Tag Archives: hunting techniques

Scent Control vs. Scent Reduction

deer_9Scent Control vs. Scent Reduction

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.

Use scent-eliminating laundry soap before each hunt.
Use scent-eliminating laundry soap before each hunt.

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
• Belt
• Boot insoles/lining
• Gum
• Every single content of your backpack
• Wallet/keys
• Chapstick
• Water bottle
• Food/snacks
• Phone/GPS
• Binoculars and harness
• Rangefinder and case
• Bow
• Armguard/Release aid
• Sweat/skin/hands/pores
• Hair
• Mouth/Breath/Lungs

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.

It's a good idea to use scent-eliminating spray on your boots and outerwear while in the field.
It’s a good idea to use scent-eliminating spray on your boots and outerwear while in the field.

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.

Big Buck’s Highest Priority

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Big Buck’s Highest Priority

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Good luck!

Over- and Under-Estimating Big Bucks

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(Photo courtesy of Utah DWR)

Over- and Under-Estimating Big Bucks

This post is dedicated to the properly estimating your chances at big bucks:

Any seasoned hunter will tell you, “NEVER underestimate big deer!” I agree, but experience also tells me that ‘NEVER’ really means ‘SOMETIMES.’

I have spent up to 7 hours stalking big bucks, and other times, I’ve barreled right in on the animal, either because I was losing light or he was distracted by something.

I’ve also watched hunters (hold on, I’m trying not to laugh, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.. sorry…) walk directly at a deer or elk, in plain view, thinking he’s invisible because he’s wearing camouflage! I’m not joking! You should’ve seen the look on the animal’s face just before it jumped up and ran away.

What it boils down to is that every situation is different. You can’t judge the current situation on the last situation, whether it worked out or not. In bowhunting there are way too many variables.

Big bucks are extremely wary…most of the time. On very rare occasion you’ll catch a buck being lazy or carelessly feeding, allowing a hunter to run in on him. MOST of the time, you can’t get within 60 yards–which happens to be bow range–without extreme caution. This is sometimes referred to as the 60-yard bubble. Within this bubble, the buck’s senses are exceptionally acute. This is where critical decisions make or break your hunt.

Below, I’ve compiled a list of situations that either causes me to speed up my approach, or sloooooow way down:

When to speed up your stalk:

  1. It’s getting dark. Fortunately when it gets dark, it’s gonna get light again…in the morning. Unless the buck is on the move, or in a rare situation, you have the option of pulling out and trying again in the morning. If morning isn’t an option, you better roll the dice and make your move.
  2. The buck is about to unbed. A bedded buck is a Godsend. Assuming he just bedded down for the day, you know where he’ll be for several hours at least, and you have all day to plan your approach. However, if he’s about to un-bed, you better make a decision. Can you get close enough for a shot before he stands? Because when he stands, it will be far more difficult to get closer.
  3. The wind is about to change. If the wind is in your face, your odds of success go up. But everyone knows that wind shifts. Wind shifts a) when the weather changes (i.e. before and after a storm, and b) when the thermals change. In the evening and early morning, the wind blows downhill with the cooling air. In the late morning and afternoon, the wind blows uphill with the warming air. These are called thermals, and the conscientious hunter always plans his attack based on this. Wind is the most important factor when getting close to big game. Noise is a close second.
  4. There is cover noise. I’ve used every possible noise for cover including blowing wind, flying grasshoppers, squirrels barking, jets flying, buck fights, etc. Anything that makes noise–other than you–will help you get closer faster.
  5. The buck is feeding into thick timber. When a buck heads into the thick stuff, it can sometimes be easier to get closer, but if it’s too thick–like a stand of willows–you may never get close enough, not even five yards, without busting him out. Make your move before he gets swallowed up.
  6. The buck is distracted. Distractions range from bucks fights to squirrel chatter but include anything that gets the buck to look the other way. The best distraction is when they rake trees with their antlers. This is especially common with elk. They are nearly blind with their face buried in a fur tree.

