Even as I near a half-century's worth of deer seasons, sleep comes grudgingly, if at all, before opening day.
But now, resting quietly in my sleeping bag, a string of whitetail dream hunts parades through my thoughts.
Picking an approved rack from a ranch full of big South Texas bucks, trusty A-bolt in hand. Tracking a Saskatchewan bruiser through fresh snow and taking him at twilight with my muzzleloader. Waiting alongside a frigid Iowa fenceline for the big 10-pointer that trotted past and then fell to the whump of my slug gun.
Spending a golden autumn patterning deer during morning and evening treestand bowhunts in the imaginary wooded ridges behind my home, waiting for the buck that I want.
Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beep-beep. The portable alarm clock ends my slumber.
Dream over. Opening day! I shuffled over to the shack's woodstove, tossed in a couple chunks of popple and rubbed my eyes. Nice dreams. But not reality.
This was reality: an old shack in the woods. Three good friends. Sixty-five acres and some strategically placed stands. Some deer around; maybe a buck, too.
Pulling on long johns, I had a notion: In exactly two weeks I'd be rising for another state's opener and looking at a parallel reality two friends' farms, eight miles apart, one 260 acres and the other 200. Good deer country, but not premier. Some company in the field.
If your realities are like my dreams, you're lucky. But who has the dollars, land access and/or time to experience hunts like those? We read about them, but is that your whitetail hunting reality? It's not mine.
Maybe you're saving for a special hunt. Me, too. But until then, and after, there's a lot of whitetail hunting reality to deal with:
Limited land a farm or two, a lease or hunt club with friends, a chunk of land that you own, maybe public land.
Limited time we all need to work for a living and keep a family happy, too, so we have to count our beloved days in the woods carefully.
Limited deer habitat that is probably good but not necessarily crawling with deer to pass up as you wait for something "better."
So what can you do to increase your odds of success, given that you don't have all the money, land or time in the world to hunt?
Here's my reality whitetail-hunting checklist. It focuses on firearms hunting, but applies to bowhunting, too.
These are just commonsense and effective strategies, techniques and tips-ideas that can make success happen for the average-guy hunter. You and me.
In the end, a successful hunt requires one simple strategy that you are in the field where you can shoot a deer. Even if it seems like the deer are gone from the acres that you hunt. Even if the weather is bad. Casual hunters overlook this fact; they are the guys who go home without venison.
I have yet to shoot a deer from my couch, or the diner in town, or the warm seat of a pickup truck. If you want to be low-key and leave the woods, fine. But if you're serious about getting a deer, be out there where things can happen.
Dress right and be ready for an all-day stay. Carry a daypack with enough food and water for the outing, and extra clothes and disposable body and hand warmers.
Whitetails are incredible hiders, which means there likely are deer very close to you at any given time.
Fifteen to 20 deer live year-round on one of the farms that I mentioned; my farmer friend sees them in the fields on summer evenings. With maybe 80 acres of hiding cover on the place, there's a deer for every four acres, or, theoretically, one within 140 yards of me at all times.
That's what I tell myself when the action is slow and I'm wondering if I'm crazy to be hunting so hard. Do some similar math for your hunting spots. You'll stay out longer and hunt harder.
This relates to attitude: You can be having a miserable hunt one moment, and, five seconds later, it can be one of your greatest.
Think back to some of the deer that you've shot. Action unfolds quickly. Always be ready for something good to happen. And if bad things happen, don't give up.
A couple of years ago, I sat through a blustery and uneventful morning until about 10, when a group of does loped across a hayfield toward my stand. I leaned against a hickory tree and tried to squeeze off a shot at the lead deer as she paused to test the wind. Click. I shucked in another shell. Click. Bad firing pin. Seven white tails flagged goodbye as I cursed my slug gun.
I walked a half-mile back to the truck, screwed a rifled choke tube into my little grouse gun and returned to my stand, determined to hunt out the day. During the late afternoon, the wind died down and a twig cracked behind me.
I hadn't lost hope, and the shotgun was at my shoulder when a spike buck stepped out 20 yards away. Boom! And to be honest, there was another "boom," because I missed as he stood but rolled him on his second bound, when it was more like shooting at a grouse. In eight seconds, the day went from bad to great. I was there to make it happen.
Hunt hard, hunt right
That's my pep talk. If you're a reality whitetail hunter, your effort and dedication being out there, thinking positively and hunting hard and with your heart in it will be the primary reasons why you either get a deer or go home empty-handed.
Now let's talk a few details. Stick to the simple here, too. Gadgets, gizmos and fancy tricks have yet to bring a reality whitetail to me, anyway.
Know and love your gun
Sight-in your firearm. A magnificent whitetail (they're all magnificent) deserves this respect and a clean kill. You deserve to miss if you don't shoot before the season.
