Becoming a Student of Whitetail Deer

Becoming a Student of Whitetail Deer – Start

By Steve Bartylla

For those looking for every advantage in understanding whitetail deer, Steve’s column Becoming A Student Of Whitetail Deer is a must-read.

Contemplating the subject matter for my first article for Improvehunting.Com made me analyze what I believed was the biggest factor in increasing the overall success rate I now enjoy harvesting white-tailed deer.


many of the other fine columnists that write for this outstanding web site, when it comes to hunting, the elusive whitetail is my only prey. It’s not as if I wouldn’t enjoy bear or turkey hunting, it’s simply a matter of time. Between producing the “Building a Better Bowhunter” video series, writing, consulting in habitat improvement, speaking at seminars, scouting, hunting whitetail, and being a father and husband, I simply do not have the time to pursue other animals.

A desirable side effect of this is that every moment I spend in the woods, and it is a considerable amount of time, is devoted to gathering information on deer, their habitat, and how they interrelate with each other. This, indirectly, has been what has increased my success rate more than any other single factor.

Although I began bowhunting at the age of twelve, it wasn’t until I reached the mid-teens that I began attempting to figure out

  • why deer were using a certain trail,
  • when they were using it,
  • which food sources they preferred,
  • why they chose certain areas to bed,
  • how they used topography, and so on.

Looking back, that is really when I began to harvest whitetails much more consistently.

I am a very firm believer that it is impossible to know too much about the prey you are chasing. This applied equally as well to my youthful days trapping as it does to hunting whitetails, as I’m sure it does to elk hunting. Simply put, the more you know, the better you understand their needs, wants, and desires, the better you can anticipate their actions, and finally, the better you can position yourself for success. Having had the pleasure of “picking the brains” of many of the nation’s top hunters, the one thing they all agree on is that the more you know about whitetails and the habitat you will be chasing them in, the better your chances of success.

1. Where to Begin 

The first step in building a knowledge base on white-tailed deer is to explore their habitat and interpret the sign they have left behind. This is easily accomplished through scouting the areas that you are planning to hunt.

Becoming a Student of Whitetail Deer

As easy as this may be, I personally feel that this is an area where many hunters fall short. Granted, the vast majority of hunters spend time beating through the underbrush of their favorite hunting spot before the season opens. However, many do not take the time to truly analyze their findings and often conduct their scouting efforts in a manner that actually reduces their chances of harvesting an animal. This is especially true when their quarry is a mature whitetail. Mature whitetails (4 1/2 + range), whether they are bucks or does for that matter, have been able to reach maturity for several reasons, they know their habitat intimately, are keenly aware of changes to their surroundings, and are far from being “dumb animals”.

The combination of scouting during the wrong time of the day, the wrong time of the year, in the wrong areas and/or not treating the woods with the respect it demands can have devastating effects on the hunter’s odds of harvesting a mature whitetail. 

2. Interpreting Sign 

It also is not enough to simply find deer signs and setup on it if your goal is to consistently harvest mature whitetails. It is imperative to interpret what the whitetail was doing when it was doing it, why it was being done, and what is the likelihood that it will be done again. This is where it can get a little tricky sometimes. Now is when knowledge of your prey, their habitat, and educated guesswork come into play. For example,

research has shown that whitetails have five peak movement periods during a 24 hour period: dawn, dusk, twice during the night, and once at midday.

  1. At dawn and dusk, they generally move between their bedding and feeding areas.
  2. In the night they are switching between feeding and cud-chewing while bedded near the food sources.
  3. Finally, at midday, they tend to shift bedding areas. This may be no more than shifting beds within a small area or relocating a half-mile away. It has been my experience that the midday movements which cover more than one hundred yards are the result of deer moving closer to their evening food sources. 

3. Putting it all Together 

With these movement patterns in mind, we can surmise that the beaten-down trail running through the woods that connects two bedding areas is used mainly during the midday hours. Furthermore, by gauging the level of buck sign, or lack thereof, we can determine if this trail is used primarily by bucks or family group members.

So, if we want to harvest a mature buck and we conclude that this is primarily used by does we would leave this stand site alone until the rut rolls around.

During the rut, this stand might be an exceptional location to intercept bucks as they travel between bedding areas in search of receptive does or as they trail them between bedding areas. Now, due in part to the midday movement of does, would also be a good time to employ an all-day vigil at this location.

On the other hand,

if this trail is sprinkled with buck sign we could approach it differently. In the early pre-rut period we could sit near a food source in the morning, move back to this trail during midday, and shift back to the food source as evening approaches.

Despite the influx of research on how the moon, weather patterns, ect., affect deer movement, I have always believed that the single best time to be in the woods is whenever you can be.

By using this strategy, it is possible to hunt natural movement throughout the entire day in a period other than the rut. Unfortunately, proper scouting techniques demand an article all of its own to do it justice.

For now, lets just say that the best time of year to put in those scouting efforts is between the end of the last day of the season and the beginning of summer. Although it can happen, it is rare for any damage done this time of year to have a detrimental effect that lasts into next season. At a minimum, if it is critical to scout in-season, confine these efforts to midday hours, employ the same scent reduction techniques as if you were actually hunting, steer clear of those bedding areas, and do your best to interpret why and when this sign was actually left.

4. Study Deer 

My last point in this introductory article is to make a conscious effort to study the deer you see while hunting. Many hunters see and shoot deer, few actually study what they are doing as they pass through the woods.

When watching a doe, fawn, or young buck-passing your stand, note

  • which plants they nibble at,
  • what their body language is telling you,
  • which areas of cover they cling to,
  • how they use the topography, etc.

If you are astute, they will provide you with pieces to the greater puzzle. The more pieces we have the easier it is to see the big picture and apply it to other situations as well the understanding the current one better. 


Although my next piece will go into detail on other methods that will aid in “becoming a student of white-tailed deer”, there is no better place to begin than with scouting and studying deer. These are the foundation upon which our knowledge base should be built. The stronger our foundation, the great our potential knowledge base can become. Till next time.

Click Here for 2nd part – Becoming a Student of Whitetail Deer Part 2

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