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Best Pre-Hunt Preparation: The 3D Archery Range

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.

Fun for the whole family:
Russell and his son harvest some foam.

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.

Jerry missed high and right…

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.

Esther nails a 55 yard bison bullseye.

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.

Splitting arrows on a wolf target.

Conclusion

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.

The Archery Advantage

Hunting big game with archery tackle is one of the greatest challenges a person can face, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Stalking close to unsuspecting prey, and then harvesting that animal with a stick-and-string stirs the primal spirit and reconnects us with nature in a way that gun hunting can’t. But did you know that bow hunting also has several advantages over the gun? Let’s look at a few:

1) Early Seasons/ Late Seasons: In most western states, the archery seasons occurs before the rifle season. In Utah for example, the archery hunt begins in mid-August when deer are still in their relaxed summer routines which makes them more predictable and easier to stalk. They are also velvet-clad which keeps them out of the thick timber.

By the October rifle hunt these same bucks become hard-horned and tend to stick to thick timber, making them harder to locate.

States like Idaho and Utah also have archery-only, late season rut-hunts which allows archers to take advantage of giant, rut-crazed bucks which are much easier to locate after the rifle season ends.

2) Longer Seasons: Most western states have much longer archery seasons than rifle. In Utah for example the general archery season is 28 days long compared to the 9-day rifle hunt. It certainly helps to have time on your side, and having a season that’s three times longer will allow many more opportunities.

3) Warmer Weather: Early season means warmer weather, and warmer temperatures means more time afield. You’re also less likely to get snowed out of your hunt.

Cold weather wears on your overall attitude, thus compromising mental toughness. It’s far much easier to get discouraged when you’re cold and wet.

And finally, warm weather affords lighter clothing and less gear to pack around, making you quieter and more mobile.

4) Easier to Spot: Summer bucks wear a reddish-orange coat throughout August which makes them much easier to spot against green vegetation. They also run in bachelor herds well into September, and since there’s more of them, they’re easier to spot. By October most big bucks are running solo and holding tight to heavy timber during daylight hours.

5) Better Draw Odds: Probably the greatest advantage of archery is ease of drawing a tag. In the unit where I deer hunt, I’m guaranteed an archery tag every year. But gun hunters are only able to draw every other year due to high demand. This is an important archery advantage, because if you can’t get a tag you’re not going hunting!

The same advantage applies to limited entry and other high demand tags. In Utah it takes an average of two years longer to draw a limited rifle tag than a limited archery tag.

6) Quiet Weaponry Means More Opportunities: As any archer can attest, it’s just a matter of time before you sail an arrow over some unsuspecting buck that you’ve spent hours stalking. But if you have a quiet bow–as most bows are–you’ll likely get a second chance. This happened to me last year, and fortunately my second arrow got the job done.

Probably the worst disadvantage of rifle hunting is that all the deer on the mountain are alerted after the first rifle shot. After that, any deer with any sense goes into deep hiding and becomes extremely difficult to find.

7) Archery Makes You a More Skillful Hunter: Sure, there are many skillful rifle hunters out there, but shooting accurately is only half the battle, for both rifle and bow. When the deer are holding tight to timber, you’ll need to have some decent stalking and locating skills. That’s what the bow affords: it forces you to be quiet and patient, to slow down, and to learn everything you can about your prey in terms of behavior and habits. Inevitably, the byproduct of all of this extra effort leads to a deeper connection to nature and a richer hunting experience.

Conclusion

When I made the transition from rifle to bow, I was blown away by how little I knew about deer behavior, much less my ability to stalk close to them. I burned many tags while building these skills, but in the end I’ve become a far more effective hunter.

Above all, archery hunting makes the whole experience far richer than simply sniping deer with a long-range rifle. Long after the meat is gone and the antlers are nailed to the wall, that experience will linger on. And isn’t that what we’re really hunting for?

The On/Off Switch: How Bucks Become Unhuntable

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.

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.

Hunt Like a Cougar

Who is the greatest mule deer hunter in the world? That’s right, it’s Mr. Cougar (aka mountain lion). Out West an adult cougar kills a mule deer every 10-14 days. That’s 30 deer per year!

