season.
It is extremely important to be aware of the fact that big woods deer are rarely on a routine schedule. It is uncommon to see the same deer in the same place on a daily basis. When you do notice a deer’s pattern, they usually don’t bed in the same exact area every day. All in all, these deer have a lot of room to roam making them even more difficult to hunt.
Knowing food sources is one of the biggest keys to becoming a successful deer hunter. Food sources can dictate many different factors. I often hear hunters praise about the year’s when food sources are abundant—especially acorns. However, in my opinion, I prefer hunting apple orchards. Why? Apple trees are less common than most of the other types mast producers. Apples also taste better. The few times I am able to pattern deer in the big woods, usually occurs where there are apples.
Another attractive mast crop is the wild cherry. Wild cherry is very common in the Allegheny National Forest and it usually produces well each year. The fruit usually falls in the month of August and it remains nutritious throughout most of October. I have seen deer avoid all other food sources when wild cherry is available. The downfall to hunting near wild cherry is that in most areas it is so abundant that deer can feed on it almost anywhere.
In my opinion, these are the top three mast crops in the big woods of the northeast. The biggest confusion with mast crops is that they aren’t available year-round. Obviously, big woods deer eat other things.
Many hunters throughout the United States do not pay enough attention to browse sources. One should know that whitetails are mainly browsing creatures—mast crops are just icing on the cake. In just about any type of wooded area, there is always some kind of browse. However, deer are usually very selective toward browse. I have found that blackberry and maple seem to be a major food source for whitetails. But when food is limited they will nibble on just about anything.
Although I said browse can be found almost anywhere, there are certainly places where it is more abundant than others. Clear-cuts can be considered the whitetail’s grocery store. They are full of various browse material. There is no other natural place that will hold whitetails year-round.
Not only do whitetails use clear-cuts for feeding but they are also great bedding areas. We all know that deer usually bed in the thickest cover available. That’s why clear-cuts are so attractive.
It is important to know that whenever you are hunting mountainous terrain, deer almost always bed up high and they do most of their feeding down low in the valleys. In big forests, most often bedding cover can be just about everywhere.
The best way to locate well-used bedding areas is to find a “hot” food source and then search for the nearest cover. If you’re hunting bucks, look for buck sign near thick cover. If you have some luck, just be aware that too much pressure on a bedding area can send bucks out of the area. For safe purposes, only hunt near or on the downwind edges of bedding grounds.
HOW TO BE SUCCESSFUL
By now you should know that big woods deer are one of a kind. All the best tactics known to man are usually never enough to harvest these creatures. Although having enough skills and knowledge is a key, having the right mental attitude is the main ingredient to success.
Since these deer are so hard to pattern you just have to be patient. Success rarely ever comes quickly. You may hunt a stand several times without seeing a deer, but that doesn’t mean you are in the wrong place. Find areas with several good bucks and then hunt where rubs and scrapes are plentiful. But no matter what, you have to be confident even when the action is slow. Eventually it all comes together.