The current trend in bowhunting is to do everything in one's power to draw a buck to a specific spot. Food plots, calls, scents and a litany of other products and tactics promise to bring the big boys in on a string. There's nothing wrong with that, but it assumes the deer will cooperate.
Sometimes they do. More often, they don't.
This is because big bucks aren't stupid, and often they just aren't interested in what we have to offer. They set their own rules, and we either adapt or suffer the consequences.
Cameras vs. Observation Stands
The first thing most of us do when our buck sightings dry up is run as many trail cameras as we can afford. This is a strategy that can pay off, but isn't necessarily the shortcut to success we believe it is.
This becomes even more true if you plan to run cameras where you already know the big boys prefer to be, such as an obvious food source. In this case, you're not answering any questions that need to be asked. It's much better to slip in and place a few cameras in places that don't allow much in the way of first-person observation.
You already know mature bucks are probably hitting the soybeans after dark, or maybe munching away in your clover plot, but how are they getting there? Where are they staging? Most importantly, where are they moving during shooting hours that will allow you a chance to get close?
Cameras can answer some of those questions, and are ideal for monitoring specific trails in the thick stuff. The rest of the deer inquiries will have to be answered the old-fashioned way — by observing.
Hanging stands or taking a seat in a natural ground blind to simply watch what is going on can be the single best way to understand what is going on with the deer right now. What you observe today can play into your hunting strategy tomorrow, and more importantly, should play into your strategy.
And it all starts with a stand and a plan.
What Are You Missing?
It's a hard lesson to learn, but what you observe in the woods is far more important than what you think you know about how the deer will move through their habitat. I fall into this hubris-based trap each year and must force myself to believe what I'm seeing. It's not easy, but it is the best way to find more success on mature bucks.
Whenever I'm in danger of giving more credit to my beliefs than my observations, I think about a three-year deer lesson I learned on public land in Nebraska. The observations, which started with a spring turkey hunt, revealed a pretty simple food-to-bed, bed-to-food pattern. The deer would munch away all night long on private agriculture and then they'd hop the fence and go to bed in a public creek bottom.
At night, they'd slip up the hill and point their noses toward the groceries. What I saw, but didn't understand, was that an awful lot of them would veer off the trails to mill around in a small patch of pines.
They did this in April, and the first time I set up to arrow them in November, they were still doing it. There was a wide-open flat of CRP grass and the quarter-acre patch of pines sitting there that drew them in. It reminded me of finding a random rock pile on a mud flat while fishing walleyes. Even a small island of cover draws the critters.
During that first hunt, I sat over a well-defined trail leading from the top to the bottom, a no-brainer travel route. What I witnessed was deer going right around me to mill in that island of pines. I eventually called a buck in from that stand of pines and arrowed him, but I also knew the next time I hunted there I needed to re-locate.
So I did, and while it felt strange sitting in a stunted pine well away from where the action should have been, it didn't take long for an estrous doe to trot by. Three bucks were hot on her tail, and the largest ended up catching an arrow in his lungs. He is my biggest to date, and would have never worn my tag if I hadn't observed what the deer really like to do in that area.
The Right Setup
To observe the local deer, it takes a willingness to go truly mobile. If you're a ladder-stand connoisseur and despise lightweight hang-ons or climbers, this might not be as easy, but it is necessary. The willingness to carry a stand and sticks into a new area to watch is the biggest hurdle for most of us. The reason? It's a heck of a lot easier to hunt the stands we've already hung.
Laziness doesn't usually lead to too many taxidermy bills, so it's best to accept the reality you're going to have to get out there and hang as many one-time stands as possible. To make this as headache-free as possible, pick up at least one quality, lightweight hang-on and a set of climbing sticks.
Marry them together with bungee cords, and get used to the whole process of setting them up and taking them down. This comes with practice but is crucial. If you're comfortable with your gear, you'll use it more often and more efficiently.
Provided you're good with your mobile stand situation, the next step is to figure out where to go. Personally, I start ticking off potential areas I haven't hunted yet. Maybe there's a valley I've ignored or an oak flat I've stayed out of simply because I didn't think it would produce any quality encounters with big deer.
Whatever the case, I pick a few spots I've simply overlooked and then check the wind. Whichever spot is conducive to the current wind conditions is the one where I sneak in and set up.
The result of such forays is an awful lot of sits that don't produce much action. That's OK, as long as you keep looking and avoid getting frustrated. The very first buck I ever had mounted showed up when I was at a low point in the season. I desperately wanted a decent buck, and with nothing to lose, carried a stand into a huge oak flat that for one reason or another, I didn't hunt much.
