Bowhunters face a myriad of unavoidable pitfalls. One of the most common is the habitat we hunt. Trees and brush often prevent us from shooting, while unseen branches can cause our shots to go askew. Bowhunting is a game of inches. So it’s not uncommon for a shot to hinge on the movement an
animal may or may not make to clear an obstruction.
Smart bowhunters strive to become intimate with the trajectory of their favorite bow along every inch of an arrow’s course. This allows them to thread shots through apparent tangles to place a broadhead in an animal’s vitals. The fact is intervening branches, brush and other obstacles become a consideration on every shot we take at game.
While such circumstances can make hunters stalking elk or mule deer goofy with frustration, whitetail hunters have it easier. They have more control over such matters. The stand hunter can create shooting lanes before a shot evolves to ensure minimal interference. How much cutting is too much? Ask any number of bowhunters what their opinion is on the matter and you’ll receive as many answers.
At one extreme are those who believe any cutting hurts your chances. The logic follows that savvy whitetail are sure to notice any altering of its surroundings, ruining any chance of a shot. At the opposite extreme are those who create fairway-like lanes around stands, insisting that there’s no advantage in seeing a buck you can’t shoot. There’s no right or wrong answer, because every situation is different.
Erring To The Safe Side
Undeniably, some deer tend to shy away from new cutting of any sort. This varies based on hunting pressure, as well as the general disposition of individual animals. Unfortunately, the very biggest bucks are those most likely to take offense to trimming. Once you’ve alerted a buck to your presence you’re not likely to see him again. Such bucks may require a hunter to be mobile, hanging a stand and hunting it immediately. We strive to do everything right while hunting these veterans–from scent control, careful stand approach, and perfect stand placement. Cutting just a few branches can be the single factor tipping the odds in a buck’s favor, or in yours.
I recall a monster Illinois nontypical, wearing several long drop-tines and sticker points that probably would have scored 195. I had him reasonably patterned, moving a stand to a risky site hoping to ambush him the same day. One pair of spindly sage saplings across a key trail concerned me. I sawed them off with little thought, though taking care to leave no human scent behind; I sprayed scent killer on my rubber boots and pruning saw, and wore scent-eliminating gloves.
In the evening the behemoth approached on the very same trail. My heart was in my throat as he approached to 25 yards, promising to pass directly before my stand. He hit those cut stumps and stopped cold, facing me, but offering no shot. He stood nervously and endlessly sniffed the raw wood. In the end he calmly turned and sneaked back the way he’d come.
Would I have received a shot at that buck had I not cut those seemingly innocent saplings? Did cutting them cost me a shot? I think so. Could I have done something differently? Probably.
I could have left them alone and shot around them. I could have waited for him to reach a better position, risking being scented and having him spooked before a shot developed. I wonder what would’ve happened had I been more diligent in disguising the fresh cuts.
It would’ve been easy to use scent-free cord to tie the obstructing branches aside. This is an option when a single or limited number of pliable branches are a concern. Branches around your stand can be pulled into strategic locations to provide break-up cover, without cutting and dropping them where they’re likely to attract attention.
Before cutting, study the area around your stand carefully, assessing all likely approach areas and obvious shooting lanes. Cut only branches absolutely necessary for a shooting path, remembering that branches around you serve as cover. Overhead branches are less problematic, less likely to be noticed by deer. If an obstruction is found at ground level, cut it flush with ground level, covering stumps with loose leaves or dirt to disguise the evidence.
After cutting, take care to toss material far from your stand where it won’t be noticed. Only cut branches enough to allow them to sag or dangle out of your shooting path. Cut material can also be secured around your stand to enhance background cover.
You can’t be too scent-conscious with whitetail. Wear clean rubber or scent-containment gloves while handling anything near your stand. Pull on knee-high rubber boots scrubbed with baking soda, or scent-containing “waders,” avoid brushing against the surrounding foliage whenever possible. Scent-containment clothing also helps. Neutral odor-eliminating sprays provide added insurance. Spray on any body part likely to contact material being cut or brushed against.
All Or Nothing
There are hunting spots that not only facilitate repeated stand locations but make them practical. Planted food plots, small farm fields, acorn-bearing white or red oaks, an abandoned farmstead orchard, all bring deer to the same location year after year. Other hunting areas simply offer limited cover; shelterbelts or isolated creek beds traversing otherwise wide
-open prairie or farmland.
On private lands, hunters have time to thoroughly prepare. Time is available to cut shooting lanes in summer months to ensure deer accept them in advance. In these circumstances there’s no reason to leave anything to chance. Grab the chainsaw; cut virtual fairways. Sew them with clover or winter wheat to attract deer or bring them into the open.
On leased or public lands there’s no reason not to invest in prudent summer trimming (where legal) around a sound site you hunt each year with success. Ridgetops, saddles, vegetation bottlenecks or river crossings are obvious sites that repeatedly produce. Like rinsing off a plate before leaving it in the sink for later washing, cutting ahead of the season makes your job easier once you begin hunting–without worry of spooking bucks you’ll soon be hunting.
In other areas, it’s possible to trim away then hop right into your stand without spooking deer. On a typical working farm, deer become accustomed to human activities and take changes in stride. Once, hunting whitetails in Iowa, I watched a fencerow corner visited repeatedly by nice bucks. After lunch, my farmer buddy and I took a look and found the ultimate scrape; as big as a pickup hood and pawed a foot deep. I had a stand hung within 15 minutes.
Before my buddy departed I pointed out a problem branch across an obvious approach corridor. He walked right up and hacked at it noisily with a dull hatchet, dropping the substantial branch in the middle of the field edge. My friend’s a heavy smoker, his coveralls perpetually stained and smelling of diesel fuel. I hoped a drizzling rain would wash the scent away before a buck arrived come evening. My buddy waved and turned heel before I could signal him to drag the branch away.
Thirty minutes later, two record-book bucks made their way up the field edge, quickly approaching the scrape and the dropped limb. As they advanced I was fairly panicked, wanting to force a shot before they reached the dropped limb I was sure would spook them. No shot developed and I was forced to wait. When the smaller buck, easily 140 inches, stepped over the branch, I held my breath. He took no notice. The bigger buck followed, stopping right on top of the branch I so feared. I put an arrow through his heart and collected my best whitetail ever.
It just goes to show, you never can tell. Every hunting area’s different. Every deer has its own level of tolerance.
Whitetails keep us guessing. If in doubt when creating shooting lanes, err to the side of caution. Take steps to ensure that the big buck you’re after has no idea he’s being hunted. A clear shooting lane ensures a clean shot, and a clean shot is a deadly one.