Likely the oldest and most respected big buck contest in the nation has been in operation for more than 50 years. This deer contest is a cultural icon in south Texas. But its humble beginnings will surprise you.
By Bernie Barringer
Leonel Garza is the son of immigrant workers who settled in south Texas. Soon after high school, Leonel went to work at the Center Circle Filling Station in the small town of Freer. It was 1965 and, at the time, no one had any idea that this self described grease monkey would put Freer, Texas on the map when it comes to deer hunting.
Leonel had an interest in promoting the wide-racked whitetails which grew in the brush country. Garza thought maybe a deer contest would help promote the station. He began to spread the word about his deer contest, which would crown a winner among the hunters who could bring him the widest deer rack.
That first year, the contest was won by Homero Garza (no relation) who had entered a buck with a spread of 27 ¼ inches. When told he was the winner, his next question was, “What did I win?” Well, Leonel had overlooked that one small detail. In a move that illustrates his character, Leonel took the watch off his wrist and handed it to Homero.
Garza continued to tirelessly promote his contest at any opportunity, and while leaning over the gas pump, he taled about it to everyone who stopped. In 1968, a man in camouflage walked into the station and told Garza that his pickup was stuck a few miles away. Garza dropped everything and pulled him out. When the man tried to pay him, Leonel refused the money and just asked the man to spread the word about his buck contest.
Little did he know, that man was the popular outdoor writer Fred Strong, who wrote a story about the experience. Leonel remembers that cars were lined up for two blocks to get gas, and they would all thank him for what he did for Fred Strong. The contest benefited greatly from the publicity. In fact the story caught fire, and several other outdoor writers passed it along to their readers. One of those writers referred to the contest as “Garza’s little deer contest,” which caused Garza to decide he needed a name for it. It became the Muy Grande, which is Spanish for “Very Big.”
The contest was growing quickly. During the hunting season, pickups with bucks in the back would line up to have their deer measured. Leonel decided to change the scoring system and add some categories. He came up with a system that includes the Boone & Crockett score, base circumference, antler width, number of points and field-dressed weight. So the bucks that win this contest are truly Muy Grande in all ways!
Leonel added categories for women, youth, heavyweights, longest main beams, bowhunting, high fence, veterans and on and on. Today, there are a total of 11 categories and 137 divisions. More than 1,000 people pay the $25 entry fee to have their buck scored each year. Each of the winners gets a Muy Grande deer contest jacket. You cannot buy this jacket, you have to win it. And they are worn with pride everywhere they are seen. Wear one in an airport anywhere in North American and someone is likely to come up to you and ask you about your buck. The jackets have become legendary in their own right.
The contest will celebrate its 54th year in 2018, and Leonel has lost track of how many thousands of bucks he has scored. But he can relate stories a large number of celebrities and professional athletes who have brought in deer to be scored.
Somewhere along the line, Garza went from employee to owner of the little service station, in part with money loaned to him by a priest. The “Muy Grande Village” is now more than an acre with a 5,000-square foot convenience store including a souvenir shop and deli. Hundreds of photos of past contest winners line the walls of the store. Rather than tear down the iconic filling station building, they simply moved it over to the corner of the lot where it stands as a reminder of the hard work of a man who everyone now refers to as “Muy.”
You won’t have to hang out at Muy Grande Village very long during late December and January if you want to see some big bucks. Every couple hours it seems, someone backs up a pickup truck and drops the tailgate. Leonel is right there with a smile to enjoy the moment with the lucky hunter. With ambition, character, a great work ethic and a knack for promotion, Leonel Garza created the best known deer contest in the nation. And he’s wearing a pretty darn nice watch these days.
Today, most of the day to day workings of the contest are handled by Leonel’s youngest of five daughters Imelda and her husband Kenneth. In the souvenir shop, you can buy Leonel’s own line of south Texas brush country camouflage clothing. But you can’t buy a Muy Grande jacket at any price. You have to kill a big buck to get one of those.
In fact, don’t shoot any bear on the first day of a six-day hunt. Unless… well, never mind.
By Bernie Barringer
My adventures with Grandview Outfitters in Manitoba have been well-chronicled in blogs, magazine articles, online and on You Tube over the years. Tom Ainsworth has put me on incredible numbers of bears, plus color bears and even big bears. The hunt I experienced in 2015 where I saw 20 different bears in four hours, topped off by shooting a B&C bruin, was one I thought I would never be able to top. Until 2016 came along, that is.
I have thrown my life into accomplishing some goals as a bear hunter. I admit it has all the hallmarks of an addiction. I have always wanted to shoot a B&C bear, and a 500-pound bear is sort-of the hallmark of a true giant, so put that on the list as well. But the one that really eats me up is the desire to shoot a bear from each of the four major color phases, black, chocolate, blonde and cinnamon. And if all this goal-setting doesn’t seem crazy enough, I want to do all this with a bow and arrow.
Each spring for five years now I have headed to the Duck Mountains to hook up with a blonde bear. I have the other three colors so the blonde is the one that keeps me awake at night. I came close to getting one in 2015, but didn’t close the deal. The spring of 2016 had me holding out hopes that I would accomplish my goal. Tom has three baits where blondes had been seen in the past three years and I figured I could put myself in position, with Tom’s expert help, and close the deal.
But it was not to be. I had one bear in front of me several times that was nearly blonde on its back and sides, with cinnamon legs. A beautiful bear for sure, but no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that this bear would satisfy me and everyone else who saw it, it just wasn’t blonde enough.
Rather than fill my tag on the last day with a nice representative bear, like I have done in the past, I decided to pocket my tag when Tom invited me to come back and have another try in the fall. He offers deer hunts as well, and having seen some really big bucks in that area, I decided to combine the hunts. The bear season opens the last Monday in August and the archery deer season opens the first Monday in September. Perfect.
Arriving in camp the end of August, I found Pennsylvania hunter Jim Roth and his wife in camp as well. Tom doesn’t offer fall hunts because normally all of his hunters fill out in the spring. But occasionally, a hunter is too selective and then finds himself going home without a bear. Since Tom would have two baits going for me, Jim was also invited back to fill his tag. Jim was committed to shooting the first big bear he saw.
Tom showed me a few scouting camera pics of some bears at one of the baits, and it was pretty clear that this was a target rich environment. In many photos, there were big bears, multiple bears and color phase bears. One of the pics had six bears within sight of the Covert camera at once, three chocolates and three blacks. All nice bears.
Having taken a bear on the first night’s hunt in 2016, I committed myself to holding out for a couple days. I had a week before deer season opened, so I was in no hurry. So when I arrived at the stand in the middle of the afternoon, I looked at my video camera and promised I would not shoot a bear the first night. And I meant it.
As usual, I had bears around me right away. In fact, a yearling cub was in a nearby tree as I settled into the stand. Within 15 minutes, more bears started to appear and move around the bait. I had sprinkled some Northwoods Super Sweet Cherry Burst powder around the bait, and the bears were all over it. Over the next two hours, I enjoyed the view of bears interacting, fighting, scratching trees, feeding, chasing and in general just being bears around a bait site that’s the hub of area activity. I had seen 11 different bears, surprisingly all males, including a couple really nice boars. This aspect of bear hunting is one of the most rewarding parts of being patient and waiting for the right bear.
Suddenly, the bear standing at the barrel dropped down on all fours and slipped quietly into the dense underbrush behind the barrel. He had clearly seen something that scared the bejeebers out of him. I scanned the brush in the direction that bear had last looked and my eyes soon settled on a patch of black. Cautiously this bear moved towards the bait and everything became perfectly quiet as every other bear had simply vanished.
When he stepped into the open, it was clear why. This bear was a prime specimen, like a million-dollar angus bull, his size and structure dwarfed every other bear I had seen. This was a giant, mature bear in the prime of his life. I watched that bear feed and analyzed his size as he stood near the barrels. I quickly became convinced that I was looking at the largest bear I have ever seen in a wild, hunting situation.
But my commitment was strong and I did not shoot. I admired this bear for about ten minutes, just taking in the amazing sight of a bear this size. I reconsidered my promise to hold off on all shooting the first day a couple times, but I never took my bow off the hanger. Then he walked off the way he had come.
I was suddenly overcome with remorse. I had just passed up the largest bear I had ever seen. One of my goals was to shoot a 500-pound bear and I had just let the first one I’d ever seen walk away! I must be nuts. There aren’t even any photos of blondes on this bait. What was I thinking? I shrunk bait into my stand and tried to console myself. I know these big dominant bears do not visit a bait site often, but he would surely come back in the next six days wouldn’t he?
I finally told myself that I would take the first shot opportunity on that bear if he ever came back, be that the next day or the last day. I didn’t need long to follow through on my commitment. He came back 15 minutes later. As soon as he gave me a quartering away shot, I looked for the last rib, tried to envision the location of his heart, settled my sight pin on my Mathews and touched the trigger. The arrow drove in all the way to the fletching right where I had aimed. The bear ran off about 30 yards and then all was quiet. I desperately waited for a death moan that never came.
Cell phone service doesn’t allow for a phone call in this area, but a text usually goes through. Soon Tom arrived on his quad with a trailer and my first thought when I saw him was that there’s no way we’re getting this bear into that trailer. He informed me that Jim had a 350-pound bear walk in not long after he got in the stand and he shot it. Turned out to be a female. That’s a giant sow.
With Tom at my side, our first observation was the point where the crashing had stopped 30 yards away. I was very disappointed to discover that there was no bear located there, but I did find the arrow. The arrow had penetrated enough that the broadhead had exited in the bear’s armpit. The noise had stopped at this location because the bear had stopped and just pulled the arrow on through with his teeth.
Then the bear just started walking. The blood trail was good, it was lung blood and plenty of it. We walked upright following the easy blood trail, expecting to find a bear at any moment, but soon was had gone more than 200 yards and the bear was still walking and bleeding profusely. Both Tom and I was bewildered, but Tom kept saying, “the big ones just don’t like to die.” Then we came across a bloody bed with no bear it in. We must have bumped him. My heart sank; the shot looked perfect, how could this be happening? It was getting dark and we knew it would be a long night, but we needed to make the long walk back to the quads before it got full dark.
The following morning, Tom, Jim and I put on our backpacks and with optimism dove back into the bush. Incredibly, we continued to follow a copious blood trail for another 200 yards or more beyond that bloody bed. We finally found the bear, lying on his back where he had tried to crawl over a downed tree trunk and fallen over backwards. Another bear had come along and torn off his genitals. Add that to the list of bizarre twists and turns of this hunt.
Standing over that bear were three people with nearly a century of bear hunting experience combined, and we all agreed that we were looking at a 500-pound bear. It was clear there was no way to get anything with wheels way back in this thick tangle of Canadian bush, so we set about quartering up the bear. We skinned the front half for a shoulder mount and divided up the loins and four quarters. We had a gigantic load and I really wondered if we could get it all in one trip. Both Jim and Tom are stout guys so they carried the meat while I was wrapped up in the skin, which weighed about 75 pounds. Before we loaded up and took the long walk, Tom opened up the bear and we were all amazed to see that the arrow had passed through both lungs and nicked the heart.
A long, difficult hump got us back to the ATVs with only one long rest, but the bear was finally mine. It took the better part of the week for my back to feel healthy again.
I spent the next few days scouting whitetails and drooling over a big 10-point that would occupy my attention for the next few days. I ended up arrowing a great 9-point buck and thinking about how bad I want to go back and keep trying for that big 10.
Next week will have me back in the Duck Mountains trying to lock down a blonde bear. This time I will be hunting with Todd at Baldy Mountain Outfitters, who bought Tom’s business. Maybe this will be my year.
Watch a video of the hunt here:
Sometimes public land bucks can be right under your nose.
By Bernie Barringer
I had been hunting a public area in western Iowa for the past few days when I became convinced that it was time to make a move. I was headed back to my truck late in the morning: a treestand and backpack were strapped to my back with the climbing sticks in one hand and my bow in the other; when suddenly I got a case of the “quick step.”
The rumbling in my abdomen spurring me on, I decided I could make it over the last small hill to my truck and then take care of business. By the time I got to my truck I was really in a hurry. In the parking lot, I struggled out of everything, leaving it all in a heap, then hustled 20 yards into the woods with a strong sense of urgency.
I was just about to do my business when I looked up and found myself in a stare-down with a buck. His rack was outside his ears, massive and tall. He was 25 yards away and locked onto me. He looked me over for an embarrassingly long time–standing there with my Realtree bibs around my ankles and a roll of toilet paper in my hand instead of a bow. Then he just tucked his tail, lowered his head and disappeared.
Anytime I feel the sting of defeat or embarrassment, I try to analyze the situation and see if there is something I can learn that will help me avoid that feeling in the future. In this case, I been hunting more than a mile from the truck when the buck anyone would die for was only 40 yards from the front bumper, bedded in a little cattail swamp the size of my living room. There had to be a lesson in there somewhere.
There were, in fact, two lessons to come from this. One, you don’t always have to walk a long distance to get to a big buck, and two, big bucks really like cattails. Let’s deal with the second one first.
A lot could be written about swamps and marshes in whitetail hunting, but I have learned that the sight of a small, dry cattail swamp in big buck country will spin my head around. For reasons I don’t fully understand, bucks love them. In parts of Wisconsin, large marshes and sloughs are ringed with cattails and some of these marshes may be hundreds of acres with a few small islands in them. Hunters who are not afraid of the backbreaking work it takes to hunt these small islands consistently kill big bucks from them. There’s no reason that similar terrain where you hunt wouldn’t be the same.
Most of us who hunt a lot of public land have learned that if we can penetrate a large block of land–get back in farther than most hunters are willing to go—we will find less hunting pressure and deer that are not quite as flighty. But that is not always the case. Some mature bucks become masters at avoiding human intrusion by simply monitoring it and moving accordingly. Like the buck by the parking lot I mentioned earlier, they just have a heightened awareness of the hunters’ movement patterns. They become masters are avoiding it. In fact, I sometimes wonder if these bucks like to spend time where they can keep an eye on the comings and goings.
Some of the best places I have found to hunt on public land are the fringes of the property, especially where the land abuts private farmland that offers food. Finding a crop field that is only separated from the public land by a fence can be even better than finding a perfect funnel a mile from the truck.
The smallest pocket of security cover is sometimes all it takes to hide a buck. I once observed a buck run down a fencerow and lie down by a pile of rocks in an Iowa plowed field completely disappearing in the knee-high grass. Shotgun hunters came across the gravel road from the south, moved into the section and began walking that fencerow. They walked right by the buck within a dozen feet, never seeing him.
In another case, I was checking mink traps when I parked my truck on a bridge of a seldom used country road, stepped off the shoulder and waded into the creek below. Suddenly a buck jumped up right beside me and I just about fell over backward into the creek it shocked me so. There were signs that buck had been bedding under that bridge for many weeks.
In another case I was travelling down interstate 35 one late winter day when I saw a shed antler from the road. After some maneuvering to get turned back around and hustle safely across the highway, I recovered the shed from a small depression surrounded by multiflora rose. If I hadn’t glanced at that spot at the exact split second, I would have never seen the antler and I wondered how many thousands of cars had sped by that buck without ever seeing him lying there.
A friend of mine shot a 148-inch buck out of the road ditch, where he had previously seen it hiding near a large culvert. The next time he saw it there, he drove past, parked his truck over the crest of a hill and hurried back in the opposite road ditch. He stepped up on the road and shot the buck right in its bed.
Stories abound of beginning hunters who have set up in totally the wrong place and killed a big buck. Some guy sticks his kid in a spot where his fidgeting won’t bother the rest of the group and the kid shoots the biggest buck in camp. You’ve heard it before.
My son Ben was about six years old when he was relentless in his begging me to take him bowhunting. I kept telling him that I couldn’t have him in the treestand with me. One day, he said, “I’ll wait in the truck.” I figured a couple hours sitting in the cab of the pickup while it got dark might cure him of his begging so I agreed to it. I provided him with a coloring book and I parked along the two-track road leading into my friend’s property.
At dark, I arrived at the truck and the first thing out of Ben’s mouth was, “Did you get the buck?”
“No,” I said. “I just saw a couple does.”
“Too bad, he had ten points. He looked right through the window at me.”
A little more conversation finally convinced me that he had actually seen a buck. I grabbed my flashlight and checked the two-track road I was parked beside, and sure enough big tracks told the story of a buck that had walked by ten feet from the parked pickup.
Tiny pieces of property on the edges of suburbia produce some giant bucks each year. Small pockets of public hunting lands, even parks, some as small as 5-10 acres offer options for the bowhunter. These bucks become really good at avoiding human contact, but with some work, a hunter can break the code. Don’t overlook these seemingly unexciting nuggets, they may be pure gold.
- We strive for quality and not quantity taking very few bear hunters per week.
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- Baited bear hunts start the last week of August – Hound hunts start in late September and continue into October.
- Bear hunter success rates are way above average. (State average 25%)
- Bears ranging from 4.5 feet and occasionally exceeding 7 feet.
- All clients are bear hunting over active bear baits.
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- Private channel, 5-watt, 2-way radios for direct communication with your black bear guide.
- Bear Guides have 50-watt radios in their vehicles. No needlessly long waits in your bear stand.
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- Bring your spouse and children! Plenty of lodge activities for everyone
By Bernie Barringer
Bowfishing equipment has evolved a lot since I started trying it out 40 years ago. There is some high-tech stuff out there, believe me. This probably sounds crazy, but my favorite bowfishing set-up features a Ben Pearson recurve that I got out of the “Free” box at a garage sale. No kidding.
That’s one of the things that makes bowfishing so great: you can make it as simple or as complicated as you want, and anyone can easily get started in bowfishing. The shots are close; rarely over 25 feet, and a bow of just about any draw length or poundage will do.
