From the final week of October to the third week in November, the rut offers some of the best whitetail action of the year. Here’s how to put yourself in the right spot and make the most of it.
By Bernie Barringer
The month of October has always been a test of endurance for this bowhunter. It really wouldn’t be that bad if it weren’t for the thought of what’s coming always lurking in the back of my mind. Oh, I’ve killed a couple bucks in October, and I know some tricks that help beat the infamous October Lull, but it just ain’t November.
This frustration abates quickly once the final few days of October roll around. Every year in the Midwest, no matter which state I am hunting at the moment, the few days leading up to Halloween see a marked increase in buck activity and I love being in the woods to watch the action unfold. The action explodes and the next four weeks are a race against the calendar as I try to place myself in the right place at the right time to take advantage of each week’s unique opportunities.
End of October
About three days on either side of Halloween can be the best days of the year to hunt rubs and scrapes. Scouting cameras place on active scrapes and rubs will tell the story. Find an area that’s all torn up with fresh sign and you will start go get photos of bucks on it during daylight. It’s time to make your move because this window of opportunity is short.
Using a good quality deer lure in association with these scapes can be golden. Scrape drippers have high value at this time because they are constantly dripping fresh scent into the scrapes. Additionally, they have some calling value that helps bring bucks in from downwind.
Scrapes which have not been enhanced have been studied with scouting cameras in several scientific surveys and have revealed that the cameras show that bucks approach the scrapes and get their picture taken mostly under the cover of darkness. I’ve observed bucks circling downwind of these scrapes to “scent-check” them in daylight. Setting up 20-30 yards downwind of these scrapes can put you within range of a cautious buck during legal shooting hours. I’ve found that enhancing the scrapes with some fresh scent will often pull the buck right into the scrape.
The end of October is a great time to call a buck with a grunt tube. When you see a buck out of range, the odds of turning him towards you with a deer call are better than at any other time of the year. Don’t call too often and only call when the deer stops coming. When calling deer, always position yourself so the deer has to walk over to you in order to see what’s there. Calling in open-canopy forest, for example, reduces the effectiveness since the buck can see nothing that attracts him. If he has to walk towards you to come looking for the source of the sound, your odds of getting a shot are much higher.
First Week in November
The value in hunting scrapes and rubs begins to taper off during the first week in November and by about November 10th, I am no longer hunting sign at all. The chasing is going strong by then, so the bucks are actively looking for does by sight rather than sniffing around where they used to be.
Beginning in early November, the effectiveness of rattling is at its peak. Seems like every buck in the woods is interested in what the does are doing and how much success the other bucks are having. Rattling at this time offers them something they have a hard time refusing; the idea that he might be missing out on some action.
Does are still feeding in somewhat predictable areas, and the bucks know where to look for them. Whenever rattling on the edge of a field, which I do often during the first week in November, I like to use a decoy for the visual appeal. A decoy also gives you a little buffer against having a deer come right in on you and catching you in the middle of a lot of movement. The decoy attracts the eyes of the incoming buck and takes them off you. This can be the difference between having a stare down and having time to put the antlers down and get a bow ready for the shot.
I rarely use doe decoys alone these days. Seems like I’ve had more bad experiences with a lone doe decoy than good. These bad experiences normally come in the form of other does which just can’t settle down and have to get a reaction out of the newcomer. When they can’t get a reaction, they normally resort to snorting and stomping, actions that will make laying your eyes on a buck much harder. Better to use a buck and doe in combination or a buck decoy with one antler missing so he looks vulnerable. The one-antlered young buck setup has more success than any other for bringing a buck across a large field, especially when associated with calling and rattling.
I use a lot of stands overlooking fields and open areas during this time. I like to call them observation stands because they allow me to take in the view of larger area, which can lead to clues about where the deer are feeding, bedding and rutting. This is particularly true in the mornings. Seeing a lot of deer activity in one corner of the field, say, might induce me to use the middle hours of the day to locate a stand in that area for the evening hunt.
Second Week of November
By the tenth of November, the rut is in full swing and breeding is taking place. Bucks are paired up with does or actively searching for does to pair up with. Once paired up, the two will breed several times over a 30- to 40-hour period, then she loses interest and he’s forced to move on.
By this time I am hunting terrain features almost exclusively. Both bucks and does are on their feet and I want to park my butt in an area that funnels deer movement near my tree. A buck can come cruising through at any time of the day or night during the middle part of the month. He may be chasing a doe, following her closely as she moves through, or he may be alone, moving at a steady trot with tongue lolling as he’s on the prowl for his next volunteer.
I love trails along ridge tops for this time period. Additionally, funnels along river banks, steep bluffs or pinch points between two open fields can be dynamite. Any terrain feature that subtly directs their movement can really help. I have a few of these funnels I have found in several states and usually they are good year after year because what creates them doesn’t change much. I’ve killed three good bucks in the last four years from one of these locations on a piece of public hunting land in Kansas.
Spot & stalk hunting is also prime at this time. In open country or farmland, one tactic often used by bucks is to push their doe out into the open where he can keep an eye on her and defend her from other bucks. Early morning light may find them in an open field looking for a small patch of cover to spend the daylight hours. You may see them standing out along a grassy fencerow, shelterbelt, terrace or an erosion control grass waterway. They will eventually lie down and provide you with an opportunity to sneak up close for a shot. It’s not a high percentage way to hunt but it certainly is adrenaline-charged and when you are successful on something this tough, it’s that much more rewarding.
Third Week of November
The rut is winding down as the month wears on towards Thanksgiving. If you still have a tag in your pocket, all is not lost, there are still opportunities to bag a big one. Nearly all the does have been bred but the bucks just aren’t ready to leave the party. They know where the doe bedding areas are found and they will constantly check them for any last minute opportunities. If you know where the does tend to spend their days during the various weather conditions, you’ll have opportunities as well.
Bucks tend to work their way through the downwind areas of cover or hillsides where the does tend to ride out the daylight hours. Trails that lead between bedding areas can be dynamite. The helter-skelter of the rut is being replaced by more normal feeding patterns, and the bucks know where to look for the feeding areas. Find the does and you’ll find the bucks.
Scrapes start to see more action again, and a camera placed at a cluster of scrapes will tell you what bucks are still in the area. At this time, the bucks can’t be counted on for any sort of regularity, but the cameras will help you gauge the state of activity and offer an inventory of the bucks that are available.
One of my favorite tactics during the closing days of the rut is to use a drag rag. It’s nothing fancy, just a string tied to my ankle with couple key wicks tied to the other end. I dip the key wicks into a bottle of doe in heat lure (Special Golden Estrus is my favorite), and walk to my stand. I like to use this the final 200 yards or so approaching my stand. I then walk to the stand on a cross wind if possible to avoid taking the deer downwind of me.
Wish I had a dollar for every buck who came sauntering along with his nose to the ground following that scent trail. True, the majority of them were young deer, but what was for a long time my largest buck was taken this way. He stopped at 15 yards, lifted his head and looked around just as my arrow zipped through him.
If you have a plan for the last few days of October and through the first three weeks of November, you can increase your chances of putting a nice buck in the back of your truck. Being in the right place at the right time is the key, but you need to stay alert as the activity changes through the rut so you can put yourself in the right place at the right time.
Too many bowhunters stay home during October because the reputation of the “October Lull” has them discouraged. Here’s how to improve your success during each week of this maligned month.
By Bernie Barringer
In the past, I never really got serious about my deer hunting until the rut. I’m definitely not alone in that regard, many bowhunters ignore the opportunities the month has to offer. Certainly, it’s not like September when the bucks are visible and on predictable daily routines, or November, when the bucks are running around in a testosterone-induced stupor. But October has some advantages, although each week brings new challenges and opportunities.
The thing I like most about the first week in October is the opportunity to hunt in pleasant conditions without mosquitoes. The early frosts have eliminated the pests and turned the woods colorful and it’s a great time to be outdoors. The deer hunting locations for me mainly revolves around food in the evening and bedding in the morning. The movements have some regularity to them and with the help of scouting cameras and observation; you can find a buck to target. Another advantage to this time is the solitude. Since most bowhunters are waiting for the rut, you can have the woods to yourself. It’s a great time to hunt the public land that will be full of hunters in November but will have few fresh boot prints in October.
These advantages carry over into the second week, as well, but you can add food into the mix. Crops are being harvested and cut cornfields become magnets for the first week or so after they are harvested. Deer move into these fields because the acorns are getting cleaned up and the readily-available missed corn is easy pickings. Ears of high-carbohydrate lie on the ground in plain sight and deer migrate to these areas en-masse.
As the weather gets colder, bedding areas become more predictable. Overcast, windy or rainy weather sends the bucks into the thickets where they have some protection from the elements. Savvy hunters who know where these areas of thermal bedding cover are found can take advantage of the deer as they move out of the cover in the evening to feed, or back to the cover in the morning.
By the third week in October, the effectiveness of calling and rattling is rising. Scrapes and rubs are everywhere, but not being checked often just yet; still, they are excellent places to make some noise. Setting up over early rut sign and rattling can be very effective at this time. The last two weeks of October and the first week of November are the only times when I feel that blind calling is effective enough to be worth trying. By blind calling, I mean making attracting noises without actually seeing a deer to call to.
Blind calling with a grunt call and rattling must be done from the right location, however. Avoid areas of open timber where the deer can see long distances. If they can see the area where the sound is coming from but don’t see a deer, they probably won’t come. A decoy can help, but better yet, put a barrier of some sort between you and where you expect the deer to be. Even a small rise in terrain that they can’t see over can be enough to make them walk over there to investigate the source of the calling or rattling.
The success of calling and rattling continues to grow through the last week in October, but the real area of focus is the sign. Those scrapes that were mostly undisturbed during most of the moth are suddenly getting a lot of activity. Areas all torn up with scrapes and rubs can be excellent places to park yourself in a treestand for long hours during the end of the month.
Here’s a key tip, get downwind of the area, particularly if those scrapes are found along the edge of a field. Bucks avoid exposing themselves to open areas during the daylight and they are unlikely to walk right up to a scrape along the edge of a field unless something really attractive hits their nose. They will often work those scrapes from 30-40 yards downwind, from the cover whenever possible for them to do so. Keep this in mind when you choose the right tree for your stand.
The final week of October offers the best chance of the entire month to attract a buck with a good deer lure. I have had excellent success using a scrape dripper with some Special Golden Estrus or Active Scrape to keep fresh scent going into the scrape during daylight hours. Warm daytime weather causes the dripper to expand, making it drip scent into the scrape. Cool weather at night causes the scent to contract, pulling air back into the container where it stays until it warms up. The advantages of having fresh scent applied only during daylight are obvious.
So don’t give up on the maligned month of October. Sure this time period has some challenges, but if you focus on the advantages, you can be wrapping a tag around a buck before most hunters are getting serious about their hunting.
It may come as a surprise to many that wolves eat bears. This is a problem that seems to be growing anywhere the two species overlap.
By Bernie Barringer
My 18-year-old son Dawson sat in a stand beside me as we watched a medium sized bear feed at the bait. It was the first day of my bear hunt in Ontario a few years ago, and Dawson was filming the hunt for me as he often did. The bear was not one I would consider shooting on the first day of the hunt. Suddenly, the bear stood up and looked into the bush, then spun around and rocketed out of the area as if he had been shot out of a canon.
Dawson reached for the camera and turned it on. He’s filmed enough bear hunts to know that when the small bear leaves in a hurry, there’s a good chance a bigger bear is about to make an appearance. But I was conflicted as I watched the bear streak out of the area. I’d seen a lot of bears around baits and I had never seen one leave in such a state of total panic.
A moment later, the issue came into clear focus as a timber wolf trotted in and looked over the area. He sniffed around a little, made a half circle around the bait site, then left on the trail of that 200-pound bear. It wasn’t my first introduction to the fear that wolves put into bears, but it was a graphic one.
As wolf numbers have increased across North America in the last couple decades, their effect on deer populations has generated a lot of attention among sportsman’s groups and in the media. No doubt there are a lot of teeth in the woods, and wolves have significantly reduced deer numbers in many areas, but there are other animals suffering at the rise in wolf populations and they haven’t been getting the attention they deserve. The black bear is a prime example. Many bear hunters, guides and outfitters are getting a wake-up call about how the high numbers of wolves and low numbers of deer are affecting the amount of predation on black bears.
On my bear baits in Minnesota, I have seen active bear baits go completely dead when wolves move into the area. Wolves will eat some types of bear bait, but that’s not the real reason they hang around. Wolves eat bears. And what better place to find a bear than the high-percentage area in the vicinity of a bear bait?
I have long suspected that wolves could be a real problem for bear populations, in fact I have seen wolf scat full of bear fur on several occasions, but in speaking with biologists, none could verify that it’s common for wolves to kill and eat bears. In fact, most biologists are very reluctant to say anything that would cast wolves in a bad light. Considering the emotionally-charged political climate surrounding wolves, many people within the game departments of states where wolf populations are at issue just seem to avoid the subject.
Woodsmen, trappers, hunters and outfitters in areas with high bear-wolf interactions aren’t so inhibited. Mike Foss, a long time bear hunting outfitter in Northern Wisconsin is frustrated by the lack of understanding about how much effect wolves have on bear populations. He has come across the remains of bears killed by wolves in the forests and he feels the problem is increasing. “Not only is our deer population having a difficult time rebounding from dismal numbers caused in part by wolf predation over the past decade,” he says, “but some bear guides, including me, believe our great bear population is literally under attack, specifically cubs and younger, immature bears.”
