Cotton State Archery Primer
September 28, 2010
Don't wait until the last minute: Now's the time to start getting ready for the whitetail bow season. Here's a look at gear, scouting and picking your public land destinations for this year! (July 2010)
It may be hot summer now, but the cool days of autumn aren't far off and it's not too early to start laying the groundwork for your fall archery deer season.
Larry O'Dell has taken close to 300 deer with a bow, most of them in Alabama and many of them on the state's public wildlife management areas. For the last 27 years he also has run his own pro shop, O'Dell Outdoor Archery, in his home community of Aroney in DeKalb County. He parlayed that career into being a pro shooter on the Mathews staff and is a two-time national champion in competitive tournament shooting.
We talked to O'Dell about the steps a budding bowhunter should take now and in the coming days to prepare for the 2010 archery deer season.
Bowhunting is different from gun hunting in that you can't just pick up a bow and go hunting like you can a gun. It takes some practice to shoot proficiently and to get muscles toned and ready for the physical part of shooting a bow.
If you're in the market for a bow, O'Dell strongly recommends you patronize your local archery shop.
"It might cost you a little more, but you'll probably save a little in the long run with the service you'll get from a local pro shop," he said.
He sees a lot of rookie bowhunters buying gear from big box marts or big mail order stores. But the bow doesn't come "set up" with an arrow rest, sights or the other small things that are critical.
"Some guys have enough knowledge to set up their own bow, but most don't," O'Dell said.
It can be very frustrating to struggle with the set-up on your own and not get it right.
"You'll be much better pleased to buy a bow from someone who knows what he is doing," O'Dell assured. "They can get the draw length right, the arrow rest tuned just right and can have you hitting bulls-eyes in just a few shots."
O'Dell fixes set-ups for people who have bought elsewhere every year, but it's not cheap. A sign on his shop door notes that labor is $30 an hour.
You don't have to buy the most expensive bow in the shop at an independent dealer to walk out happy. A brand-new, "latest model" bow can cost more than a rifle these days.
But there are great deals on used equipment at just about any archery shop you visit. Lots of hunters and tournament shooters upgrade their equipment every year and their nearly new bows are traded in on the latest and greatest models.
Occasionally, a brand new, but older model bow has been left sitting on the shelf from one season to another. A few years ago, I had sold my bow and started hunting with a crossbow. I loved the crossbow, but I missed regular archery too.
I found one of these older model bows that had never been sold on O'Dell's rack. I laid out a small fraction of what a brand new bow would have cost, walked out with my "old-new" bow in hand and harvested a deer with it a week later. I was a very satisfied customer.
WHERE WILL YOU HUNT
Aside from the question of what you'll shoot, the question of where you'll hunt is the second big concern for a bowhunter this time of year.
If you've been in the same club for years, own your own hunting ground or even if you have hunted a favorite WMA for years, this may not be an issue. But for thousands of Alabama outdoorsmen it is. Their club may have lost its lease, their favorite WMA was closed or the place they've been hunting just isn't producing what they want.
There are some Internet sites that can help you find your next hunting location in the Cotton State. The outdooralabama.com Web site of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has detailed statistics about WMAs, the deer that are being harvested on them and what kind of hunting pressure they get. You can also find maps of the properties as well.
The Alabama Forest Owners Assn. Web site has links to both hunting land that can be leased and clubs that are looking for members.
Even our own Alabama Game & Fish Web site can be helpful. You can find lots of past stories from the magazine about deer and bowhunting on the site to further refine your search for a new hunting ground.
O'Dell usually knows where he'll be hunting long in advance of the season, but he said he occasionally hunts new ground right at the start of bow season. He has some tricks that can help you get on deer this time of year.
Generally speaking, hunters need to look for travel corridors to hunt in the mornings and feeding locations in the afternoons, O'Dell said. A quick way to find oak trees deer may be using is to sneak through the woods early in the morning and listen for squirrels dropping acorns out of trees.
"The deer are hearing the same thing you're hearing and they're going to check it out," O'Dell said.
He doesn't even carry his bow when he makes these morning walks. He can walk quicker and quieter without it.
Look for deer feeding sign under the tree -- leaves that have been pawed through, caps off acorns and droppings.
"Droppings indicate that the deer are hanging around for awhile once they get there," O'Dell said. "If you're wanting to hunt bucks, look for rubs nearby. If a buck is using the area, he's going to leave his sign."
O'Dell always carries a compass with him when he's scouting, not so much to find his way out of the woods as to get the direction of the prevailing wind.
"I want to be 20 yards downwind of the tree that is dropping acorns," O'Dell explained.
When traveling the dirt roads so prevalent on the WMAs, O'Dell keeps a "sweep broom" in his truck. He tries to keep tabs on a number of places where trails cross the roads.
"I may be going to hunt another location, but I'll stop on one of these trails and sweep any existing tracks out of the dirt," the archer said. "When I go back out at 9:30 or 10:30 or whatever, I stop back by and see if any new tracks are in the trail I swept."
If there are tracks there, he'll be back th
e next morning just off the WMA road waiting for those deer to come through.
"These are WMA roads, not public roads," he said. "I hunt just off them and can't tell you how many deer I've killed doing this. The deer approach the road and they'll stop and listen and look both ways. It's a great way to kill them."
