June 21, 2021
Violating the cardinal rule of bowhunting is the No. 1 season killer. That rule you should always uphold: You can’t kill them if they know they are being hunted.
Maybe it won’t kill your season, but it will make success much more difficult to attain. Once a game animal realizes it's being hunted, it won’t move as naturally and definitely not as much in daylight. For the bowhunter, that change in behavior is the kiss of death.
The trick, then, is to keep them from knowing you are hunting them. To do that, you need to understand all the ways they can detect our intent.
Focusing on whitetails, they aren’t omniscient. They can’t reason like we can. They learn by experience, and they don’t have any more senses than we do. You shouldn’t ascribe mystical powers to them, but you should greatly respect their survival skills and work tirelessly to beat them.
Whitetails are really good at using their senses to their advantage. To keep from being detected, we need to go to extremes. Here are the many ways game animals discover a human threat is near.
Smell You on Stand: “Stand” is a whitetail term, but this idea could just as easily apply to any big-game animal’s ability to smell you as you wait in ambush. Remaining undetected in ambush is a bit more complicated than it might seem. Two things will work against the simple of idea of just setting up downwind of a game trail. The first force you have to deal with is changing and swirling winds. The way the wind blows your scent away from your stand is greatly affected by the terrain and the amount and location of cover.
Terrain affects wind flow much like big rocks and inside bends affect the eddying of water in a trout stream. The wind will swirl into pockets of protected air just as water swirls into pockets that are protected from the main stream flow. Anytime you are hunting in a protected pocket of air, you can expect swirling. When the wind swirls, all bets are off when it comes to remaining undetected by deer passing on any side.
Sometimes you can anticipate the direction of the swirl and use it to your advantage, but it is usually not consistent enough to rely on. I would avoid these protected places or hunt them from scent-containing ground blinds. Examples of such locations are narrow draws and creek bottoms — anything that creates a pocket of dead air that the passing wind will swirl into.
The thickness of the cover in the trees will also surprisingly affect local wind direction. I have seen the wind swirl into small openings in the timber even when the opening was on the top of a ridge where you would normally expect to find consistent winds. This effect becomes even more pronounced when the trees are thick with leaves.
The second factor that affects wind flow is gusting. When the wind gusts, it creates an ebb and flow rhythm that is hard to predict. It is almost like the air compresses and then gets sucked back on itself after a hard gust. First, it pushes hard one way and then drifts back in the direction it came from until the next gust compresses it again. I do hunt days when the wind is gusty, but I am more careful to stick with open cover, where the ebb and flow of the wind seems to be less severe.
See You on Stand: When hunting by myself, I set my stand on the backside of the tree; the side away from where I expect the deer to approach. Then I stand and face the tree, using the tree to hide me from nearby deer.
How high you are in the tree also has some effect on your ability to remain unseen, but I don’t like to go above 20 feet. That seems to be high enough, as long as I am on the backside of the tree and stay motionless.
Smell You When Entering: You not only have to play the wind when on stand, you have to play it while going to the stand. And, if you plan to hunt the spot again soon, you have to play the wind when leaving.
This is a big part of the chess match of stand hunting — planning bulletproof entry and exit routes. I spend way more time trying to figure out how to get to and from my stands than I do figuring out where to place them. In fact, it actually makes more sense to work backwards; find really good entry and exit routes first and then find the best stand sites along these routes.
Don’t short-change the mental part of deer hunting. Planning the route versus the wind and where the deer are likely to be is maybe the biggest part of consistent success.
Smell Your Ground Scent: It took me a few years to figure out how important this whitetail defense system really is. Because we don’t see them get nervous when they hit our scent a few hours after we leave, we assume all is good. But any time deer smell human odor in places where they don’t expect it, they get nervous and are less likely to move naturally in that area in the near future. If they hit your scent in the same place multiple times, they are sure to adjust their patterns. Deer seem to react to human ground scent for several hours, but not days. If I had to put a number on it, I would say 8-12 hours in normal scenting conditions.
The deer don’t smell where your boots actually touch the ground as much as they smell where your pants brush against low vegetation. For this reason, a mowed or cleared path gives the deer much less to smell than does a route through thick cover. When I hunt areas with ground cover I have to walk through, I wear long plastic booties that go nearly to my waist or I wear waders. Be creative; you have to wear something over your pants that keeps the scent off the low brush.
See You When Entering: I find too many people take the shortest route or most convenient path to their stand. Instead, they should take the route that keeps them out of sight. Creeks and ditches are some of my favorite terrain features to hunt for this very reason. Use any and all kinds of cover or terrain to keep from being seen!
Hear You When Entering: There are two parts to this. First, they can hear you walking. Second, they can hear you when you stop and park your vehicle. I rarely hunt my best stands on still mornings unless I can walk across grassy fields or something similar that is not covered in crunchy leaves. Wet mornings are also fine. Otherwise, I love a 5-10 mph wind to cover my sound. I've had too many promising hunts go up in smoke because the deer heard me walking in. It can even pay to wait until first light to walk in when the woods start to come alive with squirrels, birds and other wildlife.
On still mornings, deer can hear a vehicle for a long way, especially on gravel roads. They hear the crunching of the tires, and when that suddenly stops, they lift their heads and stare in that direction. I have seen it many times and learned to park a long way from where I plan to hunt, or I will take advantage of normal human activity and park as close as I can to a neighbor’s driveway, a place where deer are used to hearing vehicles.
A Simple Goal
Beating all the deer all the time is a very tough task. The goal is to beat most of the deer most of the time so they will be moving naturally for as long into the season as possible. It is fun to dream of stands overlooking big buck sign, but sitting there will be a boring and frustrating time if all the deer know you are there. The simple goal of keeping them from knowing they are being hunted is more important than anything else you can do.