You need to be stealthy, to choose locations carefully, and you need to be a good shot. And being a good shot is not as easy as it sounds. It takes beginning bowfishers a while to get used to the fact that you have to “shoot where they ain’t.” Because of the refraction as the light enters the water, fish appear to be a lot nearer the surface than they actually are. So when you see a carp cruising the shallows, you must aim well below it, if your arrow is to hit its mark.
My 45-pound recurve has been the perfect bow for me. Compound bows work too, but because of the let-off, they have to be drawn all the way back to shoot. This is a disadvantage because shots are often quick and with little warning. The advantage of a recurve, or one of the wheel-bows made for bowfishing without a let-off, is that you can draw and shoot much more quickly. Sometimes you do not have time to come to full draw.
Arrows should be solid fiberglass, which gives them the sturdiness they need to take a pounding (they hit bottom a lot) and the extra weight gives them the kinetic energy they need to penetrate the water and then the fish. There are several different bowfishing tip designs, but they all have one primary feature: some sort of prongs to keep them from pulling back out of the fish; prongs which can be reversed so you can remove the fish from the arrow once you get it reeled in.
Reels are equally diverse. I started with a simple spool on which I hand-wound the line, and now I have a reel with a small crank that pulls all the line into a plastic jar. This set-up really works slick. My son Dawson uses a modified fishing reel that attaches to a mount on his bow. The simple spool reels are around $20 and the one I use is over $100, and there are good options at price points in between. All work, it just depends on how much you are willing to spend for convenience.
Where to find the fish
Many species of fish are legal to shoot with a bow. Carp, bowfin (also called dogfish), gar, buffalo and drum are among the most common. You can have some success all year long, if you find yourself in the right place and the right time. But if you want consistent action, it takes place in the spring and early summer.
When the water warms up in late spring, carp move shallow to spawn. In most areas, this takes place when the water gets close to 70 degrees. In the upper Midwest, that’s usually late April to May. Here in northern Minnesota, it may be later, and we had some fantastic carp shooting at Lake Manitoba in Canada during the first week of June while on a spring bear hunt. These carp may remain shallow where they are vulnerable to bowfishing for almost a month, but the best action will be in a window of opportunity of two weeks or less. When you hit it right, the action can be furious. The best spots are where you find the warmest water.
During summer, carp are again found in shallow, warm water where they slurp plants off the surface and cruise around looking for insects and dead baitfish to eat. Thus, you have a second window of opportunity. You are often shooting at their heads, which might be the only thing visible above muddy water. I also have seen pods of carp cruising the shallow bays of clear-water lakes during mid-summer, and have enjoyed good shooting under those conditions.
Typically, I shoot from the front of a boat with an electric trolling motor quietly pulling me through the shallows. However, I also have had a ball shooting while slowly walking the back bays where the water is warm. The carp are often lying just below the surface, sunning themselves, but they are extremely spooky, and you have to use a stealthy approach. Shots will generally be short. A 10-yard shot is a very long shot in bowfishing; the majority will be more like 15 feet. It takes some time to get good at hitting a target that close. Most bowhunters do not practice 10-foot shots, but it is a good idea to do so before you go after carp.
I cannot stress too much that the refraction of the light on the water makes the target look closer to the surface than it actually is, so you have to shoot below them to hit them. This is one thing that has to become second nature, and you will miss a few fish until you get on to it. My son Dawson missed his first nine shots one day before getting it dialed in. Then he figured it out and hit his next five in a row!
Carp shooting is so much fun that it has become a sport in itself for our family. Give it a try, and see if you don’t get hooked like we did!
A lot of things can go into the decision on choosing the right bear hunt. Here’s some sound advice.
By Bernie Barringer
I couldn’t help but fidget. I was sitting only eight feet from the ground in some rusty steel contraption that resembled a ladder with a large board tied across the top. The past four hours of seeing nothing but squirrels was taking a toll on me. I could stand on the board and lean against the tree or sit on the board and dangle my feet over the edge, which caused my legs to go numb. I was not happy that my outfitter had put me in this position. I had two hours to go.
Two nice bears came in the last half hour of daylight and immediately looked up at me. Two bears had been shot off this bait already in the past couple weeks, and the remaining bears were savvy to the stand’s location. Night number two was a repeat except I had brought a seat cushion which made the long vigil more bearable. Not only did the bears have the gig figured out but the wind was perfectly wrong for this stand. They worked hard at staying out of range.
The outfitter was limited in the number of stands he had available. High water had flooded the majority of his hunting area and in fact several baits were under water. He was in a tough spot, but his guide, the one taking me in and out of the baits, didn’t make things any better by being insensitive to me needs.
The following day I suggested we put a ladder stand up 30 yards away from the current location, which would put me in a great spot for the wind, and the two bears’ attention would be focused on the empty stand. I had seen a new ladder stand still in the box leaning in the corner of the shed. The guide ignored my request.
In this case, the outfitter was struggling due to the weather and I knew that going in. He is a very reputable outfitter and has a great reputation, but his part-time guide was a tough case. The hunt was made much more difficult because the guide was a substitute called in at the last minute and had a “my way or the highway” attitude. I tried to gently suggest things, even pitched the ideas so he could take the credit for them and even tried to make it look like he thought of them himself. Nothing doing.
There are good reasons for doing due diligence before you book a hunt. Guides like this one are one of the reasons you call references before you plunk down your hard-earned deposit. For every bad experience I have had a dozen good ones. But the bad ones do tend to stick in your mind. Let’s take a look at the key points in choosing the right outfitter and minimizing the chances of having a regretful trip.
What kind of a hunt do you want?
The first question you need to ask yourself is what type of a hunt you want. There are hound hunts, spot & stalk hunts, baited hunts and even combinations of these. Think about your physical capabilities, your shooting ability, experience and desires. Scenery, number of bears you want to see, frantic action or lack of it, and climate. These things and more go into your choice of a hunt. If you start talking to an outfitter and you realize this isn’t exactly what you are looking for, don’t hesitate to back out.
Sports shows are one of the best places to learn more about a hunt. You can often meet the outfitter and sometimes a guide in person. You can look at an album of photos and have a candid discussion that will give you a real gut feeling for the hunt and the people you will entrust with your money and in some cases your life. In the course of the discussion you will think of questions to ask so ask them on the spot. On the drive home, you will think of even more questions to ask so write them down.
If you do not meet the outfitter in person then plan to have a good phone conversation and ask the tough questions. Get references of successful and unsuccessful past clients and call them. If they sound like they have a canned response, they are may be getting a lot of calls because the outfitter knows his reference will tell you what you want to hear.
Define your Expectations
Realistically, an outfitter can’t offer you the hunt you really want unless they know exactly what you want. Many people have had a bad experience because they went on a hunt that wasn’t a good fit because they didn’t specifically tell the outfitter what they wanted. If an outfitter says they have fishing available, but you get there and find out its only fly fishing and you don’t know how to fly fish; that’s your fault, you should have clarified it before you left home.
Be honest about your physical limitations. Don’t go on a spot & stalk hunt in the mountains if you can’t hike up a dozen mountains a day. Likewise, if you are 400 pounds and can’t get into a treestand, it would be a good idea to tell the outfitter that ahead of time so he can get a ground blind in place. Don’t surprise your outfitter when you pull into camp. He will be asking questions and expecting honest answers and you should be too.
Are you looking for a truly big black bear? Make sure you are going to a place that has them. There are a lot of places that specialize in getting everyone a bear, but the top end of them is about 300 pounds. If you want to bag a giant, you have to ask the questions that will help you understand the type of operation you are dealing with. Looking for a color phase bear? Ask the specific questions about percentages of color bears. Then ask exactly how many and what colors were bagged there in the past three years. Trust your gut, if it doesn’t feel right, back off.
Make your needs and preferences known. If you have health issues as simple as a lactose intolerance or an allergy, tell them so they can pass it along to the cook. If the sight of a baloney sandwich makes you want to barf, tell them that. Or don’t complain if you find yourself in a treestand for six hours with nothing but a baloney sandwich to eat.
Ask specific questions about the temperatures, clothing you should bring and footwear. Not much is worse than having nothing but leather hunting boots when you have to slog through a swamp to get to your stand. Wet, smelly feet can ruin a trip as fast as anything. Ask about outerwear, mosquito protection, long johns and headwear.
Many baited hunts mean long hours in the stand during the afternoon and evening, but having something to do during the mornings can make a hunt much more enjoyable. Fishing is one option, sightseeing is another. Would they mind if you tagged along to check some baits? Ask ahead of time. One of my favorite hunts offered bowfishing for carp during the day.
What if you shoot your bear early in the hunt? Learn what might be available to take up your time while you wait for a buddy to get his bear, or wait for a scheduled return flight.
I like to get to know the area well before leaving for the hunt. I look at the area on Google Earth, check the weather for the hunt on a weather app, spend some time on the outfitter’s website and even Google the outfitter and see if I can come up with some information on a forum, either positive or negative.
I have been on many hunts and almost all of them have been a positive experience. By now you have noticed that a common theme in this article seems to be communication. That’s because the vast majority of bad experiences can be traced back to bad communication; either yours, the outfitter’s, or a substitute guide’s. Make sure it isn’t yours.
Want to be a better bowhunter? Take of up trapping. It’s no accident that some of today’s most successful bowhunters have a background in trapping. Here’s why.
By Bernie Barringer
I don’t remember much about being 14 years old, but some things are burned in my memory. That was the year I became a trapper. I don’t remember much about that year, but I remember my first muskrat. I also remember my first mink, fox and raccoon. I could take you to the exact spot where I caught each of them despite the fact that it happened more than 40 years ago. I can remember the smell of the river, the feeling of lugging a raccoon home in my packbasket, the sight of glowing eyes in my headlight while the other school kids wouldn’t roll out of bed for two more hours.
I carried the trapping over into my adulthood and make a good living through my 20’s catching fur in big numbers, working my tail off in order to stay one step ahead of the growing amount of competition that came with the high fur prices of the 1970’s and 80’s. Trapping taught me a lot about a lot of things; things that have served me well in life. Notably, trapping has made me a much better bowhunter.
I have wondered from time to time if others have felt this way. I posed this question to two friends who spent a lot of time both trapping and bowhunting, Tom Miranda and Stan Potts. Both of these guys are bowhunting celebrities, you can watch them on TV most every week. Not surprisingly, they had some strong opinions and interesting observations about how trapping has made them a better hunter.
The Value of Hard work and Persistence
“At a very young age, trapping taught me a valuable lesson,” says Miranda. “If I work hard, I mean really hard, good things would come from it. The grind of tending traps, working in bad weather, skinning and stretching the pelts, the long hours of early mornings and late evenings make trapping a real job.
“Trapping also taught me responsibility. I knew that rain or shine I needed to check traps. This requirement has helped in my hunting as I don’t ever let the weather bother me. If it’s prime time, I’m in the tree. My toughest bow hunt ever was in the Canmore bow zone of Alberta hunting bighorn sheep. It was 14 days of minus 20 and colder. Steep, slippery mountains, tent camping, deep snow, bitter wind chill and 10,000 feet elevation; hunting in extreme conditions is similar to trapping.”
Attention to Detail
A fox trapper realizes that his target animal has the entire world to walk around in, and he must make that fox step into a one-inch circle. That takes attention to detail and a very deep understanding of the animal’s behavior. “Picking a location to trap a fox or coyote is exactly the same as picking the right location to shoot a big buck,” according to Stan Potts. “Set location is everything in trapping. You look for land features that come together, such as ridges, terrain and habitat changes. You must pick the exact right spot both in trapping and in hunting. A lot of it is instinct, but instinct can be developed over time.”
“A non-trapper sees a stream,” explains Miranda, “but a trapper sees the mink tracks under the overhanging bank. A non-trapper may see a farm field, but a trapper sees the edges, the funnels, the things that cause the animals to drift a certain way.”
Potts used a technique common to trappers to better learn buck behavior. “I would pick up the tracks of a big buck at the edge of a field where he was feeding and just follow the tracks until I jumped him. I would pay attention to the lay of the land and how he used it. This really helped me better understand why picking the exact right tree is so important.”
Scent and Wind Direction
Picking the exact right tree for whitetail hunting has been a topic of discussion that has been hammered on for years, but trappers seem to have an upper hand when choosing the right locations. Part of that, according to both Miranda and Potts, is because hunters don’t spend enough time understanding how deer use the terrain and their senses. “A big buck’s number one line of defense is his nose,” Potts says. “A fox or coyote uses his nose to hunt. A buck wants to be quartering into the wind whenever he can. Just like you can use a canine’s nose to draw him into a trap, you can use the way a buck uses his nose to get him.
“The perfect wind for hunting,” according to Potts, “is usually almost wrong.” Meaning that subtle variations in wind can make a big difference; you will rarely find a perfect wind, but you must play the wind angles correctly. Miranda agrees, “Trappers know that an educated coyote can be tough to catch just as an educated whitetail tough to hunt. Sitting tree stands with the wrong wind direction is a no-no just as is setting a dirty trap.”
The Common Denominator
You may have noticed that one theme seems to run through all these comparisons between trapping and hunting: Hard Work. “Successful trapping requires dedication, commitment and hard work.” Miranda explains, “So does successful bowhunting. Lazy trappers rely on luck for success as do lazy bowhunters. Go early, stay late, hunt in marginal weather, take into account moon phase and position. Top bowhunters make their own luck. Average hunters and trappers would say ‘I would rather be lucky than good.’ Top hunters and trappers say ‘Don’t Quit.’”
While I no longer consider myself a commercial trapper, I still run a few traps each year to stay in touch with the land and with my roots. The hard lessons I learned from my successes and failures have led to success in bowhunting. So if you find yourself wondering why so many of the top hunters have a background in trapping, you now have a small understanding of the reasons why. And you have the option of taking the advice of the old adage: “If you can’t beat’em, join ‘em!”
There’s a long standing myth that bears have poor vision. Studies of the eyes of bears, deer and other animals have shown that bears have much better eyesight that you might think.
By Bernie Barringer
A male grizzly bear was once observed trailing a sow in heat. The male had his nose to the ground and was dogging her. She circled back around and came past him at only about 100 feet, but when he looked up, he did not respond to the sight of her, he kept right on trailing her even though it took him 200 yards farther away from her present location. Many people might interpret this as a bear with poor vision, but a biologist who observed this stated that the male saw the female clearly, but he just depends on his nose so much in his everyday life that he wasn’t going to let his eyesight take over.
Some recent scientific research has revealed some interesting things about the eyes of a bear and how the bruin’s eyesight compares to others, such as humans and deer. But first, let’s take a moment to understand how the eye works.
The eye and how it works
Eyes of all mammals are similar in structure, but there are significant differences in how they use them, and each mammal has various subtleties that help them survive in their environmental niche. The eye of a deer is quite a bit larger in comparison to their body size than many animals. Their position does not allow for much movement, which is one characteristic that differs from humans and other predators. A bear has much smaller eyes, but they move freely, unlike the eyes of a deer, which are almost stationary. A deer must move its head to see its surroundings.
The eye is made up of five basic parts, contained within the ciliary body: The cornea, the lens, the retina, the pupil, and the optic nerve head. The cornea is the protective layer over the lens and it is perfectly clear in animals, while in humans it has a UV filter. The lens is right behind the cornea and it serves to collect the light and direct it onto the retina. The pupil opens and closes to change the amount of light that passes into the eye. The retina is the back of the eye and the light that hits it is sent to the brain through the optic nerve. The retinas in animals are different in several ways, some of which give them significant advantages over predators, or prey, whichever the case may be.
So here is how the eye works in a nutshell: The retina is like a movie screen with light being cast upon it. Light that comes through the lens, and is monitored by the opening and closing of the pupil. It is focused by the lens.
Predator vs. Prey
Now here is where things get really interesting. The eyes of predators, like you and me, and bears, are optimized in a different way than those of prey species, like the deer. If you pay attention, you will notice that your eyes are moving along the lines of type as you read this. Your eyes have a very small point of focus, and everything within your field of view around that point of focus is peripheral vision, but it is out of focus. Look at something in the distance, and bounce your eyes around to look at different things around you. Your eyes move and settle on objects and then your eyes focus on that object. It’s actually a small point that is in focus. That’s because there is a small area on your retina (that screen in the back of the eye) that interprets the light coming through the lens. A bear’s eye is very similar.
The eyes of a deer are very different. They actually have a wide band of area on their retina that can interpret light. Scientists call this a “visual streak.” It’s not very tall from top to bottom, but it is quite wide. Think of it this way: When a deer is looking straight ahead, almost the entire horizon is in focus at once! They do not have to bounce their eyes around like you and I. They do not even have to move their eyes at all.
The eyes of a predator, such as the bear, are positioned more towards the front of the head, while prey species have them more to the side. It takes two eyes at once (binocular vision) to correctly read depth perception. The brain calculates the difference in distances between the object and each eye, and provides an ability to see in three dimensions. Bears have binocular vision for the entire 120-degree field of view.
Color vision and night vision
Bears see color very well. We can tell this by the number and position of the rods and cones in their eyes. Rods collect light, and cones interpret color. Bears particularly see colors on the blue end of the spectrum very well. They may not see reds as well as we do, but definitely better than deer. Deer see blues and greens especially well, but do not see reds well at all. In fact, if you go into the woods wearing a blaze orange shirt and blue jeans, a deer can pick out the blue better than you can, but can see the orange only as subdued tones. The orange would be barely visible but the blue would glow like the fluorescent orange does to our eyes! Bears are not that extreme, but they do not see reds and oranges very well.
