Deer seasons in most of the USA doesn’t start until September – but if you’re looking to harvest some whitetail this year you’re probably already planning your hunt now.
Hopefully, you’ll be out soon shooting and developing your loads for upcoming hunts and maybe spending some time hiking, working out and getting ready for long days in the field and packing that hard-earned venison back to the trailhead.
This fall some 10 million hunters will go afield in search of the whitetail buck of their dreams. On average, about 6 million deer will be harvested.
Though the numbers seem astronomical, consider this. In 1900 it is estimated that less than 500,000 whitetail deer remained in the US. As of 2013, there were an estimated 32,000,000 whitetails.
A true conservation success story and one that points to the hunter as the true conservationist.
The whitetail deer is the most popular big-game species to hunt. Partly because of the sheer numbers, but also because the whitetail can be found from as far north as the Arctic Circle in Canada to Brazil and Peru in South America.
From the east coast to the west coast whitetails can be found in every state in the Lower 48.
Whitetails live in vastly different habitats. You may find them in the edges around agricultural operations such as beans, corn, and alfalfa. Some you find at high elevation in the aspens in Colorado and Wyoming. Others prefer the tight, close confines of the river bottoms.
Because of the adaptability of whitetails, where you hunt will largely determine the rifle and ammo combination needed to be successful.
The whitetail is the smallest of the deer species in North America. On average a mature buck will weigh about 150 pounds, and a doe about 100 pounds. They are thin-skinned and have a relatively dainty bone structure.
So cleanly killing a whitetail does not take a specialized or heavy rifle and cartridge. A well-placed bullet from nearly any centerfire rifle will allow you to ethically take whitetail deer.
What About The Guns?
There are a lot of options when it comes to rifle and cartridges, let’s take a look at some good choices for whitetail hunting to get you started down the path to a whitetail hunting career.
You’re kidding, right? With all the fast new and sexy cartridges out there, why do I list the .30-30 first?
In all likelihood, the .30-30 Winchester Centerfire has taken more whitetail than any other cartridge. Often packaged in a compact, light and easy to carry lever-action rifle, the .30-30 makes a lot of sense.
There are a lot of whitetail in the river bottoms and thick forest and swamps. Shots will be short. You’ll likely be on a stand or stalk hunting and catch a glimpse of a whitetail sneaking through the woods.
Traditional open sights or a peep sight are quick to acquire and quite accurate for 50-100 yard shots.
Any good bullet designed for tubular magazines will be fine. My Winchester Model 94’s prefer 150-grain flat-points.
Normally you need to use round nose or flat nose bullets in a tube magazine for safety reasons, however, Hornady now offers a tube magazine safe spitzer cartridge using their FTX bullets. Although these cost a bit more than standard .30-30 rounds, they offer better penetration, better accuracy, longer range, and more reliable feeding.
The .308 was originally designed as a military cartridge. Sportsmen quickly realized that the .308 cartridge design was very accurate and could be housed in short action rifles, making them quite handy in the field.
The .308 gives up very little performance as far as velocity and energy compared to the 30-06. What it doesn’t do is recoil very much. A .308 with good 165 – 180-grain bullets will easily handle all your whitetail hunting from very close cover to 300+ yards with good optics.
Another military cartridge adopted for sporting use. The .30-06 is a do-it-all cartridge.
With the exception of big bears and the dangerous game of Africa, you would be well-served with a quality bolt action rifle in .30-06 to take on virtually any big-game species on the planet.
In fact, in his book “One Man, One Rifle, One Land” JY Jones writes about his quest to take all 43 North American Species with the same .30-06 rifle.
Loaded with bullets from 150-180 grains, the .30-06 is a solid choice for someone who wants to hunt big game and do their hunting with one rifle.
I know, ‘who hunts deer with an AR?’. Truth be told, lots of folks do.
The AR is one of, if not the fastest selling rifle platform available today. The simple fact is the AR is today’s modern sporting rifle.
Light, handy, ammo is stocked in every gun store in the nation and in all different loads, and priced so an AR-15 is within reach of nearly anyone.
However, several states require deer hunting to be done with a cartridge larger than .23cal and/or have magazine restrictions for what can be used in a hunting rifle – check your regulations before deciding on your rifle!
If it is legal and you do choose standard .223/5.56mm as your cartridge you should be aware that although possible, these cartridges limit you greatly. Choose heavy grain, soft tip ammo and keep your range within 150 yards and a standard AR-15 will serve you well.
But if you’re looking to expand your options – you can always choose a new upper for your AR-15 and unlock a whole new world of ballistic possibilities!
