Deer Drives Done Right

A careful and well-planned push by drivers is a great way to put some late-season meat in the freezer.

The mature doe cautiously exited the Oglethorpe County clearcut and trotted toward the bottom of a deep ravine. Six other antlerless deer and a small 4-pointer followed her. The whole group hesitated before entering another thick cutover. I picked out the leader, converted her to tablefare, bolted in another cartridge and dropped the second largest before the group knew what had happened. Seconds later, a friend on the top crossing of the ravine fired once.

The stander on the top of the gulch was my good friend Mike Whitehead. He later relayed to me that nine deer came out of the thicket to the top funnel, a doe with one fawn, one with two large fawns, two 4-pointers, a 6-pointer and a 2 1/2-year-old, 14-inch 8-pointer. He shot the biggest doe with two grown fawns. She hesitated just before entering the thicket on the other side of the gulch. As luck would have it, he could have easily harvested one of the bucks, but the other doe did not present a good, ethical shot. Seeing 15 deer off one drive, with a minimal amount of standers, is a good push.

So ended the first deer drive of the day, with three fat does to be hauled back to camp.

Orchestrating a really safe, successful push involves a lot more than just, “Y’all line up over there, and push this thicket to Jimmy and Hank.” There are several important factors that influence just how well your drive will turn out. In this article I will mention some factors that have helped us through the years.

The most important facet of any deer drive is safety. Everyone involved should know how many hunters are pushing, how many are standing and exactly where each person will be. You don’t ever want to be on the receiving end of a high-powered rifle or shotgun.

Standers should be stationed in positions where they will never be shooting toward the drivers or another stander. If possible, it is also good if they are shooting into some topography, like a hillside.

We usually put our standers in tree stands where they are shooting downward. Standers should never move until the drive is completely over. Accidents have occurred when a stander shot a deer, made a less-than-perfect hit, and immediately began tracking the animal into an area where they were not supposed to be. Were they shot for a deer? No, but they were hit by bullets meant for a deer between them and another hunter. Accidents simply should never occur for any reason.

Below are the other factors I consider important components of a successful drive.

Weapon of Choice: The best gun to have in your hands depends on the terrain and habitat. Being that we are in stands, and expect 50- to 100-yard shots, we use the same guns we stand hunt with, rifles with 3X9 power scopes set on three.

Every December, we do one drive that is a young clearcut on a big hillside. The standers get high in trees where they can see deer moving down or along the hillside. This is the only case where we set our scopes rather high, as we might get a shot out to a little longer than 100 yards.

In tight, very thick areas when the shots range from 10 to 40 yards, a 12-gauge shotgun with 00 buckshot is the gun and load we prefer. An ethical shot should put two or more pellets in the kill zone and put the deer in your truck.

I hear folks say they just use a “brush gun” for drives, a large caliber, heavy-bullet shooting rifle that will “break through the wood.” Most are talking about .44-40s or .44s. I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe any caliber bullet is going to stay on course if it hits a large piece of brush. It can instead end up crippling a deer.

Time of Day: I know everyone would rather be hunting in their favorite ladder or lock-on during the hours when one feels the deer are up and feeding, but this is also the best time to put on a push. It is much easier to move animals that are already up than to roust bedded ones. As we all know, a lot of deer will just hold tight when bedded and let you walk right on by unless you literally step on them. I’ve had deer explode like a covey of quail from under my feet.

Speed and Noise: This is a biggie. Most folks drive way too fast. I’ve heard drives on adjoining properties that sounded like the pushers were doing wind sprints.

When hunters drive too fast, they walk by a large percentage of deer that never jump and run. Also, the deer that are jumped are going the speed of sound when they get to the standers. The idea is to move as many deer as possible and have them go by the standers at a walk.

You can get the desired results by walking very slowly and at the same time making a huge amount of noise. We usually beat dead tree limbs against trees and whistle or talk loudly. In this way, you also know exactly where all the other drivers are located. The noise immediately alerts the deer to your presence from the start, and the slow movement doesn’t freak them out into a dead run. Their approach is more of “Gee, maybe we better mosey out of here,” instead of, “Oh my gosh! We better get out of Dodge…quick!”

The very slow movement also plays on their nerves, as they don’t know if the ruckus is coming right at them for a long period of time. Different situations and habitat types dictate different drive speeds, but in thick cover 100 yards in no less than five minutes is a good rule of thumb.

