Beating Virginia's 70 Percent Bowhunting Jinx

In any given year, only 30 percent of Virginia's bowhunters kill a deer. These tips from a local expert can help you beat the odds. (August 2006)

Catawba's William Rose downed this Craig County buck with a bow during the 2005 regular gun season. Rose believes so strongly that bowhunters can be successful that he hunts exclusively with a bow all season.
Photo by Bruce Ingram.

One of the most telling statistics concerning bowhunting in Virginia is the fact that among us archers, only about 30 percent of us are successful at arrowing a whitetail in any given year. Obviously that means that 70 percent or so of us fail to do so every year.

Amazingly, at least to me, the vast majority of magazine articles on bowhunting for deer detail how to kill big bucks when most of us can't consistently kill a deer of either sex in any given year.

To learn why we Virginia bowhunters struggle so mightily to arrow a whitetail, I contacted Dave Steffen, forest game research biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). To learn how to be a more successful bowhunter, I contacted Catawba's William Rose, who annually averages killing five to nine deer with his compound.

The initial statistic that Steffen shared with me was that during the 2004-05 season (the last one for which data was available at press time), the average Virginia bowhunter spent 16 days afield to kill a deer. And for archers, the precise success rate data showed that just 30.2 percent of the state's bowhunters actually killed a deer. To contrast, the average muzzleloader-toting individual endured 10 days afield before he smoked a whitetail, while someone afield during the regular gun season killed a whitetail on average every 7 1/2 days.

The bowhunting statistic especially hit home because I go bowhunting every evening after work in October and early November, unless the weather is very bad. Sometimes, I continue bowhunting when the early muzzleloader season begins, although eventually I always give in to the temptation of hunting with a scoped in-line. This past fall, for example, I went bowhunting 27 times and killed just two whitetails -- yet I was very pleased with my season.

Steffen offers a ready -- and simple -- explanation for the low success rate of Commonwealth archers.

"Oh, yeah, bowhunting is hard," said Steffen, a dedicated bowman himself. "Those statistics merely reinforce what many veteran archers already know concerning the difficulty of what they are doing. One of the reasons for this difficulty is that most people, myself included, have to be within 25 yards of a deer to kill it.

"Look, I practice out to 35 to 40 yards, but I don't shoot at that distance. I just don't feel comfortable doing so. Plus, I have seen too many deer jump the string at that distance."

Steffen also relates that he feels that many bowhunters misestimate the yardage when the animal is more than 20 to 25 yards away. And another reason that we Virginians miss is that any little twig between our quarry and us can cause an arrow to go awry.

The biologist also encourages state archers to participate in the VDGIF's annual bowhunters' survey. I have done so for a number of years and enjoy recording information on such topics as the number of does, bucks, turkeys and other game and non-game animals observed. For more information on how to participate, contact Mike Fies at P.O. Box 996, Verona, VA 24482, (540) 248-9360.

WILLIAM ROSE AND HIS SUCCESSFUL GAME PLAN

William Rose is a surveyor by trade and the son of a VDGIF game warden, so it is understandable that he has a lifelong love of the outdoors. I asked him to explain the prime reason he is able to kill so many deer with his compound and, in fact, why he goes afield with it even during the various gun seasons.

"I really pay attention to where the easiest place is to intercept deer going from bedding to feeding, feeding to bedding, or feeding to watering areas," he said. "In most of those travel ways, there is a pinch point that the deer have to pass through, and that's where I set up. I used to set up in the feeding, bedding or watering areas, and I sometimes still do.

"But most of the time, I feel that bowhunters are better off if they put their stands in a pinched area. In fact, I did not start to kill deer consistently until I concentrated on pinch points."

Nevertheless, even though Rose is a devotee of setting up in funnels, he is flexible enough in his strategizing to take advantage of an opportunity should one arise.

