May 09, 2016
Four hundred yards below and to the east of us, the Little Missouri River carved its way through the Badlands. The waters, colored like weak coffee laced with too much creamer, flowed slowly over the rocks and through a land that captured Teddy Roosevelt's heart over 130 years ago.
My hunting partner and I had just scaled a peak in the late-afternoon heat. Before we even had our spotting scopes set up on their tripods, Ryan whispered, "There's one right there." The doe, sporting a red summer coat, nibbled contentedly along the river. Soon we could see several deer, including a few good bucks.
As the sun set behind us, we excitedly switched from binoculars to spotting scopes, and back, as we picked out new deer emerging to feed. At last light, Ryan pointed to the river directly below us and said, "There's a good one." As soon as I trained my binoculars on the deer, another buck showed up on the bank. We both gasped as the buck towed a dark and shimmering reflection of himself across the river to the far side. We made a note of where the big typical had crossed and waited for full darkness to descend before sneaking out.
The following morning, we climbed up the cliff again. This time, staring into the sun, we watched several deer reverse their previous night's course. The big buck, along with his eight-point buddy, snuck across the river 500 yards upstream. As the sun climbed higher and the deer movement waned, we slipped down to a two-track road and picked up the stands and climbing sticks we had stashed and then hung them in the late-morning heat.
While eating lunch in camp, a fellow hunter drove up to chat. We found out he was a Wisconsin native who had recently moved west due to the jobs in the oil fields. He told us he had just driven to the river bottom to hang a trail camera and scout out the area. My heart sank as he described the spot where he had placed the camera. He had to be within a few hundred yards of where the big typical had crossed, and worse yet, I was pretty sure he had walked through some of the best river bottom bedding cover.
The wind that evening was not conducive to sitting the stand I had hung. So I opted for a natural ground blind on a different crossing, not yet wishing to push my luck. Ryan set out for his stand, and another hunting buddy of ours took to the hills with his mule deer tag in hand. We all saw several deer, but we didn't see any decent bucks.
The following morning we sipped instant coffee well before first light and decided to sit our stands, thinking we might catch a buck sneaking back along the river to bed. I wasn't on stand 20 minutes when I caught sight of a solid velvet eight-pointer and his nontypical buddy crossing toward me.
As they disappeared in the brush along the river I readied myself, only to be startled by a snort and then the most unwelcome sight of two white flags bouncing away from me as the bucks caught my scent. Later that morning through my binoculars, I watched a truck slowly creep through the hills across the river while the occupants glassed the river bottom.
At camp we talked to more hunters and realized that the pressure was increasing with the weekend. One hunter said he was scouting for elk, and he made it clear that he'd be spending some time in the river bottom with his ATV. I knew that the clock was ticking on our natural deer movement and that it would be wise to move in on the exact crossing the big typical had used. I left camp early to move my stand, and when I finally walked the mile into our spot the wind was gusting upwards of 40 mph and carrying with it the 90-degree air. I hoped the conditions would keep the other hunters at bay at least for a day or two.
As I carried sticks, stand, pack and bow across the river, I eyed up the cottonwood trees that framed the river. Most were way too large in diameter to accommodate a hang-on stand. However, a few were appropriately sized. I picked one that was positioned between two of the major crossings and hung the stand. Unfortunately, several large limbs forced me to hang the stand 12 feet off of the ground and necessitated that I face directly toward where the deer would cross as well as into the setting sun.
Normally I wouldn't set up in such a tree, in such a spot. But I knew that with the increasing hunting pressure, the chance to kill the big typical was vanishing with every intrusion. I also knew that the buck had to be within a few days of shedding his velvet, and that once stripped, he would likely start moving less during the daylight hours.
In other words, moving right in on the crossing, despite unfavorable conditions, was a big risk/big reward move. I've found through my years of public-land hunting that if I don't take such chances, I don't kill very many deer. The cautious approach that I employ on private land doesn't cut it on Uncle Sam's ground when I'm on fresh sign and the pressure is mounting. Even though it's far more common to screw up than succeed, I still feel it's worth it to gauge pressure and react accordingly.
