Who likes to fess up to mistakes? I don’t. My dog doesn’t. Few of my friends do. The president rarely even admits to making a mistake. Have you ever thought what a perfect world it would be if we all just confessed to mistakes and tried never to make them again? The divorce rate would surely drop, courtrooms would be less packed, and I’m betting your bowhunting success would increase. It has been my goal during bow season to never repeat a mistake, but each season I still can add at least one major mistake to the “never repeat” list.
One of my biggest blunders to date happened not too long ago. I found a short window between work trips, so I headed to my favorite whitetail haunt. Pre-rut magic hung in the air, and the excitement of being in the whitetail woods, plus my impatient personality, prodded me into rattling immediately after settling into my stand. As I hung the rattle bag back up, I froze in astonishment when a buck stood up in a tall patch of grass less than 40 yards away and stared in wide-eyed terror at my treestand-perched form.
You already know the rest of the story. Yes, the buck exploded, and I literally slapped myself while watching the buck race away through the thick cedars. Here are a few other mistakes I hope to never make again…I mean it…really!
I felt strong. I’d been lifting weights all winter in preparation for my new Mathews, and with a bit of cockiness I told my pro shop to crank up my bow to nearly 70 pounds, higher than any bow I had ever owned. My outdoor shooting sessions took place in 80-degree temperatures and T-shirt attire. Although I tugged to get the bow back, once it hit the valley I was able to settle in and shoot smoothly.
Throughout the early season I had no issues pulling the bow back, but then came November. Instead of warm temperatures and a mobile hunting strategy, my whitetail hunting switched to a sit-and-wait approach in frigid conditions. One crisp morning, a rutting whitetail buck came my way, and as he passed behind a tree trunk I stood, tried to draw my bow, but couldn’t. I tried to reach full draw several more times, before finally giving up as the buck walked out of sight.
Between the higher poundage and my body responding to the cold by slowing the amount of blood pumping to my limbs, I didn’t have enough strength to come to full draw. Today I avoid that mistake by setting my bow closer to 60 pounds and never struggle, early or late.
Failing to Make a Path
Record spring rain and ideal summer temperatures caused a surge of plant growth years back. It created ideal cover and additional nutrition, but I neglected to realize it also gave deer an edge on my travel patterns. One of my stands was only accessible by wading through chest-high grass just feet from the base of the tree. After settling in, a young buck appeared, and although I opted to pass, his reaction seconds later terrified me.
Like me, he took the path of least resistance, and came to a screeching halt with a surfboard-stiff posture as he nosed the grass where I had just passed. With a snort and tail-wagging retreat, he was gone.
My mistake was not clearing my access trail of vegetation. Nowadays I make it a point to live scent-free. I also carry a machete and a pruner during pre-season setup to clip a brush-free path to my stand. Plus, I always stay off the path of least resistance, which is usually a game trail.
Waiting for the Right Time
My Windicator puff bottle narrowly convinced me, but it appeared the angle of the wind would still allow me to hunt the stand of my choice. Once in place, I tested the wind again. What? Now the wind appeared to be angling almost right to the bedding cover. With the sun too far gone, I stuck with my initial plan and hoped for the best.
As I wagered, a mature buck poked his head from the cover and started coming my way. The trail would take him to within 15 yards of my stand, but he had to cross a small draw 40 yards away. At the top of the draw his reaction turned from complacent to concerned, and I knew why. The breeze was carrying my scent right to him. An instant later he was “Gone with the Wind.”
My mistake was hunting a stand when the conditions were not absolutely perfect for it. This is especially true in the early season, when you may only get one shot at a mature buck visiting a food source. Blow it once and you might have to wait until the rut to see your dream buck again, if at all. Hold off until the overall conditions provide the highest window of success for a movie-like ending.
Being Stubborn and Not Moving
Off and on the entire day, I watched bucks actively hound does 300 yards away, and by dark not one had sauntered my way. The next day, I went to the same stand, and although the activity was less, it still was hotter “over there” than at my current location. On the last day of the hunt, neither location turned on, and I packed up without punching my tag. My mistake was not moving my treestand soon enough to take advantage of the now obvious estrous doe activity in a known bedding area.
Regardless if you discover an early season or rut hotspot, if a pattern emerges, take advantage of it. Sticking it out in your traditional spot may eventually pay off, but deer change routines at the spur of the moment. Harvest, acorns, an estrous doe and a number of other factors create bursts of whitetail activity and pattern-altering changes. Whether it’s something that may last weeks or only a few hours, move to the action.
