This is one little–but all-too-important–hunting skill that bow hunters should be practicing. It might seem intuitive that, immediately after your first shot, you should be pulling and loading another arrow. But it’s not.
The wait-and-see approach can make all the difference between success and failure. This is why you hear guides on hunting shows always pleading, “Shoot again, shoot again!”
Bow hunting is different than gun hunting insomuch that the animal often doesn’t realize you’ve shot, especially at longer distance where he doesn’t hear the shot. Sometimes the animal doesn’t even know he’s been hit, which can afford you a follow up shot!
Hit or miss, your non-bow hand should be immediately grasping and loading another arrow. It’s one of those skills that’s acquired over time through real-life hunting experiences, but rarely practiced.
Now, I don’t want to pick on my wonderful bowhunting wife, but here’s a classic example:
On our first archery turkey hunt, we called up a group of mature toms. Forever they gobbled while cautiously circling us, so we moved in on them. When the biggest tom broke the treeline, I whispered the yardage and Esther let an arrow fly…and missed. The tom jumped, then meandered off. Desperately I whispered, “Shoot, SHOOT!”, but when I turned around, I saw that Esther hadn’t loaded another arrow. What seemed intuitive to me was not intuitive to a newbie-hunter.
Practice Makes Perfect
To avoid this mistake I recommend incorporating a simple shoot-and-pull technique into your regular practice routine. Note: It’s best to use a real-life 3D animal target to help train your brain for real-life scenarios. Here’s how it’s done:
Shoot your first arrow. Hit or miss, you have five seconds to…
Pull, load, and shoot a second arrow.
Pretty simple, huh? Given enough time afield, I guarantee that practicing this technique will one day save your hunt. Hit or miss, having a second arrow ready can make all the difference between success and failure.
With the Utah archery hunt only a few weeks away, it’s time to get serious about pre-hunt preparation. Over the years we’ve discussed several ways to prepare for the hunt; things like exercise, scouting, mediation, and shot execution. But I would argue that nothing gets you ready like hitting the 3D archery range.
What is a 3D range?
A 3D range is simply a series of life-size, foam animal targets set up in a natural environment. The targets are roughly the same size and color as the real animal. Just like regular square targets, 3D targets have a series of concentric circles overlaying the vitals, but are nearly impossible to see at any distance. This aids in proper shot placement, yet allows for scoring your shot.
How is a 3D range beneficial?
How is it NOT!? A good outdoor range is set up in a life-like manner so that some shots are uphill/downhill, often through brush and trees, and at various random yardages. Add to that odd angles, wind, bugs buzzing around your head, uneven terrain, sun in your eyes, back lit targets, and sweltering heat…well it’s a recipe for a real-life hunting experience! And that’s why it’s so crucial to try it at least once before the season starts. Besides, it’s a ton of fun for everyone.
What can I expect to learn at the 3D range?
A lot! Right away you’ll be disappointed at your lack of skills; and that’s the point. Most people start the summer by shooting in their backyard on flat ground, all while shooting square targets with brightly colored bullseyes. That might be great for sighting in your bow, but over time it does more harm than good because you’re training your mind to shoot under very predictable circumstances. The 3D range–on the other hand–mimics the adverse conditions you’ll certainly find in the woods, and really trains the mind to expect the unexpected, a skill that’ll prove invaluable afield.
How can I maximize my 3D experience?
I’m glad you asked. The most effective way to practice is to shoot two arrows per target: the first arrow is shot without using a rangefinder, and the second is shot after ranging the target. This really helps to train your eye to judge distances for situations where there’s no time to range the animal before the shot.
Next, you’ll want to shoot in various body positions: standing, kneeling, or even squatting to keep your arrow from hitting an overhanging branch.
For the best possible experience, hit the range with a buddy or two, and be sure to keep score. After teaching archery for four years, I’ve found the best way to tighten up an arrow grouping is to engage in a little competition. Pride is usually enough, but toss in a few bucks and watch the competition soar.
No matter what state you live in there’s likely a 3D range nearby. (Just google it). If you don’t have a range, you can always purchase 3D targets from any outdoor retailer. Unfortunately 3D targets are quite expensive, but having one or two will prove invaluable if you apply the aforementioned regimen.
I suggest visiting a few different ranges, and then concentrate on the most challenging one. For best results bring some friends and really push yourself. Shooting the 3D range is the most effective way I’ve found to improve your shooting skills before entering the woods. And believe me, golf will never be the same.
Opening morning and it’s on! But not really, because the deer are effectively off. With increased human presence this year, the deer have sensed danger and left the area. It takes 20 days of futile hunting before I really understand what has happened: All the mature bucks flipped the ON/OFF switch to OFF, and have become unhuntable!
