Educated Deer Hunting Starts Now!

By Milton F. Whitmore

Yes, we still have several months before another deer season falls from the pages of the calendar and once again we’ll find ourselves in the woods with whitetails on our minds. Every deer season, no matter what weapon is used; stories of whitetails that were missed completely with a wayward shot or wounded and not recovered are all too frequently told wherever deer hunters gather.

“I thought I made a good shot”, is a common lament which is usually followed by details of a clean miss or, and far worse, the sad, sorry tale of trying to follow an inadequate blood trail until further pursuit was in vain. Yes, many of these wounded deer do recover in time. However, as responsible hunters, we owe it to the game we pursue to harvest the animal in a manner that is quick and ensures the finding of the deer with dispatch.

deer shot placementAny hunter with several seasons under his belt has either experienced it himself, or been involved with friends and hunting partners who have missed or not recovered a wounded whitetail. It is the ethical duty of any hunter to do all they can to prevent the needless waste of a whitetail that is fatally wounded, not recovered or wounded and lives, but goes through the trauma of the wounding and healing.

Now is the time to begin the process that will lessen the chance of a clean miss or having a wounded deer that must be trailed as best we can. You can take steps long before the shot, if taken, to insure a quick, humane, kill.

Practice! Practice! Practice! No matter what weapon is used an ethical hunter must spend time shooting.

The First Step
Become familiar with the bow or firearm that will be used. Handle it often, even to the point of carrying it around both in the house and outside. A firearm, of course, must not be loaded. Remove the detachable magazine if the gun is so equipped, but assume that any gun you handle is loaded.

Some hunters hold to the premise that one must not point a weapon unless they are going to shoot it at game or target. While this sounds nice in theory; if it were adhered to none of us would really learn to know our weapon.

No matter if it’s a bow, rifle, shotgun, muzzleloader, crossbow, or handgun, handle it often. Take the weapon to a range or someplace outside in a non-residential area; pull it up to shooting position and pick out a “target” and line up the sights of the weapon. Learn to swing your firearm as if on running game. Do this with your hunting clothes on. You would be amazed how different a weapon can feel when brought to bear while wearing thick layers of hunting clothes.

A situation may arise when a friend would like to hunt, but doesn’t have a weapon. Perhaps the first inclination is to let them use one of yours, an extra bow or rifle that you may have. Quite frankly if they haven’t taken the time to familiarize themselves with the weapon and shoot it ,often I would simply tell them “I’m sorry, but I don’t think you have enough experience with this rifle to safely harvest game in an ethical manner.” A friendship is not worth the turmoil and trauma caused by knowing there is a wounded animal out in the woods that is not going to be recovered.

In short it is wise to Know Your Weapon!!

Practice is more than mere shooting. All too often hunters practice, but do so ineffectively. Shooting a weapon is not practicing it is merely, well, shooting.


  • Shoot from ground level at a standard bow target using the same broadheads as you would while hunting.
  • After sighting in the bow begin to shoot from a height if you will be doing so while hunting. The roof of a house or garage makes an excellent “shooting platform”
  • Wear your hunting clothes, both warm weather and cold weather gear while shooting.
  • Shoot in both a sitting and standing position so you know how your weapon feels when you bring it to bear on a target while you’re in either position.
  • Shoot at a 3-D target or at the very least a deer silhouette. You must learn to focus on the animal’s “killing zone” by picking out a spot on the target rather than the entire animal.
  • Become familiar with the anatomy of a whitetail, both the internal organs and the bone structure. Your window of opportunity may look large, but vital organs might be protected by heavy bones. Visualize what happens when a deer’s near-side leg (the side you’re looking at) is back with the opposite leg in a forward position. The heavy front leg bone protects the lung area quite well. Hitting that bone with an arrow will prevent penetration into the vitals. Unless you are highly accomplished at taking whitetails with a bow, DO NOT take the shot if the front leg on your side is angling back.
  • Go to a zoo or deer farm and take a look at whitetails. In these situations you can get up fairly close. As you stand there look at a deer and determine if the position they’re in would allow for a shot. For the average bowhunter the deer should either be broadside or facing slightly away from you (with that nearside leg in a forward position. This will allow for effective penetration of the arrow.
  • Sharp Broadheads are essential. This is simple and easily understood.
  • Target practice from your treestand in the woods wearing your hunting clothes. Using a string, hang a paper lunch bag from a shrub at about the height of a deer’s “boiler room” and shoot at it. You’ll know immediately if you hit the target.

Rifle, Shotgun, Muzzleloader, and Handgun
Firearm hunters also need to practice and do so in hunting situations.. Except for using a 3-D target follow the same routine as a bowhunter with minor variations.

Perhaps the most common error in wounding a deer with any weapon is shooting the animal too far back and hitting the stomach. Some of this is due to taking poor shots at running whitetails, or when they’re standing at an odd angle to the hunter. If you aren’t proficient at shooting at running whitetails, don’t take the shot.

How to improve your ability to shoot at running whitetails:

  • Small game hunting with a shotgun which gives experience at swinging the gun at a moving target
  • In the fall swing your firearm on falling leaves, picking them up in your sights. Don’t do this in a residential neighborhood. Panicky neighbors aren’t what you want. Of course the gun must not be loaded and if the magazine and/or bolt can be removed do so before practicing.
  • An auto tire rolling down a gentle grade is an effective tool. Using an unloaded weapon gives yourself the experience of picking up the moving tire in your sights. Swing the rifle along as the tire rolls downhill.
  • Shot placement is crucial. Too many neophyte deer hunters get a deer rifle in their hands and feel like they can overcome all obstacles and shoot at any deer they see. Get this out of your head right now. Shot placement is important. The adage, “Aim just behind the deer’s front shoulder” may be sound advice, but if you want to put the deer down in a hurry I’d suggest putting the bullet through the front shoulder. This will give easy entry into the deer’s vitals and leave an easily followed bloodtrail.
  • Offhand shooting without a solid rest does come in handy so it must be practiced as are shots using a convenient tree as a rest. Practice these.
  • Practice with the bullets you intend to use for hunting just as you would with broadheads.

Become familiar with whitetails by seeing them in the wild at all times of the year if you can, or in a zoo or game farm. In non-hunting situations, get as close to them as you can. Look for the vital areas for shot placement on live deer frequently and long before you go out hunting. While watching the deer ask “Yes” or “No”, do I take that shot? If your answers are always “Yes”, you may need to rethink your concept of just what constitutes an ethical, killing shot at a whitetail.

Whether or not you make an effective, humane, killing shot on a deer starts long before you enter the woods to hunt. It begins now.

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