For years, I had always prepared for bow season with the same overall approach: Put up deer stands in July and August, get my bow in order, and then hunt every weekend from opening day until I either filled all of my tags or the season ran out in mid-January.
And while I had some success filling my freezer along the way, harvesting a true Pope & Young-class buck with a bow had always eluded me.
Then two things took place that would change the way I approached my season. First, I had to have shoulder surgery in 2012, and I ended up with a long rehab and recovery period.
Surgery and Epiphany
It was assumed that 30 years of heavy shooting had complicated, if not caused, the problem with my shoulder. The surgery was a success, and despite being done with rehab, it still weighed on my mind as I focused on the 2013 bow season. I began to wonder if it was time to cut back a little bit.
The second thing that happened around that time was something I heard from a well-known deer hunter. He was advocating that except for the occasional cold front in October, to wait until the end of October when the rut kicks in to begin hunting in earnest.
Looking at my own track record in late September and October, I had killed some does but very few bucks during that time, and none were high-quality bucks.
With Bill's advice echoing in my head, I wondered if I was burning out my stands long before they had the potential to be productive for older bucks. Would hunting fresher stands during the rut produce better results?
With this newfound inspiration, I held off going to the woods for almost the entire month of October in 2013. My first couple sits in late October and early November were some of the best hunts I've ever experienced. Deer movement was plentiful, and I was seeing more bucks than does — something that had never been the case in 15 years of hunting this same farm.
First Time Success
I am convinced that at least part of the reason for the increase in deer sightings was due to the fact that I was hunting my stands for the first time, right when the bucks were starting to move more frequently because of the pre-rut. It was November 9, and I had only hunted three times all season. That day would be my first sit in a stand I refer to as the "Buck Rub Alley" stand. The wind was right, and it was a cool, almost calm morning.
I rattled every 30 minutes or so, with grunts and an occasional snort-wheeze thrown into the mix. At 9 a.m., I spotted a large eight-pointer I had named "Hitchhiker." I had been after this now 140-class buck for two years. He was on the move, and was too far for a shot. I grunted at him, but to no avail.
When the buck was far enough away that I could risk moving without being spotted, I grabbed my rattle bag and rattled hard. The results were immediate as he quickly turned, pinned his ears back, and came at me on a string. I should have Hitchhiker on my wall today, but my shot was off the mark and he lived to see another day.
"There are many variables that contribute to success in hunting, and nothing is a sure thing. The best that we can usually do is to take every measure we can on the variables that we have some control over."
Despite this disappointment, I was still encouraged that my decision to keep my stands fresh until the rut appeared to be paying off. The next day, November 10, I was in a different stand just a couple hundred yards from where I had missed Hitchhiker. Around 8 a.m., I spotted a buck about 100 yards away crossing a drainage ditch and walking away from me.
At first I thought it was Hitchhiker, and I got excited at the thought of an opportunity for redemption. I grunted at him, but despite looking my way, the buck had no interest. I grabbed my rattling bag, and in what seemed like a repeat of the day before, I cracked the bag and the buck immediately turned and started my way.
As he got closer, I realized that it wasn't Hitchhiker. But it was a good mature buck, so I prepared myself for a possible shot. He got to within 20 yards and then stopped and stood facing me head-on, looking for the fight he had heard.
Fortunately, the brush was thick enough around my stand that he couldn't see that far, and finally he committed to coming past me. When he presented me with a quartering-away shot at 15 yards, I threaded an arrow down through both of his lungs. He made it about 80 yards before piling up.
Pope & Young
My 2013 buck turned out to be my first legitimate Pope & Young-class buck, netting just over 126 inches. As I sat down beside him, I couldn't help but smile to myself that it seemed too easy, not having had to put in days and days of hunting. Keeping my stands fresh for the rut had provided me with quick success, and it had made that season one of my most memorable.
After the great experience I had in 2013, I decided to play the same hand in the 2014 season. I stayed out of the woods from the September opener through the entire month of October.
November 1 was the first hunt of the season for me, and right off the bat I had a 140-class 10-pointer headed my way. He ended up following a doe away from me, but it was apparent that keeping my stands fresh until the rut was again providing me with quality buck encounters.
Many experts have stated that November 7 — 10 may be the best days of the entire rut to harvest a buck. I have also seen this to be true, and so I always try to take some vacation days each year around that time. Most of the bucks I have killed during bow season have fallen on one of those days, including my 2013 eight-pointer.
For the 2014 season, November 10 was on a Monday, so I took Monday through Wednesday off work, figuring it would be my best chance for a buck before the upcoming Missouri rifle season opener. Like in 2013, I was seeing more bucks than does, and I was also getting good responses to my grunting and rattling.
On Monday, November 10, the wind was wrong for my stands, so I opted to skip the morning hunt and sleep in instead. In the afternoon, I decided to change things up a bit by hunting on the ground in an overgrown part of the farm that I had not hunted in a long time. The wind was perfect for it, so I tucked myself into an old cedar tree early in the afternoon. My only concern was that this spot was tough to hunt and if a deer came through it would be spitting-distance close!
It was still a good hour and a half before dark when I heard what sounded like a cough or sneeze of some kind. Not expecting any deer that early, I dismissed it as nothing. Five minutes later, I heard it again — only this time it sounded much closer! Going on high alert, I grabbed my bow and waited. It wasn't long before I saw movement, and a large buck emerged from the brush not 30 yards away, headed right for me.
At 10 yards, he worked a scrape and overhanging licking branch, giving me quite a show at eye level. He looked enormous that close, and I dared not breathe. When he was done with his scrape, he chose to take the trail to my right. I carefully eased my bow back to full draw, and as he came through he was a mere five yards away!
Nothing Is a Sure Thing
I touched off the shot as his chest came into view through the shooting hole I had cut in the brush. My arrow took him through the heart and lungs, and he sprinted past me and I heard him crash not 40 yards away.
As I eased up to him, I was ecstatic to see how nice he was! He was a nine-pointer that ended up grossing 134 P&Y-style inches. He had a beautiful double-throat patch, and he was clearly an older buck. He was my second P&Y-class buck taken in as many years, and on the same date to boot! I never expected to see a buck of this caliber so early before dark, and I truly believe it was at least partly due to my waiting to hunt until the time was optimal for big-buck movement.
That was the first time I had hunted that particular spot that season, so it was as fresh as it could have possibly been.
There are many variables that contribute to success in hunting, and nothing is a sure thing. The best that we can usually do is to take every measure we can on the variables that we have some control over.
While not a new concept of course, I proved to myself that there can be real value in keeping stands fresh, and then waiting until conditions are optimal for big-buck movement before hunting them in earnest. For me, this was a change from the normal routine I had followed for years, and it paid off for me in spades. And it can work for you, too!