But knowing your rifle, shotgun, muzzleloader or bow also will help your attitude and confidence in the woods. One shot, one fleeting chance, is the only link between you and the deer that you've been dreaming about. Make it count.
Now is the perfect time to conduct this necessary part of the hunt. Sight-in before other fall hunting seasons occupy your time. Relax. Have fun with it.
There's no pressure now. And don't get wigged out about ballistics and splitting hairs.
Throw a bullet or slug through the barrel again before the season to be sure that you're still "on."
I won't tell you that scouting is unimportant. But don't traipse around and spook deer away from your hunting area, especially as the season draws near. Set up your stands months before the hunt. If you're hunting a limited amount of land, chances are good that you won't be adjusting their position that much anyway.
Within a month of hunting season, do your spotting and scouting from a distance from roadways or with binoculars. If possible, use the landowners' knowledge and sightings to tell you where the deer have been living and moving; this traditionally has been my best "scouting" of all.
You know your hunting land better than me where the deer hang out, how to best hunt the terrain. But this approach applies to all reality whitetail hunters: Always take a low-impact approach to your hunting. Be smart about hunting what land you have.
Select your stands carefully and have alternate places to sit for varying winds. Yes, you might have to "overhunt" a stand; not overhunting stands is a luxury for those who have huge tracts of land to hunt.
Should you do deer drives? That's your call. I will do them mini-pushes describes the tactic better when the neighbors are in town having lunch or watching a football game on TV.
The idea is to move deer around, not out of your hunting area. One hunter pushes. Go quiet. Go slow. Sneak. My dad was a pro at this. It would take him at least an hour to go 100 yards on a mini-push. But the deer that he moved never hightailed it; they just skulked around him in the woodlot and often enough he'd hear a boom from my direction and smile.
He's 82 now, so I push for him, striving to move as slowly and patiently as he did. Bottom line? This plan keeps deer where you can hunt them and not over on the neighbors' property.
We love it when the other hunters in Cadiz Township do their big drives. The little acreage that we hunt benefits from an influx of deer as they escape and then filter back out to their home ranges later. Another reason to stay put and hunt hard all day.
Moments of truth
Do you know what saves many deer, as many as any other hunter mistake? I do. It's ruining the opportunity for a shot before you can even pull the trigger. Jerking the gun up too soon. Or too quickly. Or too late. Or moving too much in the process.
An approaching deer is always a surprise. Try to control your emotions. You might only get this chance. Move slowly but deliberately to get your gun up. Move only when the deer is moving, or when its head is hidden. You'll never win a quick draw. Don't panic or you will surely lose the deer. Be patient, but shoot when the shot is good.
I still get excited while hunting, but this helps: Think "S-S-S-S": slow-steady-spot-squeeze. Slow movements. Steady your aim. Aim at one small spot on the deer's chest; you know where. Squeeze the trigger, don't jerk it. These steps can turn critical moments of truth into moments of success and elation.
If you get the idea that I'm not a new-age whitetail hunter, you're right. Other than dressing smartly (good gloves, hat and boots) for the weather conditions at hand, a rifle (or shotgun or muzzleloader) that you trust, and a good, sharp knife, what do you really need for successful whitetail hunting? Dedication and a few simple but sound strategies.
And don't let somebody else's standards on total inches of antler or whether there's antler at all destroy your appreciation of any deer that you are good and lucky enough to take.
Remember, this is reality whitetail hunting for real people. What matters is what you think the record book in your memory.
A reality whitetail
Back to opening day. I left the shack early, reached my stand 45 minutes before first light, put on the extra clothes from my day pack and climbed up. Minnesota's November chill crept into my bones, but excitement kept me warm.
A few shots rang out here and there at first light. I waited. It seemed like an eternity. But the woods stayed quiet. I had scouted last spring and had not touched this spot since, except to pass by on a grouse hunt. The light south breeze was just right. It felt good to hold my old rifle.
Hoofbeats in the leaves! As I turned slowly, he was there, hidden behind some saplings. My rifle was halfway to my shoulder. Slowly, I raised it up all the way. I could see his white throat patch and eye rings through the scope; I knew where his chest was.
Twenty years ago, I would have shot. But now I waited, so long that my arms began to shake. And then he trotted on past, 30 yards out. Buckskin flashed between tree trunks. I held off. At the last possible moment he paused and then lay quietly on his side, and I realized that I'd shot.
I waited a few minutes, wondering if I was still dreaming. But I wasn't. This was real. I climbed down and walked over to the buck, smiling. The sun's first rays cleared the popple and oak trees as I knelt beside him and held his thick, little 8-point antlers, thinking to myself, this buck makes me happier than any dream.
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