Knowing when to hunt where is the baseline issue that determines success or failure in our pursuit of mature whitetails. In this regard, bowhunting from a treestand at its core level, is the ultimate test of wit and foresight. A hunter must position himself not where a buck is, but where a buck will be during daylight hours, all the while remaining undetected. A hunter's insight into deer movement and seasonal buck behavior -- along with his personal ability to apprehend divine favor -- plays into his success in the tree.
The hunter's gamble is that he can predict where a mature buck will be even before the buck knows. An intuitive sense accompanied by principled thought aids the bowhunter in choosing his ambush position. The ingredients of this challenge are what make harvesting a mature buck with a bow arguably the most rewarding bowhunting feat on earth.
When considering the many variables and decisions involved in treestand hunting, the issue of stand management becomes critical. Stand management could be defined simply as strategically hunting your best stands sites in a manner that produces the highest probability of harvesting mature deer. Practicing wise stand management is, effectively, not over-hunting or under-hunting your best areas, but utilizing your hunting area to produce its maximum level of productivity.
Stand management takes into account three ideas. First, every hunt has some impact on your property and applies hunting pressure to your herd. Second, every stand has a limited number ofhigh-probability hunts each season. The implication of this statement leads us to number three: Since each stand has a limited number of high-probability hunts, a hunter must determine when his chance of success is highest for each particular stand location based on factors such as wind direction, timing of the rut, temperature, moon phase, food source and hunting pressure. This article will deal with three stand management issues likely to impact your early-season hunting. In the second article of this series, I will discuss in greater detail the baseline factors that affect season-long stand management.
THE INTEGRITY OF YOUR 'BEST STAND'
On the properties I hunt, I have a single "best stand" or area that has consistently produced mature bucks over the years. These spots are the keys to success year in and year out. Many hunters, however, compromise the integrity of these sites in various ways, blocking the site from performing to its highest potential. The idea of preserving your best areas must be No. 1 on the priority list of the serious buck hunter. Success depends on your ability to execute this concept.
The baseline factor in compromising the integrity of a stand has to do with human disturbance in the area. Simply put, you've got to keep humans out of your prime areas as much as possible before the season starts, and that includes you. The mantra of Don Higgins' book Harvesting Trophy Whitetails in the Real World is that hunting unpressured areas is a major key in harvesting mature deer. On properties that Higgins has hunted for many years, he often does no preseason scouting. He simply climbs into a pre-hung stand during primetime in a prime area and has success.
Human disturbance can come in a variety of forms, but perhaps one of the most common forms has to do with trail cameras. Well-intentioned trail camera enthusiasts can overly disturb prime areas before the season starts by checking them too often. The solution to this issue lies in where you place your trail cameras and how often you monitor them.
They need to be hung in areas that can be accessed with minimal disturbance. If your objective is to simply check the inventory of your herd, drawing the deer in with bait to areas that you can easily access may be a good option where legal.
Other forms of human disturbance can come from outside sources, perhaps even landowners on whose property you hunt. On one of the smaller parcels that I hunt, the landowner lives on the property. From the beginning, his intentions have been favorable towards my success on his property. However, the first few years I hunted there I found him intruding unnecessarily into prime areas of the property during the hunting season.
Over the course of several years, with tact, respect and a degree of relational skill, I educated him in the ways of trophy buck hunting. He proceeded to make some minor adjustments in the way he used his property and we both were all the happier.
Respectfully communicating with landowners can make all the difference in the world.
ELUSIVENESS IN DOE MANAGEMENT
In the modern whitetail hunting world, doe management is a major issue and, consequently, it can have a major impact on stand management. A responsible buck hunter must also be a serious doe manager. To harvest a doe, you've got to be where the does want to be, meaning you've got to be on your hunting land in a stand. Doe management must be handled correctly in order to keep mature bucks on the property when primetime comes. Seeing only does and young bucks in the early season can give a hunter a false sense of security clouded by the misconception that his early-season disturbance won't affect the mature bucks on the property. Wrong. Doe management produces hunting pressure on your area, so it must be executed with elusiveness and strategy if you want to see mature bucks moving during daylight hours later in the year.
