As the mercury continued to rise, the intense mid-morning heat took its toll. Outside the ground blind, temperatures surpassed 105 degrees; inside it was considerably hotter.
As I started to step out for a breather, a velvet-covered rack appeared in the draw below. Moments later the buck stood on the trail I’d set up on, and my arrow hit the mark.
While that blacktail hunt took place amid extremely hot conditions, it ended as I’d envisioned. Having bowhunted early season deer throughout the West, I’ve learned a lot over the years. Whether you’re in pursuit of Columbia blacktails, mule deer or whitetails, here are some early season bowhunting tips to help find success.
HUNT WHERE YOU SCOUTED
Come bow season, the last thing you want to do is be looking for a place to hunt. By now, serious summer scouting has likely revealed where you’ll be focusing efforts.
If you spotted bucks in velvet, or caught them on trail camera, concentrate on thoroughly hunting those areas. Where bucks were in July and August, they’ll likely return. Within a few days of shedding their velvet, bucks will begin moving during the first and last moments of light, making it critical to hunt closer to bedding areas.
Should hunting pressure, predators, fires or dried-up food sources force deer from the area you planned on hunting, then it may be necessary to seek out new locations at the last minute. Concentrate on finding habitat and terrain similar to where you spotted bucks in the summer, for all animals require food, water and cover to survive. This is where trail cameras, even during the season, can help you find a place to hunt in a pinch.
Fooling a buck’s keen sense of smell is impossible, especially if you’re drenched in sweat from having hiked in the rugged terrain throughout the West. Fooling their eyes is more realistic.
For many deer hunters out West, hunting from a tree stand or ground blind is a new concept. Both approaches mask movement and help contain or redirect scent. Hang a tree stand 20 feet off the ground and wind currents carry your scent over the forest floor. Line the bottom edges of a ground blind with detritus, and scent distribution will knock down scent, considerably.
Camouflage clothing is also a good idea. Personally, I like big patterns that break up outlines and play off shadows found in the surrounding terrain. Wearing a different pattern of pants and top can also help break up the human outline.
Don’t forget thin gloves to hide your hands and face paint or a mask. If wearing a mask, be sure to practice shooting your bow with it on, as it’s imperative to know if it will interfere with your anchor point or release. Personally, no matter how hot or cold the conditions, I like hunting with only my left glove on.
I like having skin-to-release contact with my shooting hand, for the feel and dexterity it lends. On my bow hand, however, I wear a glove to hide glare. And it’s also good, along with the bow itself, and a quiver of arrows, to collectively break up your body’s outline.
Early in my bowhunting career I only practiced shooting while in camp. Thing is, hunting daylight to dark, I was rarely in camp. Once I started practice shooting in the field, while hunting, my confidence rose and so did my accuracy.
I practiced shooting year-round, but once I headed out on a hunt my range time diminished. When on hunts, take a small target to shoot while in camp. Also, take practice shots throughout the day when the action is slow. Pick clumps of dirt, rotten stumps, mounds of grass or mole hills to shoot. Taking a half-dozen shots in the field throughout the day is great practice.
Range your target first so you know exactly what distance you’re shooting. Guessing your distance is fine, but always confirm it with a digital reading before shooting. When shots come at animals, they usually have no idea you’re there, so don’t rush it. Range it, take your time and concentrate on hitting the mark, just like you did while practicing.
COVER MORE GROUND
With so much ground to cover when deer hunting out West, what’s the most efficient way to do so? In my younger years I’d put a pack on my back and walk several miles a day. Today, I hunt smarter, with my eyes, not my feet.
Of course I still cover a lot of ground on foot. But I’m not wasting valued time tromping from point A to point B through areas I know don’t hold bucks. Instead, I return to those places where summer scouting missions revealed bucks and concentrate on trying to find them with my eyes.
My binoculars of choice are Swarovski 10x42s. They’re ideal for glassing long hours, and the built-in rangefinder is a must in the broken terrain. I never take a shot without first knowing the exact distance. I also spend a great deal of time behind my 25-60 spotting scope, usually topped with the 65mm or 85mm objective lens, perched atop a lightweight, sturdy carbon fiber tripod.
Spotting game from a distance saves time, eliminates the risk of your scent busting an animal and allows the freedom to slightly move. Once a buck is spotted, play it smart. Study where it’s at, what it’s doing and when and where it moves. It may take a day or two to get the buck in a position to close in for a shot, but when that time comes, there’s no guessing.
Staying hydrated is one of the most important factors for the bowhunter throughout the West. Shove a water bottle in your pack and you’re likely not going to access it until your body is beyond the point of needing it. Especially on hot weather hunts, the body needs fluid, which is why having a hydration pouch filled with water in your backpack is important. You’re more likely to drink from an easily accessed straw dangling inches from your mouth than you are to drop the pack and search for a water bottle.
Take a purification system and fill your pouch at every opportunity. Nothing defeats the mind, and body, faster than dehydration. If you stay mentally tuned in, your attitude will remain positive and cramping and fatigue will dramatically lessen.
What will surprise you most about having more readily available water is how much you’ll actually drink. Rather than going through one bottle a day, downing four to six liters is common. You’ll be amazed at the difference in how you feel. Gauge your water intake based on where you are and water availability, as there’s nothing worse than having no water when you’re stuck high on a mountain top.
Look to optimize your hunting efficiency. Save time by hunting smart and with confidence. Pay close attention to the habitat and deer behavior, letting them be the guide as to what your next move should be.
Focus on shifting thermals, which can botch an early-season hunt faster than anything. Take along a wind-check bottle and use it. When closing in on a buck, keep the bottle in your hand, doping the wind every few steps. Remember, hunters can sometimes fool a buck’s eyes or ears, but never its nose.
Be in shape and maintain a healthy diet and you’ll be amazed at how far you can push yourself. By being prepared and staying mentally and physically on top of the game, your chances of filling a deer tag greatly rise, no matter where in the West your hunting adventures take you.