By Bill Winke
One of the most important lessons took me a long time to learn, because it has as much to do with human nature as it does with whitetail behavior: There’s seeing deer, and then there’s shooting deer.
I have hunted a number of spots — and still do sometimes — where I see lots of deer. As hunters, we love to watch deer; that is the human-nature part. Sure, it is therapeutic to occasionally sit in a spot where you can see multiple deer at a time, but I can’t remember very many instances when I actually killed a nice buck in one of those spots. You may be able to call bucks in, but generally, they stay just out of bow range.
If I was going to classify these spots, I would call them “gun stands.” They are perfect spots for gun hunters, but when you try to bowhunt gun stands, you set yourself up for frustration.
What to Avoid
As tempting as they are, avoid spots where the vast majority of the deer you see will be well out of bow range. These long-range spots do serve some purpose, though — I call them observation stands. You can see what the deer are doing from these locations and then hopefully set up ground blinds or treestands that focus on much smaller areas as a result of this long-range scouting. However, if you are serious about filling tags, “observation hunting” should be a small part of your overall strategy.
You might also think that you can call bucks in when hunting observation stands. This works sometimes, but bucks are pretty careful about coming across large areas of open ground or open cover and then just walking right to your stand. They tend to hang back and look for the “deer” they heard before committing, or they circle downwind. You might call a buck in, so it is worth a try, but don’t make this your primary strategy.
Avoid large feeding areas, too. This is the hard one for me: I love seeing deer, and it is fun to sit on the edge of a big field and watch them come out, but it is really hard to kill them in these spots for a few reasons.
First, these deer have so many trails and so many options for approaching the field that picking the right one is usually tough.
Second, with that many deer around, it is hard to remain undetected long enough for the buck you are hunting to make his way into the field.
Third, it is difficult to get out of the stand at dark and sneak away without alerting at least some of the deer and, thus, reducing your chances for a good hunt in the near future.
You might think, like I used to, that you could put a blind in the middle of the field and create a bowhunting advantage in that way. I have tried that for years, and it almost never works. The deer just have too many other options and don’t feel the need to come near the blind even if it has been there for a long time. In addition, it is difficult, minus a distraction, to get out of the blind at the end of legal shooting time without alerting deer. It could work every great once in a while, but I can’t remember it ever working for me on a buck. I have vowed to stop trying this style of hunting with a bow.
Again, the open-field ground blind can work when gun hunting, but it is really frustrating when bowhunting.
What to Look For
Not surprisingly, what you should look for is just the opposite of what you should avoid. You want small spots where the action will likely take place within bow range. I will talk about specific setups that fit into this category later, but first, here are some reasons such spots are better.
Small spots are easier to hunt without alerting deer. Generally, such spots are not destinations. The deer just pass through or, at the very least, spend limited time in these areas. The number of deer you see will also be limited, so there is simply less chance of you being detected. Getting in and out is also much easier as a result.
Here are some of my favorite “think small” stand sites for bowhunting.
My favorite stand locations are now what I call staging-area food plots. Rather than hunting big fields or big plots, I love to hunt small openings in the woods on the fringe of these larger areas. I plant green plots such as clover or turnips (brassicas) there, sometimes using just hand-powered equipment. The deer hit these spots shortly after rising from their beds in the evenings and spend a bit of time there before drifting to the larger fields nearby. You get daylight movement at close range, and the deer are generally gone by dark so you can sneak out without alerting them — it is the perfect setup. No, you won’t see nearly as many deer as you would see if you were sitting on the bigger field nearby, but what deer you do see should be within bow range.
It is tempting to hunt big, wide-open ridge tops and large, timbered flats because you can see lots of deer there, but again, these spots are much harder to hunt without alerting deer. They generally represent bedding areas or, at the very least, feeding areas (oak flats, for example).
A better spot would be a narrow funnel at the head of a nearby draw where bucks trading back and forth between two bedding ridges pass through without lingering. In fact, any travel route on the edge of a bedding area will hunt better than the bedding area itself.
It is fun to see lots of deer, but that isn’t always the same as killing them. Many spots set up well for hunting with a gun but are poor locations for bowhunting. Having the discipline to avoid these gun-hunting stands in favor of small spots will increase your consistency as a bowhunter over the long haul. Good luck!