June 15, 2016
By Barry Wensel
The satisfaction one gets out of any endeavor is usually proportional to what one puts into it. Proper stand preparation leads to confidence, and confidence leads to success. And nothing prepares us for a hunt like a do-it-yourself attempt.
Not only will you gain a lot more satisfaction from the hunt, you'll also acquire a learning experience you can use for the rest of your life, and even pass down.
In my naivety, I thought everyone prepared for every hunt. There are many pieces of the puzzle to consider, but I'm purposely not going to get into the "whole picture" regarding land contours and/or structural positioning. But I do want to touch on a few details that will hopefully get you thinking.
This will likely not be an easy read, and might even seem confusing, but the fact is it will make you a better deer hunter. You may even want to draw out some schematics to help make things clearer.
Location, Location, Location
Over the years, my personal success has depended on hunting terrain structure. Once in the right region, you must pick the right tree, and a lot goes into that selection. I've stated many times I'd prefer a mediocre tree in a great location over a great tree in a mediocre location.
One of the most important aspects of the right tree is an entrance/exit that will create as little disturbance as possible. In almost all cases, we are better off hunting undisturbed deer — animals that are moving with some predictability. This is a fundamental truth.
When everything is naturally balanced in the woods, there will be a normal "buzz." Background noises of birds, insects, frogs, etc. are expected and accepted in the everyday normal cycle/rhythm. Temporary dead silence is a sign of disturbance. Wildlife will pick up on it, and this is one of the reasons I'm an advocate of arriving an hour early rather than a minute late in most stand situations.
I want a buffer to lessen the adverse effects of my disturbances on entering. Not disturbing the "buzz" is also why I'm a big advocate of quietly remaining in position once the ambush has been established.
Changing stands or moving in/out for a lunch or potty break will all disturb the normal buzz, thus costing you a half-hour before the common, expected, and normal noises return.
Entry and Exit Route
A low-impact entrance/exit is vital, and the smart hunter must consider sight, sound, and scent during their approach and departure. Let's use an example of each in illustration. Often, your stand placement is just off the crest of a ridgeline.
Human nature is for old logging/skid roads to follow the crest of the ridge because it makes sense for ease of travel for humans and equipment. But it doesn't make sense for the deer.
Although not always the case, game will usually shy away from being skylined on a ridgetop. They'll tend to walk parallel to the crest on the downwind side. It sometimes depends on the angle of the terrain and visibility (density), but usually they will prefer just far enough off to the side so their silhouette is less obvious, and where they can see downhill just as well as if they were on the crest.
You'll also notice their passage will tend to be on the downwind side of the crest. Think about it — they can see downhill and can scent-check areas upwind, and still not be silhouetted.
We, as hunters, must do the same thing. When entering a stand site along a ridgeline, it's easy to walk the logging road on the top. This is fine when it's dark (another advantage of stand approach before light). But when it's already light, or in the afternoon, you're usually better off picking your way in by walking parallel to the crest.
If I do walk in on a logging road, I try to walk in the "tire track" of the downwind side. For example, say the logging road is running north/south and the wind is coming from the west. You walk in the east tire track so the wind carries your residual ground scent off the road. This ensures any deer that happen to be walking the road later will be less likely to smell your passage.
In addition to this, if you use a scent drag on approach, you will notice it will benefit you even more so. Tie a scent-soaked rag to a short cord off a four-foot switch (or your bow tip), and drag it down the west tire track while you walk the east (downwind) track.
Because I tend to sweat, I normally carry my extra clothing/gear in a backpack. When I get to within 100 yards or so of the stand, I'll stop and put my layered jacket, facemask, gloves, and safety harness on. It's an obvious advantage having your scent on your final approach blowing away from the direction you think the deer will be coming/going.
A Silent Approach
To ensure a silent approach, I like to rake out a footpath to the stand. For those of you who have hunted bears over a bait site, you may have noticed that when multiple bears are hitting the bait, they will approach it via specific footprints.
This is a dominant/subordinate situation. A subordinate bear knows if he is caught by a dominant bear on his approach to the bait, he will likely get his butt kicked. And it could even be a fatal mistake. Therefore, if you look closely around the bait site, you may find distinct, separate footprint/pad marks that bears will actually place their pads in, in order to guarantee a silent entry. I do the same thing when approaching my stand site.
After the foliage drops, you'll often have six inches of dry leaves covering the ground. Walking through dry leaves silently is hopeless. If there is any cadence/rhythm to your gait, it's almost impossible to keep your entrance/exit covert.
At this point I should mention that leaving your ambush silently is just about as important as entering it silently, and in both cases I use the "bear trick" to my advantage.
After the majority of leaves drop, I simply face the fact that I will be disturbing the area and go for it. Time your entrance for midday, knowing what you'll gain will be worth it in the long run.
You can use a regular garden rake with the stiff teeth, but a garden hoe actually works better, because you won't have to constantly clean leaves from the teeth. Clear away the leaves every couple of feet in order to place your boots on solid ground rather than six inches of leaves.
Yes, continued foliage dropping will fill in the raked spots somewhat, but you can just kick them away with your boot tip if needed. Quiet foot placement is especially important on quiet days, or if you are within hearing distance and/or sight of a known bedding area. Of course there are variables, but I have often quietly slipped into a pre-raked, preset stand and taken advantage of the situation.
