You Can Play an Important Role in Controlling Suburban Deer.
If you don’t get down here soon, I’m going to shoot that buck myself,” Bob Walker half-teased in a phone call a couple autumns back. “He comes through here at least once a day, and we have him pretty well patterned. If somebody else doesn’t get him soon he's gonna be hit by a car.”
It was the third time that Walker — a close friend best known as the inventor of the Walker’s Game Ear — had offered to let me have first crack at the suburban buck he promised would make the record book. The deer had been spotted in Walker’s neighborhood on numerous occasions prior to the late-September Pennsylvania bow opener as it crossed the yard of Walker’s neighbor and videographer, Scott Vanaman.
In fact, it was on the way to his night-shift job that Vanaman had to stop for the 10-pointer standing in the middle of Route 1, a busy Philadelphia-area four-lane a couple hundred yards from his home. “It just looked at me with that deer-in-the-headlights look,” Vanaman recalls.
It was Walker’s fourth phone call a couple days later that confirmed that I should have reacted earlier and placed some writing deadlines on hold to seek the prize buck.
“It’s all over,” he said. “I got him late this afternoon. I didn’t even have the climber in place when I saw him coming along Route 1, and I had to scramble to get my (safety) belt on and nock an arrow. But somehow I did it.
“Scores 133 5/8,” he continued matter-of-factly, purposely rubbing salt in the wound. “You had your chance, buddy, but you blew it.”
I’ve regretted it ever since. At 3 p.m. that day, Bob set his treestand in a small woodlot sloping steeply toward the busy highway, putting him between the deer trail and Route 1 traffic. The plan worked to perfection, and the deer was recovered atop the hill about 60 yards from the road.
Patterning bucks in Walker’s citified neighborhood includes traipsing across four- or six-lane highways, stalking through neighbors’ back yards, checking for scrapes in flower gardens, looking for tracks in roadside ditches and for rubs on backyard trees. Both Vanaman and Walker live on the edge — the edge of Philadelphia, that is — 15 minutes from the Philadelphia Airport and a mere 20 minutes from Citizens Bank Stadium, home of the MLB Phillies and NFL Eagles.
Hunting suburbia and its fringes requires an attitude adjustment that can only be appreciated by spending time in the figurative shadows of Wal-Marts, Taco Bells, pizza joints, convenience stores, and shopping malls.
“Like it or not, you’ve got to stay low profile when you hunt this kind of environment,” says Walker. “That doesn’t mean we trespass or intrude upon other people’s privacy in any way. That’s asking for trouble. We first seek permission; and if we need to enter private property to trail a deer, we’ll knock on a door or make a phone call and ask. We keep in touch with the property owners throughout the year, which makes for a friendly relationship and avoids problems. But we don’t otherwise advertise our presence.”
The bow is the tool of choice in most of the rambling woodlots that have survived urban sprawl. Not only can bowhunters operate under the cover of vegetation in the fall season, but archery’s also a quiet pursuit. The exceptions are shotguns and muzzleloaders, which are permitted in some sectors during annual special regulations seasons and in states with special suburban deer management programs.
So how do you go about deciding when, where and how to hunt deer whose trails lead across and along major roadways, through patches of pachysandra, around swimming pools, to birdfeeders and into flowerbeds and back yards?
In order to adapt to life here, deer must first be traffic-smart. The biggest bucks — and suburbia holds some monsters — must survive crossing the highways upon which they tread each day.
You might think these suburban deer are used to humans and would accept your presence. But when they see or wind you in a treestand 100 feet from someone’s back door, they know something’s amiss.
“They can sense when human predators invade their haunts; and if an archer is careless, a suburban buck can make itself as scarce as an honest politician,” says Tom Tatum, a school teacher and outdoor newspaper columnist who also lives near Philadelphia. In a lifetime of hunting suburbia, Tom has learned that despite the familiar odor of people, catching scent of a human in a woodland setting still perks a deer’s nose, buck or doe. Using scent eliminators, cover scents and sex scents is as necessary when hunting suburbia as in the big woods, Tatum advises.
One notable advantage in seeking suburban whitetails, however, is that their travels are predictably restricted and easier to pattern.