Wind Direction: Most pushed deer will try to move into the wind and feel more comfortable doing so. It’s much easier to push deer in the direction they want to go anyway. A lot of deer that attempt to go around or sneak back through the drivers do so in order to get the wind in their faces, rather than run into a danger zone with no olfactory knowledge of what lies ahead.

If you have driven deer before, I’m sure you have been involved in instances where an animal, instead of staying in a thicket, has just busted out the side across a half mile of open pasture, doing about warp eight. They’d rather chance that if they can run into the wind rather than stay in the thicket.

Know the Terrain/Lay of the Land: Knowing the area, you can push deer toward known funnels, as in the beginning of this article. Ravines, strips of woods between deep beaver swamps, etc. are excellent locations, and they minimize the number of standers needed to cover an area. Deer will also slip through thickets instead of a wide-open run and usually stop before entering a thick area, offering a good standing shot if the animals are not pushed too hard.

One of our favorite drives, which has never failed to push various deer toward the standers, begins in a 50-acre clearcut bordering a beaverswamp. The cut narrows into a small 40-yard-wide strip of bottomland hardwood forest that separates the beaverswamp from another one of equal size and water depths. If pushed properly, and the deer can escape going into the wind, several deer are usually taken.

Size of the Area Pushed: Often, hunters bite off more than they can chew. The attitude seems to be, “Hey, we can drive that whole clearcut in one fell swoop!” You try doing this, and more than likely the deer are going to get way ahead of you and slip out a side before reaching the standers, or slip safely back through the ranks of the drivers.

When pushing a large square/rectangular block of clearcut, it is much better to do a segment at a time. We divide bigger blocks into halves and push a corner at a time. In this way, the area being driven is also reduced in size as the drive progresses; again, knowing the exact lay of the land will determine how to push a particular section, and how many hunters you may need. We do several drives with just one pusher and two standers. These generally involve a “funnel” situation.

One of my most memorable drives occurred in Alabama, and it proves that funnels can be key in a successful drive. A good friend of mine owned 1,200 acres in a big horseshoe in the Black Warrior River. When I hunted it, the deer population was about 120 per square mile. The club was looking to kill a lot of does and mature cull bucks. The terrain made it “deer-drive heaven,” as the horseshoe contained several sloughs that ran parallel to each other and perpendicular to the straight stretches of the horseshoe. The last day of the hunt, the owner pushed a thicket between two of the sloughs. Not only did 23 deer come by, but the drive was done to perfection. Sixteen of the deer stopped to decide what to do next right under my portable stand. I shot two does and a 5 1/2-year-old, 17-inch-wide 4-pointer before no more offered me an ethical shot.

The drive at the beginning of the article involved at least three standers and three or four pushers. The area is a narrow hardwood/pine drain containing several small beetle kill and select-cut areas. It is bordered on both sides by wide-open pasture that extends for more than a half mile to the next available cover. Just before the drain enters a large beaver swamp, an old, very deep cotton erosion gully belts it. The only way across is the very bottom and the very top. We have taken as many as seven deer off this one drive.

Don’t Over Drive an Area: We never drive a particular section more than once every three weeks, which usually means just twice a season. You risk harassing the deer plumb off your hunting property. This is also one of the reasons we just do drives on our QDM land during the last month of the season, and only if we are short on our estimated doe harvest needs.

Good, Bad and the Ugly: Deer drives have their good points and bad points — and just plain unethical points. I prefer patterning the deer, placing stands in the appropriate areas and harvesting the animals after careful scouting. But make no mistake; there is also an art to correctly driving deer. Like I said, there are good points and bad points, the bad points being the full responsibility of the hunters.

The Good: Pushing deer late in the season is an excellent way to up your harvest numbers if need be. After being pressured for a long time, sometimes it is the only way to motivate the deer to move during the daylight hours.

The Bad: If your club or group selectively harvests animals, it can be extremely difficult to tell a large buttonhead from a doe or a small spike from a doe. It is also sometimes difficult to score or age a buck when you only have a few seconds to decide.

The Ugly: If you are planning a deer drive, please don’t shoot at everything that runs past you without regard to wounding or crippling an animal. Everybody makes a poor hit every once in a while, but if your crippling/wounding loss is more than 25 percent, that’s just sorry. If you do not have a clean, ethical shot at the animal, let it walk.

In closing, y’all be careful and safe, and I hope you fill the freezer and/or get a wallhanger. And please take a child or anyone who might be interested in learning to hunt with you.

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