You'll know it was all worth it when after quietly entering and settling in you see the flick of an ear and notice a deer bedded within eyesight. That probably won't happen on a calm day if you don't pre-rake your approach.
Another use for the hoe/rake is to create a visually more obvious trail or path in the leaves that will direct passing deer to angle slightly to your advantage. I'm not talking about moving them great distances. I'm saying if their normal passage angles slightly away from your best shooting option, you can shift their movement a little closer by raking out a more obvious path/trail in the ground cover in order to create a visual that will catch their eye and shift their angle of movement to your advantage. As long as the visual continues on to where they intend to go, you're fine.
I'll also almost daily break out my trusty ratchet belt hand pruners to open and clear the understory of brushy twigs, both from where the deer will be walking as well as my own approach. An opening through the brush will shift the deer to the path of least resistance, and they will adapt to it in short order. At the same time, I want to eliminate brush and twigs in my entrance path to reduce scent retention and the noise my clothing may create as I pass by. This is all just common preseason detailing.
On approaching a stand setup, I try not to cross the main travel pattern I am hunting. Sometimes there are situations where you have to do that. In these cases, I will plan my approach to the stand right in a precut shooting lane. That way if the deer cuts my entrance trail on approach and stops to smell my minimal ground scent, at least he is standing in a shooting lane.
This is a situation that may also call for the application of what I call "bowling for bucks." On the way into my stand, I'll pick up a couple hedge apples (osage oranges) with gloved hands. For those not familiar with them, they are the fruit of the osage tree. They are yellowish/green, about the size of a grapefruit, with an outer texture that looks grooved — similar to a brain.
Farmers often use the trees themselves for fence posts because the wood takes a long time to ground-rot, hence the term "hedgerow." And, of course, we all know osage wood is commonly used to make beautiful yellowish-colored wood bows. Anyway, after climbing into my stand, I'll take a liquid or gel deer lure and run a bead around the hedge apple (if you don't have osage trees, you can use a regular apple. Just be sure it's legal).
The grooved texture of a hedge apple will accept the scent easier than an eating apple (especially if a gel scent is used). After scenting up the fruit while in my stand, I'll roll (as in bowling) the apple across the deer trail, right through one of my shooting lanes.
The typical scenario is the deer comes walking down the trail and hits the fresh scent where it crosses their path. Because of their ability for directional tracking, they will stop and look in the direction you rolled it. It will offer you a standing, broadside shot at a deer looking the other way. Perfect. No directional, audible bleat necessary.
I also like to play the odds when prepping my stands by hinge-cutting trees for blockage. But before I get into hinge-cutting, let's talk about girdling. It's a practice where you cut the bark all the way around a live tree. It can be accomplished with an axe, a hatchet, a handsaw, or chainsaw. This will cut off the life-blood to the tree and eventually kill it, causing it to topple in whatever direction the wind happens to be blowing that fateful day. You have no control over that.
But the fallen tree will open up the canopy, allowing more light to enter the surrounding grounds, thus generating more secondary growth and thicker understory for better habitat densities. The advantage you have with hinge-cutting over girdling is that you have control over the angle you want the tree to fall for your benefit. Make sure you have total permission from the landowner, so he/she understands what you are doing.
My definition of hinge-cutting is cutting the living, upright tree straight across horizontally until it can be dropped/pushed over in the desired direction. Because the tree is not girdled or cut all the way through, it hopefully will continue to live. Yes, the tree will be horizontal to the ground, but it should still be able to draw water and nutrients up from the soil.
This has the same effect of opening the canopy and allowing sunlight in, yet the still alive tree allows for continued leafing and promotes supplemental feeding where it was previously out of reach. It also increases ground bedding cover and densities, so you achieve multiple benefits.
I prefer to use a good handsaw on trees that are six to eight inches in diameter, and typically 40 or 50-feet tall. The handsaw is tougher, but it allows me to control the cut and push the tree in exactly the direction I want it to fall. I normally make my cut just under four feet above ground level to make the blockage high enough to shift their movement, yet low enough the deer won't just duck under the barricade.
Know Your Limits
Because I only hunt with a recurve bow, I prefer my shots to be at 12 to 15 yards. Not under 10 yards, and not over 20 yards€¦but that's just me. By dropping a tree at a specific distance and angle, you can shift the normal movement pattern so they'll walk right where you want them to.
I fear some young bowhunters today are not learning the woodsmanship skills necessary to fully enjoy our sport. They are being taught all that is necessary is to sit over a food plot in a shooting house while playing a video game, until a big buck appears.
Spending time in the woods preparing for the hunt is half the fun. Not only is the family bonding beneficial, but it also will create valuable lifelong memories of earned and learned success. I have mentored younger whitetail hunters for decades via my educational sessions.
Some of this stuff is hard to follow along with unless you are actually shown. The bottom line is there will be a lot of satisfaction for your efforts. Not only will you watch a deer react exactly as you wanted and intended him to, but your efforts will hopefully shift his movement to a position where you almost can't miss the sucker-shot. And that alone will boost your bowhunting success rates tremendously.