This is exactly what I did on a 500-acre piece of public ground near my house in the Twin Cities last fall. To be honest, I had written the place off after seeing the parking lot full for nearly three weeks after the bow and small game opener. However, a seven-month-old lab pup and a woodcock migration brought me into the property on a rainy early October day.
While walking the swamp edges with Luna in an attempt to flush one of the worm-eaters, we came across several fresh deer tracks crossing a creek. Later, we found some volunteer clover in a fallow field that was spotted with fresh deer droppings.
The weather worsened the following day and I loaded up the pup for another woodcock hunt, only to reach the field and see that there were three deer feeding in it at noon. We backed out, and I swapped my upland gear for bowhunting equipment so I could carry a stand in and try, at the very least, to fill a doe tag. The deer were gone by the time I returned, so I quickly picked a tree that gave me a good vantage point and allowed my scent to blow over the creek and away from where I expected the deer to travel.
Within a few minutes I could see a doe with two fawns enter the field and start feeding in my direction. It wasn't long before the doe's head snapped to attention and she focused on the entrance road. A half-minute later, a pair of small game hunters spooked the trio from the field.
With 20 minutes of daylight left, the doe and fawns tiptoed their way back into the field. They fed within 100 yards of me but didn't appear to be drawing any closer when, once again, the doe focused all of her attention on the road. She snorted several times as I clipped my release on the string. When she spooked, she ran directly at me and stopped within 10 yards. I was halfway drawn when she dropped over the bank into the swamp grass behind me, forcing me to turn 180 degrees and draw fully. This time she stopped at 25 yards, and the arrow was on its way.
She was barely out of sight when an orange-clad woodcock hunter and his spaniel walked into view. The blood trail was short and sweet, unlike the drag to get her back to my truck. The whole scenario unfolded in a span of about 30 hours, and it further solidified my belief that when you're hunting around pressure, a play-it-safe approach can sometimes be your worst enemy.
As I sat in the river bottom waiting for the sun to finally dip behind the peaks to my west, I watched a young buck cross. He took a trail 60 yards upstream and trotted into the open to feed. Within a few minutes another young buck slipped along the same trail. Then, two more bucks passed behind me at a good clip. It seemed as if the wind hadn't shut down movement, but instead had put the deer on red alert.
With the sun finally down, I went into red-alert mode as well. It was impossible to hear anything approaching, and the wind moved the brush so much that detecting movement was nearly impossible. With only 10 minutes of shooting light left, a doe entered the river and immediately dipped her head to the water to slake her thirst. Behind her a rack broke through the brush, and I recognized it as the eight-pointer that liked to travel with the big typical.
He, along with the doe, started down the riverbank in the direction of the first crossing. I was in the process of hooking up my release when I saw him staring at me. Still velvet-covered and larger than life at only 75 yards, the buck fixed his gaze on me.
After a tense stare-down, the buck relaxed and entered the river. I thought for sure that he would cross too far upstream, but instead he followed the other two right to the crossing, hopped up the bank, and stood broadside at 25 yards.
I don't know what I was thinking, or whether I was thinking at all, but I just drew and shot. The arrow sailed four inches over the deer's back, and a very pressing kind of panic filled my being. I fumbled for another arrow and got it nocked while the buck nervously walked down the trail. The wind had covered my blunder, and as the buck stopped next to a bush I had ranged, I dialed in and settled my pin.
As he bounded across the river and leaped up a six-foot-high embankment on the far side, it became real. He nearly made it out of sight before tipping over.
Time Is Up
The following day, Ryan added a great velvet eight-pointer to our total. We had two bucks in camp when the elk-scouter stopped by again. He said he had driven his four-wheeler up and down the river. I wondered if that would be the final straw with our natural deer movement. Eric's tag was good for either a mule deer or a whitetail, so he opted to sit my stand that evening in the hopes that one of the other bucks would come by.
When I picked Eric up after dark, the look on his face told me everything I needed to know. He said there were four-wheeler tracks all over in the sand along the river and that he hadn't seen a single deer. It was three days into the season and the hunting pressure had simply shut down the daytime movement in the area.
Conventional wisdom surrounding public-land hunting often calls for a strict, cautious approach. However, if you're on good deer movement and there seems to be extra pressure looming on the horizon, it might be best to move in for the kill.
It's a boom or bust strategy that works just often enough...