The truth about urban deer hunting

“Let’s go have some pho!”

“What the hell is pho?” I asked.

Pho, which I later found out is a Vietnamese noodle dish, had never been recommended to me before as a pre-hunt menu item. But, as I soon learned, spicy noodles in broth would be just one of many new experiences on my first urban deer hunt.

Culinary epiphanies aside, here’s what I learned while chasing deer amid barking dogs, roaring lawnmowers, and nervous suburbanites in the DC metro area.

Why hunt urban deer?
I was here because my friend and host on this trip, Taylor Chamberlin, told me that urban deer hunting is some of the most fun you can have with a bow in your hands. That was pretty convincing coming from someone who hunts in urban settings over 200 days a year, so I packed up my bow, bags, and tree mount and took a flight to Dulles International Airport.

The first time I heard Chamberlin rave about his specialty was in 2019 and his speech was this. Across the United States, right under our metropolitan noses, there are plenty of deer hunting opportunities. Whether in Detroit, Atlanta, or Washington DC, white-tailed deer thrive in urban settings. So much so that they are considered dangerous pests. Children are contracting Lyme disease, yards are being decimated, and cars are being wrecked in the middle of late-night commutes.

The solution to this problem involves another group of people looking to solve a problem of their own: Bowhunters looking for hunting access.

With long seasons, large numbers of deer, and a short trip to hunt, urban archery presents a great opportunity for hunters who live in the middle of the concrete jungle. According to Chamberlin, 200 to 400 deer per square mile reside in some areas like this. That includes females, fawns, yearlings, and yes, even the big ones. Right out the back door is all the deer you could want.

Yes, the experience is different, but Taylor assured me that if you’re willing to put in the effort, the rewards are worth it. As we drove through a series of neighborhoods our first night together, I quickly understood what he meant. There was a family group of deer here, another group there and there, and seven bucks under an oak tree in a front yard. I was speechless.

urban dollarImage via Justin Michau.

The Rules of Urban Deer Hunting
My first hunt would be a collaboration with Taylor to collect as many best practices for urban hunting as possible. We drove ten minutes out of DC, turning left and right around tight curves that dropped in and out of ravines and finally onto a secluded road hidden amid looming upper-middle-class homes. We parked on the tarmac, dressed behind our vehicles, and immediately began my lessons. Chamberlin told me that the first rule of urban deer hunting was to keep a low profile. Out of sight, out of mind was the best approach for residents in these areas, mostly non-hunters and sometimes suspicious.

Rule two, fortunately centered on the deer, was to never break “the bubble.” Whitetails in these neighborhoods are used to a constant dose of human activity in certain areas. As long as the humans stay on their side of the line, all is well. But as soon as a person breaks through that bubble of safety and into the woods, these urban deer can become as fickle as any other whitetail in the country. To make sure you don’t burst the bubble, Taylor explained, it’s often best to leave the most “bucky” looking spots alone on the cover, and instead hunt along the edges where the deer aren’t spooked by human activity.

Following this principle, Taylor selected a tree situated right on the edge of the owner’s perfectly manicured lawn. Behind us, I could see across the yard to a beautiful porch with well-placed patio furniture and, in the other direction, another fenced-in yard with a beautiful in-ground pool. Once again, this was the first time.

As we leaned back in our chairs and waited impatiently for the neighboring lawn care service to finish their job, Taylor explained another key difference in this type of hunting. The supreme importance of shot selection.

Given the very tight spaces inherent in this type of venue, it’s even more important than normal to ensure very quick and clean kills. A two-lung deer running 100 yards in a field is great, but in a neighborhood that might mean a deer running across three or four different properties that you now need to find owners for and get permission to cross. For this reason, Taylor explained, he rarely shoots more than twenty or twenty-five yards, and the conditions and setting have to be absolutely ideal. A quiet deer, a perfect position, tight spaces and a shot to the heart. Fast forward a couple of hours and it showed how serious he is about this.

