By P.J. Reilly
Why hunting on low-odds days can hurt your chances when the time is right.
Country crooner Kenny Rogers scored the biggest hit of his career with “The Gambler.” Just about everyone knows its signature refrain: “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.”
Rogers was talking about playing poker in his song, but he just as easily could have been talking about bowhunters.
We’ve all heard the expression, “You can’t shoot one from your sofa.” Presumably, the saying indicates, you’re wasting precious time if you’re not in your stand, and the only way to bag a whitetail is to get out after them.
But there are some days when you’re better off staying on that couch – days when it’s possible going hunting can actually hurt your chances of taking a buck.
One of my most sure-fire, tag-punching bowhunting tactics is odd, but simple: Don’t go. Every year, I collect racks by knowing when to hold on to my cards and stay home.
The don’t-hunt tactic is best employed when you have a whole season. Guys on a week-long bowhunt that cost thousands of dollars and valuable vacation time should forget about sitting in camp. For all intents and purposes, the season is only five days on such a hunt. Get in the woods and stay there.
In my home state of Pennsylvania, I’ve got six weeks of fall bowhunting – from early October through mid-November. I try to think like a marathon runner, rather than a sprinter. If I start the season going all out, hunting every spare minute, I can totally wreck my chances for success later on (assuming I don’t tag out early).
Not hunting is a tool best reserved for places you’re familiar with – properties you’ve hunted for years, where you have a good handle on the deer’s habits. You know the favored haunts and travel corridors, and you know generally how and when the resident deer move about the property.
PLAY THE WIND
Some stay-home days are no-brainers, like when the wind is wrong. If the wind is blowing out of the north, you know better than to hunt a stand set up for a south wind.
In a perfect world, everyone is able to hang stands or pitch ground blinds to provide hunting setups for every wind imaginable. But this isn’t a perfect world, and that’s not always possible, especially on smaller tracts.
Resist the temptation to push your luck when the wind is wrong.
Don’t do it. Don’t hunt.
You might cause damage you don’t even know about. That 160-inch buck you’ve been chasing for two years might pass downwind of your stand, just out of sight, and you could scare him away for the duration of the season.
Whether you saw him spook or not, you’d have been better off to stay home on your couch.
Prior to the start of a recent Maryland archery season, I had a 10-pointer’s evening routine down pat. He left a honeysuckle thicket on the tail of four smaller bucks every night about 6:30 p.m. and took the same trail out to a field of standing corn. I had a treestand 10 yards off that trail, about 60 yards in the woods from the field.
A west wind was the only wrong one for that stand. That’s exactly how the wind was blowing opening day. But I was so confident in this big buck’s habits, I hunted anyway.
Sure enough, the four young bucks emerged from the thicket right on cue and walked under my stand. Mr. Big had at least three years under his belt, however. When he left his bed, he sniffed the breeze, did a 180 and snuck back into the cover. I never saw him again.
PLAY THE ODDS
Over the past 25-plus years, I’ve hunted every day of Pennsylvania’s bow season. Yet my records indicate that Nov. 6, 7 and 8, by far, have accounted for the most punched tags. Conversely, there’s a period from Oct. 10 through 19 when I’ve never shot a buck.
Does this mean I can’t go out Oct. 12 this year and shoot the biggest buck of my life? No. Anything is possible. What it means is history indicates I’m better off focusing my efforts in early November, rather than mid-October.
I’ll wager there are peaks and valleys of success across your bowhunting history, too.
Study those trends to figure out what was happening when you filled your tags, and what cleared the woods in the lean times.
For me, the middle of October typically is when bachelor groups of bucks have dispersed in preparation for the rut. Also, they’ve just endured a week or two of fresh intrusions by the bowhunting hordes and are understandably spooky.
Daytime photos of bucks on my trail cameras suddenly become scarce, while the frequency of nighttime shots skyrockets. It’s no wonder I’ve never tagged a buck during this period.
On the other hand, come early November, the pending arrival of breeding season has bucks on their feet trolling for does. Daytime photos of bucks working scrapes and passing through travel pinch points become common. As my records show, when bucks are on their feet, the bowhunting sure is sweet.
Many of you already hunt early in the morning and late in the afternoon in September and early October. You know that in these early days when deer are focused on stuffing their bellies, their movement between feeding and bedding areas is best early and late in the day. The odds of you encountering deer during the middle of the day are slim, so you stay home. Later on, when the rut comes into play, you’ll stay all day.
It’s not that it’s wrong to hunt during those times; it’s that staying out of the woods can boost your odds for success later when buck activity is better.
Bowhunters have long believed that the first hunt in a stand offers the best chance for tagging a buck. That’s because the area is unspoiled by your presence. Nothing has ever winded you there, nothing has heard you and nothing has seen you.
Why ruin that by hunting a period when you typically don’t see shooter bucks?
Even if you don’t encounter deer while in the stand, you can still alert a mature buck to your presence. Maybe he’s nocturnal at this point in the season and, while making his rounds after dark the day you decided to hunt, he sniffs your tracks or the spot where your jacket brushed against a sapling. That could be all the encouragement he needs to avoid the area for good.
Your chances at taking him can be wrecked with one tiny detail, even if you left the woods hours before.
I hung a stand in a travel corridor on a farm near home one summer. I had hunted the area hard in the past and always saw does through the early part of the season, but they seemed to vanish come November. And if I saw a buck during the rut, it was a dink.
I purposely stayed away from that stand during the middle of October. When scrapes and rubs started showing up on the main walking trails nearby at the end of the month, I decided it was time to hunt there.
A cold, calm, high-pressure morning arrived Nov. 5, and I climbed the tree a good hour before daylight. About 10 a.m., a 3-year-old 10-pointer chased a doe past me at 5 yards. I laced him.
It was the third buck I saw that morning. There’s no question that not hunting that stand in the heart of October was as important to taking the buck as making a perfect shot.
PLAY THE WEATHER
Bowhunters live and breathe by weather forecasts. Mainly they’re trying to determine if conditions are right for a hunt. In doing so, they are at least subconsciously on the lookout for unfavorable weather conditions, which could convince them to stay home.
Analyze weather information to figure if you’re likely to do more harm than good by hunting a particular stand on a particular day.
Again, we’re talking about playing the odds. It’s entirely possible you could shoot a monster buck at noon on a 95-degree day in late September when the wind is blowing 40 mph. But is that likely?
Hunting a familiar area, you probably already have an idea which weather conditions are likely to suppress deer movement during different parts of a season.
Wind, rain, heat and cold can affect deer activity in different ways. How much is too much or not enough where you hunt?
If the wind is blowing 20 mph in Pennsylvania at any point in the season, I’m staying on my couch. By and large, the deer won’t be active.
In Kansas, however, 20 mph is just a nice breeze. Jayhawk hunters probably wouldn’t consider wind alone to be a hunt-killer.
Remember, this is a marathon and not a sprint. If tomorrow’s expected weather conditions have you convinced your odds of seeing deer are slim, stay home. The weather will change.
Pay attention to the moon phase, too. Where I hunt, the full moon is a hunt killer early in the season. I wait a few days until it’s about a quarter past full before I resume hunting. During the rut, I won’t necessarily stay home just because the moon is full. However, I won’t be in the woods under a full moon and warm temperatures combination.
If your goal this archery season is to enjoy the outdoors and tag any buck, by all means, have at it. But if your main objective is to tie your tag to a thick antler, plan to stay home some days. Going out might just be like playing a dog of a hand at the card table.
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• Quoting Lincoln: If it fools even one buck, one time, isn’t rattling worth the extra pound or two in your bag of tricks? This article was published in the November 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.