Re-Evaluating Your Plan For Bow Season
September 28, 2010
Are you making the best possible preparations for next season's whitetail hunts?
When archery hunting for deer became wildly popular 25 years or so ago, many hunters bought bows and broadheads so they could get the month-long jump on gun hunters that the earlier, longer archery seasons provided.
What many did not expect -- but quickly recognized -- was that across the Southeast, getting a jump on other hunters also meant almost re-learning the process of scouting and trying to pick a location from which you could start filling the freezer with venison.
You just didn't go into the woods in July, August or September and expect to find bucks and does in the same areas, acting the same way they normally did in November, when the woods filled with hunters.
Deer are doing all kinds of things late in the summer that they wouldn't be caught dead doing as Thanksgiving approaches. And the hunters who realized that first were the ones who regularly dined on venison sausage, tenderloin or steaks before the leaves began to fall.
"As archery season approaches, deer are in their summer patterns, and their movements are like clockwork," said Thomas Naumann, who operates Cherokee Run Hunting Lodge. "They're probably the most predictable at this time of year as they'll ever get.
"All they do is go from their bedding areas to their feeding areas to get water, and they do it at the same times every day. You can set your clock by them. That's it. Hunting the transitional areas between their food and bedding areas -- that's about as sure a bet as there is."
Naumann, archery shop owner Shannon Lyndon and veteran bowhunter Jim Smith have made early-season hunting work for years. Their approaches are basically the same: Find the foods deer are eating, find the routes they use to get to it from the areas where they're bedding down during the middle of the day, then pinpoint a place along the way where they're most likely to stroll within bow range.
The first step is finding the food. Depending on the habitat in the area you hunt, that can mean any number of things, and it may change several times within the month to six weeks of archery season. Primary among food sources late in the summer are agricultural crops, the corn and wheat, milo, sorghum, soybeans and even fruits like apples, where available. Most of these foods will be largely unavailable as gun season approaches, with the harvest taking care of most of them, leaving only a remnant that might still attract deer -- but not in the numbers that they did in September.
"There are two different ways I scout, depending on where I'm hunting," said Smith, who regularly kills close to a dozen deer each season with his bow, hunting in a handful of mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states. "If it's a place I've hunted a lot and am familiar with, I pretty much know where the deer are going to be, but I've still got to get in there; I'm not fortunate enough to have the kind of place where I can stay back and scope it out.
"The first morning, I'll go in and hunt in an area where I know the deer travel a lot, and after I finish that first morning, I'll do my scouting. I'll try to pinpoint where they're bedding and traveling.
"Early in the seasons, you're hunting food sources. It's good to acorns and alfalfa, apple trees, corn and soybean; they're always good," Smith said. "This one place we hunt early in bow season, we'll go in July and look see what kind of blooms are on the apple trees, how the food plots and crops are doing," Smith said. "In that kind of place, I'll know in July where I'm going to hunt, so I'll hang my stand and get out of there, stay out the next couple of months.
"I'll look around while I'm there and see if there are good nuts on the trees, and I'll keep in contact with the landowner after I leave, ask him if he's seeing deer and where, if the acorn crop looks like it's going to be good, whether the deer have moved from one side of the place to the other, and I'll talk with people I know who live around there and get information from them. But I won't go back in there until it's time to hunt."
Lyndon will do plenty of pre-season scouting with an eye on how deer access the major feeding areas on the land he hunts. "I hunt travel corridors from bedding to feeding areas; they are almost like natural funnels. Usually, you can locate some of your better trails going to and from the food sources," he said. "I know what foods are going to come in where. Usually there are a lot of grapevines producing early in bow season, and your corn and soybeans, and then the acorns will usually start to fall.
"I like walking creek bottoms because you can see the good crossings, then you can walk out the trails and see where they go," he said. "I'll walk them out to where they split up and just kind of disappear. I really like to find a place where two or three trails split, a junction."
Lyndon doesn't scout much deeper in the woods than the junction, because he knows the trails typically lead to bedding areas, and he wants no part of stumbling around in a thicket that a big buck might be calling home. He'd much rather walk the trails out in the opposite direction, figuring that they will get more and more defined as more deer move in, heading for the primary food source.
Naumann said that being able to watch fields or other open, cultivated areas takes much of the guesswork out of scouting. He can watch deer, note the time they enter or leave an area, then backtrack and figure out the pattern they're using for approaching the soybeans or corn.
"People see a lot of deer in the evenings in soybean fields that haven't been harvested, and if you spend enough time, you almost know when they're going to move from their bedding area to the feeding areas; they are really creatures of habit late in the summer," he said. "You want to catch them coming in; you want to set up close to the feeding area without getting too close to their bedding areas. I like to stay 20 to 40 yards off a major trail -- where I'm comfortable taking a shot."
Naumann said that when he finds deer feeding in a cultivated field, he typically likes to set up a stand anywhere from 20 to 100 yards back off the field. He also likes to have multiple stand sites on each major trail so he can take advantage of any changes from the prevailing wind direction.
"The guys who really do it right will have stands set up to hunt all the wind directions; they'll always hunt downwind of where the deer are traveling," he said. "Basing the stand placement on the wind direction is probably the most critical element of what you do before the season."
