February 01, 2016
I'd bowhunted from pop-up blinds before, mostly for turkeys and pronghorns. I'd also enjoyed successful pop-up ventures in a couple of African countries. And of course I'd pursued whitetails from pop-ups — in Texas, most notably, but also in Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota.
Yet with whitetails it had never really happened for me from the ground, mostly because I'd opted for "better" elevated stand sites that invariably were available. I'd once tagged a Kansas doe from a pop-up, using my recurve, but only because I'd already killed my buck and forced myself to try something novel.
So admittedly, my whitetail pop-up experience was fairly limited before my most recent trip to Oklahoma. But that's when I learned quite a bit about the dos and don't of using these tools.
Western Oklahoma not only invites pop-up deployment but often demands it. There are scattered cottonwoods, plus occasional elms and pecans, but they're seldom where needed to deal with prevailing winds — and especially to avoid hunting in scent-trap bottoms.
Conversely, pop-up cover is plentiful: scrubby shin oaks, ground-hugging cedars and tall CRP grass, with occasional thickets of squatty elm, hackberry and wild plum. It's in such habitats that pop-up blinds really shine.
Welcome to Oklahoma
Scott and Joni Sanderford's Croton Creek Guest Ranch is situated in dry prairie habitat near Cheyenne, Oklahoma. It reminds me of the West Texas country where I attended Texas Tech University long ago. In this respect, I feel right at home at Croton Creek. There's that geologic familiarity, but also the Sanderfords' easy-going demeanor and laid-back cowboy-western settings.
The couple operate Croton Creek Outfitters on about 5,000 acres of family ranchland and maybe another 5,000 of leased ground. Like West Texas, this deceivingly productive whitetail habitat yields some impressive bucks. Beyond the hunting, Croton Creek offers guests a total experience.
Lodging includes historical hotel digs, and there are home-cooked meals in the social barn, where hunters rehash the day's events. But it is, after all, hunting that brings people here.
Guide Josh Barfield and I began by studying trail-camera photos. It didn't take me long to latch onto a couple of handsome bucks. There had been mention of a pop-up on site, of course, but I'd been too involved in antler fantasies to give it much thought. I guided bowhunters for 23 years myself, reinforcing my policy to never second-guess a guide.
I might have reconsidered that stance had I taken a moment to contemplate my equipment choices and basic stature. I say this because I've always believed whitetail bows should be chosen for maximum forgiveness. (When faced with big bucks, I need bows that don't require much mental agility to shoot straight.)
So I typically choose bows with axle-to-axle dimensions of 35-38 inches and 7.5-8-inch brace heights: the polar opposite of what's generally considered an ideal "blind bow." I might also mention I'm a lanky 6 foot, 5 inches.
There are pop-up models made for gorillas shooting even unwieldy traditional bows, but that's not what Josh had on hand during pre-season setup. Had I consulted my crystal ball, I could've sent one of my roomy Double Bulls (Double Wider), Ameristeps (Gold Shield) or Barronetts (Big Mike) to the ranch. Then again, I couldn't have fully anticipated what lay ahead before being dropped off in the darkness my first morning.
Only after crawling into the blind did I begin to absorb the full implications of my situation. The first order of business was clearing the floor of leaf litter. I prefer blind floors be perfectly clean. Jumpy whitetails might tolerate subtle rustles issued from treetops — easily attributed to wind or squirrels — but at ground level any noise more often sends deer packing.
Before first light I began to size up my new digs. I drew my bow to check fit, determining whether I'd be able to shoot from the creaky folding-metal chair or if I'd need to slip onto my knees to shoot silently. It quickly became clear some adjustments would be necessary. I dug the chair's legs into the sandy soil to create more headroom and placed the chair in a back corner for maximum maneuvering room.
I then pondered my shooting-port situation. The blind wore a large curtain-style window screen designers had obviously envisioned shooting through. Typically this is a viable option. But I was shooting aggressive mechanical broadheads, and I'd recently had a shoot-through-screen debacle. There had been a Boone & Crockett pronghorn involved. Premature blade deployment, a 2-inch cutting diameter and a super-fast arrow proved a disastrous combination.
Don't get me wrong: shoot-through screens are awesome, especially when hunting black-hole-wary whitetails. But be careful about what kind of broadhead you try to send through them.
My Oklahoma blind also faced eastward, so the morning sun hit me squarely in the face during prime time. To avoid telegraphing every move inside my brushed-over cave, I had to leave a larger portion of the window in place against the slanting sunshine. And again, that meant dealing with a camouflage screen I was loathe to shoot through.
All that was left was a narrow gap hard to my right. To shoot through it, I'd be required to silently slip off the planted chair, roll onto my knees, draw my bow into the blind corner to avoid upsetting the noisy nylon walls and lean into the right-hand blind wall to take advantage of my only safe opening. I went through a couple rehearsal runs to be sure I had it down, then settled in to await shooting light.