That’s pretty much the story in Northern Utah last year. After several years of mild winters, deer numbers steadily rose to the point that the DWR issued more tags. It’s a traditionally difficult unit to begin with, but with the slightest increase in human traffic the deer simply left the area and/or became completely nocturnal. I’ve never seen anything like it!
So I hunted from the top to the bottom, bottom to the top, and north to south. In some real nasty country I found tracks and beds, affirming there were still in fact deer around. But as the sun came up each day, they were nowhere to be seen. It felt like the Twilight Zone. In 2015 I counted 8 different 4×4-or-bigger bucks, including one 200” typical. In 2016 I counted ZERO!
I spent one frustrating day hiking farther and farther into a really remote canyon—almost too remote for even elk. Just as I was questioning my sanity for bothering, two mediocre 3-points blasted out below me. Being completely stealthy on approach, I couldn’t figure out how they’d sensed me…unless they were completely neurotic…and that’s when it hit me: Bucks have the ability to decide whether to be huntable or unhuntable. It’s as simple as flipping a switch. Here’s how:
Mature mule deer bucks are bigger, stronger, and faster than us. They also see just fine at night, maybe even better than they do during the day (according to biologists)! Deer are always nocturnal, so being totally nocturnal simply means they don’t get up and feed during the day. They also don’t drink water each day which helps them reduce daytime movement. And no matter what any “seasoned” hunter tells you, deer are smart (well…comparatively). They are highly adaptable and need to be in order to survive extreme climates, terrain, and predators that they encounter every day. When spooked by a hunter, a buck easily blasts through tangled brush, taking special care to keep trees between him and you, all while following a carefully planned escape route. The hunter hasn’t the slightest ability to chase after, or even to relocate the wizened old buck which is capable of covering vertical miles with ease and disappearing for days.
Flipping the Switch
For a deer, flipping the switch to OFF is probably not a conscious decision, but an instinct, and such a simple whim that it just happens without the necessity of thought. The buck spends a few days feeding and sleeping in some impenetrable patch of choke cherries on some ungodly-steep slope while waiting out the hunting season. I know because I found one of these very spots (I spent every day peeking behind every tree, after all). Sure there was deer sign in there, but it was so thick that I was literally climbing through with both hands. Visibility was only inches and the unavoidable cacophony of my approach would spook any deer long before I ever saw it. All I could think was, “This is exactly where I would be if I were a deer.”
So, what’s the solution? How do you beat the unhuntable buck? You can’t. It’s game over. In my case I left the mountain and hunted out of state. Everyone knows that increased pressured makes hunting harder, but there’s a tipping point where the buck decides to go farther and deeper than humanly possible. After years in the woods, he’s learned where these places are and when to use them.
One question remains: If a deer can become unhuntable, why doesn’t he just remain in that state all the time? Well, he’s an animal; naturally lazy, hungry, lonely, and curious. He doesn’t enjoy holing up on a hill if he doesn’t have to. He also knows that hunts are short and hunters eventually leave the mountain.
In the end, it comes down to hunting pressure. If an area has little hunting pressure, the buck might not even know the season is on and just goes about his summer routine. Becoming unhuntable is simply a tool he uses in order to survive during dangerous times, the same way he occasionally uses his antlers for fighting, and then forgets about them.
If you think about it, being invisible to man isn’t that uncommon in the animal kingdom. Deer share the mountain with much more elusive animals like cougars, bears, bobcats, badgers, foxes, etc. Many of these animals are nocturnal, but more notably they’re born with the natural inclination to hide from people. Comparatively, hooved animals like elk and deer are certainly shy of people, but not overly wary. For whatever reason they must learn to associate people with danger. It’s likely because we’re the only predators capable of killing them at long ranges…which is new and unnatural.
On the topic of long-range weapons, I’ve also observed the deer in my unit are holding tighter to the dark timber than they did in the past, even very early and very late in the day. It’s my belief that the popularization of long-range rifle hunting just within in the last decade is causing bucks to hold tighter to the deep timber where long-range rifles are rendered pretty much useless. Think about it: A group of bachelor bucks are standing in the open, and one suddenly falls over dead long before the report of the rifle is heard. The far-off shot is difficult to pin-point, and therefore difficult to avoid. The remaining buck’s only option is to dive into the timber and not come out. How many times will this happen before the old bucks stop coming out all together, and then teach their apprentices to do the same?