The human pupil is round and opens and closes quite quickly. The pupil in a bear’s eye is a slit that opens a little more slowly but it actually opens almost twice as wide as ours. This allows for the collection of more light in low-light or dark conditions. Bears, like deer, have a layer of shiny substance on the retina at the back of the eye. This is called tapetum lucidum. When you shine a light in the eyes of bear, you will see a “glow” which is actually the light reflecting off the retina and shining back at you. It is one of the reasons bears can see so well at night. I mentioned that rods collect light. Bears have about ten times as many rods as you and I have. Plus, when the light is reflected off the tapetum lucidum, it then hits the rods a second time, effectively doubling the amount of light that the bear’s eye can send to the brain for interpreting the world around them. Because of the numbers of rods, the size of the pupil opening, and the doubling of the light by reflection, a bear’s eye can collect about 50 times as much light as our eyes. Believe me, when a bear comes into your bait at last light, he can see you a whole lot better than you can see him!
Here’s where it gets pretty interesting. Research done at the University of Georgia and the University of Washington found that white-tailed deer have about 20/40 vision. While perfect vision in humans is roughly 20/20, most bears have the equivalent eyesight as humans; however, like humans, there is quite a bit of variation. Some bears have great vision, and some, especially older bears, may have degraded eyesight. But as a general rule, bears see things in better detail than do deer, and about the same as humans.
So where did this myth come from that bear have poor vision? Part of it is because their noses and hearing are so good that they do not rely as much on their vision. Another part of it is because people tend to compare it to the deer’s eyesight. Just about everyone who hunts bear, hunts deer too. We have all been picked off by a deer when making the slightest movement at the wrong time. That doesn’t happen as often with bears. While people think that means bears have poor eyesight, it is actually a function of the way the bear’s eyes are optimized for survival. That band of focus that makes a prey species so good at picking up the slightest movement is not needed by the bear… he’s a predator, not prey. So his eyes are designed to seek out food rather than avoid becoming food. The bear’s point of focus that makes him an efficient predator, is his downfall when he is the hunted!
Here’s a video with some more explanation:
By Bernie Barringer
I settled into my stand before daylight with high hopes. I had arrived in Iowa the previous day with a coveted archery tag in my pocket and spent the day scouting out a large piece of public land. I had found this area in mid-afternoon and hung a stand. Within view were a dozen rubs and half that many scrapes. It looked like a natural funnel, and I planned to park myself there for the entire early-November day.
This was one of my first out-of-state road trips for whitetail, and I didn’t know it at the time, but I had made several mistakes. Now, having more than 20 of these trips under my belt, I do things a little differently.
About an hour after daylight I heard the distinct sound of two bucks fighting just over the crest of a hill to my north. I could hear the clashing and shoving clearly, they were only 100 yards away! But I never did see them; they left by another route and were unresponsive to my calling.
An hour later, a few does and a buck moved down a ridge to my west. They too ignored my pleading through the grunt tube. I began to lose confidence in my spot. Over the next few hours, what I had seen began to grind on me and soon I was on the ground checking things out. The two bucks had been fighting near what appeared to be a bedding area in a thick creek bottom. The trail on the ridge also led to that same bedding area.
I learned a hard lesson through that experience. During my day of scouting, I had been sneaking around like a cat, looking for some sign to set up on. When I found it, I set up and I was done. Over the years I have learned that this is a low-percentage way to go about killing a buck on public land. Nowadays, I want to know what’s over that hill. I want to know where the deer are bedding and feeding and what stage of the rut the deer are in. I also want to know I am in the best spot I can be. It’s a whole lot easier to park your butt in a stand and remain alert for an all-day sit if you have a high level of confidence in your spot.
Public land is different
So much of what we read nowadays and what we see on TV preaches minimal intrusion on private land, with the sanctuaries and inviolate areas that accompany well-managed hunting land. Those of us who hunt on public land do not have the same luxuries. Public land bucks are adept at patterning hunters and either move out or go nocturnal when they sense too much pressure. But how much pressure is too much? Humans use public land for everything from hunting squirrels to gathering berries and ginseng. Coon hunters run their dogs through the properties at night. Bowhunters walk regular paths to their stands morning and evenings. Bucks pattern them all and you should too. You need to avoid human activity as much as possible and to do that you need to know which areas are getting the most use.
It’s no secret that the best hunting on public land is far from the roads. That’s a given because the bucks move away from human intrusion, but they cannot totally avoid it, especially if there is no other place to go, and the does aren’t leaving. If the does are still around, the bucks won’t be far during the rut. And they have become somewhat conditioned to human scent. We have that going for us.
All these factors give us permission to learn the property intimately. You can limit your intrusion by spraying down with scent killer and keeping clean to minimize ground scent, but you cannot completely eliminate the clues to your presence. If you are going to learn the property, you will need to walk it out.
When I look at a new piece of property, I want to know as much as I can about it. I gather as much info as I can before I ever leave home. A call to a biologist or game warden can offer clues. Examining the property on Google Earth can show some potentially good areas, but you still have to burn the boot leather to learn the property.
Analyze trails and travel patterns. Where are they feeding and where are they bedding? Sometimes bedding areas can be hard to determine and you need to walk right in and bump the deer out before you find them. I hate doing that but it is part of the learning process. Once you have found it you do not need to intrude again, the bedding areas will be the same year after year, all other factors being equal. Land features that funnel deer movement will not change unless there is a significant change in landscape or food sources. The more you go back to the same properties in successive years, the less intrusive you will need to be.
Learn where the rubs and scrapes and rutting activity is found. But don’t make the same mistake I made those years ago in Iowa. Scout the surrounding area before hanging that stand. Rather than set up right over a bunch of scrapes, I have learned that it is often more successful to set up downwind of them to take advantage of the bucks that just scent-check them, or better yet, set up between the scrapes and the nearest bedding area so you increase your odds of connecting with a buck who leaves the bedding are right at last light to check his scrapes at night.
Trail Cameras are a big key to the puzzle
Trail cameras are a significant part of an aggressive hunting strategy. Photos give clues to the state of the rutting activity, the times the deer are moving, and most importantly, they allow you to take an inventory of the bucks in the area so you know what kind of potential is available to you. On one of my early road trips, I made the mistake of passing a 130-inch buck on day one when it turned out to be the biggest buck I saw all week. Heck I was in Kansas right? All the TV celebrities hold out for a 150 in Kansas right? As it turns out there wasn’t even a 140 on the property. A good trail camera inventory will really help with the decision-making process when a buck is in front of you.
If my hunt is in the early part of the season, my cameras are going to be placed on trails, but once the rutting activity starts, most of my cameras are on scrapes, although some will be left on trails in funneling areas. It is not uncommon for me to have 6-8 cameras operating on a couple hundred acres. It’s all part of an aggressive scouting and hunting strategy. I realize with all this activity, I am burning the place out within a week or so, but that’s what it takes to make it happen in a short time.
Observation Stands and Bold Moves
On occasion, the first stand I put up is likely to be in an area where I can see a lot of activity. This may be on the edge of an open field or along a creek bottom where I can see a distance up and down the flat. This allows me to observe deer movement patterns for one or two sits, then I will pack up and move accordingly. A perfect example of this is my 2010 hunt in Iowa where I placed my stand overlooking a thick bedding area along a river on a large public area. I could see up and down the riverbank for some distance; I could also see through the open timber of the bottom in several directions. I was well back away from the road and I sat there twice before I became convinced that my best bet was going to be a trail leading along the bottom of a steep bank about 75 yards to the east.
Here’s where a highly portable outfit comes in handy. I packed up my gear and moved my stand the 75 yards and killed a mature buck two mornings later. It seems like most road trips come to a point where you choose one spot that you decide is your best bet and you push all your chips into the middle in that one spot. Sometimes these take some very bold moves and push the envelope when it comes to wind direction and shot distance. These “all-in” stands are the kinds of places where I have killed my best bucks but they are rarely the place where I first hung my stand in that area. I have also found that once you finally settle on that one stand location that offers you the confidence you need to spend long hours there, you will find that some location to be good year after year.
Hunting aggressively on a public land DIY trip is nothing like hunting at home; using the same strategies you use when you have a long period of time to fill your tag will let you down. It’s important to keep a mindset that is totally different than you would when you have an entire season to hunt a property. You have to get it done quickly and that means moving aggressively and taking calculated risks that you wouldn’t make if you weren’t hunting under a deadline.
With the spring fawning season just around the corner, here are a few things you probably didn’t know about the fawns of whitetail deer.
By Bernie Barringer
My young boys and I were walking across a grassy field on our way down to the riverbank for some fishing when suddenly my son stopped in his tracks. It took him a moment to fully realize what he was seeing, but when he did, he realized we were all standing above a week-old fawn. His first reaction, like that of many people, was that the fawn must be hurt or abandoned, otherwise it would have run off.
The fawn’s mother was not far off, in fact she soon appeared and tried to lure us out of the area. We did not bother the fawn, just enjoyed the moment and then went fishing. Many people have been told that by touching a fawn, your scent will cause the doe to abandon it. This is silly of course, but it’s one of the enduring myths about whitetails. It is often perpetuated by people who want you to leave the fawns alone, and they pass on this myth in their zeal.
If you find a fawn in a vulnerable place, such as a hayfield that is being cut, there is nothing wrong with picking it up and moving it to the edge of the woods. Put it in a shady spot and allow the mother to find it. If the fawn runs off, do not try to catch it, let it find another hiding spot on its own.
The maternal instinct is strong, and the doe will not abandon her fawn because of your scent. Most fawns are half of a pair of twins, so the other one is nearby. The doe may be off feeding, but she won’t be too far.
Most fawns are born during the month of May over most of North America. The southern half of the US and Mexico may see fawn births much later. In northern climates, a fawn born too early may succumb to the frigid nights or a late snowstorm, and one born to late may not be mature enough to make it through the following winter.
The breeding season in Texas and Florida are in December and January and are much more drawn out that the short rut found in Canada. Short breeding periods allow the fawns to drop at the best time for survival potential. A fawn born in July in Florida doesn’t have to worry about making it through harsh winter weather which will face a Minnesota fawn beginning in November.
Here’s another myth, there is a belief that fawns do not have any smell so predators can’t find them. Coyotes kill up to 80% of the fawn crop in some areas, and they find the fawns by their scent. Bobcats, wolves, bears and foxes all find young venison to be delicious, and all take their toll on the fawn crop in varying degrees. Coyotes primarily find the fawns by cruising downwind of a likely area with their noses in the air.
The other predators mentioned may occasionally find a fawn by actively smelling for them, but more often have two main tactics for eating fawns. Bobcats, foxes and bears generally find fawns by stumbling across the tasty windfall. Wolves on the other hand, often follow the does around the known fawning areas, waiting until the fawns drop, then quickly gobble them up. There are plenty of cases where wolves and coyotes have been observed actually pulling the partially born fawns out of the mothers. This is fairly common in elk and in moose calving.
The fawns are able to walk within hours after being born, and run within a few days. But they are programmed to lie still rather than run for about three weeks. By the time they are about two weeks old, they can outrun most predators. Fawns spend the majority of their time in hiding for the first month of their life. At about six weeks, the fawn begins to tag along with its mother everywhere she goes.
Fawns will start sampling the vegetation around them at about a month old. They soon discover which plants are good to eat and which are not. They probably learn which plants to eat by observing their mother, as well. But they do not begin to depend on food other than milk until they are about two months old. During the first weeks, their entire life revolves around hiding and nursing.
Fawns have about 300 spots, which offer surprisingly good camouflage, especially when lying in the mottled shade of tall plants. They will carry these spots as long as they wear their summer coats. The spots will not disappear until fall, when the heavy coat of hollow, gray winter fur replaces the reddish summer coat. This usually takes place over the first two weeks in September. The fawns are normally weaned during the month of September as well.
Fawns become sexually mature when they are about six months old. In most areas of North America, the majority of doe fawns are bred during their first November, although some of them may not come into estrus until the early part of December. Young-of-the-year does commonly produce one fawn their first year, then twins in each year after. The availability of quality food and water can alter the number of fawns each doe produces. In areas with plenty of quality food and environmental conditions, triplets are common.
As intriguing as it may be to pick up a young fawn–and no matter how much your boys beg you to raise it as a pet–resist the temptation to make the animal’s life any harder than it already is. The odds are stacked against it. Just enjoy the moment and move on.
Spot and Stalk bear hunting in the mountains with a bow and arrow brings some serious challenges, but everything about the hunt was exhilarating. Oh, and I shot the 43rd bear I saw.
By Bernie Barringer
What makes a dream trip for a die-hard bear hunter? I suppose a dream trip is different things to different people. To you, it might be an exotic hunt in a far off place, or the opportunity to shoot the biggest bear of your life, or maybe the chance to experience new sights, sounds and smells while bear hunting. A dream trip for me may be a combination of several of those things.
If a dream trip for you means a rustic lodge in the heart of stunning mountain scenery, seeing multiple bears a day, waking up to loons calling, catching a rainbow trout on literally every cast, and moose steaks on the grill, then read on, because I found your dream trip.
My trip to Eureka Peak Lodge in the Cariboo Mountains of British Columbia was first and foremost a bear hunt. I shot the 43rd bear I saw. I’ll relate the events of shooting that bear in a moment, but since this trip was so much more than just a bear hunt, let me tell you the story from the beginning.
Just getting to Eureka Peak Lodge is an adventure in itself. I was in four airports during my trip, and the airplane that flew me into Williams Lake, BC was a small one. Let’s just say that every seat is a window seat! From Williams Lake, I was driven nearly three hours back into the mountains, about half of it on winding gravel roads. I was told I would typically see my first bears on the drive to the lodge. I saw three.
Like so many of my bear hunts, this one was characterized by rain. It rained six of the seven days of my hunt. The outfitter, Stu Maitland, expressed that we I would see the majority of bears when the sun was out, and that proved to be true. When the sun would peek through the clouds the bears would appear.
My first day hunting with my guide Joe Morhart was rainy nearly the entire day. We hunted from breakfast until 5:00 p.m. when we headed in to have supper. Our cook Cherie had seen four bears on her drive down to her house about an hour away. One of them was a cinnamon that she had seen on the entrance to a deactivated logging road just a few miles from the lodge.
After a great dinner, we headed back out to hunt for a few hours until dark and our first stop was that logging road. It had been more than an hour since Cherie saw the bear but Joe said the bears don’t move far when they are feeding, so we should go have a look. We walked about 200 yards down the old logging road when we came to a fast-flowing stream. I looked up on the other side and sure enough there was a cinnamon bear. He moved out into the open 60 yards away, and if I was hunting with a rifle instead of a bow, my hunt would have been over right there. But with the stream in between us, we couldn’t get close enough for a shot and my cinnamon moved out of sight.
I need to relate how disappointing this was for me. You see I have this silly idea that I want to shoot what I call a “Grand Slam of Color Bears.” My grand slam would be each of the four major color groups: Blonde, chocolate, black and cinnamon. I need the blonde and cinnamon to complete the slam. One of the primary reasons I booked a hunt in this area was because they have a large number of color phase bears in this geographical region. So I was really disappointed to let this cinnamon get away, but it was only the first day.
The next few days were spent cruising logging roads, glassing the logging cuts, and walking deactivated logging roads. In the spring, bears love to graze on the lush greens that are found along the roads. The woods are thick with little sunlight getting to the forest floor, so the food is found wherever the sun can get through. That means along roads and in logged off areas referred to as “Cut Blocks.”
The best way to encounter a lot of bears is to cover a lot of ground; that means driving a lot of these roads. If you see a bear, you slam on the brakes and plan your stalk. We alternated that strategy with hiking down roads that had been removed from use. These roads grow up into grass, dandelions and clovers, the exact things bears love in the spring. It was a nice combination of exploring these old roads in the pickup, mixed with hiking up the slopes and glassing. It’s quite a fun way to hunt.
The bears proved Stu’s theory right. It rained off and on, mostly on, for the next five days, but when the sun would peek out, we would start seeing bears. Some of the bears bolted off into the brush when we saw them, and some were sows with cubs. Some were in position where we could make a stalk but they were smaller specimens and after all I was looking for a cinnamon or a blonde. We attempted a stalk on a handful of big ones as the week wore on and the list of bears I would not shoot began to shrink. Steve, another hunter in camp who was bowhunting Grizzlies with Stu as his guide, came back to camp one evening with photos of both a blonde and a cinnamon and of course they teased me to no end about that.
On the fifth evening Joe told me we were going to go on a “grand adventure” the following day. He was not kidding. We drove two hours to the shore of Quesnel Lake and loaded Joe’s ATV on the front of an 18-foot jet boat. Lake Quesnel is the deepest lake in North America at 2300 feet deep and that thought was with me as we headed across the lake with the “Quad” in the front of the boat. The scenery was stunning and it was nice to finally have the rain clouds lift so I could see the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
We spent the day about six miles up the lake on Joe’s registered trapline. We cruised logging roads and glassed cut blocks again, and since there is no road access to this area, I was a little bewildered about how they built the logging roads and hauled the logs out. Joe explained that the trucks and equipment is hauled up there on barges, and the logs are strapped together in big rafts and floated down the lake with tugboats.
We stopped off for a few moments at a pristine mountain lake and ate our lunch, then pushed a canoe out into the lake and did a little trout fishing. There were so many times I just had to pause a moment to drink in the gorgeous scenic views.
When we saw a big black one feeding across a valley, we had to make a try for it. But we came to a river that was pretty high from all the rain. Joe took one look and said we could make it so we plunged in with the Quad. About half way across, the quad began to lose its footing but Joe gunned it and we hit the opposite bank. I had to bail off the quad as it seemed like it was going to tip over backward going up the steep bank. Climbing back on the quad after Joe got it up on level ground all I could think about was how we were going to get back across, especially if we had a big bear with us.
We didn’t have to worry about that problem because when we got to the area, the bear was gone and we never did see him again. We spent a few hours hiking and glassing that side of the river before coming back across. We did find a couple moose shed antlers while looking for bears. Now you have to realize that there was a small falls and then rapids about 20 yards downstream from the river crossing. I was not looking forward to trying to get back across that river.
