Our state's bowhunters enjoyed a record-breaking season in 2003. Here are some tips to help you connect this year.
By Tim Lesmeister
I shot my first deer with a bow in the early 1970s while residing in Iowa. The shotgun deer hunting license required going through an application process, and I hadn't received a license in the two years I had applied, so I decided to use a bow since there was no drawing for that. You could just buy that license and hunt.
A few months prior to the season I went out and purchased a 50-pound-draw Ben Pierson laminated recurve bow and some arrows. I also picked up a few of the books I could find on white-tailed deer hunting. There weren't many.
On the weekend the season opened for archers I was in the woods at my wife's grandparent's farm in northeast Iowa. I had built a couple of platforms in some walnut trees and sat there waiting for the big buck to wander by. After three days I had seen but one deer.
Grandpa McCormick had been questioning me regularly before the season opened about my game plan, and during the first few days after the season opened he would pull up to me on the tractor as I walked down the trail to the house at sunset and ask me questions about how it was working.
The evening before day four, right after supper, Grandpa took me for a walk out to a 10-acre patch of corn between pastures. As we circled the field he showed me the paths that led to the corn. He instructed me to get there an hour before first light and set up about 10 to 15 feet from this one path where I could get a decent shot when the buck came out. It seems he had been watching the deer each morning as they used this path to exit after a night of munching corn.
Just like clockwork, as the sun began rising, the deer started moving out. First a small doe walked by, then another. Six does exited the field, and with the breeze striking me square in the face, not a one looked in my direction. The buck finally stepped out of the cornfield and took about three steps when I let loose of the arrow. He ran about 20 yards and dropped. A half-hour later Grandpa and I were loading the 6-pointer into a wagon to take him back to the barn.
When I moved to Minnesota in 1981, I started hunting in the northwoods. I retired the bow for a rifle, and archery deer hunting lost some of its appeal because now I could easily get a license to hunt with a firearm.
Photo by John R. Ford
But then it's funny how everything comes full circle. Now it's not so much the harvest as it is the challenge. Many hunters are discovering how wonderful it is to be out in the woods in full camouflage and not another hunter in sight. Now we understand the importance of scent control and how to pattern deer. And this, along with many other aspects of archery deer hunting, is why this sport has become so popular.
A good friend and an avid bowhunter, Ron Bice is the communications director for Wildlife Research Center. Having hunted whitetails with a bow for over 30 years, Bice has seen many of the new technologies that have become part of today's archery hunting program. When I asked him what he thought was the one most influential product or technique that has created a better opportunity for success when it comes to bowhunting, he wasted no time with an answer.
"The knowledge that we must be incognito when in the field chasing whitetails," he said. "There are many products and simple rules of the field that will allow us to maintain this stealth, like using a scent killer on your clothes and hunting upwind, and we have to take advantage of every one to stay one step ahead of a white-tailed deer."
Bice admits there is one aspect of being incognito that many archery hunters fail to consider. It is the noise factor, and he gives two examples - one when hunting corn and one when hunting woods - that will make some hunters say, "Now why didn't I think of that?"
"One of the things that I do that is extremely effective for bowhunting cornfields that are adjacent to a wooded area - where the deer are coming out of the woods and using the corn as a food source - is to clear the leaves out of a row and use this area as a camouflaged lookout point," said Bice. "With the landowner's permission I go into the cornfield when it's green, and go in about 15 rows and trim all the leaves off the cornstalks that are in the row. This gives me a clear lane that I can walk through. As the corn dries and gets really noisy, all of the leaves that were hanging into the row are gone and I can walk through this row without making any noise at all."
To trim the leaves, Bice uses a heavy-duty scissors.
"It takes some time to do this," he says, "but it's worth it. You also want to remove everything from the ground so all you have is bare dirt. You want nothing in your path that will produce any noise.
"Then every 30 to 40 yards along that lane," continued Bice, "I trim off the sides of stalks to make a lane from the cleaned row to the outside edge of the field, right up to the last row, which I leave intact for cover purposes. What this allows me to do is slip from my cover inside the cornfield out to the edge of the field, right up to the last row. I've created quiet paths that allow me to sit in the cornfield and watch the edge of the woods for deer that will be entering the corn.
"I haven't seen anyone else use this method, but from my experience it is the most effective way to hunt a cornfield," continued Bice. "This technique evolved from my experiences hunting deer in the corn, and I discovered that the most important factor in achieving success in this environment was to negate the noise factor. It requires some effort, but the rewards are worth it. The cornfield becomes your camouflage. The key is preparation, but that holds true for any hunt. You put the luck in your favor, and by spending some time in the field well before the opening day you can increase your odds dramatically when it comes to getting close to that deer on the edge of a cornfield."
Bice also has a program he utilizes in the woods to keep him incognito. He calls it "down-to-earth hunting."
"Once I know the area I'm going to hunt and I have the stand locations set, I go in with a pruner and I prune a trail connecting a path to the stands I've set," said Bice. "Sure, there is a lot of work doing this, but half the fun of hunting for me is getting ready and strategizing, and when that plan comes together, well, there's nothing like it.
"I prune the trail so I can actually connect my stand locations together and move freely between them without touching any foliage," Bice continued. "I also trim that trail down to the bare ground. I'm taking
out little shoots and vegetation so the trail is bare and then I rake the ground clean. Now I can get from my vehicle to my stands without making any noise at all. This not only allows me to scout before the season and get to my hunting location during the season without making any noise, but I don't leave any unwanted scents along the trail for the deer to pick up on."
