Standing like a statue, I found myself eye to eye with a Pope and Young quality whitetail. Barely 30 yards away, I stood motionless but at ready with arrow nocked and release in position.
The buck’s body language was sending me bad feelings. Even though the buck was broadside, I could see hair standing up on his back and both ears rotated like a radar antenna. Every few seconds the animal pitched back his head to smell the wind currents, never directing his distrusting stare away from my treestand.
I was confident the buck hadn’t winded me, but I couldn’t be sure of much else. Remaining motionless was my only defense.
There was little doubt that the buck’s “sixth” sense, the survival sense, was working overtime. Bucks, especially those with oversized head gear, have an uncanny knack for knowing when something isn’t just right.
I knew the stalemate would end soon, and I feared the result wouldn’t be pleasant. Without warning the buck made one leap landing him into a dense thicket of aspen. In the next few seconds the buck melted away into the dense cover, vanishing along with my chance to admire those magnificent antlers overhead.
Had I made my move, the outcome may or may not have turned out the same. Experience tells me that drawing on an alert whitetail buck is like eating with chop sticks. Most of the time you end up with little or nothing to show for your effort.
I didn’t see the big boy again that season and eventually I settled for a smaller buck. That’s bow hunting. Simply seeing a trophy class animal is no guarantee of success. By the same token, finding yourself at point-blank range with one of the most challenging big-game animals on earth is worth the price of admission regardless of the outcome.
In bow hunting there are more close calls, near misses, and second guesses than successes. This very fact is why bow hunters must refine and hone their skills to the sharpest possible level.
In the deer woods, there are plenty of viable excuses for missing, but poor shooting shouldn’t be one. When a bow hunter takes to the field his or her shooting skill ultimately determines success or failure.
Archery shooting skills aren’t easily defined. Being able to tightly group half a dozen arrows into a practice target at 20-30 yards is a good start, but only a start. The fact that many target shooters fail miserably when shooting at live animals is evidence that harvesting a deer with stick and string is a complex and difficult task.
The anxiety and excitement that accompany a close-up encounter with a big-game animal can be overwhelming, especially for newcomers to the sport. Most bow hunters, even highly successful ones, admit that their first shot or two at live animals ended in disappointment.
Structured and regular practice sessions are the key to developing shooting skills that become as automatic as reaching for the directional signal when changing lanes on the interstate.
Practicing under the watchful eye of an experienced shooter is an excellent way to avoid developing bad habits right from the start. Beginning bow hunters are strongly encouraged to start shooting at a pro shop, bow hunting club, or 3D target range where experienced archers can offer helpful advice.
Simple mistakes like a poor shooting stance, bow fit, or release are easy for an experienced observer to spot and correct. Like any sport, success is based on a foundation that stresses the basics.
Shooting regularly keeps a shooter’s eye in tune and helps maintain important muscle tone and concentration. Regular shooting sessions also allow the archer to become intimate with his or her equipment, including bow, arrows, rests, releases, broadheads, and other accessories.
Once basic shooting skills are mastered, bow hunters need to upgrade their practice sessions. Shooting 3D targets at unmarked distances is the best field practice possible.
Shooting these lifelike targets conditions the hunter to concentrate on shot placement, shot angles, and shooting distance–all of which are critical to bow hunting success. The final step in this practice regimen is to shoot with the broadhead to be used in the field.
It’s a rarity for a broadhead-equipped arrow to impact a target in the same place as one fitted with a field tip. In most cases good broadhead flight can be achieved by adjusting the bow sights to compensate for the change in point of impact. If poor arrow flight continues, the bow may be seriously out of tune or the arrows under spined.
An archery pro shop is equipped to help bow hunters with these and other common problems. The time to visit a pro shop is months before the hunting season when technicians have time to provide one-on-one assistance.
Scouting is a year-round activity for avid deer hunters. It’s never too early to start looking for a new hunting area or to become better acquainted with a favorite hunting site.
Scouting is the process of locating a general area where deer are known to live, determining a small region within an area where deer concentrate, finding specific trails deer use in moving from feeding to bedding areas, and ultimately pinpointing a specific stand site or sites where a buck is likely to pass within bow range.
Locating areas a high deer density is fairly easy. Conservation officers, wildlife biologists, and successful hunters are good sources of information. Once a specific area is identified, drive the county roads and two tracks in the region an hour or two before sunset and watch for deer.
It won’t take long to notice that deer concentrate in specific spots, usually those that provide excellent food and cover. Deer populations are typically dense in these limited habitats and sparse in other nearby areas.
Fortunately, the prime feeding areas are often open natural fields, crop lands, forest edges, fruit orchards, and other areas where deer are highly visible. These feeding areas should be a focal point for scouting.
A lot can be learned about the daily movement patterns of deer without stepping foot in the woods. Long range surveillance is an alternative to traditional scouting methods. Watching key feeding areas from a vehicle parked several hundred yards away is an excellent way to determine the primary trails deer use when accessing feeding areas. Pay close attention to the spots where deer exit heavy cover to feed. These spots are a good starting point when searching for stand locations.
A pair of binoculars saves miles of needless walking and may allow several perspective bucks to be sized up without the animals becoming disturbed. Creatures of habit, deer often access feeding areas using the same trails day after day. These same trails connect to bedding cover where the deer spend the majority of the daylight hours.
If good bedding cover is available close to feeding areas, bucks will often bed within sight of their favorite food source. Other times deer may travel a half mile or more between feeding and bedding zones.
Walking among these feeding and bedding areas while scouting on foot alerts deer to your presence and can make wary bucks change their daily movement patterns. Instead, when hunting season opens, slip into these areas carrying a portable treestand and quietly set up along one of the primary trails deer use when on the move to feed. Remember, deer may be bedded nearby, so take care to be quiet when selecting a stand site.
In very dense cover it may be necessary to scout on foot. In this situation it’s unlikely the hunter will actually spot the buck he or she hopes to pattern. Next to seeing the animal, finding a shed antler from the prior year is the best indication that a buck lives in the area. Sheds prove that a buck survived the past hunting season, give a rough idea how large the buck may be, and are an indication the animal is still in the region.
Antler rubs and scrapes are also dependable buck signs. As a general rule, the bigger the tree rubbed and the larger the scrape, the older and more mature the buck that was responsible for them. Small saplings that are rubbed clean of bark usually suggest the presence of an immature buck.
Tracks alone can be misleading. A two- or three-year-old whitetail doe leaves behind footprints that are larger than most year-and-half and two-and-a-half-year-old bucks. Unless the tracks are huge, it’s tough to pattern a buck by his hoof print alone.