May 31, 2016
By Steve Bartylla
It was incredible. As I sat in my stand high on a ridge about a half-hour before dark, I glassed deer after deer pouring out into the southeast corner of an alfalfa field below.
Despite the date being Oct. 15, bucks were chasing does and carrying on like it was early November. Amazingly, three of these bucks were shooters.
The two biggest of the group -- one in the 160s and another pushing B&C -- got down and dirty in the mud. Their fight rivaled any I'd ever seen during the peak of the rut.
I had to act. The next day, after showering and engaging in the same tedious scent-eliminating rituals I would employ for any real afternoon hunt, I grabbed a stand and slipped back to the field.
Rarely will I hunt field edges this early in the season, but the previous day's observations made it clear that the remote corner was the place to be. Sitting on the ridge the day before, I'd passed up only one small buck. But I knew the field corner would put me in that great position of having to choose which of the three shooters to arrow. It was definitely the place to be!
A DREAM SITUATION
After carefully getting the stand in place, I slipped back out using the same route I'd taken coming in. Things couldn't have been better. The observations made during the previous day's hunt had removed any need to scout, and I was able to minimize disturbances by going directly to the location.
What's more, I'd employed my odor-reducing strategies, and virtually no trimming had to be done around my stand site. After factoring in the abundance of buck sign littering the area, I knew I had a winner.
All that was left now was to do everything right and make the shot when the time came. To be safe, I decided to give the area three days' rest just in case the deer happened to pick up a hint of human scent in the field or around my tree. I reasoned that as long as I gave any lingering scent a chance to disperse naturally before my return, the deer wouldn't associate it with hunting. I was determined not to mess this up.
Six days after first seeing the action in the field, I headed back in. As you can imagine, I was pumped. That feeling intensified further after seeing even more fresh buck sign than I had when I hung my stand. Climbing up my tree, I couldn't help but believe that this was going to be an awesome sit. I was far from disappointed.
The deer started piling out at least 2 1/2 hours before dark. It wasn't long before I had 21 deer in the field in front of me, including the three shooters I'd seen previously. In addition, a newcomer showed up, a buck that would score somewhere in the 150s! I decided not to get greedy and take the first shot that one of the four bucks might offer.
Although I came to full draw twice, the commotion of chasing does, sparring, two all-out brawls and a sea of bodies blocking vitals resulted in letting down both times.
Nearly an hour after pitch dark, the deer finally dispersed enough for me to sneak out safely. Despite not getting a shot, I knew that my entire "safety first" approach had been the correct route. It took all of my willpower to give that stand another break, but I knew it would be well worth not messing up this "once in a lifetime" situation. I rationalized that I could trim my normal stand rotation from four days to three, since none of the deer had shown any sign of knowing I was there. Besides, I was going nuts to get back there.
WHAT'S GOING ON?
To make a long and painful story shorter, my second sit, 10 full days after my original observations, was bitterly disappointing. I saw nothing more than a couple of does and young bucks. Obviously, it was merely an off night. I had seen several shooter bucks, and there was simply too much sign in the area to make me think otherwise. On the bright side, because I knew I hadn't tipped off any deer, I rationalized that I only had to give the area two days' rest before returning.
My fourth sit was also bitterly disappointing. The same proved true for my fifth and sixth, and every other trip to that stand. And even though I knew that the lack of fresh buck sign meant it was time to move on, that one magical afternoon kept bringing me back well after all hope was gone.
As I look back on that lost season that I experienced so many years ago, the obvious question that comes to mind is: What did I do wrong? For years after that, I stood firmly by the belief that a cruel twist of fate prevented me from tagging one of those great bucks. Knowing what I know today, however, I now believe that the blame lies elsewhere.
SHATTERING A SACRED RULE
For as long as I can remember, the "experts" have drilled one thing into my thick head: Don't over-hunt your stands! Aside from staying upwind of deer, I can't think of another golden rule that has been more loudly proclaimed.
However, as the years passed and as more and more experiences similar to this one took place, I've become thoroughly convinced that there are many situations where giving stands a break is a horrible mistake. For what it's worth, I don't hunt the wind like most "experts" do either, but that's another story.
Before you stop reading in disgust, please indulge me by hearing my case. The first factor to consider is that both the deer and the habitat they live in go through some dynamic changes over the course of the fall. Prime food sources are appearing and disappearing, leaf drop occurs, weather changes, bachelor groups disband, and does begin to come into estrus. Those are just some of the highlights. So it stands to reason that deer patterns, particularly those of mature bucks, can change significantly over a bow season.
Due to one or more of these changes that are constantly taking place, I believe that mature bucks often experience numerous shifts in patterns over the course of a season. For argument's sake, let's say that we spot a bruiser buck feeding in a soybean field in late August and we see him on a regular basis through mid-September.
"For as long as I can remember, the "experts" have drilled one thing into my thick head: Don't over-hunt your stands! Aside from staying upwind of deer, I can't think of another golden rule that has been more loudly proclaimed."
However, as the plants begin to turn brown and die, he shifts most of his feeding to a nearby alfalfa field. Not long after this, a couple of old apple trees start dropping their fruit. And even before all the apples are cleaned up, the oak ridge begins raining acorns.
Let's say that in mid-October a couple of mature does enter estrus early and a brief flurry of rutting activity takes place. After that, our bruiser returns to the oak ridge, but by now he is also entering the peak scrape phase and all the extracurricular activities that this entails. I could carry this fictitious example out further, but I suspect you get the point.