I wondered aloud about the problem with leaves falling from trees and covering the path. Bice responded, "Just after the leaves fall, the entire world sounds like dried cornflakes, and even a chipmunk moving 40 yards away sounds like a big animal coming through the woods. Now think about a deer that's in this cover and how alert they are considering the pressure of the hunting season. Any noise at all will let them know you are present.
"So, once these leaves have dropped," said Bice, "I go into my area a few days before the season opens and quickly blow the leaves off of my trails. I use a leaf-blower and I walk the trail, which could be over a mile long, and as fast I can walk it and as fast as I can blow it, I get in and I get out. I find that this is less intrusive with the leaf blower than the noise you're going to make during the hunt.
"Once that trail is cleared and the season starts, I can hear every deer coming and going and they can't hear me. I can stalk-hunt to a stand, sit there for an hour or two and then if I decide to, I can move to another stand location and the entire time I'm moving I'm making no noise. The animals that are in my area stay in their comfort zone because I move quietly on my trails, keep my scent in check and they think they're safe because those whitetails figure no one as big as me will be able to get close without them detecting something through their senses."
I commented to Bice that I thought it was interesting that so much emphasis is put on scent elimination and very little is espoused about noise elimination.
"Basically what we're talking about is being incognito," he said. "You want to be able to cover as much ground as possible without being detected. The corn is one spot and the woods are another spot. In the hardwoods where you have oak leaves falling all over the forest floor it's dang near impossible to get in and out without being detected. But if you just take some preliminary precautions and set the stage properly, you would be amazed as to what you can get away with. I have walked past bedded deer utilizing these scenarios I just shared with you and they never knew I was there. I watched them and slipped by and those deer were never disturbed."
We all know that the 2003 deer harvest in Minnesota was a record-breaking year. I have heard both archery and firearm hunters questioning if it will be possible this year to come close to duplicating the success they had 12 months ago. As far as Bice is concerned, there will still be plenty of whitetails for the hunters that set up a smart game plan.
"Even in spite of the record harvest that took place last year," said Bice, "we're still living in an incredible heyday as far as white-tailed deer hunting in Minnesota. I've been in Minnesota for over 20 years, and the truth of the matter is there will be plenty of trophies in the field for those that do their homework and put together the right program."
So what is the right program?
"Follow the simple rules," said Bice. "Get as scent-free as possible. Hunt with the wind in your face. Pick a spot on a deer and know you can hit it. You must also be patient and be proficient with your equipment. Make sure you have the right broadhead and it's super sharp. All of these little things add up to success."
One thing I found interesting about Bice's program is that he likes to hunt the rut, which in Minnesota is mostly during the firearms season.
"That's true, I do bowhunt during the gun season," he said, "but that provides opportunities as well."
Unlike many bowhunters who start out the season with a big buck in mind and then settle for a doe when the season is about to end, Bice will start out the season with the idea that he's going to take a doe early.
"Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't score early on a doe," said Bice. "But the best time to take does is from the start of the season until pre-rut. Then from pre-rut through the rut is the best time to key on the bucks, when they're susceptible to calling and scents and are moving in a wider range.
"Prime time for rut is from Nov. 1 until Nov. 12," said Bice. "These are the key dates for bucks, and the gun season falls in there usually.
"Two of the biggest bucks I've ever shot were during the gun season in Minnesota," said Bice. "Both times I was using scent elimination. On one buck I was only 20 yards upwind. It was the second-biggest buck I've ever killed. He didn't have a clue I was there. This was during the rut and he may have had some clue that he had company, but I had eliminated enough of the scent molecules that might drift from my body to his nose that gave him the illusion that I was farther away and no threat. I did put an arrow through both lungs, and this deer turned out to be the largest-bodied deer I've ever got. He scored 148 inches. Where I arrowed this buck I could actually see two gun hunters near me."
But, I wondered, how does being around all those gun hunters provide opportunities?
"I have gun pressure around me and I take this into consideration and utilize it," Bice said. "Last year the deer I killed was because I was using Special Golden Estrus (a sexual attractant) and I had at least 12 gun hunters around the perimeter of the land I hunt. This pushed the deer right to me. I had a decoy about 20 yards from me, and it was saturated in Special Golden Estrus and the wind was blowing right at that buck. I lost sight of him once but he had only ducked behind some cedar trees, and the next thing I know he's dogging my decoy. This is a deer that was getting pushed by the gun hunters. But when he caught the smell of that doe, he shoved his nose right on that decoy's tail and I stuck an arrow through both lungs."
I commented that it seems to me that scents and calls wouldn't seem that effective during the peak of the firearms season because deer are getting pushed all over by hunters.
"I can assure you that whether there is a hunt on or not, the rut does take place," said Bice. "What the deer do is move to locations that have less pressure. There are certain areas within every deer's range that will give it enough security. After all, these deer have survived up to this point. They're going to find a place where they can establish a peaceful setting. This is where the rut is going to take place. This is where they're going to bring their does and do the breeding.
"It's like this," he continued. "Hunting scents aren't magic. They're like any other call or lure. Even a decoy is a lure. Every time a deer hears rattling antlers or a bleat call or sees a decoy or gets a whiff of an attraction scent, they may not always react to it. But when that deer does react, when it works, you realize i
t's the difference between you getting a shot or not."
Well, it looks like another high-potential season for bowhunters. Hopefully some of these insights by Bice will add to the success stories that are sure to be told for weeks after the season has ended.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Minnesota Sportsman