My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Deer hunting with a camera

I haven’t hunted deer with a gun since the late 70’s, it isn’t that I am opposed to hunting, it just isn’t for me. I love venison, my aunt Shirley’s venison stew was one of my all time favorite meals. Her “secret” ingredient was parsnips, I add them to beef stew as well, yummy. If any one were to offer me some venison, I would gladly accept it, but I don’t want to be the person killing deer for venison though. I know, I’m strange.

By the late 70’s, I had become more of a shooter than a hunter, well, that’s not quite it either. More of a shooter than a killer. I still love to shoot a gun, and I like to hunt, but I no longer combine the two. Instead, I hunt with my cameras, and shoot pictures in the woods, and shoot targets at the range with a gun.

Many of the reasons I no longer hunt with a gun have to do with other hunters, and the way deer are hunted here in Michigan. I don’t really like being out in the woods with 3/4 of a million to 1 million people who get their gun out once a year for deer season, and can’t hit the broad side of a barn at 50 feet. I have heard enough bullets zinging through the brush or landing a few feet from me to last a lifetime, thank you very much.

I will not bait deer, I feel any one who has to resort to baiting isn’t much of a hunter, and I’ve heard all the excuses for baiting. They all add up to the fact that most deer hunters don’t know how to hunt.

Deer really aren’t very bright from what I have learned, but then, they don’t have to be to survive the typical Michigan hunter. I hate to say that, but it’s true. Even while I was still hunting with a gun, I saw how easily deer hide from and elude the typical hunter.

One time I was sitting near the top of a small ridge that overlooked a small fairly flat clearing on the side of the ridge. There were several deer trails radiating from the clearing like spokes on a wheel. As I was sitting there, a doe walked into the clearing and began to feed. I was hoping that there would be a buck following her, as often happens during the rut. The rut is the deer mating season. Anyway, I’m watching the doe, and she didn’t notice me at all from what I could tell. But, she started to become agitated, looking down the slope of the hill as if there were something there. I was still hoping it would be a buck, but soon even I could hear that it was another hunter crashing through the brush, coming towards the clearing.

The doe calmly walked over to one of the few scrub oaks in the clearing, and laid down in the tall grass at the base of it, and stayed perfectly still. I had seen her lay down, but I still had trouble making her out as she laid there. Eventually the other hunter walked into the clearing, through the clearing, not more than 40 feet from where the doe was laying, and then he went crashing through the brush on the other side. He never saw the doe, or me sitting against a tree wearing a blaze orange hat and a red hunting coat. I could still hear him when the doe got up and began feeding again as if nothing had happened.

I have seen deer crawling along on their belly’s, not more than 5 feet from where I was standing, and I’ve seen them do the same thing to other hunters. They are very good at being unseen when they want to be unseen, after all, their lives’ depend on it.

So how do I see deer when others can’t? My “trick” if you want to call it that is to not act like a typical human out in the woods. It confuses the heck out of critters,all critters, not just deer. I have deer walk up to me trying to figure out what I am, since I don’t act human.

So how do you act like a non-human in the woods? The first thing is to be quiet, most people make so much noise in the woods the deer have them pinpointed long before the people approach anywhere near the deer. That doesn’t mean you have to be completely silent in the way you walk, no one can, not even wildlife is completely silent.

Next time you are in the woods, stop and listen, really listen. The woods are a noisy place. Birds knock pieces of bark and nuts off from the trees that hit the ground with loud thunks. There are squirrels that do the same thing, or that are rummaging around in the leaf litter for fallen nuts. The wind causes the leaves on the trees to rustle, and it knocks branches loose that come crashing to the ground. Even deer break twigs and branches when they move through the woods, but they don’t go crashing through the woods like a bull in a china shop the way most humans do, unless they have been frightened.

So you don’t have to be completely silent, but the noise you make should sound like the normal background noises already present in the woods. That means all sounds, not just the way you walk. Pay attention to all the sounds you make. No metal objects rattling in your pockets, nothing clinking or clanging in your backpack, and no footwear slapping the soles of your feet with every step, they are sure to warn animals of your approach.

And before I forget, one other thing before I get back to sounds, and that is pay attention to any un-natural glares that may be coming from your equipment. I find that the screens of both my GPS unit and my camera could both be used as a signaling mirror in an emergency. I make sure to carry both of them in such a way that the glare from the screens don’t signal wildlife that I am coming.

