Your first year in the whitetail woods can be daunting – use this guide as your starting point for hunting the unique terrain of the Mountain State
I remember being introduced to whitetail deer hunting and how obsessed I became shortly after. I was a late-onset deer hunter, learning the ropes from my brother during my sophomore year at West Virginia University.
It never truly interested me while growing up, despite Ritchie County being one of the best counties in West Virginia in terms of harvest rates. Still, the year I picked up my 30-06 rifle in search of my first deer was the beginning of a journey I’m still on – one that’s seen me transition into bowhunting as well.
The last few years have been full of research. The dive into the whitetail world has seen me tear apart data provided by the National Deer Association or other biologists like Dr. Dave Samuel, constantly listening to veteran hunters like Mark Kenyon or Andrae D’Acquisto on podcasts, learning what the best seed mix is for a food plot, and filling the gaps with scouting. Thus, I have dedicated an unimaginable amount of time to the pursuit of the animal alongside my other loves of bird hunting, writing, and photography.
With that, I wanted to provide a short guide for those hunters who are about to take that same journey I did seven years ago of what I’ve found to be successful in the Mountain State.
Where to start: Preseason scouting
Scouting is the most important part of deer hunting outside of pulling the trigger of your rifle or crossbow or letting your nocked arrow fly. I spend many hours looking at different areas with my onX Hunt map, first figuring out what areas are quality places to hunt and then tearing apart potential cover, food sources, and more.
So what are you looking for on an electronic mapping system? The answer varies and depends on the terrain and environmental makeup of the land. First, identify whether or not the potential area is even a good place to hunt. If there’s not a good mix of cover, food, and water, you’ll likely not find a ton of success.
Finding transitional cover from hardwoods to a grass field, agriculture, or, in some cases, marsh, is a great start.
Determining food sources during preseason scouting
Deer browse on a lot of different food sources; forbs like alfalfa and clover, as well as corn, soybeans, acorns, apples, and more. It’s important to keep this in mind when looking for places to hunt, though West Virginia isn’t known for its agricultural production. In most cases, you’ll want to look for places with good acorn production, though there may be some public land near a farmer’s plot of row crops. And, speaking of farmers, are many landowners that are willing to allow hunting.
When searching for food sources, there’s a new, fantastic feature released by onX, the “Crop Data Layers,” which shows the user plantings from the previous year. The layers so far include corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, sorghum, millet, fallow fields, and more. This is particularly helpful and helps identify rotational crops.
For example, there is a great parcel of private land in Preston County that shows a section of farmland where two landowners are both growing corn and soybeans. The land also has great transitional coverage, a right-of-way, and a creek that winds through the mixed woodlot. By all means, it’s a deer haven. However, since this data is from 2020, it’s very likely those farmers have rotated their soybean field into corn, and vice versa. This helps you identify where to set up throughout the season. The next steps would be to drive by the field and see for yourself if the farmer did rotate those crops, and, if you like how it looks, ask for permission to hunt.
Finding cover during preseason scouting
Finding the correct type of cover is the next step in your scouting checklist.
But, before moving on, it’s best to break down mapping systems like onX and how different layers will help you in this pursuit. The mapping app hosts three different layers – topographic, satellite, and hybrid – which show different aspects of the area.
Topographic view breaks down a map with contour lines, which helps identify land formations such as saddles, peaks, drainages, ridges, and more. It also helps identify steep and relaxed slopes and is easier in some cases to identify whitetail bedding areas if you’re looking at a heavily forested area. Satellite view and hybrid view are exactly what they sound like. With satellite view you can see the area as it is, helping you quickly identify proper cover and food and water sources. Hybrid view merges satellite and topographic views, helping you put all the pieces together.
Hybrid view is great when you don’t want to switch between topo and satellite maps, helping you quickly identify good or not so great habitat on the fly as opposed to marking it and coming back to it later.
Deer like to bed at higher elevations in their specific area so they can see what’s below them, and tend to keep thick cover to their backs. While keeping this in mind, look for land features that jump out at you, too. If you’re looking at a piece of land with onX and see a long finger of field – agricultural or natural – or an elongated natural occurrence such as a long spur or saddle (which you can see on the topographic or hybrid view), this may prove to be good bedding. As for pinching them in a particular area, the tops of drainages can see a lot of deer movement, as it’s easy access to food and water. You can also catch them coming out of a staging area – the area between a food source and their bedding – and should plan to set up accordingly.
Further, when trying to decipher potential travel routes, keep in mind that, like most mammals, deer like to take the easiest route. Knowing this, you don’t want to follow the same route when hunting the area, as you’ll spook the deer or lay your scent down.
Ground proofing and using trail cameras to close out preseason scouting
The final piece of scouting comes from utilizing trail cameras. Once you find a spot with all the necessary facilities, go into the area with your binoculars, spotting scope and a set of trail cameras if applicable, and prepare to sit for hours.
Proofing a private plot is easier than public land, as you have more information coming from the landowner at the start. They will be able to tell you how many deer they see, what areas of their crop fields the deer tend to like, etc., so you’ll know where to put your glass to determine travel routes and potential stand locations.