Uppers in cartridges such as 6.5 Grendel and 6.8 Remington SPC are fine options – however, the far more popular is the .300 Blackout.
The .300 Blk gets a lot of press for use in AR’s and some specialty handguns. It was designed in part to work well in AR’s as well as for use in suppressed weapons systems.
If you want to hunt with the .300 Blackout, stick with bullets that 150 grains and you will get adequate energy and penetration on deer-sized game out to 200 yards.
While the above cartridges will likely serve the vast majority of whitetails hunters just fine, there are those who may wish to stretch the yardage a bit or pursue bigger game. If you want to stay in the AR platform look closely at the AR-10 platform and move into the .308 Winchester with 150 or 165-grain bullets.
We’ve laid out the differences between the AR-15 and AR-10 and should Help You Decide Between the AR-15 and AR-10.
Now you have a powerful cartridge in a semi-auto package capable of taking game cleanly at extended ranges. You will pay a penalty in weight and cost, but it is a viable option if you plan to hunt in areas where shots may be long.
These are the only 2 bullets I’ve recovered from game shot with a Nosler Partition.
While not at all an exhaustive list, I believe anyone looking to start big game hunting with whitetails will be well served with the above choices.
As for what rifle to buy, you have to decide. My personal experience has been mostly with bolt actions; Remington Model 700, Tikka T3 Lite, Ruger Mod 77, Ruger American Predator and semi-custom Mauser 98’s. All work well. All are accurate. All kill whitetail deer just fine if you place your shots correctly.
If you’re interested in the newest iterations of hunting rifles, check out our Best New Hunting Rifles of 2018.
Gear For Your Hunt
Now that you have a rifle in hand, what else do you need to have to be able to spend the entire day in the field hunting?
I’m a little over-the-top in what I carry. I grew in the Scouting program and I am a firm believer in Being Prepared.
Also, being from the Northwest I carry more gear than the average hunter because we have wide temperature swings, it will most likely be raining and/or snowing and I want to be sure I am 100% able to function on my own and not be a burden on my partners.
Let’s take a quick look at the very minimum I would have in my pack for a day of whitetail hunting in northeast Washington. I will not go too much into clothing since that is a regional and seasonal variable that everyone needs to deal with on hunt-by-hunt basis.
In the photo below is my gear:
Here’s a quick run-down of what you see and why. Starting in the upper left of the photo:
- Sawyer water filter to make more water as needed.
- Food. You need to stay fueled all day. The colder the weather, the more you need. I always have soups, coffee, tea, etc to help me warm on a cold day.
- GSI Bottle Cup. Stainless steel. Can be used on a stove or over a fire.
- Esbit Folding Stove. Quick and easy way to heat water for lunch.
- Fire starters: At least 2 lighters, matches, flint and steel and fire starters. It is critical you learn how to make fire and do it every time.
- Leatherman Multi-Plier. There is always something you need to hold, cut, bend. My multitool has been in my pack since 1994.
- Space Blanket: Use it as a tarp, a ground cover or a sleeping bag.
- Rangefinder and binoculars. I like the compact models. The ones shown are both Leupold brand products. You need to be able to glass at distance and in thick cover. The rangefinder is handy if you are in a more open area or are shooting cartridges or a muzzleloader with less range.
- A headlamp and a flashlight. Ever boned out a deer trying to hold a flashlight with one hand? I like the Zebra Light for my headlamp. A single AA battery gives me 200 lumens at the top end and multiple lower settings. A great tool for traveling early morning and at night. I like Surefire flashlights because they always work. I use the G2 series. Relatively inexpensive and very bright and durable.
- 50 feet of paracord. Get real, made in the USA cord. It has a multitude of uses and always comes in handy.
- The little bottle is a Nalgene with a flip-top filled with cornstarch. I use it as my wind-puffer. An easy way to keep track of the breeze and thermals as you move during the day.
- Stoney Point shooting sticks. This size is perfect for sitting or kneeling shots. Any rest in the field will help make your shots more accurate.
- Map and compass. Yep, I have a GPS. I never use it for navigation. The GPS will crap out at the most inopportune time. Heavy snow and thick timber will not allow a signal. Carry a topographic map of the area you are in. Get a good quality compass. LEARN HOW TO USE THEM TOGETHER! A compass does not tell you where you are. It only points North.
- Meat care: the long white bag like the Kifaru Meat Baggie. These 1 ozs. bags will hold 75 pounds of boned meat. You can usually get an average whitetail in one bag. The bag holds the meat in a vertical tube to make it easier to pack out in your backpack. I use two bags for my deer hunting. All the meat that will be ground goes in one. The big cuts go in the other.
