October 02, 2023
Hunting places where you can see a lot of country is the most visual of all forms of bowhunting. You can sit back with your binos in hand and watch the show. This awesome sight warms the heart of any serious deer hunter, but it also presents a serious catch-22 for bowhunters.
The bucks are visible, but that sure doesn’t make them vulnerable. With a .270 rifle in your hand they are venison, but with an arrow they may as well be on the moon. Unfortunately, as tempting as it is to hunt places where you can see lots of deer, this kind of hunting can be some of the most frustrating of all. Don’t bowhunt from gun stands!
The first challenge in bowhunting an open area such as an ag field is that deer approach fields from nearly every piece of cover even remotely close to the food source. So, when hunting a field you can’t assume a certain direction presents a safe place for your scent to blow, unless it is a lake, sharp drop-off or an open field beyond which there are no other patches of cover. Even if only one deer catches your scent at the feeding area, it will dance around, snort and stomp until all the other deer become scared. One snorting doe is bad enough, but when you add the inevitable curious snoop that comes in later, you have big problems. She won’t give up until she finds out what is going on.
I suppose it is a thrill for that doe to be the center of attention, getting all the others worked up with her panic and then to take them bounding into the brush. Any buck standing in the shadows nearby, waiting for sunset, will immediately evaporate.
Obviously, solving the wind/scent problem is a tough fix in this big setting. The problem is clear and unavoidable. There is almost no safe wind direction when hunting a field, and unlike hunting narrow travel routes, if you spook deer in a field, they will quickly communicate the breach to all others nearby and soon all the nearby deer will be on edge.
Unfortunately, challenge number two is equally damning. How are you going to get out of your stand and back to your vehicle at the end of the hunt? You shouldn’t take this question lightly, thinking, Who cares what happens after the end of legal time?
The reality of bowhunting suggests you should care. You may not get a shot at the buck you want the first time you hunt a spot. They tend to show up one day and then not again for three or four days. Like it or not, you are going to have to put in several sits if you are serious about success.
Bowhunters too often ruin their chances by what they do after the hunt. It is very hard to climb down right at the edge of a field or other open area, tiptoe away as deer graze nearby and not be heard. The soft shuffling of your clothing against bark and even the dull sound of your boots contacting the tree steps carries like a foghorn on still, cool evenings. This is to say nothing of the crunch-crunch of your footsteps.
Not all this exit noise produces instant terror in the deer. It is not as bad as being smelled, for example. But deer don’t like it and your disturbance will usually clear the field or at least one end of it. They know something is badly out of place and deer always treat new things with grave suspicion and distrust. They are much less likely to come out naturally during daylight in the near future.
There are few solutions to these two challenges of big-field bowhunting. But fortunately, there are alternatives. You need to give up the hope of seeing lots of deer in favor of scent control and an undetected exit. If you can’t do both of those things, you can’t hunt the spot. It is that simple.
Interior Trails: The first solution involves hunting the deer where they are coming from, not where they are going to. You are looking for those rare conditions where you are close enough to the deer for a shot, but where the wind won’t give you away. Sometimes this will come together back in the timber where you can get a little help from the terrain to funnel deer into a narrow passage (around a ditch, for example) where you can better control what happens downwind.
The point is, such stands do exist, but you aren’t going to see a lot of deer from them — not compared to hunting the field edge. You’re on the right track when you notice areas where deer trails only run parallel to the woods edge, so you can get totally downwind of them, back in the timber.
Set your stand where you can slip out of the backdoor at the end of the day without going anywhere near the field. You will probably need to be at least 20 to 30 yards inside the cover to pull this off.
Ground Blinds: The second solution is probably the best one. I’ve written many times about the value of hunting feeding areas from fully enclosed ground blinds, so I won’t rehash all that here. Suffice it to say ground blinds offer several advantages over treestands when hunting fields.
First, you can place the blind right where the deer feed so you don’t have to guess which trail the buck will use that evening. All you need to know is where he likes to end up. If the blind is in place long enough for the deer to grow accustomed to it (at least a week, in my experience, and less if you brush it in), even mature bucks will accept them as part of the field. After that, you can move the blind around a little without raising any suspicion.
