Where to hunt
Deer are habitat generalists and thrive in a variety of areas in Massachusetts. They are found in every part of the state with the highest densities found east of Interstate 495. They can be found in agricultural lands, in forests, as well as in suburban and urban areas. Places with a mix of habitat types are the most productive for deer because they provide abundant food and cover throughout the year.
When looking for a place to hunt, focus your attention on areas where different habitat types meet. Some examples include:
- Swamp edges
- Edges of logged areas where mature forest meets thick re-growing young forest
- Edges of agricultural land near forest
- Wooded areas adjacent to suburban neighborhoods (make sure the area is large enough to allow safe and legal hunting)
The edge of a field and forest is a good place to find deer. Photo by Troy Gipps.
Wetland edges are also great places to look for deer. Photo by Troy Gipps.
Within these areas of converging habitats, search for the specific types of food the deer are focusing on and concentrate your hunting on that one food source within your target area. Click here to find more information about where you can hunt in Massachusetts.
Tip: Ask your friends and family where and when (time of day) they see deer while driving or walking. This can save countless hours of scouting! If you are tipped off to an area with deer, a quick look at an aerial map (using tools like the MassWildlife Lands Viewer, OnX, MassMapper (formerly OLIVER), or Massachusetts Interactive Property Map) can reveal an adjacent woodlot, wetland, farm, or forest where you can hunt.
When you find an area to hunt, make sure to:
- Secure permission from the landowner for private property
- Identify parking and access locations
- Check local town bylaws relative to hunting on private or municipal property
What to look for when scouting
Once you get boots on the ground in a potential hunting area, look for deer sign and food sources. Once you locate these signs you may decide to monitor the area with a trail camera.
Deer sign can tell a hunter a lot about the deer’s habits, travel routes, and the size and sex of the animal.
Deer tracks are the first thing to look for. Deer will often use the same areas and trails repeatedly, leaving deer runs and tracks behind. Tracks can reveal the direction the deer was traveling as well as the approximate size of the animal—the bigger the track, the bigger the deer.
Deer tracks. Photo by Troy Gipps.
Deer runs are paths that deer frequent. They will become easier to spot the more time you spend afield looking for them. Try to find muddy or soft areas where deer hoofs will sink in, leaving deep tracks and distinct runs. If deer enter and exit food source areas in different locations, it is likely that deer will be active at the entry point in the evening and active at the exit point in the morning. Other deer runs will have tracks going both directions which could be productive in the morning and evening. In addition to hunting near food sources, you may consider setting up at a place where two or more deer runs intersect.
Deer scat looks like the candy Raisinets (chocolate covered raisins) poured in a pile. Sometimes the individual pellets are stuck together forming a clump. Fresh scat will be wet and shiny for several hours. After a few days it starts to dry out and after a few months it will have started to decompose. An ideal hunting spot contains many tracks and scat of all different ages indicating that deer spend a lot of time in this area. Places with only fresh scat or only old scat means that location is seasonal and may only be productive for a few week a year.
You can learn what deer are eating by examining fresh scat. Scat with a greenish tint means the deer is feeding primarily on green vegetation like grass, clover, or similar leafy greens. Grayish scat indicates that the deer is feeding mostly on acorns or beech nuts. The more commonly occurring brown scat means that the deer is using a wide variety of food sources.
Deer browse on many different things within their habitats, but during certain times of the year deer will key in on essential food sources as they become available.
Acorns and beech nuts are favored by many species when they are available in the fall. Learning a few tree species will help you find these sources. White oak acorns are always preferred and often drop to the ground earlier than other species making a productive white oak tree a good location for the early archery season. Red, pin, scarlet, chestnut, and other oaks drop acorns well into the fall hunting seasons. Beech nuts are another great food source used by deer.
Agricultural fields are a great place to hunt if you get permission from a landowner. Deer frequent fields of grass, hay, clover, soy beans, standing corn, cut corn, and pumpkins, as well as apple orchards. If hunting in these areas, look for deer runs where they enter and exit the fields. It is often better to hunt in the woods adjacent to the field or orchard, than to hunt on the edge of the field itself. Find the entries and exits and follow the deer run away from the food source to find a place to hunt.