What is the future of deer hunting? Are deer getting smarter? Are they adapting to human predators as fast as we’re developing more efficient ways to kill them? If deer are bigger/faster/stronger than us, will there come a time that they are no longer huntable? All of these valid questions, and definitely up for debate. During a recent hunting seminar, someone asked the speaker if he thought deer were getting smarter. He replied, “No, I think deer are the same as they’ve been for thousands of years.” I quietly but wholeheartedly disagreed, and then wondered how much time this guy really spends observing deer in the nature.
All I know for sure is that I’ve watched deer become unhuntable, and since unhuntable deer quickly spoils my season, I’ve opted to hunt elsewhere, which is really the only option. Sure, I know the caliber of bucks in my old unit, but I won’t waste my time there. No matter where you hunt, there will always be another area with less pressure and huntable bucks. Remember, bucks hate people pressure more than anything, so you must avoid people with as much fervor as you hunt for deer.
Spring black bear season is fast approaching, so today I’d like to offer my top 10 tips for bagging a black bear spot-and-stalk style.
Full Disclosure: I am NOT a professional black bear hunter. I bow hunted bears in Idaho on two separate occasions (2012 and 2016), and last year was my first successful hunt. That being said, I spoke to two different biologists in advance of each hunt and studied everything I could find on black bear hunting, habitat, and behavior. Still, it took many days to finally get the job done.
Interestingly, much of the theoretic data I collected in the preseason proved wrong. For instance, one article stated that early morning was the least productive time to spot bears. But in my experience I saw just as many bears early as later. One biologist mentioned that bears absolutely hate the rain, but I ended up shooting my bear in a steady rain storm. Go figure.
Ultimately, spot-and-stalk success comes from boots on the ground and relentless time in the field; in other words, real-life experience. Now let’s get on with my tips.
Spot and Stalk Black Bear Top 10 Tips:
1. Food is Everything: Someone once said that black bears are just big hairy pigs. They eat, dig, and root around constantly, rarely holding still for very long. Since they’re so distracted, it should make them easy to hunt, right? Kinda. Like deer, bears feed for a while, then bed down for a few hours and repeat. The good news is that bears are easy to spot and generally found out in the open.
Spring bears primarily feed on new grass shoots, wild onions, clover, dandelions, and other spring offerings. It is imperative to talk to your regional biologist to find out what the bears are primarily feeding on in your area.
As for time of day, my advice is to hunt bears like deer: Get to a high lookout before first light and start glassing steep, grassy, south-facing slopes adjacent to old-growth forest (used for bedding). Of the nine bears I encountered last year, most were spotted in the early morning or late afternoon.
Even in the best units, you’ll likely glass many miles before actually laying eyes on a bear. If you can’t glass up a bear, keep moving. Get away from the roads, explore remote canyons, and cover as much ground as possible. Bears are solitary animals and are spread out across their range. This leads to tip #2.
2. Look for Sign: If glassing fails, the next step is to locate an area that looks “beary” and look for sign. You’re looking for large piles of black or green dropping, claw marks on trees, tree trunks rubbed smooth with hair attached, diggings, tracks in mud, turned over items, and dug-in tracks (see photo below). I’ll break these things down separately as we go, but basically you’re just looking for concentrations of bear sign and focusing your efforts there.
The most common sign you’ll encounter is droppings, aka scat. Droppings come out wet and green, then quickly oxidize to black (within 24-hours in warm weather). If you’re not finding droppings, keep moving.
3. Examine the Trees: An area dense with claw-marked trees is a good indication of a likely bear hang-out. Black bears–especially cubs–like to climb trees which leaves claw marks in the bark.
Bears also rub on trees just like deer, and they always have their favorite rub tree. Rub trees occur near trails or beds and are generally conifers with easily identifiable smooth spots with hair stuck to it.
4. Watch for Tracks: Unlike deer, bear leave few tracks because their foot pads are wide and soft which spreads their weight out. Most bear tracks are found in snow, mud, or soft dirt.
Another strange phenomon I found was “dug-in” tracks. Dug-in tracks are frequently found near bedding areas. Rather than soft tracks, these are trails that bears uses every single day while traveling from feed to bed. Because they step in the exact same spots each day, it creates staggered depressions in the ground. (see photo below)
Bear tracks will help you judge the size of a bear. Basically the main pad (front or back) of a mature bear (sow or boar) will be 4.5 inches or wider. Sow tracks generally don’t get bigger than 4.5″, but a big boar will stretch up to five or six inches.
5. Locate Bedding Areas: Bear beds are similar to deer beds and are usually located in thick stands of trees not far from feeding areas. Bear beds often look like large nests, whereas the bear pushes branches and ground cover out to the edges of the bed. Bears also like to bed on the cool, dark north-face near the tops of ridges. Also, just about every bed I found had multiple piles of scat nearby.