This time it was worse. When the quad lost its footing in the middle of the river we began to be swept downstream and the quad turned sideways. Somehow Joe kept it upright while we were swept up against the boulders on the opposite shore and I grabbed my bow and climbed out onto the rocks just above the falls. Joe tossed me my back pack with my cameras and then gunned it, making his way upstream against the raging current to a point where he could get his wheels on dry ground. We were both wet up to the crotch with the cold, snow-melt water but happy to be safe. Grand adventure, you aren’t kidding.
After a long day of hunting in this remote area, we headed back to the rocky beach were we had left the boat. We discovered that the wind had come up during the day, splashing over the transom of the beached boat, filling it with water and sinking it to the bottom. It took a lot of bailing but we got it back afloat and got the motor started. We got back to the lodge well after midnight and I had to get a fire going or suffer hiking in wet boots all day the following day. Finally, I fell exhausted into bed.
The following day was the final day of my hunt and I had decided I needed to shoot the first representative bear I see. I didn’t want to go home without a bear; the time for being picky was over. We saw some smaller ones and attempted a stalk on a nice big black. But the swirling mountain winds betrayed us.
Early in the afternoon, we were heading towards an area with more logging roads we had not hunted before, when we rounded the corner and there was a bear on the side of the road. It was not a really big one, but it looked like it had good potential for a stalk. In fact, it just moved off the road a short distance and sat there.
Earlier in the week, I had given my rangefinder to Joe and asked him to use it to give me a range right before I shot. I had also asked him to video the shot. But when we bailed out of the truck, I grabbed my bow and in the excitement, Joe forgot both the rangefinder and the video camera.
The bear made a half circle and came back to the side of the road. It was clear he wanted to cross, so we started sneaking up the road, trying not to make too much noise crunching in the gravel. The bear came to the edge of the road again, but soon disappeared. We hurried a little farther and sure enough, he appeared at the side of the road and I drew my bow. I asked Joe the range and that’s when he realized he would have to guess. He said “40 yards,” and then suddenly the bear was moving across the road. Joe tried to stop him with a call but I had to shoot at the bear as he was walking quickly and I didn’t lead him enough so the arrow zipped through him just behind the rib cage.
I hate that feeling, but Joe was convinced we would get this bear. He said the bear would run about 100 yards and hang up. We drove down the road a little ways and then Joe said, “let’s go in right here.” Well I was skeptical but I have learned never to guide the guide. Sure enough, we got about 50 yards into the thick bush and Joe threw up his rifle and said he could see the bear through the scope. The bear was sitting there sniffing the wound on his side when I crept within range and put the finishing shot into him. Another lesson in trusting your guide.
This truly was a dream trip for me. The natural beauty of the Cariboo Mountains, the incredible fishing, the accommodations, the food and the hunting were all terrific. With the benefit of hindsight, I would have bought the second tag (this is a two-bear area) and shot the cinnamon with a rifle on the first night, then bowhunted for the second one. This is one dream trip you really should put on your bucket list.
New technology and cost effective cell phone cameras are taking scouting camera strategies to the next level.
By Bernie Barringer
We have come a long way since the days of rushing to a one-hour photo developer to look at the photos taken by our trail cameras. A long, long ways. Digital cameras completely changed the game camera game; you just plug an SD card into your computer and view. Well the changes and improvements are moving ahead at a breakneck pace.
The first scouting cameras that used a cell phone signal to send you a photo were introduced several years ago, but they were so expensive that the cost was prohibitive. Not only was the camera expensive, but each camera had to have an individual phone number, which meant you had to add another line to your monthly bill and each of the photos the camera sent you would eat up your expensive data at an alarming rate.
That’s all changed. Several companies, including HCO, Covert and Stealthcam now offer cell phone cameras in which you can buy a monthly data plan so you only pay for the data you use while your camera is in the woods. Covert offers this in both ATT and Verizon editions. Covert now even offers one with a plan for Canada. In the US, plans run as low as $14.99 per month which will allow the camera to email or text up to 1000 photos depending on the camera’s settings. (Higher megapixel photos use up data faster). Covert and others offer cameras with LTE coverage which means more speed and quality to the photos. You can sit in your treestand or your living room and receive texts or emails of photos as they are taken by your camera. Place a camera down the trail from your stand and it will text you a photo when a deer is coming up the trail. Plan where you will hunt by analyzing the photos you received before you even leave home.
Of course there are applications for these cameras beyond hunting. There are cases where a landowner was texted a photo of a trespasser, who called law enforcement. The suspects were apprehended before they even got off the property. Someone stealing your camera? You have their photo.
To add even more to the cell phone camera revolution, some camera companies now offer an app for your smartphone or tablet that allows you to keep track of the camera’s status. The HCO app allows you to monitor the camera’s status. Haven’t received a pic in a while, with the Covert app, you can ping the camera, tell it to take a photo and check the battery level by viewing the photo.
Photo viewers for tablets have been around for a while, but they have improved as well. Now there are several SD card readers that allow you to look at the photos in the field by connecting the SD card from the camera right into your cell phone or tablet. An app for the phone or tablet allows you to view and sort the photos on the go. Grab the SD card from your camera on your way to the stand and then scroll through the photos while you wait for a buck to walk by.
Another twist is the WIFI camera by Kodiak. This camera wakes up and starts a WIFI signal when it detects your cell phone from up to 150 feet away. You can then use the WIFI to download all the photos from the camera to your cell phone or tablet, no cell phone or data fees at all. Just as with the cell phone cameras, this is perfect for sensitive areas where you do not want to leave your scent while checking the SD card.
In addition to all this mobile technology, cameras are just plain better. The cost of quality sensors and lenses are coming down. In the past, camera manufacturers were adding megapixels to deal with the issue of poor quality photos. The problem with that is this: a 3 MP photo is not going to offer clear resolution, it will always be blurry. But a photo that offers 12 MP with a poor lens and sensor is basically just a blurry picture that’s four times as big. Some companies offer cameras with 1080p HD video which is basically broadcast quality for purposes of Youtube and many hunting videos and TV.
Faster trigger speeds are features of the newer cameras. While .4-second triggers used to be considered fast, today they are more common. Black flash cameras were made by simply adding a filter over the infrared LED lights, which significantly reduced their range and the photo quality. Newly introduced cameras are using the black LEDs at an affordable price so the quality of nighttime pictures is much better.
Some gimmicky things are sure to find a niche as well. Wildgame innovations offers a camera with six lenses in a circle, which take a 360-degree photo, something that would be interesting to place in the middle of a food plot. Plotwatcher cameras take a photo every five seconds and when you run the photos through the software, they look like near-video as you watch the activity in your food plot ‘round the clock.
Even with all these new features, the price of these cameras has not gone up and in some cases is even dropping. Scouting cameras are offering excellent features that make our lives easier and offer scouting advantages. I don’t expect the innovation to end any time soon. It will be interesting to see what they come up with next.
Watch this short video about teh Covert Blackhawk Verizon cell phone camera:
Think the cost of a fully guided bear hunt is out of reach? There are other options to help you get your bear rug at a fraction of the cost.
By Bernie Barringer
Growing up in Iowa, I had it pretty good as a bowhunter. I started bowhunting in 1973 at 14 years of age. In my first 25 years of bowhunting deer, I lived through the glory days of bowhunting’s growth. I had learned a lot about whitetails, shot some nice ones and even wrote a book about finding and harvesting whitetails in farmland.
But I had always wanted to shoot a bear. I was fascinated by bears from a young age and I knew someday I would go on a bear hunt. In the late 1990’s I booked a bear hunt in northern Minnesota. My plan was to shoot a bear and check that off my list. I would have a bear rug, I would be able to say I shot a bear with a bow and that would be that.
It didn’t exactly work out that way.
I have now shot 25 bears with a bow and I have helped friends and family shoot at least that many more. I have hunted bears from British Columbia and Idaho to Maine and a whole lot of places in between. I have shot bears on spot & stalk hunts, hound hunts and baited hunts, but I am most enthralled by hunting bears over bait. I am thoroughly addicted. I can’t get enough of the adrenaline charge that comes with having a bear at close range.
I have been on quite a few outfitted hunts, but the hunts that give me the most satisfaction are the ones in which I did the work myself. It can take quite a few years to draw a tag in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, so I have learned to branch out.
Most Canadian provinces issue the bear tags through the outfitters, but Ontario is the exception. You can buy a tag over the counter and hunt bears on Ontario without an outfitter. I have an outfitter friend who allows me to run baits in his area, I do all my own baiting and hunt his concession in exchange for bringing him bait and customers. I have found that the best hunt for many people is the semi-guided hunt. While fully guided hunts will run from $2,500-$3,500, semi-guided hunts offer several options and price points, mostly between $800 and $1,200. Most commonly they work something like this: The outfitter gets the baits going then turns it over to you. When you arrive, you are responsible for three main things; getting yourself to and from the bait sites, maintaining the baits while you are there, and taking care of your bear once it’s down.
This also leaves you with the issue of lodging and food. My favorite hunt, one that I do every year is with Edward Wilson of Havik Lake Camp. Eddy guarantees his hunters two active bait sites for less than $1000. He also has a small rustic campground on Havik Lake. He charges only $15 a night to stay there, but there is no electricity or showers, just outhouses. My group camps there with all our own equipment and we bathe in the lake. The fishing is excellent as well.
The advantages to going with a group are many. There always seems to be a couple people eager to help get the bear out of the woods. We pitch in with the chores around camp such as keeping the campfire going, and usually there are at least 2-3 people involved in the skinning and quartering of the bears. Last year there were nine of us and we took home nine bears in four days.
Several fishing resorts in Ontario offer these semi-guided hunts and hope to put you in their cabins at a time of the year when the clientele is slower than peak fishing season. Beware of these hunts, and be sure to call references, my experiences has been that some of them do not put the effort needed into baiting consistently before you get there. Make sure you ask the hard questions and if they are evasive about giving you references, stay away.
Another option is to use a fishing resort as a base camp and do all your own baiting. This can be inexpensive because you are not paying for the cost of a hunt at all, but it can be very time consuming. It might take the better part of a week to get the baits going good before you feel confident in hunting them.
In Minnesota and Wisconsin, there are similar to Eddy Wilson who offer these semi-guided or partially-guided hunts. In Wisconsin, a good example is Art Hyde at Northern Bayfield County Outfitters. For $1200, Art allows you to stay at his camp (which has pit toilets but does have one shower) and he also takes care of the transportation to and from the bait sites. One of his guides will skin and quarter your bear if you like, which means you should add a gratuity to the overall cost. Art normally allows 10-12 hunters and is usually booked up at least a year in advance.
NBC’s services are basically identical to Chris Ford’s bear hunts in northern Minnesota. You are provided with a hunt, but you are responsible for your own food and lodging. For $1500, Chris will put you on active bait sites, his success rates are very high and his guides will help get your bear out of the woods and taken care of. Ford offers a package with lodging for $1,950. Both Ford’s Guide Service in Minnesota and NBC Guide Service in Wisconsin will provide the treestands so you can fly to these hunts.
There are a few things you should ask when booking a semi-guided hunt:
Can you drive close to the bait sites with your pickup/SUV or do you need to bring an ATV? This is an important consideration. At Eddy’s place, we can drive within 100 yards of all the baits, but you will need a truck, not a car to do it.
Where will you stay? Is there camping, motels or resorts nearby? Find out how much these places will cost and how much driving will be needed. Some bear hunts are in remote areas which mean long drives from lodging to the stands each day.
Ask them about success rates. While success rates may not be that appealing compared to fully guided hunts, keep in mind that many first time bear hunters make a lot of mistakes and they don’t have a guide to reprimand them for screwing up. If you hunt hard, take the wind into consideration, don’t fidget on stand and use good woodsmanship, your success rate will be above average.
Make sure you have a plan about what to do with the bear. Find out if there is a place to freeze it or if you will need some coolers and dry ice. Bear hunts are normally in warm weather so the bear needs to be taken care of immediately. You can’t hang it for a couple days like you would a deer in November.
Have them guarantee you at least two active bait sites and I go one step farther, asking them for trail camera photos from the baits. I want to know the bears are appearing during the daylight and that’s it’s not just a sow with cubs.
Make sure you tell them you are bowhunting. You will want a bait site with a good stand tree having good background cover within 15-18 yards of the bait. If the outfitter is hanging stands for you, make sure you inform them if you are left or right handed.
Fully guided hunts with lodging and meals are great. Lodging can be luxurious, meals can be fantastic, and it’s nice to avoid the issue of hanging stands, transportation to and from the sites, and getting the bear taken care of. But spending $3,000 or more on a bear hunt is not for everyone. The options for partially guided and semi-guided hunts have a lot of appeal to those who like to take part in the process and save on the cost.
Just walking around in the woods looking for shed deer antlers is a low-percentage deal. Concentrate your efforts in these 5 areas to up your odds of owning more bone
By Bernie Barringer
The link between where you are likely to find a buck’s shed antlers and where you are likely to shoot that buck in the fall is way overrated. In the winter when the antlers are dropping, the buck’s life revolves around food and cover. These are the keys to where he spends his time. If you are going to find his sheds, these areas are where you should concentrate your efforts.
Winter is a rough time for whitetail bucks. They are run down from the rigors of the rut and they need energy to fight off the cold. Foods high in carbohydrates provide quick energy and can easily be stored as fat. The buck’s stomach tells him what he needs to eat and he seeks it out. Corn and soybeans are buck magnets in the winter for this very reason. Find the right foods and you’ll find where the deer are concentrated.
When the snow gets deep, food can be hard to find, but the tops of hills provide areas where the snow is blown off and the food is easier to access. This is where the deer will feed. My first set of matching Boone & Crockett sheds were found 200 yards apart; one on top of a windblown hill in soybean stubble and the other in thick cover at the edge of the field.
Thermal Bedding Cover
I divide the bedding areas into two categories, the first is thermal cover and it’s usually the snarliest, nasty thicket with a quarter mile of the food source. This is where the deer bed when the weather is windy, the snow is blowing or it’s overcast. Thermal bedding cover is often in creek bottoms where the deer can get out of the elements.
Solar Bedding Cover
Solar Cover is the type of bedding area the deer will use on sunny days. The southern slopes of hills with open canopy of trees provide them with a place they can see in front of them and smell what’s behind them. They will lie in the openings where the sun’s warming rays can hit them. As the sun moves across the sky they will get up and move out of the shade. The more they move, the more they are likely to drop an antler. South slopes experience earlier snowmelt, allowing the shed hunter a chance to go picking when snow is still covering other areas.
The fifth spot seems obvious at first; the deer bed and the deer feed, so look to the trails where these areas connect. But there are high-percentage spots even on the trails. Some of my most consistent shed producers are where the deer leap over a ditch, and where the jump the fences surrounding crop fields. This can be just what it takes to jar a loose antler completely off. Areas with heavy overhanging cover can be hotspots for bone collecting too.
Pay attention to where the deer are spending most of their time in the winter, and spend your time looking in these places. You’ll find more antlers per mile by doing so.
If you are going to take a hunting road trip for whitetails this fall, you need to start your planning now. Here’s how to get started on the road to success.
By Bernie Barringer
The longest journey begins with a single step. If you are planning to travel to hunt whitetails this year, you need to take that first step right now. Tag application time is in the late winter through spring, and it’s also time to start doing your homework to increase your odds of coming home with a buck this year.
The first thing that needs to be done is to make sure you can secure a deer tag for your destination state. Many states offer whitetail tags over the counter (OTC) but in many more, you must apply to receive one. Several states have drawings that award tags based on the number applicants and preference points.
Each time you are unsuccessful in the drawing, you are awarded a preference point. For example, if you want to bowhunt in any of the good zones in Iowa, you will need at least two preference points. If you apply for three years, you will most likely draw the tag the third year. Most states offer the option of buying the point separately so you do not have to send in the entire tag fee when there is no chance of drawing a tag. If you want to hunt a state with a drawing in the future you should start right now buying a preference point each year. You can hunt states with OTC tags until you get drawn.
Once you have decided which state you plan to hunt this year, you will need to start looking at your hunting location options. Most do-it-yourselfers hunt on public land, and most whitetail states have plenty of it. These include state hunting lands, county areas, Army Corps of Engineers lands and state forests. Many states offer a Walk-in program of some sort where landowners allow the public to access their land to hunt. Most of these areas are geared at upland bird hunters but I have found some real gems of deer hunting on these properties in both North Dakota and Kansas. Spend some time on the state Wildlife Commission or DNR website to find these areas. Most state websites have maps of public areas.
Start by analyzing these public lands on Google Earth to determine which ones look like they have good deer habitat. Check for areas that look like good bedding spots and funnels that will concentrate deer movement patterns. Make sure you try to determine where the food and water is found. Crop fields butting up against the public forested land can offer some great possibilities. On many public lands, you will need to get off the road a ways because most people don’t hunt more than a half mile from their truck.
I also spend some time on hunting forums searching for information on the particular area. Often just asking a question on a deer hunting message board will turn up some great nuggets of information. In one case I had a hunter from a state far away offer to drive me around and show me some areas. You can bet I took him up on the offer.
The next thing that needs to be done is get some first-hand information. Call up wildlife biologists, game wardens and county conservation boards. Ask them specific questions about the property. You want to know how much hunting pressure it gets and what’s available for the hunter. Are their wildlife food plots planted? If so, what’s planted in them? Ask about the deer population and if there have been issues such as EHD that could adversely affect the deer.
Once you get good at analyzing the terrain on these aerial photos, you can start to pick out potential treestand sites. Also look for good access points where you can get to and from the treestand with a minimum of impact on the deers’ senses.
I try to call back about a week before I leave and ask them some of the questions again. Have the crops been harvested? Where have you been seeing deer lately? Are the bucks chasing the does or hitting the scrapes? Answering these questions are part of a public employee’s job so don’t be shy.
