August 06, 2012
It was a perfect evening for deer hunting as I glassed the buck from beneath some cedar limbs. For private land in Minnesota he was a good buck; for public land he was a great deer, and I wanted him badly. Motes of dust and clods of dirt flew from his hind legs as he worked a scrape. Twenty yards to his west, a small eight-pointer ripped up a scrape as well. The two appeared to be in a hole-digging contest, and no matter the call I threw in their direction, neither buck paid me any mind.
As the sun set and the bucks worked their way onto a private field, I snuck out the long way to avoid spooking them. I made up my mind to return as soon as I could with a stand and a set of climbing sticks. Two days later, that's just what I intended to do. But as I whiled away the hours in my office, I couldn't help but notice leaves blowing horizontally past my window. As the evening approached, I had to decide whether to hunt in the wind, which was gusting over 30 mph, or wait for better conditions. I opted to hunt, knowing at the very least the gusting wind would swallow up any noise I would make while hanging the stand.
Although the appeal of using wind as an excuse to not hunt was tangible, I knew that the conditions would also probably suppress hunting pressure, which is always welcome when using public ground. Banking on weather to keep other hunters staying home has worked for me in the past, and I reckoned it would work for me again.
It seems as a group, we (hunters) often end up at odds with ourselves, because although we love to hunt, we're also prone to conjuring up excuses to not hunt given a litany of mitigating factors. Those excuses do nothing for us, except ensure an unfilled tag for one more day.
Certainly some have merit, especially if safety is an issue, but most are just easy ways out of a little work. If you're privileged to have primo hunting ground, then it's probably not much of an issue to sit out a day or more. However, if you're like most of us and your hunting ground isn't littered with mature bucks bumbling around in daylight hours, it might be time to look deeply at what excuses we use and why we use them. At the very least, confessing our excusing ways is the first step to tamping them down into a place where they won't rise up and lead us into inaction, which is the enemy of success.
Excuse: Whether Weather Matters
We are obsessed with weather's impact on deer movement. Nothing is quite so beautiful as a crisp, calm November morning, where the frost coats the fallen leaves and your breath shows in measurable plumes. Conversely, nothing is quite as off-putting as a 90-degree September evening, or perhaps an October morning where the wind is howling 40 mph. Top it off with the chance of a rainstorm, and it's the perfect opportunity to stay home.
Wind, or more importantly, gusting, blow-the-tears-right-out-of-your-eyes wind is blamed for completely shutting down deer movement. It's a common belief among bowhunters that deer will not move if the wind is blowing too hard. If this were the case, we'd find starved-to-death deer in their beds in some of the Great Plains states, because the wind hardly ever stops blowing there. Certainly, a hard wind will cut down on deer movement to an extent, but it doesn't stop them from feeding or trying to breed. And, on the plus side, howling wind is often reliable as far as consistent direction, meaning it's easy to play to your benefit.
Rain is probably the second-most touted reason for staying home. All I can say to this is if you're not hunting when it's raining, you're missing out. I often witness early and heavy deer movement before, during, and after rainstorms. Precipitation also produces ideal still-hunting conditions. I hunt every chance I can when it's wet in the woods.
Lastly, unseasonable heat is fodder for an easy-out excuse. This is understandable, because Indian Summer days are miserable for hunting. The insects are usually out in full force, and scent control becomes a major issue. It stands to reason that a hair-covered deer would bed down and wait for the coolness of dark to move. Some do, but others will move as if nothing has changed. Still others will hit water, which is a no-brainer during these conditions and can provide some of the best hunting you'll witness all season.
If you're using weather as an excuse to not hunt, you're guaranteeing yourself a helping of tag soup, and in many cases, might be missing out on some quality sits. If you hunt public land or pressured private land, weather that keeps other hunters away is a gift. Enjoy it.
Excuse: Are There Any Bucks Out There?
Hunting day-in and day-out without seeing any bucks, or without seeing big bucks, tends to carve away at enthusiasm. It leads to frustration and withers enjoyment, but it shouldn't lead you to not hunt. Instead, tackle the problem head-on. The first question you should ask is if the bucks are really around in your hunting area. If trail cameras and scouting confirm your hunting experiences, then it's time to lower your standards. After all, you can't hunt what doesn't exist. If your area is short on good bucks, set your sights on the quality of deer you can legitimately expect to shoot if you hunt hard.
If you're not seeing bucks but you know they are there, it's time to address hunting methods. The old standby treestands and ground blinds might not cut it, just as lax scent control methods, poor entrance and exit planning, and a multitude of deleterious habits will cut into your success. Or, and I realize this may be hard to swallow, but for some of us, the biggest bucks in the woods are largely out of our grasp.