When to slow down your stalk

  1. When the buck beds down for the day. Again, you have several hours to get close. Take your time!
  2. The wind is steady. If you’re lucky enough to be hunting during a stretch of steady weather, you can use predictable wind to keep your stalk slow and methodical.
  3. The ground is noisy. Try sneaking to twenty yards with a forest floor covered in dry pinecones, gravel, scree, or pine needles. Dry conditions are a nightmare, especially in thick cover. Sometimes, it is simply impossible to get close enough. Fortunately, there are a couple things that can help you. First, take your boots off and stalk-in-socks. Second, wait for cover noise. Dry, hot conditions often bring flying grasshoppers to life. Their loud, short-burst flying often provides valuable cover noise to get a step closer.
  4. The buck is facing you. If you’re trying to stalk close to a buck that’s facing you, you shouldn’t be moving at all! However, if the buck’s face is hidden from view, and you’re unable to circle around him (wind, terrain, etc.), then a super-slow-motion stalk is Don’t think so? Try it sometime. A couple years ago, I spent 3 hours stalking toward close to a cow elk bedded on a ledge in plain view. Unfortunately, it got dark and the elk unbedded at 30 yards, but I didn’t have a clear shot. If you understand anything about deer eyes, you know they have a hard time seeing fine detail and slow motion.  If you can move slow enough–and without blinking–you can literally walk right towards buck without him seeing you. The trick is moving extremely slow. When you finally get too close, say 30 yards, he will see you. Unless you have cover, I don’t recommend trying this.

These are just a few examples of when to speed up or slow down. What it really boils down to is common sense and experience. Most importantly, spend time observing and studying your prey. What are their strengths and weaknesses? The more you understand your prey, the better you’ll understand yourself as a predator.

Archery Effective Range

range Archery Effective Range

Spring is in the air and that means one thing: archery! It’s time to dust off that old bow and drag your pasty, out-of-shape, winterized carcass outside and do some shooting. Today we’re going to talk about effective range.

What is your “effective range”?

In this post we’ll answer the following questions: At what range are you an effective bowhunter? How do you find out? And why does it matter?

Question #1:  What is effective range?

Effective range–or effective distance–is the distance at which you can get all your arrows within a “kill-zone” size area of a target every time.

Question #2: How Do I Figure it Out?

The kill-zone on an average big game animal–like a deer or elk–is a circle 8-10 inches in diameter. This circle encompasses the heart/lungs area known as the vitals. The easiest way to learn your effective range is to shoot four arrows at a paper plate. A standard size paper plate is nine inches, so it makes a perfect kill-zone target. Starting at close range (say 20 yards), shoot four arrows. If all arrows hit within the paper plate, move back ten yards and repeat. Continue doing this until you miss one arrow. WHEN you finally miss a shot, you will know your effective range: It’s the last place you shot where you didn’t miss! So if you miss at 40 yards, then your effective range is 30 yards. At this point, you should begin working on your form and follow-through until you can consistently get every single arrow in the plate at farther distances. Until then, you should never take shots at game over 30 yards.

Question #3:  Why is it important?

When you don’t know your effective range, you will end up shooting beyond your abilities and either missing or injuring an animal. This will be a horrible experience for you and the animal, I guarantee it!

Shooting at animals is a lot harder than shooting at a paper plate. There are many psychological factors involved–primarily buck fever–which will cause you to miss. For this reason, you should also practice shooting in adverse conditions such as wind and steep elevation, as well as different body positions like kneeling and crouching–anything that will simulate an actual hunting scenario.

Knowing and sticking to your effective range is the most important first step you should take before going bowhunting. Not only is this a fun exercise, but a valuable measure of your skills. Expanding your effective range will force you to set goals and hone your skills.

Happy shooting!

Hunt Smarter NOT Harder: Part 2

Hunt Smarter Not Harder Part 2

GridFlat_small

What the heck is this a picture of???

This is Mount Ben Lomond with a grid overlay. Maybe I just have too much time on my hands, or maybe I’m actually hunting smarter these days.

Last October, my brother Brent had a once-in-a-lifetime mountain goat tag for Ben Lomond. Once you’re on top of the mountain, it’s almost impossible to see down the steep sides. Therefore, the best way to hunt is to have a spotter (me) park at the base of the mountain looking up, while the hunter (Brent) is on top receiving directions to the goats via cell phone.

