The writer shares a few tricks learned over his 30-plus years of bowhunting.
The hunter’s moon was rising in the east, sending millions of light shimmers reflecting off the frost-covered grass along the edge of the meadow.
The day was nearly done, and shooting light was fading fast on the last day before the opening of the 2007 Minnesota gun season. I continued my vigil, longbow gripped firmly in my left hand, because I knew the bucks would be moving.
With only moments left before the end of shooting light, I heard a scraping noise to the north. I scanned the woods until I could see the lower branches of an ancient oak swaying violently. A buck was working a scrape along the field’s edge. I sent a challenging snort-wheeze in that direction and was immediately rewarded as the massive 8-pointer threw up his head and began a stiff-legged approach.
At 20 yards, the trophy buck veered slightly to the left, and I thought the jig was up. The deer’s new course would take it downwind of my hiding spot, and there was no way I could shoot that way because of the maze of branches. Still, I had one more trick up my sleeve: The tarsal gland of a previously arrowed buck was hanging in a tree just upwind of my ambush.
The buck was just steps from hitting my scent trail when the strong aroma of rutting buck reached its nostrils. It slammed on the brakes and stood like a statue for several long minutes, nose in the air, drinking in the scent of an intruder, before he marched directly in front of me at 9 yards.
Three-plus decades is a long time to participate in any endeavor, but that’s how long I’ve been chasing and matching wits with white-tailed deer with a bow. The deer come away from most encounters unscathed, but I’ve arrowed enough animals to keep my family’s freezer full and put some nice antlers on the wall.
I’ve found success through trial and error — okay, mostly error — but we humans almost always learn more from our mistakes.
Following are a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the past 30 years, and maybe these tips will help you fill your tag this fall.
The opening story illustrates perfectly that nothing attracts deer like other deer. In this case, I was using the tarsal gland from a buck I had harvested in another state. There are plenty of commercial scents available, and I regularly use them. But for that extra little something, I like to use the real thing.
For years, I carried a syringe and several small bottles to extract the contents of the bladders from every deer I arrowed. Now I’m simply extra careful during field-dressing and pinch off both ends of the bladder and remove it, contents intact.
The tarsal glands on the hind legs of both bucks and does give off a very pungent aroma, especially during the rut, and can be hung upwind of your ambush or staked in a mock scrape with excellent results.
One year in North Dakota, I used a sod staple to anchor a buck tarsal gland to a mock scrape and was amazed at the results. The original mock scrape was about three feet across, but when I came back to hunt the area a few days later, it was twice that size. Not only that, but there were now five authentic scrapes within bow range of my man-made one, along with about two dozen fresh rubs.
A few years ago, I was invited on a media hunt sponsored by a major camo manufacturer. During an evening bull session, the owner of the company looked me in the eye and told me I was a disgrace to the camo industry.
Seems he was offended by the fact that he was always seeing me in magazine photos wearing a plaid wool shirt instead of the best camo patterns.
I almost always wear wool, and plaid makes an excellent camouflage, but the main reason I mix and match camo from my upper to lower body is because it’s one of the best ways to break up my outline. A whitetail doesn’t see colors the way we do, so our silhouette is often what gives us away.
Even when wearing an entire suit of today’s best camo, you present the silhouette of a human — in my case, the shape of a 6-foot-2-inch 210-pound human. By wearing a different pattern or color above and below the waist, I cut that outline in half.
Every camo manufacturer offers different colors and patterns, so you can remain true to any brand. Just mix up your selections.
I’m sure you’re wondering what hockey has to do with hunting, but I’m from the huge hockey state of Minnesota, so bear with me. There’s one piece of gear that all hockey players use that will make you a better bowhunter: tape. Hockey players go through yards and yards of stick tape — that thick, black, padded tape they wrap around the business end of their sticks. I use yards and yards of the same tape, and it makes me a more successful hunter.
No, I don’t carry a hockey stick to my stand, although I’m sure there are those who might argue that my longbow isn’t too far removed. I use hockey tape to cover and pad any gear that might be noisy in the woods — a long list, indeed.
I wrap treestands, tree steps, buckles, scent bottles, calls — the list is almost endless.
Metal makes the most offensive, game-spooking noise in the woods. However, when you cover it with a few wraps of padded tape, the noise level is cut to almost nothing. As a plus, hockey tape also makes slick surfaces less slippery.
In addition to its hygiene benefits, dental floss is an excellent wind detector. Tied to the tip of my longbow, an 8-inch length of dental floss will immediately tell me not only what the steady winds are doing, but also what those subtle currents are up to.
Just because the weatherman calls for a west wind doesn’t always make it so. More often, even with a steady wind, there are eddies, drifts and backwashes of scent in and around your stand.
I once had a ladder stand in a huge oak that required a northwest wind to hunt. It was a great setup, but deer kept spooking as they got near bow range. Dental floss revealed that, even with a steady wind, the tree canopy created an eddy that carried my scent back upwind.
This past season, I was sitting in one of my favorite stands when the wind began to die and swirl at sunset. A big doe came slipping down the trail, and, thanks to my dental floss, I knew where she was likely to catch my scent. I sent an arrow through her vitals at 12 yards just before she reached that spot.
I use beeswax all the time while making the Flemish strings for my longbows and for all the bows I build in my Minnesota shop (Prairie Longbows). I recommend beeswax for all bowstrings, traditional or compound. But this tip has nothing to do with that. Instead, I suggest all bowhunters use beeswax to lightly coat their broadheads prior to heading out to the woods, especially during inclement weather.
Everyone knows that a broadhead must be razor sharp to do its job, and nothing affects the sharp edge of your heads faster than rust. Coat the sharp edge of your broadheads lightly with beeswax to solve the problem.
Being careful not to get it too hot, I warm my broadheads slightly over a candle. Once the edges of the head are warm, I simply slide the already sharp edge lightly across the beeswax cake — I then have a broadhead that is protected from the elements without oils or other lubricants that might leave a residual, game-spooking odor.
But what about the big buck in the opening story ... Did my tips and tidbits help put that trophy whitetail on the ground?
Well, yes and no.
I used a real tarsal gland to lure the monster into longbow range. I used mix-and-match camo to break up my silhouette. I had every piece of equipment imaginable covered with hockey tape. I had a length of dental floss on the tip of my Prairie Panther longbow, and my broadheads were razor sharp and fully protected from the elements with beeswax.
Unfortunately, as the massive 4x4 paused at 9 yards, broadside and completely unaware of my presence, shooting light vanished and I left the woods without the buck.
Still, these simple tips, part of a set of habits developed over three decades of bowhunting, helped put me in position to have a point-blank encounter with a trophy whitetail. While some factors are beyond your control, like failing light, try these tips to help eliminate some of the controllable pitfalls and fill more tags.
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This article was published in the August 2010 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.