6. Watch for Items Turned Over: What the heck does this mean? Rocks, logs, and cow pies turned upside-down. This is something I never read about before, but everywhere I found bears or bear sign I found multiple items turned upside down. A rock lying next to a depression in the ground where it previously lied is most common. In springtime bears are primarily herbivores, but they really love protein from insects, grubs, mice, and other animals hiding underground. You’ll also encounter occasional diggings. Diggings consist of a random two or three-foot holes dug into the dirt where the bear went after a squirrel or other animal.
7. The Triple “S” of Bear Behavior: Secretive, Shy, and Slippery: Assuming you’ve found a good feeding area with lots of bear sign, there’s still no guarantee you’ll find a bear. On several of my hunts I found areas littered with bear sign, but no bears anywhere. Slippery: Bears have a bad habit of disappearing right in front of you. They mosey behind a tree and they’re suddenly gone from the world. They are such quiet animals and chronically secretive. They are very shy and simply don’t want to be found.
Being patient is the key to bear success. When a bear finds a good feeding area/hillside, he’ll likely stay on it for several days. If you’re in a good location, or if you glassed up the bear earlier in the day, he’ll likely re-appear sooner or later in the same general area.
8. Watch the Nose: Bear hunting is technically easier than deer hunting because unlike deer, bears have relatively poor hearing and eyesight. However, the bear’s nose is equal to or better than a deer’s nose. Simply put, if he smells you it’s game over, so hunting according to wind direction is critical. Be sure to use a windicator when searching for or stalking bears.
Note: Bears have short attention spans. If a bear sees or hears you, hold very still and he’ll likely forget you were there.
9. Watch the Weather: Just like deer, bears avoid heavy rain or snow. However, a light or sporadic rain doesn’t seem to bother them. Hungry bears will happily brave the elements, and bears are always hungry! In my experience rain was not a factor, but snow and freezing temps were real bad news.
On two separate occasions I spotted a bear one day, and when the snow moved in the next day it disappeared from the mountain. This is especially a problem in the early season (April and May) when the bears are living close to their dens. When the snow flies, they head back to their dens and won’t emerge again until the weather is better. It’s much easier for them to just go back to bed and wait for brighter days.
10. Know the Anatomy: Unlike hooved animals, bears carry their vitals (heart/lungs) further forward in their chest. When a bear is broadside the front shoulder blocks the vitals. Therefore, you must time your shot for when the front leg is moving forward. I learned this the hard way by trying to squeeze my arrow too tight to the shoulder. My arrow hit the bear’s big, powerful shoulder which stopped my arrow short of the vitals. Fortunately he swung around to face me and my second arrow sailed under it’s chin and into the chest. He didn’t go too far, but I was lucky. Fortunately bears don’t react the same way as deer; they’re more likely to stay put after a poor shot instead of instinctively sprinting away.
I hope you found these tips helpful for your spot-and-stalk bear hunt. I realize that the majority of bear hunters prefer using dogs and/or bait, but in my experience there’s nothing more exciting. challenging, or rewarding than getting it done on the ground the old-fashioned way.
While bow hunting last year, it occurred to me that success can be divided into three equally important pillars. To put it in perspective, I created the diagram below:
Think back to your last hunt. Were you successful? If not, which pillar did you fall short on? Since each step is equally important, it should be easy to pinpoint where you need improvement.
Let’s break it down:
The first step, locating a buck, is something you can start doing right now. The best way to locate more bucks is to study their behavior, habitat, and ecology. You can also research harvest data and biologist’s reports on the unit you are planning to hunt. Then later, the scouting begins.
The second step, stalking a buck, is not always intuitive. Getting close to big bucks is the hardest step to master because, unlike shooting, it’s something we rarely get to practice. What it really boils down to patience: knowing when and how fast to move depending on conditions such as wind and cover.
Finally, shot execution. Almost everyone I talk to is pro-class shooter…until their arrow flies wide of an unsuspecting buck. Bowhunters are lucky just to get one or two shot opportunities in a season, so it’s very important to prepare for real-life hunting scenarios in advance. The best way to do this is to practice shooting in different positions, unknown yardages, around objects, and in adverse conditions such as wind.
I’ll certainly keep this “wheel of success” in mind when going into the next hunting season. I call it a ‘wheel’ because it just keeps on turning, year after year. After completing all three steps in a season, it begins again the following year. The goal is to keep the wheel from going in REVERSE, which only happens when you blow a stalk or botch a shot.
During last year’s bowhunt I missed a 50-yard shot at a pretty decent buck. Since then, I’ve pondered the miss hundreds of times in effort to pin-point exactly what went wrong.