Although effective, this method requires a lot of explaining and guesswork in communicating directions. So, one day while sitting below Ben Lomond, it occurred to me that if we both had a picture of the mountain overlaid with a grid, then it would be much easier to communicate where the goats were. Being a somewhat photo-tech-savvy-individual, I did a multi-photo pan of the mountain, from north to south. Then, in Photoshop I overlaid a grid and put numbers and letters along the sides.

So basically all I have to do is spot a goat, call Brent, and say, “G-13.”

It’s like goat battleship!

Although very effective in theory, we never had a chance to use this grid-method. Brent ended up shooting his goat on a day I couldn’t be there. Fortunately for me and my brother-in-law Josh, we are looking to draw the same goat tag either this year or next, and I have the feeling this map will come in handy.

Incidentally, Brent shot his goat in section I-11.

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P.S.  If you would like a digital copy of the Ben Lomond Grid Map, let me know and I’ll send it to you.

Hunt Smarter NOT Harder: Part 1

Hunt Smarter NOT Harder: Part 1

Hunt smarter, NOT harder!

I keep these four words in mind all year long. When I’m applying for a tag, for instance, I might be tempted to apply for an area that had good hunting in years past, but is waning now. I might be tempted to hunt an area close to home and practically kill myself looking for a good buck, when I know I could have gone to a farther-away unit and been almost guaranteed a bigger buck. Sometimes it’s the third day of a slow hunt and I’m tempted to sleep in and recuperate, and then hunt the rest of the day. But I know more than anything that my best odds of intercepting a deer is very early in the morning.

You get the idea.

All of this was born out of the hunt for the infamous Drop-tine buck in 2010. For a while, I wondered how this magnificent, one-in-a-million, double-droptine buck managed to elude hunters for eight years while living less than half a mile from the busiest dirt road. By the third year of hunting the Drop-tine Buck, I realized that 90% of the hunters either didn’t get off their ATV weren’t willing to hike very far from it.

More importantly, I learned that amazing bucks sometimes live a short distance off the side of the road. You just need to know where to look for them. This requires you to learn a little about deer behavior and diet. It also requires that you hunt smarter, but not necessarily harder. While some hunters are repelling up a cliff in search of the ever-elusive big-buck, I might be wandering within shouting distance of the highway and stirring up even bigger bucks!

With ever-increasing obligations these days, time is in short supply for most of us. We need to learn how to become more efficient predators, and not with new gear but new information. I often warn people about the pitfall of gear. The gear won’t save you. Focus on the improving your skills first! Spend more time scouting and less time buying stuff.

Right now, we’re sitting in the middle of the off-season. What a perfect time to invest in our priceless, upcoming hunts by learning, studying, and scouting. More than any other time in history, there’s a wealth of information being published about modern game animals and hunting techniques. Below, I’ve listed the absolute best books that have helped me maximize my time in the field. Remember, information is power.

Blood in the Tracks, by Jim Collyer

Mule Deer Quest, by Walt Prothero

Public Land Mulies, by David Long

Mule Deer: A Handbook for Utah Hunters and Landowners, by Dennis D. Austin

…and don’t forget my eBook (shameless plug), Zen Hunting.

Next post,

Hunt Smarter NOT Harder: Part 2

My 40-Inch Dream

(Published in Eastman’s Bowhunting Journal, Issue 81, January/February 2014)

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My 40-Inch Dream:  2013 Deer Hunting Story

Twenty yards in front of me, a small 3-point buck with scraggly antlers ran back and forth snorting up a storm. I knew him; he was a sentinel. I knew him because I knew his mentor. Ignoring the flailing 3-point, I peered deep into the dark timber beyond. Sure enough, sixty yards downhill and partially obscured by trees, stood a familiar, square-racked, giant four-point mule deer. He hadn’t seen me but was alerted by his sentinel’s crazy warning system. Before I could even pull an arrow, he suddenly blasted away taking the squirrely 3-point with him…again. This was my third and last encounter with that big 4-point during the 2011 archery season.