He claims that much of the predation takes place in the winter where wolves pull bears out of the dens and eat them. He cites a fellow guide who found evidence of wolf predation at three bear dens late last winter.
And he’s not alone. Tom Ainsworth, long-time bear outfitter in the Duck Mountains of western Manitoba says it’s common in his area as well. He puts out bear bait on snow machine in late winter and he’s noted where wolves have killed bears on several occasions. He says wolves will kill bears whenever they have the right opportunity. One of his guides is a veteran wolf trapper who claims to have come across many cases where wolves have caught bears in their dens, drug them out and killed them. Wolves will also target cubs all year whenever they are far enough from a climbable tree.
In that part of Manitoba, trappers and hunters target wolves all winter which helps keep the problem somewhat under control. But in Wisconsin, the lack of opportunities to control wolf populations along with mild winters has created a perfect storm for high predation rates and many bear enthusiasts are becoming alarmed.
There are more cameras in the woods than at any time in the past, and instances of interactions between bears and wolves are on the rise. The advent of phones with cameras has added to the documentation of wolf predation on bears. Blogs, social media and YouTube have examples with photos and videos show evidence of bears being pulled from the dens and eaten by wolves.
But are the cameras just catching what has been common all along, or are the numbers of bears being killed by wolves on the rise? Mike Foss feels that wolves are targeting bears more and more. “Is there now such a predator-prey imbalance—not helped by federal judicial protection of the wolf—that deer numbers can’t recover and other prey, including the black bear, is providing an alternative food source? I believe that is probable.”
It’s difficult to quantify just how big this problem is. There haven’t been any studies done on it, and considering the political climate surrounding the topic of wolves, don’t expect one anytime soon. But as more and more voices are being raised, it’s clear the problem is growing.
One of the most simple solutions of course would be to harvest more wolves and bring their population back into balance. But it’s not that easy. In the western US, that move is underway as wolf hunting is a growing sport. But in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, the states’ ability to manage the wolf population has been hampered by court decisions that prevent hunting and trapping by preventing the delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species Act. The ESA was designed to bring threatened species back from the brink of extinction, and it has obviously worked in the cases of some animals. The wolf and the bald eagle are perfect examples of how the ESA can be effective. However, animal extremists are using the ESA as a political weapon. The black bears and the people who rely on them for food and recreation are suffering because of it.
In areas of Canada where hunting and trapping of wolves is legal, residents target them for their fur, as trophies and as a way to give the prey species some much-needed relief. There is a growing number of people from the states who are interested in a wolf hunt, but the cost and success rates have been a hindrance. Wolf pelts are at their most impressive in the early winter, and at that time a bunch of other hunting seasons compete for their attention.
John Palson, my outfitter on that Ontario baited bear hunt mentioned earlier, is working to see the price of nonresident wolf tags lowered, which he believes will give incentive to bear hunters to have a wolf tag in their pocket when bear hunting. He believes this will help him reduce his wolf population. But it remains to be seen how many bear hunters will shoot a wolf during the August and September bear seasons when their pelt is substandard.
Another option would be for outfitters to offer wolf hunts later in the fall when the wolf skins are more desirable for mounts and rugs. Some are already doing that. The wolves can be hunted at the bear bait sites by using meat scraps, roadkills, or game animal bones and trimmings after the bear hunters are gone, then placing hunters at those locations for a wolf hunt. Others will chop a hole in a frozen lake within shooting distance of a blind on the shore, then dump in butcher trimmings. As the trimmings freeze into the surface of the lake, the wolves much claw and chew at them. The time it takes the wolves to clean up the goodies offers multiple opportunities for hunters to make a kill.
Reducing wolf numbers seems to be the key, but it can’t be done in all the problem areas. So there are no easy answers to this problem. Mike Foss believes hunting and human interaction are some of the keys to giving the bears a much-needed break. “Wolves are still present in the agriculture lands, but they have much more human contact and a better deer population to sustain them over the winter months— leaving the slumbering bears alone to awaken to another spring.” He adds, “The wolf knows only that eating means survival. Without the proper balance of predator and prey, we are in trouble.
SIDEBAR: Wolves and Hounds
In many areas where hunters pursue bears with hounds, the increase in wolf numbers has created extreme hardship and both emotional and financial pain. That romantic howl of a good treeing hound on the trail of a bear stirs a place deep in the soul of the hunter, but to the wolf, it’s nothing more than a dinner bell.
Hound dogs are no match for a wolf, and when the wolf packs attack, there are seldom any survivors among the hounds. It’s common for the wolves to consume most of the dog before moving on, and it happens so fast that it’s rare for the hunters to be able to arrive in time to stop the carnage. Two hotbeds of this problem have been Idaho and Wisconsin, where hound hunting for bears are traditions that run deep in the bear hunting culture.
A reduction in the artificially high wolf populations in these areas would help reduce occurrences, but realistically, this is a new normal that hound hunters must always have in the back of their minds, and adapt to the changing landscape by altering the way they hunt to minimize losses to wolves.
By Bernie Barringer
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. But 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, 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 youth rifle season which adds a lot of pressure to the public areas, and the opening week of rifle season which usually falls around 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 only two preference points five straight times. I have hunted Iowa every third year since I started applying. Lately it has taken three points in that area. Many hunters wait longer, but three to four 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 $650-$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 $149.
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.
Archery seasons open across North America during the month of September. As soon as the velvet comes off the antlers, change is underway. To capitalize on the opportunities at this time of the year, you must strike fast and hunt aggressively.
By Bernie Barringer
I had about a 10-year stretch during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s where I had patterned bucks prior to the Iowa archery season and I was certain I would shoot one on opening day, which fell on October 1 each year. I started watching these bucks in late August as they would come out in the open soybean or alfalfa fields each evening. I would watch them through the month of September and found the consistency of their movements became more erratic as the month of September wore on, yet I went into opening day with a feeling that I had a real chance of arrowing one of these bucks at the opening bell.
I never did. In the past couple decades, I have learned about some of the things I did wrong back in that time period. I now think I could have done a better job, especially since we now have the advantage of scouting cameras, but patterning a buck during August and early September is one thing, shooting that buck on the first of October is another.
There are better options. Across the Midwest, and western US, whitetail archery seasons open on or about September 1. I now travel to states that offer a much better chance of shooting a buck on these early openers. Now living in Minnesota, I have a much better opportunity to shoot a buck early in the season which starts in mid-September. States with these early archery openers offer excellent chances to bag an early season buck if you are willing to hunt very aggressively and strike fast when you see an opportunity. By late September, the odds are stacked against you. I believe there are three reasons why you must act fast if you are to take home an early season buck. Let me explain.
In August, bachelor groups of 3-8 bucks of various ages are visible in the evenings and because they are totally unpressured, they don’t seem to mind they are being watched. They use consistent patterns to enter the fields well before dark. They aren’t pressured by hunters and have lots of eyes, noses and ears to rely on, so the living is easy.
The first week of September brings change as the velvet falls off. I have seen bucks lose all their velvet in a few hours and in one case, I watched a large buck thrash a bush for 15 minutes on September 4, going from full velvet to hard antler in that short period of time. Testosterone is beginning to surge and those bachelor groups begin to disband. By the middle of September, most bucks are alone and becoming more and more reclusive, so there is a two-week period of opportunity each year in states with early archery seasons.
The Hunt is on
Mature bucks, in particular, are very good at figuring out when they are being hunted. The see branches trimmed along their trails, they smell human intrusion and they have a sense that they have been through these negative experiences before. They just seem to know that they are being pursued and they react accordingly. Daylight hours are getting shorter and they are less likely to enter open areas before full dark.
While you must be aggressive in your attack of these bucks, you cannot ignore good woodsmanship. One of the mistakes I made back in those early years was going out to the stand which I felt held the most promise no matter what the wind and weather conditions. I feel you are much better off to hunt a particular buck when the conditions are right, even if you have to wait a few days into the season to make your move on that particular buck. Have a stand for more than one wind direction so you can hunt every day.
You have to act fast and strike when the conditions are right for any particular buck for which you have some information about his daily movement patterns. Drop what you are doing, take an afternoon off work, cancel an appointment, do whatever it takes. This window of opportunity is short and you must make the hunt a priority to capitalize on it.
Food sources change
Here in the upper Midwest, crops are rapidly changing during September. Soybeans are a preferred food in August, but by early September, they are mature and losing their appeal. Acorns are on the ground, further moving the bucks around. You arrive at a hunting location one day to find that lush alfalfa field you have been watching is suddenly mowed to stubble and the hay bales are being moved out of the field. Things are changing fast and patterns are falling apart.
GPS tracking of whitetails have shown that bucks move to new areas during the month of September. They tend to have late summer home ranges and fall home ranges. That buck you saw a dozen times in one field may be setting up a new home a couple miles away two weeks later.
Successful early season bowhunting during the first couple weeks of September requires a sense of urgency. To put yourself within range of one of those bucks you watched in the late summer, you must devote a lot of energy and time to information gathering, then strike as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Things are in a state of flux and the consistency that gave you confidence earlier is falling apart by the day. Waiting just one day may one day too many.
By Bernie Barringer
Every bowhunter can relate to this scenario: You have watched a particular buck off and on all summer. He’s been quite visible in the fields feeding in the evenings and he’s even somewhat predictable in his habits. This could be the year you actually pattern a buck in the pre-season and shoot him on opening day or shortly thereafter. After all, you see it on TV and in magazines, it’s bound to work for you sometime.
Just a few short days before the season, he’s gone. He’s not in the field during the last hour of daylight, and he’s not even in the fields of nearby properties. You’ve checked them all. You’re sure-thing just turned into a bust. What happened?
Chances are he’s not gone. And he hasn’t even “gone nocturnal” on you. He’s still in the area and, unless some sort of pressure caused him to move out, he’s conducting business as usual, just a little differently than what you are looking for. When you were watching the sun go down on him during early August, what time was it? 8:30? 9:00? Now it’s September and the sun is long gone at that time. He may be coming out at the same time, but the darkness just caught up to his patterns. There are still ways we can put ourselves within striking distance of him during the daylight. Let’s take a look at how to solve this puzzle.
Key #1 – Bucks are individuals
First of all we must talk a little bit about “patterning” to begin with. Some of the things I have seen in print would lead you to believe that bucks have some sort of internal alarm system that tells them where to go and what to do at any given time. In 40 years of bowhunting and observing whitetail behavior I am becoming more and more convinced that what we refer to as patterns are really overrated. Sure, individual bucks tend to bed in the same areas given the same environmental conditions, and they tend to feed where the best available food is found, but that’s about all that’s cast in stone.
It seems to me that bucks have an instinct to switch things up occasionally, because the ones who don’t are more likely to be turned into venison than those who do. A buck gets up from his bed, stretches a little and heads down the trail towards somewhere he knows he can get a bite to eat. He comes to a fork in the trail and instead of going left like he did for the past three days, he goes right. He doesn’t know why he went right, any more than the guy sitting in the stand wondering why he didn’t show that night. Some deer are fairly consistent, some are frustratingly random.
Trying to pattern deer is like pushing a rope. You simply can’t make any headway. It would help us all to put the idea of putting a deer on a specific schedule and think more in terms of trends and tendencies. We will be better off and a lot less frustrated if we do. If we think in terms of what the buck might do on any given evening based on the environmental conditions (temperature, wind speed and direction, etc.) we can get ahead of his movements better than we can if we concentrate on what he has been doing. Of course we are not going to throw out all our observations of his behaviors we have stored in our memory, but we should just view them as one small piece of the whole puzzle rather than the complete picture.
Key #2 – Mistakes can be deadly
Some deer are prone to be homebodies and some range widely. GPS studies have shown that some deer have very small home ranges and others travel quite a bit. One thing that these studies have shown us is that most bucks have at least two home ranges that they know well; they can exit one and enter another when they feel hunting pressure.
If you have a buck that disappears on you for a while, he may be in a secondary area. The worst thing you can do is get aggressive and try to move in and find out what happened. You want him to settle back into a comfortable mode when he arrives; if he smells you or sees more disturbances, it’s another strike against you.
If the buck figures out he is being hunted, you chances of putting your tag on him plummet. When he senses intrusion in the way of ground scent, sudden changes like the appearance of a trail camera or a bunch of cut branches, he may bug out for a few days. If he smells you directly or has a bad experience such as a situation that causes alarm, he may be done with that particular spot for the season.
It’s hard to sit tight when you really want to know what’s on that trail camera, but you are much better off to wait for a light rain that will smother your ground scent to go check it. There’s no faster way to kill a spot than to walk in and check your trail camera every day. Put the stands up early and trim shooting lanes well before the season. No matter when you go into the woods, minimize your scent impact.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to hunt a stand on opening day when the conditions are not right. Patience is critical. You may only have one chance, so you want to make sure you have the odds stacked in your favor. If the wind isn’t right, hunt somewhere else or don’t hunt at all.
Key #3 – Find the bedroom door
It pays to be familiar with the preferred bedding areas. An entire book could be written on how deer choose beds based on the conditions through the year. I couldn’t cover it all here, but I suggest you learn a basic understanding of how bucks like to bed where they can see in front of them and smell what’s behind them, which is what they tend to choose when the weather is pleasant. This might be just below the crest of a ridge where the wind is coming over the top, or tucked in behind a large fallen log. When the weather is bad, they tend to hole up in thick cover. This may be a thicket or a creek bottom. You get the idea.