There were many factors to consider: steepness of angle, a crappy rangefinder, holding the wrong pin, buck fever, etc.
By the time I patterned the buck, the season was over and the buck had disappeared. In order to avoid making the same mistake(s), I’ve addressed every possible variable:
I replaced my old rangefinder with one that calculates angles AND can actually see through brush to avoid false readings.
I switched to a single pin sight in order to eliminate wrong pin selection and pin-gapping issues under pressure.
I dialed up my bow poundage in order to get a flatter arrow trajectory.
I began shooting steeper angles.
My summer schedule is a consummate nightmare, so rarely can I go to the mountains and shoot angles. So I found the highest point in my yard (my rooftop) and began shooting from there.
There’s an old saying: “What a fool does in the end, the wise man does in the beginning.” At this point, I implore you to anticipate the worst possible shot scenario and practice for it. Do whatever it takes, because big bucks rarely give you a second chance.
In hunting, it’s not enough to be stealthy; you must be INVISIBLE!
These words echoed in my head last year while bowhunting. It occurred to me that being stealthy–or super-sneaky–isn’t enough. You must move through the woods in a way that you are completely undetectable. But what does it mean to be invisible?
Being invisible requires 100% control over your presence in the woods. This is especially critical when hunting giant muley bucks (aka super-bucks or mega-bucks). Big bucks are infinitely smarter than little bucks, not allowing even the slightest hunter pressure. Heck, half the time these bucks explode out of the woods and THEY don’t even know why! Seriously, if you’ve spent any amount of time hunting monster bucks, you know what I’m talking about. Last year I had a 180-class get up and leave the area simply because a squirrel fired up ahead of him.
I’ve divided my invisibility management techniques into three categories: scent, sight, and sound:
Scent is always number one. Many hunters don’t realize just how sensitive the giant snout of a deer is. More deer, by far, bust out ahead of you, not because they’ve seen you but because they’ve smelled you. The first rule of invisibility means you hunt with the wind in your face. Otherwise you must adjust your approach or back out completely.
Scent control doesn’t just apply to wind direction, but to your person and property. While walking through the brush your clothing/footwear is leaving behind scent molecules on the ground, foliage, and everything else that you touch. Whether you’re aware of it or not, deer eventually figure out every place you’ve been in the woods just by sniffing around. That’s why it’s so easy to blow out an entire area just by being there, hidden from view or not.
Last year I sat briefly on a rock outcropping to rest and scan the hillside. I moved 100 yards farther and sat again. Pretty soon a little 2×2 buck came along the same route. He stopped at the rock outcropping and sniffed the ground, then immediately jerked his head up and stared in every direction before briskly moving away. I couldn’t believe how easily he picked up my scent!
To manage scent–or just to feel better about it–I use scent killer spray every morning before heading out. It’s especially important to spray down the entirety of your boots. Still, you should avoid any unnecessary trips through woods or feeding areas where you suspect big bucks will travel, even at night.
And then there’s everyone’s favorite subject: urination and defecation! Inevitably you’re gonna have to leave a surprise in the woods, and with any luck the urge will hit you right smack in the middle of your “prime” area. So what do you do? Wrap up your presents. What I mean is, get your goods underground no matter what. Whenever possible I look for the biggest rock or boulder I can find and roll it over. In it’s void I’ll leave my goods, then return the rock to it’s original position. (Uh, it’s easier than packing a shovel.) Another good strategy is to find a ground squirrel’s hole (quite common out West). Funnel your surprises down there, and then cover it up. This stinks for the squirrel, but pre-dug holes are very convenient for the hunter. When hunting prime areas I’ll sometimes carry a urination bottle and pack my secrets out with me. Your only other option is to take a side trip to another part of the woods (preferably where your buddies hunt).
Assuming a buck hasn’t picked up your scent, the next greatest threat to invisibility is sight. Don’t think that just because you’re fully camo-clad that the deer can’t see you. Camo or not, deer’s eyes are specially designed to pick up the slightest movement. But there’s a trade-off: deer can easily spot normal/fast movement, but are almost blind to very slow movement. I tested this in 2013 while stalking a cow elk bedded facing me. There was no other approach according to the wind, so I elected to walk straight at her in super-slow motion. Somehow, over the course of three hours, I got within bow range in the semi-wide open! Unfortunately, it took so long to get close that she finally unbedded and fed away before I could get a shot.
Next, keep to the shadows. If a deer is facing the sun–as they often do when bedded–then their pupils are adjusted to brightness, and shadows become nearly black, or invisible. I got caught last year in the open by a good buck that bedded down facing me at 60 yards. Fortunately I was in the shadows and the buck never knew I was there. A basic understanding of light dynamics is helpful in remaining invisible.
