A great hunting spot, good equipment, and solid hunting skills are all well and good, but the doggedness to continue when conditions seem unfavorable is the ultimate key to success.
Inclement weather plagued our Wyoming mule deer hunt. But high winds helped cover my approach to within 10 feet of this fine muley.
Over my 46 years of bowhunting, I've learned that success rarely comes to those who sit in camp or at home and whine about less-than-perfect hunting conditions. So it was with this attitude that I headed out one blustery September morning last year in search of a trophy mule deer.
The mile drive from the ranch in a Polaris Ranger proved brisk, to say the least. A fast-paced, mile-and-a-quarter hike down the rim of a canyon warmed me considerably. My objective was to reach a vantage point where I could observe deer heading into the ancient chasm from their nightly feeding in the ranch's alfalfa and oat fields.
Arriving well before daybreak, I sat between two small rock mounds to help block the howling wind. They eerily resembled the 9-11 World Trade Center towers. The anniversary of this horrid episode in American history was only days away, and I was thinking about the tragedy in the faint morning light when deer started dotting the horizon more than a quarter-mile to the east.
Does, fawns, and young bucks were the first to enter the canyon. Mature bucks lingered in the field until the first defused rays of sunlight announced daybreak. Mature Midwest whitetail bucks would have been the first to exit an agricultural field, I thought. But, then again, Corn-Belt whitetails are exposed to more hunting pressure.
Two good bucks headed into the canyon from an alfalfa field and browsed for an hour.
They eventually separated, entering different, parallel coulees. Both bucks were 4x4s, but one had narrow, tall antlers, and the other's rack appeared a bit wider but with slightly less tine length. The wider-antlered buck bedded under a rock ledge at the coulee's bottom in a spot tough to stalk. I spent another hour circling downwind, trying to spot where the narrow-racked buck had elected to spend the day. I found him avoiding the malicious wind under a rock outcropping. He appeared to be the much easier to approach, so I went into stealth mode.
After missing a monster muley in Wyoming, my wife, Connie, redeemed herself with this Illinois eight-point.
A half-hour of meticulous maneuvering put me within 50 yards of the tall-rack's hideout.
Removing my boots, I closed the distance in wool socks. It would simply be a matter of leaning over the outcropping with drawn bow and collecting the prize. Wrong! The buck must have read the script and exited stage-left before the final act. I surely must have looked like a child opening an empty Christmas present. Smart buck, I chuckled with disgust. Implement Plan B, the wider-rack.
It only took a half-hour to be in stocking feet again and within 20 yards of the other deer.
A stiff wind from the buck to me eliminated telltale scent and helped cover any incidental noise during my approach. Mule deer have nearly twice as much square inch of ear as a whitetail, thus the name "mule" deer. Many times I've witnessed muleys detect almost inaudible noises that would not have been heard by whitetails. The shifting of a loose rock, binoculars rubbing a belt buckle in squat-mode, or the metal action on a release bumping a bow's cable guard can all be deal-breakers in mule deer country.
At 20 yards there was no shot. The rock ledge jutting over the sandy coulee floor hid the buck well. I inched ahead another 10 yards, dropping six feet lower. At 10 feet above the target, only the buck's hindquarters were exposed. The descent was too steep to advance farther without dislodging a rock and spooking the buck. Two golf-ball-sized rocks in my pocket were ready for launching.
My son, Monte, didn't let the cold and wind stop him from arrowing this Illinois 10-pointer.
The first rock careened off the opposite coulee wall with a firm thunk. The buck's rear-quarters tensed slightly as I gripped my bow and drew for the shot. No dice. The buck refused to stand and move away from under the ledge. The second rock did the job!
The 4x4 instantly rose and bounded 10 yards, stopping to look to his right for the origin of the threatening noise. It was at that moment that my Truth II bow sent a Phathead-tipped Easton shaft through the edge of both shoulder blades, centering the animal's lungs. The big muley trotted 20 yards and just stood there as if nothing major had happened. The split-second, complete pass-through must have made the buck think he'd been stung by a bee. I mercifully grounded him with another arrow before he could reach a deeper, less accessible coulee.
On this hunt, my wife, Connie, and I woke to rain, cold, or high wind each and every day.
Hail beat us up during one afternoon outing. Normal Wyoming weather in September is usually temperate and dry -- perfect for catching mule deer at waterholes or spotting and stalking them within the shade of canyon walls. Hurricanes Ike and Gustov were undoubtedly the source of the inclement weather in 2008. This was Connie's first year of archery hunting, so the adverse conditions made a true test of her staying power.
Though Connie's hunt didn't turn out as successful as mine, I was nonetheless impressed by her ability to maintain a positive attitude in such awful weather. I guided her on a couple of long spot-and-stalk jaunts (she called them spot-and-runs). And to her credit, she almost closed the deal twice, but other deer spooked her intended targets.
