Keep these tips in mind while working on your buck bowhunting game plan.
By Jason Haley
Challenges come with the territory, but dedicated archers find ways to fill their tags — and freezers — each season.
Consider these time-tested tactics to be successful with stick and string.
HUNT SMART, HUNT HARD
Be patient. Going back to camp mid-day and taking a nap is enjoyable, and so is lunch. But consider hunting the afternoon if you really want to succeed.
Some of the best rifle hunters I know don't even get started, in earnest, until afternoon.
If you have the luxury, without competition, watch your bucks from a distance in the morning and put them to bed mid-morning. You'll have the entire day to check the wind and set up a stalk. Play for one shot.
My friend Mike Crawford (the Dark Archer) knows this principle well. He made a successful late-morning stalk on a dandy Oregon mule deer last season, but had to wait almost two more hours for the buck to lose his shade and move. The smart, old buck actually crawled to his next spot, but it was too late.
Find some ground that's out of the way and all yours. Lots of pickups and hunters doesn't necessarily equate to bucks. Outdoor pursuits have always been trendy and a bit copycat. Do your own thing. My fishing partner Logan (another archery-only specialist) takes to the wilderness of northeast Oregon and packs in from trailheads each day. He doesn't return until after dark.
Consider keeping your scouting to yourself, at least until you've tagged out. I'll take it a step further. Hide your vehicles and camp away from where you intend to hunt. Encourage your partners to do the same. The extra gallon of gas won't kill you, but it might help you kill a nice buck.
LEARN YOUR BUCK'S HABITS
It was 1977. Archery had grown past the fledgling stage and compound wheel bows and aluminum arrows were becoming the norm. California had begun letting hunters into the field earlier with archery equipment, and some hunters were all too happy to take advantage.
My dad, Wayne, and Arnold Crawford, of Burney, were two of those guys. They each took trophy velvet bucks that year, but it was hardly an accident.
Having guided the likes of Doug Kittredge back in the day, and taken dozens of nice bow bucks himself, Dad is a bit of a pioneer. He'd always say scouting days are worth way more than hunting days.
We once glassed-up an amazing bachelor group of bucks in northeast California. There were 23 or 24 individuals — all good bucks.
Bucks bach-up in summer, and if you can note where you found those bucks at that time you'll know where they'll likely be found again in the fall. When scouting, do it from a distance, if possible, so as not to disturb them. Don't tell your buddies on Facebook. Use your optics to pick apart high mountain basins with good browse, clear cuts with dark timber nearby, or long finger ridges leading down to green fields or other magnets.
For late-season, focus on well-used trails. They should be easy to see now that the ground is wet. Find the does and the bucks won't be far.
SMART TRAIL CAM USE
Trail cameras help, especially on Northwest blacktails. And you'll have fun viewing bucks and field judging from home. Don't have too much fun, though. Tromping in and out of honey holes can be counterproductive, and there is still no substitute for old-fashioned woodsmanship.
Tracks don't lie, so unless you are trophy hunting, you might consider taking it easy on the cams after a certain point in the season. Mature animals get wise. It can be a good move to limit checking cameras during prime time when you should be hunting.
General archery opportunities abound on the West Coast — starting in California's A-Zone in July and ending practically New Year's some places in Washington.
But let's face it. Some hunts are just better than others. There's a reason why certain hunts are high demand and controlled through the state drawing.
Oregon's OTC general archery seasons offer good hunting during the early and late-seasons, but average success is simply better for the controlled hunts. The late-season mule deer hunts at Hart Mountain or SE Whitehorse are prime examples.
SE Whitehorse winters mule deer from Idaho. It takes storms to move these deer down, but it can happen fast and suddenly trophy bucks flood the winter range in your lap. Hart Mountain is top notch. According to District Biologist Craig Foster, guys that don't get bucks "are holding out for something exceptional."
Success is over 50 percent, and better some years, with most bucks being 4-point or better. California's late-season hunt in the Devil's Garden (X-2 zone) is another example. You're going to see numerous quality bucks per day without having to fight the general season crowds.
If you want to take a nice buck with a bow, do your homework. We've all heard "Well, I can't afford to travel half-way across the state," or "I just don't have that much time off. Some of us have to work." Slash the beer budget, lose the weekend warrior mentality and sell out. Treat yourself to a real hunt.
INVEST IN A STAND
Stands help take bucks. Western Washington archers hunting small, mostly private properties know this all too well. Late season usually means waiting near well used deer trails where bucks will be following hot does. Logan's party has taken a half-dozen late-season Oregon bucks in recent years from the same tree and trail.