The second technique that Smith and Lyndon like to take ad
vantage of is natural funnels that deer will use for much of their travel patterns -- even the bed to food routes. They are worth locating in almost every instance, Smith said.
"I know that deer are going to travel through funnels," he said. "A perfect example is a creek bottom with about 70 yards of woods on either side that divides two pastures or fields. It's a natural thoroughfare that deer will use to travel without being seen."
Lyndon said that old logging yards that wind through timber -- and especially the thick cover of a cutover -- can be deer magnets, simply because whitetails will often choose the path of least resistance when moving through an area.
"My favorite natural funnel is where a stand of hardwoods juts out into a field. It's like a little bottleneck that all the deer will use to go in and out of the field," he said. "If you're hunting in the mountains, the contours can be natural funnels."
Other examples of funnels are edges of different kinds of habitat, even within the deep woods, such as the boundary line between a stand of hardwoods and a pine thicket, a grown-up fence line deep in the woods, even a creek bottom or a firebreak.
Finding buck sign is likely to be a futile endeavor late in the summer or early in bow season because many bucks are in velvet and aren't interested in putting down much territorial sign until autumn starts knocking on the door.
"When I scout, I'm just looking for (deer) sign," Lyndon said. "I never look for scrapes or rubs; that doesn't mean anything until late October. If you've found does, the bucks will be around. They'll use the same food sources but not necessarily at the same times. And most bucks are still in their bachelor groups in August and in early September."
Naumann said that he looks for bucks in the same areas where does are feeding. Typically, he said, bucks will stage back in the woods, waiting for the last few minutes of daylight before heading into a field or pasture to feed -- even if the does have been out for an hour.
"Even in their summer pattern, when they haven't been hunted in months, bucks are still pretty smart," he said. "They may lag behind the does and stage back in the woods off the food source. You may see six or seven does feeding in a bean field without a care in the world, but it will be close to dark before a buck will come out."
That's where finding a faint trail that intersects a main feeding trail a short distance away from the food source may put you on the avenue that bucks are using as a travel path.
The care with which you approach a scouting mission may have a lasting impact on your success, especially where bucks are concerned.
"One of the biggest things to me about scouting -- it's as important as hunting -- is that you can't be sloppy or smelly when you're scouting," Lyndon said. "When you go in to scout, you need to wear your rubber boots and a scent block or Scent-Lok clothing. I spray myself and all my equipment down (with a scent block), because you don't want a big buck to smell you when you're in there scouting."
Naumann is careful to enter an area with the wind at his face when he's scouting, believing that a big buck will bust you when you're wandering around scouting as easily as he will if he scents you while approaching your stand during the season. In that regard, Naumann not only scouts stand sites, but he also scouts out different ways to get to those stands, always moving in from the right wind direction.
"One thing I think is very important is going into your stand and leaving it," he said. "People typically take the path of least resistance when they're going from where they park to their stands -- but you don't always want to take the short way. You don't want to walk past the bedding areas on your way to your stand; you don't want them to know you're there.
"I always take the wind direction into account when accessing my stands. You'll see more deer and have more success if you're smarter about how you walk in."
Naumann and Lyndon both agree that bowhunters don't need to be 50 feet up in a poplar tree to get good shots at early-season deer. Because leaves haven't fallen in most places, getting off the ground a reasonable distance will usually put you in the strike zone.
"I don't go any higher than 20 feet," Naumann said. "I think that's where cover becomes critical to concealing movement. You have some movement with a bow you don't have with a gun -- you have to be able to draw without him seeing you. You can do that between 15 and 20 feet high, but any lower and you have to take the amount of cover you have into consideration."
Lyndon said that leaves on low limbs will usually provide enough cover to allow a bowhunter who's 20 feet off the ground to get off a good shot.
As far as getting your equipment ready for the season opener, it's a matter of plenty of practice.
"I'll get my clothes ready, washing and airing them out, then I'll hang them outside," Smith said. "I shoot three or four times a week, year 'round. I think confidence is a big part of getting a deer with a bow. I'll shoot field points until about two months before the season, then all I'll practice with are broadheads. In fact, I keep a broadhead target with me when I go hunting, because during the season, you don't shoot a lot because you're hunting. I'll take a block target with me, and before I go into the woods, I'll take a half-dozen shots at it.
Smith hunts with fixed-blade broadheads, so he practices with broadheads. "Don't go hunting without shooting your broadheads in practice," he said. "I match my broadheads to the individual arrows. I use Thunderheads, so I'll put a broadhead on an arrow, then put in the blades and shoot.
If the arrow flies well and shoots well, I'll take out the blades, keep the head attached and put the arrow away. When I'm ready to hunt, I'll put the blades back in. I test every blade with a rubber band, dragging it down the blade, because you can have a broadhead that gets bent or dull. If it doesn't cut the rubber band, I throw it away and put in another blade. I hunt a lot; I get a lot of shots, so I keep a lot of equipment around."
Lyndon shoots mechanical broadheads and said that he doesn't need to practice with them because they shoot and fly almost identical to his field points. "I start shooting in May, three or four times a week, and I start at 20 yards.
When I get confident at 20 yards, I back up to 30, then 40," he said. "I don't practice with broadheads, because my mechanical broadheads shoot just like field points. But if I used a fixed-blade broadhead, I'd definitely practice with broadheads, because they don't shoot the same way."