Why do we care? Because the average western hunter is lucky to kill just one mule deer in a year. At that rate how can anyone expect to improve their skills, especially when hunting with primitive weapons? Perhaps we can learn a few things from our feline friends…

Cougars are actually similar to humans in many ways. For instance, we’re both predators and meat-eaters with forward-placed eyes designed to catch fast motion. We’re similar in size and even color: a cougar is tan/orange just like a human before he dons some fancy camo pattern. And just like cougars, we love to hunt mule deer!

A few years ago I started comparing my own hunting style with that of a cougar. I found this to be a surprisingly helpful way to hone my hunting skills and make decisions afield.

Below I’ve listed several traits that make a cougar such an efficient mule deer hunter, and how we can learn from them:

• Cougars stalk very close: Killing is done eye to eye, paw to hoof. Survival means stalking very close and remaining completely undetected. Deer can’t see super-slow motion or fine detail, so the cougar capitalizes on those weaknesses. Stalks can last several hours, and even then, most stalks end in failure. But the cougar persists and eventually eats. The two greatest virtues a hunter can glean from cougars are patience and persistence.

• Cougars are light on their feet: Have you ever seen an obese cougar? Heck no. Mature males typically weigh 125 to 220 pounds, and they only eat as much food as is necessary to survive. Cougars also eat 100% organic, lean meat and avoid processed food and carbs. Instinctually, cougars know that over-eating will slow them down and make them inefficient killers. What can we learn? It’s pretty obvious: stay trim.

• Cougars hunt alone: Cougars rarely hang out in packs, and when they do it’s usually a young family or juvenile group. Adult cougars live and hunt on their own. There’s no reason in the world they would hunt in a group. Hunting in a group increases visibility, doubles their scent, and slows them down. A cougar doesn’t get home sick or lonely either, which makes him mentally tough and distraction-free. For all these reasons, bowhunters can benefit greatly by hunting alone too.

• Cougars cover lots of ground: A cougar’s home range is anywhere from 10 to 300 square miles, and he often travels hundreds of miles in search of game. He’s constantly mobile. If a cougar keeps hunting the same mountainside every day, he’ll eventually run out of food and starve. Human hunters might consider doing the same. If you aren’t finding deer where you have in the past, it might be time to move on. Being flexible enough to explore new areas (or new units) could be the ticket to success this season. More importantly is being physically able to cover lots of rugged country once you’re out there.

• Cougars don’t carry extra weight: Killing is done using powerful fangs and claws, not heavy, cumbersome weapons and a pack-load of gear. The cougar travels light, carrying only the basic necessities to live full-time in the wild. Sure, humans have different physical needs, but how different are we, really? We have a coat, the cougar has fur; we have a tent, he has a den; we have shoes, he has footpads, etc. Is a GPS, binos, cell phone, or camera really necessary to kill one mule deer? As for weapons, there are a myriad of lightweight options available. Many bow manufacturers make compound bows weighing less than three pounds, and traditional bows weighing less than one pound!

• Cougars minimize scent: There’s no question that cats are clean animals, and the cougar is no exception. Unlike pack hunters (wolves and coyotes) the cougar hunts alone. Thus, he incorporates daily tongue baths and carefully buries his stinky treasures, all for the sake of reducing his presence afield. For us humans, vigilant scent reduction increases your overall success by reducing your footprint in the woods. Of course 100% scent elimination is impossible, but there are a number of ways to reduce scent without going overboard. I am a big proponent of field baths as well as scent-eliminating sprays, deodorants, and detergents.

Conclusion:

Down through the ages cougars have used their innate and learned hunting skills to locate and kill more mule deer than any other animal on earth. This perfectly adapted predator doesn’t require fancy gadgetry, technology, apps, or upgrades to be successful. The next time you’re thinking about making changes to your hunting routine, ask yourself, “What would Mr. Cougar do?”

Final Note: If you ever get a chance, buy a tag and shoot a cougar. They are tasty, but more importantly we really don’t need the competition.

Happy Hunting!

Three Pillars of Bow Hunting Success

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.

Good luck on a great buck this year!

Staying Sane Afield: Managing Down Time

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Don’t you just love sitting amongst the pine needles and leaves, amidst the awe-inspiring beauty and peacefulness found only in nature? Don’t you just love how time slows way down while bowhunting on a warm September day? Me too.

But sometimes enough is enough!