Any time I can, I will get some trail cameras out to assess the deer population and check for trophy potential. A scouting trip in the spring or summer will help you learn the area and you can leave the trail cameras out for a month or more gathering information. In some of the states I hunt regularly, I have a buddy or two that will put trail cameras out for me a month or so before I arrive. I mail them the cameras then when I get there to hunt I have a lot of great information to go on.
My book for “road trip” hunters entitled “the Freelance Bowhunter” goes into a great deal of detail on this subject. Your success during a fall whitetail hunting road trip hunt begins in the spring. Start right now and in the fall you will be rewarded for it.
From one deer lure formulated in the garage to a major player in the business of deer hunting, this company encapsulates the American Dream.
By Bernie Barringer
John and Brian Burgeson grew up on the outskirts of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Their dad would pay them 10 cents apiece for the mice they could trap. Dissatisfied with the low number of mice in the house, they began trying to trap mice outside when seeing the tracks in the snow. John worked with peanut butter and formulated a scent that attracted mice very well. He had no idea that interest in formulating scents and luring animals would change his life and put him on a journey that would lead to a powerhouse company in the hunting industry.
John and Brian began trying formulations for deer scents and giving them to their father to try out on his deer hunts. Soon John and Brian were hunting too, and the scent experimentation was going full bore. They tried about 100 different ingredients, from oils to deer urine and once they found ones that seemed to attract deer, they began experimenting with formulations. Eventually they came up with an outstanding buck attractor.
They named it “Trail’s End” and came up with the number 307 as an estimate, even though they had long ago lost track of how many ingredients and formulations they had tried. Feeling confident it would sell to deer hunters, they chose the name Wildlife Research Center and started running a simple ad in a few magazines.
The brothers owned a tree service which paid the bills, so they were able to put all proceeds back into their small company. Still, it took five years to turn a profit and they didn’t draw any money out until the 9th year. Eventually, they shut down the tree service and ran WRC full time.
At first, the ads didn’t pay off well, but the publicity helped. They sold more by appearing at sports shows and selling the lure in person. John went into small sporting goods stores and tried to sell his products to the owners, but had little success. So he started putting it on the shelves on consignment and sales began to grow.
Their first big break came when they met a fellow at a sports show who worked for Sportsman’s Guide Catalog. The catalog wouldn’t agree to carry the lure, but one of the staff members took it on a hunt with him and was impressed by what he saw. A buck trailing a doe turned and, leaving the doe, came right to the lure. He shot the buck and suddenly The Sportsman’s Guide became WRC’s biggest customer and a catalyst for future growth.
A second big break came when Bruce Hudalla began to rep for them and really helped them get some traction.
John lived in a farmhouse which had a barn behind it. At first, they ran the company out of the garage, but as it grew and employees were added, it took over the barn. They ran the company out of that barn for 13 years before moving to a new building in an industrial park in Ramsey, Minnesota.
While Trail’s End #307 was paying the bills, John and Brian were working on new ideas and products. The second big product was a scent dripper that had a curled tube on it. As the days warm, the pressure inside the container would increase, causing it to drip. Then at night, pressure would decrease, pulling bubbles back into the canister so it would reset and be ready to drip once it warmed up the next day. The ability to apply scent to a scrape during the day and conserve the scent is a big selling point and this scrape dripper is a cornerstone of the business today.
Special Golden Estrus was the first estrus lure introduced and it has been extremely successful. WRC got into the business of human odor control on the ground floor with Scent Killer and it is a big part of the company. Scent Killer Gold is considered an industry standard and offers the benefit of continuing to kill human odor for days after drying and it has no scent of its own.
Overall, the company has a list of more than 100 products they are developing and refining. It’s a slow process and nothing is introduced before its time. New ideas are added to the list all the time.
While John and Brian are still at the helm of the company, John’s son Sam has taken over much of the responsibilities as Vice President. Sam studied chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota and joined the company full time in 2006. The company employs about 20 full time people, plus outside salespersons.
Looking back at the 30-year success of the company from its humble roots, the Burgesons can credit their longevity to a few things. Number one would be their willingness to stand behind the products. They believed in them enough to offer a money-back guarantee with no conditions. Secondly would be the exhaustive research and development that goes into every product. And thirdly, exceptional customer service at every step of the way. These things are the formula for success which have brought the Burgesons along for a ride on the American Dream, and great hunting products into the hands of hunters across North America.
You’ve seen the amazing whitetail deer hunting on the outdoor TV channels. You know your chances of shooting a mature buck like the ones you see the show hosts shooting at home are not very good. Yes you can go to the destination states and shoot a nice buck. Here’s some encouragement and some solid advice.
By Bernie Barringer
The explosion in popularity of outdoor television in the past 15 years has causes some significant changes in the landscape for hunters. No doubt it has created a surge in popularity and outdoor TV has also launched some products that wouldn’t have seen the same quick growth if they didn’t have the mass medium of TV to get their message to the masses.
Another noticeable impact of hunting television shows has been the eye-opening revelation about what’s available when it comes to deer hunting across the whitetail’s range. Hunters from Michigan, Pennsylvania, the East Coat and the Southeastern US suddenly because aware that the bucks they were shooting were puny compared to those being shot in the Midwest where they have much better habitat and are allowed to grow to maturity.
Take Iowa for example. Before the Outdoor Channel became a household name, Iowa’s 6,000 nonresident deer tags just filled up each year. When TV hosts began shooting big bucks in Iowa, that rapidly changed. Today, expect to wait 3-4 years while increasing your drawing odds before you will draw a nonresident archery tag. Some states, Illinois and Kansas are examples, have increased the number of tags to meet the growing demand.
Still there are hundreds of thousands of whitetail deer hunters still watching the big bucks on TV while dreaming about taking a trip just once to have a crack at a the kind of mature whitetail they would never have a realistic chance to shoot at home. Some hunters feel they can’t afford the trip, others simply do not know where to go, and others still are just intimidated by the thought of setting off to lands unknown to hunt in an unknown area. Well, if you are in one of those three categories, consider this your wake up call, because I am about to crush your excuses.
Excuse #1: I Can’t Afford it
If you can afford to shell out $3,000-$4,000 for a good outfitter in the Midwest, then more power to you, but that’s more than most of us can justify. A Do-it-Yourself (DIY) hunt is the best and possibly the only option. You can do a hunt on a lot less than you think. Your primary expenses are going to be the deer license, gas, lodging, and food.
You have to eat whether you are at home or off on a hunt, so food costs are minimal. I often use a crock pot and toss a complete frozen meal into it when I leave in the morning, so I have a hot meal waiting for me when I get back from the day’s hunt. BBQ ribs, roast and potatoes, chicken breasts, you get the idea. Another option is to carry a small microwave to heat up some oatmeal for breakfast and a hot meal at the end of the day. You’ll hunt longer and harder if you are eating well.
Most of the small towns in the rural areas where you will be hunting have motels that cater to hunters and they are priced accordingly. I usually find one for less than $50 per night and I’m often able to work a better deal if I book several nights at once. Another option I have used is to pull a travel trailer. Many states allow you to camp for free in the parking areas at public hunting grounds. There are no facilities of course but if you have a self-contained camper or you are willing to rough it in a tent, your expenses are next to nothing.
That leaves your gas and your deer tag expenses. Just start saving now and be ready when the time comes; squirrel away a couple twenties a week and you will have your trip paid for in a year or less.
Excuse #2: I Have No Idea Where to Go
Here’s where I can help. I wrote a book entitled The Freelance Bowhunter: DIY strategies for the travelling hunter. Two-thirds of the book covers how to hunt on a budget and how to figure out a new property along with strategies for taking public land bucks. The other third details the hunting opportunities in the 16 states I call “destination” states for whitetail hunters. It covers the counties that produce the most Pope & Young bucks, the availability of public land, what times are the best to go, how to draw a tag, etc.
Also covered in the book are the properties that are not public but are open to public hunting. Two examples are the Private Land Open To Sportsmen (PLOTS) program in North Dakota, and the Walk In Hunting (WIHA) lands in Kansas. Several other states have similar programs and I have found that these lands do not get as much pressure from deer hunters as other public hunting lands. Some states have public lands that get a lot of bowhunting pressure, such as Illinois and Wisconsin, while others like the Dakota’s, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas have abundant state and federal hunting land where the pressure is likely to be much lighter than you have at home.
The internet is an amazing resource for finding a place to hunt. Check out the states’ DNR websites for lots of information. Spend some time on state hunting forums and ask questions. You might think that locals would be reluctant to help you find a good hunting area, but surprisingly I have found the ones who try to discourage you to be in the minority. Use Google Earth to analyze properties for their potential and even start to evaluate specific hunting spots with this amazing aerial photo tool.
Excuse #3: I’m Afraid to Set Out On My Own
The best way to overcome your fear of the unknown may be to connect with others who have done it before you. The online hunting forums will connect you with people who can give you advice if you feel intimidated. I know I felt very intimidated before I took my first DIY road trip for whitetails but once I got my feet wet I fell in love with the adventure and I have now taken more than 20 of them.
The only way to learn how to ride a bike is to get on a bike. It’s like that with a DIY hunt as well. Just plan the hunt and go have fun learning how to do it. I encourage you to not have unrealistic expectations the first time, just go and enjoy the hunt while learning the most you can. Your second hunt will feel a lot easier. Many people before you have felt the same way and offered up the same excuses. Don’t be one of the hunters who uses one of these excuses to stay home and endure the status quo. Stop dreaming and start hunting!
Acquiring a deer tag to hunt in a state far from home can be a confusing process, but this explanation of terms and definitions will help you navigate to the deer license you have always been wanting.
By Bernie Barringer
Applying for a nonresident tag in a state far from home can leave you with an overwhelming feeling. Game laws with regards to tags are complicated and at times very confusing. It seems like every state is different and even differ from one species to another within a state. With that in mind, my Glossary of Tag Terms which follows should help you navigate the clutter by understanding what the terms mean.
OTC: Over the counter tags are those tags which can be bought upon arrival. You can buy these tags at any license vendor that sells fishing and hunting licenses.
Limited Entry Tags: Limited entry tags are given out based on a drawing. You must apply for a license during an application period, then a drawing is held on a certain day. Limited entry tags are used when the number of applicants exceeds the number of available tags. This may take place in a state or in a unit within a state.
Unlimited Draw tags: With these tags, you must apply for the tag but there is no limit to the number of tags. You are guaranteed a tag if you apply during the application period, or in some cases, in time to receive it during your hunt.
Random Draw: Some states have drawings that are totally random. All names are thrown in, each with an equal chance of winning. No matter how many times you apply, even every year for many consecutive years, your chances of drawing are the same as the person who is applying their first time. Some states will offer more tags to residents than nonresidents, so you are competing against those in your category. Because random draws are not seen as a fair system by many people (including me), most states have implemented a system of bonus points or preference points.
Bonus Points and Preference Points: Some states use bonus or preference points when applicants exceed the number of tags available. Some states use the terms differently, but in general, a bonus point works like this. Each time you are unsuccessful, you are give a point which increases your odds of drawing. For all practical purposes, it simply puts your name in the hat an additional time. If you have been unsuccessful ten times, your name is in the mix ten times, and if you are applying for your first tag, your name is only in one time. Your odds are ten times better than a person with only one. These are used when the drawing takes place among the names of all applicants. Some states allow you to buy more bonus points to increase your odds.
You could get drawn with no bonus points, but having more bonus points increases your odds of getting drawn. This system allows all people to have a chance, but the drawbacks are that you never reach a point where you are guaranteed a tag like you would with a preference point system.
Preference points are used in cases where are the names are not “thrown into the hat” together. If you are unsuccessful in the drawing, you are awarded a preference point. Drawing from the names with the most preference points takes place first, then if there are tags left, the pool of names with one fewer point takes place and so on. Iowa uses the preference point system for whitetails. For a hypothetical example, if you were applying for a whitetail tag in an Iowa zone, let’s say there are 600 tags available and 1500 applicants. Some of these applicants (100) have four or more preference points. They will draw a tag which leaves 500 more tags. There are 400 applicants with three points which are awarded a tag, which leaves 100 tags. From the pool of applicants with two points, a random drawing awards those 100 tags. All persons who did not draw a tag are given another preference point which moves them up one tier the following year.
Some states allow you to purchase one preference point each year. This way you do not have to apply for a tag if you have no chance of drawing. Once again, using Iowa as an example, the best zones require at least two points to draw. If you apply for a tag, you must send in $551 and wait to hear if you drew. They draw interest on your money for a few months before sending it back, while keeping an application fee. You can avoid this process by just purchasing a $50 preference point until you have enough points that your odds of drawing are good enough to justify sending in the entire fee.
Using whitetails as an example again, some states have significantly increased the number of nonresident deer tags available to the point that you can draw every year without any points. Illinois and Kansas are good examples. At the time of this writing, there are more tags available in Illinois than the number of applicants so you can draw every year. That’s also true in nearly all zones in Kansas, but it’s close there, so it could bump over the top at any time. In Kansas, you would most likely draw whenever you want to but it’s not 100% for sure. If you want to hunt in a year or two, you could buy one preference point to have so when you do apply you would be guaranteed a tag.
Surplus or Leftover, and Landowner Tags: In some states there are other options to buying a tag. If all tags are not sold in a given zone, they may be put back up for sale on a certain date, and you can purchase them without going through the application process. Likewise, some states require you to go through a drawing, and only if you are successful do you have to buy the tag. Some hunters apply for tags and are drawn, but do not buy the tags, either they forget, have an emergency or whatever. These tags also go on sale on a specific date. Surplus or leftover tags often sell out very quickly. At times they sell out within minutes of the time they are offered for sale.
Landowner tags are becoming a thing of the past but some states still offer them. In this case landowners are issued tags as a way to keep the deer population in check on their property. At times, these tags are transferrable. If you can find a landowner with a tag or two, you might be able to buy it from them. Often outfitters lease land with landowner tags included in the lease, then sell those tags to clients.
Zones and Units: These are terms that are used to divide a state into management areas, and tags are often allocated to each unit or zone in varying quantities. In many states the terms zones and units are used interchangeably. However, in some states, zones are within units or vice versa. Make sure you carefully check the state you are applying for to see how the terms zones and units are being used so you do not become confused and apply for the wrong area.
Application Periods: The application periods vary by state, but all are in the first half of the year and involve applications for that year’s upcoming hunting season. The Western states tend to be earlier in the year, many beginning January 1st, and the Midwestern states tend to be in the spring.
This article is condensed from the author’s book The Freelance Bowhunter: DIY strategies for the travelling hunter.
You’ve seen the rise and heard the buzz about this, but is this for real? You bet it is; and it is changing the face of public land deer hunting.
By Bernie Barringer
I was enjoying the warming sun on my face when a grunt jolted me to attention. I sat alert and soon heard hoofbeats in the leaves. Getting my bow in hand, I followed the sound of the movements as they drew near and soon a doe came trotting into sight. Another grunt revealed the location of the buck following her. Like a gift, she made an arc through the trees and trotted right past my stand. With his nose to the ground, the buck followed, only hesitating long enough for a broadhead-tipped arrow to slice through his heart.
A few minutes later, I stood over him with admiration and the satisfaction that comes from shooting a good buck on public land hundreds of miles from home. It was the third buck I had shot in this location in four years. In the past, the feeling of satisfaction was short lived as it was overcome by a deep sense of dread.
You see, one of the reasons this spot is great lies in the fact that it’s so tough to access. By drawing a line on Google Earth, I know I was 1.8 miles from my truck. That’s a long way to drag a 180-pound buck; then come back for my stands and equipment. If I was lucky I could get it all in two loads over the next four hours.
But this year would be different. I had equipped myself with a Fat Kat electric powered hunting bike and a Crawler deer cart that I could use as a trailer behind the bike. I had everything out of the woods and I was headed down the long road towards home in just over an hour.
When I first saw the introduction of fat tire hunting bikes designed for hunting, I was pretty skeptical. They are a significant financial investment and I wasn’t sure just how much of an advantage they would be. Riding a bike for hunting? Really?
But as I began to analyze the way I hunt on so many public lands in different states across the Midwest, Little “aha” moments came to light. Most public lands have a network of access roads used by the state game departments. These roads and trails are used to manage food plots, patrol for poachers, improve habitat, etc. As I began to think about how many miles I have walked on these two-tracks over the past couple decades, I began to realize that using a bike on them would be so much more efficient.
But it wasn’t until I actually got a bike and started using it that I realized how much more efficient riding can be over walking. It’s downright incredible, in fact.
When I attack a piece of public land, my strategy involves scouting for sign, the daily chores of hanging and checking scouting cameras and of course the hauling of stands, sticks and gear to the hunting destination. And then of course all this stuff has to be hauled out when it’s times to leave. Let me explain how the bike helps me accomplish all aspects of this more effectively.
In southern Kansas, I knew of a plot of clover well back off the road. I had seen the field on Google Earth, and knew that it was planted into clover based on a conversation with a local biologi
st. But I had never checked it out because it was so far from the nearest parking area, and it would take so long to scout it out once I was back in there. I figured it was a 3-hour job and I had never been willing to commit that much time.
In the fall of 2016, I rode my bike in there, rolled around the entire field looking for tracks, trails, scrapes and rubs. I hung two trail cameras and was back at my truck in 45 minutes. But two more aspects of this endeavor were the biggest eye-openers. As I coasted through that property, my scent intrusion was almost non-existent compared to walking, and I hadn’t gotten sweaty because I had used the electric pedal assist any time I came to an uphill climb. At that moment I knew this changed everything.
There are several companies making these bikes for hunters, and each offers the option of an electric pedal assist. With the addition of an electric motor, you can ride the bike three ways. You can elect to pedal the bike without an assist, using it only as a bicycle with all-terrain tires. Or you can use the electric assist to make pedaling easier, which is especially helpful going up hills, through rough terrain and while pulling a load. The third option is just to use the electric motor without pedaling at all. The bike will go about 20 miles an hour and you can ride 15-20 miles on a charge, depending on the hills and amount of gear you are carrying.