I slowly rose from my knees and dropped my bow to my side. I stared blankly at the woods with a sickening sense of déjà vu. Like most mature bucks in Northern Utah, I knew this buck was essentially unhuntable, just like the infamous 33” double-droptine buck that I somehow managed to harvest in 2010. I spent three long years hunting that droptine buck and I knew for a long time that he too was unhuntable. Yet forces beyond my comprehension put me directly in the droptine’s path that last day of the 2010 season. But hunting the same buck for so long was just agonizing, and I wasn’t about to do it again. I needed a new area. I needed new blood.

I didn’t harvest a deer in 2011, but I did come out of the woods with a valuable new insight: If an area can grow one giant deer—especially in this day and age—it can grow another. I learned this after finding that big 4×4 living in all the same places that the droptine buck lived. Apparently, one giant buck replaces another.

Fast forward one year.

While hunting elk in 2012, I had the misfortune of blowing two tires while driving out of the rough mountains in Southern Utah. As I was being towed back to town, I struggled to start up a conversation with the quiet and sullen after-hours tow truck driver. I asked him if he knew of any good elk areas, and he gave me a couple vague tips. But when I brought up deer hunting (my true passion), his eyes lit up.

As it turned out, KC (the tow truck driver/shop worker) had a passion for deer equal to mine. Soon, we were in a long, rambunctious conversation about big bucks and past triumphs. When I told him about my infamous droptine buck, he responded, “I remember that deer! That was you!?” We talked about big bucks for the next three hours and before I left with four new tires, he informed me of a giant buck he’s seen a couple years ago—it was the biggest buck he’d ever seen, estimated forty inches wide. Since KC didn’t hunt that particular unit, he was happy to tell me where to go look for it. I took careful notes and then went on my way. I knew the odds of relocating the mythical 40-incher were slim, especially since I’d never set foot in that part of the unit. But still, if an area could grow one giant buck…

And thus began my 40-inch dream. Fast forward one more year.

Gambling on the information I received from KC, I drew my 2013 general archery tag for Southern Utah. In May I tried scouting the “40-inch area,” but the mountains proved too wet and inaccessible that early in the year. I planned a second trip in July, but life just got in the way. I didn’t return to Southern Utah until the archery opener, and since I still wasn’t familiar with the 40-inch area I spent the first week hunting a different area.

I don’t like hunting the season opener. I especially don’t like the heat or all the competition, or bucks in velvet for that matter. But there I was, hunting the opener with my friend Scott. As expected, there were quite a few bucks around; we would see close to twenty per day. The problem was that they were all small bucks. For five days we saw dozens of 2- and 3-points, but no shooters. I’d seen this before and there’s a name for it: Nursery. Nursery areas are bad for trophy hunters because, although there are lots of deer around, they are all small. By the time a nursery buck matures, he becomes territorial and runs off to find his own mountain to live on.

So, on the last day of the hunt we drove to the purported 40-inch area. This time we found a better route up the mountain. I could tell right away that it wasn’t a nursery because, a) there were hardly any deer, and b) the terrain was treacherous to say the least.

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The next morning Scott and I scaled some cliffs and entered what appeared to be the right area. We split up and by late afternoon I finally located a bachelor herd of bucks bedded in some open grass. The biggest buck was a tall, 25-inch four-point with deep forks. The next biggest was a trashy 5-point. Since these were the biggest bucks I’d seen all week, I decided to make a stalk. My first attempt was foiled when it started raining. The bucks quickly unbedded and wandered into the trees. I made a second stalk and was almost within bow range when a moo-cow wandered right into the deer and scared them off. I followed their tracks and on my third stalk it got dark before I could get close. My hunt ended right then and there, and the next morning I made the long drive back home.

As bleak as the opener was, it wasn’t a complete failure. The highlight of the whole week was an arrowhead I found on opening morning while exploring a remote area. When I stopped to glass the opposite hillside, I laid my bow on the ground and noticed a shiny, black arrowhead lying there. I got goose bumps. I always suspected I was following the same instincts and same paths as ancient hunters, but on this day there was proof lying right next to my bow. It was a magical, serendipitous moment.

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Two weeks later I returned to the 40-inch area with my lovely wife Esther. On Sunday night we hiked into the area with a week’s worth of supplies on our backs. By the time we found a flat spot to pitch our tent, we were pouring sweat and exhausted. We spent the evening bathing in a creek rather than hunting.

