June 28, 2016
By P.J. Reilly
Deciduous trees are a staple across much of the whitetail's range. The deer live among them, and we hunters hang our stands from them.
Oaks, hickories, maples, poplars and more: They come in all shapes, sizes and colors. One trait they all have in common is that, at some point during hunting season, their leaves change colors and fall off. The fact leaves drop is the very reason the season is called "fall" to begin with.
When those leaves hit the ground depends on not just species but where you are in North America. Generally, leaf drop progresses from north to south, but elevation also can play a role. And for sure weather can affect timing from year to year. Drought and/or an early cold snap will start the process early, while wet, mild weather can cause leaves to hang around a bit longer than normal.
Those of us who chase whitetails in deciduous forests should pay attention to when leaf fall occurs in our areas. Because the impact of this annual event can play a role in when and where you find deer — especially, in my experience, on pressured ground.
You don't hear a lot of talk about leaf drop and its effect on hunting success. Food, water and travel corridors tend to dominate discussions about strategic stand placement. But you always hear prime deer habitat includes three elements: food, water and cover.
Well, an area can have great cover before the leaves fall but then become a barren wasteland afterwards. In fact, leaf drop could be the reason a spot that's productive early in the season tends to go dead later.
A GOOD SPOT TURNS BAD
In Pennsylvania and Maryland, where I do most of my whitetail hunting, we have many stands of tulip poplars. When these rapidly growing trees reach a height of 50 feet or so, they're a dream for hunters who, like me, love to use climbing stands.
Tulip poplars grow as straight as an arrow, and they often have no limbs below the uppermost canopy. Hunt in a stand of poplars and you'll have plenty of options for climbing.
On the flip side, however, is cover. Mature stands of tulip poplars usually don't have much in the way of ground vegetation. Early in the season these stands are fine for elevated setups, because there's plenty of leaf cover around, both higher (from the tree itself) and lower (from surrounding brush and smaller trees). After leaf drop, though, you sometimes can see 200 yards through a poplar stand. I mean, you're essentially sitting in a bunch of telephone poles with a bare understory.
Other types of timber can similarly become barren with leaf drop, and that can cause deer to change their patterns. This seems especially true on public and private lands that see a fair amount of hunting pressure. With the sudden lack of screening foliage — not to mention the increased sunlight reaching the forest floor — such places are just too open for wary whitetails.
There's a poplar stand on a Pennsylvania farm several other persons and I have permission to hunt. I've noticed the spot is great in late September and early October, when the leaves are hanging on. It's still OK while the leaves are changing colors and beginning to fall. But in November, when the branches are stripped bare, deer sightings here are rare.
The vegetation change is only part of what's going on, of course. By November, small-game hunters and muzzleloader and archery deer hunters have been beating the trails for a month. Combine that with much of the leaf cover disappearing, and it's no secret why deer begin to steer clear of this section of woods. If they do use it in daylight, they're very nervous and tend to move through quickly.
I've sat in my tree stand in those poplars after leaf drop and watched deer approach the block, walk the edge to the spot where a tornado took the tops off several trees, then cut through the woods there, where they have more ground cover. At the beginning of the season, when the leaves are up, they have no problem walking through other parts of the poplar stand.
TOO MUCH COVER
Overall, cover is beneficial for whitetail hunters. But it's possible to have too much of a good thing. Too many leaves can get in the way. When you have a section of woods with trees of multiple age-classes and/or a good mix of trees and shrubs, there can be multiple canopies above the ground.
In this situation, even if you're 20 feet up in a stand you might still be looking down at an almost solid "umbrella" of green between you and deer paths.
One mid-September evening I was bowhunting a favorite Maryland woods. On scouting missions, I'd seen a couple of nice bucks cutting through this patch of timber in the evenings on their way from a bedding area to a big corn field.
On this day I spotted the bachelor group well before dark, as the deer emerged from the bedding thicket downhill from my stand. They made their way up the hill, right on cue — but when they got about 50 yards out, they disappeared beneath the sapling canopy below my perch.
"The successful hunter is the one who takes as many factors that affect deer movement as possible into account and adjusts tactics accordingly."