If you are hunting a hay field, you can speed up the process of acceptance by asking the farmer to leave three or four round bales nearby to make the blind less obvious.
The biggest problem with ground blinds is the exit. Unless you set up the blind near a row of bales or at the edge of a ditch, it is going to be hard to get out of there without help. Ask someone to drive up to the field with any kind of familiar vehicle (even a tractor) at quitting time to clear the deer off before you come out of the blind.
The Best Solution
The very best solution is not to try to figure out how to get away with hunting fields or their fringe areas, but rather to avoid hunting them altogether. As mentioned, that can be tough to resist, because the deer are so visible and the payoff seems so likely (though it isn’t).
I have a better idea. Deer like to eat. The better the food, and the more accessible it is, the more they glue themselves to it. We all have our favorite restaurants, if those restaurants are located close to home, we go there often. We pop into those places whenever we can for a quick sandwich and to say hello to the locals. After a while, it becomes almost a routine social visit. It is habit forming.
The goal is to find (or create) as many “favorite restaurants” for the deer as possible. You won’t see tons of them, but the ones you do see will almost all be killable, and the odds of being detected are much lower.
These mini deer restaurants are small enough, at around a quarter- to a half-acre, that any deer that enters is likely to wind up within bow range. You can spend your whole season playing cat and mouse with a nice buck on big field or you can kill him on a small plot somewhere nearby. Micro-plots really are that much better.
Second, you can locate micro-plots close to bedding areas, and therefore the deer are more likely to visit them during daylight hours. They become the focal point of deer activity in that area, especially during the rut. Every buck passing through that area will swing by the plot; it becomes the center of the wheel with a spoke pattern of trails leading to it.
What to Plant: Because these plots are small, it is easy for the deer to wipe them out during the summer or early fall if you plant the wrong thing. I would not plant grain in a small plot, for example. Better choices include clover and brassica blends. Both clover and brassicas can do well in areas that don’t get full sunlight all day. Both can also sustain some browsing pressure during the summer and continue to grow.
Roughly two thirds of my small plots are in a clover blend with the remainder in a brassica blend. I just rotate back and forth between the two plant groups. Once the clover plays out, I replace it with brassicas for a year and then back to clover.
For hunting purposes, narrow is better than wide. When a buck enters a small plot, he will often walk the length of it, checking scrapes or just boldly strutting right down the center. I see it all the time. If the plot is only 30 to 40 yards wide, you will get enough sunlight for good growth and the deer will be within range of your stand when they come past.
Fortunately, micro-plots tend to be stopover locations for the deer, much like staging areas. The deer hit them and then move on, often creating lapses when no deer are on the plot, making it much easier to sneak out at the end of your hunt.
The best spot for your opening/small plot is on a ridge, on the prevailing upwind side of a steep slope or bluff edge. That way, you can place your stand near that slope and use that as your entry and exit direction. In theory, your scent may even stay over the heads of deer passing below you on that side.
Another option is to locate the plot where there is some kind of obstacle, natural or manmade, on the downwind side that will keep deer from approaching from that direction. For example, possibly the edge of a large pond or lake, or even a river, would be a great choice to make up one side of the micro-plot, giving you a safe entry and exit route and a direction for your scent to blow without fear of alerting deer.
I have even used small county roads for this purpose. Though deer will cross them, these roads do tend to form marginal barriers for the deer. They also make entry and exit super easy. I just walk the road and then pull into the timber for a short walk to the stand. Create the plot far enough into the cover that it can’t be seen from the road, and you have a great little hotspot.
You can set up on the safe side of the plot and hunt it only when the wind is blowing from the plot toward your stand. In this way, deer should never wind you, and because the plot is small, those entering from all other directions will eventually be within bow range.
Finding perfect spots such as this isn’t easy. You may have to skip past many locations until you find one you can hunt effectively. There is no sense in building a food plot you can’t hunt effectively. This is something you can do on a budget, even on property where you only have permission to hunt.
Encouraging deer to use a small, bow-friendly setting is the recipe for a fun season. While it is very tempting to hunt spots where you can see lots of deer, you will do much better hunting conservative spots where the shots are all going to be close. Forget the high-volume, low-quality gun stands. Creating close encounters is the key to consistent bowhunting success.