At last light, a group of three deer came out of the neighbor’s tree line, crossed the yard we were perched on, and turned in our direction. The lead hind passed 30 yards to the side as I held my breath, expecting Taylor’s arrow to fly at any moment. But he gaped wide, then lowered, as she dropped into the wooded hollow below us. He was impressed. He practiced what she preached.

mark and taylorImage via Justin Michau.

get access
From here, I took off for three days on my own. I spent the first eight hours trying to get my hunting permit in the midst of the most extravagant display of wealth I have ever experienced. Neighborhood after neighborhood of Hollywood-style mansions with private tennis courts, infinity pools and, in one case, what looked like a helipad. These weren’t the kind of doors he was used to knocking on. However, a proposition occurred to me, I combed my hair, wiped the wrinkles out of my pants, and walked the plank to the front porch.

In all, I knocked on 14 doors, and by the end of that eight-hour marathon, I was emotionally reduced to a corn husk. Out of all those punches, I got mostly polite nods, a handful of dirty looks, and once, miraculously, a yes. It was just a thin strip of a couple acres along a highway, but it was something. On top of that, after seeing me suffer, Taylor also generously offered some of his places.

first hunts
I shuffled out that first night, still in shock, and waded into the bottom of a small wooded creek hidden between two neighborhoods. High up in a tree, I felt like I was hunting in the Midwest for a moment. It still was. The leaves rustled slightly in the breeze and the birds sang.

Then a large black SUV pulled up behind my vehicle. It was delayed. Someone came out and started poking around. Ten minutes later, my cameraman mysteriously received a text from an unknown number.

“What are you doing here?”

Strange things seem to be happening in the CIA’s backyard. But baffling text messages aside, I soon had a mature male at 40 yards. I was shocked. Enthusiastic. Shake. Taylor was right, this was fun. Strange, but fun.

Heeding Taylor’s advice about long shots, I refrained from shooting an arrow. But my hopes were skyrocketed. Over the next two days I continued to explore the urban options available to me, hunting in the yard for which I had permission several times and having close encounters with a handful of females and even had the opportunity to hunt a one and a half year old male that I finally passed. On the one hand, this seemed pretty good. Saw plenty of deer and came awfully close to shooting an arrow or two, all within just a hop and skip of some great cafes. What’s not to like?

worst fears
But there was another side to this experience, lingering just below the surface, a low-level tension she couldn’t escape. As I prepared before each hunt, I would stand on the eggshells, worried that a neighboring landowner might see me. After dark, I half-ran to my vehicle, hoping to evade unwanted attention or worry. Almost every hunt was interrupted by lawn care services, and if they weren’t working at the time, he knew it was only a matter of time. And what if, God forbid, the lawnmowers never showed up and I shot a deer, but it ran into some unhappy neighbor’s yard or pool?

On the last night of my hunt, my worst fears came true.

I had a doe at 25 yards. I held wide open for what seemed like a full two minutes until, miraculously, she finally came out from behind the tree. The shot hit low.

Two hours later, the trail of blood led to a neighbor’s property. At his door I explained the situation and asked permission to continue walking but, from the other side of the glass, the owner of the house yelled at me to leave. “NO!” I was unable to enter the property. He insisted, despite my withdrawal and my apologies, that he would call the police.

urban deer huntingImage via Justin Michau.

The truth
The truth is that urban hunting can be a great time to have a good time. I can see why Taylor enjoys it so much, and I have an immense level of respect for what he and other avid urban bowhunters can accomplish in these environments. This is not an easy hunt, but the most rewarding hunts never are. For those who live in these urban areas, the opportunity to hunt close to home seems like an absolute blessing.

At the same time, I recognize that this type of hunting is not for everyone, myself included. Despite lots of deer, good bucks and great coffee. A successful hunt, by definition, involves searching for something that one desires. But for me, I now realize that it also implies an escape from something else: All that is urban.

Stay tuned for this hunt to be featured on MeatEater’s newest whitetail show, coming to MeatEater’s YouTube channel later this year.