I could see only bits and pieces of the bucks as they headed to the field. At one point they were just 10 yards away, but I had no clear shot. The stand I was in is one I usually hunt from in November, because it's in a prime pinch point rutting bucks pass through in search of "hot" does. So I hadn't cleared out any shooting lanes for early season. As a result, all I could do was watch as those bucks meandered away.
But simply clearing a few lanes might not have solved my problem. That's because trimming can bring its own issues. First off, cutting vegetation isn't always allowed. Many states don't allow you to cut trees or even shrubs on public lands. And never assume it's OK with the private landowner on whose property you're hunting. He or she might have the same rule. It's not worth risking loss of access over a couple of branches. So be sure to ask first.
Aside from it potentially not being allowed, cutting mid-level canopy branches during early season also can make deer nervous. You poke a hole in that canopy, and it can be like shining a spotlight on the forest floor. A naturally shaded area can become a sunny spot with a single snip. Deer don't always like that — or at least, it can put them on the alert, which is never good.
That's why before leaf drop I tend to steer clear of spots that have a dense, mid-level canopy. If I do decide to hunt there under such conditions, I just take my chances trying to find a natural hole to shoot through, rather than cut one.
In most deciduous woods, the change in hunting conditions from leaves on to leaves off is fairly subtle. It's not going to cause sudden, dramatic changes in the landscape or in deer movements. But that doesn't mean you don't need to adjust your approach with the conditions.
Let's say that back in August you hung a stand in a good-looking spot where deer historically travel. You tucked in that stand, based on the vegetation then. What's it going to look like come November? You need to anticipate such changes and take steps to overcome them.
There are some simple tricks you can employ to make such a stand huntable when the leaves are up and when they're down. For instance, maybe during early season you can position the stand to face approaching deer dead on. With thick, leafy branches all around, you likely can escape detection, even though you're not hiding behind the trunk.
You might stick out like a sore thumb in that spot when the leaves are gone, but that's still the tree in which you need to have your stand. As the cover shrinks, try spinning your stand to the other side of the tree. Now you can make the trunk your cover. If you stand up and hug the tree while awaiting deer, you'll basically become part of it.
It's not so much the deer you're planning to shoot that will burn you — it's the ones you want to let walk that will announce your presence to every other deer in the woods.
I have quite a few stands that I plant on one side of a tree for the early season, then spin around as the woods thin out. This is especially true when bow season switches to gun season. I love facing away from deer trails during gun season in areas that are pretty barren after leaf drop, even though it's a pain to have to keep turning around in my seat to check for action.
I'll attach tree hooks to each side of the trunk to serve as gun rests when it comes time to shoot. I can shoot a long way through the woods with the aid of such a rest. I also can stand in place, motionless, as does and small bucks walk past while I wait for a shot at Mr. Big.
I basically become part of the tree trunk, so the deer I want to pass on usually don't peg me.
On a gun hunt in Illinois one year I had a little doe and a big 10-pointer approach my stand from behind. The buck stopped behind some brush about 30 yards away, but the doe kept coming. And coming, and coming. Eventually, she was directly beneath the platform of my 20-foot-tall ladder stand.
All this time I was standing up, facing the tree trunk, with my muzzleloader resting on one of my hooks. As far as I know, the doe never looked up at me. Or, if she did, she wasn't spooked by my presence. I was too scared to look down at her, for fear she'd see me move. So I just froze and focused my attention on the buck.
After what I felt was an eternity, the buck stepped into the clear. I slowly brought the rifle stock to my shoulder and lowered my head to peer through the scope. I leveled the cross-hairs on his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. Through the haze of smoke, I saw the buck lurch forward, plow through some saplings and then pile up no more than 20 yards from where he'd been when I shot him. As my heart raced I looked down at my feet, and the doe was still standing there, staring in the direction of the buck. Only when I turned around did she notice me and take off.
We deer hunters have many factors to consider as we chase whitetails over the course of a long season, from late summer through fall and even into winter. Food, water, rutting activity and hunting pressure are all in the mix of variables that come into play.
The successful hunter is the one who takes as many factors that affect deer movement as possible into account and adjusts tactics accordingly.
Pay attention to leaf cover this season, and see if you don't notice it has some influence on the deer you hunt. When pursuing whitetails, it never hurts to have one more trick up your sleeve.