The next morning we woke before light and headed out. I gave Esther my GPS and sent her to the last known location of the bucks from my previous trip. My plan was to skirt the entire area in hopes of finding even bigger deer…like maybe a 40-incher…

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, I found no bucks whatsoever. The mountain was just too big and too new and my hopes of finding a respectable buck were dwindling. That was okay though; I figured if there weren’t any deer, I’d enjoy whatever else nature had to offer. With elk bugling around me, I pulled out my camcorder and spent the long, hot part of the day stalking and videotaping multiple bugling bulls.

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While enjoying the elk show, I remembered a conversation I had with Scott towards the end of our last trip. We were both frustrated, and in a sarcastic way I said, “Ya know, there’s only one thing I love more than big bucks.”

“What’s that?” he asked, somewhat disinterested.

“Nature!” I exclaimed. “When I’m in the woods I just love seeing grand vistas, the clear blue skies, and the bright stars at night. I love the clean, crisp air and the ice cold spring water. I enjoy picking up interesting rocks and eating wild berries off the vine. I enjoy reading the deer sign, examining tree rubs, and listening to elk bugling. And in the end, after spending all that time simply enjoying nature, a buck seems to just come along. The bucks are secondary to the process. That’s usually how it happens for me, anyway.”

I don’t think Scott responded.

And so that’s what I did. There were no deer, but the mountains kept me entertained and happy. I didn’t get back to camp until way after dark. The funny thing was, the closer I got to camp the more fresh deer sign I noticed. In fact, the most concentrated tracks and droppings were located within a few hundred yards of our camp! Could it be that we haphazardly pitched our tent right in the deer’s bedroom? Later that night, while eating rehydrated meals, I told Esther about my deery discovery. We decided to wake up early the next morning and hunt close to camp.

We woke early to a heavy rain and promptly went back to bed.

The rain finally quit around 8:30, and by 9:00 we were hiking directly uphill from camp. Sure enough, we found some big, blocky tracks in the fresh mud. Not much farther we heard a commotion in the trees. It sounded like squirrels harvesting pinecones…but there was something else. I turned to Esther and said, “There’s more going on than just squirrels!” As we inched forward, I caught sight of a small pine tree waving back and forth thirty yards ahead. I quickly nocked an arrow and tip-toed closer. The tree stopped waiving and I drew. When the buck passed through a clearing, I let down my draw. It was an average three-point; nothing special. Although I had no interest in shooting a “small” buck, Esther was much less complacent. When the buck moved out of sight, Esther nocked an arrow and we crept stealthfully in its direction. We hadn’t made it very far, however, when we were suddenly blind-sided by a big four-point buck that wandered leisurely out of the trees to our right. He took one look at us and spun around, taking the three-point and one other buck with him. Luckily, they weren’t too spooked and slowed to a walk as they moved up the hillside. I could only make out bits and pieces through the dense trees, but two of the bucks seemed to be carrying heavy headgear.

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The thermals were beginning to rise so we decided to split up. I would circle above the bucks while she stayed below in case I busted them back down the mountain. For the next hour I circled high above the last sighting of the deer, carefully scanning the trees as I went. I was certain I’d either find them bedded or at least cross their tracks. But they were nowhere to be found. Eventually I began working back downhill towards the last place we saw them. Worst case, I could always track them from there. Another hour passed as I carefully inched forward. The bucks were sure to be bedded, and in my experience there’s nothing harder than stalking deer in their beds. Finally, my GPS told me I was within 250 feet of where we left them.

It happened fast. I was skirting around a steep, tree-tangled slope when a deer suddenly stood up behind a large pine tree twenty yards away. I pulled and nocked an arrow in record time which was good because the buck was nervous and started moving downhill quickly. I drew my bow and scanned ahead for a shooting lane. The buck that appeared in the opening was a giant! Instinctively, I let out a n’yoo sound. He paused and whipped his head in my direction. I settled the pin and touched the trigger. My arrow jumped from the string and zipped right through him. Never before had a hunt transpired so quickly!

The huge buck blasted away, but then  paused for a couple seconds to let his four-point buddy catch up. He dropped his head for a second and I could tell he was hit hard. Then, the two bucks bounded down the mountain together.

