The little things that take you from tag soup to savory venison chili.
As most things in life, the devil is in the details. As I look back over my
years hunting whitetail, and reflect on this season as it closes, I realize how much this applies to hunting as well. Those that ignore this principal of paying close attention to the little things many times end up with nothing more than close calls and a bad taste in their mouth: AKA tag soup. Close calls make good stories, but don’t put meat in the freezer or antlers on the wall. Instead of chalking it up to bad luck, however, it’s better to take full responsibility and learn from these mistakes. So, here’s a few of those small details I’ve learned that can completely change the outcome of a season and help fill those tags.
1. THE ONE RIGHT SPOT: Finding the exact right spot, the right tree down to a few yards can be the difference maker, especially during archery season. Figure out exactly where they will be, or should travel, and then find a workable tree within close range. The closer, the better. Just ten yards off and you might not get the shot, especially in thick cover. Do your homework, scout extensively, and really put thought into finding THE ONE right tree when setting up. Don’t count on meandering deer or the grunt tube to save you. This is why finding some sort of tight funnel is so key many times, and the difference between a shot and a close call. This maximizes the chances they will travel through a certain area, and into your “kill zone” where you can take a high percentage, close range shot.
THE DETAILS: I hunt a lot of bedding areas on public land, and this year my best spot didn’t have any tight funnels (ones I would say push deer within 10 yards of a particular location). I setup on a few different soft funnels (created by lines of brush and trails leading to an agricultural field) but always seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were just too many options and routes for the deer. I didn’t have the exact right spot, but through hunting noticed some patterns of how deer were using it. This isn’t ideal, however because every time you scout-hunt it you are adding pressure. This brings me to point #2.
2. THE ONE RIGHT TIME: See a pattern, act on it the first time the conditions allow. Do not hesitate, as these may change in a few days, especially on public land. Look at wind conditions, temperatures and fronts, and hunt as soon as possible to take advantage of these observations. It may even be in the middle of a hunt that you need to make adjustments. Can you climb down from your stand and setup on the ground near a hub deer are using? Do you need to be more mobile so you can move your stand or hunting setup quickly? Be ready to make these adjustments, both mentally and with gear that allows for this.
THE DETAILS: Back in the bedding area I was noticing deer use a certain portion of the brush extensively. In fact, I overshot with my stand placement based on previous year’s patterns, and was about fifty yards from two nice bucks in mid-October. Just off, no dice. I acted on this and put a stand back where two trails converged and led from this smaller core area to a nearby field. The result was passing five different small bucks the next morning I hunted, and one large one walking under my stand before light. No shots, but I was in the right spot. This changed quickly, however. The more times I hunted without a shot, the more deer seemed to use another piece of thick cover in a corner by the ag fields. Again, fifty yards off. I felt I should move to that area, but didn’t. Maybe out of laziness, or fear of pushing in too hard and ruining the spot, I stayed put. I rationalized that I was “close enough,” which turned out to be a fatal sentiment. The result was watching a couple nice bucks, on different occasions, walk within shooting distance of the ONE SPOT I knew I should be. That little extra effort, acting at the right time, and fifty yards would’ve made the difference between telling you this story, and having a success story to tell.
3. KNOWING HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH: Hunting harder is not necessarily better, and sometimes you can do too much, hurting your chances to fill tags. The key is being able to determine how much is too much, and not crossing this line. Unfortunately, a lot of this comes from experience in the form of failures, but doesn’t have to be if you use your head and learn from other’s. Here’s a few specifics to help with this. First, only set foot in the woods when you have to, when the time is right and scouting tells you to. Leaving unneeded scents and noises in your hunting area is only detrimental to your chances. When you do decide to go in, think carefully about the moves you do make, being aggressive strategically and always evaluating the risk/reward. Many times we are our own worst enemy, driving deer out of our areas because we just have to check that trail camera or hunt when the wind isn’t right. Temper aggressive hunting with wisdom. The day before gun season on public? - go all out knowing the next day deer will be pushed around like a pinball machine and it won’t matter anyways. First day of bow season? Maybe take a softer, less aggressive approach. The point is, if you make a mistake or take too aggressive an approach, the damage is done and deer don’t give second chances often. The goal is to know as much as possible about the deer you’re hunting, and have them clueless they are being hunted.
