Things I Learned Shooting Crop Damage Deer
By Dave King
When I was first approached to shoot crop damage deer I was elated, I initially thought this was an opportunity to hunt whitetail deer year-round but a bit later I discover it was a double edged sword. At first I began the task by the only means possible, I used the knowledge I had acquired during my many years of hunting deer, this held me in good stead for a while but I soon realized that I was not about to decrease the whitetail population hunting them with my traditional techniques… I needed an edge. I began to consider how I went about shooting pests and varmints: groundhogs, gophers and such, I didn’t wander into their territory to shoot them but rather I found a vantage point from which to observe their territory and shot them as they went about their daily routine. Many of these pests had no idea I was there until the bullet struck, I thought I’d give it a go on deer.
By adapting my crop damage deer hunting to more closely resemble my varmint shooting it wasn’t long before I had increased my success ratio by at least ten-fold. The effect was that now I was no longer hunting deer I was killing them, by the tens and twenties. I’d guess that about now you’re thinking, “I’ve read enough of this, I want to know about deer to become a better hunter not a crop damage killer”, hang on for another minute I’ll get to the hunting related information. I began in this fashion as I wanted to get the point across that in my opinion crop damage is not hunting it’s killing….it is however an excellent opportunity to observe whitetail deer in their natural habitat and how they go about their daily lives.
Whitetail deer seem to fit into a few simple groups: bucks, does, city and country with the survival instincts distribution of bucks and does ranging from the comical “hey guys, watch this!” to the hard-core nocturnal Rambo-esque version.
There are very few things deer absolutely need to do: eat, sleep and drink are the most common and of course there is the annual rut-race and the seemingly required few months of newborns antics beginning in mid-June. Also high on the list of things deer do is observation, deer are very attuned to their environment, they communicate a great deal via visual signals and seem to be at it a good deal of the time. But, not only do they observe visual cues amongst themselves they observe other animals seemingly searching for signs of alarm or carefree abandon. They also observe humans, checking out our normal movements, noises and habits, they learn from us.
Crop Damage shooting, a primer for hunting whitetail deer:
Enough of the useless chat, let’s get to the how to kill (harvest for the more PC types) deer. First we need to find the deer, begin this scouting by doing the things deer expect humans to do, stay near road, buildings or farm equipment and observe via binoculars or spotting scope. Discover the “normal” routine of the deer in the areas that can be observed from these sites. Once you’re sure you know enough about the deer you can see from the barn, shed, tractor or truck move on to a spot that offers another vantage point, arrive when the deer are not in that area; you should know their habits from the first set of observations. What I search for is the end spot, the place where the deer go to feed. I don’t particularly care to shoot them while they’re in transit between bedding and feeding areas as this seems to disrupt their travel routine and that of other deer moving along these same trails/avenues.
I am very careful to avoid anything that will change their patterns as once they changed I need to start over again. Once you’ve found where they feed observe them there, how they enter the field is a bit of a clue as to if they are comfortable with the area… Do they stay many yards back in the tree line or bush and observe before entering or do they enter the field without any change in their travel pace? Do they enter the field at a prance or run and continue until many yards into the field?? Do they let a “scout” or point-deer go first and observe it from the safety of the bush?? If the deer seem a little skittish with their movement tactics it’s a good clue they’re not very comfortable and a shooter would not be able to shoot many deer or any older and more wary deer there before they’ll escalate the situation to nocturnal habits or opt for a different feeding spot…. Also, if you’ve observed the area for a good while you may have discovered that there seem to be several different “herds” of family groups of deer coming and going from the field at different times. Some places seem to have different shifts of deer, they enter the fields at “scheduled” times and leave or travel through before the arrival of a second “shift”. If one herd is skittish and another is not it’d be a good time to pick on the calm herd and let the skittish bunch calm down, give them a little break of a week or two. Recall that we’re trying to kill a deer and not change their habits to make them nocturnal or residents of another county.
Rarely do I ever see a single deer in a field and if I do I watch it closely for indications of it either being the last deer to leave the field or the first on to arrive. If the deer looks toward the tree-line or “over its shoulder” a good bit I expect its waiting for its companions and they often show up in short order. If it feeds along at a hurried pace, a bite of food and a straight line walk I figure its following other deer and is a little late, behind the herd.
