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Summer prep: Take advantage of deer preseason

by Bryan Hendricks | July 1, 2021 at 2:23 a.m.
Choosing a deer rifle isn’t difficult. A lever-action rifle is excellent for cozy woodland hunting. A bolt-action rifle with a telescopic sight is ideal for shooting long distances. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Bryan Hendricks)

Deer hunting is far from our minds in the blazing heat of summer, but now is actually the right time to start preparing for fall.

For new or novice hunters, preparations begin with finding a deer hunting firearm. Outdoor writers exhaust a lot of physical and digital ink debating about the best firearm and cartridge for deer hunting. Those debates aren't for educating, but to give deer hunters an opportunity to cheer for their favorites and jeer the other guy's favorites.

The truth is that any centerfire firearm .22-caliber and larger will kill deer. Smallbore rifles are good for children and small-framed adults because they don't kick, and they are reliably lethal at the distances that hunters kill most of the deer in Arkansas.

Nitpickers will insist on adding the caveat that smallbores are lethal "with proper shot placement." That applies to any cartridge. No matter how big the bullet or how fast it travels, a misplaced shot will wound a deer and allow it to cover enough distance to prevent it from being found when it finally dies.

On the other hand, a small-diameter bullet inherently accompanies a smaller margin of error. There are better choices for deer than an AR-15 or any other platform chambered for .223 Remington or its military equivalent 5.65x45.

For woodland deer hunting where shots are often less than 100 yards, you can't go wrong with a lever-action rifle chambered in 30-30 Winchester or, even better, 35 Rem. For new rifles, Henry is the only option, but it's a good one that will last a lifetime.

If you intend to hunt over longer distances -- shooting across fields or utility rights of way -- a bolt-action rifle with a telescopic sight is a better option. Here's where you can get in the weeds with all of the different cartridges. They're all good. Make it easy on yourself and get a rifle chambered in 30-06 Springfield or 270 Winchester. They are old, but they've been taking game for a very long time. Modern powders and modern bullets have vastly improved the ballistics and terminal performance of both cartridges. They will kill deer anywhere in Arkansas, and ammunition -- when it becomes available again -- is more plentiful than it is for niche cartridges such as 7mm-08 Rem. or 6.5 Creedmoor.

An old saying urges us to spend as much on the scope as you spend on a firearm. What if you only spend $150 on a firearm? Doesn't even a cheap rifle deserve to be accurate?

Of course it does. The good news is that a great many economy-priced scopes are very precise. They are bright in low light and they hold zero. One of my most accurate rifles is a Remington Model 700 BDL in 7mm-08. It has worn only one scope, a Bushnell Trophy 3-9X40 that cost about $100. I've shot a lot of deer with it and have never had to fiddle with the adjustments.

Of course, pride of ownership is very important for hunters. If you want to spend the extra dollars to put a Leupold with its distinctive gold ring on your rifle, then by all means do it. Leupold is a great scope, as is every other scope in that price range. One look tells other hunters that you value quality, and that means a lot.

From a practical standpoint, summertime is an excellent time to explore your hunting woods. Deer usually bed down in thick cover in the heat of the day, so you are not likely to bump them while walking about in the morning or late afternoon.

Specifically, I'm looking for well-used game trails during my summer scouting forays. Hot trails tell me how deer are using the terrain to travel through mature woods to dense thickets and overgrown cutovers. Deer like to bed in thickets in hot weather because they are shady and cool, but starting in early fall, they will also bed in cutovers near food sources, especially feeders and food plots.

Again, you're just examining trails to see how deer get from place to place. In early fall, you'll check these trails for other features such as scrapes and rubs. Deer rub their antlers on trees to remove velvet and also to mark territory. They use their hooves to scrape the ground also to mark their presence.

Placing a remote camera at a scrape or rub will tell you what times deer visit. You can check modern cameras with a smartphone so you don't contaminate an area with your scent. Deer might start making scrapes or rubs at 3 a.m., but if you notice that the times start shifting into the daylight hours, you'll know that's a good place to hang a stand nearby and wait for a favorable wind.

If you hunt from permanent stands, summer is a great time to do maintenance. Squirrels and owls love to build nests in deer stands, and they make huge messes. After they evacuate, clean out the mess and tidy up your work space. Replace dilapidated siding, flooring and roofing.

If it's a wooden stand, check your steps and replace rotten boards. Breaking through a rotten step 9 feet to 10 feet in the air can put you in the hospital, in a wheelchair or in a casket. Lumber is expensive right now, but it's still a lot cheaper than an ambulance ride or a funeral.

If your stand is metal, check the ladder welds for the same reason. Metal rusts, and a compromised weld can snap with catastrophic results.

Whether the subject is handling firearms or something as simple as getting in and out of a stand, deer hunting is first and foremost about safety. If you ensure that part of the equation, you can devote all of your remaining attention to having fun and, hopefully, sharing the fun with a novice, a newcomer or a youngster.

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