COPING WITH CHANGE
In this oversimplified yet not so uncommon scenario, our buck's patterns are changing almost every week. Tom Indrebo, a good friend and the owner of Bluff Country Outfitters in Buffalo County, Wisconsin, agrees. "I see it every year," Tom told me. "During one stretch, the deer are just pounding the apples, and then it's like a mass switch to some other crop. Without warning, they're back on the apples. During early and late season, it's very common for them to act like a school of fish -- here today, there tomorrow and back here again a couple of weeks later."
As the more formidable years of my bowhunting career began passing by, I began believing that, outside of the peak breeding phase, hunting pressure was the primary factor in altering a buck's patterns. Though I still believe that significant hunting pressure can and will limit daylight activities and patterns, I now feel strongly that many times travel patterns change because of changing food sources and rutting opportunities.
If this is true, one must then ask if it is the exception or the rule. I believe it depends largely on the habitat. If the habitat consists of several small blocks of cover and endless miles of open crop ground, chances are good that our bruiser buck will stick fairly close to his core bedding area outside the rut. After all, he doesn't have many other bedding options.
Of course, the quality, supply and diversity of food source options also must be factored in. For the past few years I've been lucky enough to hunt on lands controlled by Northern Wilderness Outfitters in north-central Alberta. I love hunting there because I can show up, spend a day scouting and promptly look like a genius of a whitetail hunter. Why? As much as I'd like to claim it's all due to skill, it's really due to the habitat -- endless miles of woods and few fields.
After several good frosts kill much of the natural greenery, the deer can either eat woody browse or hammer those few fields. Sure, their bedding options are endless, but they have relatively few feeding options. Because of that, their patterns tend to remain relatively stable.
What about habitat that consists of a closer split between food and protective cover? In my opinion, these types of settings are the ones where buck patterns tend to be the most fluid. Furthermore, they make up most of the whitetail's range. But there are exceptions even in this situation. Take for example the diverse habitats of Buffalo County, Wisconsin; west-central Illinois; eastern Iowa; northern Missouri; and countless other locations.
The food-to-cover ratio in many of these areas is closely balanced. However, throw some harsh winter weather and a standing corn or bean field into the mix, and Mr. Big can become as predictable as the morning sunrise. In this case, the snow cover and weather limit prime feeding options. And whenever food or cover is severely limited, patterns can remain relatively constant. The same can even be applied to a lone water source during very dry periods.
TRY TO STRIKE A BALANCE WHEN THE IRON IS HOT
For those of us who hunt these diverse habitats, I believe we are best served to follow the old adage of striking when the iron is hot. With so many factors pulling bucks in different directions and changing their patterns, it now makes sense to me to hunt where the bucks currently are as much as one is able to do safely.
"Safely" is the key word in that sentence. Another key involves the quality of other options available. Today, the amount of time I spend hunting a particular stand depends largely on how good my other options are and how risky the stand site is to hunt. When I have two stands that are hot with buck action, I'll try to split my time evenly between the two if possible. I will continue doing this until a stand goes cold or action begins heating up somewhere else. If the first two remain hot and a third stand looks promising, I'll divide my time between all three. In that same situation, if one stand has a significantly lower impact access route, I'll hunt that stand twice for every time I hunt the others.
In case I haven't already made this point extremely clear, when a stand is hot it should be hunted as swiftly and as often as is reasonable to do so. If you wait or space your hunts too far apart, the number of high quality encounters the stand can produce is often lowered dramatically.
When it comes to being cautious, I always try to go the extra mile to be sure that my activities don't tip off the bucks being hunted. If you recall, I took the same odor-fighting precautions when going in to hang my stand as I always do for any hunt. Furthermore, because of my observations, I was able to go directly to the tree, hang my stand and head straight out without doing any unnecessary scouting. As tempting as it was to nose around and see all the buck sign in the area, I knew where the stand should be. I also knew that any further investigation might pollute the area.
In addition, I hung the stand during the late morning hours, giving time for calm to return to the area before the deer would return for their afternoon feeding. And even though I didn't have to do any trimming in that situation, if I had I would have used a pruner instead of a saw. Deer may not be afraid of sawdust odors, but they are curious, and I don't want those odors to draw them in to an area I've disturbed. And last but not least, knowing what I know now, I would have worn Elimitrax over my boots in that situation (had the product been available back then), to further ensure that no human odor was left lingering on the ground.
Over the years, I've determined that hunting a "great" stand that has horrible access is a futile act. A hunter simply must be able to get to and from his stand without spooking deer. This often means being willing to stay in a stand until the deer move off well after dark, no matter how late that may be. This is especially true when hunting field edges.
If the deer do detect my presence, I'll give the area a day or two off and then I'll be right back in the saddle. There are two exceptions to this. First, if I'm busted in the stand by a mature buck or doe, I'll move that stand the next time in. I'll usually put it just far enough away so that the deer aren't staring up at my new tree.
The other exception occurs during the rut. Specifically, it involves hunting a funnel that is being used predominately by roaming bucks. Because this situation is usually vastly superior to my other options, I'll sit the very same stand every day until the rut is over or until I tag out, regardless of what I may spook.
I've found that many of these funnels are "buck only" funnels that separate doe groups or are used by bucks when they're transitioning between two areas of protective cover. However, when you're hunting funnels that are also used heavily by does, educating the does can be every bit as dangerous as educating Mr. Big.
In fairness, I must point out that hammering hot stands also requires taking odor control to the highest level. You simply can't depend on trying to hunt a certain stand when the wind is always favorable. And if you try to hunt it when the wind is not right without going to the extreme with odor control, you'll simply burn it out very quickly in the game!