I’m no gear-nut, but with regards to camo patterns I tend towards high-contrast camo because it breaks up my human form more effectively than semi-solid patterns. Whatever camo you choose, be sure to match the type of terrain you’ll be hunting.
It’s also important keep in the shadows whenever possible. This is especially effective when the deer is in the open and its eyes are adjusted to bright sun. It’ll make you almost invisible.
Lastly, whenever possible enter your prime areas before light. Now, deer are mostly nocturnal and see just fine at night. So a wide open approach is a no go. That being said, deer feel much more secure at night and will therefore be more forgiving of the inevitable sights and sounds you do make.
This is fairly obvious. Assuming you’ve used the wind for scent control and stayed out of view, human noise is your next obstacle. Human noise is always present simply by existing. Not only is breathing, sneezing, and coughing a constant threat, but you will make some kind of noise with every single footstep and arm movement. To remain audibly invisible I only wear soft- and thin-soled boots. If that’s not quiet enough, I’ll take my boots off and stalk-in-socks. I also lean towards tight-fitting clothing and soft fabrics. I muffle zippers and buttons with my fingers or gloves. To avoid unnatural “clanks”, I tape moleskin over plastic moving parts on my bino harness and backpack, as well as metal bow parts like my quiver and arrow rest.
Use the terrain to your advantage. The quietest substrates are soft dirt, wet ground, logs, and rocks. Whenever possible I hop from rock to rock, or target dirt and logs. One advantage to having ground squirrels in abundance is the soft dirt mounds they create on a daily basis.
Especially important is the use of cover noise. Surprisingly, the woods can be quite noisy at times. Timing your footsteps with natural sounds (or even unnatural sounds) such as wind, planes, flying grasshoppers, squirrels, birds, and other animals, provides plenty of options when you need to get one step closer. The deer themselves can make quite a cacophony. Deer ears are much easier to fool when they are feeding, fighting, or raking a tree. In crunchy snow situations I’ll actually use the deer’s footsteps to mask my own. As an aside, watch the deer’s ears whenever possible and time your movements for when it’s ears are swiveled away from you. It’s not foolproof, but it helps.
Finally, keep your camp quiet! Avoid music, door slamming, unnecessary driving around, and drunken yelling. And whatever you do, don’t make a big, smelly fire! There’s no point in announcing your presence at camp and then try ghosting your way through the woods the next day.
In conclusion, when hunting super-bucks it’s not enough to be stealthy; the goal is to become invisible. Each time you venture into the woods, make it a goal not to exist. There are far too many variables working against you already. Don’t become a variable yourself.
Most beginner hunters think there are two kinds of deer: spooked deer and un-spooked deer. What they learn over time is that there are many different levels of spookiness, or alertness.
When you encounter a feeding or bedded buck–which hasn’t detected your presence–you’ll immediately notice his relaxed appearance; ears low, eyes calm, head low, etc. When you encounter a buck that has busted you, it’s the opposite. All you’ll see is “dust and butts.” But somewhere in-between these two opposites is where most bucks reside.
The reality is that when the hunt starts, 99% of all bucks know it! They’ve heard the trucks and ATVs roll in, they’ve smelled the hunting camps, and more importantly they’ve been alerted well in advance simply by the angle of the sun and it’s relationship to the buck’s internal clock that sounds the alertness bell (right around mid-August in Utah). Also, if you’re hunting an area that has lots predators, the buck will be somewhat alert most of the time, even at night.
My few encounters with big bucks last year got me thinking about this. What I concluded was that in high-pressured public lands all big bucks live a daily life of alertness. The only times they aren’t on high alert is at night, or pre- and post- hunting season. Why is this important to know? Because your method of approach/stalk must be based on your accurate assessment of the buck’s level of alertness. For example, if the buck is bedded AND alert, then your approach will be much slower than if the buck is bedded and dozing off.
Based on this knowledge, I’ve developed a level of alertness system. It ranged from 0 to 5. Level ‘0’ means the buck is carefree and happy, there’s little predator presence, and there’s no hunt going on. Level ‘5’ means he’s turned inside out and running for his life! Your job as a hunter is to estimate which level the buck is at, and then adjust your approach accordingly. The following is a breakdown of levels.
Levels of Alertness in Deer
-The rare state of big bucks indeed. Only occurs pre- or post- season, like during scouting trips. (As described above.)
-The hunting season has begun, but the buck is bedded in a secure area with the wind at his back. His eyes are closed, ears pinned back, and chewing his cud. Or maybe he’s sleeping with his chin on the ground. Otherwise, he’s up and feeding, alone or with a small group, and has his head buried in the bush for long periods of time. Or perhaps he’s rubbing a tree low to the ground without stopping to look around.