I have used it all three ways and I find that I use the assist the most. Typically I only use full electric in the mornings on my way to the treestand. This allows me to get into the woods wearing all my cold-weather clothing without the sweat that would be involved in walking.
The addition of a trailer was another game changer for me. I have been using the innovative game cart made by Hawk Hunting called “The Crawler.” This cart has four wheels and a pivoting axle that allows it to roll right over logs and obstructions with east. It makes getting your gear into the woods and your deer out a breeze. It was a natural extension for me to simply attach the cart to the rack on my bike with strong small bungees and use it as a trailer. I can haul a lot of gear into the woods with this set-up and pulling a buck out of the hunting area is done with jaw-dropping ease.
Getting the bike to and from the hunting area is one hurdle that I overcame in two ways. It seems like I haul a lot of gear on my hunting excursions, so the back of my pickup is always full to the brim. I considered using a bike rack on the front of the back of the truck to haul the bike, but I didn’t like the idea of it being exposed to the elements. On the front it might be covered with ice and snow, and considering how many miles I travel down dusty or muddy gravel roads, I didn’t think the bike would take being covered in dirt and mud if it was on the back of the truck. I solved this with a small cargo trailer which hauls all my hunting gear. I put racks in the trailer to haul the bike. At the end of the day, I simply plug the charger into the battery on the bike so I have a full charge the next morning.
I normally leave the trailer at the motel where I am staying and put the bike in the back of the truck along with whatever stands I plan to put out that day. This has kept the bike in like-new condition for me. The bike weighs more than double what a typical mountain bike would weigh, but I can put it into the truck with ease.
After hauling that buck out of the woods last November, then going back for my stand and equipment, I arrived at the parking area with the feeling that I had just discovered something that would forever change the way I hunt public lands. Suddenly, areas off the beaten path that seemed inaccessible due to distance now looked appealing. Scouting and game camera chores were now much quicker and with minimal scent intrusion. My original skepticism was changed into a wide-eyed excitement about hunting new properties and penetrating farther than ever before. I don’t see going on a DIY hunting trip without a fat-tire bike in my future.
As a travelling DIY hunter, I am always in search of the next mature buck, no matter where he lives. That has taken me to several states all through the hunting season, from opening day till the final days of the season in a state far from home.
By Bernie Barringer
There is one thing for sure, you will find me in one of a handful of places during the first two weeks of November.
Because you are reading this post, I can assume I do not have to explain the lure of the rut to both hunter and hunted. Sitting in a great spot with confidence boiling over, knowing that at any moment, a rut crazed buck may trot right up to me with tongue hanging out, is a heart-quickening passion that I don’t expect to be fully satiated at any point in the foreseeable future.
I could easily list two dozen great places to spend your hard-earned vacation during Sweet November, but I have narrowed it down to my top five in no particular order. If you choose one of these areas, you may just run into me out there somewhere during November. I’ll be the guy with the glassy look in his eye, hustling towards the next rendezvous with destiny; acting like the clock is ticking way too fast on that special time of the year. Because it is.
Central North Dakota
This would not be on the top five-list of very many whitetail hunters, but that’s one of the things that makes it so good. There are tens of thousands of acres of public hunting land along each side of the Missouri River system from The Sakakawea dam to Bismarck. I have literally hunted it hard for an entire week without seeing another bowhunter.
Oh, there are other hunters out and about, you will recognize them by the shotguns and the long pheasant tail feathers poking out of their vest pockets. The whitetail habitat is scattered, but once you find it, you will be surprised at the number and quality of bucks that use it.
Don’t take a climbing stand. The tree you want to be in is likely to be a 200-year-old cottonwood as big around as a VW or a snarly willow. Ladders and ground blinds will give you more options. Deer numbers are low, but slowly recovering after some bouts with disease and a couple rough winters. When the population is back I’ll be back there too. Tags are available over the counter.
The northern two tiers of counties along Iowa’s border offer a mixed bag of positives and negatives. There is abundant public land available; the Missouri Dept. of Conservation takes good care of it, planting food plots and managing it well. Disease has knocked the population down recently, but good bucks are still available. You can camp for free in the parking lots of the various hunting areas, in fact some have pit toilets, campfire rings and picnic tables. Good bucks are available, with a realistic chance to see a real eye popper, but just about everyone knows about it.
The areas near the access points get hunted hard, and there are enough hard-working hunters willing to go the extra mile that even the back-in hollows and ridges see some foot traffic and the occasional treestand. But the bucks are there and they are found in numbers and size enough to make it worthwhile to elbow yourself right in with the rest.
A couple times to avoid are the second weekend in November when a youth rifle season adds a lot of pressure to the public areas, and the opening day of rifle season which usually falls just after the middle of the month. Over-the-counter tags are a bargain at $225, which allows you to shoot two deer and two turkeys.
Just a quick look through the Boone & Crockett record book will tell you all you need to know about this area. It’s world class when it comes to producing top end bucks. While most of the other areas in my top five offer a realistic chance to shoot a mature buck better than you can probably shoot at home, this area offers you a chance to find the photo of a Booner on your scouting camera SD card.
There is a good representation of public hunting land, but even better, there is a lot of land enrolled in the Walk in Hunting Access (WIHA) program. It’s surprising the quality of land that local farmers have opened to public hunting, and it doesn’t get the hunting pressure that’s found on state or federal public land. You must apply for a deer tag in Kansas, but you will draw every other year, and maybe the first year.
I have been lucky in Iowa. I have drawn an archery tag for the top zones with two to three preference points six times. I have hunted Iowa every third year since I started applying. Many hunters wait longer, but three points will almost guarantee you a tag. Iowa is land of the giants and there’s a long line to take part in the rut there.
The southern portion of the state separated by interstate 80 is where the big bucks are consistently found. There are pockets all over the state that produce world-class whitetails, notably the northeast corner of the state, but for my money, I want to be south of I-80 and most of the time, east of I-35. Because the state limits the number of nonresident tags to 6,000 the public land is not by any means overrun with nonresident hunters.
You will find some hunting pressure from both resident and nonresident hunters on the state and federal public land. The state land is often broken up into small parcels, but the Federal land mostly surrounds the large reservoirs and the banks of the Mississippi River. If you do your research, are willing to grind out some long walks, and have some backup areas, you can put yourself in position to take home a buck that will make your in-laws do a double take when they see it on your wall. Iowa is proud of their deer hunting and the license fees show it. With all fees including preference points, it will set you back more than $700 all told.
Here’s another surprise to many people. There are huge acreages of public hunting land in Southeast Ohio. Some of the forests are large enough that few people ever see the interior of them despite the fact that hunting pressure can be very high. That may lead you to believe that the biggest bucks are found miles from the road.
That would be only partially true, but your best bet may be to get along the edges of the public land where it meets the crop fields. This may require a long walk if you cannot find a landowner to give you permission to cross their fence. But it will be worth it. This part of Ohio consistently produces numbers of Pope & Young bucks and enough Booners to keep you on the edge of your seat during long hours in the treestand. Tags are available over the counter at license vendors for only $179.
As I mentioned earlier, this is by no means a complete list, but if you are considering an out-of-state DIY hunt, these five are excellent starting points. For more details on DIY public land hunting away from home, the FREELANCE BOWHUNTER book is the best $20 you can spend before planning a hunt.
Providing supplemental feed to deer in the winter is controversial and often illegal in some states, but other states encourage and even help fund it. Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons of winter feeding.
By Bernie Barringer
The Minnesota DNR has often been opposed to recreational deer feeding, and in fact, with the increased risk of Chronic Wasting Disease and other disease transmissions, there have been discussions about banning it. The winter of 2014 was very difficult winter for the deer northern Minnesota. Deep snow and cold temperatures created conditions where the predators had a heyday with the stressed deer. In many cases wolves moved into certain areas and slaughtered far more deer than they could ever eat. Deep snow made finding food extremely difficult and deer were near starvation by February and March. Despite the fact that the state of Minnesota DNR as often been opposed to winter deer feeding they mobilized volunteers across much of northern Minnesota with snowmobiles to feed corn to the stressed deer herds.
Near my home there was a 20-acre cornfield that did not get harvested before the snow came. There were 60 to 70 deer feeding and that cornfield every night. I had a discussion with a DNR officer about recreational deer feeding about that time. He felt strongly that recreational deer feeding concentrated the deer into areas where they could more likely transmit diseases. My question for him was this, “There are 70 deer feeding in this cornfield; they are nibbling on the same branches, eating fecal matter and chewing on the same corncobs. Wouldn’t it be better to have those deer spread out into a dozen smaller recreational feeding sites at the homes of the adjacent landowners, rather than have them all bunched up in one place? Wouldn’t that cause a reduction in potential transmission of diseases rather than an increase?” Neither one of us really have a definitive answer to that question.
These are just a couple examples of the controversy that surrounds recreational feeding of deer. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons.
Acclimation to Humans
Opponents of deer feeding feel that providing handouts for deer can make them more vulnerable to negative human influences. In some cases this may be true, and there are specific instances where deer feeding in the wrong areas has caused significant increases in roadkills. Deer feeding during hunting season can concentrate deer into areas where they are more vulnerable to hunters. But ask anyone who has hunted for deer over bait in states where baiting is legal and they will tell you that putting deer in a position where it’s easier to shoot them is a lot easier said than done.
Deer quickly learn when they are being hunted and will go nocturnal. Many states allow baiting of deer but very few mature bucks are killed this way. The human intrusion associated with putting the bait in place is simply more than a mature buck will tolerate. Even younger deer and does learn quickly that feeding under the cover of darkness is their best survival strategy.
One significant issue with feeding deer is the consistency. One of the worst things that can be done is to provide a food source on which the deer become dependent, and then stop feeding for a long period or quit altogether. Either of these can put the deer at significant risk. If the deer are relying on you for a daily food source, do not let them down.
Concentrated for predation
Human predators and not the only threats deer face. Deep snow can cause deer to bunch up around the available food. Particularly across the northern states, deer yards create easy opportunities for predators. When snow makes it difficult for deer to move around, the predators can move in and make short work of an entire herd. I have personally seen this in northern Minnesota where a pack of wolves decimated a herd of more than 40 deer in one week.
Wolves are controversial enough but when things like this happen, the anger rises quickly. Contrary to what wolf lovers would like you to believe, wolves do not kill just what they need to survive and no more. Put yourself in a wolf’s shoes (paws) for a moment and think of it this way: you know where there’s a lot of deer, so you go kill one and eat your fill. The next day you’re hungry again, so you go back and you have the option of gnawing on a hunk of frozen meat or, with very little effort, grabbing a hot meal. Which option sounds the best to you? That’s why wolves can wipe out so many deer in such a short time.
Other predators also capitalize on vulnerable deer. Coyotes, mountain lions, feral dogs, even bobcats and eagles have been known to feast on the easy pickings. Keep these predators in mind when you choose your deer feeding location. It’s best to utilize several smaller feeding sites rather than one large one.
High-carbohydrate foods are needed to get deer through the winter because they produce quick energy and body heat. But radical changes to the deer’s diet can be harmful and in some cases fatal. Introducing a source of corn to very hungry deer when there is very little other food available can make it very difficult for the deer to digest the corn. When deer are feeding on woody browse, their stomachs are adapted to digest that type of food. They do not have the ability to change quickly in a sudden introduction of large quantity of high carbohydrate food can cause acidosis which can make them sick and in extreme cases can kill them.
For this reason it’s best to introduce alternate food supplies well before winter hits so the deer’s digestive system have plenty of time to adapt. In cases where corn is being introduced to help starving deer it’s best to introduce small amounts of corn in multiple areas. Or better yet, introduce a mixture of feed with a mixture of carbohydrates and protein. Some companies make deer feed which includes other grains and proteins in addition to corn.
The real bottom line is that a deer’s stomach will tell it what it needs to survive. They will not commit suicide by eating corn. But we must be careful that we do not make radical changes to their diets or put them in positions where they are more vulnerable than they would be if we did not interfere. We must also choose carefully where the deer feeding will take place in order to avoid endangering them. Recreational deer feeding can provide entertainment for wildlife lovers and a benefit to individual deer and improvement of deer populations if it’s done in a responsible way.
Following the rigors of the rut, bucks need to replenish body condition and body fat. They instinctively know what food will bring them back into form. They revert to a very predictable daily pattern of feeding to bedding. Here’s a primer on how to take advantage of this window of opportunity
By Bernie Barringer
Despite the snow swirling around me, I pushed through the thick brush, spurred onward by an unfilled buck tag in my back pocket. Arriving at the edge of the field, I could see there were a few deer already feeding in the corn stubble, but neither of the two bucks I was after could be seen. I carefully climbed 20 feet up into my treestand, swept the snow from the seat and settled in. By the time I got my bow towed up on the haul rope, a buck appeared at the woods line and began to move across the field towards me. My plans for a long cold vigil suddenly changed and this buck’s appearance created a flood of optimism that this night might be the night. I love hunting the last days of archery season despite the nasty weather because I have so many good memories and successes to show for it.
Many states have bow and muzzleloader seasons that last beyond Christmas and well into January. Shooting a buck at this time is often thought of as a difficult task because the cover available and the habits of the deer are not what they were during the majority of the season. But getting within bow range of a buck at this time is a lot easier than you think if you know what to look for.
The key for me has been the understanding that the deer have different needs during cold weather than they do during the rest of the hunting season. Remember a few years ago, when the Adkins diet was a craze? People were losing weight by forsaking carbohydrates and consuming more protein. Now bear with me for a minute, I am not off on a rabbit trail, this has everything to do with late season deer hunting.
The Adkins diet is based on the differences between proteins and carbohydrates. In short, “carbs” are more easily stored by your body than protein. Protein is used to build muscle and is used up quite quickly by the body. Most proteins are not easily stored. Carbs on the other hand, are primarily composed of sugars, and your body is very good at converting carbs into storage for use at a later date. Storage, of course, is in the form of fat. Your body naturally wants to maintain what it’s got. Like most diets, this one starts to get hard when you begin craving the carbs your body is missing.
Whitetail deer crave certain foods too. Like your body and mine, a deer’s body sends messages to its brain that it needs certain nutrients, and the deer naturally seek out the foods which contain those nutrients. So a basic understanding of which foods in your area contain those nutrients can go a long way towards understanding where the bucks will be feeding on any given day.
There are three macronutrients that all humans and animals need: protein, carbohydrates and fats. Understanding when bucks crave these nutrients and where they will find them goes a long way towards figuring out their movement patterns, particularly during the late season when their patterns become quite predictable. By examining where the deer find what they need to eat on a daily basis, and where they bed, we can put together a pattern for intercepting them on their daily travels to and from these locations.
Why Deer Crave Protein and Carbs
Bucks eat little during the rut and they are on the move at all hours of the day. After the rut, bucks are run down. Their fat reserves are gone, and even their muscle mass is diminished. Nothing restores muscle faster that protein, and soybeans are loaded with protein. Field corn is very high in carbohydrates. Most mast crops are super high in carbohydrates and fat. Acorns, especially the meaty varieties like those from white oaks, offer a large dose of fat and carbs. Honey Locust pods are high in proteins and fats. You get the idea. The key to a whitetail in the late season is through his stomach.
High carb foods provide energy to create body heat. Corn fields left standing in December into early January will be swarmed by deer. In cut corn fields, deer will glean waste corn from the ground as long as it is available, and they can easily smell even a single kernel through a foot of snow.
Interestingly, deer can eat raw soybeans; which are toxic to humans and any animal with only one stomach. Because deer are ruminants, their stomach saturates the soybeans before they are regurgitated and chewed, which renders them digestible. Since soybeans provide quick energy through a combination of proteins and carbs, deer will often seek them out during the coldest weather. A stretch of below-zero weather will move deer off the corn and acorns and onto the soybeans because of the quick turnaround of energy they offer. During these periods of deep freeze weather, immediate energy is more important that storage of fat. Food plots of soybeans or late-standing soybean fields attract more deer than corn does during the harshest weather. When the weather moderates, they may move back to the high-carb food sources.
Standing cornfields offer a combination of bedding cover and feed. During mild stretches of the early winter, deer often stay in the corn around the clock. They feel safe in the cover and it provides protection from the wind as well as food within reach at all times.
So bucks are see
king out specific kinds of foods based on which foods are higher in either carbs or proteins and they will gravitate towards the food sources that offer the combination they need at that given time. But mature bucks especially do not blindly wander around looking for these foods, there are other factors involved.
By the time the rut is over, most northern farm country is covered in a layer of snow and cold weather has set in. A buck’s daily activity pattern is a trade-off between security and the need for high-quality food. The need for sustenance often becomes so strong that they will take risks that they would not take at any other time during the year. You may see a buck feeding in a cut cornfield at 3:00 in the afternoon. But that will only be the case if there is escape cover nearby.
A mature buck will not feed in the open unless he feels secure and has an avenue of escape. The best places to find these afternoon feeders is where they have a brushy draw they can dive into at the hint of danger, or possibly a creek-bottom thicket along the edge of the field; I have even seen them disappear into a big field of tall cover such as switchgrass or scrub cedars.
If you can find these avenues of escape, you have the beginning of a pattern that could put that buck in your truck, because these bucks will often enter the field from this escape cover.
Thermal Cover and Bedding Areas
When not feeding, bucks need to feel secure in bedding areas that provide them protection from the elements. Thick cover offers protection from biting winter winds, and on cloudy or snowy days, most deer will be tucked in tight right in the middle of the thickest stuff around. And they will use the same beds day after day.
