The Bowhunter's Early-Season Checklist

The only way to succeed at bowhunting is to eliminate the odds for failure. It doesn't end till the arrow is on its way, as our expert explains.

Pre-season shooting practice includes testing gear for dependable, silent performance under hunting conditions.
Photo by P.J. Reilly.

In the world of bowhunting for deer, it's impossible to forget the successes. Heads and antlers on plaques adorn household walls. Photo albums are stuffed with images of beaming hunters with trophy racks in hand. We keep plenty of things to remind us of the ones that didn't get away.

There are no souvenirs or photos, however, commemorating the many days when things didn't go our way. And in the world of bowhunting, that's most days. Like it or not, our minds tend to keep images of the bad days fresh and current. Sadly, some of those memories are more vivid than the hunts that ended in success.

Though it was nearly two decades ago, I can see on my mental video screen the first buck I ever drew my bow on. I can see it as clearly as the buck I killed last fall.

I had been on stand for about three hours one warm, early October morning, when a fat 4-pointer walked down the ridge I was guarding, feeding on fallen acorns.

As he slowly worked his way toward me, the buck nudged crimson and yellow leaves with his nose, pushing them aside to get to the mast buried underneath. My heart threatened to jump out of my chest as I grabbed my bow off its hook, clipped my mechanical release to the string and prepared myself to draw. When the buck crossed what I figured was the 20-yard mark, I raised my bow and pulled back the string.


The noise that came out of the lower cam was impossibly loud. It was as if my bow had been hooked to an amplifier. Naturally, the buck heard that squeak, looked up at me, bobbed his head once and then turned tail and ran down the mountain.

Game over.

That failed encounter stung for a long time, but it taught me a valuable lesson about bow maintenance. Guess who's now hypersensitive about making sure his cams are clean and noise-free come hunting season?

There are many factors stacked against bowhunters in their quests to bag deer with stick and string. Wind. A deer's keen nose. A deer's keen eyes. A deer's keen ears. Other hunters. Murphy's Law.

The stars must be perfectly aligned for a bowhunter to get within his or her effective shooting range of a deer. Knowing there are things affecting us that we can do nothing about, doesn't it seem only natural that we should make every effort to prepare for everything we can control?

All bowhunters know the importance of scouting, stand placement, etc., when it comes to tagging a buck in early archery season. We're not going to talk about those things here.

We're going to talk about "gearing up" for bowhunts at the start of the season.

In the earliest days of the fall archery season, scent control should be a bowhunter's biggest concern. Simply put, when it's hot, you sweat. When you sweat, you stink. The clothing you wear can help minimize both the sweating and the stinking.

To start, let's talk about the early-season bowhunter's No. 1 clothing rule: No cotton! Stay away from 100-percent cotton clothing. Sure, it's a cool fabric, but it traps moisture like a sponge. And when that moisture is caused by sweat, deer will smell you from a mile away.

There are plenty of other cool-weather fabrics on the market besides cotton. For optimum performance, choose camouflage "technical clothing." These clothes are designed to wick moisture off your body and send it into the air as a vapor. These clothes will actually keep you dry and they'll stay dry as well. If you don't want to spring for an entire wicking suit, at least get a wicking T-shirt to wear under your camouflage shirt.

Whatever you choose to wear, wash your clothes in an unscented detergent well before the season starts. Several detergents are made specifically for hunters looking to clean their clothes without saturating them with perfumes.

Hang your cleaned clothes outside to dry and then seal them in a plastic container or bag until you go hunting.

I like to seal my clothes with a couple of earth scent wafers, which make my clothes smell like humus -- a common odor in the woods where I hunt. You can use anything that emits an odor that the deer in your hunting area are used to. What you're doing is adding a masking scent that should cover up some of your bodily odors.

For hunters with money to burn, carbon-lined clothing is a good choice for hunting the early season. These clothes are pricey, but they're designed to trap odors in the carbon lining, preventing them from ever getting out to a deer's nose.

Many bowhunters swear by their carbon-lined clothing in the early season. Me? I've found them to be very hot because they're rather heavy. When I wear them, sweat absolutely streams out of my pores. When the mercury is hovering in the 90s, I opt for light clothes saturated with a cover scent and I hunt downwind from where I expect to encounter deer.

I hope you've already selected the bow and arrows you plan to hunt with this season. And I hope you've been practicing with them regularly. Solidifying your shooting form and honing your accuracy are two things that are in a bowhunter's control. There's no excuse for not practicing.

Don't stop practicing once the season starts. You want to keep your form sharp and regular practice sessions will let you know if your bow developed a squeak after last week's rainy-day hunt. Practice not only keeps you in shape, it keeps your bow in shape, too. If you notice a problem, get it checked out at your local pro shop right away.

Something to consider for early-season bowhunting that maybe didn't cross your mind on the practice range over the summer is making sure your bow sight is low-light ready. Though the days are longer in the early season than they are come November, daylight can sometimes be in short supply. That's because the forest canopy is green and thick. Shadows abound, especially at the very beginning and end of a hunting day, when deer are most active.

The most popular sights on the market today employ fiber optics as aiming points. If you still have one of the old sigh

ts with metal pins, by all means, switch to fiber optics. You can see fiber-optic pins much better in any kind of light, but especially in low light.

Just because you have a fiber-optic sight, however, doesn't guarantee you'll be able to see your pins well enough to aim in poor light. I've seen sights that absolutely glow like they're on fire in sunlight, but they are dull and colorless once the natural light fades. There may be cracks in the fibers, in which case you need to change them. Or maybe you need to add battery-powered pins (where legal).

If you decide to go with a light, stay away from white lights that illuminate the whole sight window. Odds are, you won't be able to see through that light when it's near dark. You'll see your pins just fine, but you'll have trouble seeing the deer!