Forgetting to Pre-Range
Snapping limbs, rustling leaves and the pounding of hooves shocked me from my catnap high in the tree. The culprit: a whitetail buck chasing a doe fawn. He skidded to a halt across the opening as I reached full draw. With no time to range, I mentally tallied the distance and released, only to watch the arrow sail high over his back. Watching the disappearing tails I grabbed my rangefinder to confirm what I already knew: I overestimated the distance.
To avoid that mistake today, I range every possible shooting scenario and memorize the distances. If your memory is lacking, mark distances with surveyor flags or wood slats, and use a Sharpie to write the distances in big, bold numerals. Place these during a preseason trip while trimming shooting lanes so deer will become accustomed to them.
Make a Deer Stop Naturally
“As seen on TV” isn’t always the best advice. I discovered that years ago when a stubborn buck plodded my way on a very focused mission. Since it didn’t appear the buck would stop, I let him step into a shooting lane and then I emitted a “blat” as I’d seen on TV to make him pause for the shot. Already at full draw, I aimed as he hit the brakes and released. Instead of waiting for the arrow, the buck jumped the string and dashed away. Sure the out-of-place grunt stopped the buck, but it also coiled him for a fight-or-flight response.
Occasionally I’ll have to put a grunt into play, but I’d rather not repeat that mistake. Instead, I prefer making a buck stop naturally in a preferred shooting lane. You can employ several strategies such as making a mock scrape, misting estrus scent across a game trail and even using a natural deer attractant, if it's legal in your state. Deer pause out of curiosity, and you get a clean shot at a relaxed deer.
Move When a Buck's Vision Is Occupied
Whoa! I didn’t know where the buck came from, but in a few leaps he would be directly under my stand with the obvious mission of using an adjacent river crossing. I reached for my bow and swiveled to aim, but it was already too late. Despite the lightning-fast movement of the buck, he caught my grab for the bow, stopped and stared a hole right through me. Yes, he also disappeared without a shot.
Since then I’ve tried to move only when a buck turns his head, puts it down to feed or ducks it behind a tree. The location of a deer’s bulging eyes on the side of its head provides approximately 310 degrees of surveillance. That doesn’t give you much room to move. Occasionally you can get away with movement on a preoccupied buck, particularly with rutting activities, but don’t bet on it. Bet on moving only when you can’t see eyeballs.
Pushing Your Personal Limits
If the buck stayed on course he would pass through one more, albeit small, shooting lane. I confirmed a distance of 60 yards and mentally pep-talked myself into taking the shot. As if taking a cue from director George Lucas, the buck stopped and I cut loose the arrow. The shooting lane was there, but I forgot about the arc of the arrow and it clipped several overhanging branches on the way to the target. The buck was already gone by the time the clattering arrow made a final bounce off a nearby tree trunk.
My mistake was overconfidence. Sure, I had made that shot in the summer under ideal conditions, but add in the natural environment, buck fever and the unstable nature of a wild animal, and you have a recipe for failure. I had pushed my personal comfort zone, and today I rate every shot opportunity. If it doesn’t garner a near-success rating, I don’t shoot.
Take the First Good Shot
The snow was piling up now and even covering the back of the doe decoy below me. It was my first season using decoys, and I had high expectations. Almost like an apparition, three bucks walked from the whiteness and surrounded the decoy. The largest of the bucks, a heavy tined 4x4 I’d seen on several scouting missions, held back. The shot was broadside at 30 yards, but I felt he’d give it up and walk right up to the decoy.
He didn’t. Instead he swapped ends and disappeared back into the whiteness. My mistake was to not take the first good shot. My rule today is to take the first clear shooting opportunity because you may not get another chance.
Following Up Too Soon
Last, but not least, is a mistake I’ve taken to heart. It started with a point-blank encounter and a shot that looked perfect. It wasn’t. Hidden inside a cornfield edge, I popped out to watch the wounded buck racing away in the steady drizzle.
Unfortunately the buck saw me and kicked it into overdrive, disappearing over a hill and toward a wetland wonderland. Blood was nonexistent, and I quickly gave up trailing to leave and get help. Four hours later and a mile or more of zigzagging finally resulted in stumbling across the dead buck.
My mistake was following up too soon. Today, I let a buck sit at least an hour if I feel the shot was good, and more depending on shot placement. I never follow up immediately, unless I literally watch the buck tip over before me.
Honestly, you and I know that I’m going to make one or more of these mistakes again in my hunting career. I’m not perfect. I just hope when I do make them, they aren’t as memorable as the mistakes above.