First you define your bowhunting goals; then you take your time in reaching them.
While scouting a public tract in February, I picked a stand tree I thought would give me a wind and terrain advantage over any deer there. In the first 34 days of the 2009 season, wind direction allowed me to hunt this stand only two days. This is the result of the second day. Inset: To get a mature buck, you'll have to pass on many promising 21„2-year-olds like this. I passed on this buck twice in October while waiting for an older buck. Note his half rack.
For weeks I'd been waiting to hunt this spot, but ever since the season opener, the wind had been wrong -- until today. By 3 p.m., I was settled into my tree, filled with anticipation. The season before, a certain buck had made a number of thigh-sized rubs here, and I was hoping to catch him on his feet before dark this day. I'd already shot a couple of does for the freezer and planned to hold out for "big boy" or nothing from now until December.
About 5 p.m., a doe came by at 20 yards. Surprisingly, she was the only deer I saw. At dark, I lowered my bow and started removing the maple limbs I'd stuck in my stand for cover. When I pulled a limb from my stand, the leaves rattled loudly in the cool night air, and immediately I heard footsteps and then could see the shadow of a buck ghosting toward me, trashing every sapling in his path. No doubt he thought my limb shaking was another buck rubbing a tree.
Looking through my binoculars at the buck less than 20 yards from my stand, I could make out a lot of antler. I held my breath until he finally walked away, and then I could hear the distinct sound of his making a scrape up the ridge. I hoped to get another chance at him the next day, but unfortunately the wind shifted 180 degrees and spoiled my plans. Rather than risk spooking him, I hunted elsewhere. But over the next couple of weeks, I thought about that buck a lot.
I'd first got a hint of the buck's presence while scouting the area the previous winter, when I'd found some massive rubs that sent my imagination running wild. What did he look like? How old was he? Had he survived the season? Excited by those rubs, I scoured the area for a tree that would put me in position to kill that buck -- if he were still alive.
Now I knew he was, and that only fueled my obsession for him, so I schemed and waited. In particular, I studied maps and photos, trying to find a possibly better tree. But my original pick was pretty much the only tree that would work. At the same time, I worried that if I didn't get him soon, he would end up miles away looking for does -- or get arrowed by another hunter.
But the right wind never came. In years past I would have pushed the envelope and most likely failed. I would have rationalized that he just might miss winding me and maybe I'd get lucky. But now I knew better -- this old boy didn't reach a ripe old age on public lands by letting hunters get lucky. No, I had to hunt smart by waiting for the right conditions. Patience!
Every season I set a goal for myself. Over the years my goals have changed -- first it was a deer, then a buck, then a Pope and Young buck, and now a 3½-year-old buck or older. I encourage you to set goals and to stick with them -- even if it means eating tag soup at the end of the season.
As a case in point, in 2008 I struggled mightily, not for lack of trying but just plain bad luck. However, I am persistent, and a few days before the end of the season, a respectable eight-point came by on the heels of a herd of does. My adrenaline spiked. Shooter! But as he got closer, I tore my eyes from his rack and studied his body, and was deflated -- 3½-year-old rack, classic 2½-year-old body.
Coming to full draw, I settled my 20-yard pin and nailed the doe just in front of him, and then quickly nocked another arrow and killed another doe as she paused to look back.
"Next year," I whispered as the buck trotted off. Did I regret passing on the buck? No. My goal was to shoot a buck at least
3½ years old, and this one did not qualify. Did the season sting a bit? Sure it did. I hate to fail. But I would have been more disappointed in myself for settling. Patience!
I do most of my scouting right after the season. Yes, the maker of this rub might be dead, but I'm betting he is not because old bucks on public lands are elusive.
To reach a goal, you have to be patient. Let's say the property you hunt has a high percentage of young bucks -- like most public lands across the U.S. Typically, less than 20 percent of the bucks are 3½ years and older. Still, that means that one in five bucks qualifies, so all you have to do is see five bucks and one of them will be a shooter, right?