Use a blue light that shines down on your fiber optics away from the sight window. These push light through each individual fiber, which makes the ends glow. When you aim, only the tip of each pin is illuminated and your eyes can still pick out your aiming point on a dark-colored deer.

Two other pieces of equipment that will help you with your aiming are pruning shears and a limb saw. After all, you can't aim at what you can't see. That thick canopy we talked about a minute ago can really get in your way during the early season. Make sure you have in your pack a pair of pruning shears for twigs and small limbs and a limb saw for bigger jobs. These will help you make short work of clearing any obstructions in your shooting lanes.

That failed encounter stung for a long time, but it taught me a valuable lesson about bow maintenance.

Now's a good time to make sure your bow setup is as quiet as can be. And I'm not talking about eliminating squeaks and rattles. We've gone over that already. I'm talking about eliminating the possibility of untimely noises while you're on stand.

Whether you shoot carbon or aluminum arrows, they can make an awful sound should one fall off the rest and slap against your bow's riser. Cover the riser with moleskin or leather and you'll deaden that noise. Likewise, be sure your rest is covered with moleskin, shrink tubing or some other material so your arrow isn't scraping against bare metal when you draw your bow.

Remember, silence is golden!

It's funny how much gear there is on the market to make sure bowhunters are comfortable in their stands when the weather's cold. The selection of fleece clothing, chemical hand warmers, boot blankets and the rest is boundless. But what is out there to make sure you're cool on hot days? I don't know about you, but I find a scorching-hot, humid day in the stand far more uncomfortable than a day when the north wind's blowing strong. Hot and humid can be the norm, however, during the early season.

We've already talked about clothing that will help you stay cool. One thing I'll do on days when the humidity is at or above 90 percent is put an extra shirt in my pack. Often, the one I'm wearing will be soaked by the time I get to my stand, especially if I have a long walk to get there. I'll climb into my stand and sit down for a few minutes to allow myself to cool down a bit.

In my pack, I'll have a fresh shirt stashed in a plastic bag. Also, I'll carry along a pack of scent-killing field wipes. These wipes are designed to kill human odor, just like the spray-on types. Besides attacking body odor, the scent wipes also will help you cool off because they're doused in liquid.

On hot days, I'll take off my wet shirt, wipe down with a field wipe, and then put on my fresh, dry shirt. The wet shirt is stashed and sealed in the plastic bag to make sure it doesn't send any of its odor into the air where a deer might detect it.

Even when I don't carry a spare shirt, I'll still take along some wipes to cool me down and to help kill my body odor.

Be sure to carry plenty of water. A drink will also help cool you down and keep you comfortable. And just to make sure the water's nice and cold, fill and freeze an expandable bottle before your hunt. The ice will melt as the hunt progresses, leaving you with a chilled drink to beat the heat.

If you're going to be drinking a lot or plan to spend all day on stand, you're going to need to take along a spare bottle to urinate into.

We've all been there. You have a nice buck inching his way toward your shooting lane and he's on full alert. You're standing stone still with your bow at the ready. You don't want to move an inch until it's time to draw for fear the buck will peg you and bolt. There's a mosquito buzzing in your ear and it's driving you insane. However, if you move your arm to shoo it away, your hunt will end right there.

Bugs and early-season bowhunting go hand-in-hand, unfortunately. To keep them at bay, you have several options. First, you can simply spray yourself and your clothing with insect repellent.

If you go that route, be sure to choose a product that's non-scented (although deer will probably smell that, too). Of course, if it's real humid, the repellent is likely to wash off your skin when you sweat.

Or consider a mesh bug suit. These are made to fit over your hunting clothes and to cover your head as well. Be prepared to remove the head net when it comes time to shoot because I've found it's tough to aim when you're looking through mesh netting. If you wear carbon-lined clothing, you have a built-in bug suit because that stuff is impenetrable to even the toughest stingers.

Something I've relied on since I discovered it two years ago is a hand-held device that burns a non-scented, bug-repellent mat that provides a 12-foot-wide zone of protection around the unit. As long at it's not windy, it works like a charm. Of course, when the wind is blowing, the bugs usually aren't too bad anyway.

Every primitive hunter, bowhunters included, carries a backpack or fanny pack into the field that's stuffed with all sorts of necessary goodies.

Whether it's the early season, late season or the peak of the rut, I never go bowhunting without a couple of calls in my pack. In the early season, I don't use the estrus-doe bleat call or the buck growler. Instead, I'll opt for a standard doe grunter or a young-buck grunt call.

The key to early-season calling is to not sound aggressive. Call softly and sparingly. This is the time of year when deer travel in herds and their calling is social rather than territorial.

I'll also have a rangefinder, to help me figure out how far my shots might be. I almost never range a deer I'm going to shoot. When a deer's within bow range, the only movement I want to make is t

o draw -- I don't want to fumble with a rangefinder, too. However, I range trees and other landmarks all around my stand ahead of time so I get an idea of how far those markers are should a deer walk by them.

Binoculars, of course, should be in every bowhunter's pack. It's very easy for deer to sneak up on you in the early season. The woods are quiet and loaded with foliage. Regularly scan the area around your stand with binoculars to try to pick out an approaching deer as early as possible. This way, you won't be reaching for a sandwich when you ought to be reaching for your bow.

After spending hours upon hours scouting the woods and reviewing trail cam footage to find the perfect stand location for your early-season bowhunt, don't let inferior or faulty equipment -- or a lack of planning -- ruin your chance at a trophy buck this year.

Deer are fickle creatures and anything can happen, but you have do have control over the gear you carry into the woods with you.

Make sure it's the right gear and put the odds a little more in your favor.

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