How to Beat Thin-Cover Bucks

Bowhunting is clearly a short-range proposition, so what do you do when you start seeing deer at 300 and 400 yards? Here are some answers.

by Mike Bleech

You hold a bow in your hands, a weapon designed for close-in shots, yet you look out on habitat that will not allow you to get within 300 yards of a buck without being seen.

This is the predicament faced by bowhunters across much of the best deer habitat in the country. Whether you hunt agricultural fields, prairie, clear-cuts or overgrown farms, you cannot succeed without a plan that will bring the deer to you.

No matter how open the country, the deer will almost certainly be in or near some type of cover. This is where deer will bed, browse and where spend a good deal of their time. Learning where the bedding areas are is important. However, this is not where you should hunt them, at least not with a bow. Learning where the bedding areas are is important so that you can avoid them, and when you move you can avoid alerting them.

Usually, the best strategy for bowhunting deer in open country is to make stands along deer trails where there is cover and where you can get in and out without being detected.

Some deer are taken by stalking in open country, but this is extremely difficult and requires tremendous patience and luck. Your odds for success are much better if you devise a plan for the deer to come to you, which also is not an easy task.

Photo by Tom Evans

There are two basic ways for deer to come to you. Either they come by as part of their own normal movements, or you must do something to attract or divert them. In both cases, scouting brings it together.

One advantage of hunting in open country is that scouting can be done at long range. There is a delicate balance between scouting and alerting deer that they are being hunted. This becomes increasingly tenuous as the age of the deer increases. Older bucks often vacate an area when they sense the presence or activities of a hunter. By scouting at long distances, you reduce the chances of being detected.

Open-country hunters need good optics, either high-magnification binoculars or spotting scopes. The degree of magnification and quality depend on your intentions. Are you just interested in locating deer, or are you looking for a trophy? If you are looking for a trophy buck, you need enough definition to scrutinize antlers. In this case, your binoculars or spotting scope will probably be your most expensive (and valuable) piece of hunting equipment.

For the average hunter who is looking for any deer, moderately-priced 8x to 10x binoculars are sufficient.

Hunters who need to make a good estimate of how a buck will score for a record book should be looking at a spotting scope with at least 20x magnification. Remember, not every spotting scope will do. Do not buy one until you try it. Is it good enough to count points and determine their length at 300 yards? How much detail could you see of a deer's rack at a mile?

Once you begin long-distance scouting, the first thing you will notice is that most deer activity occurs very early in the morning, late in the afternoon and mostly at night. Do you need night-vision optics? Perhaps, but the whereabouts of deer at night is only useful in determining where they are during hunting hours.

If you are like most hunters, you will spend most of your time watching for deer in the open. Then you will set up your stand on the edge of the open area where the deer emerged. The typical result will be that most of the deer you see will be young does, immature bucks and fawns.

The older bucks will not emerge from cover until after hunting hours or, at best, in late afternoon. They will usually have returned to daytime cover before hunting hours begin in the morning. In this case, you will probably alert them as you approach or leave your stand, and odds are you will not see them again in that area.

Deer are not strictly nocturnal. They move many times during the day before hunting season opens. Hunting pressure forces them to restrict their movements to the hours of darkness, when humans do not disturb them.

Deer tend to move more during daylight hours under specific conditions. If you have the luxury of flexible scouting hours, scout on the day of a full moon, when deer often move during midday. Deer also tend to move more during dark, foggy, drizzly days. If the rut is underway, cold snaps also get them moving.

Keep in mind that movements observed under special circumstances will probably be repeated only when those special circumstances reoccur. Under normal conditions, you can assume the deer you saw last week are still in the area. They might move through the same places, but it will probably happen around sunrise and sunset.

Spotting deer in the open lets you know where and when the deer are there. You can take time to scrutinize the antlers of exceptional bucks. But you need more information before you can place a stand. Ideally, you should learn the route deer use to get to that open area and find out where they bed. The perfect stand will usually be close enough to the bedding area to catch them moving within hunting hours, but not so close that you can not get to the stand without being detected.

Deer use cover as much as possible while they are moving. In farm country, deer trails usually follow hedgerows or other brushy funnels. In prairies or meadows, deer often move along creeks or low spots where there is thick vegetation. These are the areas to target for a stand.

The purest, simplest hunting plan, the one with the fewest potential glitches, is one based on normal deer movements. The strategy is no more involved than placing yourself along a deer trail where you have observed deer moving at the time you plan to hunt.

If you can pick a general area for a stand from long distance, closer scouting is not necessary until you actually start hunting. In fact, scouting ahead on foot for the precise location of a stand can be counterproductive because you risk revealing yourself either by being seen or by leaving human odors. This is another strong case for having good optics.

The first order of business is getting to the stand without being detected. Start walking to your stand while the deer are still in t

heir bedding areas. This means getting to your stand at least two hours before you saw deer moving during your scouting trips.

On your way into your stand site, pay attention to the basics, the many things that can lead to failure. Check the wind. If your scent is blowing toward the deer, you need to hunt somewhere else (a good reason to have selected several alternate stand sites during your scouting forays). Silence your gear. A clanking tree stand can be heard from a long distance when the air is calm. Never cross the trail that deer will use while approaching your stand.

Check the wind again when you get to the location of your stand, and then restrict your movements to the downwind side of the trail. Climb as quietly as possible if you hunt from a tree stand, and be certain that you have sufficient shooting lanes.

Though you might pattern deer movements to some extent, deer patterns change without warning. In most cases, deer do not move along the same trails at the same time every day. You can counter this problem somewhat by attracting deer to the trail you are hunting with mock scrapes and scent posts.

Few hunters, even so-called experts, understand the timing of the rut. While the peak of the rut might occur during a period of just a few days around a full moon, the rut generally lasts from early October through January. A doe that comes into heat during October is every bit as attractive to bucks as one which comes into heat during November.

The schedule of pre-rut, rut and post-rut noted by many experts only serves to complicate the situation. If you hunt deer during August, September or early October, then you are probably hunting during what has been described as pre-rut. However, the rut is actually underway during most early bowhunting seasons.

Tempting as it is to believe that hunting deer is easier when the animals can be seen from a greater distance, the opposite is true. There is little room for error because they can see you and the wind is unpredictable.

Bringing open-country whitetails within bow range is a game of clever strategies and cautious tactics, and any successful hunt is just cause for celebration.

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