The name of the game in successful bowhunting is stealth.
The bitter northwest wind stung my face as I made my way across the pasture, as did the bits of sleet that fell from the slate-gray sky. But I knew that once I reached the trees, I would be offered some protection, so I adjusted my loaded pack and trudged onward across the cold Minnesota landscape.
Reaching the woodlot, I slowed and began searching for a concentration of rutting-buck sign, which I found in the form of a large group of scrapes along the downwind edge of a small clearing just inside the trees. Since I hadn’t hunted this area during this particular season, I was actually scouting as I made my way in to my intended ambush and I planned to pick a tree for my portable stand based on activity seen en route. The wind was perfect for my approach; and once I found the cluster of fresh scrapes, I picked a clump of Basswood trees nearby that afforded good cover. I climbed aloft and trimmed a few branches, then settled in for a long, cold vigil.
On and off throughout the day, I had deer within range, mostly does and small bucks. One big 8-pointer with heavy mass showed up twice, searching for receptive does. Finally, late in the afternoon as I was preparing to leave, a huge doe came streaking down the ridge and across the clearing in front of me. Hot on her heels was the record-book buck.
Skidding to a stop at point blank range, the trophy whitetail never knew what hit him as I released the heavy wooden arrow from my longbow. As I affixed my tag to his massive antlers, I couldn’t help but smile as I began to drag the big deer toward my distant truck. Another tag filled thanks to low-impact deer hunting.
Low-impact deer hunting is just what the name implies: hunting intelligently and using all the stealth you can muster to prevent whitetails from knowing you are around. White-tailed deer are supremely in tune with their surroundings, and human intrusion will always have an adverse effect on the deer in any given area. Allow the deer to know you are hunting them, and they will alter their habits, possibly becoming nocturnal or vacating an area. This is especially true of trophy-class bucks — animals that have an aversion to human activity like no other game animal. Want to improve your hunting success? Practice the following six low-impact methods.
A deer’s number one defense is its nose, and the only sure way to fool a whitetail’s sense of smell is to always keep the wind in your favor and avoid leaving ground scent where the animals you are hunting will come in contact with it. That includes scent left while scouting, hanging stands and other off-season endeavors. Too many hunters only pay attention to the wind during the season. Allowing a big buck to smell you, even before or after the hunting season, is a mistake that might cost you a shot weeks later.
I like to do all of my scouting, stand positioning and blind construction during windy, rainy days, and I never set up an ambush unless the wind is right. Go into the woods every time like you are going hunting, and you will alert far fewer deer to your presence and your intentions. Of course, you should use all other scent precautions throughout the year as well: rubber boots, rubber gloves and scent-eliminating clothing and sprays.
Paths to Success
Entering and exiting an ambush location is one of the most likely times for alerting whitetails to your presence, and this fact is doubly true as you try to slip in or out in total darkness. I always clear a path to my stands well before it’s time to hunt. A ratchet pruner is a big help, as you can quietly snip small branches on your way in and out during setup times. That way, when the season opens, you’ll have a quiet path to follow to your hotspot.
And don’t forget to move fallen branches, rocks or other obstructions. One word of caution, though: Don’t make your paths so obvious that other hunters follow them to your honey hole. Obvious pruning can bring less-ambitious hunters running, especially on heavily hunted public land.
One of my favorite low-impact tactics is to hunt from natural ground blinds. Usually all that is necessary is a comfortable folding stool and the aforementioned ratchet pruners. You can make quick, quiet setups on the spur of the moment that can be extremely successful.
This past season, I slipped into a heavily hunted piece of public land and set up in the midst of a huge, multi-trunked Basswood tree. After clearing away all the dry leaves, I placed my stool among the circle of trunks and didn’t even have to trim any shooting lanes. I was prepared and hunting in a matter of minutes.
Two hours later, a big doe came down the trail and never even gave me a second glance. That was a mistake on her part, because when she turned and looked away, I eased my longbow to full draw and sent a heavy arrow through her lungs from a distance of 15 feet. By keeping grounded, I caused virtually no disturbance to the area and was able to put a nice deer in the freezer.