Mature bucks tend to bed on the south side of the cover, and they often lie with a fallen tree at their back to protect them from the cold north wind. You can recognize these buck beds in the snow because the dominant bucks will use the best position available and the rest of the deer will have to settle for second best. These beds will be larger of course and you will sometimes see large tracks and other evide
nces in the snow that a buck is using the bed.
Because thermal cover is dense, trails zigzag through it, but you can find where they exit the cover if you spend the time looking it over. The great thing about heavy thermal cover in the winter is that you can move in and bump the deer out of it, scout it out well, and they will be back using it in a short time because it is the only game in town. They need the benefits of this premiere cover and they will be back after one disturbance.
Solar Bedding Areas
The second most common bedding areas in the winter are south-facing open slopes that get a lot of sun. Whitetails tend to use these areas when there is little wind and they can soak up the sun’s warming rays. Look for open timber where the sun can get through. These areas will typically have a lot of beds because the deer will get up and move as the shadow of a tree falls on them. So they may actually use 3-4 beds during the course of the day.
Once again, even these open-wooded hillsides will often have a distinct trail leading from them. The deer tend to congregate in one area before leaving the area to feed.
Intercepting the Bucks
Now that we have established where they are likely to be feeding and bedding on a given day, it’s a much easier task to get in a position to intercept them between the two. Patterning deer during this time is about as close to a slam dunk as there is in whitetail hunting, especially when there is snow on the ground and nothing is left to the imagination. It’s all right there in plain sight.
Well-worn trails provide evidence of their travel patterns that can help the bowhunter decide where to set up an ambush. A ground blind along the edge or blended in with cornstalks right in the middle of the food is often the perfect spot. When setting up over a vast field, keep in mind that the tops of hills are often cleared of snow by the wind and offer deer the easiest access to the food.
It is very common for bucks to approach the field through the escape cover, and make their way out into the field cautiously. The most mature bucks will typically enter the field last.
A bowhunter must get up close and personal when in a treestand. That generally means setting up off the field a ways, back up the trail. Often mature bucks will hang up for a while before entering the field. A bowhunter in a treestand 50 yards from the field’s edge may have the advantage of getting a shot at a buck that won’t expose himself in the open field before dark.
In summary, pay attention to the weather conditions and the temperature to make an educated guess on any given day as to where the deer are likely to be bedding. Factor in what food sources they might choose that day based on what their body would be calling for. Know your area ahead of time so you can predict where the bucks are likely to be that afternoon and move right in.
Hunting last minute whitetails is a game of making educated guesses as to where to be, and when. The more information you have, the more educated your guess will be. It’s a matter of upping your odds by putting all the pieces of the puzzle together: The right macronutrients, the right bedding areas and the ambush points between them.
The sense of smell among members of the deer family is legendary. In fact, it’s hard for humans to grasp. But recent research into the sense of smell of elk and whitetails finally puts some numbers to it.
By Bernie Barringer
I was aroused from my calm, patient state by a flicker of movement to my right. I slowly turned my head and saw a buck approaching at a slow walk. Suddenly at full alert, I started looking for an opportunity to get my bow off the hanger as the mature buck closed the distance. When he stopped and looked away, I got my bow in hand and ready to draw. This buck was really nice, and my heart began to pound.
When the buck was 15 yards away, he stopped and froze. His demeanor changed as he dropped his head to the ground and sniffed the trail in front of him. In an instant, he had gone from relaxed to tense. He paused for a few seconds and then took three steps backwards before turning, lowering his head, and disappearing into the forest.
Clearly he had smelled something that he didn’t like. I had had approached my stand that day from downwind–the opposite direction–so he couldn’t have smelled my ground scent. Then it hi
t me. He had crossed the path where I had approached the stand… yesterday! He smelled my ground scent from 18 hours previous.
The ability of a deer to smell danger is legendary, and it stands at a level that we humans cannot even comprehend. It is so far above our ability to smell, it’s hard to get a grasp on what their world must be like each day as they interpret the world around them with their nose.
Fortunately, we know a lot more than ever about how deer smell. Let’s take a look at four things that give members of the deer family their amazing ability to smell what’s around them.
The Long Snout
Members of the deer family and predators need their sense of smell to survive, so they are equipped with far more olfactory receptors than those animals that do not rely on their sense of smell. The long snout creates more room for special nerve cells that receive and interpret smells. It’s estimated that humans have about 5 million of these olfactory receptors, while members of the deer family, including elk and moose, have about 300 million. Bloodhounds have about 220 million.
Members of the deer family have something else going for them. Some of these olfactory receptors are specialized for certain scents. For example, research has shown that elk have certain sensory cells that are tuned into the chemical signature of wolf feces. It stands to reason that deer do as well. There is no scientific research to back it up, but whitetail deer may have receptors that specifically recognize the chemical signature of the bacteria that create human scent.
The Specialized Brain
The area of the brain dedicated to interpreting scent is larger in deer than in humans. The drawing of air across all those receptors in the snout sends signals to the primary olfactory cortex, which is in the temporal lobe of the brain.
Because this part of the brain is larger in animals that use their nose for survival, this creates an ability to interpret the smells that’s added to their ability to pick up all those smells with those 300-million receptors. This would suggest that using a cover scent of any kind would be futile, because a deer can simply sort the smells out. A hunter using deer urine to cover his scent smells like a hunter and deer urine to a deer, not just one or the other. While cover scents have little effectiveness, the ability to reduce (not necessarily eliminate) human scent with antibacterial soaps, detergents and sprays, anti-microbial Scent Killer, and carbon is proven science. The science of the deer’s smell would suggest that reducing human odor is worth the trouble, attempting to cover it up is not.
Smelling in Stereo
Members of the deer family also have broader lateral nostrils which allow them to detect smells directionally. Moose have the most pronounced application of this. This allows the animals to determine the direction of the source of the smell more readily. This is called “stereo olfaction,” and it allows members of the deer family to more quickly determine the source of danger.
You may have noticed a deer raise its head as it is smelling the air. The deer is flaring its nostrils while drawing air across the olfactory receptors in its snout. The animal can quickly determine what it’s smelling and the direction it’s coming from.
They Live by Their Nose
The fourth thing that helps members of the deer family survive is simply an increased awareness of the smells around them. We humans might not pay much attention to the scents coming in through our nose until it overpowers our other senses. We don’t think about smells much; until someone hands you a child with a dirty diaper, or you walk into a restaurant where they are frying bacon.
Contrast that to the life of a deer, which is focused on the smells coming through the nose 24-7. The other four senses take a back seat to the importance of smell in their everyday lives. We humans can increase our awareness of the smells around us just by paying attention to them. Have you ever smelled a rutted up buck before you saw him? How about a herd of elk? Using our ability to smell what’s around us is a skill that can be developed. After all, we are predators at heart.
Late season deer hunting is often characterized by harsh conditions. Ground blinds are the perfect solution in so many ways.
By Bernie Barringer
My son Dawson sat close beside me as we watched two does feed out into the hayfield 40 yards out of range. Dawson was 12 years old and in his hand was the bow he had practiced with for hours all summer. In his pocket was his very first archery deer tag. He so wanted to cut a notch into it. I think I was as eager as he was.
We had placed this blind in position on the edge of the alfalfa several weeks before. It took several days for the deer to get accustomed enough to the blind that they began to ignore it. When it came time to hunt the blind, we were both eager and ready.
Soon movement to our left distracted our attention away from the does. A forkhorn buck stepped out of the pines and into the field at 15 yards. The buck noticed movement and tensed up as Dawson drew his bow, but it was too late. Those hours of practice paid off; 20 minutes later we were dragging his first buck to the truck.
That was not my first experience with pop-up ground blinds and it certainly won’t be my last. I have used them at any time during the season, but lately, I have been relying on them more and more during the last few weeks of the bow season, when the cold wind cuts to the bone.
Ground blinds not only protect you from the elements, but they conceal your movements and you can make them very comfortable. An extreme example of this involves the deer my wife Cheri arrowed from one just last December.
Cheri has not hunted much, she has been too involved in raising five kids so I was the one who brings home the venison, but now our kids are older and she expressed an interest in shooting one of the deer that had been trudging through the snow to visit our food plot each evening.
She had been shooting her bow during the summer and fall, so I readied the ground blind for her like I would for any queen who appreciates the finer things in life. The ground blind offered carpeted floor, a comfortable chair and a small table to place her book and other things she may need. A half hour before she would enter the blind, I walked out and started a small propane heater for her.
That evening, I sat there beside her in relative comfort despite the near-zero temperatures and excitedly watched as she shot a nice doe to add to our freezer. Now, that’s hunting in style.
Here’s the deal with ground blinds. Whitetails are freaked out by them. Some people do not get past that problem, but there are ways to deal with it. You have to give it time.
Get it out early
When a big blob shows up right in their living room, whitetail deer take notice. While some animals don’t seem to be too bothered by the sudden appearance of a structure (mule deer and pronghorn for example, whitetails just don’t like it. It takes the deer about a week to settle down and get fully comfortable moving about close to the blind, especially if it is out in the open.
Put the blind out at least a couple weeks before you plan to hunt from it. Stake it down good to protect it from blowing away in a strong wind. I also take a piece of 2×4 lumber and block up the ceiling, otherwise it may collapse with a snowfall. Resist the temptation to hunt from the blind until the deer are casually moving about it, or you may have to start the wait all over.
It really helps them accept the blind if you blend it is with natural materials from the area. Cornstalks, pine boughs and long-stemmed grasses work great for this. You can also use these objects to cover some of the black window openings that seem to make the deer uneasy.
The best way I have found to help the deer accept the blind is to position it right neat some object that is already in position. A brushpile works excellent for this. In fact, I have at times piled brush near where I will eventually put a blind, so I can put the pop-up exactly where I want it when the time comes.
I have a friend who put the blind up near some abandoned farm machinery in the corner of a field and used a few branches to break up the outline of the blind. He killed a deer out of it that very night. That’s a rare case, but it does illustrate the effectiveness of putting the blind near some sort of “structure.”
Put in your time
Once the deer are moving or feeding around the blind, get there early and hunt it often. Wear black so you are well concealed within the blind. Only open the windows on the side you expect to shoot through, and do not open them any more than necessary. Too many open windows allow light to get into the blind and allow the deer’s amazing light gathering eyes to see you. Resist the temptation to open a window in the back so you can see behind you. The risk of having a deer see some silhouetted movement is too great.
A small heater is not a bad idea to keep you comfortable in harsh conditions. A piece of carpet or a pallet can get your feet up off the frozen ground and an ozone generator will go a long ways towards limiting your scent and containing it within the blind.
I have two blinds out right now and I will be hunting in one of them tonight. My confidence in them is very high, and if you use them properly in the late season, yours will be too.
Bump ‘em and Hunt ‘em: This unconventional tactic might just be the strategy you need to bag that nocturnal buck
By Bernie Barringer
It was early in my career as a serious whitetail bowhunter and I was checking out some public land in Northern Missouri. It was the first time I had hunted in Missouri and I was just figuring the game out. I picked a good looking spot, loaded my stand and all my gear on my back and headed out into the woods. When I came across a thick area, I found a group of scrapes and rubs and saw the flash of a white tail as a deer quietly bolted out of the area, threading his way through the trees. I decided it would be a good place to set up.
I put my treestand in a good-looking tree and settled in for the five hour wait until dark. About two hours later, I heard a buck snort really close. I had been winded. I quickly turned just in time to see a huge buck disappear into the brush. His rack was wider than his butt and I knew he was one of the largest bucks I had ever seen in the wild.
Suddenly I realized what had just happened. I had busted that buck out of his sanctuary, and he came sneaking back in with the wind in his face, assuming that whatever had spooked him would be gone. I began to wonder if I could actually use what I learned from this experience to my advantage, and over the years, I have.
Some mature bucks have the game figured out. You may know of one who rarely ventures out of his sanctuary during daylight, and he won’t be caught chasing does in open areas during the rut. You have scouting camera pictures of him but you’ve never seen him in person. He has become almost unkillable by legal means. This buck has a bedding sanctuary that he trusts to keep him concealed. If you have an idea where he beds during the day, you have an option. It’s a late-season long shot–a swing for the fences so to speak–but it sometimes pays off in a big way. Carefully move into the sanctuary and bump the buck out of his bed, then set up a treestand and waylay him when he returns.
A mature buck’s bedding sanctuary is likely to be thick and very difficult to penetrate without spooking him. He has chosen this spot for specific reasons: he can use his senses of sight, smell and hearing to detect danger approaching from any direction. If he detects danger, he will move off. Most times he will return within two hours. This tactic is most successful if done during the middle of the day.
Bring your hunting equipment with you so you are ready to hunt. Carefully sneak into the sanctuary from the downwind side. Take your time, move quietly and use good binoculars to glass often as you move. He is likely to be in the thickest, most impenetrable spot within the area. When he becomes aware of you, he may sneak off or he may crash off, depending on how close you are when he detects you. Ideally you want to see him move off. The more spooked he is, the less likely he will come back that day.
Once you have bumped him, spend at least 15 minutes carefully analyzing the immediate area. Find out where exactly he beds, where he moves around within the sanctuary, and analyze all trails that enter the sanctuary. What direction are the tracks leading? On which sides of the trees are the rubs? Gain confidence in knowing the exact spot he will return to bed.
When the buck returns, he will circle 75-100 yards downwind of the bedding area to scent-check the area before entering. Then he will enter the bedding area on a trail with the wind in his face. Choose a trail that allows you to set up using this knowledge. You must position yourself to play the wind angle so you are not upwind of the buck when he circles downwind of the bedding area. Do your best to predict which way he will come in. Choose the exact right tree and get your treestand up as quickly but quietly as possible. When he comes back he will be on edge and moving with meticulous caution. You must be in the right place and very well concealed.
This tactic is a long shot that is best reserved for late in the season when all other possibilities have been exhausted. It has by far the best chance of succeeding on the first try. If you do everything right, you may just kill the unkillable buck.
Some locations are good year after year. Finding the right tree based on land features that direct deer movement is an art, but once your find the right place, you annual success is bound to rise.
By Bernie Barringer
Most hunters never see a Boone & Crockett scoring buck, much less have a chance to shoot one. Yet I have a bowhunting friend named Jim who shot two of them, one a typical and one a nontypical, only three years apart. What makes this feat even more impressive is the fact that he shot both of them, and a handful of other mature bucks, from the same tree.
He hit the treestand lottery in a way, finding a stand that is in a great location year after year. This location has a lot going for it, including a food source, terrain features that funnel deer movements and access that allows for minimal intrusion. I believe there are five attributes to the perfect treestand, one that produces sightings of big bucks year after year. Let’s have a look at these features.
Certain things cause deer to move in certain ways. Topography is one of them. Ridges, creeks and rivers, ditches or draws, funnels, benches, swamps and even highways can influence deer movement. Sometimes these land features that influence deer movement can be subtle and sometimes they jump right off a map at you. You put a stand in there and here comes the deer. Yet, sometimes they are a mystery. Deer sometimes use the same trails for generations, but there is no clear feature of the land that would indicate why. Only the deer know why they use these areas, so don’t ask questions, just take advantage of the situation.
The stand where Jim killed those two B&C bucks has a drainage that funnels deer out of a park onto the surrounding farm fields. It’s a natural passage that allows the deer to remain concealed until they step out into the field and they take advantage of the terrain, which brings up feature number two.
Mature bucks need to feel secure or you simply aren’t going to see them during the daylight. The killing tree is going to be in an area where the deer feel comfortable moving about. This means that you must offer them areas that are not violated for any reason other than trailing a deer that has been shot. You can go into these inviolate areas and look them over in the spring when you are shed antler hunting, but from two months before hunting season right through the season, no one goes in there for any reason.
The deer will use these inviolate areas for bedding and security. They will be buck magnets during the rut as the bucks cruise from one bedding area to another, checking for does coming into estrus. Your perfect stand site will take advantage of these areas without being too close to them. And the travel corridors from those sanctuaries to the areas where the deer feed must be as free of intrusion as possible.
Even the perfect stand site won’t do you much good if you can only hunt it in one particular wind. You might miss the majority of the rut waiting for the right wind. The best sites can be hunted in a variety of winds and tend to be forgiving of wind swirls. Stands on ridges tend to allow your scent to blow over the top of the deer. In the case of Jim’s stand, the draw tends to funnel evening wind currents out into the field where they dissipate. In the morning, the warming thermals take the scent up and away, and in the evening the cooling air is drawn down to the low ground where it is harmless.
Of course we take into consideration the importance of wind when choosing the stand site, but we must also consider the wind as we access the stand.
This is the area where most hunters overlook. The killing tree must have a way to get into it and out of it without spooking deer. The perfect site isn’t going to work for many hunts if you can’t get to it without spooking deer, or you can’t get out of it without blowing deer out of a field. Smell is important so you must consider the wind direction, but you also must consider sound and sight. Can you get to the stand without making a bunch of commotion crunching through dry leaves or exposing yourself along the edge of a field? Big buck hunters who are consistently successful go to extremes to combat these issues. I know of one who planted a row of pine trees along the edge of his field so he could walk behind them concealed. In another case a hunter left a few rows of corn on the edge of the field to hide his approach.
Using a ditch is a perfect concealment tactic, and you can clean the leaves out to make it quiet. Take a chainsaw in the summer and cut down trees out of the ditch so you can walk in with a minimum of effort and noise. I once read that trails cut to the stands on the edges of food plots should not be made straight, but be cut so there is a curve at the end where the stand is located so deer can’t see you walking down the trail from a distance. Good idea.
The perfect treestand site, the one that will become your go-to location year after year can be hard to find and it can take some effort to develop. Sometimes it can be a mystery why some treestands seem to produce year after year, but most often, it’s a combination of these four factors that make a particular site the location for the perfect killing tree.
These three terrain features are quite common across much of the whitetail’s range, but few hunters look for them. Here’s how to find and capitalize on these overlooked locations.
