By the third day of Pennsylvania's rifle season, it's crunch time for hunters. Two hours after dawn on opening day, deer especially bucks- knew what was up. Man-smell on the wind and hunter-noise permeating every ridge and field broadcast that the dangerous days were here again.
The bucks we are hunting for, the one with the biggest headgear have gone on the lam. They headed for thick security cover, got out of sight and wait until dark to come out to feed. Hunters gripe that the deer have disappeared or more probably "there just are not any deer around anymore."
By the second week of rifle season, the bucks have become accustomed to their new routine. WE can hunt antlerless deer now but they too have become skittery and lie low during the day. There are few hunters now to stir deer up and get them moving so the deer sit tight. They just enough shooting to keep them wary.
Now that new tactics are called for. The deer have changed their habits to counteract our invasion of their habitat; now it's time for us to adjust ours.
Get out of your comfort zone
We all have our favorite deer watches. But to stick doggedly to that spot day after day especially in the crunch time of late season may well yield nothing but frustration. If the deer have changed their feeding and bedding habits after the commotion of the first couple days, you need to change your location too.
Scout for the thickest, swampiest, most formidable habitat in the area near to a good acorn ridge etc. That's where the big racks are, no doubt, and you need to find a way to get into it as well.
Thick cover can be still-hunted very successfully if you are able to move through it so slowly a turtle would pass you up. Deer make distinct travel trails in the middle of thickets. They look for the easiest way to get through the tangles too. Once you penetrate a thick cover, you'll be able to spot such a travelway easily.
Dress in soft, outer cover so that twigs and bushes won't make a scraping sound when you rub against one. Fleece garments are perfect for thicket still-hunting. No canvas or denim or nylon clothes please.
You pace should be two steps, stop and look. No casual skimming the terrain here, this calls for long, detailed looks. Deer will be bedded in the thick stuff just off the trail and you'll be able to catch a glimpse of antler or a tail in the bushes. Here is where I use my custom compact binoculars. They penetrate and widen the thickets and reveal pieces of a deer's anatomy you wouldn't pick out with the naked eye.
This is maddenly slow work. If a small branch blocks your way on the trail, pick up the end and slowly lift it around your body so it doesn't scrape.
Watch the wind direction. Be sure your scent is not drifting toward the biggest part of the thicket you are hunting. Certainly be sure it is not at your back. You'll seldom be able to see more than 30 feet in any direction in this kind of habitat but this is where the deer are. If you hunt painstakingly slowly, you'll catch sight of deer that have stood up from their beds and/or are moving toward the very trail you are on so they can make an escape.
If it's just you and a buddy hunting during late season, one-man pushes through thickets can roust up some activity. Post one hunter upwind, inside the thickets on escape trails. The other hunter starts about 200 yards away and simply slips very slowly along trails inside the thickets, letting his scent alert the deer. Forget the whistles and other noisemakers. This silent push fools deer into believing they are sneaking away quietly. They will slip down the trails, hopefully on the one where you are posted.
If you locate an especially promising-looking location inside a thicket, one that has fresh droppings and perhaps a scrape or rub nearby, and there is a proper tree for a stand, get it in next morning as quietly as possible and get it in the tree. It may take until the next day for things to calm down enough for deer to use the trail again but this will be a far better watch than the hunter who is 100 yards away, in the open forest where he can see for 100 yards but doesn't see anything.
Hunt in different places
Remember all the spots you pass by as you hike to get into the deer woods? Well, often those are the very places deer select as a safety zone because they are unpressured by human activity. Diversion ditches in a field, a small group of pine trees, the insignificant patch of laurel right next to the parking lot etc. When their hides are at stake, deer look for a peaceful refuge. Often, that refuge is the very place you overlook.
I've kicked deer up from beneath the one large tree that was in the middle of a field, from berry vines and honeysuckle bushes and often from under a large pine or hemlock tree in the woods where the branches dipped to the ground.
Stay on post
Hunters trekking back to the vehicle for lunch and meeting up with buddies is prime hunting time. All this activity prods deer to slip away. Only if I have already bagged a deer and am just acting as a driver, will I ever return to my vehicle at noon. When I leave the truck at dawn, whatever I need for the day is with my in my vest or backpack. Then I make it my business to be on a good stand from 11 to 1. And I have killed quite a few deer bucks and does during that time period.
An equally favorite travel highway for deer is what I call "edge" territory. That's where two different types of habitat meet. Where a cornfield borders the woods, where a thick hillside of rhododendron borders open woods, just inside a stand of pines on the edge of a swamp, and my favorite, where a large stand of mountain laurel ends and an oak ridge begins. Deer like to be just inside the thicket, where they feel hidden but can look out into the open where they want to go. A buck often stops just inside the edge to survey a field or open woods before he exposes himself.
My favorite driving technique for late season bucks is the simple two-man drive. One watches while the other pushes slowly, quietly through a small area. Just get the deer moving, watching their back trail, not bounding in panic. Don't try to have one buddy drive an entire ridge out to you. That seldom works; deer simply circle back or squirt out the side and the watcher never sees them. Small, quick, silent pushes seem to work better.
When it seems the deer have disappeared, it's time to change to crunch-time tactics.