Once a herd has entered the field I observe them closely while looking for the leader, she’ll probably be an old doe (look for the longest nose) somewhere in the middle of the herd as they entered the field. This is the deer you should shoot first if you’re a crop damage shooter, she’s the one the others look to for signs of danger and where she goes the herd goes. Watch her until she’s calm and a bit alone or away from other deer then kill her with a shot that drops her in her tracks, a Dead Right There (DRT) shot; if she suddenly falls to the ground without giving an alarm the others will be less likely to leave the field so long as there is no other obvious danger…. The shooter must not be visible to the deer at this point and must remain hidden and silent. If you’re hunting a single deer and it’s down let the other deer calm down and leave on their on time, don’t chase them away as that’s changing their pattern. If you’re a crop damage or multiple deer shooter observe the remaining deer searching for signs of alarm or clustering/grouping. If they start to group up they’re probably about to vote on a new leader and will likely leave the area as soon as the ballots are counted, you should shoot any deer that appears to be a leader, drop it in its tracks if possible. As long as you can kill the deer in the herd without undue alarm (they aren’t as smart as folks give them credit) the herd will remain, but if it’s a large family/herd there will come a point where they will leave, it’ll be too much “new experience” for the cohesiveness of the herd/family bonds to endure. If the herd breaks away and leaves and there are no deer in distress in the field stay in place, there’s a good chance some of the younger deer will return to the field after five or ten minutes… some of them get curious and come back.
Once you’ve finished a crop damage or multiple deer shooting session remove the down deer in their entirety, gut and clean it/them some place else. Many deer don’t seem to mind a gut pile but too many gut piles just makes for a mess and draw unwanted critters: foxes, vultures, coyotes and these disrupt the deer.
How to kill deer?? What do I mean by that??? It seems to me there are good methods and some not-so-good methods for killing deer if a shooter desires to shoot more than one or two from a herd or if there’s a big buck on the agenda. Firstly, deer don’t know they’re mortal, they don’t know about guns and bullets or bows and arrows, they know about learned responses to perceived or real danger. The older a deer becomes the less tolerant they seem to be of unusual or out-of-place sounds or sights so if you’re after an old doe or an old buck you’ll need to be quiet and hidden, even things as normal as engine noises or doors being closed will cue old deer to leave or change their pattern.
If the deer are not accustomed to hearing gunshots they won’t appreciate the noise too much so adding a little distance between you and them is a good idea, so is using a small(er) capacity cartridge or shooting in an area of dense foliage (to muffle the gunshot). Shooting the deer so as to have them drop in place is exceptionally good provided they don’t bellow or thrash about…the best shot for this is a brain shot. As silly as it may sound to some folks I must stress that there is a BIG difference between shooting a deer in the face and shooting it in the brain… a face shot IS NOT an immediately fatal shot while a brain shot is instantly incapacitating. The second best shot for shooting multiple deer from a herd or alarming as few other deer as possible is a double lung shot with a small caliber or large caliber long(er) range shot, deer shot in this manner don’t seem to know they’ve been mortally hit. Many of the deer I’ve shot double lung while crop damage shooting only prance or dash a short distance at most where they then either resume their previous activity and tumble over or simply stand still and eventually stagger and fall down dead…this, short dash or prance then fall activity is not generally too alarming to the other deer in the area provided they see or perceive no obvious danger.
Deer are of different types, some are tough and some are wimps, some die easy and others don’t. One of the greatest contributors to a long tracking job is adrenaline, if a deer is juiced up from fear it’ll be a difficult task to put it on the ground in short order with a double lung shot. If deer are alerted to danger either by warning from other deer or from being spooked or jumped by a hunter they will be a bit more difficult to drop in comparison to a calm deer so consider your shot placement based on the demeanor of the deer… it the deer is alerted to danger your shot (if necessary or desired) should be for supporting bone (shoulders) or a spine or brain shot.
There are several tell-tale signs as to where a deer is hit, one is the sound the projectile makes when the deer is hit another is the reaction of the deer. If the shot is at very close range the sound of the bullet hitting the deer may be lost in the short time for the bullet travel but for a longer range shot a shooter should be able to hear the sound of the bullet striking the deer. A hollow sort of sound similar to a watermelon being thumped generally means a lung hit, solid but double type sound “ba-loop” usually means a gut shot and a loud “crack” as if a 2x4 were hit means a heavy bone hit. The deer react differently do different hits also, a spring loaded ‘pop’ straight up in the air would probably be a low chest hit while a humped up run would be a gut shot. Generally a deer leaving the scene with its tail held high would indicate a miss… but not always.