The first few weeks of bow season can also be a good time to get on deer using green fields or food plots. O'Dell hunts them a little different from other people.
"When most bowhunters look at a food plot and see tracks and sign, the first thing they start looking for is the closest tree they can climb," O'Dell said. "I like to find plots in planted pines or brush where there are no trees nearby you can climb. I like to hunt them from a ground blind I either set up or build from existing vegetation. I think these type plots are a little better than others because they don't get the pressure that other plots with climbable trees gets.
THE PRACTICE REGIMEN
Whether you're a newcomer or a grizzled old veteran, you've got to practice with your bow to get ready for the coming season.
As a tournament archer, O'Dell shoots year-round.
"At a minimum, people need to start shooting a month before the season, if they haven't been shooting all year," he said.
It's not how many arrows you shoot, but how many good arrows you shoot.
"Ten arrows shot with proper form is a lot better than 100 without it," he said. "You just get into bad habits when you're shooting arrows and not focusing on good form."
Since so much bowhunting is done from tree stands, O'Dell recommended building an elevated platform or hanging a tree stand for your shooting practice.
Personally, I practice off a second-floor deck and it works great.
Larry O'Dell also suggested getting involved in some of the Bowhunters of Alabama shoots that are held at different places all around the state.
"Shooting 3D targets in the tournaments will get you used to shooting at animal forms," he offered. "A mistake a lot of people make is shooting at the whole animal. 3D targets force you to pick a spot, just like you need to do when you're hunting."
O'Dell said people need to watch the weight they're pulling too. Back in the day, everyone wanted to shoot 70 pounds. O'Dell even shot 80 at times early in his career.
"Pulling a heavy draw weight is an ego thing," O'Dell said. "I shoot 63 pounds today. I tell people to sit in a chair and pull their bow straight back. If you can pull it comfortably in the chair, it's probably the right weight."
While the bow is a critical piece of equipment, there are other equipment concerns for an archer that should also be addressed at this time of year. A couple of issues are what stand you'll use and what you'll wear.
O'Dell hunts on both club lands and on WMAs. He likes to set up lock-on stands with climbing ladders on his club land. On the WMAs, he hunts almost exclusively out of climbing stands.
He has two climbers he likes -- the Summit Goliath and the Cougar Claw. He equips his climbers with bow holders and quiver holders. He also works on his stands to make sure they're quiet, not just when he's climbing, but also walking in.
One trick is to put carpet on the foot section of the stand. O'Dell said it quiets down the stand when walking through the brush and also keeps dried mud from falling to the ground off his boots when he's up a tree.
"I'm a believer in scent blocking clothing too," O'Dell said. "Sometimes, I wear three layers."
But, he cautioned that scent-blocking clothing is not 100 percent foolproof.
"What I think it does is make the deer think you're farther away than you actually are," he said. "There's still some scent there."
O'Dell goes all out in his scent control regimen. He takes a bath before hunting, wears clean, scent-blocking clothing and even chews gum to clean up his breath.
SOME PLACES TO TRY
There are 36 WMAs across the state encompassing more than 760,000 acres of land, plus thousands more acres of National Forest land, Army Corps of Engineers land and Tennessee Valley Authority land that are open to public bowhunting. An archer in Alabama can't really complain that he doesn't have a place to hunt.
Larry O'Dell hunted the old Kinterbish WMA for years. It was on that public tract that he really learned how to bowhunt.
"I had a car clean-up shop back in those days," O'Dell said. "I'd close the shop on Oct. 12 and go to Kinterbish, where I had a camp. I'd come home for 3 days at Christmas, then go back and stay until Feb. 1."
His hunting habits changed when he opened his archery shop, but he still hunts public lands. He likes the ones that are a fairly easy drive from his home in northeast Alabama. Most of the time those are James D. Martin-Skyline in Jackson County and Little River in DeKalb County.
According to O'Dell it's possible for bowhunters to get on some good action at either place.
Black Warrior WMA is another that stands out in his mind.
"If a fellow just wanted to hunt trophy bucks, I think Black Warrior is the place to do it," he said. "I shot the largest buck I've ever shot in my life at Black Warrior, but I didn't recover him."
If you study the harvest statistics from the DCNR, those same areas that stand out for deer hunting in general are also great for bowhunting.
They are Oakmulgee, Blue Spring, Mulberry Fork and Choccolocco. Barbour WMA isn't bad; especially when you consider that on that tract a buck has to have three points on one side to be legal.
All five of those areas have intensive habitat and deer management going on that make them special places to hunt. Archers on Oakmulgee killed a total of 139 deer in 2008-09, making it the top harvest WMA in the state.
That same season 126 deer were taken by bow at Blue Spring, 121 at Mulberry Fork, and 86 at Choccolocco. Hunters at Barbour WMA tallied 82 bow kills.
No matter where you hunt, one last bit of parting wisdom comes from Larry O'Dell.
Early in his bowhunting career he was shooting at lots of deer and harvesting very few, because he was shooting at them at 40, 50 and even 60 yards. Then he met a bowhunter from Mississippi who told him he'd start killing a lot more of those deer if he followed "the 20/20
The 20/20 rule, put simply, is to climb 20 feet high and limit your shots to 20 yards and closer.
"I started following that rule," O'Dell said, "and I started harvesting about 90 percent of the deer that I shot at."