Back when I started bowhunting, I believed those who consistently killed big whitetails simply outhunted the competition. Surely, I thought, the only way to put a tag on a mature buck year after year is to spend more hours in a tree than almost every other bowhunter in the woods.
Today, more than two decades after taking my first archery whitetail, I can honestly say I have found the exact opposite to be true. Oh, don’t get me wrong; there are times, such as peak rut, when putting in multiple dawn-to-dark treestand vigils can pay off big-time. But, as I have gained experience and wisdom as a whitetail hunter, I have discovered the best way to maximize my success is not necessarily hunting harder, but rather hunting smarter.
Take, for example, the fall of 2017. Between Sept. 2 and Nov. 7, I spent just eight days afield to kill four bucks in four states — Kentucky, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Kansas. In two of those states, I tagged out on the very first sit. In the third, I tagged out on the second sit. And in the fourth, it took me a whole four days to seal the deal.
Now, before you accuse me of bragging, I’ll be the first to admit I had Lady Luck on my side. If you’ve ever experienced one of those magical years when it seemed as if you couldn’t do anything wrong — even if you tried — you understand.
With the exception of my home state of Pennsylvania, where my hunting is strictly of the DIY variety, I also owe a huge thanks to those who helped pave the way for my success; Tevis McCauley from Whitetail Heaven Outfitters in Kentucky, Mike Stroff from Western Ranch Outfitters in South Dakota and my good friend John Vaca from Kansas, who graciously invited me to hunt on his personal deer lease.
Let’s look at some key aspects to my 2017 hunts and find the lessons that can help all of us be more successful.
Scout More, Hunt Less
It is often said knowledge is power, and that’s certainly true in deer hunting. The more you know about the deer — where they bed, where they feed and how they travel between the two — the more successful you’ll be. It’s also critical to know how deer behavior changes throughout the season. For example, there are certain pinch points near my Pennsylvania home where I like to sit for cruising bucks during the rut. But if I went to those spots on a cold day in the late season, I doubt I’d see many, or any, deer at all.
My Kentucky hunt last fall was a perfect example of using scouting intelligence to form a plan and strike when the odds were in our favor. With its early-September opener, the Bluegrass State offers bowhunters a rare opportunity to target bucks that are still in velvet and on summer feeding patterns. McCauley uses an army of Stealth Cam trail cameras to monitor deer on local bean fields and quickly identified a large, non-typical buck that was a regular visitor on his home farm. In the weeks leading up to opening day, McCauley used a combination of camera sets and long-range glassing to hone in on the buck’s core area and set a stand on the food plot where he appeared most frequently. In addition to setting ambushes for specific bucks in the early season, McCauley only allows clients to hunt afternoons during the first week of the season because he believes the risk of educating deer is too great if you try to access stands in the mornings, when deer may still be out feeding from the night before.
Although the giant buck didn’t show up on the season’s opening evening, he was back on the food plot the next day and I was there to meet him with a Rage-tipped arrow. A total of eight hours on stand produced a non-typical giant that grossed more than 180 inches thanks to McCauley’s homework.
Now, fast-forward a month to my hunting grounds in Pennsylvania. I didn’t make my first foray into the woods until a chilly morning on Oct. 28, right as I suspected older bucks would be seeking and chasing does close to coming into estrous. The stand I occupied was a hang-on I set in July, based on on-the-ground scouting and deer sightings from prior seasons. I hadn’t returned to the location until that morning.
Although I felt confident about the cooperative weather and the date on the calendar, the morning was very slow. In fact, I didn’t see a deer until 11 a.m. Spotting a white antler ghosting through the brush, I immediately reached for my bow, shifted into shooting position and prepared for the shot. Less than 30 seconds after I first saw the buck, the hefty 7-pointer with multiple broken tines was dead, and my Pennsylvania season was over. Total time on stand: five hours.
Though the actual conditions on these two hunts were far different, both demonstrate the value of quality time on stand vs. quantity of time on stand. Whether it is an early-season food source, a travel corridor during the rut or some thick thermal cover in the late season, hunting particular stands only when the time is right keeps the element of surprise in your favor and boosts your odds. At best, hunting a stand without solid scouting intelligence to back up your decision is a crapshoot. At worst, it will reveal your presence to local deer and cost you an opportunity you could have had when conditions were right.
Go Ahead, Sleep In
Last Nov. 6, I traveled to Kansas to meet John Vaca at his deer lease. Arriving the evening before our hunt began, my friend greeted me with an unusual strategy.
“It’s the full moon right now, and we usually don’t hunt mornings during the full moon,” John told me. “We just find the morning movement slow. So, what we’ll do is sleep in until about 9, have a big breakfast and then get out on stand around 11:30.”
I was shocked. I had just come halfway across the country to hunt a legendary whitetail state in prime rut, and John wanted me to stay in bed! “Well, that’s not the way we do it in Pennsylvania,” I told him, “but if you say so, that’s what we’ll do.”
I don’t remember what I had for breakfast the next morning, but I’ll never forget what happened on stand later that day. John pulled his truck into the big alfalfa field at 11:30 a.m. and drove me to a ladder stand nestled in a narrow shelter belt along its edge. Two big scrapes could be clearly seen on the field edge, about 25 yards on either side of the stand, and John assured me local bucks loved to run this edge and scent check the area for receptive does. Hanging scent wicks full of Nationwide Scents Peak Estrus over each scrape, I climbed up and settled in.
