If luck truly is nothing more than preparation meeting opportunity, then here's how to prepare for that opportunity at bowhunting success this fall.
Luck doesn't just happen -- not always, anyway. That's why so many people have heard the statement defining luck as "when preparation meets opportunity."
Casey Shoopman (left) and Chuck Sykes got these two bucks on the same day and just 45 minutes apart on property they had never hunted. Now that's bowhunting success!
Photo courtesy of Chuck Sykes.
This story takes that concept a step further, to a place where preparation actually enables opportunity -- bowhunting opportunity -- in the places you enjoy hunting. Heck, this story can even help you make bowhunting luck in areas that are completely new to you.
Chuck Sykes showed me how that's done. Sykes, who's spent decades in deer woods across the whitetail's range, participated a few years ago in a short deer hunt I was part of. He and his hunting partner, Casey Shoopman, arrived on the property just a couple of hours before an afternoon/evening hunt.
More than a dozen other bowhunters were on that trip, so the landowner had subdivided his property and randomly assigned hunting areas. Sykes and Shoopman, the videographer for Sykes' "The Management Advantage" TV series, picked up a map that showed about 100 acres they'd have access to over the next three days.
"Human nature affects all of us, even when we're planning our hunts," Sykes said. "When Casey and I looked at the map, we immediately noticed two good-sized food plots. We knew it was a pretty safe bet that most of the hunters who'd been on this property before we arrived had placed stands overlooking -- or very near -- one of those two food plots.
"We were using primitive weapons, and I felt that the deer had patterned all the hunters who'd been on stand near those food plots," he explained. "We were confident that the deer would be coming into those food plots late, and that would definitely limit our shooting opportunities."
Sykes and Shoopman noticed some good stands of cover between the two feeding areas -- and eliminated the rest of the land they had access to.
"We believed that the deer would stage in that area -- where we suspected there hadn't been any hunting pressure at all -- and move into one of the plots close to dark," Sykes explained. "So we walked into that area to 'ground truth' it -- that is, to confirm what we believed to be the movement pattern in that part of the property by just looking at the map."
Starting near one of the major feeding areas, the pair backtracked into the timber until they found a small area where a number of game trails intersected.
"When we found where all the trails were meeting up," Sykes said, "we'd found our hunting area."
Having volunteered to help carry portable stands and climbing sticks, I was amazed at how quickly these two "knew" where they would hunt. Focusing on the stand location, they made that decision just as quickly.
"I'd listened to the weather radio and knew what the prevailing winds would be like while we were there," Sykes said. "Once we had the area located, we just looked for the stand location that would enable us to use the wind to our advantage morning and evening, while also providing us good shooting lanes."
Sykes said the key with the wind was a stand location they could approach from downwind of the feeding areas before daylight. "We expected the deer to be coming back in from feeding early in the morning," he said. "For the afternoon hunts, we'd walk in straight through those feeding areas because the deer weren't going to be out in the open in broad daylight."
Less than an hour after parking, we were back at Sykes' truck and heading back to camp. Less than 24 hours after seeing this area for the first time, Sykes and Shoopman connected with a healthy, mature doe and a big coyote. The next morning, with Sykes manning the bow and Shoopman manning the video camera, the pair had an encounter with one of the largest 8-point bucks around.
"Some of the people who know that area were surprised to see that buck on tape because they'd never seen him before," Sykes said of the mature animal. "That reinforces my belief that deer do a much better job of patterning hunters than the hunters do of patterning deer.
"The only shot we got was with the camera because he moved along a trail that was partially blocked by some thick cover. If I'd had a muzzleloader on that hunt instead of a bow, those people back at the cleaning shack would've seen a lot more of him than just some video!"
If you read back through this report so far, you'll find an approach that's not unlike the one taken by pro bass fishermen when they prepare to fish tournaments on waters that are new to them. They eliminate many more spots than they fish, and they do it in a hurry. They then use what they know about bass to fine-tune their approach and make the most of prevailing conditions.
If others have hunted the property in the past, it would be worthwhile to walk it and look for sign. Human sign, not deer sign.
Sykes and Shoopman did just that, and they did it quickly.
"Deer are a lot smarter than we give them credit for," Sykes said. "And we humans tend to follow our natures and take the path of least resistance, even when it comes to hunting. I'm not suggesting that hunters are lazy, but I am saying that we tend to take the easy way whenever we can."
Sykes and Shoopman chose not to do that on the hunt I've described, but they sure did make the exercise in finding the best place to hunt look easy. Heck, they'd never seen this property before, and they were hanging stands 30 minutes after walking into their hunting area for the first time ever.
"I like to think that we used what we know about deer behavior and what we know about hunter behavior to create opportunities for shots," Sykes said. "It wasn't rocket science, but there are a lot of hunters who don't do it."
You can. There's nothing magical or mystical about it. Just think a little.