Watch animals in the woods, they don’t go walking along non-stop, they take a few steps, stop, look and listen, then take a few more steps, and stop again. Do the same thing, and you’ll sound like a critter, not a human. Walk as softly as you can, stop every few steps, look, listen, repeat, you’ll see a lot more wildlife that way.

The other trick I use is to go where humans usually don’t. We’re a fairly predictable species, the animals know where we humans go when we’re in the woods, and that is most people stick to areas easy to walk. I take the game trails through the thicker cover in an area, not the really thick stuff that is hard to get through without making so much noise that the deer all know I’m coming. I stick to edges, between where most humans walk, and the thickest of cover, and it seems to take animals by surprise.

Whitetail doe

Not great, but I caught her chewing, she heard the auto-focus of my camera going, which is what alerted her to my being there. Here’s her fawn.

Whitetail fawn

And the two of them moving off.

Whitetail doe and fawn

My being in a place where deer or other animals don’t expect me to be is one of the reasons I get the photos that I do.

Another trick, don’t look like a human. I shot those while kneeling on one knee so I didn’t present the human form as deer know it. Animals know humans as the two-legged beasts that walk upright, change that appearance, and they are not quite so sure that you are a human.

The doe trotted across the small field next to where we were.

Whitetail doe

Then waited for her fawn to cross.

Whitetail doe

Which it did.

Whitetail fawn

They joined up.

Whitetail doe and fawn

And walked into the brush together.

White tail doe and fawn

That reminds me, another tip. If you can, stay still, but like in the series above, I had to move to get all those photos. If you have to move, don’t go all stealthy, like a cat does. Animals know the typical stalking behavior of predators, mimic it, and your subject will be gone before you get any photos. Watch animals of different species interact, like squirrels and deer for example. They will each be watching the other, but they go about their regular business as they do so. Move towards animals, especially as if you’re stalking them, and they will flee. If you do move, walk parallel to them, or even away from them a little. Act like you are just another critter in the woods, not a human or other predator. That also means no quick movements either, quick movements are signs of a predator making an attack. Move slowly, but naturally.

Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, it is just a bad situation, and there’s not a lot you can do. That’s the way it was for this next photo, The buck and I came face to face at a curve in the trail, the brush growing on the inside of the curve blocked our view of one another until we were very close together.

Whitetail buck

The fence in the picture is there to try to keep the deer off from the golf course next to where I was, these weren’t taken in a deer ranch or similar place, they were taken in a public park.

Anyway, the buck and I met, he turned, I didn’t even have a clear view of him while I was standing. I dropped to one knee to shoot under the tree in the foreground, and managed a picture, even if it isn’t a good one. I didn’t even have time to zoom.

Is it a great picture? Nope, I wouldn’t even call it a good picture, but it was a great snapshot in hunting terms. A snapshot in hunting is shooting quickly, and I did that! There’s still a lot of hunter left in me. If I did still hunt with a gun, I would be stopping at the store tonight for some parsnips to make venison stew with.

There’s another reason to shoot quickly when the occasion calls for it, to stay in practice. To be good at anything requires practice, and lots of it. Because I take so many photos, I don’t have to think about where the controls on my cameras are, it is second nature to me. Because I constantly practice approaching animals closely, it is second nature to me. Heck, I even play games with animals I have no intention of photographing.

The other night at work, I noticed a cat sneaking around the building as I was getting ready to walk out the door. I have to admit, I get some kind of sick pleasure out of sneaking up on cats while they are hunting, and scaring the bejeebers out of them. For one thing, it is hard to do, and for another, cats seem to be the most prideful animals other than man. We both need to be put in our place from time to time.

Anyway, I slipped out the door, and snuck up to about ten feet behind the cat, clapped my hands and yelled “Boo” at the same time. I had a good laugh as it jumped, saw me, and took off like a shot.

I guess I am like a kid that never grew up, one that still likes to play hide and seek, but rather than play it with people, I play it with animals. I play it all the time with the turkeys that live around my apartment. Now there’s a wary and worthy adversary! Turkeys are tough to sneak up on at any time. I can find no chink in their armor, they have excellent vision and hearing, and a very good sense of smell. They are always on guard, and show none of the curiosity that deer display.

