A wise coach once told me to win, you have to beat three people: the opponent, the referee, and yourself. Hunting deer is similar. You need to know your hunting area, but you also need to know the surrounding area and how others hunt it. I believe there are a few things you can do to put yourself ahead of other hunters in your area.
Research the opponents
You need to know all the tricks of the trade. Magazine articles, web blogs, books, seminars, talking with the best local hunters in your area – these are all ways to increase your knowledge of the pursuit you are in. Knowledge is power and the more you know, the more prepared you’ll be. You’ve heard it before: “success is preparation meeting opportunity”. Add to that, the never-ending appetite to get that opportunity, and you’ll do well.
Post-season scouting is a great way to dissect a property and really get to know the area. When I say ‘post-season’ I am referring to anytime after deer season until that point in time when the foliage greens up and the previous season’s rut sign is no longer visible. If I have a new property to hunt I try to take advantage of the month of March. With a zoomed aerial photo I walk every inch of the property; making note of scrapes, big rubs, other tree stands, previous trees that had stands in them, funnel points, food sources, etc.
This is a great time to find that spot with three scrapes in a row that are the size of your truck bed. If you find this spot and the entrance and exit route looks good – go to work and set up that stand during the post season. I’ve had the best luck hunting scrape lines during the pre-rut, just before that first doe comes into heat. Get in early in the morning and be ready. I think there is truth to the idea of hunt the ‘bed’ in the a.m. and ‘food’ in the p.m. – meaning that in the morning most of the deer movement will be toward the bedding area, while in the evening most of the movement will be toward the feeding area. Sometimes these areas are so close together one stand may be good morning & evening. Focusing on funnel points can be an excellent option. When it comes down to it, hunting the most likely spot that deer will pass is pretty fool proof – assuming you can get in undetected.
If you’re post season scouting spots are turning up empty then it is time to go make it happen elsewhere. Ideally a rainy, windy day can help cover you tromping all over a new area and alerting every deer. If you find a lot of fresh signs, set-up a stand or blind (that day if possible), hunt it as soon as possible before the deer know their security has been compromised. Hit them hard and fast during open season.
Listen to your peers and non-hunters talk
You need to keep your ears open because you never know when a non-hunter will divulge accurate information to the location of a mature buck. If you’ve found a big buck I wouldn’t say a word to anyone local. I’ve never seen much good come from talking about the big bucks you’ve seen to other locals in your area. Maybe you can share with a hunting buddy or friend from another state, but I’d keep the big boy’s whereabouts low key to the locals. I like to come across as the underdog, maybe talking with other hunters saying I haven’t been out much yet, then asking have you guys seen any deer movement? Know your peers and how they hunt. Check their success pictures and see what caliber of deer they are taking. You’ll know when they spot a “good one” what kind of buck that might be.
Be legal and hunt safe
Keep your tactics legal. This refers to beating the “referee”. If you hunt multiple states know what weapons are legal, shooting hours, baiting regulations, transportation of game requirements, etc. I believe the laws are what make hunting enjoyable. If anyone could go spotlight a buck any time of the year, where is the challenge in that? Also remember to use all the safety equipment. If you are going to get hurt hunting, there is a good chance it will come in the form of falling out of a tree. Safety harnesses are a must. Take time in setting up the tree to get in and out. Don’t over stretch the tree steps – buy a few more and live to tell your grandkids the stories.
Practice with your weapon, keep fit to lessen injuries, be mentally prepared, and well rested. This is obvious, but you need to practice with a bow & arrow to be good at it. You need to practice on 3-D courses and you need to practice by hunting other species. Spring turkey hunting will help keep your bow dialed in, especially if you go for the headshot. This requires extra concentration. Bow fishing is another option over the summer to gain added confidence. Shooting antlerless deer with your bow is perhaps the best way to be ready when a big buck steps out for the shot. I hear of hunters who have been bow hunting for years and not taken a single shot at any deer because they want that first buck to be a big one. That’s fine, but take a couple antlerless deer so you have the confidence when the buck steps out. There is a noticeable difference going from ‘target’ to ‘living creature’ when shooting an arrow.
If you can put together some of these ideas and continue to learn you will beat all the necessary opponents. It’s called “hunting” for a reason. If it were easy the enjoyment of success would be diminished. Keep persevering and enjoy the highs and lows.