Because the daylight hours are shortening, you have a better chance of contacting the buck in the daylight if you are close to where he spent the day. It’s a tricky proposition to get a stand as close to the bedding area as possible without giving yourself away, but these stands often pay off if they are hunted at the right time under the right conditions.
It goes without saying that these stands need to be in place well before you plan to hunt, but there is one other option. I have used this tactic just once and I was successful so I’ll pass it along. During the middle of the night when the deer were out feeding, I moved in and hung a stand along a bluff near where the deer were bedding in a creek bottom. The trail was getting a lot of use and my camera showed that my buck was using it regularly, both prior to sunset and at dawn.
I hung that stand by headlight and didn’t trim any shooting lanes or otherwise disturb the area. I got in and got out and I actually got lucky because a heavy dew was on the vegetation which really knocked down my scent. Get close to the bedroom if you can figure out a way to get away with it.
Key #4 – Stay back off the edge
Like anyone else, I am always tempted to set up right on the edge of the field when I know the deer are feeding in the field with regularity. I want to see what’s going on out there! But that’s rarely the best stand location unless the deer are feeling no pressure at all. While the does and young bucks may casually walk out into the field, the larger bucks tend to hold back and see how things go. You have a better chance at them if you do to.
There are two specific things I look for when choosing where to hunt back off the edge of the field. What I call staging areas are places where the bucks will hang out for a while before entering the open spaces. Parallel trails follow the edges of the field sometimes for quite a distance.
A buck may arrive at a staging area well before dark, but choose not to enter the field until dark, or he may just hang up and patiently watch for a while. He can observe the body language of the deer in the field and enter when he feels secure.
These staging areas have a couple things common to them. First, they will have some visibility to the field itself. This may be a hillside where he can look down on the field or it may have a patch of more mature, open timber that allows him to observe the activity in the open area. Secondly, they will have sign. Bucks aren’t going to just stand there; they are going to do buck things, like scraping, sparring and especially rubbing. Rubs are a dead giveaway, lots of tracks are often found if the ground is conducive to leaving imprints. Sometimes if you are observant you will see where they have nibbled on plants and messed up the ground litter in their scuffles.
Parallel trails are usually very indistinct trails and often are very difficult to discern. Usually the brush right on the edge of the field is thicker because it gets more sunlight than the area just back under the canopy. Imagine yourself walking along the edge of the field from 20-30 yards off the edge, weaving your way through the trees, taking the path of least resistance. You are probably following a parallel trail. The more deer that use it the more obvious it becomes.
These trails are an often overlooked place to shoot a buck. Mature bucks like to walk along the edge of the field, scent checking the field for danger and to find out who happens to be out there
Key #5 – Be Patient
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m advocating patience with regard to hunting these opening day or early-season bucks. Like you, I’ve been waiting all year for this day but I have too many times been overcome by the temptation to get out there and make it happen. The results have usually been less than stellar. The times I have been successful have been the times I waited until the conditions were in my favor. I know the buck of my dreams is being patient right now; his life depends on it. I’ve learned to be patient too, because… well, the buck’s life depends on it.
By Bernie Barringer
Many a heart has been broken by a whitetail buck during the earliest parts of deer season. I am sure you can relate. You watched him all summer, drooling on your spotting scope. He came out into the field at a predictable time in a predictable place several times a week. Could this really be the year you score on a great buck in the first few days of the season? What could possibly go wrong?
Several things can go wrong and usually do. This scenario seems to hold so much promise, yet the numbers of hunters who have actually pulled it off are remarkably low. There are three primary reasons why the wheels come off your plans. First of all, many hunters forget to take into account the changing daylight hours. You see the evening sun shining on those huge velvet antlers in early August at 8:00 p.m. but by the time the archery season opens, it’s dark at 8:00. The bucks haven’t changed their stomach-driven timing, but the shorter daylight hours have caught up to him. He’s coming out at the same time, but you can no longer see him.
Secondly, the buck’s hormones are beginning to work against you. As the velvet comes off, the bucks begin to change their demeanor. They no longer tolerate the presence of small bucks at their side, and they are reluctant to wade right out into the open like they did during the lazy days of summer. They hang back in the trees and survey the field, watching the body language of the does and smaller bucks, biding their time until they feel safe. They are paying more attention to the wind than they were a month ago. They rarely travel far without the safety of a breeze on the side of their face. The good news is these bucks start using predictable staging areas between their bedding areas and the fields. This is where we will focus our efforts, but we need to be careful not to ruin it on number three.
The third thing that goes wrong for many hunters is something over which we have more control. Many hunters blow it when they launch their first early-season attack. They move in too soon, or they screw it up when they put up a treestand on the edge of the field where the buck has been coming out, leaving too much scent and too much sign in the form of cut branches, smashed underbrush and obvious disturbances. Or they just can’t wait for the perfect wind. They let their anticipation overtake their patience and try to cheat the wind. You may only get one chance at this and you better make sure you wait until it is right.
In most cases, if you put your stand right on the edge of the field, which seems like the most logical place, you have just reduced your chances significantly. Remember how the buck is hanging back and looking for anything wrong before heading out into the field? You just put yourself right where he is looking. You need to move back into the staging area.
These mature bucks hang back 30-60 yards from the field edge and patiently observe. Sometimes slowly browsing around, sometimes making scrapes and rubs, and sometimes just standing and staring intently for painfully long periods. This is where you need to set up, not right on the edge of the field.
It helps to know the location of the bedding area and the general lay of the land between that bedding area and the field where you have observed these deer. Bedding areas can change based on weather and human disturbance, but there are specific areas where they tend to bed year after year. The areas they choose to travel between the bedding area and the food will allow them good concealment cover and the opportunity to quarter the wind whenever possible.
When they arrive at the edge of the field, the does and young bucks often move right out into the open while the mature bucks hang back. Interestingly, does and small bucks usually trot out a few yards from the edge of the brush before they begin to feed. When the older bucks finally do enter the field, they often stay right on the edge, alternating between observing and nibbling, before working well out into the open. Once you have a general idea of the direction the bucks are approaching the field, it’s time to figure out exactly where they are staging. Put your system into motion.
Having a system is important because it allows you to set up quickly and efficiently with a minimum of disturbance. There are cases where the staging areas will be the same year after year, but things like crop rotations, wind directions, availability of water, hunting pressure and even obscure activities like firewood cutting will change the deer’s habits from year to year.
The first thing I like to do is move in carefully during the late morning and set up a few trail cameras. Late morning works well because the dew is off the plants, yet it gives your scent some time to age before the deer show up in the afternoon. Believe me a buck knows the difference between scent that is eight hours old and scent that is three hours old, and he will react accordingly.
When I cautiously penetrate the area, I am looking not just for the trails deer are using to approach the field, but specifically for fresh rubs. Scrapes are important but secondary sign; rubs are more reliable indicators of where the bucks are staging. Rubs found right on the man trails are most often made by younger bucks; the rubs you find in the thick stuff off to the side of the main trails are the ones you really want to see. Put a camera on these areas and then don’t go back to check them for at least a week. Always have a minimally intrusive mindset. Once the cameras have allowed you to inventory the bucks and learn their patterns, it’s time to get a stand in place.
When it comes to putting in the treestand, having a system means you get in, get set up and get out. This is best accomplished with a partner. That way you can carry everything to the site in one trip and each of you has a list of tasks. No wandering around looking for the right tree. Know in advance what wind direction you are going to hunt the stand from and stick to it. Once again, this is best done in the late morning.
I start cutting shooting lanes while my buddy starts putting up the stand. A back pack has everything we need to put an entire set in place in short order, right down to the bow hanger and the safety harness. We can get in and out in 15 minutes or less. When you set up your stand, take the cameras out with you. Hopefully, you are going to make just one more trip in there; to kill the buck.
Once the setup is in place and the season opens, the wait can get tough. You know the bucks are using the area; in your mind you can just see them milling around your treestand during those last 20 minutes of daylight. Resolve to wait until conditions are perfect and then go get them. Moving on a buck too soon has saved the lives of a lot of mature deer over the years. Don’t be the one responsible for saving the life of the buck of your dreams.
The bucks you have been watching casually munching on alfalfa and soybeans through the late summer are certainly killable. There is a short window of opportunity to get it done. You will need to find their staging area, then work your system and have patience. Taking one for a pickup ride is not the slam dunk it may first appear to be, but it can be done.
Much has been written about controlling your scent while hunting, but controlling your scent impact and intrusion while scouting, hanging stands and checking trail cameras can be just as important.
By Bernie Barringer
Controlling human odor is a multi-billion dollar business in the hunting industry. Many people are in search of that mythical “scent elimination” nirvana which when found will forever end the frustrations of a deer smelling them and reacting in their typical negative way.
Of course total scent elimination is a myth and probably always will be, but hunters spend millions each year in hopes of at least reducing their scent impact while hunting. There are some great scent killing products that have been shown through scientific tests to kill human odor, and many of them are remarkable effective. So hunters continue to spray themselves down with Scent Killer each time they head out to the treestand. At times the act of reducing your scent can be a deal maker or deal breaker. In the right situation, it might just be the difference between getting a shot versus watching the north end of a southbound whitetail buck heading for the hills.
What many of them do not realize, is that the impact of their scent can tip off a whitetail buck not just when they are hunting, but even before the season starts, and during the season whenever you are in the deer’s zone of awareness. The cumulative impact of leaving human scent in a deer’s area, especially a mature buck, can cause that buck to simply pack up and move to a place where he isn’t as disturbed. At best, it might just make him go nocturnal, thus reducing your chances of getting a shot at him.
Most hunters find themselves in the wood for three reasons other than actually hunting. Here are a few tips on reducing your scent while scouting, hanging stands and checking game cameras.
In 40 years of bowhunting whitetails, I have come to the conclusion that I have done the most damage to my hunting efforts by tipping the deer off to my intrusion while looking for their sign. A big key to killing a big buck is learning his tendencies. I like to know his preferred bedding areas and his preferred feeding areas whenever possible. Two of the best ways to learn those areas are finding sign of his presence and first hand observation.
Tracks, rubs, beds and trails are all good indicators of a buck’s presence. I have become convinced that the best way to learn his patterns is to get out there and look at the sign first hand, just one time, and to reduce your impact while doing so. I spray the lower half of my body—anything that will rub on the vegetation—with Scent Killer each time I go out. I also wear camouflage and walk carefully as if I am actually hunting.
First hand observation for me is usually setting up on the edge of a field and glassing for evening activity. I do this glassing from my truck with a window-mounted spotting scope whenever I can, but if I am walking out to the field, I will only do so when the wind is right and I can sneak in and out undetected, never allowing my scent to blow across the field or into the bedding area at any time.
This is where a lot of people blow it. I know I have really screwed up a couple times by doing it wrong. To put up a treestand, especially for bowhunting, you have to get right smack on top of their activity area and that’s dangerous. We have already discussed the importance of spraying down with Scent Killer anywhere on your clothing that might come into contact with vegetation. Two more things can really tip a buck off to your activity, things you touch with your hands, and drops of sweat.
My strategy for hanging stands involves getting in, getting set up, and getting out as soon as possible. I do this on days when the wind is right so I do not have any scent stream blowing into the area I suspect the deer may be at that time. I also prefer to do it with two people because it seems to go much faster, which offsets the impact of having double the scent in the area. Using two people also helps make sure you get everything to the location and set up in one trip rather than two.
Wear clothing that will wick sweat and always wear a hat or headband so you do not drip sweat onto the ground or your equipment. Set up as early as you can; once you have confidence that you have found the right spot, make a move on them so the area has time to “cool off” before you hunt.
Checking Game Cameras
Game cameras have become a huge part of my hunting and scouting all year long. I confess I am borderline addicted to using them. I have had to force myself to reduce the number of times I check them. Each time I enter the woods to check the camera I am leaving scent and potentially spooking deer by bumping them. I try to check my cameras only once every 2-3 weeks in the preseason, and whenever possible, I check them right before a rain that will wash away my scent. I even use scent killing wipes to remove my odor from the game cameras.
I wear rubber boots and reduce my odor impact with Scent Killer. I used to make an effort never to kneel down by my cameras, but as my knees have gotten older, that has become harder so I do check them on one knee at times. The real key—at least for me–with these game cameras is to resist the temptation to check them too often.
Scent control and reduction is not just for hunting season. Take these precautions during your preseason work; while you are trying to pattern the deer in your hunting area. Over time, you will notice a difference in the number of mature deer you see during the hunting season because you have not given them the opportunity to pattern you.
The first two weeks of August are the first—and possibly the best—time to get a look at the deer in your area. This is when the hunting actually starts.
By Bernie Barringer
Late summer is an easy time for whitetail bucks. Food is everywhere, the hunting pressure is off, and the stress of growing antlers is winding down. Other than a few bugs and finding water every day, there’s not much for a buck to do.
Green crops, such as soybeans, clover and alfalfa are the preferred foods at this time, although deer will nibble on corn if it’s in the milk stage. Bucks that would never be caught in the daylight during the hunting season will be leisurely browsing in the fields an hour before dark. There a many things a hunter can learn from watching the deer this time of the year.