I think the rain began the very second my arrow left my bow. I looked up and cursed the skies. Experience tells me that rain is bad news for a blood trail. I started tracking early and with some definite urgency. Fortunately, the heavy blood trail, accompanied by large, dug-in tracks, made my job easy. About 200 yards from the shot location, I could see where the buck had paused. There was a deep elk track completely filled with fresh blood. I plunged my finger to the bottom of it, painting my finger red to my second knuckle. I knew the buck wouldn’t be far. Still, he’d covered way more ground than I hoped; tough buck! Not wanting to bump him, I carefully scanned ahead, hoping to see him piled up. The last thing I wanted was a long tracking job in the rain.

Scanning even farther ahead, my heart suddenly leapt at the sight of a large, grey body lying on the opposite hillside 100 yards away. He still had his head up, but I could tell he was fading. He was even bigger than I thought. From behind, his tall and sprawling rack looked like a caribou, with trash and stickers going everywhere. The buck had made it across a ravine but collapsed while climbing the steep, opposite slope. Just then, the other buck—his four-point companion—came prancing down the hill towards him. In disbelief, the big bruiser buck rose up on wobbly legs. Again, I started to worry, but only for a second because instead of prancing up the mountain, he took three steps and began running sideways, then flipped over upside-down. When he lay motionless, I sighed with relief and thanked God for such a beautiful gift.

I pulled out my walkie-talkie and hailed Esther. “I just shot a giant buck,” I whispered. “Come help me…”

Half an hour later, we cautiously approached the fallen monarch. I’ve walked up on a few impressive animals before, but this one was out of control: extra mass, extra points, extra eye-guards…extra everything! This was no ordinary buck. This was the next level. This was Superbuck! What caught my attention right away was his mass which he carried all the way to the points. I could barely fit my hands around his bases.

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Superbuck may not be the mythical 40-incher that brought me to the mountain, but he’s the buck of my dreams. How could you ask for anything more? Emerson once wrote, “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.” I have no doubt that this mountain could actually grow a 40-inch deer, but I won’t be greedy. I have achieved more with my bow than I ever dreamed of. Superbuck is a buck of a lifetime…again…and I can’t wait to see the buck that replaces him. For the record, Superbuck was entered into the books with a net score of 193 2/8 and a gross score of 205 5/8”.

From this relatively short hunt, I am reminded of all the same lessons I’ve learned from a relatively long life: Dream big, set lofty goals, and take risks. Do whatever it takes to get close, then let Nature unfold on its own terms.

Thanks KC; your tip was right on. Thanks almighty God for allowing me two blown tires; from lemons come lemonade, blessings in disguise. Most of all, thanks Esther for being there during all my greatest hunts. I almost always hunt alone, but when I hunt with you, miracles happen.

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Hunter Evasion

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Hunter Evasion Tactics

We could argue all day about what the mule deer’s greatest strength is, whether it’s their superfluous hearing, specialized eyesight, or powerful sense of smell. The fact that they must live in the outdoors year-round under extreme conditions requires them to have many strengths. But in my observation, the mule deer’s greatest strength is evasion.

In most instances, as you go sneaking quietly through the woods, the deer have already sensed your presence and are quietly sneaking away from you. Novice hunters aren’t usually aware of this, and if they don’t see any deer all day, they just assume there aren’t any around. Well, that’s exactly what the deer wants you to think! If every time a deer sensed a hunter, he went flying out of its bed and bounded noisily away, then experienced hunters would know there were deer in the area and continue putting more pressure on them. Instead, smart bucks have learned the art of quiet evasion.

As a rule, you’ll hear a lot more deer bound away than you’ll ever see, and you won’t see or hear even more deer that sneak silently away from you. But if you learn to slow way down and play the wind just right, you’ll eventually get within bow distance of an unsuspecting buck. This still doesn’t guarantee a shot because in most cases the buck will still sense some sort of danger before you can raise your weapon. He’ll suddenly explode from his bed and fly out of sight, carefully keeping as many trees as he can between him and you as he goes. That’s just part of hunting. There’s no way to fool all the deer all the time.