As I was hanging my observation stand, footfalls in the October leaves caught my attention. Four does fed slowly through as I clung to the side of that red oak, and I'll never forget the sound of the acorns crunching between their jaws as they passed within bow range.
After setting up and glassing as far as I could, a small buck trotted in with the larger buck in tow. At 30 yards he bedded facing me, and it was a maddening situation to not be able to move a muscle. When he finally stood I was a nervous wreck but somehow the pin found his ribs and what I figured was just an observation stand turned out to be much more.
Not all situations require a stand, either. Setting up on an old fencerow to watch a secluded field or other open areas can pay off too. You might just observe a distant buck leaving a cattail slough, or catch sight of a good one making a scrape on a field edge. No matter the case, what you see is only the first half of why observation stands are so important. The second half is the willingness to move, once again.
Too many hunters are far too passive. This can be a problem when employing an observation-stand strategy. If you go out and witness a buck doing something, anything, the next step is to figure out if you can move right on top of him and kill him the next day.
Bucks can be fairly predictable, which is especially true if you observe them doing something in the cover. Watching a buck stage in a certain area one day means he will probably be there the next, provided the conditions don't drastically change. If they don't, you need to be able to sneak in and set up. This goes right back to the portable stand and sticks and the ability to carry them in quietly and set them up like a ninja.
In my experience, this step is where most bowhunters second-guess themselves and talk themselves right out of the chance to kill a big one. They reason that moving in will spook the buck and they should just wait for better times to hunt, like the rut.
Several years ago, while bowhunting in northern Minnesota, I almost fell victim to that mentality. I had watched a group of bucks all summer long, and one of them stayed visible throughout the first week of the season. The problem was he abandoned his summer pattern and showed himself ever so briefly to me one day as September wound down. The buck cut a corner of a hayfield to enter a wooded point.
I backed out and left, knowing I'd return the following afternoon with a stand. When I crept into that point, several fresh rubs caught my eye. I didn't dare go in more than about 30 yards, and while I was slowly setting the stand I realized there was a deer feeding not 75 yards from me.
The doe never caught sight of me, and while I thought I'd be covered in deer throughout the sit given the early start, I was wrong. At last light, the deer I wanted showed up. He stopped at 20 yards and died almost exactly on the spot where I had watched him enter the woods the day before.
Don't be afraid to be aggressive after employing an observation stand. If you see a buck doing his thing, get in there as soon as conditions allow. The pattern he is on today will likely last for a few days, but also probably won't last for weeks.
If, after the season opens, your buck sightings dwindle and the opening-week confidence wanes, it might be time to figure out what you've been missing. This will involve getting out there and watching. If you mentally prepare yourself for some less-than-stellar sits, you'll eventually be rewarded with a first-person sighting. That might be all you need to change the fortunes of a ho-hum season in a single day.
Gear for the Mobile Hunter
Ameristep's Buck Commander Ballistic treestand ($229.99) will let you sit dark-to-dark without getting numb-butt, thanks to the oversized, Durasling, flip-up seat. This 20-pound perch features a roomy platform, is rated for up to 300 pounds and locks easily and securely to the tree thanks to its innovative SuperCam leverage lock system.
Also in Ameristep's Buck Commander line, the 12.5-pound Vigilante ($199.99) is perfect for bowhunters looking to sit where the action is now. The Vigilante features a generously sized seat with comfortable, 3-inch foam as well as a footrest for maximum comfort. While it sports a 31x23-inch platform, the Vigilante still packs down to a slim, easy-to-carry package, meaning you'll be able to go farther while making less noise.
Finally, the Buck Commander Redemption ($179.99) is a great option for public-land hunters and those who prefer to get steeper and deeper into the backcountry. Tipping the scale at just under 10 pounds, the Redemption utilizes the SuperCam leverage lock system for easy setup and offers a comfy seat with 3-inch foam padding for long sits.
Getting in and out of your hang-on treestands will be easy with Ameristep's Aluminum Rapid Rails ($99.99). The three-piece set of Rapid Rails weighs just 10 pounds and nests together for easy packing. Once at your stand location, the Rapid Rails allow you to climb up to 16 feet off of the ground, and they are perfect for irregular trees that won't accommodate standard climbing sticks.
Sometimes, your best option for an ambush is at eye level, and that's where Ameristep's Crush Silencer Blind ($149.99) comes in handy. Weighing only 16.5 pounds, the Silencer is the perfect portable blind. It boasts a 55x55-inch footprint (66-inch height) and features Silent Slide windows and a silent entry door. Each Silencer is covered in Realtree Xtra camouflage and outfitted with brush loops for adding local greenery.