From what I can tell, deer are nearly blind, you don’t have to do much to hide from the vision of a deer. As long as they can’t see you as a the two-legged beast that walks upright, they rely on their senses of hearing and smell to identify you. If you’re quiet and downwind from them, they will approach you to identify what you are. That, and deer are mule-headed, they make up their mind that they are going to feed in a certain spot, or travel a particular trail, it takes a lot to change their mind. Even if you scare them away, they will often circle, and come back as soon as they think you are gone.

So after I had spooked the buck in the picture above, I went a short way and sat down in a clump of grass, hoping it would come back. I never saw him again, but only a few minutes later, this doe appeared, coming from the other direction.

Whitetail doe

The grey in the picture is from my shooting through the grass I was sitting in. Behind her, was her fawn.

Whitetail fawn

Then another.

Whitetail doe and fawns

They could hear the auto-focus and shutter of my camera, but they couldn’t identify those sounds as human sounds. I thought that I was in a bad spot, with six eyes looking at me, six ears listening for me, and six nostrils trying to catch my scent. Actually, there were even more, because what I wasn’t seeing was another doe and her fawn just off to the side. But sitting in a spot humans don’t normally go, not looking or sounding human was enough, the deer kept coming, trying to catch me doing something human.

Deer have a couple of tricks they use to help them identify what they are not sure of. One is to stomp the ground with their forelegs. I am not sure why, other than to frighten off other animals so they can identify them. But, when you’re around when the deer are doing that, it drives home the point of walking softly. Not only can you hear their hooves hit the ground, you can feel it as well.

Another trick is to drop their heads down out of view, then raise back up quickly trying to catch you moving. That, and snorting by expelling the air in their lungs quickly. If you ignore all those things and remain still, they will eventually move closer.

Whitetail doe

That’s the first doe stepping into the clearing, she made one short lunge forward, and then walked up the hill.

Whitetail doe

Whitetail doe

Followed by her first fawn.

Whitetail fawn

While I was taking this next shot, the second of her fawns came out of the woods as well, but I missed it while shooting this one.

Whitetail fawn

Then the second doe entered the clearing.

Whitetail doe

She doesn’t look very healthy for a late summer deer.

Whitetail doe

And she was followed by her fawn.

Whitetail fawn

Who had to stop for a bite to eat on its way.

Whitetail fawn

And then went to join its mother.

Whitetail fawn

It hasn’t learned to avoid the sticktites yet. I thought that this would be my last shot of them as they disappeared over the hill.

Whitetail deer

But they stopped.

Whitetail deer

And began to try and identify what I was all over again.

Whitetail fawns

I think it was both that they were curious, and that they wanted to feed right where I was sitting.

Whitetail fawns

The fawn on the right must have thought that last mouthful was pretty tasty, because they started coming back towards me.

Whitetail fawns

But they didn’t let their guard down.

Whitetail fawn

I was mostly interested in the fawns, but their mothers were still there as well.

Whitetail doe

All five of them were milling about on the top of the hill.

Whitetail deer

That’s a terrible shot, I cut mom’s head off trying to get a good picture of the fawn covered in sticktites.

Whitetail fawn

The second doe looks way too thin for this time of year.

Whitetail doe

And I had figured out they want to feed where I was sitting, so I stood up.

Whitetail deer

Said to them “Thanks girls.”

Whitetail doe and fawns

and went on my way, which confused the heck out of them, partially because I had them in a bad spot. I was still between them and cover, they weren’t quite sure which way to run. I got this last one of the last fawn as it went back into the brush.

Whitetail fawn

So that was an evening of deer hunting with a camera. I hope you have enjoyed the photos as much as I enjoyed taking them, and thanks for stopping by.

3 responses

  1. What a great camera hunt! Excellent photos, and thanks for the tips on not acting like a typical human in the woods- this makes a lot of sense. You’re right about deer being occasionally stubborn when they’re eating something good and don’t want to leave.

    I share your trepidation during hunting season, that’s not a good time to be out in the boonies.

    September 18, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    • Thanks again. Many people have asked me how I get so close to animals, I suppose I could have worded it better, but the answer is to blend in with nature, something most people don’t do. To me, it is so much a part of who I am, I don’t even realize what I do when I am in the woods that lets me approach animals as closely as I do.

      September 20, 2011 at 3:14 pm

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