5 Things That Can Make Or Break A Bow Season

Do these five things right and you dramatically increase the odds of a successful bow season. (September 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

If shoppers put together a list when they go to the grocery store, if an engineer checks off a list of safeguards before firing up a piece of machinery, it only makes sense that hunters who are preparing for early-season archery hunts should have a list of their own.

After all, isn't getting venison for the freezer or a big set of antlers for the trophy room as important as your daily bread or the machine that sends electricity through the power line?

A bowhunter has a list that he has to check off before he heads to the woods for an early-season hunt, whether he's going to put sausage and chops in the freezer or seeking a trophy buck in the first few weeks of the season.

First, where are the deer bedding?

Second, what are they eating?

How do they get from Point A to Point B?

Are bucks still in bachelor groups, or have they split up? How many does and fawns are feeding together?

And if everything above works out, is your shooting eye sharp enough to put the arrow on target?

If you can answer all of those questions intelligently -- and shoot well enough, bow season may be a profitable one for you. However, you can always stand to hear from experts who know the ticket to bow-and-broadhead success.

Knowing how to pattern early-season deer movements comes naturally to experts like David Pye, John Davis and Terry Hiers. But it isn't that easy for everybody else. Therefore, taking a few tips from them will help tip the scales of success in your direction.

BED AND BREAKFAST -- MINUS BREAKFAST

Pye said that figuring out where deer are bedding during the daylight hours is a matter of looking for two kinds of places -- depending on the kind of habitat or geography where you're hunting.

"A bedding area is pretty much going to be either in a super-thick spot, or on top of a ridge, a high spot," he said. "And there should be a water source not too far away.

"If you're hunting in a place with mountains or ridges, a buck may bed on top where he can see everything coming. Anywhere else, it's most likely going to be in the heaviest cover around."

Davis does much of his pre-season scouting at the end of the previous season, during the winter or early spring, when trails are easier to see and find because of the lack of vegetation. Pye likes to check out potential bedding areas well before the season, and he'll go right in, looking to find the depressed ovals on the ground that indicate beds. However, a better sign is often deer droppings -- but only a certain kind.

"The best thing you can find -- other than the little ovals where the beds are -- is to find droppings all clumped together, compressed real tight," he said. "When a deer first gets up, the first spot where he eats anything, he'll drop a load, and they will usually be in solid clumps -- not spread out.

"You find those kinds of droppings, and they won't be bedding too far away, because they won't walk far from their beds to the first place they get something eat or drink. Usually, that's the first thing they do after they get up."

EARLY-SEASON GROCERIES

Hiers runs a commercial hunting operation, and getting hunters in range of nice deer is his primary concern. Like Davis, he does much of his pre-season scouting at the end of the previous season, especially locating bedding areas.

"Guys who consistently take big deer, they all have their pre-season scouting done in January; they know the bedding areas on their land," he said. "The rest is hunting for food sources."

Hiers knows that agricultural fields are prime early-season food sources for deer, whether it's soybeans, peanuts, corn or grain. He does much of his scouting with binoculars from a distance, trying to see deer that are moving in and out of fields. And he'll further scout the perimeter of those fields, looking to see where animals are entering and leaving -- giving him ambush spots.

"In August or September, deer are not moving very far, so when you see a big buck or a big track -- if you see a deer around a bean field -- he's probably not going to travel very far. Most of your scouting will be visual sightings and tracks," Hiers said.

Davis said that deer can and will change food sources almost overnight -- when food sources change, especially in terms of a crop being harvested and becoming available or unavailable.

"They'll change their habits somewhat as their food sources change," he said. "And that's where your scouting back in January and February comes in, because you've gotten the total picture then and know how deer are getting to and from different places."

Pye doesn't target agricultural offerings as much as he likes to set up around favorite foods that are temporary.

"The first acorns that drop, they'll hit them as soon as they come in, but I try to key on persimmons and muscadines and scupperdines because deer like the soft mast, and they taste so good. They're at their sweetest in September," he said. "They'll pound them really, really hard because they're not around very long. A deer may visit a persimmon tree two or three times a day to see if anything else has fallen off. Especially on a windy day, you need to set up downwind of a persimmon tree. I'll leave a stand (close to) a persimmon tree until the last persimmon falls off. And you look at the muscadine and scupperdine vines, and you never see any on the ground. You know they're not just disappearing into the ground. They're getting eaten."

Hiers doesn't like to set his hunters up too close to a food source, fearing that deer will become aware of human presence and change their habits.

"You try to stay downwind of a food source so they can come to it and not smell you," he said. "If you get too close to a food source, you just educate them. I try to keep my hunters about 150 yards away. People ask why, and I tell 'em, when you're riding in the neighborhood, you can smell somebody who's barbecuing outside. You don't even need to have wind to get that kind of scent out, and it's the same way with deer. On a still, hot day,

your scent just sort of seeps out."

INTERCEPTIONS -- WITHOUT A FOOTBALL

Figuring out where to set up your stand between a deer's bedding area and primary food source isn't as easy as it seems. There is the question of wind; you need stand locations so you can stay downwind even when the wind changes on a daily basis.

Then, there's the question of finding the route that deer will use most regularly to get from Point A to Point B.