Sykes and Shoopman's success on that hunt involved a recipe with three ingredients -- deer behavior, hunter behavior and weather behavior. Anyone can cook up similar succe
ss, regardless of whether they're hunting familiar places or brand-new spots.
Since this story is about bowhunting, one of the critical results will be locating those spots where you'll have the best chances for relatively short-range shots at deer. Because of that, you'll have to "simmer" those three ingredients a little longer than a modern firearms hunter would. He doesn't have to get nearly as close as someone with a bow and arrow.
Following Sykes and Shoopman's trail should enable you to get up to speed quickly with any new hunting area you have access to this season. Get a topographical map of the area you'll be hunting, and supplement that with aerial photos if possible.
Also, it's important to know whether this acreage is new to hunting, or just new to you. If others have hunted the property in the past, it would be worthwhile to walk it and look for sign. Human sign, not deer sign. Look for old stand sites, ATV or walking trails. Try to pattern past hunting activities as best you can.
Deer sign becomes more important once you've done that.
On the map and in any aerial photos you have, locate feeding areas and bedding areas, then look at travel routes between them. Pay attention to natural features that will "funnel" wildlife through a certain area. If the acreage has been hunted before and you know where the stands are or have been, note those locations.
As you look at the "complete picture," ask yourself whether there are spots that ought to be good stand locations where hunters haven't been. If so, make a point of "ground-truthing" them first. Deer that have seen hunting pressure on this land haven't been exposed to it in these spots, so your chances for encounters ought to be higher.
When you check out those spots in person, do so with an eye toward locating active trails. Once you've located them, spend some extra time looking for secondary trails that might be 20, 30, even 50 yards off the "beaten wildlife path."
How many times have you read or heard stories about hunters who encounter big bucks on trails they "didn't know were there." They didn't know because they hadn't looked for them. You should.
Up to this point, we've evaluated deer behavior and hunter behavior on the property. Let's add weather behavior by fitting historic, prevailing patterns into the hunting frame. If you have some potential hot archery stand sites selected, go back to the map and see how prevailing wind patterns will affect your walks in to those stands. Can you get to them without spooking deer?
Or, rather, what will you have to do to get to them without spooking deer?
It could be that some sites will be best for morning hunts, others for afternoon/evening hunts. It also could be that some stands will give you access at either time of day. Maybe you can do as Sykes and Shoopman did -- that is, walk in from downwind of feeding areas before first light, then walk right through those feeding areas for the afternoon/evening hunt. Regardless of how you'll have to get there, you'll need to know that in advance.
The one part of the season we have not talked about is the rut. A couple of things about it should dictate your hunting approach and schedule.
Most important is to know that bucks' attentions are focused on does. Movement patterns shift away from food during this time of the hunting season.
"Early in the season," Sykes said, "I'll concentrate on locating feeding areas and travel routes to and from them. When rutting activity starts, I'm hunting Mama because bucks are looking for her, not food."
Rubs and scrapes play a role during pre-rut, too. "I'll hunt rub lines and scrapes during the pre-rut," Sykes said, "but I'm looking for concentrations of deer when the rut gets into full swing. Bucks are looking for does in estrus. If I can pattern the does and know where and how they like to move, I'm going to improve my chances of encountering that mature buck we all hope for."
Just like a buck's attention shifts, your hunting schedule during the rut should change as well.
"Stay on stand all day," Sykes said. "Don't fall into the 'rut' that so many hunters do. They go in at mid-morning for some food and maybe a little nap, and then head back out in the afternoon. In general, deer pattern those human movements like we pattern theirs -- or try to.
"And during the rut, deer are on the move all day. If you have located an area that shows sign of deer activity, hunt it all day during the rut. That's a key to success."
When the rut winds down, food becomes the focal point again. But now, later in the season, certain kinds of food ought to be on your radar.
"Look for areas with the best available food sources," Sykes advised. "Bucks have lost a lot of body weight during the rut. And no matter where you live, they are going to do whatever they can to build themselves back up before the worst of the winter arrives."
Now you're back to targeting travel routes with the kind of cover that provides security. You can use the maps and photos to locate them.
Consider the weather again, too. Prevailing wind patterns change as fall morphs into winter. You may have to move some stands to account for that, and you likely will have to alter your travel routes into stands to keep the wind in your favor.
"One of the worst things you can do on land you have access to every season is hunt it the same way . . . year after year," Sykes said. "If you take the time to give it a fresh look, I believe you'll see some ways you can create opportunities to encounter deer more often, and that will improve your success."
In the end, that old cliché about luck is mostly right. It does, indeed, involve preparation and opportunity. Hunters like Sykes and Shoopman, however, use preparation to generate opportunities. You can, too.
Need more proof? Here's a postscript for you. During the season following the hunt described earlier in this story, Sykes and Shoopman gained access to another hunting spot they'd never seen before. After some midmorning scouting, they picked a stand location and, when prevailing winds were with them, took two bucks from that spot.
And they got them only 45 minutes apart! Now that's a case of expert preparation meeting rapid opportunity!