If you spend any amount of time afield, you’re going to encounter downtime. Downtime is normally a good thing. But if you’ve been hunting the same mountain for multiple days and not much is going on, then downtime can get downright excruciating.

On a hot August day, when the animals seem to have hunkered down at first light and nothing’s moving; you’re getting low on water and camp is miles away; you’re already sitting in the best possible ambush spot and there’s nowhere to be for the next 8 hours; well, sometimes hunting gets downright boring! Worse yet is when you get rained in or snowed into camp for hours or days on end.

The problem with excessive downtime (aka boredom) is pretty soon your mind gets restless, and restlessness leads to discouragement, or god-forbid, homesickness. You start worrying about home stuff, or work stuff, or what your wife or girlfriend is up to in your extended absence. You start fantasizing about hot showers and sleeping in and mowing the jungle-lawn you’ve abandoned for so long.

This “mind creep” is not good. Mind creep leads to discouragement, and discouragement always threatens your success, or in the very least, your commitment level. When you get discouraged, it’s easy to fabricate any excuse to leave the mountain early. So a good hunter must learn to manage boredom, a skill sometimes referred to as “mental toughness.”

In order to while away hours and hours of downtime afield, I’ve developed multiple ways to stay entertained. Here are some examples the might help you as well:

– Video Games: I hate video games; I mean, who has time for them, right?! But I love poker, so I bought a little video-poker machine that I pack with me almost everywhere I go. Fortunately it’s very lightweight and fun as heck. I remember the first year I had it, it was such a blast that I didn’t even notice the little buck that walked right up on me. Since then I’ve been a little more cautious about becoming sucked in.

Like an ancient Neanderthal, I still have a flip-phone. But I’m aware that most people now carry smartphones with them in the woods. And I’m more than certain that these fancy-phones have an infinite capacity for entertainment value which will help get you through some pretty slow times afield.

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– Read a book: Long before video games, many-a-hunters carried books into the field, and some still do. Nothing can kill time (or put you to sleep) like a good book. I always keep a good book or hunting magazine back at camp. Unlike video games, books are quiet, lightweight, and easy to burn in the event of a weather crisis.

– Sleep: Sleeping in the woods is almost critical. If you’re a bowhunter, chances are you got up at the most ungodly hour. That’s awesome! Success often comes from waking long before first light. But eventually you’re gonna crash. This is good; you need to crash! This is how you recharge your hunting batteries. Getting an hour or two of solid rest in the trees does wonders for mental toughness. It’s also where you get the energy for that grueling, three-hour stalk later in the day.

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– Keep a Hunt Journal: This is no joke. The blog you’re reading right now would not be possible without a good, lightweight field journal. I recommend every hunter keeps a hunt journal. You’d be surprised just how often you refer back to it in the future for helpful tips and tidbits about your area.

I actually carry two journals! The linear, pertinent events of the day are kept in one journal, and the other is for nature-induced insights of grandeur. Throughout the monotony of everyday city-life, inspiration is being continuously leached from my soul. But in the woods, God shines forth a veritable fountain of infinite and voluminous inspiration upon my humble carcass! I soak it in and write it down; I can’t get enough. I love writing in the woods. I’d go crazy if I didn’t.

– Practice Ranging Stuff: In my experience, the biggest bucks seem to suddenly appear in front of me with no manners or warning. There’s rarely time to range anything. So a good bowhunter learns to judge distance effectively, and the best way to learn distance is to practice. Whenever my boredom alarm starts ringing, I reach for my rangefinder. Over and over I’ll pick out trees (or whatever), guess the range, and then check it with my laser rangefinder. This excessive practice does wonders for your distance-judging abilities. Besides, if you’re bored it’s probably because you’re sitting there watching a game trail or stuck in a tree stand. And since you need to know the range of several landmarks anyway, you might as well make a game of it, right?

– Make Field Photos: If you hunt long enough and hard enough, eventually you’re gonna THWACK some monstrous monarch of the woods. The whole world will be sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to read your story in some big-name magazine. The problem is that these magazines require multiple, high-quality field photos documenting your adventure. The more photos you have, the greater chance you have of getting published. Therefore, it’s a good idea to make documentary photos throughout your entire trip.