Big bucks have also developed a tactic for avoiding stealthy hunters by “lying low.” Since the deer doesn’t detect the stealthy hunter from a great distance, the sudden appearance of a hunter at close range will force the deer to make a decision: either he can flee out of his bed and alert you to his presence, or he can lie low and let you walk by, hoping you don’t see him. On numerous occasions, I’ve had bucks explode from a bed within just a few yards of me. Obviously the deer knew I was there beforehand, but chose not to flee until danger was imminent.

Since most bucks you encounter evade you one way or another (sometimes even after being shot), then evasion is obviously the mule deer’s greatest strength. The best advice I can give you is this: Never underestimate a mature buck. In most cases, the best you can do is to get in the vicinity and hope things play out in your favor. Be patient and let things unfold slowly, at nature’s pace. Even if it takes all day to stalk a buck you’ve spotted, your best chance of success is just getting close. Once the buck has sensed you, the jig is up and you’ll have to go find another one.

Pre-hunt Meditation

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Pre-Hunt Meditation

Bowhunting success for general archery deer in Utah is about 20%. That’s about double what it was 20 years ago, mostly due to better equipment. Still, the average bowhunter is looking to harvest a deer only once every five years. That’s bleak!

Zenbowhunter.com is dedicated to raising those numbers for people looking to expand their outdoor knowledge and shooting skills.

Bowhunting success hinges upon five factors:

1. Luck: The truth is most big bucks are stumbled upon by chance, not skill. By improving your hunting skills, you also increase your luck.

2. Equipment: Having precision weaponry, optics, and gear certainly helps tightens your arrow groupings and reduces the chances of error. But it doesn’t contribute anything to actual hunting technique or woodscraft. These factors come through experience and diligent study.

3. Technique: This is the actual hunting part: learning everything about your prey, then locating it, and finally executing a successful stalk. Humans are as much a part of nature as the deer are, so the goal is to reconnect with your natural predatory instincts and use it to your advantage.

4. Information: Learning your area through scouting, studying maps, and collecting data from your state’s wildlife division will provide an outline of what you can expect to see in your area.

5. The Unknown: This is what separates the consistently successful hunters from the rest. The great “unknown” is what Zen Hunting is all about; aka, turning the unknown into the known. You might call it “advanced hunting techniques” but it’s really just the natural process of human development, or Zen enlightenment. The purpose of Zen is to achieve clarity and ultimate truths through meditation, and then finally harness greater powers over the elements by expanding your consciousness.

The bowhunt is only a week away! As with most years, I won’t be hunting the opener. By holding off for a couple weeks I can avoid the hunting pressure and the extreme August heat. In the meantime I’ll remain in a state of pre-hunt meditation. I will go about my work and other responsibilities in a seemingly normal way, but my consciousness is consumed by hunting; in my mind I’m already in the mountains. Phones ring, people talk, distractions arise, but nothing can assuage my focus.

Pre-hunt mediation can be a lot harder to achieve in this modern era, mainly due to constant distractions. Most people are just too busy and/or too distracted to relax and meditate. Between work, texts, emails, family, and the myriad of other responsibilities, we can’t seem to get in the zone. Sure, we’re excited about the upcoming hunt, but we can’t really break free from the busy life until we pull out of the driveway and head for the hills. It will then take at least a few days of hard hunting to get into the rhythm of nature. By then, the hunt could be over! Pre-hunt mediation might sound like a bunch of hippie-hogwash, but it has worked for me for many years.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, then you’re in luck. I’m going to share a few techniques for getting into the rhythm of nature:

  • Spend some time in nature alone. Drive to the mountains and take a short hike. Spend some time sitting near water, trees, etc. Just sit and listen. Take some photos. Taking pictures forces you to look for beauty in nature, which in turn helps you appreciate and connect with it.
  • Watch hunting videos and read hunting books and magazines. By observing how animals act and react to other hunters, it will help you prepare for similar encounters. It will also get you into the hunting mindset before the upcoming own hunt.
  • Study topo maps of your hunting area. Look at places you’ve had success before, and even places where you’ve failed. What are the differences? Can you find similar places on the map? Mark places where you’ve seen big bucks in the past. Chances are there will be more. Make a skeleton plan of your hunt; where will you be hunting on opening morning, and then where will you go from there?
  • Shoot daily. Even if you already shoot daily, do it differently. Instead of just seeing your same old target, make up scenarios. Before you draw the bow, imagine a deer feeding along. Take a second to let the scenario play out. The deer is behind cover, steps forward and looks the other way. Now shoot. On the next arrow imagine an elk, a bear, a rabbit, whatever. Just make it more realistic. Brain studies show that the subconscious mind has a hard time distinguishing between reality and make-believe. This exercise will put you into the hunter mindset. Plus it’s fun.