-The buck is bedded but his head is up and looking around. He may have heard or smelled something, but not 100% sure. Or maybe he’s feeding sporadically, often lifting his head to scan the scene. Also, a buck on the move–like when he’s looking for a bedding or feeding area–will always be at level 2 or above because they’re always alert when moving from one point to another.
-The buck has heard, smelled, or seen something out of the ordinary. He’s staring in a particular direction for a prolonged period of time. This is often the case when a squirrel fires up, when forest birds go silent, or when there’s increased road noise in the area. Maybe he suddenly stood up in his bed. This is an alert buck scanning for danger. His head is high and his muscles are tense. In his mind he’s planning the safest possible escape route. However, if the threat never materializes, he may go back bed or feed.
-The buck is tense and ready to bolt. His eyes are wide, head is high, and ears are pinned forward. Sky-lining yourself, even at great distances, almost always triggers a level 4. Otherwise, he’s probably caught some of your movement or scent, or heard a non-natural sound, i.e. clanking of an arrow or breaking of a twig. Either way you are pinned down and he won’t stick around much longer. You either have a shot or he’s gone.
-It’s over; dust and butts! You are busted; the threat has been verified. You probably won’t see this buck again this year. This happened to me three times last year, and no, I did not see the big bucks again.
In future encounters with bucks I urge you to practice assigning levels of alertness. It’s a fun and handy tool, especially when hunting with other people. For example, when hunting with my wife I often cite the current assessment level of the situation. She may think I’m some kind of obsessive buck-nut, but she also knows what I’m talking about and will apply it to the stalk-situation at hand.
Understanding how to control or reduce human scent is key to success in bowhunting. Unlike humans, with our flat faces with cute little noses, the deer’s entire face and head is built around one gigantic nose and several inches of nasal passageway. Deer use their nose continually to survive, first by detecting danger at far distances, second to sniff out food, and third to sniff out a mate. But don’t despair. The fact that deer have such amazing sense of smell is the only reason they even still exist at all here in the future. As hunters we should admire its prowess and design. We want deer to survive…so that we can hunt them!
Human scent—or odor—is managed in three different ways: Scent masking, scent reduction, and scent control. Scent masking means using other scents—such as deer urine, pine extract, or sage—to cover up human odor. I rarely use scent masking so I’ll leave it out of this article. Instead let’s look at scent control verses scent reduction.
First off, total scent control—aka “scent elimination”—is really impossible. No matter what measures you take to eliminate human scent, you’ll still ooze some amount of odor, especially after a few days living in the woods. The only fool-proof way to control human scent is by using the wind to carry your scent away from your intended quarry. After 25 years in the field I’ve come to realize that scent control is impossible by any means other than wind. But winds can and do change direction. Therefore, 100% scent control is still impossible. That being said, I’m a firm believer in scent reduction.
Scent reduction means using commercial chemical or enzymatic odor neutralizing sprays, soaps, wipes, and special clothing to neutralize odor on your body and gear. In my experience scent reduction efforts are only marginally effective, but it does give me a little peace of mind.
For many years I’ve washed my clothes and body in scent masking soap before each hunt, and then used scent neutralizing spray at camp. Yet I am continually amazed at deer’s ability to pick me off no matter what precautions I use. When the wind is bad, it’s over, plain and simple. Your slightest human scent can blow out an entire canyon before you even step foot in it. Although I can’t completely eliminate my scent, I know that a reduced scent won’t travel as far, and if the wind changes momentarily, perhaps it will be diluted enough to go unnoticed, allowing me edge a little closer to the buck.
One reason we have such a hard time eliminating odor is because of the tremendous amount of gear we carry into the field that hasn’t been adequately washed down with scent control products. I recently began taking inventory of some of these items:
• Wrist watch
• Boot insoles/lining
• Every single content of your backpack
• Water bottle
• Binoculars and harness
• Rangefinder and case
• Armguard/Release aid
Did I miss anything? Probably. Now let’s look closer at some of these items:
Mouth: To keep my mouth from running afoul, I chew gum in the field. But I don’t brush my teeth in the field, and I’m always breathing. Does the inside of your lungs have an odor? Not to you, but probably to the deer. Just by breathing you are continually announcing your presence to the woods.
Boots: No matter how much scent masking spray you use on your boots, the boots still breathe with each step. Go ahead and stick your face in your boot. Do you smell your sweaty insoles? Does the lining or the leather have an odor? Probably. And the deer can smell it too.