None of this would've worked had Josh not spilled five gallons of Buck Blitz (a highly aromatic, locally produced feed/attractant deer eat like candy) 25 yards away. Luckily, he'd placed it in exactly the right spot to make my shooting slot viable.
But I soon rediscovered what I don't like about some pop-up blinds: a lack of visibility. All that morning deer sneaked in on me. Many — including the biggest bucks, of course — never made it to the feed. I was helpless to make anything happen, even if a handful of decent bucks did partake of the Buck Blitz.
On my way out late that morning I searched desperately for even the most marginal stand tree allowing an unrestricted field of fire. The site occupied a lovely bench of stunted hackberry, walnut and cedar above a creek bed. It was an obvious whitetail highway, but no tree provided even the sketchiest stand base.
And then there was the matter of the coyote. He'd come along after prime time, tripping past with no real concerns, broadside at 18 yards. I've never been able to resist any shot at a coyote and wasn't going to this time, either. I passed muster during shot setup and draw cycle and counted him dead. But when I released, there was a horrendous crack.
My wrist wrenched painfully, and my arrow flew wildly. It took a few moments to figure out my top cam had hit a roof strut. Just one more thing to add to my pre-shot checklist.
Walking out for lunch, I mulled over my complete pop-up savvy, whitetail-specific intel gleaned from limited experiences. It's pretty easy to relate: when setting up on open spaces (cattle-pounded ground near water or harvested agricultural fields), the more conspicuous your blind, the less likely deer are to avoid it.
In that setting, if you try to hide it with branches or grass — or even deploy blinds covered in fluttering 3-D camo — deer often view it with suspicion, snorting, stomping and waving white flags.
Why is this? My guess is the deer expect farm equipment to move around in such settings, so they accept obvious blinds as business as usual. But a blind that seems to be trying to "hide" is another matter.
In wooded settings, on the other hand, it's normally best to invest honest effort into making blinds blend in, artfully adding clumps of grass, foliage and limbs from the immediate area (leaving as little scent behind as possible). Better yet, carefully cut slots in walls of riparian willows, high weed banks or hedgerows just big enough to stab your blind into before camouflaging (preferably where deer cannot get behind you or get the wind advantage).
As noted, black-hole shooting ports can prove as worrisome to whitetails as the sudden appearance of blinds, making shoot-through screens (and fixed-blade broadheads) highly recommended.
Change of Heart
Oklahoma's deer continued to arrive on schedule, and eventually, in walked a beautiful 4x5 buck wearing two acorn points and a sticker on one base. He was surrounded by six neurotic does, so I was forced to execute my complicated pre-shot routine: sliding from the creaky chair onto my knees, getting drawn without touching nylon walls, carefully balancing the pressure of drawing elbow and stabilizer into opposing blind faces, holding my breath and awaiting a blowup all the while. Everything seems to require a painful amount of time in such instances.
I held my 20-yard pin intentionally low on the buck, anticipating a string jump — which is the only reason I center-punched his heart with that 2.3-inch-wide mechanical when he didn't crouch at all. My hunt was over, anxieties unwarranted, my allergic aversion to pop-ups temporarily cured.
Expect the Unexpected
Shooting your bow inside a pop-up blind isn't like shooting in the wide open. The limited field of view skews visual range judging; everything looks closer. You're more likely to be forced into unrehearsed shooting positions. And hitting the edge of a shooting port (deflecting the arrow off target) is a real possibility.
So backyard practice is obviously in order. Set up your blind on the range and shoot while sitting or kneeling to become more comfortable with every possible shooting scenario.
Remember, too, that a bow sight sits 4-6 inches higher than the arrow rest and arrow itself at full draw. It can help to pull your face away from anchor after settling in for the shot to visually confirm arrow clearance. I'm more concerned about unnecessarily wounding an animal due to a shooting-port deflection than I am about a complete miss.
Understand as well that shooting light can quickly become marginal inside a sealed pop-up blind. Of course, that's kind of the point: creating a black cave that conceals movement.
Yet this can also mean even the brightest fiber-optic sights have little ambient light to absorb and send to to the pins, making aiming more problematic. Where legal, lighted or tritium-backed pins ensure bright aiming points at the edges of legal shooting light.
We all know standard bowhunting uniform includes camouflage clothing. But when hiding inside a pop-up, black clothing can be a better choice, creating a black-on-black scene as you shift into the shooting position. Many serious pop-up bowhunters also choose bows with black risers and/or limbs for this reason alone.
Opening more windows in the interest of maximizing shooting "lanes" is tempting. But the more windows you have open, the more light gets inside the blind, and the less effective your cover becomes.
Open only windows facing expected deer travel routes, sacrificing others in favor of increased camouflage coverage.
Finally, as we all know, scent containment is the name of the game in whitetail bowhunting. That's why the best pop-up blinds are equipped with skirts. These allow you to dig them in and seal with soil. Doing so better keeps human scent trapped inside in the event of an errant breeze.