Learn the Basics for Whitetail Hunting

By Matt SpencerSeptember 30, 20131 Comment

LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015

As the cold November rain dripped from my leaking treestand umbrella, I was sure that my son had skipped the morning hunt and was nestled up by the fire with some hot cocoa. The mid-November hunt in West Virginia was becoming a washout, raining for the first three days of our much-anticipated rut-crazed party. Soaked and frustrated, I climbed down and headed back to camp only to find my sons gear already drying out and the smell of breakfast in the air. I was right! He was back at camp just as I thought. However, I did notice an arrow was missing from his quiver. Much to my surprise he braved the cold rain, climbed the mountain, secured his Hunter Safety System, and delivered a fatal lung shot on a beautiful Mountain State doe. Thirteen years old is an impressive age to have the knowledge and drive to overcome such conditions. My son might have been a beginner but he took the lessons he had been taught and used his basic understanding of bowhunting whitetails to fill his tag under adverse circumstances.

Hunter looking at strategy

While many advanced tactics exist for killing whitetails, without a solid understanding of the “basics” it does little good to try and complicate things with highly advanced strategies. 

As you may know, archery season is finally here! And, for those of you who may be embarking on your first archery season or perhaps contemplating taking up bowhunting for the first time, this article is designed to help you understand the basics of whitetail bowhunting. Success with a stick and string is derived from a compilation of basic knowledge, skills, and gear. Understanding how to prepare yourself for success is key. Let’s get started!

Mental Preparation

The number one tool in your bowhunting arsenal is your mind. Your ability to be mentally strong and willing to learn is what will lead your tags being continuously filled. The learning process for archery hunting never ends.  Like any other sport you must first learn the fundamentals before you can be successful.

Hunter stealthing around

Every time you go to a field try to learn something new about the deer you are pursuing and the area you are hunting.

One thing I have committed myself to as a bowhunter is being a life-long learner in the woods. I make it a point to learn something new with each adventure afield. One of the best tips I can give would be to know your limitations. Confidence is a huge part of success when bowhunting and if you do not know your limits, such as your effective shooting range, you will end up making poor decisions in the field.  This in turn leads to a low confidence level and even more problems. Keep a positive outlook on each hunt and stay mentally sharp.

Gear up for Success

Having the right gear, not the most expensive, can go a long way toward learning the ropes of bowhunting. However, as a beginner, you should focus on the necessities of the hunt. For example, you will want to choose a bow that is right for you; instead of the most popular model. This will require that you spend the time and energy to shoot various bows in order to find the one that you feel the most comfortable shooting. Visit a local archery shop and let them assist you in finding the proper bow setup.

Hunter hiding up in tree aiming

When choosing gear, use what FEELS good, not what other people use or what celebrity hunters promote. When choosing a bow, remember, let the bow choose you.

Practice is also a crucial element in developing a confidence level necessary for taking wild game. Big mature whitetails make their living avoiding humans. You want to be ready if you get an opportunity to harvest that buck of your dreams. A block style target is a great option for both field tip practice as well as broadhead shooting. However, if you want to be better prepared, go the extra mile and get yourself a 3D deer target. This will help you focus on the “undefined” kill zone when that big moment arrives.

Other gear items that you may want to consider would be a treestand or a ground blind, a safety harness, and the proper clothing and boots to accommodate your hunting conditions. Range finders, scent elimination systems, and a good pair of binoculars can really be helpful when bowhunting.

Where do I Start?

Finding a place to hunt can be the most intimidating part of learning the ropes of archery hunting. Terrain is one of the biggest factors many bowhunters fail to use in their favor. Let the deer tell you where they want to be rather than try to convince yourself they are somewhere they aren’t. Trust me, that will be a lot easier than trying to force old mossy horns to be somewhere he is uncomfortable. Your goal is to be undetected and hunt deer that are calm and content with their surroundings.

dense wooded trail

Heavy trails like this need no explanation. Find a good tree that hides you, hunt with the wind in your face, move in and out of the area quietly and you will fill your deer tag.

If you hunt in a mountainous area look for saddles along ridges. Deer love to travel through these “easy access” type areas. If you can locate a saddle along a ridge with thick bedding areas close by you are probably going to encounter solid deer movement. Another area that you are sure to lay eyes on high numbers of deer would be a bench located just below a ridgeline. Often times when the wind is howling these areas heat up because they offer easy walking for game as well as the hunter. A solid amount of deer sign such as rubs, scrapes, and heavily used trails can often be found there.

Recently, I asked a panel of hard-core whitetail hunters to give me their number one tip to finding a place to setup. Jason Daniel from Final Fate TV says, “It depends on the season but early in the year I try to find the heavily used trails leading to valuable food sources.” Food can be a great place to start when searching for a place to fill a tag. Look for fruit bearing trees early. They may not last long, but when they are dropping sweet, tasty groceries on the ground the deer will hit them on a daily basis.Chris Taylor, a whitetail fanatic from New York says, “Beginners luck is real! What I mean is that many times new bowhunters do not have the knowledge to over-think a situation and experience amazing encounters. So don’t over-think it. Set a stand based on the best sign and trails you can find with good shot opportunities and hunt it.”

bow and other hunting gear on ground

If you’re going to “buck the wind” then scent control needs to be taken seriously

Depending on the terrain the wind can greatly affect where you want to setup. Hunting a favorable wind is optimal. This topic is heavily debated throughout the bowhunting world. I know several fantastic bowhunters that do not rely on wind. They hunt regardless of the situation. On the other hand, I know bowhunters who will not hunt a stand unless the wind is in their favor. Kevin Allen, an avid whitetail hunter and elk hunting expert says, “Hunt a place where the wind is in your favor. Without good wind, nothing else matters.” Jimmy Nichols from central West Virginia says, “The Mountains often direct the wind and this leads to swirling wind conditions. My only option then is to take scent elimination to a high level and place myself in a high traffic area and hunt on high alert.”

The Moment of Truth

You’re now geared up and you have a solid place to hunt. All you need is a shot at Mr. Whitetail himself. There are many things we could discuss considering you may be just starting your journey as a bowhunter, but shot placement is as serious as it gets. Chris Taylor said it best, “Shoot WAY inside your means.” Set a distance limit and stick to it. Unfortunately I know men and women who have given up bowhunting due to losing a deer; normally the result of poor shot selection.


target shot with bow

Shooting at “block-style” targets is great for knocking the dust off of shooting form or testing broadheads. However, a better option would be a full dress rehearsal while shooting at a life-like 3D target.

An appropriate kill shot position would be a deer that offers a broadside or quartering away angle. This will allow you the best angle at striking a deer in the vitals. When you slip an arrow in the boiler room the deer will have less than 10 seconds to live. There is nothing more fulfilling than making a perfect shot on an animal you have worked so hard to conquer.


Although I do not miss the thought of that cold November rain, no disrespect to Gun’s and Roses, I do miss the amazing time I spent helping my son drag that doe from the West Virginia Mountains. He overcame the conditions, mentally and physically, by using his basic knowledge of bowhunting. I want to personally welcome you into the bowhunter’s family. Don’t overthink things, practice hard and aim small. Best of luck!

Matt Spencer
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