A Cheat Sheet for the Weekend Warrior
September 23, 2016
True weekend warriors are America's National Guard and military reservists. They stand ready to defend our country, and aid in times of national emergencies when duty calls.
Thank them when you get the chance.
With that note in mind, many of you also fit into the weekend-warrior definition, but in a hunting sense. You grab a weapon. You don a uniform. You have a mission.
In short, your weekend-warrior classification focuses on getting the most hunting out of your weekends as you take a break from your career, and possibly an overzealous boss.
Being a hunting weekend warrior has its own set of obligations and challenges. You won't have to defend a position, but you'll need to locate an ambush site, prepare it, and hunt it on limited time.
And as seasons change and deer breeding ensues, you'll need to stay up to date on shifting patterns. Do all of this, and you just might be rewarded with the best award a weekend hunter could imagine — a trophy whitetail.
To keep improving your weekend-warrior pursuits, study the following strategies. Some may help you make better use of those precious weekend hours.
Scouting positively comes into play if you want to get the most out of your weekend hunts. One of the quickest scouting shortcuts to use is reviewing last year's hunting season. If you traditionally hunt the same property, then you already have a relationship with it. There's no reason to reinvent the wheel.
Unless you see major changes on adjacent properties, the neighborhood whitetails should follow a pattern similar to previous years. Although I live the freelance lifestyle now, at one point my freedom was controlled by a supervisor for 14 of my early hunting years. Back then, I frequently relied on my past knowledge of an area to help boost my weekend productivity.
Changes may occur around you, with the most common being alternating crops. A change from corn to soybeans, or vice versa, could alter travel patterns. Whitetails may seek out soybeans and corn early, and soybeans again late, depending on the severity of weather. Bedding patterns may not change drastically, but the direction deer travel as they leave cover could change with varying crop rotation.
Having deer managers as neighbors also means keeping tabs on their land improvements. New food plots, mineral sites, and waterholes automatically grab the attention of super-sensitive whitetails. Again, they may still return to long-established bedding cover, but if your neighbors push up brushpiles over the summer and plant screens of reed grass, a buck may suddenly abandon bedding opportunities on your property and forward its mail.
Satellite images from hunting apps like ScoutLook Weather are crucial, but remember images are often dated, so don't depend on them to tell the entire story from above. Use summer windshield time to re-evaluate surrounding properties for an idea of what's to come on your weekend hunts.
Using trail cameras should definitely be a high priority for every whitetail hunter, with special emphasis for the weekend warrior. Art Helin, a 34-year bowhunting veteran from southwest Wisconsin, knows the stress of weekend-warrior hunting. For the first half of his hunting career, he would swindle a day here or there.
But it seemed like he was always rushing back to work instead of following up on evolving whitetail activity he uncovered during a weekend hunt. Today Helin operates a habitat consultation service, and as a result now has more freedom to pursue bucks. Nevertheless, he still recalls the days of being a weekend warrior.
In his opinion, trail cameras are a must — and the more the better. His advice is to bump your camera arsenal from two to five or more. In fact, he advises hunters to spend more on cameras than on a new bow.
"What good does that bow or gear do for you if you don't know where to hunt by uncovering the pattern of whitetails on your hunting property," Helin stresses. "The biggest challenge for most hunters is to stay away from a camera. Checking them too often can give you and your location away. I check my cameras every two or three weeks. I even have mine set so I can drive up to them on an ATV, swap a card, and then leave in seconds."
Helin also instructs weekend warriors to scout firsthand. Some mature bucks can be camera-shy, but they may still show up in summer feeding patterns during daylight. Whenever he spends an evening observing, Helin takes a notebook to log the time deer arrive, what trails they're using, and the wind direction. It's critical data to ensure he gets stands up in the right places for weekend success.
Even with sound scouting measures in place, it's often difficult to boost your confidence knowing that others may be pressuring your bucks during the week, or that the overwhelming weekend pressure could change a buck's behavior permanently. Could your scouting be all in vain?
Auburn University deer biologist Clint McCoy disproved some myths about hunting pressure through research recently summarized on the Quality Deer Management Association's website. McCoy followed the movements of 37 bucks at Brosnan Forest, a 6,400-acre study site in South Carolina. Although the area is for research, the bucks were actively being hunted while being GPS-monitored, with equal numbers of bucks in four age groups being tracked.
What McCoy discovered was that the odds of bucks entering an area with ample shooting lanes during legal hunting hours was reduced by half after 12 hours of hunting pressure over the course of the previous week. Bucks responded quickly to the pressure, and avoided stands that had been hunted the previous day.
