November 04, 2010
By Jason Johnson
When deer can travel in comfort -- they will! You just need to be there to greet them.
By Jason Johnson
Sitting in my ground blind, I gazed at the once-beautiful stand of hardwoods and pondered how Hurricane Katrina had altered the landscape a few years back. Lost in thought, enjoying the morning, I heard a twig snap and peered out the window to see a nice 8-point Mississippi whitetail paralleling the edge of the debris that used to be a thriving, mature forest. As the buck moved closer, I positioned myself for a shot, and when he stopped at 32 yards, I sent an arrow through his vitals. He expired in short order.
Taking that buck was gratifying, but even more fulfilling was the fact that I had devised a plan that worked. For a bowhunter, nothing compares to the satisfaction of scouting and analyzing, and then executing well-laid plans. Hunters use many different strategies for bagging whitetails, of course, but I have developed an approach that has consistently produced southern whitetails for me and will work anywhere.
It's based on predictability, a significant word in hunting. In my 20-plus years of bowhunting for whitetails, I've learned that whitetails are predictably unpredictable. Admittedly, a small part of whitetail success relates to the mystical mojo that brings good or bad luck. However, far more important is understanding why deer do what they do. It is in this sense that deer are, to a certain degree, predictable.
While the analogy might not be perfect, I think my approach to travel might have some relevance. When taking a trip, I choose the shortest, fastest route to my destination. If possible, I take the freeway. Or I take a primary route with a freshly paved, smooth surface. In short, human nature leads me, like most people, to take the easiest and most comfortable path to my destination.
Whitetail deer choose trails based on similar principles. My common-sense approach to taking whitetails centers on understanding the preferred travel routes of deer. Follow a few of the setups I have outlined below and you will draw the string on deer a little more often.
THE STORM EDGE
While I would not wish a natural disaster on anyone, Mother Nature makes up her own mind about where she will wreak havoc. In Central and South Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina left most of the mature hardwoods looking like a stack of matchsticks. The younger trees fared better, as they were more flexible and swayed with the winds.
Since Katrina, many hunters have become so frustrated with the mess of timber that they resort to hunting open fields. The downed timber has created awesome bedding areas, but getting a shot at a deer in there is a major task. It took a little out-of-the-box thinking, but I finally developed a strategy for hunting the new landscape.
Spooked or pressured deer will take the road less traveled, of course, which means they will put up with the aggravation of climbing through, around, and over downed timber. However, if undisturbed, they will take the easier routes along the edge of downed timber -- just as I take the four-lane highway instead of winding country roads. Last year, I took two nice deer as they followed the edge of the downed storm timber and a young stand of plantation pine trees.
Always remember -- if natural disaster hits your hunting lands, you must change your tactics. Whitetail deer are highly adaptive and will quickly change their old routines to compensate for any changes that Mother Nature may bring. Make the havoc work for you.
A few years back, I was hunting a large acorn flat. With many trails winding across the flat, I could only guess which trail the deer would use -- and I usually guessed wrong. However, over time, I noticed that most of the deer that fed on the flat had one thing in common -- they left the flat in the same direction.
Some midday scouting led me to a long slough bordering the upper side of the acorn flat. As the deer exited the flat back to their primary bedding area on the opposite side of the slough, they followed the edge of that slough.
Looking closer, I found a well-worn trail meandering along the edge of the slough. Again, I began to reason: The shortest route to the bedding area would be straight across the slough, but the deer would have to swim. Instead, they followed the edge of the slough like a road, walking down the eastern shore, around the northern end, and along the western side to their bedding area.
Sure, if deer want to escape danger quickly, they will take to the water like Labrador retrievers. But I believe they prefer not to cross open water unless forced to. They prefer to skirt the water and stay dry -- just as we do.
After completing my psychoanalysis of the deers' behavior, I moved my Gorilla climber to a tree that would give me a 25-yard shot at the lakeside trail. At dawn, several deer entered the flat, including one nice buck. The group fed for 30 minutes or so and then began to head down the edge of the water toward my setup.
As the biggest buck approached, I drew my bow and made a soft grunt with my mouth. When the buck paused, I slipped an arrow through his chest, just behind the shoulder. The 13-pointer had a gross antler measurement of 136 inches. Clearly, natural features like sloughs and other bodies of water play a huge part in the movement of deer. Make those features work for you.
While hunting a wheatfield, I noticed that most deer entered the field at one specific point. Walking over to see why, I discovered that a tree had fallen onto a barbed-wire fence, compressing the top three strands of wire down to the bottom strand. Again, the deer had found their four-lane highway, the most comfortable travel route into the field. Without hesitation, I placed a stand there and took a nice deer.
Now I commonly create similar highways for deer by tying the top two strands of a fence together to concentrate deer movement. I do this only on my own property, of course, or on lands where the landowner has given me permission.
I also use a field mower, or "bush hog" as we Southerners call the machines, to clip paths -- deer superhighways -- through thick spots. I plant most of my food plots in areas of high deer traffic -- extremely thick patches of briar, honeysuckle, and hedge. One of my best food plots borders a large section of clearcut timber that has grown into a jungle. One December, deer were using the food plot heavily but approaching on many different trails through
the clearcut jungle. Hunting them was a pure guessing game, and invariably I ended up watching the wrong trail at the wrong time.
In an effort to funnel the deer into the plot at a predictable spot, I bush-hogged a path through the thick growth. Then I placed my Ameristep ground blind at the intersection of the whitetail highway and food plot.
After waiting for the perfect wind, I sneaked into the blind for a December rut hunt. As several does walked straight down my newly established road into the field, I was filled with giddy emotion at having influenced the deer to this spot in my greenfield. As the lead doe gazed back down the trail, I felt sure another deer was on the way.
Suddenly, the does bolted to the far side of the plot. Just as I thought, a nice buck was slipping down my whitetail highway, and as he got closer to my blind, my eyes focused on his antlers. Look at the shoulder -- not the antlers! I told myself.
When the 11-point buck finally stepped from my prepared road into the plot and presented a quartering-away shot, he paid the toll for using that road. As I aligned the pin with the deer's shoulder and tightened my back muscles, the arrow raced on its mission, and the buck went down 60 yards from the field.
We humans always seek the smoothest, straightest, fastest routes to our destinations, and deer do the same. Wherever possible, they want to travel in comfort. Understand the mindset of a deer, and let the cover and terrain work for you.
I killed the 8-pointer in the beginning of this story with a BowTech General set at 70 pounds and an Easton ST Axis arrow tipped with a 100-grain Tight Point Shuttle T-Lock broadhead. I killed the 11-pointer at the end of this story with a BowTech Tribute set at 62 pounds and a Gold Tip 55/75 arrow tipped with a 100-grain Tight Point Shuttle T-Lock broadhead. On both hunts, I used Leupold's 8x32 binoculars and RX-II laser rangefinder. I wore ScentBlocker base layers and pants in Mossy Oak camo, a RedHead pullover hooded sweatshirt, and LaCrosse AlphaBurly insulated rubber boots.
The author is a resident of Tylertown, Mississippi. He is a member of BowTech's Pro Hunting Staff, and also serves as president of the Mississippi Bowhunters Association.