You can see some activity with binoculars, but to really get a good look at the deer and their surroundings, it’s a good idea to invest in a quality spotting scope with a window mount and a tripod. You can spend thousands on a spotting scope if you want, but a mid-priced scope such as the Nikon Prostaff series 20-60×80 will run $500-$600 and bring the deer up close for you. You will need to mount the scope solid, thus the need for the window mount when glassing a field from a high point on a road, or the tripod, when you have to walk to a vantage point and observe from a place you can conceal yourself.
Let’s take a look at some important things you can learn from watching these late summer deer in the fields.
The first advantage you have is the ability to inventory the bucks. All bucks will not be visible every evening, but if you watch their preferred feeding area for a few days, you are most likely to get a look at the majority of the bucks in the area. This helps you understand the potential for the upcoming season. Keep in mind that bucks will move quite a bit during September, and some of your bucks will leave while others may come in, but knowing some generalities of the deer available to you will help you choose what caliber of buck you will want to hold out for come early hunting season.
Habits and entry points
It’s surprising how much knowledge about deer behavior can be had just by observing where and when the bucks enter the fields. One year I watched as a mature buck entered the alfalfa through a ditch that bisected the field. He would just appear at the point of the ditch and move cautiously out into the field whenever the wind direction allowed him to feel safe.
The following year, that buck was nowhere to be found, but a different mature buck was entering the field in exactly the same way. This pattern has been repeated through the years. Bucks have tendencies and comfort levels; they use the terrain in certain ways. Once you learn these tendencies and the points they prefer to enter the fields. You have a potential hunting spot for the opening days of the season.
Bigger bucks often enter the fields last. They will sometimes hang back where they can observe the deer already in the field, usually does and young bucks, through sight and smell. They will watch the body language of the deer in the open to determine the safety level of the field. The areas they hang out in I call Staging Areas. These are perfect places to hang a scouting camera. They are also excellent treestand locations for early season bowhunting.
Wind directions and Stand set-ups
Once you observe the deer for several evenings, you will notice that the bucks tend to enter the field in different places depending on wind direction and sky conditions. I have noticed that deer tend to avoid walking up a hill with the sun directly in their eyes. They will enter a field in a different location based on whether it’s overcast or sunny.
Wind direction is a key to where the deer enter the field. This is not to say that they will only move into the wind, but they will take advantage of the wind on the side of their face when they can. Evening thermals carry scent downhill, and the bucks will take advantage of that.
Having the knowledge of where the bucks tend to enter the field based on wind direction will be a huge advantage in choosing where to set your stands and which ones to hunt based on the prevailing wind directions of the day.
Behavior and Interactions
While most of the topics I have discussed to this point have the end goal of helping you shoot a buck you have spotted during August, there are advantages to glassing deer that just help us better understand the species. Watching deer and observing how they act, react and interact can be very educational.
The ways in which does interact can be very interesting. Over time, you can figure out which does are the dominant ones. One matriarchal doe is usually a leader, and often looks around more than the others; a sentry so to speak. The other does look to her for guidance.
Bucks will exhibit dominance tendencies as well. Often, when a mature buck enters the field, the other bucks will stare at him for a while. If he moves close to one of them, the subordinate buck will move off. Rarely do you see confrontations during this time, but the pecking order becomes clear if you are observant.
You can learn a lot from watching deer; the information you gather can help you understand the deer in your area much better, and it can also lead to a greater chance of shooting a nice buck in the early days of the archery season.
Heading off to a new area to hunt can be challenging and the amount of work to learn a new piece of property can be a daunting task, particularly when it’s public land and other hunters are a factor. Here’s a system for figuring it out in a hurry.
By Bernie Barringer
I first discovered this particular spot on Google Earth a couple years previously. I had been sitting at my computer in Minnesota, several hundred miles away from where I was now in a treestand. The spot interested me because it was a classic funnel with a river on one side and a large area of tall grass CRP on the other. Two woodlots necked down along the river at this point and in my mind I could visualize a big Kansas buck running the banks of the river while cruising for does on a cold November day.
Kansas is too far away to allow a scouting trip, so I had to do my homework long distance. I phoned a game warden, a county conservation biologist and even made an inquiry on a bowhunting forum. All of these conversations gave me some nuggets of information. I decided I was going to spend my Kansas tag on that large tract of public hunting land. Before I left home, I had a half dozen good looking areas to check out, headlined by the funnel along the river.
In the area along the river, I got several photos of shooter bucks, headlined by a ten-pointer with a kicker point and a big eight with chocolate antlers. My stand was hung and the wind was right when I made the long walk to the stand early on the afternoon of November 6.
When a big buck appeared at 28 yards, everything went into automatic. It was a heavy, mature buck; I grunted him to a stop and shot immediately. The shot was perfect and he ran 80 yards before piling up. Sure enough it was the big 8-pointer. He was a mature specimen with beautiful heavy, dark antlers. A buck anyone would be proud to take on public land a long way from home.
Even the longest deer hunting road trip has to start with the first step. The first step on the road to success, of course, is choosing the right place to go. Once you decide which state you are going to hunt, from there your next step is to choose a piece of public hunting land and evaluate it. Most of that can be done from your home, but the final pieces of the puzzle need to be done with your boots in the dirt. Allow me to walk you through the process.
1) Technology topics
Never before has it been so easy to choose and eliminate properties from the comfort of your home. Aerial photos are stunning in their ability to reveal things that would take hours to learn by scouting. Terrain features jump right off the page at you. Once you learn to read cover and have a basic understanding of how deer use terrain, the things you can learn from Google Earth are priceless.
Focus your attention on edges primarily. Anywhere you see a piece of timber that necks down and then opens back up, you have a funnel. Look for long-running features such as rivers, bluffs and open fields that will funnel deer travel. These spots are all potential hotspots during the rut. Look for potential feeding areas. Are there nearby crop fields? Oak ridges? Where might the deer be bedding? These are all questions to ask yourself. At first, the photos might just look like trees and fields and streams, but as you learn how deer use these features, you soon learn to predict areas with high potential.
Pay special attention to what surrounds the area. It’s no secret that public hunting areas get quite a bit of hunting pressure. I wish I had a dollar for every time I read that you need to get more than a half-mile from the road to get away from the pressure. While this is good advice in general, there is the common misconception that getting back off the road means just to penetrate the largest block of timber you can find. That’s rarely going to be the best option unless there are food plots planted back in that timber.
One of the best overlooked places I have found to hunt is where the public land meets a crop field. The father it is from a public access point the better I like it. Penetrate the large timber if you want, but if I am going to carry all my gear a mile or more, I want to carry it to a place where the movement patterns are more predictable than they would be in a large unbroken forest. If the does are feeding in these crop fields, the bucks will know it and they will be checking it out during the rut.
Another often overlooked way to gather information about an area is to ask about it on an internet forum. A simple question on a state-based hunting site or a national hunting forum can yield surprisingly detailed information. The worst that can happen is you get nothing; but normally, you will at least a basic response with some information you can use. At that point a private message to the person might get them to open up more. I once met a guy on a forum that offered to drive me around and show me some spots when I arrived. You bet I took him up on that.
2) Pick up the phone
Calling up a local biologist is always a good idea. County conservation board directors, game wardens and even local sporting goods stores can yield good information. I suggest having a list of questions written out ahead of time so you can get good details. You will want to ask basic questions about the deer population and hunting pressure, but also specific questions about what may be planted in the food plots this year, where they seeing deer while they are out on the property and ask for details on the trophy potential. Lately, I have been asking about EHD and other possible factors that could impact the health of the deer.
Be sure to ask questions about the regulations for the property. Can you use an ATV? Can you leave your stands out overnight or do you have to bring them out with you? Many states require you to have your name and address on all stands and climbing sticks. This type of question can save you from a legal issue later on.
Don’t be afraid to call back a week before you leave to double check and get even more up to the minute information. This is the time when you may get a gold nugget of information. They may tell you where they have seen a lot of deer feeding out in the corn stubble. They may indicate where there has been chasing activity, which will also give you some clues as to the state of rutting activity. They may even tell you of other nonresident hunters and where they are hunting.
3) Take a little trip
If you can do one pre-season scouting trip it can really up your odds of success. There are two times when I feel that scouting trips are most beneficial. One is in the spring and the other is a month or so before you hunt.
In the spring, the rubs and scrapes from the previous fall will still be visible. You can really walk the area out and find out where the bedding areas are found. I hate busting into bedding areas when I am on a hunt, but I hunt aggressively so sometimes that’s necessary. By doing this in the spring, you can walk anywhere without having a negative impact on the fall hunt. You may find a shed or two that will indicate which deer made it through the winter.
I have often taken a quick trip to hang cameras a few weeks prior to the hunt. I have cleared shooting lanes and even put up stands on a couple occasions. Putting treestands up on public land can be risky (even illegal in some areas) but there are times when the risk is worth it.
Trail cameras put out well before the season can be gathering information while they await your return. Some of the photos I have obtained through this have been very beneficial. In one case it helped me eliminate an entire public hunting area in which I would have wasted a few days, and in other cases it has helped me home in on movement patterns quickly. In all cases, it has helped me estimate the trophy potential and assess the amount of hunting pressure. In a couple places I hunt, I have buddies that will put the cameras out for me. Well before the season I send them 3-4 cameras with fresh batteries installed and they put them out for me.
4) Evaluate potential with cameras
Once I arrive to hunt, the cameras become one of the cornerstones of my hunting strategy. A few cameras placed on primary scrapes with a good lure such as Active Scrape or Special Golden Estrus will take inventory of most of the bucks in the area with a couple days.
The cameras will also give very important clues to the state of the rut. Are the bucks still using the trails between the bedding areas and the feed? Are they actively pawing at the scrapes and working the branches? Are their tarsal glands turning black indicating that they are engaged in rutting activity? Are you seeing the does with the fur on their hips scuffed up from breeding? These and more are the subtle signs that the cameras will give you to help in your site selection process.
If you have done your work well and evaluated the property starting from a wide approach on your home computer and narrowing it down through phone calls, camera surveillance and scouting, you should be able to narrow it down and put your stand in the right spot. The exact spot where you will kill your first–or your next–road trip buck.
Can’t afford the time or the money to take an extended hunting trip out of state? Consider the pros and cons of a weekend DIY hunt.
By Bernie Barringer
When most hunters think about a road trip to hunt big whitetail bucks, they are usually thinking about a week-long adventure. Their tactics involve going to an area, scouting it out, hanging stands and hoping to shoot a big buck by the end of the weeklong trip. There are certainly some advantages to this approach, and for some hunters it is the only option. But there’s another option to consider. How about the weekend DIY getaway?
A weekend trip has some significant positives if you have a good hunting area within 4-6 hours from home. This can be a great alternative for the person who doesn’t have large blocks of time to hunt. Let’s explore this option.
Timing is Important
If you are planning a week-long hunt, you must choose the best time to go. Early season? Rut? Late season? With a weekend adventure, you can go multiple times. Go during the early season when the deer are more patternable, then go back during the rut when the bucks are on their feet during the day. Go back once more in the late season when the deer are focused on the food sources and once again fall into predictable daily patterns. Take off on a Friday, say at noon, hunt that evening, then Saturday and Sunday. Head home Sunday night.
I have been on several week-long bowhunting road trips only to spend a week in horrible weather for hunting. One trip to Kansas a few years ago presented me with daily highs in the 80’s during November, and nearly all the deer movement was after dark. With a weekend trip, you can schedule your hunts by watching the forecast and planning your trip to coincide with the best hunting weather.
Today’s technology allows us to have amazingly accurate forecasts including cold fronts, wind directions and wind speed, precipitation, rising or falling temperatures, even moon phases. Decisions can be made at the last minute based on accurate prediction data. This allows you to be in control of the weather when you hunt instead of the other way around. If you are lucky enough to have a fairly flexible schedule, add a Monday to your trip or leave on a Thursday night when the conditions are good. The ability to use the weather to your advantage is one of the most important features of these short-duration trips to your whitetail heaven.
The advantages of scouting are huge when it comes to the weekend road trip. It’s not a stretch to make a trip to the area to put out a few trail cameras and then check them a couple times before hunting season. That’s not going to be a possibility if you live in Michigan and you have an Iowa bow tag. This is a real advantage in shortening the learning curve to hunting a new area.
Last fall I put out three trail cameras in my hunting area in North Dakota on August 31 while travelling to an early season Montana whitetail hunt. By the time I got back to North Dakota on Halloween, the thousands of photos chronicled the transition from late summer to early rut, and the information I gained from going through all those pictures was very valuable in two areas: 1) Taking inventory of the bucks in the area and 2) determining their movement patterns.
I have found that leaving scouting cameras on public land can be a dicey endeavor and I have had a couple stolen. I am never as heartbroken about the loss of the camera as I am over the loss of valuable information it contained. I now use bear safes bolted to the tree with lag bolts and padlocks; and rarely have a camera stolen when using these. I have had the displeasure of having one exception to this rule. Someone went home to retrieve a hacksaw blade. From the markings on the tree they must have spent a long, long time sawing with a blade to cut the bolts behind the camera case. Then of course they had the issue of getting the padlock off. When they finally got it open, they found my name and cell phone number tattooed all over the camera so it probably doesn’t have much value to them for all their effort.
