10 Big-Game Bowhunting Tips
September 28, 2010
Looking to increase your odds of bow hunting success this season? From stalking herds of mule deer to calling in bull elk, these tips will sharpen your edge.(August 2007)
A lot of eyes would be on the lookout for any spot-and-stalk hunter who could get near this mule deer herd. But to rattle a buck in, especially a big mulie, you need to get in close.
Photo by Scott Haugen.
The Roosevelt bull bugled at every sound I made, but he would not leave his cows. The next morning, I found him again, but he didn't respond to a single call. I trailed him for more than two hours and waited for the right time to make my move.
As the herd fed over a knoll, the shadows and wind masked my approach. I used aggressive cow talk to lure him -- and the rest of the herd -- within bow range. He responded.
I took one shot, and the massive bull collapsed, 75 yards from where I stung him.
No matter what big-game animal you're after this season, there are times to be aggressive, and times to be passive. What you choose to do, and when, depends on to many factors, not the least of which is the behavior of the animals themselves.
There are four aggressive steps archers can turn to, but knowing when and where to use them is critical. Factors like time of year, rutting periods, hunting pressure and moon phases are just some of the elements that play into how we hunt.
That said, here are the four aggressive moves that have worked for me over the years.
Tip No. 1: CALLING
Archers have the luxury of hunting many animals during the course of the rut: pronghorns, blacktails, mule deer or whitetails. The rut is a time when males of these species are most vocal, and most aggressive. Testosterone levels peak. Their need for dominance arises, and because of this, hunters can use animal communication to help get a shot.
As with all game calling, nothing's guaranteed. On opening day, bulls may sometimes be bugling like mad. Other times, they may not make a sound. When bulls are quiet early in the year, try offering subtle bull talk and combine it with cow and calf-elk sounds. This series of sounds creates the impression of a herd, with an eager bull waiting for a cow to reach estrous.
As the season progresses, aggressive bugles and hyper- cow talk can be the ticket, simply because herd dynamics change as cows distance themselves from calves, go into heat, and the rut increases in intensity.
For deer, grunts and doe bleats can be effective during the late-fall or early-winter rut. While blacktails and whitetails will travel a good distance in response to a call, hunters will likely have to get closer to a mulie's home turf to pull him within bow range.
Pronghorn bucks also can be called in during the height of their doe-chasing. I've personally found these calls prove most effective when used with a decoy, which makes a difference in pulling bucks away from their harems.
Tip No. 2: RATTLING
Rattling is one of the most effective ways to get late-season deer within bow range. In thick blacktail habitat, try setting up, rattling for one to two minutes, then sitting still, your bow ready, for five minutes. Repeat the process for 30 to 45 minutes. If you see nothing, move into the next location and try again.
I've had bucks come running in before I even completed the first sequence. I've also stayed in an area for more than two hours, bringing in four different bucks.
Let the situation, and the setting, dictate how long you rattle.
For hunting whitetails in brush-choked habitat, there are some excellent late-season opportunities, and rattling can be key.
If you know that bucks are in the area, but they aren't coming in, move 15 to 20 yards between your short rattling sequences. This creates the illusion of two bucks fighting and on the move. It might be just the trick to lure in a call-shy buck.
Mulies can also be rattled in. As yet, I haven't personally taken a mulie by rattling, but have spoken with a good number of hunters who have. They all shared a common tactic: getting as close to the buck as possible before starting to rattle.
A big mulie buck seems reluctant to travel far if he hears a fight in progress. The closer you can get -- preferably around some brush for cover -- the greater your odds of pulling him in.
Rattling for elk can also be very effective during September bowhunting seasons. If calls don't seem to be pulling in a bull, try raking a shed antler, even an old tree limb, on some brush or against another tree. Kick and stomp on the ground to create the sounds of a real fight, and a bull might just come charging in.
Tip No. 3: DECOYS
Big-game decoys are becoming more popular among Western archers, and for good reason: They work. When combined with calling and rattling during the rut, decoys can be the key to getting a wise male of the species to commit.
I've been on several pronghorn hunts during the rut, and the action with a decoy can give a real adrenaline rush. I've seen bucks come on a dead sprint from over 500 yards, only to stop mere feet from the decoy. Other times, they may skirt around the decoy to check it out, then waltz in for closer inspection.
Pronghorns rely on their eyes for survival, and using decoys during their September rut is a good choice.
Elk hunters can also benefit from decoys. A cow decoy, be it a side profile or one that's facing away, may be all it takes to bring that bull a little closer for a high-percentage shot.
Often a bull will hang up, looking for the source of the bull or cow calls that have brought him this far. A decoy placed beyond the hunter's position can making a bull approach, walking past the hunter to check things out.
Deer hunters are also using 3-D targets with amazing success on late-season blacktails and whitetails. Again, put them beyond where you anticipate the bucks will come in from, so the deer will pass by your tree stand or ground blind.
Also, decoys help focus the attention of approaching animals. That allows you to reach full draw safely.
Tip No. 4: SPOT 'N' STALK
For an archer, it's hard to beat the thrills of stealthing to within range of an animal, then the satis
faction of closing the deal with a well-placed shot. Last season, after four blown attempts, I finally got into shooting position on a 29-inch-wide mulie, and connected at 17 yards. Previous stalks had me within 3 and 6 yards of two other bucks. But they were bedded tight against a cutbank, and all I could see were antlers.
