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3 of the Toughest Decisions in Bowhunting

How to handle three challenging choices you'll encounter deer hunting.

3 of the Toughest Decisions in Bowhunting

(Author photo)

No matter who you are, there are number of tough decisions that will arise over the course of your bowhunting career, sometimes even during the course of one season. In this article I am going to take a look at three tough questions we all will face at some point in our whitetail bowhunting lifetimes and share some advice on how to best handle them.

1. What to Do if I Spook a Buck?

How you scare that deer has everything to do with the answer to this question. If a buck is really scared, he will react differently than if he is just bumped or startled. You start by deciding which one it is.

Badly Scared: If a buck is really scared, his number-one goal is to put as much distance as possible between you and him in the shortest amount of time. Maybe he sees you in the stand and knows from experience that people in trees are a danger. Rarely does a buck that has been hunted hard fail to bolt out of the area when he spots a person in a tree. In this case, you can be sure he is very scared.

Maybe you shoot at him, misjudge the range and nick his brisket. Rest assured he is not hanging around to figure out what came zipping out of the sky and bit him. In this scenario, he also is badly scared.

A badly scared buck knows he is in extreme danger in the spot where he is standing, and he gets out of there pronto.

Casually Scared: A casually scared buck will bound off a short distance and then stop to look back. He is startled but not in terror; his reaction tells you that. This buck knows something is wrong, but he doesn’t feel it is a life-and-death moment.

Maybe he sees you sneaking through the woods in the valley below his bedding area or smells you in the distance. He bounds off, and you may not even know he was there.

Why It Matters: Bucks are casually scared almost every day. They take notice, adjust their movements a bit and go on with their lives. If persistent danger in the same area reinforces these casual scares over time, the bucks will eventually stop using that area or become nocturnal. You can still kill a casually scared buck without altering your hunting strategy.

By contrast, if a buck is badly scared, he will immediately alter his behavior. The deer will blast out for about 200 yards and then settle into a determined, fast walking pace that may take him another 200 yards before he stops to assess his options. His priority is flight — he can pinpoint the danger to a specific spot.

Curiosity won’t come into play when a buck is badly scared. He will remember what happened in that spot for several days — probably weeks — and every time he is near that area, he will be cautious. So, figuring out what to do after spooking a buck starts with figuring out how badly he was spooked in the first place.

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How badly you startle a deer can make a world of difference. Winke took this buck from the same stand he was hunting two weeks earlier, when the buck smelled him. That scare was not a bad one since the buck never pinpointed the source of the danger and never stopped using the area.

Finding Plan B: If the buck is badly scared, you should play the odds and move to a different part of his range. That gives you the best chance for another encounter. He likely won’t leave the general area (his normal range), but he will be much more careful right where you shocked his sense of security.

Depending on how much you know about the buck and where he lives, making this transition to Plan B can be a very simple one. Just stop hunting the stand where you spooked him and hunt him in other parts of his range.

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You don’t have to move far to get a clean slate. Just a couple hundred yards is enough — to the other side of the ridge, across the field or on the next ridge over. Just give your old stand a wide berth for now. How long you should stay away is uncertain, but if the buck is badly spooked, I would not hunt that spot again all season, just to be safe.

If the buck is casually spooked — startled — you can keep hunting him from the same stand. Again, he can’t know it was a person in a tree that caused his original scare or this won’t work. So, if he really identifies that scare with a specific tree or location it was not a casual scare to begin with.

For example, I killed a buck in 2021 that smelled me in that same stand exactly two weeks earlier. I am sure he smelled me and didn’t see me because when he spooked, he ran only 40 yards and then stopped to look around. He didn’t even look at the tree I was in — he just scanned the woods.

He was following a doe past the tree two weeks later when I killed him, so it was not like he was there 100 percent of his own free will, but he never once looked in my direction and never seemed to show any caution as the pair slipped past. I did hunt him in other spots on that ridge during the intervening weeks, and I did see him a couple times prior to killing him. So, he never gave up on that area and didn’t really seem to be much the wiser.

But, again, it is important to note that he didn’t blow out with his tail on fire. He just bounded 40 yards (I almost got a shot when he stopped) before scanning the immediate area, eventually snorting and finally bounding over the ridge. I was probably shaken more than he was! He was spooked but not badly spooked. That simple fact made all the difference in the outcome of my season.

Bottom line, you must first classify how badly a deer is spooked before you can decide what to do next.

2. Should I ‘Blood Trail’ in the Rain?

You just shot the biggest buck in your hunting area and you aren’t quite sure of the hit. You think it was good, but it could have been just a bit back. The buck ran over a hill and quickly disappeared before you could tell much about his body language. You would love to give him at least three hours just to be sure, but bad weather is coming — a snow and rain mix will set in very soon. What are you going to do?

As a young bowhunter, I went on three of these panic tracking missions with friends who decided to make the push with inclement weather approaching. None of those jobs resulted in recovered animals during the first effort. We found one buck later and the other two got away. I can’t say they got away because we forced the tracking job and jumped them — they could have been flesh wounds — but the rate of success (0-for-3) was enough to make me conclude that a quick follow-up is not a good idea if the hit is in question.

