Statistics show that roughly 80 percent of bowhunters end the season without shooting a buck. Right about now, many of us are reflecting back on the season and the mistakes we might have made, what we could have done differently, or better. Maybe it was discouraging enough that we are even wondering if it is worth all the effort.
First off, it might help to know you are not alone. I have been there a few times myself; we all have. And I am sure I will be there a few more times before they put me in the ground. But it is worth it. As frustrating as it can sometimes be, the quest is a major part of the reward.
The passion you put into the journey will determine what you take from it in terms of success rate and level of satisfaction. I would sit out there every day of the season even if there were just one buck on our farm — still playing the chess match; trying to get him. When you boil it all down, the quest is what holds us like a steel trap in cold stands among windy treetops. The same journey also offers the most lessons if we pay attention along the way.
Since it is time to reflect on the season just passed, I am going to offer the five best lessons I have absorbed from 30 years of the journey.
Lesson 1: It Is All About Location
Don’t let anyone kid you; where you hunt is more important than how you hunt. I have heard the opposite said many times, but they are wrong, or selling something. I will place my bet on an average deer hunter in a great area over a great deer hunter in an average area. To be honest with you, that is how I got where I am today. I hunted great areas when I was just an average (or worse) deer hunter and everyone thought I knew something special about deer. All I knew was how to find great hunting spots.
Over the years, I have definitely learned a ton about deer and how to hunt them, but I have never grown so arrogant as to think I can kill a big buck in areas where they are heavily hunted. I still need great spots in order to keep shooting good bucks.
So, it starts with the location. You have to be honest with yourself. If you simply can’t afford the time to find a better spot, then accept your lot in life and enjoy the process of hunting in tough settings. Don’t compare your success to those who hunt better areas. It will only discourage you. Focus on the journey, not the outcome.
However, don’t give up easily on this quest if you don’t have to. It is more important than anything else you can do in an effort to shoot a nice buck. You can really crank up your hunting success by investing your time in finding better areas. I am not going to go into detail on ways you can find these places. Briefly, start with family, friends and friends of family and friends of friends. You are probably two degrees of separation from a great hunting area.
Start with everyone you know. That is your best chance. From there, be willing to do work for landowners and be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are relationships. Invest your time in this way and you will be rewarded.
Lesson 2: It Only Takes A Few Good Decisions
I remember reading a book by Chuck Yeager many years ago. One of Chuck’s quotes from that book really stuck with me. He said the engineer who was helping him break the speed of sound was so knowledgeable about the systems found in the rocket Chuck was flying, the engineer was able to make it seem simple. That is the definition of true genius in any effort. When you have truly mastered a subject, you can simplify it. So, that is our goal as deer hunters. Let’s not look for ways to make this more complicated. Let’s look for ways to make it simpler.
You only have to make a couple of good decisions. After that, luck takes over and determines the outcome. The first good decision is which part of your hunting area you are going to hunt on a given day. Making that decision takes a lot of real-time information. I have learned the hard way that deer sign just isn’t enough. Big tracks are valuable and they can really help you decide where to hunt, but during dry years or in areas with hard ground, tracks are not visible and hard to age.
That brings us to trail cameras. I was a slow adopter, but I am a big believer in them now. I use trail cameras with one primary goal in mind, to tell me which part of my hunting area has a nice buck that seems killable. That means you need to find bucks that are moving often and doing so during daylight hours. When you locate such a buck, the decision of where to hunt is gone. Now you just need to figure out which ones are the best stands you can find within this core area.
That brings us to the second good decision. I could write a book about selecting the right tree, so there is no point in trying to wrap my arms around this entire subject. However, I can summarize the key steps in the process.
As I’m sure you know, you have to play the wind. You also need to have a tree you can get to and from without alerting any deer. If you simply do these two things well, and do it within the core area of an active buck, you have a decent chance of killing him. Now, combine that with a little thoughtful strategy — saving your best stands for the best days (late October and early November) — and the odds go up even more.