Davis looks for natural funnels, geographic features that deer will use, based on the fact that they like to stay in cover and are basically lazy.

"One of the easiest places to identify as a funnel is an area where you have open land on two or three sides and a small strip of woods, say, coming into a corn field," Davis said. "That's an excellent travel corridor for deer. Also, creek beds and ditches are great; they're the same type of setup where deer can go from their feeding source back to their bedding areas.

"Deer are lazy; they will take the easiest route. They tend to find low spots, especially if you're hunting in hilly terrain."

Pye tries to pick out areas where he can find several trails merging after leaving bedding areas -- as long as they're not too close.

"If you find a persimmon tree or an early food plot that deer are coming to, the tracks will be obvious," he said. "You can follow the trails back in the woods until you find a little pinched area they're coming from.

"Places where you find trails with tracks that are going in both directions, those are awesome places, but they can be hard to hunt during bow season, because the deer are coming both ways, and when the wind shifts, you don't really know which way they'll be coming from or to.

"I like to hunt trails where all the tracks are going in one direction. You can set up on a place like that and increase your odds because you know they're coming from a certain direction."

SUMMER OR FALL PATTERNS

Bucks spend much of the summer in bachelor groups, and does and fawns may gather together in groups.

Those kinds of habits change every fall -- but exactly when? When will bucks become more solitary? When will doe groups start to break up?

Hiers said that early bucks generally shun companionship when they begin to shed the velvet from their antlers and start marking their home territory. That can be anywhere from late August to mid-September in most areas. When that happens, everything changes.

"Buck groups will break up in the first part of September," he said. "When they start shedding, they do it pretty quickly. It seems like the big bucks will shed first. Your scrappy year-and-a-half-old bucks will shed last."

Pye knows that things get more difficult when bucks start to shed their velvet, break up and move into new territories. He said that does and fawns may continue to move around in bigger groups, but bucks are marking their territories.

"A doe can come in (to estrus) anytime, and a buck can breed most of the time," he said. "If she's not in the equation, he gets along with everybody. I think early in the season, good bucks will hang together, and mediums, and then the 1 1/2-year-olds.

"When they start to break up, I start looking for scrapes; there are year-round, community scrapes that all of the deer in an area visit, but what you're looking for are the trees that are horned every year," Pye said. "The first thing you should check are the old rubs, because a buck will rub those trees again when he splits up from his group and starts to mark his territory.

"You need to find all of his last year's rubs, figure out which ones he's already worked on, then find the others, because he'll come back and visit them. Those are great places to set up, because he's going to be there. And the closer you get to the rut, the more he'll key on certain scrapes and rubs, maybe just move across the corner of a food plot or split a ridge in half."

Bucks, especially, become more nocturnal after they shed their velvet and go their own way. Pye said it's time, if you're targeting a big buck, to move back off the food source and closer to his home turf. He'll still feed, but he's more likely to do so after dark. Catching him sneaking back home after a long night out is a great way to put a nice set of horns over the fireplace.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

Like many serious bowhunters, Davis and Pye believe that practice is a year-round thing.

"One of the biggest issues I have is the need to scout and practice year 'round," Davis said. "I try to think about hunting when I'm fishing, when I'm at a Little League game, whatever.

"I try to shoot at least two or three times a week, and before rangefinders, I was always testing myself judging distances. I'd be walking down the street with two or three hunting buddies, and someone would say, 'Red car,' and everybody would try to guess the distance to the car.

"Now, I cheat with a rangefinder that I take to my stand. I will get at least three good ranges around the stand that I can rely on -- you know, like 23 yards to the red oak, 29 yards to the stump, that kind of thing."

Pye is even more serious about shooting all the time. He said that bowhunters need to shoot as often as they can, especially in hunting situations. He advises hunters to try bowhunting for turkeys or, where available, wild hogs -- situations that will keep you sharp out of the normal archery season for deer.

"I like to shoot as much as I can," he said. "When I'm practicing, if I've only got 10 or 15 minutes, I'll shoot five or six arrows. If I have more time, I'll shoot those same groups of five or six arrows, but I'll shoot them several times.

"I shoot my practice (points) most of the time, but I shoot my broadheads enough to make sure they shoot the same as my field points. The way the new targets are, you can shoot broadheads at them without tearing them up.

"What I'll do is, if I find an arrow that I'm really shooting well in practice, I'll set it aside, put a broadhead on it and put it aside to hunt with."

Pye said that he takes a rangefinder with him to his stand to make sure he knows exactly how long the shots he'll get are. "I'll put little strips of flagging tape at 10, 15, 25 and 30 yards after I take my rangefinder and mark off the distances," he said. "With boys they're making now like my High-Tec, you can shoot out to 50 yards, but you're running a fine line out there. I like to shoot 35 yards and in when I'm hunting, because I want to make as good a clean and ethical kill as I can."

One big mistake that many bowhunters make, Pye said, is to stop practicing once the season opens. "I keep practicing during the season," he said. "I know guys who will shoot all summer, but once hunting season starts, they stop. They just carry their bow into the woods to hunt, and they don't shoot it anymore.

"You can bump your sights putting it in the truck or in the case, and unless you shoot, you'll never know. So, I try to shoot two or three arrows once or twice a week just to make sure. If you have 15 minutes one day, you can do that and keep your bow in tune."

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