Photo by Carl Warmouth.
From my perch 18 feet up in a sweetgum tree, I couldn’t even see my hunting vehicle, which was barely 40 yards away. I’d stashed the camouflaged bicycle in a brushpile, and it was hidden so well that I was beginning to worry that I might never find it again.
My eyes traced the route that I’d taken through the woods along the hillside bench, past the big red oak, and around the felled pine. I knew it had to be down there somewhere.
Suddenly, movement to my left broke my concentration. A patch of brown was moving through the trees, leisurely working its way towards me. Within a few minutes, a mature doe had closed the gap between us to within 30 yards of my stand.
Then it stopped abruptly to peer intently at something through the woods, head bobbing up and down as it strained to make sense of the object of curiosity — and I saw that my bike was actually much closer than I had realized, less than 10 yards from the matriarch. The animal finally seemed satisfied that the inanimate object was no threat and resumed feeding on white oak acorns.
I waited patiently as the doe worked its way closer, and when it got to within 20 yards, I placed my top pin just behind its shoulderblade and released my arrow. The broadhead found its mark, and a few minutes later, I was giving thanks for my first kill of the season.
Before I started bowhunting, I had no idea of the joy that hunting unpressured deer brings. Only one other archer was in my hunting club, and those first few weeks before gun season started were truly wonderful.
An unpressured deer is a different animal: It moves around throughout the day, relaxed and casual in its movements. It strolls into open areas during daylight without even considering that it might need to look up into trees to check for humans.
But when trucks, four-wheelers and marching hunters break the eight-month silence and begin spreading foreign smells through the woods, it takes almost no time at all before the deer completely change their ways, transforming, seemingly overnight, into nervous, mostly nocturnal animals that proceed with caution, scenting the wind before emerging from thick cover. They pattern human movement — not difficult to do when humans are associated with running motors and exhaust fumes.
Hunters who want to avoid being patterned often park their vehicles a distance from their stands and take a long walk in, but unless you’re Ishi — and who among us wants to walk through the winter woods barefoot? — that’s a slow, noisy process. There’s no mistaking the sound of a human’s footsteps crunching through the leaves and snapping twigs along the way.
Getting to remote stands usually requires entering into the woods well before daylight; getting out requires long walks in the dark. Neither scenario makes for a silent passage. Striking a compromise between a quiet approach and a quick advance can be difficult — which is exactly what a mountain bike can offer.
Covering several hundred yards quickly is a simple affair for a hunter on a bike. Moreover, a bike seems to make less noise — or at least a less recognizable noise — than does someone walking; it certainly makes less noise that an ATV. Of course, if you’re riding in before dawn, you’ll want to have scouted the route before hand.
Bikes can be surprisingly stealthy contraptions. One day a couple of years ago, I was riding back to my truck after a morning hunt. As I got within sight of the vehicle, I saw that my hunting buddy had made it back before me. Although I wasn’t trying to be especially quiet, I was able to ride right up behind him without him even knowing I was there. He nearly jumped out of his skin when I skidded to a stop!
On private land, a bike offers the benefit of getting in and out without spooking the deer onto adjacent properties — let the ATV riders push them to you! — while on public land it gives you an advantage over other hunters, getting you well off the main thoroughfares, past gates, and away from the hunters dependent on roads and big trails, and even those willing to do some walking in the woods.
If the mountain bike excels as a hunting machine, it shines even more in post-season scouting. If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t mind venturing into bedding areas once deer season ends, but you still want to get in and back out as quickly as possible. With the bike, you can do just that.
One tactic involves using the bike to ride primary doe trails, taking note of cross-trails — which are easy to see after the season is over — along the way. I don’t mind if I bump a buck at this time of year, either, since my bike and I will be long forgotten by the following fall.
Of course, a bike simplifies pre-season scouting as well. One of my favorite deer-related activities is a last-minute “speed-scouting” venture undertaken about a week before the season starts. I quickly beat a path across the property, checking cameras, surveying acorn crops, and looking for bucks’ hoof prints at creek crossings. My feeling is that the less time I spend in the woods scouting, the less likely I’ll be to spook deer. Scouting by bike allows me to accomplish in a few hours what might take days to do on foot.
SCENTED OR SCENT-FREE?
Another of the bike’s virtues: It’s basically devoid of petroleum aromas and other smells associated with internal-combustion vehicles: no gas, oil, coolant or transmission fluid to leave scent trails through the woods. Think of the bike’s tires as rolling rubber hunting boots: If your bike does double duty, its tires can obviously pick up scents from roads and parking lots, but if it’s a dedicated hunting tool, you’re virtually assured scent-free passages.
Of course, a thorough dousing with scent-eliminating spray never hurts, especially on the handlebars, tires and seat, where the maximum amount of human scent is likely to be deposited.
At the other end of the spectrum, a bike can be used purposely to lay down a scent trail. Try pouring your favorite estrous-doe urine into a small pump-spray bottle and spraying it onto a small spot on a tire. Every time that tire goes around it leaves an olfactory footprint just like a hot doe’s.
varies as to the effectiveness of scents for attracting deer, but I’ve witnessed at first hand non-human predators being attracted by a trail of deer odor.