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I find that the best times to make photos is during downtime. The possibilities are endless, but here’s a few ideas: a) shoot some scenery, b) shoot some closeups of your equipment juxtaposed with the landscape, c) set the camera’s timer and shoot yourself glassing, stalking, hiking, camping, sleeping, etc., d) take some photos of wildlife or sunsets or bad weather; there’s almost always something to shoot. Even if you don’t end up using the myriad of photos you take during the hunt, you’ll still have plenty of great memories to bring home and share with family and friends. In the end, these photos will become invaluable to you. Long after you’re gone, your legacy will live on, documented in living color.

Conclusion

Being a trophy hunter is serious business, but we must remember that hunting is supposed to be fun too. Hunting is a leisure activity that removes us from our hectic lives and grounds us with the natural universe. Turning downtime into funtime is one of the best ways to keep the spirits up afield. Have fun out there!

The Future of Hunting: Part 2

This is Part 2 of 2 articles addressing changes in hunting in the future. In Part 1 we examined possible changes in the animals we hunt simply through the natural processes of adaptation and evolution. Not only are these animals getting smarter, but are capable of quickly adapting to new technology and modern hunting methods. What some modern-day hunters don’t realize–especially us older hunters–is that we must adapt just as quickly to our prey.

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Future hunters will either do what it takes to get a buck or fail most of the time. In nearly three decades of big game hunting I’ve observed a split–or chasm–developing between traditional deer hunters and the new super-hunters. In the future, hunters will be divided into two camps based on their willingness to adapt to modern animals. These two camps are: a) Extreme wilderness athletes (super-hunters) willing to spend tremendous resources for trophy-class animals, or b) Fair-weather hunters who spend little time afield, hunt mostly for fun rather than food, hunt mostly on weekends, and are happy with any size animal or even no animal.

The following items will separate the new hunter from the traditional hunter:

-The future belongs to the EWAs!
(EWAs = Extreme Wilderness Athletes)
EWAs find time each day to work on their health via diet and physical training. It’s might not be critical to be “extreme,” but you’ll still need to be a wilderness athlete (WA). Being a WA simply means getting yourself to the animals no matter where they are. The bigger the buck, the harder you’ll have to work for it. The biggest difference between successful and unsuccessful hunters is physical fitness. Out-of-shape hunters simply can’t drag their butts up the mountain to where the deer are. Today’s superdeer rely on hunters to only make it so far, and where the hunter stops the deer begins. I know it’s pretty obvious, but the guy riding around on the four-wheeler will have far less luck than the guy burning boot leather in the steep stuff all day.

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– EWAs scout more days than they hunt. Scouting isn’t optional; scouting IS hunting. With fewer trophy opportunities in the future, you’ll need to locate prime areas ahead of the hunting season. Scouting not only means locating game, but devising a Plan B, C, and D as well.

– EWAs don’t have to worry where the deer falls; they can always get it out. In the past, many of us refused to go too far into the mountain because we figured we couldn’t get the animal out if we got one. Not anymore. Wilderness athletes train hard enough to get anything out. And if it isn’t possible for one person, then they’ll enlist help from their friends, or have horses available. I spend about 20 – 25 day hunting deer each year. As much as I love so many days afield, I’d much rather drag a deer out after just 1 day! Whenever I catch myself making excuses for not going deep and steep, I remind myself of that it’s FAR easier (both mentally and physically) to spend a couple days dragging a superbuck out of some hell-hole than it is to hunt for days on end without success.

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– Go LIGHT! Future hunters hunt like cougars. In the cougar hath nature created the perfect deer killer. An adult cougar must kill a deer every 7-10 days to survive. No other animal kills more deer than a cougar. Whenever I want to improve my hunting skills, I look to this animal for advice. The first thing I notice is that cougars don’t carry any gear; well, aside from their powerful forearms, fangs, and razor-sharp claws. This goes hand-in-hand with my anti-gear mentality. Less gear = less weight = success. Simply put, the lighter your load the farther you can travel, and with less fatigue. Now, to survive as humans we need to carry a few basic necessities (fire, water, weapons, clothing, etc.), but there’s always room to cut weight. In places where water is abundant, I’ll carry a water filter instead of water bottles. One of the best ways to cut weight and reduce fatigue is to wear lighter footwear. Also, most bow manufacturers offer super-light bow options. In almost every crevice of your daypack you’ll find a way to reduce weight.

