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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.

Stealth in Hunting

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As bowhunters soon learn, the deer’s few disadvantages are greatly outweighed by its many advantages, particularly in terms of its super-sensory abilities. Now, assuming you’ve finally located a deer undetected, how does the novice hunter close the distance—that very small gap required to get within bow range? Of all the skills a bowhunter must learn, stealth is probably the most important and difficult to master.

During my early bowhunting career I climbed clumsily through the woods, snapping twigs and crunching pinecones as I went. Meanwhile, all the forest creatures sat staring my way in horror. Eventually, you get tired of busting all the deer out before you see them and learn to slow way down, becoming painfully aware of each step which is carefully placed around endless twigs, pinecones, brush, and crunchy pebbles. You become obsessed with wind direction which is your best friend or worst enemy. You must diligently adjust your approach against the breeze which carries your human scent back and away from you. Not only can you use wind direction for scent control, but the rustling leaves and howling wind can work wonders to camouflage the inevitable noises you do make. But hunting in high winds has its drawbacks too. Like most prey species, deer are extra wary on a windy day because it’s difficult for them to hear predators approaching. If you observe a buck feeding on a windy day, you’ll see his head up and looking around a lot more than usual. They also tend to stay bedded longer.

Besides using the wind to mask my noise, I try to keep my movements to a minimum. You’re obviously going to have to move to find deer; ambush plans don’t always work. When you find yourself hunting midday, for example, and it’s dreadfully hot and the deer aren’t moving, then you must move. Otherwise, you are here and the deer are there and you never meet in-between. But you can still optimize your approach. For example, I rarely take more than eight or ten steps before stopping to listen and glass over the ever-changing landscape. Many years ago I developed a game to help me with stealth. Whenever I snapped a twig I would force myself to stop and sit down in that very spot for fifteen minutes and just listen. I found that unless I continued making noise, the deer would eventually go back to what they were doing. But if I continued moving, the deer would confirm the danger and leave. A single noise in a forest full of other wildlife is eventually discarded by the deer. Countless times I’ve watched deer turn and stare in the direction of a noise with eternal patience, but if the sound wasn’t repeated, they’d eventually go back to their normal routine.

Every track, rub, bed, and sign you encounter, along with other factors such as wind, terrain, and forage, will dictate your direction of travel. The hardest part is moving undetected. It was during one of these early lessons that I had my first encounter with a bull elk. It was my third archery deer hunt and I had just spent much of the day ghosting along slowly and quietly, like a puff of smoke through the dense timber. Suddenly, a patch of tan fur caught my eye only ten yards ahead of me. I crouched down and observed a giant six-point elk standing in a thicket of pines, completely oblivious to my presence. I didn’t have an elk tag so I just sat and watched him while he stood and watched the woods. At that moment, I knew my lesson in stealth was complete.

Hunter Evasion

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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.