These trail camera reconnaissance trips can also be used for preseason scouting and preparing treestand locations. The earlier you cut shooting lanes the better, and the same is true with getting the treestands up. Having the stands in place well in advance of the hunt is an advantage over the “hang-and-hunt” tactics more typical of a week-long hunt with regard to the amount of scent left in the area. Whitetail bucks, especially the mature ones, don’t miss much. Freshly cut tree stubs and new appearances of climbing sticks are a dead giveaway.
Weekend Road Trips are more cost effective because you only have one or two nights of lodging as opposed to a week or more. You can carry easily-prepared food with you or just eat snacks for a couple days to keep your energy up. Food on long trips can be a large expense.
Depending on how far you are travelling, fuel can be an issue. It is usually offset by the fact that you are taking multiple short trips rather than one cross-country trip.
Weekend excursions have some significant advantages as you can see, and you may very well have a good hunting area nearer than you think. A long hunting trip may seem overwhelming so consider starting small. If you look at a map, you very well may find a great hunting area within a half-day’s drive of home. Consider the option of a weekend road trip rather than a long undertaking for your next whitetail adventure.
Thousands of bear hunters go to the woods each year in an attempt to attract a wary black bear to a bait site. Where do they get all those goodies? Here’s how one entrepreneur took the bear bait business to a whole new level.
By Bernie Barringer
Cory Carlson was a part of a group of eight bear hunters who hunted together each year near Aitkin, Minnesota. It was always a struggle to get enough bait, and Cory seemed to be the guy who was able to get the most bait. The other hunters often used up what he brought. He decided to buy a bunch of licorice and see if it would sell to bear hunters.
“I bought a trailer load of 10,000 pounds of licorice and parked it in my garage,” he remembers. I ran an ad in the local shopper and sold it all.” At that point he knew he was onto something. It was clear he could sell even larger quantities of bait if he could get it. He spent hours on the phone trying to find sources of items that would be good bear baits. “It took a lot of phone calls and a lot of internet surfing to find enough bait. There were a lot of dead ends.”
But his hard work and diligence paid off. Before long he had to put up a new building to hold all the bait he was selling. Bear hunters came from across Wisconsin and Minnesota to buy bait, outfitters from across the US and Canada started ordering it by the semi load and Cory went full time into the bear bait business. Today his wife Jen is also heavily involved in the business side of the endeavor. There’s a lot of work, red tape and headaches involved in shipping semi loads of food products across international borders. Cory and Jen work hard at what they do and it allows them to be around hunting and other hunters most every day, something they love.
Cory’s company, Lucky 7 Bear Bait, ships dozens of semi loads of bait across North America during the spring and summer. On any given day, hunters back their pickups up to his building near Cambridge, Minnesota and load up the goodies for the bears. He sells about 3,000,000 pounds per year.
Trail mix is his best seller. It has all the things a bear loves: high carbohydrate nuts, dried fruits and berries and bits of candy. It’s very close to what the bears would naturally eat if they could find enough of it in the wild. The bears love trail mix and he has access to tons of it. You can buy it by the bucket, by the barrel or by the pallet. Other top sellers are granola, cookie dough, gummie bears, fruit snacks, licorice, frostings, caramel and fruit fillings. He avoids anything with pure, unprocessed dark chocolate because it can make the bears sick if they eat too much of it, but anything with milk chocolate mixed in is fine.
Bears are individuals and each bear seems to prefer certain things. Savvy bear hunters use a wide variety of baits to keep them coming back. The bear hunters are individuals too, says Cory, “One guy will come in and say the bears don’t like anything but black licorice while the next guy will come in and he only wants red licorice. Still another guy will tell me to give him a bunch of licorice and he doesn’t care what flavor it is. Then another guy will say that licorice doesn’t work at all.” Cory just sells them what they want.
Where does a guy get three million pounds per year of these goodies? He gets it from several factories all across the US. Which factories and where they are located, is understandably a closely-guarded secret. Cory spent years developing his sources and he isn’t giving out any information other than to explain why it is available to his company.
He buys the products direct from the factories that produce them. Surprisingly, the products are not outdated or flawed in any way that would affect its taste or safety. There are factory closeouts which provide quantities. Much of it may be off-color or misshapen, other times someone may have added a little too much or too little of an ingredient and it all has to be disposed of. There are end-of-run and beginning-of-run products that need to be thrown out. At times an equipment breakdown can mean someone has to shovel several barrels of sweets out of a huge processing machine. Rather than throw it out, they ship it to Cory at Lucky 7 and the hunters turn it into bear meat and bear rugs.
One of the advantages of the hard work that goes into being at the top of the bear bait heap is the added opportunity to hunt. Cory and Jen have found that the connections they make with bear hunting outfitters have led them onto some really fun hunts. Cory also enjoys whitetail hunting in the fall as a way to relax when the business slows down as the bear seasons close.
Next time you pay the high price for a small package of trail mix, granola or nuts, think about Cory Carlson; he would be happy to sell you a 55-gallon drum of it for a fraction of the price.
For information on successful bear baiting strategies check out this book and DVD.
A deer rubs his antlers on a small tree to mark his territory right? How complicated can that be? Well, here are some things that will shed new light on what rubs actually mean.
By Bernie Barringer
Outdoor writers like myself are always looking for new ideas and new things to write about. We are always analyzing what we see and trying to learn more from each nugget of bucks sign, mostly in the hopes that we can learn something which we can pass along to our readers in order to educate them and help them hunt more effectively. That’s all good.
The bad side of the coin is that we also tend to overthink and overanalyze things from time to time. In our zeal to learn more that we can write about, we sometimes read way too much into what we are seeing. I think that is true with much of what has been written in the outdoor magazines about rubs in the past 20-30 years. There are even books about how finding rubs lined up in one direction can lead you to your next big buck. Well, let’s just say that’s a stretch.
The advent of GPS collars that track the movement and activities of bucks 24/7 has added to our knowledge of deer behavior, but it has also turned some long-held beliefs into rubbish. Some of those beliefs are related to how deer make and use rubs. Here are three myths that we can put to rest.
Rubs are Territorial Markers
If bucks were patrolling a territory, making rubs to mark the edges of their range, the GPS tracking data would bear that out, but it does not. There is no evidence whatsoever that bucks even have a territory they try to protect in any way. They do have home ranges—areas where they spend the majority of their time—but they show no evidence that they try to protect that home range from other deer in any way.
That’s not to say that rubs are not forms of communication; however, because they are. When the bucks rub trees they deposit scent on them, which communicates to the other deer in the area the statement that, “I was here.” But really, not much more than that. It’s a way for deer to get to know each other better and have a feel for who is using the same areas they are using.
Velvet Shedding Rubs
Some deer authorities have surmised that different rubs at different times of the year and on different sizes of trees can be filed into certain categories, such as Velvet Shedding rubs, Signpost Rubs, even Rutting Rubs.
Possibly the most misunderstood is the belief that bucks use rubs to remove the velvet from their antlers. First, it’s important to understand that when the velvet dries, it will fall off whether they rub it on something or not. Secondly, if a buck is inclined to remove it, it wouldn’t make much sense for him to use the trunk of a small tree to remove it. Some bucks don’t seem to care much unless the velvet is hanging down impairing their vision, while others seem to aggressively work at tearing it off.
A friend once watched a full velvet whitetail walk by just out of range on September 5. He sat in a ground blind and watched that deer walk right up to a leafy bush and stick his antlers right into the brush. The buck twisted and turned the antlers in the brush, then slashed at it from side to side a few times, completely removing every trace of bloody velvet within 60 seconds.
Bucks may remove some of the velvet from their antlers by rubbing on tree trunks, but that’s not the preferred method.
Only Big Bucks Rub Big Trees
This has an element of fact in it because larger bucks do tend to rub larger trees than smaller bucks at time. But that’s about all there is to it. Biologists have theorized that one of the reasons bucks rub trees is to exercise their neck muscles for the battles that will occur during the rut. It stands to reason that a buck would choose a tree that has some flex too it so it “fights back” so to speak. Larger, stronger bucks would naturally choose thicker trees to create the exercise needed. Certainly, a tree that is really shredded was rubbed by a big buck because small bucks simply do not have the antler size and physical power to really tear up a tree the size of your wrist.
I have personally witnessed small and large bucks rub trees of any size. I have even seen them rub fenceposts and power poles that had no give at all to them. Some of these have been called signpost rubs. They can be rubbed by the biggest buck in the area one minute and then a spike the next.
Signpost rubs are rubs that get used from year to year and are often on big trees. It seems like every deer that comes along, no matter the size, can resist giving it a stroke or two. These don’t seem to be chosen for any specific reason other than the fact that they are in a spot where a lot of deer go by. And that in itself has some value to the hunter.
So don’t read too much into what you see in a rub. In fact, if you really want to learn a lot about who is using a particular rub, put a game camera on it. Seeing is believing.
All states publish stats for their deer herds including overall populations and trends. How they arrive at these numbers might surprise you.
By Bernie Barringer
Like me, no doubt you have marveled at the numbers being thrown about by state game agencies when it comes to their deer populations and harvest management objectives. One state agency may say they have a million deer and three years later they say they have 875,000. Another state may say they have 480,000, which is up from 425,000 just three years previous.
Where do they get these numbers? Sometimes it seems as if they just grab them out of the air or take them from some computer model. Often, our personal observations do not seem to match the numbers being put forth by the state agency. Let’s take a look at how most state agencies arrive at these numbers and then how they adjust these numbers based on trends.
How many deer are there?
To recognize trends in population dynamics, there must first be a baseline. Researchers need a number to start with. Something called “Random Sampling” doesn’t really sound like science, but it is. Let’s say a team of surveyors goes out in each county in the state and spotlights likely looking deer habitat for four hours. There is one team per county and each team spotlights fields in about ten percent of the county. They count every buck and doe they see.
This is a random sample and it can be extrapolated with remarkable accuracy. Since ten percent of the areas were counted, you can take the count times ten and you have a reliable estimate of the number of deer in the state. This 10 percent count has less than a 2% statistical margin for error.
But they do not end it there. Most states also use random sampling in aerial surveys, where they fly over areas during the winter and count deer as they show up well in the snow. If you have never tried this you would be shocked at how well you can see them. Some states have also used counts of deer droppings in wintering areas, roadkills and other methods of estimating deer populations. More recently, scouting cameras are being used to tighten up the data.
The more data that is collected, the more reliable the estimates become. Done for just one year, these surveys are quite reliable, but combine and average the data for ten years, or 20 and you have some pretty accurate numbers.
However, many things can change the numbers. Harsh winters, disease, drought, overharvest, predators, etc. can all cause significant upturns or downswings in populations. These trends are followed closely by including factors such as fawn recruitment rates, significant changes in survey numbers and harvest reporting.
Fawn Recruitment Rates
Understanding fawn recruitment rates has proven to be one of the best indicators of population trends and their causes. Fawn recruitment–the number of young deer in the population—can be tied to predation and habitat quality. When fawn recruitment rates plummet, it’s usually either a bad year for food availability or a rise in predator populations. In some areas, predators are taking up to 80 percent of the fawns from the deer population. Poor pelt values for coyotes is one of the reasons, as coyote populations are high in many areas of North America. Bobcats, bears and wolves are taking a big toll in some areas as well.
The surveys described above are indicators of low fawn recruitment, but the best indicator is the number of young-of-the year deer in the harvest. Most adult does will produce two fawns under normal habitat conditions. About 50 percent of the yearling does breed, and they average about one fawn. These numbers can be used to estimate the number of increase in young-of-the-year deer in the harvest. Of course, a relatively small number of fawns actually make it until the fall hunting season. When fawn recruitment rates are near .75-1.00, the herd is healthy and growing. Some states record negative numbers in fawn recruitment, which means the overall population is dropping.
Road kills, spotlight surveys, aerial surveys, and other methods help determine the overall population, but more importantly, they help identify trends in the population. When the number of deer is down in a spotlight survey, for example, and the number of roadkills dropped, biologists have a indicator that the population is dropping.
Of course other factors can influence these numbers. Poor weather or fog on a spotlighting night can skew the numbers. Lack of snow in aerial surveys can make for poor deer counting conditions. All these things are taken into consideration when the numbers are tabulated, but as you can imagine, this is an inexact science. Biologists must do the best they can with the data they can gather. The more data sources available, the more accurate the numbers will be.
Fawn recruitment rates and population trends can be very strongly influenced by harvest statistics. As more states agencies have begun to understand the value of harvest numbers in estimating populations and population trends, they have gone to mandatory reporting. Check stations, online reporting and phone reporting are options in most states. About 2/3 of states now have mandatory reporting for deer harvest. The other 1/3 use surveys. These surveys are phone calls or mailings that ask the hunters to report their seasonal success.
Mandatory reporting is only as good as the enforcement and many hunters do not report their harvested deer. Agencies use a correction factor to estimate the number of hunters who do not report, then add that correction into the overall tally. Voluntary sampling is nearly as effective, remember, just a 10% response has a statistical error of less than 2%.
These voluntary harvest surveys and mandatory reporting have significant value in establishing trends. By learning if the deer killed was a doe or buck fawn, biologists can learn important data in fawn recruitment, for example.
Without question, no one really knows exactly how many deer there are in your state. And sometimes the agencies get it wrong and make decisions based on flawed data, they are not perfect. But the techniques used to estimate populations and trends are remarkably accurate over the long term, and the people in your state game departments are doing the best they can with the data they gather. The vast majority of the time, they are a lot closer to an accurate estimate of these numbers than are their critics.