For example, this past October on opening day, Rose had spent the morning in a pinch point and had observed a number of deer meander by, but they were all well out of range and quite intent on going somewhere. He also witnessed that all of the whitetails were breathing hard and panting as they walked by. Several bucks, in fact, were noticeably stressed by the overly warm weather and were clearly in distress. Could it be, the Craig County resident speculated, that the deer were more interested in finding water than consuming acorns?

Rose, who is an advocate of climbing stands because of their portability and the ease with which they allow hunters to quickly ascend a tree, decided to leave his perch and make an impromptu scouting expedition. He began walking in the direction the deer were traveling and soon came across a small pool in a creek that feeds the James River. Fresh, muddy footprints dotted the loam around the pool, and the water itself was very muddy, although upstream the liquid entering the hole was quite clear.

Looking around, Rose noted that no trees existed for him to ascend, except one lone hardwood that stretched forth over the pool and shaded it. He quickly made the decision to hitch himself and his stand up the hardwood and about 90 minutes later he killed his first deer of the season -- a mature doe that had come to drink.

William's second doe of the season is similarly illustrative of his hunting ability and attention to detail.

"I am a big believer in knowing exactly what the deer are feeding on," he explained. "There's no question that a Virginia deer will favor white oak acorns over red oak ones. In my pre-season scouting, I look for stands where the white oaks are dropping nuts. Of course, I want to find places where the red oaks are producing. But early in the season, you have got to figure that the deer are going to be traveling to those white oak stands first."

Rose had located what he felt was an ideal situation. He had found a bedding area that lies about 100 yards from what h

e calls a "corner field edge." The surveyor feels that deer are more likely in the evening to enter a field at any of its corner edges. For instance, if a field is roughly square or rectangular, it has four edges and four corners. Those corners are far more likely to have deer activity than the midpoints of the field edges. And one of those four edges will be the sweet spot that offers the best chance for Rose to arrow a whitetail.

To determine the sweet spot at the four corners, especially during the early season, Rose first walks back into the woods. He wants to find out whether the locale contains any bearing white oaks. If the white oaks are not having a big crop, he seeks out such red oak family members as Northern red, scarlet and black oaks -- all common trees in the Old Dominion.

If he finds any of these tree species bearing, Rose then looks for bedding areas within a reasonable distance of the trees. In much of the state, the typical bedding area consists of mountain laurel copses either growing on a mountain or hillside (depending on whether the hunter is in the Mountain or Piedmont regions, respectively) or in a creek bottom (especially in the Tidewater region).

The field corner that Rose selected had both bearing white oaks and a nearby mountain laurel thicket, so in mid-afternoon, he walked to the pinch point. Adding to his confidence was the fact that the field itself consisted of a lush crop of orchard grass. Before the sportsman entered the woods, he stopped to take a reading of which way the wind was blowing.

"I always take a compass with me when I am bowhunting, and I also always take a bearing to make sure that the wind is not blowing directly from my potential stand site to where the deer are bedding," he said. "Of course, a real problem in Virginia's mountains is that the wind changes direction so much. What might be a good stand site at 7:30 a.m. because of wind direction might not be a good site 15 minutes later because of a shift in the wind."

But on this occasion, Rose was extremely glad that he had made note of the wind direction because as he was about to hitch up a tree around 3:30 p.m., he saw several deer bedded down about 100 yards away. Fortunately -- and quite logically -- they were resting with their faces -- and obviously their noses -- pointed into the wind, in the opposite direction from which he had come.

Rose very quietly and quickly eased up the hardwood and was relieved that he was able to maneuver into position without the whitetails hearing him. His confidence soared as over the next 90 minutes he listened to the steady beat of white oak acorns falling into the Craig County duff.

At 5:15 p.m., he heard movement to his right and soon several does came into view. They were meandering along, intent in their consumption of the recently shed nuts. By 5:45, Rose had killed his second doe of the season. He emphasized that the deer he arrowed was not one of the deer that he had witnessed bedded down behind him.

