September 22, 2010
By Steve Bartylla
I was stuck. The spring before, I'd invested considerable scouting efforts into dissecting a large area of public ground. It was a tough piece, with the absence of a dominant food source, a lack of good pinch points, little terrain changes and numerous potential bedding sites. Still, as spring ended I believed that I'd found a decent number of good stands and a handful that appeared downright great.
Now, already early November, numerous uneventful sits had proven that none of my stand options were winners. It wasn't hard to figure out why. The obvious reason was that the area had received heavy logging activity. The less apparent reason was that the oak-dominated woods produced a bumper crop of acorns, when there'd been almost none the year before. The combination had rendered my spring scouting and stand hanging efforts virtually useless.
It was time for drastic measures. My entire approach to hunting is based on anticipating what the mature bucks want during each phase of the season and then adjusting my tactics appropriately. Since the breeding phase was just beginning, the bucks would be focusing on does. Therefore, I knew that I also needed to key on the does.
LOOKING FOR THE RIGHT SETUP
With the lack of funnels separating doe groups in the area, I knew that targeting doe bedding areas would be the trick. Unfortunately, the doe bedding areas had changed with the changing habitat. Midmorning found me grabbing my bow, strapping a stand to my back and hitting the woods. I knew the does were feeding on acorns and suspected they'd be bedding nearby. Unfortunately, there were oaks everywhere. That meant I'd have to put on some miles.
Having gotten to know the property pretty well that spring, I focused on the largest thickets the area had to offer. Though each held some sign, the first four didn't overwhelm me. That wasn't the case with the fifth. The large tag alder swamp had been much drier the fall before. With easier access to its inner regions, in-and-out trails had been everywhere. But the wet summer had changed that. Now, with the standing water creating a soupy mess, the peninsula of dry land that stabbed close to 200 yards into the swamp had become a primary access point.
That was obvious by the worn trails converging at the base of the peninsula. Nine scrapes and multiple clusters of rubs concentrated at the base and dotted their way out to the point. That sealed the deal. It was swiftly apparent that this strip of dry land was being used as an access point to the islands hidden in the swamp.
A large oak, just out from the peninsula's base, was positioned to cover several of the larger scrapes. Though that didn't hurt my feelings, I knew the scrapes were no longer the primary interest. What made it the perfect tree was that it also covered the entrance trails and a lesser trail skirting the swamp's edge. From this tree, I could cover bucks circling to scent check. I could also cover all the deer using the peninsula.
WHEN A PLAN COMES TOGETHER
I prepped the stand and settled in for the day. Not surprisingly, the day wasn't that great. I saw a couple of young bucks circle the swamp, as well as a handful of very alert does exiting near dark, but no Mr. Big. Though I'd tried keeping my disturbances to a minimum, I'd been forced to disrupt the woods more than I'd cared to. Still, it had to be done, and I knew that this stand would be a good one.
The next morning found me climbing into that same stand well before first light. I was back in quite a ways and seriously doubted that other hunters would venture this far in, but these deer were still well aware that hunters roamed their woods. Even with breeding in full swing, the bigger boys would be moving early and late through the woods. Inside the swamp would be a different story, but the intrusion of busting in and hanging a stand would have really risked messing up the area.
Even before first light began promising its arrival, a decent-sized buck came slipping past my stand for the swamp. Though my night vision is poor, I made out enough to guess him at a good 2 1/2- or marginal 3 1/2-year-old. As happens so often, I suspected it was a hot doe that delayed his older brother from following.
Though almost an hour had gone by since the buck had passed, it was less than 15 minutes after shooting light came that I spotted the doe. One glance showed that she'd been run ragged during the night. Catching a flicker off to her left, I positioned myself for what I was sure would be my buck. I was wrong. It was a yearling buck not experienced enough to realize he'd lost the war. The victor turned out to be a few paces behind her.
The only question left was if the little guy would cause a commotion and foil the deal.
Luckily for me, he was smart enough not to. Moments after the doe passed, I was at full draw on the 3 1/2-year-old 9-point tailing her. Placing my pin, I touched off the shot. As happy as I was to see the arrow vanish into the boiler room, I was almost as thrilled to see the buck whirl and run away from the swamp. I was already looking at a monster drag.