Deer react differently based on the type of firearm used being that different firearms fire projectiles a differing speeds. Low speed projectiles seem to get a different reaction from deer and sometimes no reaction at all. I’ve several times shot non-disturbed deer through the chest with a 12 gauge slug and had the deer do a short little high-stepping side-to-side prance with tail held high as they often do when testing for danger only to see them fall dead in short order. The point is that we should always follow-up on each shot as if it produced a wounded deer and not just believe it acted un-hit so let it go.
As strange as it may sound to some folks it can get a bit confusing as to where the dead deer fell if there are several or many. For a new field or a new shooter a fella would be well advised to make a small sketch of the area and mark where the deer fell and/or where they exited the field (if a wounded one leaves the area).
Tracking wounded deer is something most deer hunters will do at one time or another, there’s really no doubt in anyone’s mind that the deer must stay on the ground (or in a stream) but the job of tracking gets pretty difficult at times. Most of the areas I hunt have streams close by and these seem to be a bit of a magnet for wounded deer as do large down trees. If things aren’t too hectic I still track deer even if I see them fall and could walk straight to them; there are things to be learned and it’s fairly easy to study the tracks and blood trail when there isn’t the pressure of finding the deer. There are a few simple items to aid in tracking wounded deer, a small flashlight (or two), some toilet or tissue paper, the ability to know where the deer went out of sight (entered the wood line). If you know where the deer entered the wood (or went out of sight) either find that place and a blood or track trail and mark it with some tissue or toilet paper (hang the paper on a tall weed or on a low branch), you start tracking from where the deer was first hit (a better place to start tracking) mark that spot with some TP to aid in sighting the place from a distance. If there are several folks tracking make sure they are calm enough to stay off the actual blood or track trail, folks stepping on the blood and tracks marks for a fairly difficult tracking job in some cases. When tracking take notice of the shape of the blood spot on the ground, if the deer is moving the spatter of the blood drop will point in the direction of travel, if the deer is standing still the spatter will be in all directions. Mark the blood trail at every major event, where the trail turns, where the trail gets difficult to follow, etc. If you find a place where the deer stood for a while as indicated by a large(r) blood pool you may have trouble tracking past that spot for a while… I have observed several wounded deer stop to check their back trail and while standing still they’d lick their wound clean of blood, once they started moving again there was no blood trail for a short while until the blood flow was sufficient to begin falling to the ground (this is the time that you should look back over the line of TP you have put in place end determine line-of-travel, follow the line of travel looking for the blood again. If you’ve found that you’ve hopelessly lost the trail slowly walk toward the nearest stream or side hill with large down trees, I have found many deer in streams or lying dead next to logs.
Something I’ve gotten very good at is gutting deer I can be done in less than a minute (race mode) with very little bloody mess. I use a smallish knife with a thin and longish but sturdy blade. Firstly I stretch out the deer in an open area to give me a little maneuvering room, place it belly up with the head facing up an incline if on uneven ground. First operation is to core around the bung-hole (a bit like cutting a hole in a Styrofoam block, deep straight cuts) then pull it out strip the raisins out and tie the bowel in a knot. Next I roll the deer on its back and hold steady with one of its legs held against my thigh and starting at the sternal notch I split the rib cage up to about ½ way up the neck taking care to cut along side the esophagus and trachea (food tube and wind-pipe). I then split open the abdomen taking care to not cut the intestines or stomach. Turning back to the throat I grab the esophagus and trachea as far up the throat as I’ve split and cut them off, using my hold on them as a handle to lift and rip downward toward the chest pulling the lungs back to the diaphragm. Cut the diaphragm loose from the chest wall and continue to pull on the trachea and esophagus pulling the “guts” out of the deer… The urinary bladder and bowel are the last to flop out and the deer is clean… I carry several large contractor grade plastic bags and often use these as a tote-sack (I often shoot smallish deer) for the deer to keep from getting blood soaked during the carry as well as keeping debris out of the deer (I use black bags but they’re also available in bright orange I believe).
Dave has been coached and trained in precision shooting since early 1960 and began his long range shooting endeavors in early 1982 while stationed at Camp Pendleton, CA, winning the 1000 yard Service Rifle Onslow Trophy in mid 1983. He has been through several civilian long range rifle schools and attended an FBI sniper school. Dave took first place at the Canadian Forces Small Arms Championship (CFSAC) 600 meter One-Shot One-Kill competition in early 2000. He enjoys ballistics and is a programmer by trade.