During an afternoon hunt, I’d followed my customary practice and stashed my bike in some brush. With just a few minutes of daylight left, I saw a coyote approaching over my right shoulder, just trotting along at first. Suddenly it crossed the path that my bike’s doe-urine-anointed tires had rolled down as I rode in. Immediately picking up the olfactory cue, it crouched low to ground and began belly-crawling towards my bike, stopping to sniff each spot of deer scent left by the rubber. It stalked right up to the brushpile, and I believe that it fully expected to see a young doe bedded there.
After crouching and sniffing for several minutes, the songdog finally stood up and walked into the brush. It carefully inspected the bike, looked around the area, and then jogged off.
TRICKING IT OUT
The first step in building the ultimate hunting machine is picking out the bike. Personally, I didn’t want to invest a lot of money. A more passionate cyclist might criticize me on that point, arguing that you get what you pay for, and in retrospect, I might be inclined to agree with that view, as the model that I chose has required several repairs and upgrades over the past few years.
But my rationale for going cheap was that I knew from the onset of this project that my bike would be used for one purpose only: hunting. General abuse — crossing creeks and being tossed over barbed-wire fences, hidden in brushpiles and left outside for months at a time — was going to be the rule for this bike; it wouldn’t hang by hooks in the garage for very long.
The first order of business: Lose all the shine. After removing all the decals, I lightly sanded the finish and wiped the bike down thoroughly with acetone; then, every surface from which light could reflect was covered with olive-drab spray paint. My ride looked cooler already.
I continued the camouflaging process with adhesive vinyl in a popular camo pattern that a local sign company was able to order for me. The same material sometimes used to cover golf carts and panels on vehicles so I knew it would be sturdy. Applying it was more time-consuming than I’d anticipated, but in a few hours, the entire frame and several other parts were completely covered. (One tip: Putting the tape on in small pieces works much better than does trying to cover the whole thing at once. The small pieces blend together so well that everyone who’s seen the bike assumes that it was film-dipped.) The vinyl applied, I finished by breaking the remaining olive drab areas up with flat gray, tan, brown and black spray paint.
After three years of rough use, the vinyl covering has held up surprisingly well, marred only by a few predictable chips and scuffs, and the olive drab base coat continues to prevent any glare or reflections.
The next step: Accessorize the bike for hunting. My primary goal was to customize a bike that I could use to carry my bow and, perhaps, a small pack into the woods. (The design I eventually came up with works for rifle hunters, too.)
My first idea was to devise a means of carrying the bow across the handlebars somehow, but they were too narrow, and the handbrakes were in the way, so that proved impractical. The handlebars would have to serve another purpose. A visit to a local bike shop produced a large handlebar-mounted basket; perfect for carrying my backpack or other bulky items, it removes easily when not needed. A fanny pack fastened to the handlebars is another good option for carrying smaller items.
At the same bike shop I also found a cargo rack that mounted over the rear tire. Next came a homemade bow rack consisting of a piece of aluminum tubing, purchased at a hardware store and a set of bow/gun holders designed to mount on an ATV rack or handlebars. To make the bow rack I attached the piece of aluminum tubing crossways at the farthest rearward portion of the cargo rack, using nuts and bolts, and then mounted the ATV bow/gun holder to that. It worked like a charm, and I was soon making it silently to my stand in a third of the time that it’d have taken me to walk.
It wasn’t long before I was using my bike for other hunting chores, like hanging tree stands. Of course, you’re not going to carry a ladder stand through the woods on a bike, but lock-on type stands and even some climbers are easy to strap to the rack. By using the front basket to carry a bag of screw-in tree steps, a safety harness and a haul line, and tasking the rear rack to carry the stand, hauling my entire set-up to even remote parts of my hunting property was a simple affair.
But it didn’t happen without some trial and error. My first design flaw became apparent when I tried to carry a lock-on tree stand and a bow on the rear rack at the same time: not enough room. Raising the height of the bow holder with longer bolts and metal spacers solved that problem. By getting the bow above the cargo, I was able to make use of the entire length of the rack.
PACKING IT OUT
Admittedly, ATVs outperform bikes when it comes to one critical task: getting a deer out of the woods. Sorry, folks, but I’ve tried it all — plastic sleds, bike trailers, you name it — and there’s just no good way to lug dead weight with a bike.
Every stick, vine, rock, branch and felled log finds a way to impede your progress — and that’s just going downhill. Skinned ankles, banged-up shins and the never-pleasant lunging off the seat and onto the bar of the bike are good-enough reasons not even to try it.
When it comes to dragging that trophy buck back to the truck, you’re far better off either using a motorized vehicle or doing it the old-fashioned way with muscle power; go back for the bike later. If that’s discouraging, take heart in the fact that you might not have even seen that deer were it not for the bike.
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If you’re looking for a low-impact way to hunt, using a mountain bike will serve that purpose very well. It’s quiet, quick, versatile and just plain fun. If you’ve never tried it before, you owe it to yourself to pull that bike off those hooks in the garage, trick it out and hit the woods with it.