Disappointingly, Connie missed a shot at a magnum 4x3 on a waterhole. Although she has taken many trophy animals with firearms, this trip helped her understand the higher degree of challenge and fun posed by bowhunting.
No Quitter Here!
When archery season opened in Illinois later in October, Connie could not wait to avenge her miss on the muley buck. In the first month of the season, Connie harvested a nice eight-point whitetail and three does with her bow. To say that I was proud of her would be a major understatement.
Our son, Monte, also made the trip from Ohio and hunted with us during the rut. He double-lunged a nice 10-pointer during a cold, windy November outing.
In more than four-and-a-half decades of bowhunting, I cannot remember harvesting a mature whitetail buck on a day that was not cold, windy, rainy, or snowy. This year was no exception. I had placed a feeding doe decoy in a mock scrape on the edge of an alfalfa field only 15 yards from my treestand. Horizontal rain pounded me for most of the day until 4 p.m., when it finally slowed down.
Bundled tightly with several layers of clothing, the movement of my head was somewhat restricted by two stocking hats, a neck scarf, and a tightly-drawn rain hood. From out of nowhere a big doe jetted in front of me, stopping briefly to catch her breath. There was no buck immediately behind her, but I grabbed my bow anyway. She soon darted into a tall stand of Sudan sorghum.
The doe had just disappeared when an 11-pointer materialized along the woodline to my right. I had several trail camera photos of this buck over the past two years, and it was now time to harvest him. The sleek-coated buck noticed the decoy and trotted to within 10 feet of it, stopping to appraise his chances of romance. Piece of cake shot, I wrongly assumed. Seems I never run out of miscues when big whitetails show up!
This Illinois 11-pointer was worth the time I spent on stand in a driving rain.
The rain hood pulled over my dominant eye when I drew the bow and turned my head toward the peep sight. Fearing the buck would soon detect the phony filly, I tried to brush back the hood in order to eyeball the 20-yard pin. The eventual shot hit back and low but for sure got liver. Recovery of this buck would have been much more difficult without the help of friends Rick Brown and Rick Coventry.
While working as a trophy whitetail guide and outfitter in years past, it became all too apparent to me that bowhunters come with many different experience levels and mindsets. If given the choice between two clients -- one with many years of experience and mediocre staying power and the other less experienced but with steadfast determination in times of bad weather -- I would always choose the latter. Mother Nature pays no attention to criticism or whining. And when archers begin to whine about bad weather, the attitudes of the other hunters in camp are adversely affected. A big sign in our lodge's meeting room stated, "NO WHINING!" When a whiner started up, I simply pointed to the sign and ran the tip of my index finger across my closed lips. They usually got the hint.
Making the Most of Your Deer Season
A high percentage of archers curtail their hunting during periods of foul weather, which in my opinion has programmed pressured deer to move about in adverse conditions. Sure, deer do lock down in severe weather, but they habitually move before, after, and during breaks in fall or winter storms. Fair-weather archers who avoid going to the woods during these times are eliminating a major block of opportunity for encountering mature bucks.
The old adage "the clothing makes the man" certainly applies to bowhunting. Without adequate garments, hunting in rain, wind, sleet, or snow can be dismal. And dampened spirits regularly drive hunters out of the woods at some of the most favorable times for harvesting exceptional deer. With today's clothing and ground-blind technology, no hunter should be chased from the woods by anything but a tornado, lightning, or marble-sized hail.
Ironically, many whitetail archers over-use their best stand sites during mild weather and sit home after the weather turns for the worse. This gives mature bucks a leg up and virtually assures that you will not be at the right place at the right time. Successful trophy-whackers do just the opposite; they sparingly sneak into those high-odds stands when wind or rain helps cloak their arrival during the rut or in periods of regular late-winter feeding.
Only after realizing that you cannot force an agenda on mature deer will you begin to find favor in Mother Nature's inclement weather. Anything you can do to stay in the field or on stand is acceptable in my opinion (except for sleeping). Some hunters read books, some play games or text on their cell phones, and yet others simply enjoy nature or mental workouts as they look to figure out life's problems. My hole-card for longevity in the field is a Thermos of hot tea and several candy bars. For me, these are instant pick-me-uppers for sticking out the days when success seems less than promising.
My wife, Connie, may have summed it up best on a bowhunt last December. We were in a two-person stand during the afternoon of a winter storm. It was snowing horizontal in our faces as we watched over a food plot. After two hours of seeing only one small buck, I turned to her and asked, "Doesn't this make you feel tougher than the average woman?"
Her reply was classic: "No. It makes me feel stupider."
Unfortunately, toughing it out sometimes seems like stupidity -- but so be it!
The author is a long-time Contributor from west-central Illinois.
Author's Notes: During my wind-blown Wyoming mule deer and Illinois whitetail hunts, I shot a Bear The Truth II bow, TruGlo sight, and 100-grain Steel Force Phathead-tipped Easton Full Metal Jacket arrows.