Successful bowhunting goes beyond just filling tags.
Sure, the goal of every archery season is filling tags, but that is not always going to happen. It would seem a depressing waste of time to hunt hard for several months and walk away with nothing. You have invested a lot of time, and you need something to show for your effort. Maybe it is time to change your definition of success. If you enter each season with the goal of learning as much as you can about deer -- what works and what doesn't -- you will never have an unsuccessful season regardless of whether you fill your tag.
The arrow is seemingly gone and in the target in a flash. Yet, there is still enough time for a deer to react to the sound of the shot by dropping to load its legs and bound away well before the arrow arrives. Past 20 yards, this effect is more pronounced.
It is always possible to walk away with a greater knowledge of deer behavior and hunting strategies. Every year, I try to learn new things that will make me a better deer hunter. Here's what I learned last season:
The most painful lesson was likely the most valuable. I had two very nice bucks get away because they jumped the string. This was new for me hunting in the Midwest. The more people I talked to about it, the more I realized this is a major problem for many bowhunters -- more than I expected. It boils down to one quick decision: what to do with an alert buck. I had never had a buck jump the string (drop down at the sound of the shot to load up his legs and run) while hunting in the Midwest. I had often experienced does dropping before the arrow got there, but not bucks. And I had experienced string jumping bucks in the South, but again, not up here.
I ran into this on two bucks that were walking past my stands -- a common event during the rut. Both bucks were 30 yards away, and when I stopped them with a mouth grunt, they locked up, presenting the standing shots I desired. At the shot, they dropped as if a trapdoor had opened beneath them. Gone. Painfully gone.
Ever since the second one got away in late November, I have grappled with this challenge. Should I try to shoot them walking at that distance? A 30-yard walking shot is no slam-dunk. After rolling the situation around in my head for several weeks, I finally arrived at a conclusion. We film all our hunts now. Going back and watching the footage of those string jumpers frame-by-frame, it was clear neither buck started dropping until the arrow was nearly 20 yards from the bow. I was shooting about 290 fps, so it was a fast arrow.
These images, captured from video, show the bruiser buck Field Editor Bill Winke shot at on Halloween 2009. In the first image, the buck is not even looking in Winke's direction and doesn't appear overly alarmed.
That told me that on shots under 20 yards, it was possible to aim dead-on and not worry about deer dropping much (at least here in the Midwest -- in other areas of the country, the bucks may react faster). Past 20 yards, I decided I will have to aim low when shooting alert bucks. The safe bet is to aim at the very bottom of the kill zone. If the buck doesn't drop, you still have a solid kill. If he does drop, you have a high vital hit.
When we showed videos of these hunts on my website, I had a number of e-mailers suggest I shoot a faster arrow. Some suggested I should not stop them, even at 30 yards. I did increase my arrow speed slightly since November, up to about 310 fps, but that isn't going to make a huge difference. The real key on alert bucks is disciplining yourself to shoot low on every one of them.
Last Week Of October
This season confirmed the last week of October can be dynamite when it is cool. We had some of our very best hunting from Oct. 28-31. In fact, that window was actually better than most of November, primarily because November was unseasonably warm. I'm not saying you should change your vacation from Nov. 3-10 and move it up a week, but I am saying that if at all possible, you should take full advantage of the last four days of October.
During this time, bucks are still close to their core areas, yet they are moving more during the day. If you have been getting trail camera pictures of a few great bucks in early October, it is realistic to expect to shoot them in those same areas in late October as they start to abandon nocturnal patterns. Beyond that, the rut may pull them away and their patterns will be shattered. Late October is the very best time to strike when you know where a big buck is living.
In the middle frame, notice the arrow to the right of the red overlay -- the arrow is roughly 20 yards from the bow.
One of those string jumpers I referred to in my first lesson -- a buck I named "The Great 8" -- was just such a buck. We had sheds from him dating back four years and filmed him during the summers of 2008 and 2009, yet I had never seen him while hunting. When he started showing up on a trail camera in mid-October, I knew we had a chance to get him when the wind was right.
Finally, on Halloween, the wind swung to the west and I was in the tree. To make a long story short, Great 8 responded to my grunt call, and when he walked past at 30 yards, I elected to stop him with a soft mouth grunt. When I shot, he jumped the string and dropped like a rock. I knew immediately he had gotten away. I didn't cry, but I sure could have. I never saw him again.
Yeah, it is a sad story, but here's the lesson: Great 8 was patternable for a short period, and his patterns finally overlapped with daylight activity in late October. It is a common scenario, and you should take full advantage of it.
The Warm Rut
You can't fight the weather. When it is hot during the rut, daylight activity will drop off substantially. Last season definitely reinforced that painful truth. Breeding takes place right on schedule, but you simply don't see the normal amount of movement because it occurs primarily during the cooler hours of darkness.