Skin: Your skin has pores which seep sweat and oil continuously. Even if you wash your hands before going afield, an hour or so later they’ll be dirty again. And a few hours after that, they are grimy and stinky. Fortunately, several companies sell special scent wipes for field use, but I don’t use them. I have enough junk in my pack already, and even then, your hair is continually accumulating oil and dirt just by sitting there.
You get the idea.
So, what can you do? Don’t obsess over scent control. Trust me; you’ll go nuts trying to mask everything. Really, how fun is it to spend hours washing and wiping down your Chapstick, keys, binos, arrows, wallet, etc?! The deer will still sniff out something else.
Since pure scent elimination is really impossible, efforts to reduce scent are two-fold: First, keep the wind in your face and plan your stalks according to wind direction whenever possible. Second, use commercial scent masking products such soaps, deodorizers, and sprays. Go ahead and use whatever magical scent masking product you wish, but don’t count on it to save the day. My advice is to spare your obsession with scent control and focus on hunting skills instead.
What is a big buck’s highest priority, Food or Safety?
The answer is SAFETY!
In the first edition of my book, Zen Hunting, there’s a slight discrepancy. In one chapter I say the buck’s highest priority is food, and in another chapter it’s safety (or survival). The 2nd edition attempts to separate the two, but it’s really impossible.
The problem comes from real-life observation and experience.
First, a buck can’t survive without daily food intake. I cited David Long’s observation that bucks can’t even stay bedded for the entire day without occasionally getting up to feed. However, while hunting the Utah-Cache unit for three years in a row, I observed that big bucks never up and feeding during daylight hours. As an example, the four times I busted the infamous Droptine buck, he was bedded. Never was he on his feet during daylight hours.
What it comes down to is hunting pressure. As soon as hunters file into the woods, the bucks become completely nocturnal. You’ll still find plenty of tracks and sign because they are indeed feeding at night, but nowhere is a buck found feeding during the day. Bucks simply adapt to a nocturnal lifestyle that negates daytime feeding.
This makes perfect sense. The bucks of Monte Cristo are the smartest I’ve seen. If it comes down to eating or starving to death, the bucks will gladly starve to death. But they don’t really have to because they’re feed at night, and only at night. In this example safety far outweighs eating.
The hunting pressure on Monte is ridiculous and has been for decades, yet there are still trophies haunting the woods (and my nightmares). As I put it in my book, “These are the neurotic decedents of lone survivors.” It’s simple adaptation; survival of the fittest. The bucks that feed during the day get shot!
I’m certain that there are plenty of other areas where big bucks wander around, stuffing their faces with vegetation during the day. I’ve even seen it in Central Utah, but not up north.
Since I’ll be hunting Monte again this year, it’s my job to figure out how to approach these deer differently to beat the odds. I’ve done it before, and here’s how I’ll do it again:
Hunt the opener. In my book I have a whole sub-chapter entitled Never Hunt the Opener! My thinking has changed a little since then. It’s true that on opening day most bucks have already noticed the increased traffic/ATV noise and bailed onto secondary ridges or deep, dark, holes. But I realize now that there are always a brave or stupid few that will wait until they actually see a camo-clad dude before bailing out. These bucks are still in their summer routine and therefore huntable. My best chance is to catch them on the opener.
Hunt mid-week and late in the season. After opening day, my plans change. Since I work most weekends, I can schedule my hunts between Tuesday and Friday. I’ve found that the best day to hunt is Thursday. After the weekenders terrorize the deer, it takes half a week for them to calm down. By Thursday they feel more secure and let their guard down. Therefore your best odds are Thursday and into Friday before the weekend warriors come smashing back into the hills. Also, the hunting pressure falls off dramatically during the last couple weeks of the bowhunt, making September the best time to be out.
Hunt the Beds. The most difficult thing in the world is hunting big bucks in their beds. First you have to find their beds, preferable while pre-season scouting. Big bucks use multiple beds, so you’re not just looking for one bed. Second, these beds are generally found in deep and steep cover and perfectly situated to detect predators from a distance using wind and terrain. It is possible to hunt deer in their beds using ambush techniques or a super-stealthy still-hunting approach, it’s just not probable.
Hunt the Secondary Ridges: After opening day I will bail off the top and start hunting secondary ridges and deep, steep areas. By then I’ll have multiple backup areas that I’ve cataloged from my diligent scouting trips. It sucks dragging a deer up miles of vertical slope, but there’s no other option.
The methods you use to hunt big bucks is relative to the amount of hunting pressure the area gets. Once again, you must understand the nuances of your prey and adapt yourself as a predator. In high-pressure areas remember, Safety First! Big bucks only care about surviving.
That’s all there is to hunting high-pressure trophy mule deer. Well, that and a ton of luck.