The average hunter doesn't have access to massive tracts of land that can absorb a lot of hunting pressure and harvests. An actual harvest is the most intrusive activity that takes place on your hunting land. You likely spooked more than one deer at the shot, you have to track and retrieve the dead deer, and hunters most often gut their deer were it falls. A harvest is very intrusive and most often could be handled more discretely to aid in future success. On smaller properties, "best stands" are few and far between. Often a good-willed "doe manager" spends a limited number of productive hunts harvesting does in their best areas. This can be detrimental to your big buck hunting later in the year.
Some say harvesting deer late in the year is the answer to this question; however this has some potential issues. By harvesting late-season deer, you may increase the odds of harvesting does that aren't core residents of your property. Radio telemetry studies have shown that late-season deer range with food availability, meaning that does may be on your hunting land in the winter that aren't there throughout the rest of the year. Also, it means that your bucks expended energy and resource to breed does that you plan to harvest later in the year. You also run the risk of shooting younger bucks that have shed their antlers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it means that during the rut, the buck/doe ratio is higher, creating more difficult hunting. Overall, early-season doe harvest is the best route for herd management.
The strategy behind your doe management will be key to your success in harvesting mature bucks. Here are some thoughts on how to have an elusive doe hunt. First, hunt the fringes of the property and try to stay out of the interior.
Second, harvest lone does or does with yearlings. By hunting season, the yearlings will be mature enough to survive without their mothers. Avoid shooting a doe from a large group of deer. By doing this you reduce the amount of deer that have felt "harvest pressure."
Third, hunt areas that you don't intend to hunt when the rut arrives. Take a chance and hunt a new area on your property.
And fourth, in states where legal, draw deer to where you want them in the early season using bait. Set up a "Doe Harvest Area" away from where they typically want to be.
Draw the does where you can harvest them with minimal disturbance. I don't advise baiting for extended periods of time or using it as a primary harvest method. However, using it as a tool where legal can be productive.
An early-season doe hunt must be handled with the same seriousness as a rut hunt. A hunter can't relax on the basics of bowhunting in the early season. The same does that prance by your stand on October 1 could be the ones that lead a big buck to your stand in early November. Disturbance must be kept to a minimum.
DEALING WITH ZEAL
The biggest mistake an early-season hunter can make is letting his zeal for getting in the woods override his macro strategy for the season. By over-hunting their best spots before conditions are pristine, the zealot can do more damage than good. A mature whitetail hunter must essentially "deal with the zeal" and hunt wisely to maintain the unpressured integrity of their hunting areas. When opening day arrives, it might be a hard decision not to hunt areas where you know the big ones are, but it may be the best decision.
Dealing with the zeal doesn't translate into not hunting. Many a mature buck has been harvested in the early season and it can be a productive time. Few things are as rewarding as "stealing a buck" in the early season. However, our efforts for early success can't override the macro picture for the season. Remember, stand management is defined as "strategically hunting your best stands sites in a manner that produces the highest probability for harvesting mature deer." Stand management is an issue of deciding the probability of success by incorporating a macro view of the season into your decision of when to hunt where.
Here are some ideas to help "deal with the zeal." First, mentally prepare before the season to hold off on hunting your best areas until the timing is right. Dealing with zeal is a mind game -- mental preparation is paramount or you will give in to hunting your best stand as soon as the first maple leaf turns orange! Second, hunt new areas and new properties in the early season that may be the off the grid as productive big buck areas -- you might be surprised by what you see. In essence, expend your zeal for the early season in areas that aren't your best places to hunt. The last several years I have hunted on public land in the early season with family in another part of the state. This hunting seems to temper my nerves for the season without disturbing my prime areas.
Without a doubt, stand management in the early season will be critical to your success later in the year. Like the principle of "sowing and reaping," a hunter will reap the consequences of actions that he has sown in the early season -- good or bad.