Lesson 3: Keep Them In The Dark
I hinted at this in the last section. One of the keys to consistently taking whitetail bucks or does is your ability to keep the deer from knowing you are hunting them. Once they know you are hunting them, they stop moving naturally. Bowhunting is brutally tough when the deer aren’t moving naturally. That is why the first time you hunt a location each season is often your best chance for success.
There are two ways to use this knowledge. First, you can hunt so carefully tha
t the deer never figure it out. That is possible, but much harder than most bowhunters believe. I have a few stands set up so well I can hunt them nearly every day the wind is from a certain direction, but such stands are very rare.
The second strategy is to manage your impact carefully, to spread your pressure out and to make the most of every “first time in” opportunity. I treat my first time in to a particular stand as a very significant event (which it is). I never take these opportunities for granted because they only come once per season for each stand. To make the most of your first time in, don’t hunt your best stands until the time is right. You might get lucky pushing the issue earlier in the season, but more than likely, you will simply burn the spot out before the bucks using that area are moving during the daylight. You waste the element of surprise, something you can’t get back for another year.
This is not to say that you should only hunt each stand once (I only wish I had enough awesome stands that I could do it that way), but you need to be aware that each subsequent time you hunt the stand, it will tend to be less productive. Spreading your pressure is one way to keep stands fresher longer. I like to give stands at least five days rest between hunts whenever possible. Even stands that set up well for undetected hunting will be more productive when you are able to rest them at least five days between hunts.
Hunt your marginal stands during marginal times and on marginal winds and save your best stands for the ideal conditions. That strategy will produce a more successful season than you would have if you hunt your best stands right from the start.
Lesson 4: Scout Loud
I used to be afraid to do any in-season scouting and stand placement until I started paying more attention to how deer act around farm equipment and even around people cutting firewood. When you make a lot of noise, the deer don’t seem to equate you with danger. Now when I scout and place stands during the season, I do it either right during a light rain so I can get away with it clean, or I make a bunch of noise so the deer leave well ahead of me and don’t see me as danger.
Deer don’t like surprises, and bucks in particular will stop using an area temporarily where they were surprised by a person sneaking around. However, if you drive up in a loud tractor, rev the engine, start a chainsaw and beat on a few things with hammers, they will just leave and come right back. That is what farmers and landowners do — people who have never threatened the deer. Hunters are sneaky. Don’t try to be sneaky unless you know you can get away with it 100 percent.
So, when you have a sensitive area to scout, blow all the deer out ahead of time. Drive right in there on a tractor, if you can. If you match normal, non-threatening human activity whenever you are scouting, you will not impact the habits of the deer using the area.
Lesson 5: Squeeze The Trigger
This is the only lesson I have learned about making the shot from which I think you might really benefit. I used to fight with doubts that I could make good shots under the excitement of an encounter with a big deer. I always feared I would do something dumb, punch the trigger, rush the shot, look up, or have a meltdown in my form. I have had a few questionable shots at big bucks over the years that fueled that doubt.
I think it is a common fear. Not everyone will admit it, but deep down inside, there is a restlessness that grips our hearts when we think about messing up an important shot.
I finally settled this issue when I learned to squeeze the trigger on all my shots, including those I take at game. By triggering the shot in a way that takes me by surprise, I feel like I am making the best possible shots under each situation. It forces my emotions to fall in line, if only for a few seconds. The act of squeezing the trigger slows me down at the very moment of truth. I feel like I am in much better control of the shot than I ever was before.
The first time you try it, your emotions will be screaming, “Shoot! Shoot!” You have to fight through it. Don’t listen to that screaming voice. Instead, discipline yourself to settle the pin and squeeze the shot. Once you have done it a couple of times, that screaming voice will go away. The best way to break in this new style of hunting is on small game and even on does. Get as much practice at real animals as possible before you try to do it on a buck. Trust me here, this will make a big difference in your mental state and in your success rate.
Those are my five greatest lessons from half a lifetime spent thinking about how to kill whitetails. Maybe you were expecting something earth shattering, but this is the most honest I can be. If you absorb these five lessons and apply them to your hunting, I am certain you will spend more time among the 20 percent of buck hunters savoring the memory of success every January and less time among the 80 percent who are licking their wounds.