I recently read a trail camera study that revealed buck activity during the rut really drops off markedly when temperatures top 50 degrees. During what should have been the best days of the rut last year, the lows were often above 50! It was tough.
In the bottom frame, despite it being only a 30-yard shot and despite the author's fast arrow, you can see the buck has dropped nearly a foot to load his legs to flee and the arrow passing along the buck's back.
Despite the warmth, however, Nov. 6-8 still offered decent hunting. When these dates fall into cool weather, the action is jaw dropping, but even when it's warm, you still need to hunt your best stands. My friend Scott Prucha did just that and on Nov. 7 shot a 160-inch, 10-pointer he had been chasing all season. Weedeater, his name for the buck, was out cruising by himself despite early-morning temperatures in the low 50s. Scott saw another mature buck walk past his stand shortly after arrowing Weedeater.
I didn't hunt that morning, electing to stay in and work instead. I am sure I missed a good opportunity. This fall, I have already resolved to be in my best stands from Nov. 6-8, regardless of temperature.
Too Many Deer
I learned during the late season that there really is such a thing as too many deer. The end of December and first part of January were particularly cold and snowy. All the ground-level food sources were covered with a thick layer of crusted snow. The deer were most active around standing crop fields and standing food plots. In fact, they were nearly suicidal in their desire to feed on the easily accessible grain found in these fields.
There was only one problem: they approached these fields in such high numbers it was nearly impossible to bowhunt there because of all those eyes constantly panning for signs of danger. I hunted one field several times in the area where the second of my two string jumpers got away. I even saw him Dec. 26, but there were so many skittish does in the field it was impossible to avoid detection long enough for him to work his way into bow range.
I hunted other grain fields and food plots that had many deer in them too, and each time I was disgusted with myself and the difficulty that comes with trying to fool two dozen sets of eyes at close range. After clearing these larger fields a number of times, I finally realized two things. First, I needed to hunt fields with fewer deer. That way, it would be easier to stay undetected until the last 30 minutes of shooting light, when mature bucks usually show up.
Scott Prucha with a buck he shot on Nov. 7. It was a very warm day. Normally, high temperatures would stifle buck movement completely, but on the best days of the rut, you have to hunt your best stands regardless.
Second, I needed to create a better mix of food plots. My plots were large, and they concentrated the deer. That is fine for someone hunting with a muzzleloader. In fact, it is ideal. But I am a bowhunter at heart, and as such, I needed more but smaller plots. I needed to spread the deer out into mini-herds that were more manageable. I am going to take that lesson to heart this year. Rather than two, four-acre plots, I will have eight, one-acre plots.
There Aren't Many Good Days
I hunted about 60 days last season. Sounds like a lot, doesn't it? Well, it was a lot, but you may be surprised to hear I can still count the number of really good days on one hand. That's right, less than 10 percent of my time on stand was truly productive. Unfortunately, you can't always predict which days will be best. During the rut, it is not too hard. When it is cold, the bucks will be moving. I didn't experience any really good days prior to the onset of rut, but during the late season I had two or three good evenings.
Generally, the best late-season action occurred just as a weather front was rolling through, dumping snow and putting the deer on a feeding frenzy.
You take that as a whole and think, "Man, how am I going to be sure I am out there on the right days when there are so few of them?" Watching the weather definitely helps, but even the forecast won't predict all the high-activity days. You simply have to hunt as much as possible and hope to catch things right.
Similarly, I learned mature bucks rarely do the same thing two evenings in a row. If you see them doing something, you should definitely set up to take advantage, but don't be too disappointed when it doesn't work. It almost never does.
Bucks are still hanging around their core areas in late October but will be more active during daylight. If you find a trail camera picture of a good buck in early October, one of your best chances to shoot him will likely be in the same area at the end of the month, before he starts cruising in search of does. Don't overlook Halloween week as a prime time to punch your tag.
Also, it seems that even during the rut, bucks rarely move hard two days in a row. Both these observations add up to one key point: mature bucks are truly unpredictable. It is about the only thing you can actually count on.
I don't like hard lessons, and though I did also shoot a great 10-pointer on Nov. 5, I sure had a lot of bucks give me the slip. I was left scratching my head more than I would have liked. I don't want to make those same mistakes again, so I am definitely going to take all these lessons to heart.
I hope you too have learned something from my many mistakes and from my all-too-rare successes. The best part about whitetail bowhunting is not the filled tags, but rather the quest. If you really love the quest, you will see that the journey is the true prize. One of the most satisfying parts of this journey is the never-ending opportunities to learn more about deer behavior and deer-hunting strategy. If you resolve to never stop learning, you will never again have an unsuccessful season.