On paper that makes sense, but in the real world, younger bucks are more apt to show themselves and skew the statistics. Again, let's look at my 2008 season for illustration. My field notes reveal that I saw 38 different bucks throughout the season, and I judged eight of those to be 3½ years old or older -- 21 percent.
But when did I see them? Out of the 28 days I hunted that season, I saw seven of those mature bucks during a four-day period. Over one stretch, I saw 13 different bucks and no shooters. So, even though the older bucks made up 20 percent of the buck population, far more than 20 percent of my buck sightings were of younger bucks. With the sporadic big-buck sightings, I could easily have convinced myself there really weren't any big bucks around and settled. To stay focused on my goal, I constantly tell myself my odds are getting better with each young buck passed. Patience!
The Right Conditions
Perhaps most importantly, lofty goals mean nothing if you don't establish the conditions to reach them. Every year on public lands, I see stands that seem to be set more for convenience than success. The sites appear to ignore wind direction, pressure from other hunters, terrain features, and vegetation types. Often, I cannot figure out why hunters hung stands in those particular spots. Maybe they saw a few tracks or droppings or a rub tree there and figured that was good enough.
Every one of my stand sites must meet certain criteria, or I won't hunt there. First they must have the right terrain and vegetation features to funnel deer past my stand. They also must give me good concealment, allow me to enter and exit undetected, and take advantage of pressure
from other hunters. Above all, wind direction must be right.
You can have the best spot in the world, but if you hunt it carelessly, spooking deer on the way in or out or allowing deer to smell you on stand, you will never meet your goals. Wait until conditions are just right. Patience!
Finally -- The Right Wind
On November 3, the wind finally switched to the perfect direction for the stand where I had seen the big buck. Slipping into the area well before daylight, I had just settled into my stand when I heard the distinct sound of a buck walking toward me. Even though it was a good 20 minutes before shooting light, the full moon gave me plenty of light to see a nice buck walking by a mere 10 yards from my tree. I was happy he remained oblivious to me but disappointed he'd come by so early.
Then my ears picked up the sound of another buck coming. If you've ever heard a big buck walking when he's not being cautious, you know the sound, and you know it never leaves you. This was just such a sound.
At 20 yards I could make out the buck through my binoculars -- it was him! The monster that had been occupying my thoughts for weeks was slipping past me -- too early to shoot. Both times I'd seen him had been outside of legal shooting hours, and I couldn't help but wonder if I would ever catch him during daylight. As he went by I decided it was him or nothing. I had a good idea where he was bedding, and I was determined to sit there until he moved or I ran out of daylight.
Throughout the morning I saw a few does and fawns, and finally, at 1 p.m., I heard what I was waiting for -- those heavy, deliberate steps! Getting ready, I strained to see him. Finally I caught movement, and a buck materialized -- the big buck's traveling buddy from early that morning, a good-sized seven-pointer. I thought the big guy would be with him, but he wasn't. After a tense 30 minutes of waiting, I sat back down and continued my vigil.
At 3 p.m., I heard another buck coming. Standing, I peered to my right and saw a buck picking his way toward me. At first I thought it was just another average buck, until he turned his head and I saw the spread. Both times I'd seen the big guy, it had been too dark to count points, but the wide spread was unmistakable.
Apparently his testosterone had finally got the better of him, and he was on his feet inside of legal shooting hours. Trying to ignore the antlers, I focused on the shot, and when he stopped 25 yards from my stand I sent my arrow on its way.
A short while later I was standing over my goal. Weighing a whopping 275 pounds on the hoof and sporting a wide, 10-point rack, he was even bigger than I'd realized. Those were a long 34 days, but a little patience was a small price to pay for a huge reward like that.
Lee Mitchell is a wildlife biologist for the Department of Defense. If you are interested in a custom map of your property or in a making a wildlife management plan, contact Lee at www.ilwildlifeservices.com .
Author's Notes: On this hunt, I used a Mathews Q2XL bow, Beman ICS 400 arrows, and 125-grain G5 Montec broadheads.