First Time’s the Charm
Another important point to minimize your impact to an area is to not overhunt any one spot. The key is to have lots of ambush sites in place well before it’s time to use them. Most hunters know that your first time on stand affords you the best opportunity to kill a deer, especially a big buck. That’s because with each trip into a given area, you increase your odds of being seen, smelled or heard; and once deer are alert to your activity, they will begin to avoid the area.
Never hunt a stand or blind until conditions are absolutely perfect. I know a lot of hunters who are tempted to hunt their hotspot during marginal conditions, but you must be patient and wait for everything to be perfect. Your first time on a stand, with all conditions in your favor, will be your best opportunity to take that monster buck you’ve been looking for.
I have a killer setup on my Minnesota farm that is a nearly guaranteed tag-filler. The problem is that I need an east wind to hunt this spot, and we rarely see east winds during the deer season. In some years I never get to hunt the stand at all. This past fall, I waited patiently for perfect conditions, which didn’t come until the first week of November. I was blessed to have a 140-class 8-pointer at point-blank range that evening because I hadn’t alerted him to my presence by hunting the stand under less-than-ideal conditions.
Hit and Run
Another low-impact tactic is the hit-and-run — getting in and out of unused or seldom-used hunting areas. Such was the case in the opening story, because I hadn’t hunted that particular section of state land for a number of years. But since I wasn’t having much luck in my normal hunting locations, I decided to slip in and give it a try. The results speak for themselves.
Some of my favorite hunting memories came from hit-and-run hunts with a partner, where two of us hit several areas over the course of a full day of hunting. We either set up to call or rattle deer, or make slow, quiet pushes to encourage deer movement past a waiting partner. On one such “nudge” a few years ago, I moved a giant buck past my partner on our third setup of the day. Unfortunately, the trophy slipped by just out of range, but the technique had worked perfectly.
Another time, while bowhunting alone, I spent a day of hit-and-run calling. On the last stand of the afternoon, I rattled in a nice 10-pointer to a distance of 6 feet. Unfortunately, without a partner calling to get the buck’s attention diverted away from my ambush, I was unable to move into position for the shot as the buck glared at me from point-blank range.
Hit-and-run hunting also requires previously mentioned tactics like Scent Sense, Grounded, and First Time’s the Charm.
In a Rut
My last recommendation for low-impact deer hunting is what I call In a Rut, and it has to do with hunting bucks in natural funnel areas during the peak of the chasing phase. There is almost no way to mess up an ambush at this magical time, because the local bucks will be constantly moving. And bucks from other areas will provide plenty of action as well.
For this type of hunting, I like brushy fencerows that connect larger woodlots. But any terrain feature that pinches a buck’s movement down to a small area is a goldmine. The order of the day is an all-day vigil, because bucks can and will show up at any time from first light to last. Get yourself a comfortable treestand or ground blind and put in the hours.
This past season in Kansas, I spent every possible minute in a treestand between a wide-open pasture and a vertical creek bank. Every deer that traveled on the south side of the creek was forced within range of my longbow, and my approach across the barren pasture made me virtually undetectable. Over the course of my hunt, I passed up three different record-book whitetails and saw two monsters that I would have been ecstatic to arrow had luck been on my side.
On the last morning of my hunt, I saw a 170-class 8-pointer with deeply forked P2s that made him look for all the world like a big mule deer. He was inside 20 yards for several agonizing, long minutes. But the head-on shot was unacceptable, and finally a stray swirl of wind betrayed my presence and the buck rocketed out of my life for good. Still, being “In a Rut” gave me the opportunity I was looking for.
White-tailed deer are in a class by themselves when it comes to sensing a hunter, and this is becoming more and more the norm as hunting areas get more crowded and deer become increasingly educated to our habits. Smart hunters go the extra mile to avoid detection and practice low-impact deer hunting. It shows at season’s end with venison in the freezer and trophies on the wall.
This article was published in the September 2007 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.