By John Dudley
When I look at bowhunters who continue to take great bucks year after year, I believe the common thread boils down to one thing — being prepared. Some may argue it is their hunting spot. Some argue it is luck. Some say it's both.
But from where I stand, I know my whitetail success across North America has a repeating element that equals success. It's the preparation!
One particular area of preparation that really separates the good bowhunters from the great ones is stand location prep. Being ready for the rut is all about doing the right things NOW — in the summer — long before opening day. I think most of you hunters who are reading my articles are at a point where you really want to step up your success in the field.
I hope you have moved past showing up at your local bow shop five days before the season to get your bow set up, buy a new trail camera and buy a new treestand. If you want your success to skyrocket, you need to put in some homework and a little pre-season prep to guarantee you punch your tag. This article is all about the crucial topic of pre-season stand preparation, because right now is the time to set the stage for a quick and efficient strike when your moment of truth presents itself.
Each year, there are going to be some obvious things you should do for your stands. I don't want to spend a lot of time talking about these typical yearly things I believe most hunters do anyway; things such as making sure your shooting lanes are cleared and that your stand straps, chains, climbing sticks and other gear are safe and in good working order.
I also highly recommend installing safety lines from the top of your stand all the way to the ground. This way you can be locked in from top to bottom throughout the season. This can literally be a lifesaver and isn't something worth saving a single penny on! Take it from someone who spent a year's pay on hospital bills for a kidney that was damaged while falling from a tree.
Also make sure you don't have anything below your tree that can impale you should you fall! This is serious stuff, my friends. You owe it to your family and friends to take my advice on this. So, clear your lanes and make sure your stands are hung correctly. For me, these are the obvious considerations. Now, let's get into the stuff that separates a good spot from a killing spot!
For each new season, I consider installing a new stand or relocating an old one. The one thing that is most important is to make sure you factor in what you learned the previous year. Observation is critical intelligence! For example, when I moved to Iowa and got permission on new hunting ground, I was going in blind when I first made my sets. I could only set up based on five fundamental things I found when scouting — trails, funnels, pinch points, bedding areas and food sources.
Regardless of how long you have hunted, these five things are always important to know and can always serve as a good starting point for stand placement. Many times they will produce but often times not the biggest bucks. In my case, as a deer season unfolded and I sat those stands I started to notice certain patterns. The biggest bucks were using paths but not the ones most traveled by other deer. And as a result, they were just out of bow range.
I find that the bigger bucks often fall into a continual pattern through the season and many times these patterns may be on the perimeters of the obvious. Certain ridge tops or thickets start to have dominant bucks show up each year about the same time. Some food plots may rarely have a good buck visit during daylight until the last weeks of the late season.
Key observations such as this allow you to set up a stand for that spot. More importantly though is using your experience to know to save these locations for WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT! Experience tells me that learning patterns from the previous year and remembering them can help you produce really quickly, and here is my proof.
"If you want your success to skyrocket, you need to put in some homework and a little pre-season prep to guarantee you punch your tag."
After a few years of spending time in a stand I was sure would produce but hadn't, I decided to learn from it. Although I liked the spot, I continually watched bucks travel each year during the first week of the rut about 200 yards away. My original spot had more trails and better sign, but the reality was the bucks just liked running this ridge a certain way for whatever reason. I moved my sets in the summer and knew I couldn't sit that stand until rut was in full swing.
On Nov. 3, 2014, I had the right wind and I knew the rut was heating up. I sat in the stand for the first time since I had set it up almost six months earlier. Two hours into my hunt, I had a buck of a lifetime come strolling right by with a young doe. One day, one strike! It was an extremely efficient hunting location.
Fast forward one year TO THE DAY! It's Nov. 3, 2015, and I have my good buddy and BOWHUNTING Editor Christian Berg in Iowa for his first time drawing a buck tag. I'll keep the story brief, because I know he wants to write a story about it, but to put it simply, the wind was right and we knew the chase was on. So, I took him to the same tree.
At eight o'clock that morning, just two hours after we climbed into the tree, here comes a giant buck I hadn't seen a single time all year. Christian made a perfect heart shot and then just stared at me with a completely blank expression, wondering how that just happened and why his Iowa hunt was over so fast. I know, it's a story you probably want to dismiss and say, "Yeah, right." But it's true!
The moral of the story is, take note of where you see buck traffic the year prior and make sure you have a perfect killing tree set up in that spot next year. It has been my observation that patterns slightly adjust every few years. Observation and reaction is key!
Know the Ins and Outs
One of the most overlooked factors in picking a great stand location is knowing the best access routes. No matter where a stand is located, I guarantee you it is only as good as how stealthy you can be climbing into and out of it. Otherwise, it will fall victim to what I call "the three-sit rule."
The first sit you may see great movement, the second sit you will only see half the activity as the first and the third sit you see nothing. Then the stand is burned out, in my opinion. If you are noisy or visible getting into your stands, you will certainly be patterned by your deer. If I know a stand location is in the right place, the next thing I need to do is build my quiet entrance and/or exit route.