According to Tatum, deer negotiate back yards, skirt the edges of woodlots, move within feet of howling, kenneled dogs, trace treeline routes between woodlots and generally stay close to houses. Therefore, he scouts places he has gained permission to hunt every bit as seriously as when he travels into deep forest or farmland in search of whitetails.
Permission to Hunt
“One of my favorite places to hunt on the edge of town overlooks a million-dollar home with one of those buried electric fences and two Dobermans,” Walker chuckles. “We know that when deer come through there, they’ll make a wide arc around the lawn and cut into the woods to avoid the dogs. We have permission to bowhunt from a couple treestands set up in the adjacent woods about 40 yards off the yard, and we take deer there every year.”
On a humorous note, Walker and Vanaman were confronted by a property owner a couple years ago who claimed the land on which they hunted was his. It wasn’t.
“We were polite and courteous, but we informed him in no uncertain terms that we were not trespassing or shooting toward his property,” Walker chuckles. “What we didn’t tell him is that we’d been hunting there for eight years, and he never knew we were there until that day.”
One unfortunate but inherent part of suburban hunting is that some residents call the police whenever a hunter is seen, unaware that hunting is legal in many parts of the suburbs.
“It gets a little frustrating sometimes,” says Vanaman. “The police are required to check us out, but it sometimes ruins a morning’s hunt, even though we are doing everything legally and ethically.”
Bucks in the ’Hood
As for techniques, suburban hunting is little different from country hunting once the sounds of traffic, sirens, trains, kids playing in school yards, barking dogs, hammering, paving equipment and other distractions are blocked out.
“In many ways, deer in the ’hood are like deer everywhere else,” Tatum says. They respond to grunting and will go through the same rutting rituals and routines as their country cousins.”
Scrapes and rubs are typically tended during the night, and finding them is seldom difficult. You can almost always find them in the same places as the year before. The road to success is securing as many patches of hunting land as possible. Suburban bucks have considerably smaller ranges and will flee to tiny nearby no-hunting refuges — of which there are many.
“Shoot at and miss a big deer in the mountains and he’ll run out of the county,” said Vanaman. “Scare one here and he’ll run across the road into someone’s yard and stay there until it’s safe to move out.
“It’s not always easy to get permission to hunt small wooded and brushy tracts behind residences; but with a bit of planning, it can be done,” says Tatum, “It’s also my experience that landowners are much more inclined to grant permission to a bowhunter than a gun hunter.”
However, some landowners who are serious about wanting their deer numbers reduced welcome the use of shotguns or muzzleloaders, particularly if they’re fired only from treestands. In the heart of suburbia, however, township regulations might bar the use of any firearms. It’s a good idea to visit or call the local police department or town council head to clarify any such prohibitions. In some areas, local governments might supply lists of land open to hunting and the names of property owners to contact.
No one looks forward to following a wounded deer downtown, so it’s important to set up as close as possible to trails or scrapes. Take sure shots to avoid the prospect of night-tracking near or through suburban yards.
No matter how hard you work to secure places to hunt, Tatum warns, there’s no guarantee conditions will stay the same. Landowners and land uses change regularly. One year he discovered a heavily-used travel route from a woodlot to a cornfield, then patterned and eventually bagged an 8-point bow buck. The next year, survey markers appeared and the cornfield was lost to housing, as were the deer’s travel lanes.
“Last season’s hotspot could turn out to be this year’s fast-food parking lot,” he cautions. “And it often does.”
Each year, more and more hunters are providing welcomed services to landowners whose deer visitations are becoming costly. And considering deer-vehicle collisions, Lyme disease and habitat concerns, does and bucks must be controlled for the benefit of themselves and human residents.
The good news is that, to the dismay of the animal rights crowd, an ever-growing number of suburbanites with deer problems are welcoming the help of safe, ethical, caring and responsible hunters.
Suburban hunting takes some planning and time, but it’s well worth it.
Read More Articles by Tom Fegely:
• An Ounce of Prevention: Muzzleloaders require extra care to prevent mishaps and ensure functionality.
• Hiding In Plain Sight: We’ve learned some of our best concealment tricks from the original masters.
• Bowhunting Mini-Lessons: No matter how many years you hunt with a bow, there’s always something new to learn.
This article was published in the September 2007 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.