Oct 12, 2010

Hunting, Part 7: Have a Seat

In Part 6, we found a place to hunt.

We have yet to place our blinds or stands, though, and that's what we're going to do next.

You've been doing your off-season scouting, right? Sat on the edge of a field at dawn or dusk, with an appropriate beverage in hand? Wandered the woods looking for scrapes (torn up patches of ground) and rubs (bark taken off trees)? Found the shallow spot in the creek where deer cross? Found a bedding area? Found a feed area? Figured out the topography?

Deer aren't smart animals. Anything that will stand in front of a 4,000lb vehicle going 60mph with the horn blowing does not count as intelligent. They are, however, wily. Some might even say paranoid.

There are thousands of pages written in countless books and magazines about how to predict where the deer will be. Some of it is good advice, some of it is crap. I don't care how much hunting that editor in New York City has done; a tactic that works for whitetails in upstate New York probably won't work for Texas mulies, or for New Mexico elk, or Colorado pronghorns. Predicting where the deer will be is a matter of experience, hard luck, and occasionally, some good luck.

These wily critters have an amazing ability to disappear in the tiniest ripple of ground - a swale that won't hide a dandelion in springtime can cover a 250-pound ten-point buck in November. They move cautiously, they have phenomenal hearing, and a sense of smell that will put a dog to shame. Countering (or trying to counter) all these things is part of the hunt.

Once you've found where the deer are moving regularly, it's time to find a promising spot. Know your limitations, and that of your equipment. If you're hunting with a slug gun, 300 yards across a cornfield is not a promising spot. If the deer are moving out of the woods in a particular corner of a field, it's a fair bet that you could set up on one side or the other within easy shooting distance of that corner.

Which side? Figure out where your prevailing wind is coming from, and set up either cross- or down-wind from the corner you've picked. There will certainly be days that the wind won't be coming from the prevailing direction, but if you've picked a good spot for two days in three, that's putting the odds on your side.

Maybe you've found a small ravine or dip that the deer move through - and they will move in dips as much as possible, to stay out of sight and out of the wind. Set up on an edge above it, downwind from the direction the deer are coming from.

Rubs and scrapes are ways for bucks to mark territory. They'll tear up the ground and urinate on it, or tear the bark off a tree and rub their head against it, transferring some of their scent. They'll also pull down small branches in the area and nibble on them, again, transferring scent.

Found a scrape that keeps getting freshened up? It's a fair bet there's a dominant buck visiting it on a regular basis. They have a tendency to move when it's dark, but there will be does and non-dominant bucks that will visit it also... and they'll show up during daylight. Pick a good overlook and be patient. (You can tell a fresh scrape because the dirt will be bare and freshly turned over, leaves will be pushed aside, etc.)

Maybe you know where the best watering hole is. When you're out walking, look for tracks near ponds and streams. Find a promising spot, and be patient. Side note: many states outlaw shooting an animal that is standing in water. It's an ethics/fair chase thing; please abide by it.

If you're able to, get your stands and blinds set up well in advance of the hunting season. Go out and use them occasionally out of season - sit and watch the world for an hour, have a cup of coffee, read a book, whatever. Just get the deer used to the stand being there, and non-panicked about people being in the area. As the season approaches, you'll get to see bucks sparring for dominance, and squirrels doing their fall harvest, maybe a fox or coyote. If you hunt small game, you may want to take a .22 along with you, although I prefer to leave my deer grounds alone until after deer season.

Check your shooting lanes. If you have permission, clear them as necessary. I've taken between-the-trees shots on deer, and it's nerve-wracking. Getting twigs and saplings out of the way will reduce the odds of a shot going wild because it winged a branch. Make sure you look for your backstops. All four rules apply when hunting; doubly so because there may well be another hunter nearby. (One of the advantages to hunting from a stand is that your shot is, by default, pointing towards the ground.)

About two weeks before the season, it's simply time to leave the woods alone. Don't hike, don't scout, don't check cameras, just leave things as they are.

Once the season begins and you're out there hunting, the key to getting deer is ... patience. There are some folks who hunt and seem to have filled a tag or hit their bag limit within hours, some will hunt all season with no results. I've been hunting turkey for six years; I have shot at several and never killed one. I've also seen the opposite end of the spectrum with deer. Having literally been on a stand for twenty minutes and having a nice deer walk right under you is a wonderful feeling.

My first season of deer hunting saw me in the woods nearly every single day with no results. Cold, snow, wind, it didn't matter; I was bound and determined to get one. I tried my own pick of spots, I tried the spots my hunting buddy suggested, no luck. Meantime, he killed several in spots that I'd turned down each day. The next-to-last day of the season taught me that lesson in patience. Days in the woods resulted in a nice-size button buck with my name on it.

Patience, however, isn't always measured in days. One thing I was told early on in my hunting adventures was, "When you're cold, and tired, can't take it anymore, and just want to go home and get some coffee and sleep, wait another fifteen minutes. You'll be amazed." I've tried hard to take that advice to heart, and it has paid off. Last year in particular - I'd had it at 9:00. I was cold, it was damp and miserable, and I was exhausted. I stuck it out until 10:00, and brought home an eight-point.

However, eventually, there will be a deer in front of you, and that's when everything changes...

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