Stand placement is critical. Try to find a pinch point where bucks must walk; fence lines, timberlines, or other edges. Make sure you're shaded, morning and evening.
Don't sit directly on destinations; animals are instinctively leery at water's edge, but they often let their guards down en route. Check your local regulations, also, for distance requirements. Make sure you're high enough to avoid eye-level encounters in hilly terrain. Watch the wind. Avoid leaving a roadmap to your spot, like flagging tape, rocks or sticks, unless you want company.
There's a variety of makes and models out there. I use fixed position stands, but there are newer models that are lighter and improved.
Ladder-style, self-climbers and tripod stands are also available, each with unique time and place applications. Ladders and tripods are great for semi-permanent locations — small properties, private land, etc., and are favored by archers in the East.
These also work well in the northwest, where late-season buck tags are OTC and rutty bucks chase resident deer. Self-climbing stands allow you to pack in and out, daily, and are comfortable, but require limbless trees and can be cumbersome and noisy. Both eliminate the need for screw-in climbing stakes.
Fixed-position stands are ideal for backcountry archers, as they can be folded up and carried like a backpack or used as a pack frame. Climbing stakes must be packed in also. Gorilla makes a sturdy metal, screw-in stakes with texturing for secure footing. Ameristep makes a similar step, albeit somewhat shorter and lighter.
Both are powder coated black or green. Platform sizes vary, as do fastening technology, weight ratings, hardware and materials. Accessories are limitless.
Always use a safety harness for hanging stands, climbing and hunting. Observe all applicable rules and regulations and be courteous to others.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
None of it matters if you can't make the shot. I found this out last season on a beautiful bull elk that I called into range on consecutive days. I've bowhunted for more than 30 years, but never really been an accomplished archer like Dad or Mike. The reason is simple: I love to scout and hunt, but I've never really enjoyed practicing or getting to know my equipment. I can make the shots on targets. It's too easy with modern equipment. That's not enough!
The best hunters I know practice year-round. And not just 20-30 yards in their backyard. They practice at various distances, angles and elevations and hone their skills on spring turkeys and 3-D targets. Practice leads to confidence. And just like shooting a basketball, confidence is everything. There are times when the very best defense can do nothing with good offense. The ball is going in, no matter.
TRACK AND TRAIL
If you hunt long enough, you're going to lose animals. The key is to reduce wounding and maximize recovery rates. Part of this equation is shooting, but blood trailing is essential and, unfortunately, requires experience.
Discipline and shot selection are foremost. Once that arrow is gone, choices and options narrow. Quartering-away and broadside shots are best. Everything else is trouble, no matter what you hear. Distance makes a difference, too. Modern bows can shoot impressive groups at 70 or even 100 yards, at targets. This doesn't necessarily mean you should shoot game at that distance. Hitting is one thing; killing is another, as is recovery.
If you can get a follow-up shot, do it. A pin cushion is better than a wasted buck. Keep those quivers on. It's hard to get a second shot with a detached quiver.
Marking out is huge. This can be hard to remember in the moment. Watch him until he's out of sight. Note distance and direction from the nearest feature and keep your eye on that spot. Everything looks different two steps left or right, so don't move. If you're able, have a friend stand in the spot before moving.
If you're alone, take your time and think, then march straight to the spot, never taking your eyes off. Mark it with ribbon. A single piece is fine. One friend had the entire hillside covered in pink ribbon when I got there, and I was quickly as confused as he was.
Get help first, if there's time. You need help packing and should wait awhile, anyway, before blood trailing, particularly in the morning when you've got all day. Avoid pushing. If you're losing light or it's about to rain, that's different. Mark first blood fast and start-in. However, tandem tracking is best, where one hunter stays with the last blood.
Don't stomp out the trail. You may have to re-examine. Move slowly to avoid missing sudden changes in direction or forks in the trail. Assume nothing.
Wounded animals are unpredictable and often take unlikely paths. Jumping ahead can spell trouble, so go step-for-step, drop-for-drop, even if you're confident in the shot. A good start doesn't always equate to a good finish. If you lose blood, foot-track if possible and note the details of his track.
Animals tend to merge with others at some point during the trail, and staying on yours can get difficult. Be ready to go hands and knees.
While it's a challenge to take a quality buck with a bow, honing your skills and hunting harder than the next guy can certainly increase your chances of success. And the West offers a lot of great opportunities if you're willing to stay in the stand a little longer or walk a couple more miles.