Public land can be much more time-consuming. Depending on the piece of public land you’re hunting, you could spend hours – or a day or two – figuring out where the deer are coming from, potential staging areas, and more. Look for high ground to sit and watch for deer movement, and take notes. Be sure to utilize the waypoint system onX provides, as it helps you come up with a game plan between your proofing and the hunt. The waypoint options vary from the animal to access points, bedding areas, potential campsites, deadheads, food sources, sign, pinch points, and much more.
Further, be on the lookout for sign such as clear bedding, scrapes, and rubs. This will help you figure out the general area to set up your stand, where you’ll sit in your saddle, or where to insert yourself if you’re hunting on the ground.
Finally, if you’re in an area that is conducive to leave a trail camera, do so. This is a great tool for private land and can be useful on public land. If you’re choosing to set a camera on public land, though, make sure you secure it with a locking device so no one steals it. You also may need to check for special regulations in case some areas don’t allow cameras. And, as a side note, while cellular trail cameras tend to get a bad rap, they do have their perks as they allow you to leave the camera alone for long periods and you can see the action in real-time.
Putting all the pieces together for a successful hunt
After preseason scouting comes to a close, it’s time to put everything together. You know where the deer are traveling, you know their preferred food source and you’ve figured out where you’re going to sit and wait.
While all of this combined is the most important part of successfully punching your tag, there is still plenty to consider while in the field.
One truth a deer hunter must understand is that the animal is easily spooked. It doesn’t take long for you to learn this after hunting for a year or two, or from watching films from the many outdoor media outlets available. Sometimes it can be credited to the hunter, but other times you can sit all day waiting for your choice deer to walk through the area, and when it does a coyote or black bear scares it off.
And while those natural occurrences do happen, there are plenty of ways to mitigate the human side of the equation.
Using wind direction and thermals to avoid detection
The wind can be your best friend or your worst enemy on a hunt. If a deer catches a scent that is unfamiliar to them, it puts them on high alert. Even the most delicate scent control methods – which we’ll touch on in a moment – can fail, so keeping the wind in your face is crucial.
OnX has a wind direction feature that continuously updates based on local data. As a mobile hunter, this is a great tool when stalking a deer. Another tool to always have at your disposal is a wind indicator, a small bottle with powder inside that shows you where the wind is carrying your scent. Lastly, watching the vegetation around you is another good way to watch wind direction.
The latter two options are incredibly helpful when the wind direction is constantly changing. And, because West Virginia’s topography is mountainous and hilly, one way to play the wind to your advantage is to understand the windward and leeward faces of a slope and how whitetails utilize them. In essence, windward facing slopes face the wind; leeward facing slopes are the opposite side. Ridges are great areas for deer to travel, as they can use thermals and wind to their advantage as they move to and from food sources or while they’re bedding to stay aware of predators.
Understanding thermals is important, too. As the day goes on and the sun begins to warm the air, it will rise and carry your scent with it. The opposite is true in the late afternoon, as cold air is denser than warm air and sinks.
Using both of those to your advantage will help you choose a stand location on the fly, or a spot to set up and wait if you’re ground hunting on the hilly and mountainous terrain the state garnered its name from.
Note, that if you’re hunting a food plot or by row crops, you want to think about playing the wind and where you’ll set up a bit more than just using the edge of the woodlot. In some circumstances, this works fine with certain winds, but if you’re trying to tag a mature buck you’ll need to place yourself further back into the wooded area downwind of their trail. This is because, in nearly every case barring rut activity, older deer wait longer to feed and will hang back in the woods until the does and younger bucks prove it’s safe for them to eat. If they catch your scent wafting through the woods, they’ll use a route away from you.
Using scent control to avoid detection
The last piece of advice for new deer hunters is to try and control scent as much as possible. You’re never going to be 100% scent-free, but there are ways to rid yourself of your odor before and during a hunt.
Spraying yourself down with scent masking products, such as Dead Down Wind, works both once you exit your vehicle or tent, as well as when you reach your spot. Other in-field equipment that works well are ozone machines, such as Ozonics, which claim, “By creating a constant stream of ozone, your Ozonics device destroys your human scent so deer and other animals can’t tell you’re there.” You can screw this into a tree or set them up near you.
Other ways to control scent include shower products like body wash and shampoo, laundry detergent and dryer sheets, and wearing certain fabrics like new-age Merino wool which cut down on the odor-causing bacteria.
Regardless of how much you do to contain your scent, it isn’t 100% foolproof. Many factors play into scent control, as well as wind and thermals and how deer take in their surroundings.
Finally, take this guide as a blueprint. Deer hunting is not black and white – there is a ton of gray area and nuance, and the best teachers are the land, the deer, and time. There will be moments of failure, of anger, and, there will be many moments of success if you stick with it long enough.
This guide is to give you the basic foothold you need to be successful hunting whitetail deer in West Virginia, and, hopefully, it does just that.
This article is sponsored by onX Maps