Covert Deer Hunting

Early in the season, your best chances of taking a buck with bow and arrow come when the deer don't know they are being hunted. Here are some tips the author has found effective for that very purpose.

By Curt Wells

One problem with hunting whitetails during the early part of the season is the danger of blowing your cover and possibly blowing your chance at a bruiser buck.

First, you have to understand the whitetail's world during summer and early fall. The deer spend each day doing what comes natural - feeding and sleeping. Their world is tranquil and uneventful.

As the bowhunting season approaches, the unknowing bowhunter can easily invade that tranquility and interrupt it. Scouting, hanging tree stands and hunting without unduly alarming the local deer herd is a significant challenge.

The problem is magnified if you've located a specific mature buck that has been around the block. He's learned to recognize the onset of the hunting seasons. No, he doesn't know specifically what's happening when he suddenly sees, hears and smells humans where they've not been all summer, but he does know something is up because he's seen it before.

Covert bowhunting means hunting without letting the deer know they're being hunted. Not only is that imperative during the early part of the season, but also in the latter part of your season. Stumble around in your woods in early fall and it's not likely the buck you're after will still be around when the rut kicks in.

The author took this 8-pointer when he located a spot with hot buck sign during the season and quietly put up a stand. He killed the buck before it knew a hunter was in the area! Photo by Curt Wells

KNOW THE SPOT

Knowing exactly where you want to hunt, as far in advance as possible, is the best way to hunt covertly. For example, I have a favorite place along a river. I know precisely where the deer move to and from it, and the best wind direction to hunt there. It's a small wood lot, so I mustn't over-hunt it or I'll push a good buck onto the adjacent property.

It's there, where I have a favorite tree stand in a "loafing" area and fairly close to a bedding ground, where I've killed a half-dozen bucks. It's the only stand I hunt in that tiny, 11-acre patch of woods.

In that spot, I don't do any pre-season scouting. I don't have to put up a tree stand or cut shooting lanes. All I do is wait for the right day and the right wind before slipping into my stand in the morning darkness. The deer filter back into the woods after daylight, hang around my tree, and then off to bed they go. Once they're in the thick bedding area, I slip out of the woods and the deer never know they were hunted that morning.

A NEW SPOT

If you have to start from scratch, plan your strategy carefully. Don't bust into the woods in August thinking you'll get set up without alerting the deer. It takes finesse.

If the terrain allows, do your initial scouting with optics. Spend time glassing good habitat at either end of the day. You may discover a pattern on an early-season "shooter" buck from long range, which is covert hunting at its finest.

If you can't see much from the road or from vantage points, you'll have to do your scouting on foot. This is where you'll have to pretend you're hunting, whether the season is open or not. Even if you go to hang stands in July, you need to pay attention to how you enter the woods, to the wind direction, to the scent you leave behind and to how you alter the woods.

Pick a windy day - with it blowing in the right direction. Wear knee-high rubber boots and a pair of latex gloves. Avoid walking directly on a trail and don't use bare hands to touch anything, including the limbs and branches you'll be trimming for shooting lanes. I like to stash cut branches in thick cover, or use them to block a trail I don't want a deer to use. Don't cut more than necessary and don't leave your scent on them.

That brings us to another task - clearing walking lanes. Early spring is the best time to do that, but consider clearing walking lanes for both yourself and the deer. Hunting covertly is much easier if you can slip into your hunting area without crashing through brush or stumbling around in the dark. Simply cut a subtle trail to your stand and mark it with reflective tacks. Morning hunting is much easier if you have an easy-to-follow trail that allows you to travel quietly, both in and out.

Walking lanes can also be cut for the deer. I like to direct the deer toward my shooting lanes by giving them an easy path to follow. But again, substantial trail clearing must be done long before the hunting season arrives or the deer will get wise.

THE WHERE OF IT ALL

As the season approaches, your "covert" scouting techniques should be telling you where the potential hotspots are. You'll discover the travel routes from feeding to bedding areas, and perhaps you'll also locate a good buck. Except for during the rut, those first weeks of the archery season offer your best opportunity to tag a bruiser. That's because he'll be following a movement pattern with more consistency than at any other time of year. That is, until someone gives him a reason to change.

That someone could be a farmer working his fields, loggers, hikers, other hunters - or you, if you're not careful. Now, here's the exception. If you find a good buck on a distinct pattern, it may be prudent to quickly put yourself in the "hot box" of activity before something does change. That, too, is hunting covertly because you pick a spot, move in silently and kill the buck before he realizes his domain has been invaded. Strike while the tracks are hot, so to speak.

More likely you'll spot a good buck once, or maybe twice if you're lucky. His movement pattern may be vague and unreliable, but being bold and reckless will get you into trouble. In that case, take care not to blast into his bedroom.

In fact, if you know there's a good buck in a particular area and you can't get a pattern on him, you might not want to hunt him at all - for now. I never go into that favorite tree stand location that I mentioned earlier until the rut. I know the largest bucks are nocturnal and I won't risk blowing them out of my woods early in the season. When the rut arrives, I can hunt that spot with reasonable hope that a dominant buck will cruise through. The point? Know when to turn it on and when to back off.

COVERT HUNTING

Covert hunting includes four absolute rules:

Rule No. 1: Never hunt when the wind is wrong, even by only a few degrees. It's tempting to take advantage of every opportunity to get away from work and hunt, but resist that temptation to go anyway. All it takes is one good close-range sniff and a mature buck will abandon not only his pattern of movement, but also the immediate vicinity - maybe for the entire season.

Rule No 2: Only hunt your morning stands in the morning and your evening stands in the evening. Good morning stands are hard to find, but seldom are they good places to hunt the evenings. The reverse is also true. There are places that are good at both ends of the day but they're rare.

Rule No 3: Always stalk your way into and out of your stand locations. On the way in, wear your rubber boots, latex gloves and keep the wind on your face. Don't touch anything; move slowly and constantly scan for deer that may be up and moving. If you spot a deer and it doesn't see you, let it walk away before advancing. A single doe can blow your cover with one blast of her nose.

The same goes on the way out of your hunting area. Just because you're done hunting for the day, or because it's dark, that doesn't mean you can be careless and stumble out like a drunken anti-hunter. Slip in, slip out and leave no scent behind.

Rule No 4: Use every bit of scent-elimination technology at your disposal. That means showers with scent-eliminating soap, clothes washed and stashed in a bag with scent-eliminating powder, or wear a scent-eliminating outfit with either carbon-based or anti-microbial technology. Spray your boots with scent-eliminating spray and - once you're in place - spray your bow, pack, head and entire body.

That may sound like over-kill, but it's not. Anything you can do to "reduce" your scent stream is worth the effort. Deer still smell me, but there's a big difference when using these measures. A wary doe may pick up her nose and detect something, but it usually isn't enough to alarm her. That can make the difference when a shooter buck shows up.

Covert hunting is not magic. It's hard work during the pre-season; it's a cautious attitude about knowing where and when to hunt, and it's taking whatever measures necessary to make yourself invisible to the deer.

Bowhunting is always a clandestine operation; the goal is to never let the deer know you're coming!



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