The evening ushered in one the warmest and windiest days during November's magic window for bowhunting action. Though the weather was rough, I had two things going for me that produced success despite the 23-mph gusts and 70-degree temperature.
The southeast wind was perfect for where I needed to hunt, and the timing of the rut was right. As my tree swayed in the wind, I knew the magic window was officially open, and I watched as a doe led a mature 8-pointer within bow range. A grunt stop and a gentle trigger squeeze was all it took put an arrow in the bruiser that 30 minutes later would be wearing my buck tag.
That said, my success in the tree was preceded by heartache and loaded with education gained the hard way. Looking back on the season, my success and failure rested in my ability to manage my best stands. Knowing when to hunt where is the real issue in bowhunting.
MANAGE YOUR STANDS
To the average hunter, the thought of not being in a hunting stand when the conditions are less than perfect is a fleeting one. By ignoring the impact of his own hunting pressure, this hunter dramatically reduces his chances of harvesting mature deer.
The truth is hunting a stand even when conditions are good still applies some human pressure to your hunting area. Like many experts, I believe that the most common culprit for an end of the season buck tag sandwich is overhunting prime areas before the conditions are pristine. This is precisely why the mature hunter must manage his hunting time on individual stands throughout the season.
Managing your hunting stands is more of an intangible art than a science, and gut feelings about the timing of a hunt often can be hard to resist. Since gut feelings are hard to define, let's look at a few concrete principles and discuss the baseline issues of stand management.
All kinds of factors play into the probability of hunting success, but two stand out as baseline keys for deciding when to hunt your best stands. If either one of these two keys is wrong, your odds for harvesting a heavy boned bruiser go down in a heartbeat. The baseline variables, in my opinion, are wind direction and timing of the rut.
The logic is simple -- if the deer can smell you, you're going to alert resident deer to your stand location, decreasing the odds of success now and in the future. Secondly, if the big bucks aren't moving during the daylight hours, you're shot in the foot before you even start.
The biggest two questions to be asked in stand management correlate directly with these keys. Is the wind such that I can I get to my stand, hunt and exit the stand completely undetected? The second question is: Is the probability high that mature bucks will be moving during daylight hours during my hunt?
Though these two questions aren't the only ones you need to ask before hunting, they certainly are fundamental, pivotal questions I ask before I hunt my best spots.
Unfortunately, the perfect bow stand doesn't exist and every stand has a limited number of high probability hunts offered each season.
The unfortunate answer to Question No. 1 is usually "no." Even if you're hunting a stand with the perfect wind, deer can still be alerted to your activity in the area. Most of the time, detection comes during your entrance and exit from the stand.
Hunters typically walk into and out of stands under the cover of darkness. I am convinced that many big bucks have been educated to the whereabouts of hunters by seeing flashlights and smelling or hearing the hunter as he or she walks to the stand.
In darkness, a mature buck may never snort or run in response to human presence; often we never know that we've spooked deer. Darkness can give the hunter a false sense of security, making him less wary during entry and exit. Don't let it happen to you.
A few years back, I walked into my favorite stand site deep on a timbered bench well before daylight using a flashlight. The leaves were dry and my entry was loud. Fifteen minutes after I climbed into the stand I heard heavy hoof steps mysteriously arise within 20 yards of my tree.
The deer proceeded to stand for more than 20 minutes in the darkness. As daylight approached, I slightly shifted positions in the tree and the horse-like animal, which I surmise was a mature buck, bolted from the scene without even a snort. There is no way the buck could have walked into the area after I climbed in the tree. He had to have watched my entire entry, including my ascent into the tree. This Houdini buck had been educated on my whereabouts that morning.
"To the average hunter, the thought of not being in a hunting stand when the conditions are less than perfect is a fleeting one. By ignoring the impact of his own hunting pressure, this hunter dramatically reduces his chances of harvesting mature deer."
Here are a few keys to help minimize detection during entry and exit. First, the wind is your enemy or ally from the second you get out of the truck until you return. Second, use a flashlight minimally when walking to and from the stand. Using a green- or red-colored light won't make you completely invisible to deer but could help minimize detection.
When walking with a light, hold it low to the ground and only shine it where you need to see to walk. Third, break up the cadence of your stride as you walk in the woods so that it sounds more natural. A deer rarely takes more than 10 steps before pausing to browse or scan for danger. A mature deer can quickly discern the difference between danger and another deer based upon the sound of the stride.
The second question to consider when deciding if conditions are pristine is this: Is the probability high that mature bucks will be moving during daylight hours during my hunt?
The logic is simple. Even when wind conditions are favorable, there is still a chance that some deer will be alerted to human activity. We can conclude in most spots that every hunt has some impact. The second question then becomes all the more important.
Knowing that I've got a limited number of high probability hunts in this spot, if I hunt it today, what are the chances that mature bucks will be on their feet? The worst thing that we can do to our best big buck hotspots is hunt them too much before the rut kicks in.
This may be the biggest mistake hunters make and sometimes the most difficult to avoid.
When the season arrives, success hinges on a deliberate and well thought-out approach to hunting your best stands. Too often our zeal and enthusiasm to hunt overrides our long-term plan for our season. The worst thing that a hunter can do is put too much pressure on his prime hunting spots before the timing of the rut is right.
This past fall, my hunting success hinged on my ability to manage my best spots. I wish I could say I had completely adhered to the previously stated rules of stand management, but I cannot. The good news is that last year's mistakes can become this year's points of strength. The 2009 hunting season educated me beyond my years in terms of stand management.
For me, the Arkansas season opener was ushered in with a grand "thud." Like many optimistic early-season bowhunters, I was trying to play the odds and come home the hero. By the end of October, I had missed two mature bucks from my best stand and had educated most of the deer in the area.
By the first of November, I had severely over-hunted my best stand site. I calculated that I spent about 30 hours in that stand before November 1. During that time, I saw only two mature bucks. I am confident that I if I had waited to hunt the stand until the timing of the rut was right; I would have likely seen two mature bucks before the first hunt was over! I expended a lot of energy and precious hunting time rolling the dice on low probability bucks.
The only positive thing about over-hunting your best stand site is that you haven't hunted your second best site much at all! This proved to be the redemption of my bow season. My success in November directly correlated with the stand site being unpressured. The second buck of my 2009 season put the finishing touches on my education for the year. During a quick scouting trip to a small 30-acre property, I located a funnel that was covered in buck sign.
On November 12, the two questions defining pristine conditions were again answered correctly and I proceeded to hunt the new funnel stand. To my knowledge, the property had never been hunted before and daytime buck activity had peaked. Bucks were chasing does all over the countryside.
Perched high in a white oak tree, early in the afternoon, I caught a flash of deer movement 125 yards to the south. Sunlight through the leafless hardwoods revealed a wide racked buck following a doe directly away from me. As they disappeared, I did an aggressive rattling and grunting sequence.
The sound of the rattling antlers turned the deer, and within 20 minutes they were in bow range. With the buck standing broadside at 23 yards, I released an arrow that officially nominated him to wear my second buck tag of the Arkansas season!
The reason for my quick success on the property was simple: the conditions for hunting were pristine. The south wind allowed me to enter, exit and hunt undetected, and daytime buck activity was at its peak.
Though many deer have been harvested on stands with less than pristine conditions, it is not the norm. Consistently tagging mature bucks comes by adherence to principled hunting rather than gambling. Never underestimate the impact of your own hunting pressure, and hunt your best stands only under pristine conditions. This season, your odds of tagging a mature buck will increase dramatically if you practice good stand management.