By Travis Faulkner
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Without question, success in the deer woods can ultimately come down to how you’ve prepared for your hunt. Sometimes a couple more steps or even just a few measly inches will be the difference between a clear shot and getting no shot at all. In other cases, a skinny sapling tree with sprawling leafy branches or a single overhanging limb will be all that stops you from knocking a top-heavy buck into the dirt.
Let’s face it; Super-close encounters that result in no shot opportunity or, even worse, a bad hit can be an absolute living nightmare for hunters. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to avoid these gut-wrenching scenarios. Where and how you cut shooting lanes should be your primary focus after choosing the best ambush points. If done incorrectly, it’s very possible you might actually sabotage your hunt even before it begins. Here’s how to get started the right way.
You’re walking a really fine line when cutting and clearing out shooting lanes around your stand sites. If you overcut and make the area too open, it’s possible the changes will spook deer and potentially alter their daily patterns and routines. Plus, a lack of backdrop and surrounding cover can make it more difficult for you to conceal your setup and get away with movement.
At the same time, not creating enough shooting lanes can be even more disastrous. You can hit the woods with the most accurate bow, best available hunting accessories, the perfect wind and a honeyhole setup, but you still must be able to take a clear shot.
Hunting is a lot different than playing horseshoes or throwing hand grenades; you don’t receive any points for just getting close. Each hunting setup is different, depending on the terrain and current conditions. But you must find the right balance between adequate cover and enough openings to give you clear and ethical shots.
To find the right balance, start by remembering that whitetails are creatures of habit. They typically follow daily routines through very familiar areas. As a result, they often notice any changes to their surroundings, even if those modifications are small and subtle in nature. This is why you don’t want to engage in a full-scale logging operation when creating shooting lanes.
That’s especially true in areas of dense cover. Of course, these are exactly the types of spots in which a hunter often feels a need to do a lot of cutting. A common mistake is to overcut these protected sanctuaries, opening them up to the point deer no longer feel as safe using them.
In many cases, when a hunter finds a thicket that’s absolutely covered in red-hot sign, he gets a little too excited about the prospects. He then goes on a cutting/clearing mission, completely contaminating the entire area with alarming scent and noise, educating the mature bucks. Again, this overkill also removes too much of the surrounding cover and compromises local whitetails’ general sense of security.
When targeting bucks inside heavy cover, you need to utilize precision cutting techniques that allow you to create multiple shooting lanes around your tree stand or ground blind. As we know, whitetails don’t always follow the script and walk right down a worn trail and stop inside a clearing 20 yards or less from your setup. In the real world, they’ll approach from the “wrong” direction and then hang up behind a thick screen of cover.
As a general rule, try to create a few small shooting lanes within the areas you least expect the buck to be at on any given hunt. With precision cutting, you can clear multiple small lanes where you feel shot opportunities should occur, based on scouting and trail camera information. Another good tip is to strategically construct your shooting lanes to give a view of points where deer are likely to at least pause.
For example, the space just before a fresh rub, scrape or small watering hole is a natural pausing point. That makes it an ideal spot for a shooting lane. You can even get creative and add your own pausing/stopping points, such as mock scrapes, mineral licks or a variety of other attractants (where legal) inside pre-cut areas where you’d like to take a shot.
All it takes is a little planning to create adequate shooting lanes without majorly changing the appearance of the natural surroundings and disrupting overall deer behavior.
In relatively open areas, you’ll want to be even more conservative with how you create shooting lanes or windows. In open terrain, I like to make calculated cuts that either provide a little extra cover or actually create an attractant and pausing point.
For example, where legal, I routinely cut small, leafy trees such as maple, which can serve as both cover and an attractive food source. Deer will often pause to munch on the decaying leaves and fresh twigs. Placing this type of natural attractant within a cleared lane is a high-impact technique for creating excellent shot opportunities.
It’s also a pretty good idea not to allow the newly cut shooting lane material to go to waste. Sapling trees and evergreen branches such as pine, spruce, and cedar are excellent for concealing ground-blinds and providing much-needed backdrop cover for your tree stands. The best way to completely disappear during your hunt is to take measures like these to blend in naturally with your surroundings. Plus, you don’t have to worry about packing all of the loose brush out of your hunting area, which can require a lot of time and extra effort.
As a side note, you can also take any freshly cut branches, overhanging limbs, saplings and other natural obstacles that might block your shooting windows and use the material to construct brushpiles. These piles can be utilized to create a false sense of security for whitetails, simply by providing needed cover in relatively open areas.
Over the years, I’ve even used such piles and larger felled trees to create travel barriers and strategic funnels, all in an effort to dictate how deer enter and exit an ambush site. This can be very effective when hunting extremely open areas such as agricultural fields and food plots, where deer often come and go seemingly at random by way of multiple travel routes.
The old saying, “Two heads are better than one,” can be applied to deer hunting — especially when it comes time to cut your shooting lanes. In this situation, two sets of eyes (and saws) are way better than one. After all, it’s extremely difficult to cut and clear the right openings on your own from the viewpoint of your ground blind or tree stand.
When you’re working solo, you often end up cutting things that don’t really need to be cut by mistake and ultimately removing too much of the surrounding cover. Furthermore, everything looks a little different once you climb down from your tree stand or step away from your ground blind. From the ground, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which branch or overhanging limb needs to be cut or trimmed.
You can save a lot of time and unnecessary cutting by simply teaming up with a hunting buddy and coordinating every cut with precision accuracy, straight from the viewpoint of your setup. Just make sure you choose a trustworthy friend that won’t reveal to everyone where your best hunting spots are located!
Stay Under the Radar
In many cases, the difference between consistently punching tags on big bucks vs. doing so only occasionally comes down not just to where you hunt, but how you actually prepare for the hunt. It’s often the countless hours of prep work and a willingness to take those few extra steps that ultimately make a huge difference.
Taking precautionary measures when cutting shooting lanes to keep from contaminating your setup with scent and noise will dramatically decrease the chances of educating a veteran buck. In turn, that significantly increases your overall chances of tagging him.
The key is to remain as scent-free as possible throughout the entire process of hanging tree stands, setting up ground blinds, setting/checking trail cameras and cutting shooting lanes.
Always wear knee-high rubber boots, and thoroughly spray down with a scent-eliminating spray. Never handle stands, blinds, saws, pruners or cut vegetation with your bare hands. I like to buy an inexpensive box of latex gloves and use them whenever prepping a site or handling anything in the area. The last thing I want is for a mature buck that’s escaped years of intense hunting pressure to link my setup with the alarming scent of a 2-legged predator.
Next, try to choose low-activity periods to prep ambush sites and to cut and remove any obstacles from shooting lanes. If possible, I also try to plan my prep work for windy periods or rainy/stormy days. The wind is a great natural sound dampener and can help muffle the noises of sawing, cutting, clipping and dragging limbs. Stormy days are an even better time to prep hunting sites, because the falling rain will cancel out a lot of noise and drastically reduce the amount of human odor left behind in the process. (Of course, always use caution, especially in times of gusting winds and slippery footing.)
Some whitetail hunters might consider a few of these steps and tactics to be a little extreme. However, think about this for a moment. How many times can you spook or at least alert a mature buck before he completely changes his routine? How many close encounters will you have with a real shooter at close range during a typical season? If and when it finally happens, are you going to be able to take a clear and ethical shot?
The answers to all of these questions should tell you just how important it is to go the proverbial extra mile and do things the right way. When everything comes together, the end result is definitely worth every step.