That likely doesn't shock you, but the real substance to the story for weekend warriors is that typical avoidance lasted three days. By day four and five of a stand sitting idle, deer returned to the stand site without showing any avoidance characteristics.
What that means to weekend bowhunters is that despite heavy hunting pressure by you, public hunters and partners, a week's worth of no hunting pressure means you may have another shot at a buck from your favorite stand.
Helin offers this helpful hint to bolster the South Carolina research. He preaches to never hunt any stand unless conditions are perfect. That means paying attention to the time deer use a trail, and the winds they prefer when following a route. If the wind doesn't protect your invisibility, don't hunt a particular stand.
"I tell people if the wind is wrong, don't hunt a stand," Helin said. "Hunt a different stand, and hope that your target buck is moving differently because of the wind change, or even rutting behavior. I'd rather take a day off from hunting than educate a buck, or worse yet, have him bail over to the neighbor's property, giving them an opportunity."
The only way you can hopscotch to other stands is having a network of stands in place that corroborate your preseason scouting. Most high-traffic trails should have at least two stand options per ambush location.
This covers predominant winds from northerly or southerly directions. Your network also needs to take into consideration travel preferences for dawn and dusk. Deer move in different directions depending on whether they are going to feed or to bed.
How many ambush setups is enough? That depends on the size of your property, and the amount of money you're willing to spend. On one of my favorite properties, I have eight stands spread out over 120 acres. Every time I hunt the place, I think of even more funnels to add an ambush opportunity.
If you're a diehard weekend warrior, then you hunt every available opportunity. Nevertheless, I still see hunters rallying toward the rut as the time they put in the most hours. Don't fall into that trap. Consider every season — early, rut, and late.
One of the most overlooked archery periods continues to be the early season. While discussing the subject with well-known whitetail hunter Don Kisky from Iowa, he strongly proclaimed that he has better success on mature bucks before the rut, and even said that October was fast becoming his favorite bowhunting month. Helin echoes that, and he's become a big proponent of targeting the early season because bucks are easier to pattern then, and there's less hunting pressure.
"My neighbors and I work together to manage deer on a large block of country in southwest Wisconsin," Helin said. "My one neighbor never hunted the Wisconsin opener. When I started killing some good deer in the early season, he took notice. Now he's out there all the time on opening weekend. He bases his hunting on trail cameras, and then takes time off accordingly."
MANIPULATE YOUR TIME
I was fortunate to have a supervisor who appreciated hunting, and sensed my keen interest in it. Because of that situation, I was able to discuss the option of putting in my hours by working early, working late, and even working weekends if needed.
As long as I completed my assignments and managed my workload, my supervisor was fine with my leaving a couple hours early to sit a stand. My typical fall day was to arrive at work by 5 a.m. and leave three hours early for an afternoon bowhunt.
If you work a shift job, consider swapping shifts if you want to bowhunt on a weekend or a weekday. For the public-land hunter, a swap may be the ticket to freeing up a midweek window in order to avoid weekend hunting pressure.
Another option is to work ahead. Some jobs have scheduled tasks that need to be completed annually. For instance, I often have my editorial schedule set months in advance.
By squeezing in extra articles and videos between my other projects, I can open up more time in the fall to go bowhunting. This work-ahead strategy includes home chores as well. If possible, fix that leaky gutter, rake the leaves, and take out the garbage beforehand to ensure nothing gets in the way of your precious weekend hours.
Lastly, fine-tune your hunting plans as the weekend nears. For Helin, that means keeping tabs on the weekend weather forecast.
"Check the forecast, and pay special attention to wind and the changing pressure fronts," Helin said. "Dramatic weather changes can have a huge effect on your hunt, especially as they manipulate wind direction and speed. If the conditions don't equal success on your property, wait for the next pressure front, and then ask your boss for days off to take advantage of a homerun."
A favorite weekend memory of mine started by going to work at 5 a.m. and leaving at 3 p.m. I dressed in my hunting clothes along an old farm road, and was in my riverbottom stand a little before 4 p.m. A mock scrape 12 yards away sat ready for a distraction.
Fifteen minutes before closing time, I spotted a mature buck 30 yards away rubbing on some willows. I mentally urged him on as shooting light was fading. My ESP must have worked, as he finished rubbing and plodded my way in true pre-rut fashion.
The buck neared the mock scrape, and its attraction was immediate. The buck stopped broadside, and then lowered his nose to analyze the urine I had sprayed in the scrape before climbing into my stand. Once distracted, I drew my Mathews bow and settled my pin on the buck's lungs. He bolted at the shot, but his only option was to pile up in the willows 50 yards away.
It was a good day. I put in more than eight hours at my job, arrowed a brute of a buck, plus I still had the weekend if I wanted to be a warrior on another hunt.