Adapt and overcome. Add “improvise” to the front, and you’ve got the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps. But just adapt and overcome could be the battle cry for those of us who bowhunt pressured ground.
Even in the best conditions, with no hunting competition whatsoever, bowhunting is difficult. You’ve got to get within spitting distance of one of the wariest critters on the planet. Try doing that when there are other people around spooking deer with their scent, noise and movement and tagging out starts to feel like a fantasy.
You’ve got to adapt to the pressure and overcome the challenges it presents. In my native Pennsylvania, unpressured ground is almost nonexistent. I have never bowhunted a place where I didn’t have to deal with other hunters. But I’ve found a way to be successful under those conditions. So trust me when I say it can be done.
Be ‘That Guy’
Your approach to pressured ground should be simple. Whatever it takes. Be willing to do anything.
A 2004 study of hunter movements during Pennsylvania’s firearms deer season found that, on average, hunters traveled no more than a half-mile from any road. Also, the steeper terrain got, the fewer hunters that country saw. The bottom line is, most hunters aren’t
going into places that are hard to reach. Be the guy who is willing to get up an hour earlier than everyone else in order to hike back to those spots.
Another Pennsylvania study of deer activity on public land showed the resident deer didn’t flee the state when hunters descended on their territory. They simply adjusted their daily routines to avoid the pressure. You need to be in those places where deer hide.
Hiking a mile through rough, mountain country isn’t a simple task. Once you set your mind to do it, get in shape. Run or walk every day to build up your muscles and cardiovascular system.
Be creative. Get one of those carts with big wheels made for hauling deer, like the Ameristep Nontypical. Put your treestand and other gear on the cart for the hike in to save your back. When you come out, if you have a successful hunt, that cart will make deer removal far simpler than trying to drag a deer the whole way.
If there’s a river or lake in the area, use a canoe to paddle to unpressured places, or slip on a pair of chest waders to ford a stream. You can almost bet the farm that few, if any, other hunters are accessing spots from the water. Right there, you’re doing something the deer don’t expect.
When you’re attitude is whatever it takes, you’ll find a way to get where you need to be.
Scout for Hunters
It’s easy to say, “Go steeper and deeper,” in places where the hunting country is big. But what do you do if the hunting parcels are smaller, the terrain is gentle and there’s plenty of road access? Scout for other hunters. Look for treestands and trails marked with flagging tape or reflective tacks — any evidence that indicates another hunter is frequenting a particular area.
My approach to hunting pressured ground is always to find cracks in the pressure. If a spot has hunters, I don’t want to be there. It might be a good spot, but I don’t want to play the “I was here first” game. You might end up in that situation anyway if another hunter walks in on you unsuspectingly or vice versa. But if you have evidence that others are around, then you know you could run into them.
I go to great lengths to minimize my scent and noise to keep deer from knowing I’m around. Other hunters might not be so careful. If I’m hunting an area other hunters use, everything I do to avoid detection could be moot. Rest assured, on almost any piece of ground, it’s likely there are places hunters avoid. The deer know where they are, and you need to find them.
The first place I always look for is the thickest, nastiest patch of cover. You’d be surprised how a big-racked buck can snake into such places. If it’s legal, trim a narrow path into such cover to a tree where you can hang a stand and get above the tangles. Don’t overdo it. You don’t want other hunters to find your honey-hole. Selectively cut just enough branches to allow you to slip through. Overlook nothing. There could be a tiny cluster of trees out in the middle of a field that everyone walks past because it looks worthless. That’s just the kind of place where a mature buck might go once the pressure is on.
In 2004, Pennsylvania bowhunter Lester Zimmerman shot a monster 15-point buck that made the state’s record book by hunting from a stand he placed in a fencerow sticking out into a cornfield. The whole area where Zimmerman was hunting saw a lot of bowhunting pressure, but no one except him hunted that fencerow.
If you scout and scout and it seems you just can’t find a place that’s devoid of hunters, then study their travel patterns to see if you can use their activity to your benefit. My brother-in-law had great success bowhunting a state park when he canoed across the lake to get to a wooded peninsula a good two hours before daylight. This finger of woods was not terribly remote, but by approaching it from the water very early, he could get into position at the very tip before other hunters walked in from the road. Often, they pushed deer out the peninsula, which funneled them right to his tree.
Also, hunt during the week. I’m always amazed how little competition I find on pressured ground simply by hunting weekday mornings. Lots of folks get out of work early enough for evening hunts, but I usually have mornings to myself.
Now, everything we’ve talked about up to this point has focused on getting you into a productive spot. Are you ready for the most difficult aspect of bowhunting pressured ground? Be willing to give up that spot.
If someone moves in on you, don’t be stubborn. Move out. It’s hard and it’s going to hurt. But what good does it do to sit defiantly in your stand if the deer now avoid that area because of pressure from others?
I once put three years into finding and then figuring out how to hunt a funnel between two patches of thick cover on private land where a lot of people had permission to hunt. Where I hung my stand, the landowner wanted no gun hunting. That suited me perfectly. And it seemed all the other guys on the property stayed away from it, because they wanted to find spots where they could hunt with bow and gun.
The third year I hunted that spot, I finally figured out how to get into my stand without walking through deer. My hard work paid off the second week of November when I snaked an arrow between the ribs of a fine 10-point buck.
Another hunter who had permission to be on the land saw me hauling that buck out of the woods. The next year, he planted a ladder stand 25 yards directly in front of my tree. He even took two reflective tacks off my tree to mark his own stand. He flat-out told me he saw me haul my buck out the year before, and that he followed my cart tracks back to my stand.
“I figured this must be a good spot,” he said.
He bumped deer constantly walking in to his stand and boogered that spot good. As much as I hated to do it, I moved. Do I think he was totally out of line? Absolutely. Was there anything I could do about it? Nope. He had as much right to be there as I did. Don’t get trapped by an emotional connection to a spot. Give it up if someone else moves in, but keep tabs on it. You might get to move back in if the invader moves out. But don’t waste your time trying to win a battle of wills with someone who is willing to encroach like that.
Just because a piece of property sees a fair amount of hunting pressure doesn’t mean it’s worthless. If you see good deer in there when hunting season is off, or it’s the only piece of huntable land you can access, figure out a way to hunt it and be successful. You might have to think outside the box, but if that’s what it takes, then so be it.
Adapt and overcome.