A great resource for making a good entrance into a stand is an old push lawn mower. I have had one I picked up for $100 about 15 years ago. I can throw that on my Yamaha ATV in the middle of summer and go to my stands and fire it up to make a quick push in and out. This gets the deadfall and new growth mulched off the path and has it 90 percent ready for when I walk in during the season. If you do this for a few years, you may even try raking in a bag of clover or grass seed and see if you can make a two-foot-wide groomed trail.
In the stand I discussed earlier where Christian and I shot two giant bucks, I had done just that. I had mowed a path for about 150 yards though the timber since the day I hung it so that we could walk into the wind with extreme stealth. This has made a world of difference, because both deer were close by when we climbed in the stand. This mowing tactic can also be used in CRP fields, where it's extremely thick to walk in as well. One mowed path will serve a double purpose of a quiet trail for you and also a natural travel path for the deer to walk on. Several bucks had used the path we walked in on as a scrape line. I believe deer are lazy, and quiet paths such as these serve as good funnels.
Always Have an 'Easy'
Sometimes, having a stand option that is very low impact can be the best stand location you have! These options are extremely effective during times of the year when you know you may only have an hour or two to hunt.
This may be during the rut on a morning you have two hours before heading to work. It could also be that day when the wife is testing you and says, "You should have gone hunting tonight," about an hour after she knows you would have already left. If you have an "easy," you can call her bluff and literally grab your bow and GO even if you are in your jeans and hoodie.
The "easys" are stands that may be fairly close to a road or close to where you can park. On my main hunting farm, I have an easy set up for any of the wind directions. I have two stand locations within 150 yards of a road. I know I can walk in and out of these spots at any time of the day. Both these spots are on pinch points of well-traveled trails that eventually cross the road. Neither is next to food or bedding. They are simply spots where deer randomly walk by at sporadic times of the day.
If you want to kill the biggest deer in your area, the key is to not ever reveal you are out hunting him. For that reason, I never risk burning a stand that may produce a dominant deer simply because I'm low on time. Have your hotspots, but if you aren't able to be there in time to be stealthy, or the wind changes on you at the last minute, fall back into one of your easy spots.
This past year I was hunting with another good buddy of mine, Mike, the week after Christian left Iowa. One morning, we took too long getting ready and when we came outside it was starting to break daylight already. I knew if we went into the deep timber where I wanted to spend the day, we would blow most of it out walking in during the daylight. So instead, I told Mike we were heading to one of my easy spots since it would be low impact getting there in the light. A few hours later, we rattled an awesome buck to the base of the tree and Mike was in disbelief based on how close we were to the road.
Be Ready for a 'Wrong' Wind
Each year, I capitalize on having a great few days of hunting simply because I have a treestand set for the least likely wind direction. It never fails that at some point during the year you are going to get a weather system move through that totally flips the natural wind directions 99 percent of your spots are set up for.
I know lots of people who are then stuck either not hunting or having to "risk" not being smelled from one of their hotspots. Here in my state, the least likely wind direction is an east wind. I have two spots that sit idle except for the one or two days a season the winds flip from the east. One of the biggest bucks in my office came from one of those stands. I would have never bet that an early-December hunt with freezing temps and icy sleet and spitting rain and fog would have rolled in from the east, but it did. I was ready for it, and I was rewarded!
I know a lot of hunters who like to hunt during the late fall or early winter and only set up for the common north or west wind pattern. You have to be ready for all winds, my friends! During my first few years living in the Midwest, I planned the majority of my stands for the cold west and north winds but neglected the southerly winds. That was a big mistake!
I've learned that the south winds often blow here just ahead of or behind the storm fronts. Each of the hunts I spoke of in the earlier sections came from stands I had set up for a southerly wind direction that was blowing in just before a major cool down. If you want to change your luck from the stand this year, then be ready for a change in the winds.
Ground blinds are a great option for bowhunters. What I like about them is the ability to fine-tune their location based on the wind direction even when a perfect tree is not available.
Ninety percent of my food source hunting has been done out of a Bale Blind or a hard blind in the past few years. They help contain movement and are great for the bitter days where you need to make a long day sit, like in the late season. Be sure to get them set up early and make sure they are secure. Deer build a quick tolerance to blinds and some are certainly better than others. If they are flopping around then they will be less tolerable!
Anyone Can 'Get Lucky'
I have been really fortunate as a bowhunter over that past 20 years, especially in the whitetail woods. My success strings out from the far north of Canada to the far south of Mississippi. The truth is, I hunt a on limited budget. I hunt some private farms but also knock on a lot of doors and still love hunting public land. I fill a lot of tags, my best being three "book" bucks in three states in four days.
I wish I had a dollar for every time someone told me I have a lucky horseshoe stuck in my butt. But I feel like my being "lucky" on a continual basis is actually based on something one of my great archery coaches told me, "Being lucky is all about being prepared for when an opportunity presents itself." I've built my life and bowhunting career on that. I think anyone can.