By Bernie Barringer
Hunting away from home presents some unique challenges. When you are hunting in your home area, you have an entire season to bag your buck and fill out your deer tags. But on a DIY road trip, you are hunting under a deadline; you have a limited amount of time to get the job done. The situation calls for an entirely different set of strategies and actions. We can break the hunt down into four separate factors that can significantly improve your chances of success.
Back home, you have a pretty good feel for the deer movement patterns. You know where they tend to bed and where they tend to feed and at least a general idea of how the move between the two. When you arrive at a new hunting area on a DIY hunt, you must learn as much as you can in a short period of time. The greatest mistake most hunters make is to climb into a stand too early. You may find an area that’s all torn up with rubs and scrapes or a beaten down deer trail and you can’t wait to get a treestand set up and start hunting. That can be a big mistake, because you may lack confidence in your spot. It’s a lot easier to sit all day when you have confidence in your spot, and that confidence comes only from thorough scouting.
Hand in hand with an exhaustive scouting is the desire to make important decisions on the fly and be very aggressive in your hunting. Back home, you would never walk right through a bedding area, but on a road trip you might need to know where the deer are bedding and what is available to you. Spray down the lower half of your body with Scent Killer to minimize your ground scent then go right in there to look it over.
Get some game cameras out and check them often so you have a good feel for the area’s potential. It’s hard to beat a game camera on a primary scrape with some fresh urine or an estrus lure. You must take calculated risks and force the issue. If you wait for the information to come to you, you may run out of time, you must go get it.
Hunt in Any Conditions
Rain or shine, you must be out there to make it happen. I have done more than 20 DIY road trip hunts in several states and it seems like it usually comes down to one or two stands where I feel like I am going to be successful if I just put in my time. Take the appropriate clothing for any conditions and gut out the tough times. Each time you hunt, you have a chance. If you are sitting in a motel waiting for the snow to stop or the wind to change, you are more than likely going to go home with an unfilled tag.
Right along with hunting aggressively and hunting hard is the willingness to move quickly and adapt to changing conditions. On one hunt in Iowa, I felt like I was about 60 yards off target, so I climbed down and moved my entire set up the hill. I killed a mature buck the next morning from that tree and I would have helplessly watched him walk by if I had not moved. If you sense that you need to make a move, or feel that a wind switch may betray you, don’t wait, make your move NOW. Using equipment that is light and easy to put up and down is a real key to being mobile.
Keep these four factors in mind on your next DIY hunt and you will increase your odds of coming home with a buck in the back of the truck instead of a tag in your back pocket.
Don’t wait until the last minute. You can increase your chances of shooting a nice buck this fall by doing some preliminary work in the summer.
By Bernie Barringer
If you’re sitting here reading this deer hunting magazine in the summer, I’d say it’s safe to assume you’re a pretty serious deer hunter. Like most deer hunters, I think about whitetails year ‘round, but most of my preparation and scouting activity is done just before the season opens. Most years I hunt from opening day right through the final bell. However, these days I find myself involved in deer hunting tasks year ‘round, especially in the summer.
I like fishing as much as the next guy, probably way more than most, but I believe it’s really important to take a few days to concentrate on hunting chores during the summer months. I have found that there are a few specific things I can do during the dog days of summer that will significantly up my odds of shooting a buck in the fall.
Preseason work has been paying off big for me. I have gone into each hunting season feeling much more prepared and confident that ever before and my success, especially in the early season, but really all season long, has proved the value of this preseason work. I encourage you to take some time to do these five tasks and I think you will agree that they are well worth it.
Trim shooting lanes
Saplings and brush grows up around your treestands every year. If you wait till the last minute to trim it, you may alert the deer to your presence. They know their woods intimately, and some fresh cut trees lying around right before the season opens might put a mature buck on edge.
In the summer, you don’t have to worry about drops of sweat on the ground and you can pile the trimmings in a way that will move the deer past your stand. Using a pile of brush to gently guide movements only works if it has been done well ahead of time. Some of these subtle brush piles can make the difference between having a deer move past your stand out of range versus have the buck you want standing right in your shooting lane.
This guiding doesn’t have to be a big operation. Even a couple limbs can cause the deer to alter their movement by walking around them rather than pushing through. On private land with permission, you can even hinge-cut a tree and drop it across a trail to block it.
Improve bedding areas
My friend and Iowa big buck nut Jon Tharp taught me this one, although he says it didn’t originate with him. During the winter, Jon does his hinge cutting to improve the amount of sunlight getting to the forest floor, but in the summer, he actually creates deer beds. That’s right, individual beds where he wants the deer to lie down.
Bucks do not like to lay on sticks and stones, so you can make a nice bed with a rake by clearing out a small area. Bucks like to put their back against some kind of structure just like a big bass would, so deer beds are best made with some kind of cover next to it. A downed log or deadfall tree is great; a small brushpile works as well.
Bucks will bed down where they feel secure and you can create a feeling of security for them that will keep them from wandering over to the neighbors by making a group of individual beds that allow them to see what’s in front of them and have a barricade behind them. By doing several at differing angles, you allow the buck to use the one he prefers in various wind directions.
Plant a throw-and-grow brassica food plot
You don’t have to be a farmer to plant a food plot. There are a couple simple tactics that work very well with little effort. You can till up a small clearing in the woods and rake in some brassica seeds. Plants like turnips, kale, forage rape, sugar beets and radishes all work really well. The best time to do this is early August right before a rain. Deer do not pay much attention to these plants as they grow throughout the late summer into early fall so they have time to become established. But once cold weather arrives, the deer pound them. These plants become more palatable after a hard frost turns the starches in them to sugar. The deer are piling into them during the early archery season. Perfect timing. Strike right away because they get cleaned up quickly.
Another easy plot can be created if you have a treestand on the edge of a crop field. By raking these seeds right between the rows of corn or soybeans in front of your treestand, you’ve created a mini food plot of your own. OF course, if you don’t own the land, you’ll need permission, but most farmers will allow this. The might look at you a little funny until they see the results, but it can’t hurt to ask.
When the corn or beans are harvested, the brassicas are sitting there ready for the hungry deer. With the right planting timetable, these little secret spots are often at their peak in perfect timing for the October archery seasons.
Keep those scouting cameras working
Far too many hunters wait until just before hunting season to put out their scouting cameras. I have a half-dozen cameras working all summer. I have them on mineral sites and in bedding areas. Not only is it fun to watch the bucks’ antlers grow and the fawns rapid daily maturing, but you can learn a lot about the deers’ preferred travel corridors. This is important information that will help you pattern the deer later on.
In the summer, you can be a little more aggressive about moving about in areas the deer are using. While you would never consider violating a buck bedding area during the fall, you can safely check a camera in there every couple weeks during the summer. Spray down with Scent Killer to reduce your intrusion and check the cameras no more than twice a month. Check just prior to a rain whenever possible.
Additionally, cameras help keep tabs on which bucks are in the area. By taking an inventory of them, you can make a “hit list” or at least have a feel for the property’s potential. Without a knowledge of what bucks are living in the area, you might decide to hold out for a 140 class buck or better when there aren’t any. Possibly the best way to get an inventory of the deer is with a pile of corn near their normal feeding area. You’ll get a picture of most every deer in the area within a week or so. Check your local regulations before doing so.
Spend time behind a spotting scope
By the end of July, bucks have their headgear nearly fully grown. At this time, they may be more visible during daylight than any other time of the year. They readily feed on soybeans and alfalfa during the last couple hours of daylight. Find a high point where you can mount a spotting scope to your truck’s window and watch their evening movements into the fields. This will help you keep track of the bucks and where they like to enter the field in the prevailing conditions. Take not of the wind direction and where the bucks enter the fields during these conditions. This info will help you choose stand locations.
Bachelor groups of bucks are together at this time and nothing makes your heart beat faster than seeing a bunch of nice bucks together in a field you will be hunting in just a few weeks.
So don’t spend all your time lying by the pool or fishing in the summer. You could be missing out on some enjoyable work that could pay off in a big way when the season rolls around. Consider trying a couple of these tactics and just see if it doesn’t improve your hunting come fall.
BONUS: Improvements on Public Land
Most of these tips are aimed at people who hunt private land. It might surprise you to find that you can use all five of these strategies on public hunting land in many states. Until a few years ago it never occurred to me to improve deer habitat on the public land I hunt, until one day when I was scouting I came across a half-acre of nice green plants. Seems someone had planted a small food plot of forage rape in a natural clearing right front of their treestand. Certain that this was illegal on state land, I called up the game warden and was told that there is no law against it in Minnesota.
From that point I realized that there are many things I could do to improve even the public hunting properties I hunt. I have improved the bedding areas, created deer beds, inventoried the deer, altered travel patterns by blocking and improving trails and even scattered seeds of plants deer find desirable.
Of course by helping yourself, you are helping everyone else that hunts that land. And there is the possibility that you may arrive to hunt and find someone else taking advantage of your hard work, but I have found that more often than not, most other hunters do not even notice the improvements I have made and I now know some things that most hunters don’t, such as where the bucks are bedding and how they are travelling through the property. I have a better inventory of the bucks that live on the property and their feeding and bedding patterns.
For sure, check your state laws before you do anything. Each state is different in their laws, and many public lands are county or federal, which brings even more possible liberties or restrictions into the mix. And there are normally workarounds you can use. For example if it’s not legal to cut brush to direct deer traffic, you can pile dead branches you gathered from the area. Be creative!
May bear hunters are interested in shooting a big mature bruin, but more and more bear hunting enthusiasts are looking to add a color phase bear to their collection.
By Bernie Barringer
Black bears are one of our most sought after big game animals in North America because they offer so many different opportunities and styles of hunting. Bears rarely harm humans, but the fact that the bear is a predator which could really mess you up adds the appeal and the adrenaline value of hunting them. One of the most fascinating things about black bears in North America is the phenomenon that they are not all black in color. Black bears come in a variety of colors that are loosely grouped into four major categories:
Blonde bears are characterized by yellow to a very light brown color and may have darker colored legs and head.
Cinnamons are a brownish-red color showing a distinct reddish tint characteristic of the spice after which it is named. In some areas these bears are called red bears.
Brown, normally called chocolate to distinguish them from Alaskan brown bears, can range from fairly light brown to a deeper, chocolate brown color. Dark chocolates are the most common color other than black.
Bears with jet black fur are the most common and have the unmistakable pure black fur with often a shiny black sheen. Blacks commonly have a white blaze on their chest in some locales, while bears of other colors rarely do.
There are other colors that show up in tiny geographic areas such as the Kermode Bear and the Glacier bear, but for the common man who would like to collect a bear of several colors, these four color phases—black, brown, cinnamon and blonde–represent the opportunities available to us.
A growing number of people are showing an interest in shooting a bear of a color other than black and I am one of them. I am aware of a very small number of people who have harvested one of each of the four major color phases. I have taken three of the four color phases and I am up for the challenge of taking the hardest of them all, the blonde phase black bear. I arrowed the cinnamon bear on a hunt with Thunder Mountain Outfitters in Saskatchewan during the spring of 2014. I have been working on getting the blonde for three years now. I would have bagged them all, but for the commitment I have made to myself to shoot one of each with a bow.
Why would anyone want to go to the trouble to shoot one bear of each color phase? Well, why do we have Pope & Young and Boone & Crockett record books? By our very nature, hunters are collectors; we like to add things to our collections and keep track of things like size, color and other characteristics. There are plenty of benchmarks to strive towards. Some people really want to get 500-pound bear, some want to get a B&C bear, some want one with a nice blaze on the chest and some want a bear of a different color. It’s a part of who we are as hunter-gatherers and collectors. And it’s an important part of why bear hunters love bear hunting. Deer hunters, for example, have little to go on by comparison. We measure antlers by the inch and in some areas deer are weighed and recorded. That’s pretty boring when compared to the benchmarks bear hunters have.
Interestingly, the vast majority of black bears of a color other than black are found west of the Mississippi river. There are tiny populations of brown bears in eastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, for example, but nothing like the numbers of color bears of the west. It’s estimated that about 5% of the bears in Minnesota are brown with the majority found in the northwestern corner of the state. Western Ontario contains a small number of brown colored bears as well.
Farther south, Arkansas and Oklahoma produce a little higher percentage of brown bears and even the occasional cinnamon. This is in keeping with the general trends that the farther west and south you go in North America, the greater the instance of color bears and the lighter the colors. This is a mystery but maybe someday a DNA study will be done and shed some light on this puzzle, but in the meantime, most of us are happy to have the variety and the challenge these western color bears offer.
So let’s take a look at the four major colors and divide them up geographically. If you are on a quest for a bear of one of these colors, this should help you narrow your search.
Blacks, of course, are found across the eastern US and Canada. Rather than explain where they are common, it’s easier to explain where they are uncommon. Across the western US they run about 50 percent and in some states less. Black bears are less common in Canada in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta and British Columbia where increasing numbers of browns cinnamons and the occasional blonde may be found. States such as New Mexico, California, Colorado, Utah and Arizona have fewer blacks than other colors. In Washington and Oregon, they run about 50% with other colors.
Black bears run at least 40-50% across the northern territories of Canada, and then become scarce in Alaska where once again most of the bears are black. The Northwest Territories has fewer black bears than the Yukon, showing a trend towards color that reverses itself as it gets closer to Alaska and the west coast of British Columbia. The coastal areas and islands of Canada have bear populations consisting of nearly 100% black bears except for the pockets of Kermodes and Glacier bears found in BC and Alaska.