Browse is something that is often overlooked. Deer often alter their travel routes to and from a major food source in order to browse along the way. Look along the edges of swamps and the re-growing edges of logged areas for the nibbled and chewed ends of young woody growth and other types of tender vegetative growth.
Signs that deer have been browsing in the area. Photo by Troy Gipps.
Sighting in and practicing with firearm or bow
If you’re hunting with firearms, make sure to practice and sight in your shotgun or muzzleloader prior to the start of every season. Even if your firearm was accurate last year, the sights or scope may have been bumped during the off season.
If you’re hunting with archery equipment, practice and sighting in are also extremely important. Practicing will strengthen the muscles needed to draw the bow and will aid in holding back your draw when the time comes. It is sometimes necessary to hold your draw for up to a full minute when waiting for an ethical shot. It can be helpful to shoot a few pounds lighter than you can comfortably draw to increase the time you are able to hold it. You should be able to take 30 shots from your bow before you get tired and it gets hard to draw. Start practicing with your bow daily beginning in June. You may only be able to take a few shots before getting tired at that time of year. But slowly you will build the muscle strength needed to comfortably get to 30 shots per in a row, thus creating the muscle memory needed to help with accuracy.
Tip: It is essential to practice from a treestand or blind prior to the season. When shooting from a stand, always remember to bend at the waist to aim downwards at your game. When shooting from a blind, remember to sit high enough that your arrow clears the blind window upon release.
For deer and most other big game animals, aim for the heart and lungs. To hit these organs and ensure a quick and ethical kill, aim just behind the front shoulder. A shots should only be taken when the animal is unobstructed and is standing broadside or slightly quartering away.
Archery tip: Even when a deer is broadside or quartering away, a close shot from a steep angle can result in the broadhead hitting only one lung and exiting the bottom of the chest cavity. To avoid this, position your treestand less than 20 feet from the ground and don’t take shots under 10 yards from your stand. Set up your treestand about 15–20 yards from a deer run rather than right next to it.
Using call and scent attractants
Calls can be effective if used during the rut in areas where a buck is active. Grunt calls come in many different forms and depending on pitch, can imitate everything from a fawn to a mature doe or buck.
- Grunt tubes come in many shapes, sizes, and pitches. Sound is made when air passes over a reed inside of the tube. The longer the reed, the deeper the sound. Many grunt tubes come with a rubber O ring around the reed which can be moved forward or back to adjust the length of the reed and therefore adjust the pitch. Some grunt tube reeds are marked with positions make a fawn, doe, young buck, and mature buck grunts.
- Can calls are designed to imitate a female deer in heat. These calls are effective during the rut and can sometimes call a buck into shooting range. These calls are used by placing your finger over a hole in the bottom of the can and flipping it over which creates the call as a weight attached to a rubber diaphragm slides down the inside of the can.
Scents are commonly used by hunters to either attract a deer or to cover their own scent. Deer have a superior sense of smell and the wrong scent can deter a deer from an area.
- Cover scents minimize your human scent. Be sure to bathe with products that have little to no scent and keep your hunting clothes in an area away from any strong smells like the kitchen or near pets. In addition, some hunters also use a cover scent. These products include soap, laundry detergent, and spray put on just prior to walking into the woods. In addition to minimizing your scent, make sure you hunt downwind of the direction of the deer.
- Scent attractants are commercially available and are meant to either imitate food like corn or apples or another deer using deer urine. Caution: In Massachusetts it is illegal to bait deer during the hunting season. Bait is defined as anything the deer can ingest, so if you spray an apple scent on something deer would eat, it is considered baiting and is illegal.
Deer urine is the most often used during the rut. These scents can be effective but can also alert a deer of an “intruder” they’ve never smelled before causing them to be alert and wary. The most common scent used is a “doe in heat” scent used during the rut. Due to the risk of introducing Chronic Wasting Disease to Massachusetts, MassWildlife recommends using only synthetic deer urine.
What to pack when hunting
Deer hunting safety
Review these tips regularly for a fun and safe deer season.
- 500 square inches of blaze orange clothing are required to be worn by deer hunters during shotgun and primitive firearm seasons.
- Wear a full body safety harness when entering, exiting, and at all times while hunting from a treestand.
- Let someone know where you will be hunting. (i.e. Trip Plan)
- Know your target and what lies beyond.
- Keep your muzzle pointed in a safe direction.