Early-season mulie hunters can target bedded bucks looking to escape the beating sun. Locate bucks early, watch where they bed, and use the wind to help you work into position for a shot.
The same is true for early blacktail and white-tailed deer. Targeting all three deer in a feeding area can also pay off. If the terrain allows, stalking to within range can be done in this habitat. Just be watchful of too many eyes that might detect you.
Elk and pronghorns are also quite stalkable. For elk, play the wind and use timbered shadows to work within range. If you break a branch while stalking, give a slight blow on a calf call to calm an alerted bull. For speedgoats, use broken terrain to get within shooting distance.
Sometimes, being too aggressive can spook an animal out of the area. If you suspect this could be the case, a more passive approach is your best method. Here are three passive tactics worth considering:
Tip No. 5: TREE STANDS
More hunters out West are turning to tree stands, and with good success. Once you've done your homework and found the big game's bedding and feeding areas, and the trails they utilize to travel between the two, you're on the way to being an effective tree-stand hunter.
Positioning is critical. It's a good idea to have at least two stands in place, so you can enter at least one without having to worry about the wind giving you away. If the wind is blowing around you toward where the animals are, hunting from that tree stand will be futile.
Tree stands work any time of year. And once you start hunting from them, it's amazing how much game you'll actually see. In addition to working well over trails, tree stands are also effective over water holes, near feeding zones and with decoys set down below. They are also good to rattle from when it comes to brush-country blacktails.
Tip No. 6: GROUND BLINDS
Open-country pronghorns. Early-season elk and deer. Rutting deer. All three can be hunted from ground blinds with high success.
In each case, however, the key is strategic positioning of the blind. There must be a reason to place the blind where you want it, be it near water, food or a trail site.
You can erect a blind and hunt pronghorn that same day, but it may take deer and elk a while to get used to it. Erect the blind a week or two before you plan on hunting from it. For these species, you should brush-in the blind.
That is, place brush around the blind's bottom, top and edges to help break up the outline and set passing animals at ease. And as with any bowhunting approach, play the wind.
Tip No. 7: WATER HOLES
An early-season water hole can be a highly effective site for archers to watch. For elk, this can provide both drinking sites and wallows. For deer, it may be a small pond or creek. For pronghorns, it's likely a pothole or seep in the desert.
Hunting water holes with stick and string is a sit-and-wait game. So hide yourself in a ground blind or get up in a tree stand. These two methods let you reach full draw without detection.
Another valuable tool for water-hole hunters is a trail camera, which allows you to track exactly what time animals are coming to the water, and precisely where they're drinking. Knowing this, you can erect the blind or stand accordingly.
Whether hunting aggressively or passively, there are three important tips all hunters should live by. No matter what hunting situation you find yourself in, these three points will only improve your chances of success.
Tip No. 8: THE WIND
The wind could be a bowhunter's worst enemy or best friend. Over the years, I've had changing winds blow more opportunities at elk than I can count. At the same time, a good breeze has allowed me to stealth within 20 yards of pronghorns bedded in the wide open, and deer tucked tight against cover.
If an elk smells you, it's over -- period. The same with deer. Pronghorns can be a bit more forgiving, since they rely on sight as their main sensory device. If you find yourself in a situation where the wind is unfavorable, back out. If the wind changes midway through a stalk or calling session, get out of there and come back another day.
It makes no difference how good a stalk you have going, or how authentic your calls sound. If an animal approaches, then catches wind and spooks, that's just one more animal that's been educated.
Tip No. 9: PRACTICE
Every season, I hear stories of hunters getting shots at 10, 12 or more deer that season. It's great that all those opportunities come. But when the season starts, plan on taking only one shot and making it count.
Multiple-shot hunters are usually those who haven't practiced. They set their bow aside at the end of one season, and don't pick it up again until a few days before the new opener.
I spend a good deal of time in bow pro shops, and am amazed at the number of people who come in to purchase a bow only days before the season. Consistently shooting a bow with accuracy takes practice -- year-round practice for most people. Do yourself (and the animals) a favor, and practice year 'round, at least twice a week. And in the field, you'll be amazed at how automatic and accurate your shots become.
Have a rangefinder, and use it. It will make a huge difference when it comes time to make the shot. The new rangefinders with built in angle range compensation, are perfect for shooting in the rugged West.
Tip No. 10: KNOW WHEN TO SHOOTM
The more time you spend in the woods, the more you'll learn about animal behavior. No matter what your hunting style or approach, deciding when you should take that one shot comes down to evaluating the animal's behavior.
A relaxed animal that's unaware of your presence makes the perfect target. An animal that's nervous and knows you're there can flinch at the shot. At the same time, a rut-crazed bull or decoying pronghorn may well see you, but its aggressive nature keeps it standing still enough for a shot.
Before letting any arrow fly, observe the animal and note its behavior. It's better to leave off, hoping for a better shot, than to chance a miss or worse yet, crippling an animal. You'll know when all comes together and it's time to take the shot -- everything will feel just right.
Once you develop a disciplined approach and your hunting repertoire expands, you'll be amazed at how your success rates cli