If the months of sitting in quarantine and perusing social media have shown us anything, it’s that everyone has an opinion, and they’re usually prepared to defend it to the death. Whether this is because humanity just finds some gladiatorial thrill in being argumentative, or maintains some deep-seated fear of being wrong, rarely do we look at an opposing side of an argument and find ourselves swayed. This is especially true when it comes to hunting, and few other topics are more hotly contested than what constitutes the best method of pursuing America’s favorite big-game animal: the whitetail deer.
Whitetail are the most prevalent, widely distributed, and popular big-game animal in the U.S. Whitetail hunters look forward as a collective to those first frosty fall mornings in the woods, fantasies of bruiser bucks getting us through the long, dull wait until opening day. But it’s there that the shared feelings end, and we become divided, with every hunter maintaining their own views of how to best fulfill that fantasy. We hunt whitetail in every way possible, from still-hunting through timber to climbing into tree stands, to simply sitting on a stump in the woods. Everyone has their “best” method to deer hunt.
Whether such an opinion was passed down from a mentor or came from regional hunting traditions, once it’s formed, we are unshakable in our belief of its effectiveness. This leads to us sometimes looking negatively upon hunters who pursue deer using different methods from our own. I’m not saying there are brawls across America between deer trackers and stump-sitters, but we’ve all heard the murmurs or the hostile ‘advice’. “That’ll never work around here.” “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.” “That ain’t real hunting.” We think of those who hunt differently than us as less-talented hunters who find success through sheer luck alone. What we don’t do is really look at the different skill sets required for each hunting method and find admiration and respect for other hunters’ practices.
As a lifelong whitetail hunter, I often think about how lucky I am to have had such a varied upbringing in my pursuit of these fantastic animals. It’s been so varied, in fact, I never got the chance to form a solid opinion about which way was best. I grew up in New England, but my extended family lived in the Midwest, and in my late twenties I moved out West to become a guide. No one in my immediate family deer hunted, so I never had a hunting mentor to teach me what to do. Instead, I picked up bits and pieces of whitetail lore as I went along—a little from each region.
I have still-hunted and tracked whitetail through thick pine forests, sat patiently in tree stands on the corners of corn and alfalfa fields, planted food plots, built ground blinds in creek bottoms and along hardwood ridge lines, and glassed and stalked distant bucks from rocky mountain tops. In short, I got the best of all the whitetail world and discovered that, when done right, it all works and works well. Sure, I have my preferences, but I don’t think that one way of hunting is consistently better than another. Being introduced to this variety of hunting methods has given me a number of skills in my quiver that I can draw out to use no matter where or when I’m deer hunting. What’s more, it’s also instilled in me a great deal of admiration for the different skills that each method requires.
For those uninitiated, the world of whitetail hunting can be broken down into two primary methods: waiting for the deer to come to you or going to get the deer. It’s that simple. Yet so much goes into it. From looking at maps to scouting for deer sign and exploring terrain, it’s all about finding the method that defines your success or failure. It’s all a gamble, an expression of faith in yourself as a hunter. Choosing to hunt from a tree stand or ground blind, for example, is a testament to a hunter’s knowledge of a deer’s behavior. Pre-rut time, post-rut time, moon phases, food sources, all of it has to be considered when picking a spot for a stand. Putting up a semi-permanent structure is a testament to the hunter’s ability to scout and know the deer. The hunter has to have faith that the placement of the stand will present them with an opportunity.
What’s more is that stands can often can be left for years in the same spot and still produce. This speaks volumes about a hunter’s intimate knowledge of the land and the deer they hunt. I’ve hunted from stands so steeped in successful history that they’ve earned names like “Old Faithful” and “Ten-Point Oak.” There’s also a lot to be said about the patience and fortitude it takes to be a successful stand hunter. You wait calmly for hours at a time, suffering through numb fingers and toes and passing storms, letting your senses dull and your mind wander, until a deer suddenly arrives. The shock of adrenaline jolts your system and suddenly everything that was still and calm is humming with excitement. You’ve got to be tough to be a stand hunter.
Choosing a more mobile method of hunting such as still-hunting or spot-and-stalk is about woodsmanship. You’re moving on the deer’s territory, playing their game. You have to know how to walk quietly, understand wind direction, thermal shifts, and how to use the natural cover of the environment to your advantage. Creeping through the forest, silent and stealthy, your eyes are constantly scanning for a spot of brown or the flick of an ear. The success of your hunt rests on a knife edge, depending entirely on not stepping on the wrong stick or moving too fast or too slow. You enter the whitetail woods as a mobile hunter knowing that at any moment the hunt can change, and that just over the next rise your dreams could be fulfilled.
When it really comes down to it, no matter how we deer hunt, how different our preferred methods are, we are all really hunting for the same thing. There is no ‘best’ way to hunt deer because in the end it all really comes down to luck more than anything else. And we should celebrate that, finding joy in that commonality we all have as members of the whitetail fraternity. We deer hunt for that tiny space of time when a buck is in our sights and every fiber of our beings vibrated with the excitement of the hunt. We have no guarantees in the hunting world; we can only better our odds. The successful deer hunter lives at that point where luck and skill and determination all roll into one. That’s not opinion—that’s fact.