– Future hunters will rely on skill rather than equipment. For quite some time I’ve been warning people of the phenomenon known as “equipment-bandade-syndrome,” or EBS. EBS can occur in both men and women who suffer from prolonged hunting failure, or PHF. To conquer PHF, hunters often attempt to buy their way out by purchasing some hot, new piece of equipment to solve some inadequacy. The reasoning is simple: It’s far easier to change your gear than it is to change yourself. Unfortunately there’s a million items out there to buy, whether it’s some high-tech camo, a new speed bow, or $3000 optics. ATVs are my favorite! Not too long ago ATVs became a requisite for hunting; every serious hunter suddenly needed an ATV. I don’t own one but I love ATVs because ATV-people rarely travel very far from their machines. This keeps the competition down in the woods. People with EBS need to focus on HOW they hunt, not the equipment they hunt with.

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– Future hunters have no fear. The woods belong to the brave. All hunters–men, women, and children–must enter the woods without fear of being killed or maimed. Fear is more common than many think, and the problem with being afraid of the woods is it interferes with your focus. To be successful, 100% of your focus needs to be on the vast subtleties of your prey and the environment around you. If you’re scared of the boogie-man or a bear around every bend, then you’ll miss subtle clues such as tracks, rubs, sounds, etc., which will lead you to your prey. The woods are especially spooky when you stay out after dark. But if you wait to enter the woods when it’s light, or return to camp before dark, then your missing your best opportunity.

– Future hunters spend more days afield! To be successful you must be willing to put in the time. It used to be that one weekend was enough to get the job done. For me it was about four days. When I became serious about big bucks it stretched to a week, then two, and now it seems I’m constantly fighting free up every single day of the season. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, it’s going to take many days to locate a decent buck and come up with a viable strategy to take it. These aren’t the same animals our grandpa hunted. We need to incorporate a more dedicated strategy if we are to be successful.

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– Future hunters are invisible. We discussed this last month, but as a recap being invisible means entering the woods in a way that you aren’t detected by the deer. This means using the wind to control scent, not leaving scent in the woods for the deer to discover at night, and avoiding audible and visible clues as you move through the woods. All of this is necessary because today’s big bucks hardly ever give you a second chance. If they detect any sort of danger they’ll flee the area and your hunt is over.

Another facet of being invisible is being invisible to the public’s eyes. Each year hunting becomes increasingly frowned upon by the ignorant, general public. To protect our livelihoods, it’s sometimes necessary to keep our hunting aspirations secret. More importantly is to keep your hunting locations a secret from other hunters! It seems that every time I disclose anything about my new hunting or fishing spots, a bunch of so-called friends and family follows me into the woods and blows up the area. In today’s hunting world there’s just way too much competition. At the same time there are far less areas that hold good deer.

The first law of nature dictates that “Quantity always destroys Quality.” Our population in Utah grows by more than 40,000 people each year, yet we have a fixed amount of natural resources; a fixed amount of deer, fish, habitat, and public land. From this crux brews desperation, meaning more and more people are eager to blatantly intrude upon our secret-sacred areas. Some of the best hunters I know are reluctant to even share field photos/stories with anyone in order to protect their dwindling honey-holes. I suggest you do the same. Like many hunters, I used to put hunting stickers on my truck. After having my tires slashed in the woods, I no longer announce myself as a hunter. If anything I might put pro-Hillary or PETA stickers on my truck just to protect my vehicle and my camp from anti-hunter terrorists, or even worse, competitive hunters with no moral scruples.

Conclusion

For all of evolution, both predator and prey were forced to adapt to each other in order to survive. In today’s world, finding and harvesting a trophy animal is getting more difficult. Today’s deer are ingenious survivors capable of quickly adapting to us and evading us no matter what we throw at them.

In the near future I foresee a divide between hunting camps, and the formation of two distinctly different hunter types: a) traditional hunters hunting yesterday’s ghosts and rarely having success, and b) modern super-hunters continually adapting to their prey, dedicating their lives and livelihoods this greatest passion, and having consistent success on quality bucks.

Stealth in Hunting: Be Invisible

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It’s not enough to be stealthy; you must become 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:
– Scent is always number one. Most people 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.

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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).

Sight:
– 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 not a 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.

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.

Sound:
– 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.