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Author Bill Winke says that you should not let inclement weather force you into taking up the blood trail on a deer too soon. Blood can often be found even after a snow, so be patient and don’t force a tracking job just because bad weather rolls in.

My bad-weather policy now is to wait the same amount of time for each specific type of hit that I would wait if weather wasn’t an issue. In some cases, I end up just looking for a carcass when the weather clears because the rain or snow has washed away the blood. But I have also been surprised how well blood stands up to moderate weather. You can often find it later between leaf layers and under a thin sheet of snow.

This kind of tracking is tedious work, but at least you know that you didn’t give the deer a burst of adrenaline and push him out of the area. If the shot was lethal, he will be there somewhere nearby.

Most deer that are hit hard go a maximum of 300 yards before bedding. In fact, one guide who worked for a prominent hunting camp — a veteran of more than 1,000 blood trails — once told me that they rarely recover any bucks that go farther than 300 yards before bedding. If they aren’t pushed, that is usually where you will find them.

So, for me, the answer to the question of pushing into bad weather or waiting is a very simple one. I will wait the normal amount of time for the hit I believe I made and then take up the trail — regardless of the weather.

3. Is It Time to Give Up on My Spot?

It’s hard to find good places to hunt, so pulling the plug on your current spot means you have to find a new one. Ugh! So, how do you know the spot you have been hunting has a long-term future?

Answering this question honestly comes down to assessing the neighborhood. It is almost like you are deciding whether to buy the property. You wouldn’t spend your life savings to buy it if you really felt that there was no long-term hope for it to be good hunting. So, why keep hanging on and hunting there? We start there — by assessing the overall area.

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The neighborhood where you hunt is everything. If several good bucks are taken in the area each year, it is worth sticking with your spot even if you’re not experiencing success as often as you think you should. On the other hand, if the neighbors aren’t taking many good deer, and small bucks are all that appear on your trail cameras, it’s likely time to start looking for a new hunting spot.

What kinds of bucks are the neighbors shooting? If they are shooting decent bucks for the part of the state you are in, then there is hope. With that in mind, maybe your property isn’t producing because you are hunting it wrong and the deer know you are there.

Or maybe the property is lacking in some way. For example, maybe it lacks food and when you are hunting there the deer have already moved off seeking greener pastures. Like your hunting method, this issue can possibly be fixed with a little effort on your part to create a couple of small food plots.

Without going into the process of how to make these plots, it is enough to know that you can impact the hunting in an area with limited food by creating low-budget plots. You can often do it even when you are hunting on someone else’s property as long as you have permission. At the very least, maybe you can change when you hunt the property to find a time when the deer are there in greater numbers.

What are your trail cams telling you? A good neighborhood can trump a lack of good trail-camera photos because long-term, the property should get better. A good neighborhood is more important than any other single factor in determining the future quality of your hunting area.

If the neighborhood isn’t good — it isn’t producing many bucks for the local hunters, or they are shooting everything that moves — then you should fall back on your trail cameras as the deciding factor. If your property isn’t producing at least one photo of a buck you would shoot each season, and the overall neighborhood has very low deer numbers or the bucks are over hunted, it is time to move on. A poor neighborhood with zero shooters on camera means very little hope of a good future. It’s time to start looking for better spots.

I’ll conclude by saying these are just a few of the many questions we must answer if we hope to have consistent success bowhunting whitetails. And on that note, good luck this fall!

Wait Times Before Trailing

Regardless of the weather, this is the minimum length of time you should wait for each type of hit:

Double-Lung/Heart: You will often see the deer fall within sight if you hit him in the boiler room — rarely will he go farther than 100 yards. In the off chance he makes it out of sight, there is no need to wait any longer than it takes to get your gear together and climb out of the stand or blind.

Liver: This one can be tough to gauge as some big-bodied bucks can hang in there for a while after a direct liver hit. I like to wait at least four hours before taking up the trail. If it’s light out, move slowly and glass ahead. This is not the time to bring a lot of buddies, maybe one quiet helper. If you start to find beds very close together, the deer should be nearby — go very slow now.

Paunch: When you hit a buck in the paunch you should wait at least 12 hours before taking up the trail. Like with the liver hit, go very slowly and quietly because he may still be alive, though not moving well.

Possible Single-Lung: If you hit the shoulder and get limited penetration — or make a steeply downward shot — there is a good chance you will hit only one lung. Without knowing for sure, you could follow up right away in the hopes that it was, in fact, a double-lung hit. But be prepared to back out if the blood trail is weak or if you cover more than 150 yards without any sign of the deer. Go super slow and glass ahead; assume the worst but hope for the best. If you determine that it was likely a single-lung hit, back out and return after at least eight hours have passed, again following the trail very slowly and carefully.

Muscle: If you make a muscle hit, there is small chance that it will be fatal. Your best hope of recovery comes if you follow up immediately and keep the animal moving and bleeding. Stick with him for as long as possible. Follow any sign you can — blood, tracks, instinct, a hunch. Keep him moving. He may weaken and you may eventually catch up with him. It’s unlikely, but it’s worth the try.




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