September 09, 2022
By John Kirby
n more than one occasion, I have dreamt of building underground tunnels leading to and from my potential stand locations. Once in the tree stand, I imagine myself activating an invisibility cloak that will also eliminate human odor. And, voilà, I would be undetectable by deer.
Sounds a bit unrealistic, right?
Well, so is consistently killing mature bucks without extremely strategic entry and exit routes. Regardless of where you hunt in the country, on public land or private ground, entry and exit routes are crucial if a mature buck is on the menu.
I have had some grizzled archery hunters advise me to kill a buck fast, or he will know he is being hunted; and if I don’t arrow a buck on the first sit, my chances will dwindle after each attempt. There are plenty of cliches like this, and rightfully so, as they bring attention to some common mistakes made when accessing hunting spots.
With poor entry and exit routes, hunting is more difficult after that first hunt; and you could possibly ruin your chances if you bump your target buck as you enter your hunting area. Conversely, with well-planned and precisely executed entry and exit routes, you may get more chances to tag your target buck.
Why Be So Careful
I strongly believe in the importance of entry and exit routes for many reasons, but let’s start with a deer’s 300 million olfactory receptors, making their nose great at detecting danger. In addition, every step a hunter takes deposits human scent on the ground, which deer can detect even a handful of days later. Smart deer, especially mature bucks, don’t get smart by ignoring a hunter’s scent.
Hunters, including me, also spook mature bucks in other ways. A lot of deer are spooked by sound. The audible factor certainly comes into play here, especially when sneaking within close proximity to a buck’s bedroom. Spooking does and young bucks can often have a domino effect on the entire herd. The visual factor is another frequently overlooked component. Quite a few wary bucks, made that way by heavy hunting pressure, predators and general encroachment, survive by almost exclusively relying on seeing the approaching threat, trading their wind advantage for the ability to see hunters on their predictable approach.
All this emphasizes the multifaceted issue of how you enter and exit the woods. To throw more fuel on the fire, entering and exiting are even more complex when a deer has a pattern shift. If hunters yearn for multiple attempts at a target buck, they must tread carefully. Indeed, all hunters must do some out-of-the-box think- ing when clocking in and out of the woods and deer stands.
A recent example of a deer that made me think hard about executing good entry and exit plans was a buck I named “Freeway.” I located this heavy-racked Kentucky buck in June of 2019. He was bedded within 25 yards of a major highway that ran smackdab up the middle of this property. The only traditional access I had to this farm would’ve had me stepping on him during my first hunt, ending my chase for Freeway before it began.
I decided to use the parkway to my advantage. To get around Freeway and down into the river bottom field where he was feeding on the last remaining green beans, I had a trusted confidant drop me off on the side of the parkway; and I dove down into the riverbank. To cover just half a mile, I spent two hours quietly navigating the overgrown riverbank before I emerged within bow range of a small pocket of beans that hadn’t lost their palatability.
With this newly discovered entry route, I had a chance to put a 5mm Easton Axis arrow in the vitals of a true Kentucky monarch. Additionally, the riverbank provided a fool-proof exit plan that allowed me to quietly escape the scene if I wasn’t successful on the first hunt. Knowing that my entry and exit were secure, I inched my way to the stand for the first four days of Kentucky’s opener.
On three afternoons out of the first four, I spied Freeway just out of bow range. But on the fifth day, I made the final adjustment. It was such a great chase for a truly magnificent animal, and self-filming the whole thing made it even more rewarding and challenging.
What was the key to this entire hunt? It was the entry and exit routes that allowed me to sneak in, and just as importantly, sneak out. On the hunts that I didn’t arrow Freeway, I had to crawl down the backside of my tree and into the riverbank while Freeway was 75 yards away eating beans just to exit without spooking him. He never knew I was there until my arrow passed through his lungs days later.
My next and most recent example of entry and exit routes making a difference occurred during Ohio’s archery season. My hunting buddy Josh, who also co-hosts an outdoors radio show with me, and I share a few leases, including a small property in southeast Ohio. Being a great hunting buddy, Josh gave me the first choice of stand locations to start the year.
I chose the northwest stand on top of the property that was located near several known buck bedding areas. To access the stand without spooking big bucks, I changed my entry. Instead of walking a short half-mile into the woods, I walked about two miles across public ground, gaining approximately 1000 feet in elevation in 90-degree heat while lugging my hunting and camera equipment.
I was so miserable that I vowed several times during that hike to quit hunting. That long trek allowed me to arrow one of our target bucks on the first hunt of the year, which occurred on the second day of Ohio’s archery season. After I killed my deer, Josh’s battle in the Buckeye state continued. He was really close to connecting several times, but being self-filming hunters, the stars just didn’t quite align. He stuck with it though, and the day before the late muzzleloader season began, in a snowstorm that blanketed the landscape, Josh arrowed a beautiful 10-point Ohio whitetail less than 50 yards from the stand where I harvested my buck earlier that year. He did it largely by finding a totally different entry and exit route from the one I used.
The deer had undergone several massive pattern changes, experienced the insane rut and were eating and trying to recover using the same area for food as they had when I harvested my buck. However, the bucks were using it and bedding differently, and it required a completely different entry and exit route. I want to publicly say that I (at least somewhat) repaid Josh for giving me first dibs on the location of our first hunt. I drove five hours each way through a brutal snowstorm to help him get his trophy out of the timber. Once we loaded the buck in the pickup, it was 5:00 a.m. the next morning and in the single digits. But I was happy to make that drive, freeze my fingers and etch that memory.
Final Tips On Access
For those hunts, I found it crucial to pick my routes with care. There is a quiver full of reasons why careful selection of entry and exit routes is important, and there are many variables requiring us to rethink and replan our path, depending largely on deer patterns at the time.
Early season hunters who predominantly hunt afternoons have different challenges than someone hunting on a late-season morning. That could mean opposite entry and exit routes, but not always. It’s paramount to stay on top of what your target bucks and other deer are doing, where they are feeding, bedding, traveling, etc. It’s the only reliable way you’ll have the ability and confidence to pick the correct entry and exit route.
Hunters can do some things to make entry and exit easier if they own land or have permission to make habitat improvements. For example, hunters can use food plot screens to facilitate entry and exit. Barns, old farm implements, machinery, irrigation ditches, burn piles and many other items can pro- vide security for sneaking past deer. Some properties with minimal road frontage or other access points are challenging to hunt, even if they hold trophy-class animals. This is when you will have to get super creative in accessing your stands. Other farms with excellent access points should still be accessed with care and thought.
Public land is no exception to the importance of access, because nothing can ruin an opportunity at a mature whitetail like spooking him on your way in or out. Unfortunately, easy strolls to ambush points are rarely the way to kill a mature buck. So, get out, scout and plan those access routes!