Deer Hunting: Five Levels of Alertness

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Beginning hunters think there’s 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:

Level 0:
-The rare state of big bucks indeed. Only occurs pre- or post- season, like during scouting trips. (As described above.)

Level 1:
-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.

Level 2:
-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.

Level 3:
-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.

Level 4:
-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.

Level 5:
-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.

Luck in Hunting

In reviewing my last few stories I realized that the common thread was luck; both good and bad. Luck vs. skill is a constant struggle in hunting, so today I’ve written some of my ideas concerning luck:

Never let someone tell you that hunting is all skill and no luck, including me. It seems that all I write about is acquiring the innumerable skills necessary to be successful in bowhunting, but rarely do I speak of luck. Today I’m speaking strictly of luck.

I had kind of a push-pull type of conversation with a friend not too long ago. He said that hunting had a whole lot to do with luck, which was something he generally lacked. Taken a bit back, I retorted that hunting also has a whole lot to do with skill. He replied, “Yes, but luck is definitely a factor.” I replied, “Yes, it’s true; you have to have some luck on your side, but you need skills too; it’s not a 50/50 split. I’d say it’s closer to 80/20; Sure, a guy is will occasionally stumble into a big buck, but without some decent skills he won’t be consistent from year to year.” We left it at that.

I’m sure you’ve heard all the motivational sayings, such as Stephen Leacock’s, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Or Emerson, “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” These adages imply that there is no luck, just hard work. But hunting is a little different. Hard work doesn’t necessarily guarantee you anything.

First off, you need to remember that there are two kinds of luck: good luck and bad luck. In hunting, there is a lot more bad luck than good luck. This is because of the innumerable variables that are beyond your control in nature. As a result, bowhunting success is generally less than 25%. Therefore a bowhunter must acquire great skills in order to swing the odds in his favor. Occasionally a person will luck into a big buck, but more often than not he’ll luck out.

My primary motivation for this article is reflecting on yet another difficult hunting year and a failed deer hunt. Certainly I had some great opportunities–due mostly to experience and skill–but in the end it was sheer, uncontrollable bad luck that accounted most for my failure. Here’s just one example:

It was just another super-hot, super-dry day in the woods. I quickly realized that still-hunting was a terrible approach because the ground was so dry and loud. Worst of all, the drought-like conditions seemed to irritate the squirrels more than usual. The squirrels are always bad, but the hotter it gets, the more cantankerous they become…just a theory. Anyhoo, I was traveling from one bedding area to another. For once the wind was blowing hard and constant in my face, so I really didn’t have to be quiet. However, the squirrels were ferocious. As soon as I left one squirrel, another would fire up ahead of me. Their constant barking was driving me nuts! It didn’t really matter though, since there were so few deer in the area. I was hunting my 5th choice unit after all, thanks to the living nightmare of not being able to draw a decent tag in my own state, which is quickly becoming a dreary reality, but I digress… So, I was approaching a known bedding area with little hope. A squirrel fired up as soon as I entered the woods, and I thought nothing of it. As I rounded a pine tree, my eyes latched onto a pair of big, floppy ears rotating in the woods. I froze. In the dense tangle sat a big, heavy-horned 4×4, 170-class buck bedded facing away from me at only 30 yards. My dream was about to become a reality! But as I slowly reached for an arrow, another squirrel up ahead suddenly lit up into a full nutty rage. The smart old buck stood instantly and walked into the woods. He paused for a second to look back, then disappeared out of my life forever. Needless to say, I was enraged. I vowed that next year I would go into the woods two weeks before the hunt and kill every single squirrel on the mountain.

It’s easy to blame bad luck for failure, the same way that it’s easy to blame great skills for success. The trap you don’t want to fall into is relying on sheer luck, good or bad. Blaming a bad hunt on bad luck is an excuse to stop trying. Same with blaming success on good luck.

If you had an unlucky year like I did, you must remember that luck changes often. It’s like in poker: some nights you can’t get any cards, and other nights you can’t lose. In hunting you might go five years without bagging a buck, and then suddenly you bag one every year. The point is to never give up.

Today I believe success in hunting is an 80/20 split. An 80/20 split means that you’ll be successful 4 out of 5 years because you’ve acquired the necessary skills. The one year that you fail, you can go ahead and blame on bad luck. With great skills it doesn’t matter how much bad luck you have because when your luck changes, you are going find wonderful and consistent success!