As if on cue, I spotted the first buck around 1 p.m. — exactly the midday action John had predicted. Turning to my right, I immediately noticed this wasn’t just any deer, but one of the monster bucks John had shown me from his trail-cam collection. In my excitement, I moved too quickly retrieving my bow from its hanger, causing the buck to sprint back into the shelter belt and out of sight.
Certain I had squandered my chance at the proverbial “buck of a lifetime,” I was crestfallen. But what else could I do but keep hunting and hope for the best?
At 3:30 p.m., I saw a spike buck to my right, followed a short distance behind by the giant buck I had spooked earlier. Slowly making its way to the field edge, the buck walked to the nearest scrape, sniffed the scent wick, rub urinated and worked his scent into the earth with his hooves. Then, he turned broadside and walked the field edge directly in front of my stand, where my Gold Tip Kinetic Pierce sliced through his heart at 25 yards.
After settling my nerves, I sent a text to John, who climbed down from his own stand and drove over to aid in the recovery. It was a very short blood trail, and I knew the search was over when I heard John shout, “Oh my goodness!”
Running over to the buck and wrapping my hands around the antlers, I could hardly believe the mass and tine length the 13-point rack possessed. “It only took me four hours, but I want you to know I was prepared to sit all day if necessary,” I said to John dryly.
In all seriousness, there are times — such as my early-season hunt in Kentucky and full-moon hunt in Kansas — when it pays to sleep in. I also recall a mid-160s buck I killed in Illinois when we decided to sleep in due to heavy rains predicted throughout the night and following morning. We slept in until 9, had breakfast and headed out after the rain stopped at 10:30. About an hour later, I was standing over one of the biggest whitetails of my life.
Let’s face it; sitting all day is hard, and it’s only going to be harder if you’re trying to tough it through foul weather or you’re exhausted from many days of pre-dawn wake-up calls. When conditions warrant, giving yourself permission to sleep in isn’t weak; it’s the right thing to do.
If you are a regular BOWHUNTING reader, you’ve surely heard Field Editor Bill Winke stressing the value of “first-time” sits in treestands. This can refer to the first time you sit in a particular stand each season or an entirely new stand site. Regardless, your odds of killing a deer from a particular location will never be higher than the first time you sit there,because you will never have a better element of surprise. In fact, numerous studies have proven deer will avoid a stand site for up to a week after just one hunt! Given that, why would you risk burning out one of your best spots by hunting it before conditions and scouting information indicate buck activity at the location is high?
I killed my Pennsylvania and Kansas bucks on the first sit last fall, and my Kentucky buck on the second sit. None of those stands had been hunted previously. In fact, all three stands were new locations set up specifically for the 2017 season. That’s pretty compelling evidence for the value of first-time sits and something you should seriously consider before hunting any of your stands each year. For those who like to spend lots of time afield, I suggest setting up several stands in fringe areas where you can shoot does and perhaps catch an odd buck on the move until the time is right to hunt your “prime” locations. For those who hunt with outfitters, always insist on a “fresh” stand for your hunt. Good outfitters don’t put multiple clients in the same stands day after day, because their success depends on your success.
This topic also provides incentive to employ a “hang and hunt” strategy where you routinely move to new areas based on your latest scouting intel and hunt from a climbing stand ormobile hang-on. It’s a great way to get the jump even on educated deer that may be looking for you at your established stand sites.
Adapt on the Fly
No matter how good your plan is, there will be times when things don’t go as expected. In those instances, you need to be flexible and adapt.
That’s exactly what happened on my South Dakota hunt last October. Outfitter Mike Stroff had me set up in a ladder stand in a great location on the edge of an alfalfa field along the Belle Fourche River. There were a number of good bucks in the area, and Mike felt confident I would get a shot at one of them from this location. As the hunt progressed, I was indeed seeing lots of deer and had several in range. However, it seemed the two biggest bucks would always enter or exit the cover about 100 yards north of my stand. After watching this pattern for the first two days of the four-day hunt, I slipped into the area midday on the third day and hung a new setup in a big cottonwood tree right where those bucks were accessing the field. Unfortunately, I still wasn’t able to connect with one of those bucks, but I did tag a smaller 8-pointer from the stand on the final morning.
There are many reasons you may need to adjust your strategy or location during a hunt. For example, let’s say you run into some really hot weather early in the season. It might make sense to move to a stand closer to a bedding area if the heat is keeping deer from moving all the way to food sources before dark. Regardless of the circumstances, you need to keep thinking throughout the season, and if the deer aren’t under your stand, try to figure out where they are, why they are there and the best tactics for intercepting them.
Use Your Head
When it comes to bowhunting, don’t be stubborn. Killing mature bucks is not something you can simply will yourself to accomplish. You need a good plan for every stage of theseason, along with the patience, discipline and confidence to pull it off. Hunting hard is great, but sometimes the real trick is to pull back and bide your time until the stars align. While it’s true you can’t kill deer from the couch, you also can’t kill them if they know you are hunting them.
This season, don’t hunt harder. Hunt smarter. You just may end up looking like a bowhunting genius!