- Meat Knife – Havalon Piranta: A changeable blade knife. You should be able to easily skin, bone, and process a deer with two blades. I also carry a couple pairs of nitrile gloves to keep my hands dry and a bit warmer. The nitrile also provides a better grip.
Again, this is what I have found works for me. Every area and every hunt is different, so adjust your gear accordingly. But you will find after a few trips there are some things that always get used and will go in your pack every time you go hunting.
A note on meat care: I mentioned boning your deer. I am a big proponent of quick and quality field care. I will go out on a limb here and say that most ‘gamey’ meat results from poor care of the animal in the field.
With any animal the number one enemy is heat. Get the animal broken down and cooling immediately. That means skin off, and meat off the bones. There is a tremendous amount of internal heat and the quicker the meat is separated from the bones, better.
Because nearly all of our hunting is done in the backcountry we bone our animals on spot using the ‘gutless method’. Check the link and do some research on your own. I think you will find it’s a quick, clean and easy way to care for deer.
They even have videos taking you step by step as they clean a Bull Elk!
Tips and Tactics
Because whitetails live in such vastly different habitats, tactics must be adjusted depending on the location. However, there are a few things that remain constant that will help you tag a whitetail this year.
Whitetails are creatures of habit. They stay pretty close to one area and tend to use the same trails and routes. My preferred method of hunting is to find an intersection of two or more trails in the timber or edges of food crops. I’ll then find a good place to sit, usually on the ground with a tree or log to my back.
Then I get comfortable and wait. Be sure to situate yourself so you are downwind of the prevailing winds in the area. If you have too much scent blowing across or down the trail you may alert the deer.
Stay out all day
Take another look at my pack list. Once I leave camp I intend to stay out until dark. I have my lunch, a closed-cell foam pad to sit on and appropriate clothing. Yes, I get cold. Yes, I get bored. Yes, I have sat in the pouring rain and wet snow all day.
But here’s the deal. Most hunters go back to camp in early or mid-morning. Most go back when the weather sucks. I have found that whitetails, especially in cold weather tend to get up and mosey around about 11 in the morning. They get stiff and cold too.
They will get up, eat a little, take a leak and maybe look for an area in the open if the sun is out. I have killed the majority of my whitetails mid-morning.
Use your binoculars
Whitetails like thick stuff. Human eyes are good, but not great. For the most part, we detect motion.
So if a whitetail is moving through heavy timber or brush you may notice the movement, not necessarily the deer. With binoculars, you can pick apart the timber. You see more color. You see shapes.
One of my PH’s in South Africa taught me a lot about thick cover hunting. He always said, “look through the bush.” Meaning, look beyond the stuff on the edges.
Look through the screen. Change the focus on your binoculars so you see through different layers of the cover. You will be surprised how much more is out there than if you just sit and watch.
Whitetail bucks are solitary creatures. However, if you can hunt a late season, your odds go up.
In general terms, the rut begins to crank up in mid to late-November and will run through December and January in many parts of the country. As the rut approaches, the bucks begin to wander more in search of ladies.
As such, they spend more time on the move and are a lot less wary. They are intent on breeding. Not necessarily paying attention. That said, if you are hunting a late season and you have some does or youngsters walk past your stand, get ready.
Often a buck will be following behind to determine if a suitable mate is ahead of him. Be sure you are dressed for the weather this time of year. It will be cold and often wet.
While in your sitting spot keep your rifle across your lap and at the ready.
You will often only have a couple of shooting lanes and even if the deer are just walking you only have a few seconds to make your shot.
If you have to reach for your gun and make noise or sudden movements, you will very likely not get a shot. You must be ready to quickly identify if your buck or deer is legal and then make a very quick decision to either shoot or not shoot the deer.
I shot this buck on cold November day after I had built a fire to warm up and have some coffee. It was 11 am.
How can you not? You are hunting. You are in the woods, with a rifle in your hands, a tag in your pocket and a whitetail somewhere in the neighborhood.
Yeah, you may walk miles. You may freeze on stand. You may get wet.
So what? You’ll likely be in camp or home sometime tonight. You can get dry, warm and fed when you get back.
Take a camera and shoot photos of your gear, your stand, your rifle. Shoot a pic of that pesky squirrel telling the whole basin you are under his tree.
Hunting is about making memories and enjoying your outdoor heritage. Tying your tag on a whitetail and enjoying the pure organic protein the venison provides is a bonus.
What deer have you harvested? Planning your first trip? Let us know in the comments!