While many hunters move to firearms as seasons progress, some stay with the challenge of bowhunting deer all season, or go back to stick and string for more opportunity.
By Jeff Knapp
The broad-beamed buck stopped about 30 yards short of my stand. He was to my left, just within the edge of my peripheral vision.
The buck and I had played cat and mouse the past week or so, with him using a network of trails that led from a thick, ridgetop bedding area to a stand of acorn-laden oaks.
Each time I'd seen him he was just beyond my self-imposed range limit of 30 yards. The next time out I'd hang my stand a bit closer to his trail, only to have him use another one, again just out of range.
This day, however, he was on a trail that would pass within 15 yards of my stand. But his sudden halt indicated something amiss.
The wind was in my favor, but I'd forgotten to consider the dramatic leaf drop that had occurred during the last week or so. Earlier in the season I had some cover to conceal my outline, but on this day I stood out as an unfamiliar form.
After a couple of minutes of careful examination, he snorted, did a 180, and hightailed it back the way he came. It was the last time I saw him that season.
Bowhunting provides many lessons, learned from both successes and failures, with the latter often providing messages that stick. As the season progresses, remember that the cover in the woods thins, an important consideration, and one I'd forgotten in my urge to adjust stand location to intercept this quality buck.
Finding food sources is a fundamental step in locating early season whitetails. Hard mast is an important element in a deer's buffet, but hard mast production can differ greatly from season to season. It's easy to assume a familiar stand of oaks will be a whitetail magnet, but if the acorns didn't hit in that year, it's unlikely deer will be using it.
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Before the season, it pays to take a hike to check out potential food sources at mid-day to reduce chances of spooking deer. Look for evidence of mast both on the ground and hanging from the trees. And be alert for heavily used trails that indicate deer have been using the area as a feeding zone. Wear rubber boots to minimize human scent.
Some of the best hunting actually happens when hard mast is spotty, as deer must focus on limited food sources, so finding those sources can pay big dividends.
The early season can be hot and bothersome with insects, but deer are typically undisturbed, as bow season is the first to open and woods are relatively quiet.
Many hunters tend to concentrate on later in the year, when the rut drives deer activity. However, doing so means missing out on a time when activity can be patterned, as deer move on regular routes between bedding and feeding areas.
The middle part of the season can be one of the more challenging periods, commonly associated with a lull in activity.
However, Eric Rice sees the mid-season lull as a period to adjust for the final phase of the season.
"I notice deer activity slowing down around the second week of October," noted Rice. "Typically, in the region I hunt, it's pretty quiet the second and third week of October. Then things usually pick back up by the final week of October."
Rice attributes this as response to added human activity in the woods brought on by hunting pressure as other seasons come into play.
"Deer quickly realize they are not the only ones out there," Rice said. "This also seems to be a transition time for bucks. You might still see does and fawns, but bucks, for a while, tend to hunker down, likely preparing for the rut."
In his experience, Rice begins to see bucks again the last week of October. During the middle of the month, much of his strategy is about the adjustments necessary for the final phase of the fall season.
"It's a great time to move stands from early season spots, which were set with feeding locations in mind, to ones that key in on terrain features — funnels — more likely to channel traveling bucks," Rice explained. "During mid-fall, I have more faith in morning hunts. So, I'll sit in a stand for a few hours in the morning, and then move stands during the afternoon, for the rut."
During morning mid-season hunts, Rice often employs grunting to draw in bucks, saying he's never experienced a time when he felt doing so hurt his chances. He also tries rattling around the end of the lull, about the time bucks start searching for does.
Naturally, the timing of all this is heavily influenced by weather conditions in the fall. Prolonged periods of warm weather can retard deer activity. Conversely, cold weather, when it arrives, kick-starts activity.
Rice really recommends patience during the mid-season lull, especially in regard to long-term strategy.
"One of the things I can struggle with during a lull is staying out of my better travel stands, ones that have been productive in the past, but only later in the season when the bucks are on the move," Rice said. "It's important to keep those stands fresh by not using them until the right time."
Veteran bowhunter Bryan Stuyvesant enjoys the entire bow season, but, like most, eagerly anticipates the later season, as he considers the pre-rut to be the time when bucks are most vulnerable.
"The bucks start looking for does that are ready to breed and start really covering ground," Stuyvesant noted. "On several occasions, I have encountered bucks chasing does while I was walking to the other stand and the buck never paid any attention to me. I can think of at least six or seven times where I could have shot a buck on the ground while I was walking to a stand or moving through the woods."
Stuyvesant really likes damp, misty or drizzling days during the pre-rut, as he believes that hot weather affects mature buck activity more than general buck movement.
"It doesn't seem to affect the younger bucks as much," Stuyvesant said. "I have seen more mature buck activity on my trail cams in the hours of darkness during hot weather."
He also claims that calling seems to be more effective during the pre-rut, particularly during the 30 minutes before sunrise and the 30 minutes after sunset, believing that since deer have a harder time seeing they are more apt to come to sound.
Stuyvesant also uses scent during the pre-rut, but limits its use to items he can take out of the woods, because deer hitting mock scrapes after dark do hunters no good.
He also recommends placing stands high, and being prepared to move stands that are unproductive.
"I've had the most success when I set my stand 20 feet high," Stuyvesant said. "I usually move my stand when I am hunting a new area, especially if I see a tree where most of the deer have walked by. I rarely get the right tree the first time in a new area. I try to pick trees that have two or three trunks coming up from them. Then I can put my stand in the middle of the trunks and use the tree itself to hide behind."
Since the late part of the first bowhunting season can be a crapshoot, Stuyvesant is particular about timing. He doesn't like the period during a full moon, but has noticed a lot of activity before and after a full moon.
He does, however, really like concentrating on areas near refuges that don't allow hunting. Even though bucks are protected on the refuges, they are very prone to wandering once rutting activity begins. Not every refuge has huntable areas nearby, but the ones that do are excellent for bowhunters.
Of course, before heading to the woods, bowhunters need to perform as much pre-season practice as possible, to both sharpen skills and strengthen the muscles needed to hold at full draw. Stuyvesant has found that extending distances in practice, well beyond what he'd attempt in the field, has increased his accuracy.
"I started practicing shooting at 40, 50, even 60 yards," Stuyvesant stated. "This improved my shooting tremendously. I have no problem shooting out to 40 yards, as it seems like a chip shot. I'd never take a shot that long in the field, but last season I took a doe at what turned out to be 33 yards, and I made the shot without hesitation."
CREATE A BOWHUNTING CHECKLIST
Bowhunting is like a great meal that can be consumed in small bites, such as short, after-work forays that target those productive late-day hours. But when you're in a rush to get in the woods, it's easy to forget a vital item, such as a release you might have removed from your fanny pack for some in-season target practice.
For this reason, it's wise to create a short checklist of all the items you deem essential for each trip, like your release, glove or shooting tab, flashlight, pull rope, safety harness, etc. While you might store such items during the season in a fanny pack or vest, it's quite possible to overlook some article removed to use or for maintenance.
Jotting a list on a 3x5 card, and leaving it where you'll see it before each hunt — like in your bow case — will lessen the chance of forgetting something when in haste. Kind of like the decal on your side-view mirror asking, "Did you put your plug in?" That's saved the start of many a fishing trip.