Not having to muck him out of the swamp was no small blessing.
SHAKING THINGS UP
In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes hunters can make is to continue hunting stands that aren't producing. I believe it was Albert Einstein who said the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results. Sure, in the whitetail world anything is possible. Unfortunately, in this case, possible and probable weren't the same thing.
Much has been preached over the years regarding the importance of not busting up the woods during the season. I agree wholeheartedly that it should be avoided if possible.
However, in my mind it's far worse to continue to sit in stands that produce low odds of success.
The biggest trick I've found to pulling off intrusive in-season scouting trips is to subject the area to this tactic only once. Analyze what stage of the season you're in and what stand placements will play to the bucks' tendencies and weaknesses during this phase.
Next, ask yourself which locations on the property are most likely to yield the stands that capitalize on this. With that game plan in place, cut odors as if you were hunting, head directly to the areas you want to explore and get it done.
GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN
Although a hassle, it's also a good idea to do this with a stand on your back. This minimizes trips back and forth to the truck. In one case, knowing the general area I would be hanging two separate stands, I scouted with both on my back. I'm not pretending it was fun, but I surely enjoyed killing the mid-140s 10-pointer I was setting up on a few days later.
In that case, I have no doubt that I busted him out of his bed while scouting. That isn't the kiss of death. There are times, such as during the October lull and again during the initial stages of post-rut, when I want to bump a bedded buck.
Still, most times I like to avoid it when I can. As was the case with the buck that began this piece, rely on common sense and woodsmanship to determine if going into the bedroom is really required. In the case of those two challenging phases, being set up on a particular buck's bedding area is key. In my experience, that makes verifying that he sleeps in a spot worth it to bump him. During the peak scraping, chase and breeding phase, where he beds isn't nearly as important. Therefore, the risk outweighs the reward.
Finally, throughout all of this, keep the disturbances around the stand site to a minimum.
Sure, the deer will likely figure out a walk-through has occurred. However, it is important to draw as little attention to the stand location as practically possible.
That begins by not milling around the tree needlessly. Something as seemingly minor as bringing a rangefinder to mark distances eliminates the need to pace off a trail to be sure it's in range of a tree. Next, only saw branches when absolutely necessary. I don't concern myself with pruning a few, but the smell of fresh saw dust does often draw unwanted investigations. In a nutshell, don't do anything to your fresh stand site that isn't absolutely critical, because it might draw unwanted attention.
FOCUS ON FOOD
In many settings that aren't being subjected to heavy hunting pressure, finding the current hot food source of the moment is a proven method of getting back into the thick of the action. In areas receiving light to moderate hunting pressure, setting up on or close to food is about the most consistently productive hunting strategy you can ask for.
The trick is determining what and where that food source is. One of the most foolproof methods is to invest some dawn and dusk hours in observing fields. Unfortunately, in-woods food sources often don't allow for easy observations. To get a handle on them, hit the woods during the late morning hours. Having once again cut odors as if you were hunting, scout the hidden food sources for signs of feeding. If you find areas with an abundance of fresh browsing activity, pawing and/or numerous pellet piles, you may be onto a winner.
In woods, food sources can be tough to determine. Though there are numerous regional differences, the following are some promising locations to check: mast producers, meadows, areas with freshly falling maple leaves, stands of poplar and aspen still holding small green leaves, locust trees raining pods, areas boasting young woody regeneration, and stands of white cedars.
Though disturbances must still be kept down, because of our timing, the food sources are likely to be void of deer activity. Assuming we didn't crash through any bedding areas during this scouting trip, we can more often keep deer ignorant of our endeavors and stands can be smoking hot right away.
When all else fails, go for still-hunts through the woods at dawn and dusk. When you spot deer, investigate the area and determine if it's worthy of a stand. Sure, there's a risk involved, but assuming you aren't seeing what you want anyway, what do you have to lose?
That is really the point of this entire article. When things aren't breaking your way during the season, reinvent the wheel. Sure, things may not work out, but staying on a doomed course rarely does either. An important part of becoming consistently successful at taking good bucks lies in knowing when it's time to scrap a plan and when it's time to start over.