"I never would have killed that doe if I had spooked the deer bedded down behind my stand," he said. "If I had not taken a compass reading on the wind direction or if I had been noisy coming to my stand, those bedded deer would have spooked, stomped and snorted about and alarmed every deer in the area -- including the one I eventually shot. And that stand site would have been worthless that evening and probably for several evenings afterward."

SCENT CONTROL IS A MUST

Like the vast majority of Virginia deer-hunting experts I have interviewed over the years, William Rose is a fanatic about controlling his scent.

"I am a big believer in Scent-Lok suits," he said. "I feel that they have 'escalated my luck.' Before every hunt, I try to make sure that I activate the scent-control properties by placing the suit in a drier like the instructions say. When I have to clean the suit after killing a deer, I wash it in one of those carbon washes."

But Rose isn't finished with his scent-control regimen. After the suit comes from the drier, he places it inside a Scent-Lok storage bag and, in turn, places that bag inside a Tupperware container, which he then seals. On the morning of a hunt, he removes the storage bag and puts it inside a daypack, which itself has been washed in a scent eliminator product and stored in a Tupperware compartment.

The sportsman walks to his stand site, dressed in jeans and a shirt, and pauses about 150 yards or so away. There, he removes his hunting garb from the backpack and next stores his non-hunting clothes inside the pack. Only then does he continue the rest of the way to his stand.

Rose's scent-control program also includes rising early to shower and shampoo with a scent-free soap and hair cleaner. And he next sprays the standard problem areas, such as the groin, armpits and head, with a scent-killing product. His final touches are also indicative of his dedication to detail. Before he climbs into a tree, Rose attaches a Hunters Specialties oak wafer to his hat and dons a Scent-Lok face mask. Some of the other products he won't use, and some that he will use, are illustrative, as well.

"I absolutely won't use fox or skunk urines," he proclaimed. "Foxes are predators, so why would a hunter want to broadcast that a predator has been moving around in an area -- that can't be good. And skunks only let off their stink when they have been alarmed -- so that smell can't be a reassuring one to deer.

"I am not a trophy hunter, although like every other bowhunter, I have thoughts of killing a big deer. So I'm not much for relying on those doe-in-heat scents. What I do use is an all-season deer urine that I apply to scent pads for my boots. I think that type of urine is a reassuring one to both bucks and does throughout any of the seasons."

Rose emphasizes that he is primarily a "meat hunter" and makes no apologies about being one. He has a wife and two young children and takes great pride in feeding his family with meat that is high in protein and low in fat and calories. Venison, he feels, is the original health food. Plus, as the son of a Virginia game warden, Rose takes especial pride in the fact that he is helping the state manage its deer herd. And in many areas of the state, the best way to manage the herd is for all of us to kill more antlerless deer.

Rose also kills many of his whitetails in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. In fact, on two of the hunts that I went afield with him last October, he took me to some of his favorite public-land haunts. On the second excursion, I glimpsed a half dozen deer -- although none of them came within shooting range.

And while on the topic of range, Rose is a dedicated practice shooter throughout the year. When I last talked to him, he was practicing in preparation for an off-season archery tournament. Many bowhunters only practice in September before the season begins. He, however, tries to shoot at least every other day and many weeks he will target shoot five or six days.

Finally, a breakdown of when Rose killed his nine deer last year is illustrative. He arrowed five deer in

October during the early archery season, three more in November during the early muzzleloader and regular gun seasons, and a last deer during the late archery and late muzzleloader season. Among the nine deer was a very good 7-pointer that he killed during the regular gun season. While many rifle and shotgun users proclaim that all the bucks disappear when the guns start to go off, Rose logically moved to a funnel leading from a thicket and arrowed his buck.

William Rose next wants to become a consistently successful bowhunter for spring gobblers. I wouldn't bet against him accomplishing that goal.

Find more about Virginia fishing and hunting at: VirginiaGameandFish.com

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