Brown bears are the second most common color phase. I mentioned western Ontario and Northwest Minnesota, which is the eastern end of the range where brown bears are common enough to mention. As you go west across Manitoba, browns become more common, with chocolate, cinnamon and blonde bears showing up in good numbers in the Duck Mountain and Riding Mountain regions of western Manitoba.
Saskatchewan has good numbers of browns, especially the chocolates across the province. As you go west, browns are still common in Alberta and British Columbia, but the colors tend to be lighter, with some of the dark chocolates, but also more cases of browns a little lighter in color than what we would consider chocolate.
Brown bears are common across the Rocky Mountain states of the US, particularly more common in the northern rockies such as Montana, and in the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon. There are plenty of chocolates, but also browns that trend a little lighter in color. These areas also show decent numbers of bears that are lighter in color on their back and shoulders, but fade to a deep chocolate in the legs and sometimes the head.
Cinnamon bears or “red” bears as they are called in some locales may be hard to distinguish from browns except for the red tint to their fur. This color is very easy to recognize in the sunlight but can look like a medium brown on overcast days while looking at them from a distance. Cinnamons are found throughout the western US and Canada but are not as common as browns. Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming boats the most cinnamons in the USA, and they range in good numbers from the far western part of Manitoba to the rockies in British Columbia.
Cinnamons are more common in populations in the southern Rocky Mountains. Areas with savannahs and open mountain slopes tend to have more cinnamons than the higher alpine regions.
Blondes are the least common of the colors. The occasional blonde will show up in Manitoba but the farther west you go, the more blondes you will have. In no area are they abundant. Because they are such a novelty, larger specimens tend to be rare no matter where you go. A blonde bear of any size is desirable to many hunters so a smaller percentage of them reach large size except in remote areas where there is little to no hunting pressure.
The highest number of blondes in a population are found in the desert southwest with New Mexico and Arizona leading the way. Colorado and California are good options too. Following those options would be Idaho and Montana. Alberta is the Canadian province with the most blondes, although the areas with numbers of blondes tend to be spottier than the best parts of the States. If you would be considering a trip to any Canadian province with a blonde bear high on your priority list, make sure you ask to see recent trail camera photos if the hunt is a baited hunt. One advantage of hunting Alberta is the two-bear limit. This allows you to shoot a nice representative bear if the opportunity presents itself, then hold out for the color of your choice.
I have found that many Canadian outfitters like to say they have 30% color bears. That’s a number that’s thrown out in most of the four western provinces. But without a doubt, some areas produce more browns, blondes and cinnamons than others, so you must do your homework and due diligence so you are not duped into going to a place that is less than the best for what you want in a color phase bear.
The Confusing Genetics of Bear Coloration
Why do black bears occur in a variety of colors? I have asked this question of several biologists and all of them offer the same basic answer: We don’t really know. Some theories have been put forth, some of which seem plausible.
The predominant theory has to do with the geographic range of the bears. In the western states, bears tend to spend more time in the open, feeding in clearings and on open hillsides. Having a black coat in the open sunshine may not only be uncomfortably warm, but might also make the bear more visible. The black coats on bears that live in thick forested areas can be an advantage. This adaption to the environment would stand to reason, and the geographic location of most color phase bears would seem to support the theory. But there are many areas where blacks and other colors are mixed in thick forested areas.
If these colors were actually an adaptation to their environment, it would stand to reason that the colors inferior for the particular environment would have been eliminated long, long ago. But you can go to many places and find the light yellow blondes and jet black bears living and feeding side by side.
Bears of differing colors can occur in the same litter. I once saw a black bear sow with two blonde cubs. I’ve also seen a brown bear with a black cub and a cinnamon cub. I have a black sow bear on my property this year with four cubs, three of which are brown and one is black. Sows commonly breed with more than one boar. Could these cubs be from the same father or could she have bred with males of two different colors? Like the answer given by the biologists, we really do not know for sure.
The Grand Slam of Color Phase Bears
There’s a grand slam of turkeys and a grand slam of sheep; why not a grand slam for predator hunters. There are four species of bears in North America, black bears, polar bears, brown bears and grizzly bears. That’s one grand slam available to bear hunters, but finding a place in the budget for these hunts is out of the question for most of us. A grand slam of all four major color phases of black bears is more attainable for the average hunter. Shooting a blonde, black, cinnamon and a chocolate is a goal only a handful of hunters have reached, but it’s within reach for the working man’s budget. It’s time we bear hunters have an organization that keeps track of grand slams for bear hunters and I am compiling a list of people who are interested in being involved. If you have taken all four species or all four colors, or have an interest in doing so, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Color Phase Bear Percentages by State/Province
State/Province Percent* Available Colors
Arkansas 20 Brown, Cinnamon
Arizona 60-70+ Brown, Cinnamon, Blonde
California 70-80+ Brown, Blonde, Cinnamon
Colorado 60-70+ Brown, Blonde, Cinnamon
Idaho 30-40 Brown, Blonde
Michigan 5- Brown
Minnesota 5+ Brown
Montana 30-40 Brown, Blonde, Cinnamon
New Mexico 60-70+ Brown, Blonde, Black Mixed
Oregon 40-50+ Brown, Cinnamon, Blonde
Utah 60-70+ Brown, Blonde, Cinnamon
Washington 40-50+ Brown, Cinnamon, Blonde
Wisconsin 5- Brown
Wyoming 40+ Brown, Blonde, Black Mixed
Alberta 25-30+ Brown, Cinnamon, Blonde
British Columbia 20-25 Brown, Blonde, Cinnamon
Manitoba 25-30+ Brown, Cinnamon, Blonde
Northwest Territories 25-30- Brown, Blonde, Black Mixed
Ontario 5- Brown, Cinnamon, Blonde (Mostly in Western)
Saskatchewan 25-30+ Brown, Blonde, Black Mixed
Yukon 25-30+ Brown, Blonde, Black Mixed
*Percentages are estimates and vary depending upon specific area. All other states and provinces not listed less than 1-percent.
On May 19th, at a Cabela’s in Phoenix Arizona, Marvin Zieser, Corky Richardson, Roy Grace and Ed Fanchin convened a P&Y Special Panel of Judges to measure a non-typical Coues deer taken by Wesley Ely of Wilcox, Arizona. The deer was shot in August 2017 in velvet and stripped prior to the official measurement. The final score of 139 2/8 ties the existing P&Y World Record.
“It all began on a summer scouting trip in 2013 when I noticed a young buck with massive antlers,” stated Wesley. “I continued to scout and occasionally hunt the area while the buck kept getting bigger each year. After an unsuccessful 2017 early hunt, I decided to devote all of my time-off to find the buck’s summer habits. 16 days before opening day, I began to pattern this elusive animal. On opening day in the middle of public land, I couldn’t help but hope that I was the only person chasing this big Coues’ deer. I watched the buck through my binoculars for four hours that morning and waited until he bedded down for the day. After an hour hike into the canyon, I was looking at the biggest Coues’ buck I had ever seen. In a stalk that seemed like an eternity, I crept and crawled closer to this small-bodied giant. I took my time, carefully applying all the things I had learned for years on how to make a successful stalk. As I released the arrow, my heart filled with hope and anticipation! Shaking with excitement, I watched through binoculars as the buck, with a complete pass through, slowly disappeared over the hill. When I discovered the Coues’ buck I had been hunting for four years lying motionless, I was in complete awe. I sat silently for a few minutes; admiring this intelligent animal and reflecting on what a humbling challenge it had been to take such an incredible buck.”
“It was a pleasure to be part of the special process of recognizing a Pope and Young Club World Record,” said Ed Fanchin, Records Chair for the Pope & Young Club. “This was an unusual set of antlers that challenged the judges, who are some of the most experienced in the Club. This incredible animal is a testament to sound wildlife management across North America. Congratulations to Wes.”
At the close of every biennial recording period, numerical awards and honorable mentions are awarded to the most outstanding bow-harvested animals in each species category entered during this two-year recording period. New World’s Records are recognized, and awards are presented to these exceptional animals during the Pope and Young Club’s Biennial Convention and Awards Banquet. Wesley’s Coues’ deer will be on display at the 31st Biennial Convention in Omaha, Nebraska April 10th – 13th, 2019. This is an official Pope and Young Club World Record of the 31st Recording Period and the second using a Special Panel of Judges.
The Pope and Young Club is a non-profit North American conservation and bowhunting organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of bowhunting by striving to increase awareness and appreciation of bowhunting foundations, principles and values. The Pope and Young Club is focused on Fair Chase hunting ethics that support the ethical pursuit of free-ranging, wild game animals without unfair advantage while promoting the conservation of both habitat and wildlife. The Club also maintains the universally recognized repository of records and statistics on North American big game animals harvested with a bow and arrow.
Rutting action varies greatly from south to north across the North America. The birth of fawns has a lot to do with the timing of the whitetail breeding period across the continent. The reasons why this is the case may surprise you.
By Bernie Barringer
There are abundant theories about the timing of the rut. In some years, it seems like the rut breaks loose all at once, and in other years, hunters will say it’s a “trickle rut” because they do not see the intense rutting activity. Books have been written about the impact of moon phase on the breeding activity, and some hunters are religious about planning their hunts around the correct moon phase for what they believe will be the best activity periods for bucks rutting.
Several studies on the movements of radio collared and GPS tracked deer have cast considerable doubt on any theory that links the moon to rutting activity. In fact when you finish reading this, I think you will see that there is very little room for impact of moon phase on rutting activity.
The key to when the deer need to breed has everything to do with when the fawns will be born. In the northern half of the US, the vast majority of whitetail fawns will be born during the month of May. This is very important to the survival of the species.
In the southern reaches of the whitetail’s range, you can see evidence of rutting activity in late October and November much like you do in the north, but you will also see the majority of the breeding take place during December and even into January in many areas. This has everything to do with the milder winters. A fawn born during July in Texas or Florida for example has a pretty good chance of making it to adulthood. No so in Minnesota where I’m from.
In Minnesota or Maine or any of the Canadian provinces, a fawn would only be three months old when the first cold, snowy weather sets in for the winter. Their chances of making it through that first blizzard in November are pretty slim. However, a fawn born in May will have the body size needed and will have the time to grow the necessary coat of guard hair and put on the fat needed to tough it out through that first winter.
If you graphed out the rut, you would see that the breeding activity in the south takes place over a long curve and the peak is not as noticeable. Does may be bred any time from November through January. In the Canadian provinces, the peak of the rut is very pronounced and the vast majority of the breeding takes place over a two- to three-week period. In fact there is about one week each year when the bucks are going bonkers and the does are getting bred in a chaotic melee of rutting activity.
The timing of the northern rut necessarily must take place over a short period of time in the fall, so the fawns will be born in a short period of time in the spring. Snowstorms in the north are common in April, and cold nights take their toll on tiny little fawns. Any fawns born while the nighttime temperatures are falling well below freezing have high mortality rates. Getting a foot of snow dumped on a newborn fawn is often a death sentence.
So how do the deer know this? The rut is entirely controlled by photoperiodism. The length of daylight hours triggers the pituitary gland to release hormones and prepare the deers’ bodies for breeding.
The changing length of daylight hours are more dramatic the farther from the equator you get. Summers in the north are long and winters are short. In the northernmost habitats where whi
tetails live, there will be 20 hours of daylight at the day’s longest point in June, and there may be 18 hours of dark in the deepest parts of winter. That’s a dramatic change to take place over just a few months. On average, it is changing 8-10 minutes per day.
In the southern parts of the whitetail’s range, the changes are not so dramatic. Days aren’t so short in the winter and nights aren’t so short in the summer. A change of a minute or two a day is enough to get from one end of the spectrum to the other.
These radical changes in daylight hours dramatically affect the pituitary glands in the northern deer so the rut comes on fast and furious and then it’s over just as fast.
So when someone talks about moon phase, weather or any other influences over rutting behavior, we know that these factors are very minor if they have any affect at all. Those positions become very difficult to defend in the light of the importance of the timing of fawning. The rut in the south can be quite drawn out, but in the north, it must be compressed into a very short window of opportunity; the health and survival of the spring-born fawns dictate it.
By Bernie Barringer
In the lives and “careers” of most deer hunters, a process takes place over time as the desires of a hunter mature. At first, just shooting a deer, any deer is satisfying. Then shooting a number of deer becomes a priority and the third stage of the process takes place when the hunter desires to bag a unique specimen of the species. That might mean holding out for a true giant, or it might mean travelling in order to have a chance at bagging a subspecies. Or it might mean the desire to collect a whitetail buck while it’s in velvet stage.
Whitetails across North America tend to shed their velvet during the first week in September. Sometimes the fuzz can come off during the last week of August, but the majority will become hard-antlered between September 1st and 7th. There are a handful of locations across North America where you can legally have a great chance of shooting a velvet buck at this time. These opportunities offer several positive aspects to the hunts. Not only does the season open early when the majority of the bucks have not yet shed their soft antler covering, but these bucks are in some of their most consistent and predictable patterns of the year. They are quite visible at this time of the year, plus they are focused on bedding and feeding every day. These bucks follow a daily routine that makes them very “patternable.” Shooting one is about as close to a slam dunk as you can get in whitetail hunting. Here are my top five picks for getting a velvet buck for your trophy collection.