These are just a few of the methods I use to get into the spirit of the hunt before I set foot in the woods. Establishing the hunter mindset ahead of time will contribute more to success than anything else you do.

The few hunters who have consistent success are the ones who don’t view bowhunting as a hobby or a sport, but a lifestyle. Try to make that commitment in yourself, set a goal, and make hunting a way of life. The numbers say your odds are 1-in-5, but you can beat the odds by putting forth a little extra effort. I truly believe that success in bowhunting is a decision, not luck.

Secret Bowhunting Tip #6: Put in the Time

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Secret Bowhunting Tip: Putting in the Time

Bowhunting in August sometimes feels like doing time. Spending sixteen hours straight in the woods can be incredibly boring, hot, and seemingly futile. Because deer are most active in the morning and evening, most hunters return to camp for lunch and a nap during the day, and then head back to the field in the afternoon. But hunters beware: your odds of bagging a big buck at midday might be low, but your odds of bagging a buck at camp are zero. But if you learn a little bit about mule deer daytime habits, you can increase your odds of success.

In low hunter pressure areas, bucks bed down for the day around 9:00 a.m.

Between 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. deer get up for short time to stretch, grab a quick bite, and maybe change beds to avoid the sun. They unbed again between 3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. to use the restroom and then bed down until evening.

The reason we can count on these times is simple: Mule deer are browser-feeders and their digestive systems run like clockwork. Since a buck is most vulnerable when he rises from bed, we can watch for them to move during the slower midday hours.

When the hunters roll into high-pressure areas–like most of Utah’s public lands–deer change their behavior quickly. The worst place I know of is Monte Cristo. I hunted this area for several years and never saw a big buck up and feeding during the day. Eating may be the primary drive for deer, but sheer survival is more important than eating.

When their lives are on the line, deer will bed before daylight and remain bedded all day until the sun goes down. They simply adapt to a nocturnal lifestyle. When hunting nocturnal bucks, don’t get discouraged. They still exist somewhere; you just have to find them.

When the hunting pressure is on, bucks leave the upper ridges where you might see them living all summer, and move to steep secondary ridges where there’s more protective cover. Look for the steepest and thickest terrain possible. Sometimes they move to the heavily wooded north-face side dark timber where the elk live.

Learning a little about deer’s diet will help you pin-point a good secondary area. In Utah, the deer’s primary food source is bitterbrush, cliffrose, and sage brush. It is imperative that you learn you identify these sources. Try to locate secondary hideouts areas and a quality food source, and then be there before first light. Deer that aren’t feeding midday still have to eat at night, but they won’t travel far from their hideout to do so.

When hunting secondary ridges, start by still-hunting the steepest and thickest terrain you can find. Move very slowly and glass every ten steps or so. There’s nothing harder than hunting bedded bucks, but remember you have all day!

It’s also good to locate a nearby water source. Deer don’t require daily water because they get most of their moisture from the plants they eat. But they still need to water every few days, and even more frequently in hot, arid areas. Any small seep or spring will do. One way to locate water is too look for willows. Willows are easy to spot because of their tall, reddish stems. As an aside, deer also eat the willows.

In my time, I’ve see some real monster bucks up and feeding during mid-day. Whenever possible, spend the entire day in the woods and it will eventually pay off. Hunt smarter, not harder. By putting in the time, you will increase your chances of success.

Secret Tip #1: Weight is Everything

Secret Tip #2: Success is a Decision

Secret Tip #3: Be Patient

Secret Tip #4: Hunt Alone

Secret Tip #5: Enlarge Your Consciousness

Secret Tip #6: Put in the Time