By Bernie Barringer
All serious whitetail hunters live for that magical time of the year; those three weeks in November when something amazing can happen at any moment. Bucks are on their feet at any hour of the day or night. Things like core areas and home ranges become meaningless as the mature males of the species pant and sweat and grind out the hours, searching for receptive females in a frantic effort to procreate during this short period of frenzied rutting activity. There is no better time to shoot the biggest buck of your life.
You wait for this window of opportunity all year. Don’t spend it in the wrong spot.
I hate that I spent so much of my life sitting in the wrong tree, but that is the nature of learning. Back in the 1970’s growing up in Iowa, I had no idea the potential that I had available at my fingertips. While I lived in the wrong part of the state for consistently producing big bucks, the big bucks were within reach; only a couple hours’ drive away.
But it took a long time to figure out how to put one of them in front of me. I would find a beaten-down trail or an area torn up with rubs and scrapes; then put up a stand. By the 1990’s I was finally beginning to figure it out. I finally killed a couple really nice ones and today, I travel all around the Midwest looking for mature bucks every year. My frenzy of rushing from state to state, putting up and taking down stands, checking trail cameras and walking miles and miles looking for fresh activity resembles the buck’s rutting activity for those three magical weeks.
But I have learned to be more efficient, and because I mostly hunt public land, I often find that the best-looking, obvious spots already have a treestand when I get there, and in many cases, have so much sign of human activity that the mature bucks of the area have learned to avoid them.
Before hunting any area, I spend some time looking over aerial photographs on Google Earth to find potential stand sites. Then, upon arrival, I look them over in person, taking note of the sign and the lay of the land. I want to know that when I put up a stand, it will be in a location that I can sit for a long period of time and the only way a fidgety guy like me can park his butt in a treestand all day is by having a supreme confidence that I am in a really great spot.
Particularly on those public areas and other lands that get a fair amount of hunting pressure, that spot is likely to be a site that most other hunters wouldn’t recognize. Here are brief descriptions of three great hunting spots that most hunters would overlook.
I killed a 6-year-old buck on public land in Iowa a couple years ago on the 12th day of my seven-day hunt. I found a lot of sign of deer activity on the outside of a large, sweeping river bend on the fifth day of the hunt. Once in a stand, I began to see deer movement including one nice shooter buck, but most of the movement was out of range, so I had to adjust a couple times. I had moved my stand about 100 yards twice over the next few days before I settled on the exact spot where I killed that old warrior. The location was where the outside bend of a river swept up against a steep bluff, which funneled the deer movement into a narrow corridor. This was a river that the deer could easily cross, in fact they can cross any river if they want to bad enough, but they much preferred to take the long way around and a distinct trail developed on a shelf along the steep bank.
Deer, like all animals take the path of least resistance when travelling. They are looking for places that it is easy to walk and that’s where the trails develop. Any shelf along the riverbank from the top to the bottom of the step bluff will have a distinct trail on it, and it will have the tracks of not only deer, but those of raccoons, coyotes, and all critters that roam the forest, because they all prefer to travel the easy route.
This was a perfect place to intercept a buck that was pounding the pavement because it very naturally channeled the deer movement into a narrow area, an area where I could easily cover with a treestand in the right spot.
I kind of lucked onto this type of location. I happened to see a buck come out of the tip of a draw 100 yards away when I was sitting in a treestand in a bushy fencerow. I rattled at him, but after a short look towards me, he crossed the top of the hill and entered the point of a draw on the other side. After that morning’s hunt, I walked over there and was surprised to see a series of rubs and a small trail with several sets of big tracks in it. I realized that it was a perfect place for a buck to jump from one drainage to another with minimal exposure. He was only in the open for a very short period; it was an ideal shortcut.
Frankly I don’t know of very many people who hunt these places I came to identify as “Jumpers,” but they can be absolutely dynamite if you find one in the right spot. These drainages may be referred to as hollows, ditches, draws or ravines depending on the local jargon, They are all checked by bucks cruising for receptive does. The place where an arm of the ravine reaches out into a field near where an arm of the adjacent ravine comes out will be used as a crossing point for bucks moving from one to the other.
You absolutely have to burn the booth leather to find the good ones. Looking at an aerial photo will give you dozens of these to check out, and most will have little to no sign, but when you find the one the bucks really like to use, you will know it. Rubs, tracks and often a scrape or two will be the tip-off that you are in the right spot.
The wind can be tricky in these locations; it tends to swirl and dance and it will fool you often. Hunt these spots carefully and only with a light wind. One of my favorite places to hunt these is where the trail coming down the arm of the ravine intersects the main trail going down the middle of the ravine. This may be down the slope a distance where usually the wind is friendlier.
In keeping with the theme that bucks do not like to expose themselves in the open any more than is absolutely necessary, the corners of fields are another overlooked stand site. These are basic and simple locations, easy to identify on an aerial photo or a topographical map. Heck, you can even see them from the road many times. They are everywhere in farm country.
We are talking about the square corner of an open field that has woods on at least two sides of it. Because they do not like to cross open areas in the daylight, bucks will travel around the point, keeping just inside the woods. This creates a pinch point of sorts that concentrates their travel patterns. These pinch points up your odds of being within range of a buck by funneling their activity into a small area. Bucks also use them when scent-checking the field; they will cruise around the downwind side of a field to smell what does and other bucks may be in the field.
Interestingly, these places can have lots of sign or little to no sign and it doesn’t seem to make much difference during the rut. For some reason, I have seen these areas all torn up with rubs and scrapes or, on the other end of the spectrum, maybe just a very faint trail. The amount of sign in these areas seems to have no relation to the amount of travel they get when the bucks get on their feet and begin cruising.
I like to start monitoring these locations with trail cameras the end of October, which helps me learn which ones are getting the most use. I have found that if there is a lot of food in the area, say for example that the open field is corn stubble or alfalfa, the area will hold more does and be more conducive to bucks moving around the field corners. Once the field is plowed up and the does are feeding and bedding elsewhere, the amount of travel around the corner may drop off considerably.
Because I hunt mostly public lands which receive a lot of pressure from other hunters, I have found that the most obvious funnels, pinch points and areas with rutting sign get so much attention that the bucks soon learn to avoid them. If you learn to look for those less obvious points that concentrate the travel of cruising bucks, you can take advantage of not only the rut movement, but the tendencies of bucks to avoid the other hunters. This will help you put yourself in a much better position to bag a big one.
Using Google Earth and mapping apps
The advent of online aerial photography has been one of the greatest scouting tools ever. It has significantly changed the way hunters can research an area before ever seeing it in person. Great locations often jump right off the computer screen at you. These resources include online aerials such as Google Earth, Bing Maps and great apps for your device such as Scoutlook Weather and OnX maps. I have found that many of those locations only look good “on paper.” You have to get out there and walk them out, looking them over in person. Some of the spots that barely seemed worth a second look turned out to be some of my most consistent producers.
I believe one of the reasons that terrific spots on the screen turn out to be disappointments is because the aerial photography can’t show land relief well. Bucks travel based not only on terrain features such as woodlots and fields, but also on topography. You simply cannot read topography well on the computer screen. You have to have your feet on the ground to complete the puzzle.
For this reason, I recommend picking twice as many great looking spots from the computer screen as you think you will need. Some of them will disappoint upon arrival, but one or two of them may turn out to be the scene of your great elation when you walk up on the buck of a lifetime.
Using calls to bring in a buck can be hit or miss and many hunters just give up trying. But if you learn to use these three calls in the right place at the right time, you will be a believer.
By Bernie Barringer
It took me four years to draw the nonresident Iowa deer tag that had me sitting in a tree in the southeastern part of the state. I was positioned at the head of a steep ditch leading down into a woodlot, but I was surrounded on three sides by tall CRP grass. Typical of Iowa, it was a very windy day.
About 100 yards away, a buck’s head appeared above the tall grass and his headgear made my heart beat a little faster. The mature, thick-antlered 10-pointer was walking from right to left, heading to the next ravine. I pulled a call out of my pocket and put it to my mouth.
The Buck Roar
Now back up 20 years or so. It was in the early 80’s when I first heard a buck make the loud guttural grunt that has become known as the “roar” or “growl” depending on who is selling the call which tries to imitate that sound. Let’s just say it was the loudest, distinctive grunt I had ever heard. It was an aggressive sound and I knew it would bring in a big buck if I could make that sound. I spent years trying to imitate that sound with grunt tubes but nothing worked, mostly because they turned into a squeak when you try to get the volume you need. Then Primos introduced the “Buck Roar” and I finally had a call in my hand that could make that sound.
In order to overcome the rushing wind on that November day in Iowa, with a buck 100 yards away, I blew into the Buck Roar as hard as I could, “BLAAAAAAAAAT!” Just like in the movies, the buck turned and walked right to the base of my tree where I watched my arrow slice between the ribs of my largest buck to date.
This call has limited application, but when it’s right, it’s super effective. For mature bucks that are on the prowl looking for action, they simply cannot resist the urge to check out the source of the sound. The reason? Because bucks make this noise when they are in the presence of a doe in heat that just won’t let them mount her. This is a frustration sound bucks make when they are just hours, sometimes minutes from being able to breed. Any buck who hears this sound knows it means there is a hot doe in the vicinity and he is going to check it out.
Grunt tubes can imitate the sound of a doe bleat, but are better for just imitating the grunting vocalization of a deer. Deer hear these ordinary grunts every day and rarely pay much attention to them. Cut the can type calls that you turn over in your hand do the best job of imitating the drawn-out bleat that really gets a buck’s attention. It’s a variable-pitched wail made by does when they are in heat or in trouble. It’s a doe’s way of saying, “here I am, come over here.”
This sound will call in bucks you can see or can be used blind in an attempt to call in deer that might be in the area within hearing. I use this call from time to time whenever I am hunting near a bedding area. The key to this call, and any call for that matter, is using it in an area where there is ground cover or a terrain feature the deer cannot see over. If a deer can see the area around your stand and don’t see any deer that could have made the call, they are probably not going to come.
When the deer is coming, stop calling. Call again only if they show signs of losing interest or start moving away.
Many hunters have had little to no success with rattling, and that’s usually due to one of two things. Rattling works poorly when there are few mature bucks around or if the buck-doe ratio is out of balance. You need to be in an area where there is a good number of mature bucks and there is a lot of competition for breeding. Where I live in Minnesota, does far outnumber bucks and there is little fighting and interaction between bucks during the breeding season. Every buck gets in on the action. I have had excellent luck bringing in bucks with rattling antlers in other states.
Bucks are remarkable in their ability to pinpoint the source of a sound. I can’t count the number of times I have rattled antlers and had a buck run literally right to the base of my tree. I groan at the memories of being caught with the rattling antlers in my hand when I first see a buck staring right at me, preventing me from getting off a shot. For this reason I have become more conservative in my rattling.
I no longer crash the antlers together for long periods, which increases the odds that a buck is going to sneak in and catch me off-guard. My typical sequence starts out with 15-30 seconds of light rattling in case any deer is nearby. Then after about five minutes, I give the rattling a little more gusto for 15-30 seconds. After another five minutes, I use 2-3 periods of about 5-7 seconds of rattling as hard as I can with about 30 seconds in between. If any deer are going to respond, this offers the best chance of attracting them without having them pinpoint your location.
Learn these three calls and you will find success with them if you use them in the right places at the right times. With all calling, make sure you are positioned in such a way that the deer have to come over there to find the source of the sound. Rattling in open hardwoods or flat ground with good visibility isn’t going to work well if the deer can simply look over there and don’t see a deer. I will go into that in more detail in a future column.
Shooting at a moving deer with a bow can be a big mistake, but trying to stop him can be just as risky. Here are some tips to bring him to a halt without alarm.
By Bernie Barringer
If you watch outdoor TV, you have seen it a hundred times. The show host is in a treestand and here comes a buck. The host needs to stop it for the shot so he or she lets out an “Uuuurp!” and the buck does one of three things, all of which are bad. Either the buck takes off, keeps walking, or slams on the brakes and stands there all tensed up, ready to take flight at the slightest sign of danger or the noise of a bowstring. That deer just went from relaxed to alert with the sound the hunter made, which is the perfect recipe for “ducking the string,” which is actually the process of loading the muscles for flight, but it usually means your arrow flies right over the buck’s back.
There must be a better way. Can we stop the deer in our shooting lane, right where we want them, without putting them on edge? Well, there are actually five better ways that I can think of. Try one of these.
Scented Key Wick
Hanging a key wick with some deer urine on it is the best way I know of to stop a deer without alarming them. I like to hang it about five feet high and right in the trail if possible. Every buck will stop and smell it, if only momentarily, but they will pause just long enough for you to get off your shot on a standing, relaxed deer.
I like the key wick because you can pull it off the branch and drop it into a sealed plastic bag; you don’t want it there when you are not.
Just about anything sitting in the trail that’s out of the ordinary may cause them to pause for a moment. I know of someone who uses a small orange surveyor’s flag. He claims a small bucket works too. Deer are curious animals, and any small man-made object free of human scent can work.
An Apple Core
This is not legal in all areas because some conservation officers might consider it baiting, so check your state and local laws before trying it. Eat an apple and drop the core on the ground where you want the deer to stop. Works every time. I’ve never had a deer walk right on by an apple core.
I usually eat the apple on the way to the stand and then drop the core before I climb the tree. You could eat the apple in the stand and then toss the core, but that has never worked for me; I guess I’m not that good at tossing it accurately because it usually rolls to a stop a few feet from where I would really like it to be.
A piece of black sewing thread stretched across a trail can be just what is needed to stop the deer. They feel the pressure, and although they usually push through after a moment, they will often pause just long enough for a shot because they feel something they cannot see, which confuses them momentarily. While this technique works, it has its shortcomings, which I found out the first time I used it. A buck came following a doe, which paused perfectly when she hit the string, then moved on through, breaking the string. Needless to say, the buck didn’t pause in my shooting lane.
Some Deer Hair
This is one of the best ways I have found to stop a deer, second only to the key wick. A handful of hair off a previously shot deer can be dropped right in the trail. Any deer that comes by just can’t seem to help themselves, they have to stop and have a sniff. Their head is down, they are stopped in your shooting lane and they are distracted while you draw your bow or raise your gun, settle your sights and shoot. Perfect.
The “Uuuurp!” might work, but don’t chance it. A grunt call in your mouth can work too, but then you… well, you have a grunt call in your mouth when you need to shoot. Use one of these much more effective ways to stop a deer and you will be shooting at a relaxed deer that is less likely to duck the string. That significantly increases the chances you will be eating that deer instead of talking about it.
Many hunters wait to hunt hard until the month of November when the bucks are running crazy and the rut is in full swing. That can be a mistake, because the last week in October can be one of the best times of the year to tag a mature buck.
By Bernie Barringer
I love the last week in October. The first signs of the rut are appearing more and more by the day. Bucks are getting edgy and this offers several advantages to the DIY hunter. Don’t get me wrong, I love the month of November too, and I’ll be somewhere hunting whitetails the first two weeks of November as long as I am physically able, but the end of October, in my opinion may be the most overlooked time period of the year to catch a big buck off guard.
This is the one time of the year when visits to scrapes take place in the daylight. It’s the one time when I consider hunting over an area all torn up with rubs and scrapes to be well worth it. During November, bucks will mostly visit scrapes under the cover of darkness, or cruise by downwind to scent-check the scrape. But during the last week in October, they are more likely to walk right up and give it a few strokes and a fresh dose of urine rubbed through the tarsal glands. Find an area with several active scrapes, set up downwind of it and put in your time.
One of the best ways to keep the bucks’ attention on a scrape is the addition of a scrape dripper that keeps the scent coming. A dripper allows a slow application of fresh deer lure to the scrape itself, and bucks really pay attention. This can be the difference between having a buck circle 30 yards downwind to scent check the scrape, versus walking right out in front of you and offering a shot. Scrapes with scent drippers are the perfect place to place a game camera, too. You will get a photo of most all bucks in the area within a few days, which allows you to inventory the deer.
Rubs are more than just sign that a buck was there at one time. Rubs are signposts to which all deer pay attention. Rubs offer clues to the direction deer are travelling and they line up in such a way as to offer good information about the routes bucks prefer to take.
Signpost rubs offer the best chance to tag a buck of all, because they are visited often. Look for large rubs on big trees that show signs of frequent use. If you find these big signpost rubs near the edge of a food source, you have significantly increased your odds of finding the place the bucks will enter to food. It’s a great place to set up a stand.
Scents and lures work best in this pre-rut period. Mock scrapes or natural scrapes with a scrape dripper and some Active Scrape or Estrus lure will be checked out periodically. Bucks are feeling the urge at this time and are more likely to come to scent that they will be in a week when their nose is full of the real thing.
Remember what I said about the bucks circling downwind? They are reluctant to come to a primary scrape on the edge of an open field during the daylight, so they just scent-check the scrapes and don’t actually visit them unless something smells good enough to pull them in. A good lure can do just that.
The end of October is a great time to use calling and rattling to bring in a buck. Bleats and grunts are sounds that appeal to a buck’s sense of curiosity. They are often just rutty enough to walk over and check out the source of the sound. Choose a good calling site where the deer cannot see the area around the source of the sound.
Calling or rattling may be just the right tactic to bring a buck out of his bed during the daylight. Set up on pathways that lead from the bedding area, using the wind to your advantage and rattle the antlers periodically during late day hours. Some gentle ticking of the antlers together may be enough, but don’t fear creating a racket by imitating an all-out brawl. Sometimes a lot of noise is what it takes to get their dander up and cause them to make a move.
The huge majority of DIY hunting trips take place during November; that’s not likely to change any time soon. Consider breaking the pattern to take advantage of the last week of October and the opportunities it presents. The rut, with its frenetic activity has its appeal, no doubt, but there are some real advantages to getting there ahead of the crowds. You just may find you have the woods, and the deer, to yourself.