Public Land in North Dakota
North Dakota is a gold mine for the Do-it-Yourself bowhunter. Public land is abundant and there are still places where hunting permission will be granted on a handshake. Tens of thousands of acres of US Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) land surrounds the Missouri River and its reservoirs, and all of them are open to public hunting. Much of it is grassland, but food plots, shelterbelts and oak groves left over from century-old farmsteads attract whitetails.
Lake Sakakawea is a huge reservoir 125 miles long and almost the entire shoreline is ACOE land. You could spend a lifetime poking around looking for whitetails. Much of the area has a very low human population and little hunting pressure during archery season.
North Dakota also offers a program known as PLOTS: Private Land Open to Sportsmen. Landowners allow public access to their land through this program. The good news about PLOTS land is that no access by any type of vehicle is allowed. It’s walking only. The vast majority of this land is prairie that attracts bird hunters, but the hunter who does his homework can find small pockets of great whitetail habitat that rarely get hunted. Because it is walking access only, anything that is a mile or so from the nearest road may never see a deer hunter. Most locals have a place to hunt where they don’t have to hoof it so far. Surprisingly, few nonresident hunters take advantage of North Dakota’s whitetail opportunities. You will have to do your homework and be willing to work hard to bag a buck in North Dakota, but if you like the challenge of a DIY Road-trip, this could be the hunt for you.
A nonresident deer license is only $215. Nonresidents must purchase the license online or by phone and have it mailed which takes about ten days. The archery season opens the Friday closest to September 1st each year.
While the Northeastern part of Montana gets a lot of publicity for whitetail hunting, the Southeastern corner of the state has quietly been producing some really nice bucks. Because the season opens September 1st, there is a short window of opportunity to bag a velvet buck. While Northeastern Montana slowly recovers from blue tongue disease and some bad winterkills, Southeastern Montana whitetail populations have remained strong.
Look to the lowlands along the Powder River and Tongue River watersheds for numbers of whitetails and a quality of deer that will surprise even the seasoned bowhunting road-tripper. This is arid country with river bottoms surrounded by sagebrush-covered hills. The deer bed in the cottonwood groves during the day and move out into the irrigated alfalfa fields to feed. Their patterns are very consistent and the sheer numbers of deer are striking. It is not unusual to see 50-plus deer per sitting. The first week in September last year I saw nine Pope & Young bucks in velvet during a four-hour evening sit in 90-degree heat.
The majority of the properties with good deer populations are leased by outfitters. Most outfitters offer hunts for whitetails and mule deer, plus antelope if you want to combine the two into one hunt. This is one of those hunts that every serious bowhunter should put on their “Must Do” list. It’s that good.
Montana is proud of its nonresident hunting tags. The tags and licenses will set you back $552 for the any-deer tag. This allows you to shoot a whitetail or a mule deer. You must apply by March 15, but for this area you will draw every other year and sometimes in consecutive years. You can spring for the more expensive Elk/Deer combo license ($980!)which guarantees you a deer tag; then if you do not hunt elk you can apply for a refund of the elk portion of the tag.
Forest Fringe Area of Alberta
Alberta has long been known to produce trophy whitetails due to its low hunting pressure the cold northern climate that dissuades all but the hardiest hunters during the frigid rifle season. But for bowhunters, Alberta is not at the top of their destination list. It should be on your list because of the opportunity to take a whopper in velvet during the first week of September. In fact, there some large areas designated primitive weapons only.
The licenses and fees are very reasonable at $196.57, but the catch is that nonresident hunters must be “hosted” by an Alberta resident. Unless you have a friend or family member in Alberta that has access to good hunting land, you must go with an outfitter. One other option is to trade a trip. You might find an Alberta resident that would be willing to host you in exchange for a hunt in your home area.
Southern Alberta is prairie land, the North is boreal forest, and the western part of the state is mountainous. Nestled between those areas is the “Forest Fringe,” commonly called the “Parkland” by Alberta residents. This combination of farms, open prairie and patches of “bush” is where you will find the best early season hunting. The deer tend to bed in the heavy cover of the timber blocks and feed in the open fields. They are quite visible in this flat to rolling terrain. Whitetail numbers are not high here but the quality makes up for the lack of quantity.
Occasionally, bucks will bed for the day in open fields and can be taken by spotting them in the morning, watching them bed, then putting the sneak on them when they have settled in. This is not a high percentage tactic but it is exhilarating and it sure beats sitting around camp all day. Bagging a mature whitetail this way is one of the most rewarding feelings in deer hunting.
Much like southeastern Montana, this area in no way resembles typical whitetail country to the Midwestern or Eastern hunter. But the water and fertility of the land associated with the riparian areas produces whitetails in significant numbers, and the scarcity of local whitetail hunters allows them to get mature. This part of the west is not much of a secret any longer so outfitters have grabbed up the majority of the best ground. There are a few places where you can get permission to hunt but most of the landowners have figured out that people will pay to hunt the whitetails that they consider vermin. If you are willing to put in the time and knock on a lot of doors, you can find a place to hunt on your own.
Cottonwoods and alfalfa are the two main keys to whitetail location in the early season, although the bedding areas may be in a pine grove a mile or more from the feeding areas. It is common for whitetails to cross large areas while they make their way to the fields to feed in the afternoon. They commonly walk even two miles or more. This makes them very visible. A spotting scope is an essential tool for locating them. But once they are found, it’s a simple matter to get in position for their morning or evening trek that mostly takes place during the first two hours and the last two hours of daylight.
Wyoming’s archery deer season opens the first of September but you must apply for your tag each year before March 15. Drawing odds are very good and you will find a deer tag in your mailbox most years.
The western half of the state of Kentucky has earned a well-deserved reputation for being a quality whitetail destination. In the last two decades, the numbers of mature deer being shot by residents and nonresidents has been steadily rising. Offering an archery season opener that falls on the first Saturday in September, this Midwestern gem offers yet another opportunity to bag a great velvet buck and it’s a bargain at $190 for over-the-counter tags and licenses.
For hunters without the budget to spend on a fully outfitted hunt, this area offers an abundance of public land open to hunting. Western Kentucky features two expansive public areas in the 100,000-acre Land Between the Lakes Wildlife Management Area, and the 65,000-acre Peabody Wildlife Management Area. In addition to that, there are several smaller WMAs ranging in size from less than 1,000 acres to more than 8,000 acres. The area is well populated and you will not be alone on this public hunting ground, but if you are willing to do your legwork–get a mile or more off the road–you will find minimal hunting pressure.
Landowners are generally somewhat open to allowing bowhunters access to their property. Not so much for rifle hunters. While there are a handful of outfitters operating across the western part of the state, there is no shortage of private land that is not bound up by hunting leases.
Patterning these big woods bucks in September is not nearly as easy compared to what you’ll find out west. Much of the acorn crop is on the ground and natural foods are abundant and spread out across the landscape. This is often thick and steep country so you will need to work hard to get your buck, but if you have a good plan and execute it well with hard work and determination, you will see some great deer.
Thirty years ago, there were few whitetails in the Evergreen state but the population has exploded since the 1980’s. The abundance of irrigated croplands is home to large numbers of whitetail deer and quality bucks are quite common. Locals are all about mule deer and it may come as a surprise to the readers of this magazine, but the whitetails are considered second-class citizens to the mule deer.
The top counties are Chelan, Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens, Pend Orielle and Spokane. These counties have one thing in common that makes them home to large numbers of whitetails: The Columbia River and its tributaries. Water is the key, as whitetails use the bottomlands of the rivers and streams, which are home to large alfalfa fields and apple orchards.
Apple growers and deer do not mix, which can make acquiring permission to hunt very easy if you find yourself in the right place asking the right person. There are a few outfitters who have popped up but for the most part, this area is overlooked as a whitetail destination. Some of the counties listed have abundant public hunting land, others very little.
For a game animal that is not revered, the tag prices are high because the state doesn’t differentiate between mule deer and whitetail deer when it comes to licensing. You can purchase a nonresident deer-only license over the counter for $434.30.
The unique trophy of a velvet-antlered whitetail is one that can be found in only a handful of places. If you start your planning now you have a chance to get yours.
Season opener: First Saturday in September
Licenses and tags: OTC – Nonresidents: $190
Season opener: Noon on the Friday nearest September 1.
Licenses and tags: OTC – Nonresidents: $215
Season opener: September 1
Licenses and tags: Hosted – Nonresidents: $196.57
Season Opener: September 1
Licenses and tags: Apply between January 1and March 15 – Nonresidents: $338.50
Season Opener: September 1
Licenses and Tags: Apply between January 1and March 15 – Nonresidents: $552
Season Opener: September 1
Licenses and Tags: OTC–Nonresident Deer-Only tag: $434.30
The Beginner’s Guide to Choosing an Elk Hunt
Just about everyone I know has an elk hunt on their bucket list, including me. I recently did some research about the available options for elk hunts and I thought I would share with you what I learned. I called up Cabela’s Outdoor Adventures for a free consultation to explore the options, and I got some great advice on what I will loosely group into four different categories of elk hunts. Let’s look at each of them, which will help you choose which one is best for you.
On the upper end of the spectrum is a hunt where you will be wined and dined and have a fantastic overall experience. Most of these hunts offer high success rates but you will have a great time even if you do not get an elk. The hunts take place while based in plush lodging, often a five star lodge, and you are taken to your hunting area each day by an experienced guide. They are typically on private ranches where the elk are well managed and your chances of shooting a trophy are good.
For the most part these are not the most physically challenging hunts, although you may have to walk a few miles each day. Other times you may be spending more of your hunting time in a 4X4 pickup or ATV, or maybe on horseback. Once your elk is down, it is skinned and processed for you. These lodge hunts are great experiences and the price tag will run somewhere between $8,000 and $15,000.
The DIY Hunt
On the other end of the spectrum is a totally do-it-yourself elk hunt. You are responsible for everything from acquiring the tag, doing the research on where and when to go, transportation, lodging, and getting your elk out once you shoot it, which can be one of the biggest challenges of all.
Some DIY hunters set up camp or base out of an RV and hike long miles to get into the elk each day. Trophy quality is generally low on these hunts unless you apply for years and draw a special high-quality area. Cabelas T.A.G.S. can help you with that.
Some people enjoy the challenge of figuring it out and hunting without any guide or other assistance. This is not for everyone, and the success rates are pretty low, which makes it all the more rewarding when you are successful in going it alone.
Semi-Guided Public Land Hunts
These hunts are a step above the DIY hunt but you will end up doing the majority of the work yourself. The most common form of the semi-guided hunt is the drop camp hunt. In this case, you consult with an experienced outfitter who helps you choose a location to hunt and provides you with the majority of the equipment you will need.
The outfitter will take you and the equipment into the hunting area, normally by pack horse, help set up everything, then leave. You are on your own for hunting. He comes back in to pick you and your game up at an agreed-upon date. This is a good way to avoid the high costs of owning all the equipment and horses, while still taking advantage of the conveniences they provide. A hunt like this will cost between $2,500 and $4,500.
This is much like the drop camp hunt except you will have a guide along to show you the ropes and help you get your elk. You will also most likely have a cook/wrangler who will serve hot meals and help with the everyday chores around camp, including the challenge of getting your elk quartered and back to camp. This hunt, like the drop camp hunt, requires a reasonably good physical condition because some days can consist of rigorous hikes.
These hunts have fairly highs success rates because you have someone with experience in the area helping you make decisions. You can also hunt harder because you can concentrate on the hunt rather than worrying about the everyday camp chores such as cooking, chopping firewood, tending to the horses, etc. These hunts will run from $5,000-$8,000.
Base Camp Hunts
The base camp hunt normally consists of RV’s or wall tents and is typically in an area you can drive to. You will hunt on horses or ATV’s or at times 4X4 pickups. There is a degree of comfort to be found in these camps that cannot be found in the wilderness hunts. You will probably have a tent or trailer set up with a shower, and of course you can make a drive to a nearby town in case of an emergency.
Some of these camps are quite plush and offer a wide choice of drinks and plenty of fine eating. When set up in the right area, elk hunting can be excellent. The availability of motorized vehicles eases the difficulty of getting your elk back to camp. The physical activity level varies greatly with the camp and outfitter so make sure you ask questions about that topic before choosing which one to book. Generally, these hunts will cost between $4,500 and $8,000.
You know you want to do it. So choose the elk hunt that fits your needs, budget, physical ability and preferences and just go do it.
If the spark for a new experience lies within you, the counselors at Cabela’s Outdoor Adventures can help. Give them a call and start planning your adventure today.
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.
- Choose OMM’s exclusive Boat Access black bear hunt to go by boat to your stand and enjoy the solitude of a hunt within the Eagle Lake State Reserve.
- Remote bear hunts on almost 100 square miles of exclusive territory.
- Rifle, Pistol, Black Powder, Shotgun, and Archery bear hunters accommodated.
- 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.
- Trail cameras are utilized by bear guides to enhance success.
- 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.
- Comfortable lakeside log cabins with private bath – on the waters of 55,000 ac. Eagle Lake.
- Fine cuisine is served in the historic dining room – Maine lobster, prime meats and much more.
- High quality black bear hunts, reasonably priced and ideally located.
- New in 2018! – Non-stop United Airlines jet service from Newark, New Jersey to Presque Isle (PQI), just 45 miles from camp.
- 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.