If you've got limited time or aren't willing to step up your overall game, it might be time to readjust standards. Perhaps the frustration would ease and hunt enjoyment would return if you decided you'd be happier hunting smaller bucks? I've discovered just that about myself. When I head out of state on a DIY trip, or spend time hunting public land, I realize that I miss the days of simply hunting deer as opposed to trophy hunting. In fact, some of my favorite days in a treestand occur in locales where I'm happy to shoot any deer, even a three-pointer that wouldn't break 30 inches.
In summary, if you're not having fun deer hunting, try lowering your standards. That creates more "shooters," and that's always more fun!
Excuse: They Are All Vampires
Probably the easiest way to explain why you haven't tagged out on a stud 150-incher is because he has simply gone nocturnal and become un-killable. Countless studies of mature bucks have proven that some deer do go nocturnal, or come extremely close to it. This means that slipping an arrow between their ribs is extraordinarily difficult. However, this doesn't mean it's time to sit out the hunt. A buck that normally wouldn't move during shooting light might slip up. This is a long shot, but we are nothing if not optimistic.
This gets easier to buy into as the rut approaches, but November isn't the only time a buck might make a mistake. This is part of the reason why I always try to identify staging areas, and then hunt them as intelligently as possible. I'm always looking for that sweet spot between bedding and feeding areas where a buck might feel comfortable being on his feet as the last few minutes of shooting light fade.
Of course, just because we believe the deer are nocturnal doesn't necessarily make it so. Changing food sources can often completely alter reliable deer patterns. A single patch of oaks, apple trees, persimmons, or harvested agricultural fields can throw a wrench in the best-laid plans. This is why I prefer to hunt new areas with a climbing stand or from a natural ground blind when my deer sightings fizzle. I refuse to believe that all of the mature bucks are holding tight during every minute of daylight, and my goal is to find the one deer that isn't following the rules. Sometimes I find him, many times I don't, but I'm always hunting.
Excuse: Time Is Not on My Side
"I was going to hunt, but I only had two hours." That line, or some derivative of it, has been uttered countless times. Sure, if you're limited on time, it's prudent to avoid some of your best stands. But it's not reason enough to stay away from the woods. Hunt closer to where you park, or still-hunt a new area. Sneak into a field edge and build a natural ground blind with the intention of just observing. Occasionally you'll witness something you've been missing, and you might even get a shot in a place you'd have never pegged as a "good" location.
There's no doubt that it's hard to hunt when you feel rushed, but if you decide to hunt a new spot just for the heck of it, your expectations will be low. Any deer sighting is a bonus; any shot even better. Observation stands and blinds have led me to a pile of good spots over the years, even though I rarely fill a tag while looking things over. Call it in-season scouting if you want, but the fact is you'll still be hunting, and you'll still have a chance. Sometimes that's all you can ask for.
At the beginning of this article I mentioned that I was banking on the wind keeping other hunters at home while I hunted for that particular buck. I was also pinning hopes on the decreased pressure prompting the nine-pointer to visit his scrape again. Having hope is the hallmark of the successful bowhunter and, as it turned out, it's well-founded in some situations.
He happened to be the first deer I saw from my stand that night. I was shocked to see him walk confidently into the field, well before sunset. For an hour he busied himself feeding and checking scrapes. Thinking he'd eventually make it my way, but panicking as the hourglass drained so quickly, I tried to rattle loud enough for him to hear. He perked up a few times, but ended up walking out of sight. I thought he was gone, so I turned my attention to a loner doe that was feeding in from the opposite direction. I don't turn down a chance for fresh venison too often, and she looked awfully tasty, but she too opted to simply walk away.
Disheartened, I watched the shadows grow longer across the field, and it wasn't until he was maybe 25 yards from me that I heard his hooves in the leaf litter. At 15 yards, he stopped to work a scrape underneath a cedar tree. Twice he stood on his hind legs and raked his antlers through the boughs. Agonizing seconds ticked by as I stood with pressure on my bowstring. Finally, he slow-stepped it to the scrape below my tree and it all came together. At the shot, he took off like a greyhound, leaving a cartoon-like trail of dust in his wake. But it wasn't fantasy, and as I stood there shaking on my stand platform, I watched him plow into a cattail slough.
I called a good friend of mine, and together we trailed that buck into waist-deep swamp water where he floated with just his side protruding. Muddy and cold, we wrapped our hands around his antlers and started for the road. The wind was still howling as we reached my truck, and I couldn't help but think that none of it would have happened if I had just decided to sit out another windy night because, after all, the deer wouldn't be moving anyway.
Authors Note: I used a BowTech Invasion, Carbon Express arrows, G5 Striker broadheads, Nikon optics, a Hot Shot release, and an HHA sight on this hunt.