THE DETAILS: It is possible to push past the right spot, to go too deep. I’ve done this several times while scout-hunting my way into bedding areas. The temptation is to keep going, thinking that what’s up ahead is the “place to be” and when you get there you realize you’ve completely overshot and walked through the entire area you wanted to hunt. Oops. Or, maybe during the hunt have deer moving but behind you - toward their destination and through a funnel that you waltzed through on the way in. It happens, try not to let it though.
4. GEAR MATTERS: Expensive gear is not necessary, but gear that allows you to get the job done quickly, quietly, efficiently, and that you are very comfortable with is essential. Also, make sure to attend to the details of keeping all your gear is up to par. Eliminate squeaks in that stand - little noises that could ruin a hunt. Shoot the bow consistently during season so you’re confident every time to set foot in the woods. Don’t try new gear on a hunt, practice extensively in the backyard. Purge extra gear every now and then. Having extra stuff just adds weight, potential things you can drop or clang, and many times just adds to the chaos. With the gear you keep, practice and mentally rehearse so it’s just muscle memory when Mr. Big steps out. The more you have to think and make decisions at that moment, the more mistakes will be made - potentially fatal ones (just ask guys that self film how extra gear and the chaos of making many decisions at once can ruin things). The list could go on, but make sure the details of your gear are taken care of.
THE DETAILS: About eight years ago I didn’t have a range finder. I’d never really needed one, and had done well estimating distances on deer. I’m still kicking myself for one Ohio hunt that this detail would have made a difference on, however. I was hunting over a picked corn field late in the year, and deer were pouring in due to cold temperatures and snow that was on the ground. A beautiful eleven point stepped into the field early, but stayed a good distance away browsing. After about twenty minutes of watching, it was apparent he would come no closer so I decided to take a shot, estimating him at 35 yards. I was so far off the arrow hit at his feet. Luckily, he didn’t know what occurred and continued feeding. Two arrows left. After another ten minutes of him not moving any closer I tried again. This time the 45 yard pin. A near miss. Now I was in a pickle. I had one arrow left and zero confidence for judging distances in the open field. This left me to just watch him all night, as he never came any closer. A little piece of gear would have changed things for sure on this occasion, I now have one.
5. YOUR SHAPE: I’m a firm believer that the better physical condition you are in, the better opportunities you’ll have. You’ll also have a better ability to capitalize successfully on these opportunities if you are in good shape. Setting and maintaining a workout routine throughout the entire year is the best way to do this. It’s about maintaining the lifestyle of being in shape, being an athlete, not getting caught in yoyo bouts of trying to get into shape then falling back out. Maintaining shape is much easier than trying to get back into it, so seek routines that allow peak stamina, conditioning, and strength throughout the year. It makes a big difference when you can go deeper, climb higher, haul further, sneak with more agility, and climb more safely due to your ability to handle your body in a variety of potentially awkward positions.
THE DETAILS: About eight years ago I didn’t have mobile gear other than a climber. However, I wanted to hunt an area that didn’t have any climbable trees. I opted to try some screw in steps and an old hangon stand. This setup was rather clunky and heavy, but worked. The hunt came and went, and on my way down in the dark I got lazy gripping a step. Before I knew it I was horizontal and back flat on the ground from a short fall of five feet. The ground was soft, and I laughed after it happened, but my back was tense for the next two weeks. It could’ve been much worse, and was a reminder that being in shape (grip strength in this case) is an important detail to remember. If you’re in the ICU, you won’t fill tags.
6. UNDERESTIMATING THE SENSES: All three can bust you just as well, and not getting lazy on details related to a whitetails keen senses can save your season. I’ve been skylined several times over the years, especially by wary public land deer. Picking a tree with this in mind, regardless of height is important. Just this year, even twenty feet up with branches around me, I had a doe walk right to my stand and look straight up - for no apparent reason. Get good back cover whenever possible. Attending to all gear and its ability to make little noises is an absolute essential in my book. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a little clank or clunk and not seen anything thereafter. Would I have, that’s hard to know, but I do know deer do not tolerate intrusions and big bucks don’t get that way ignoring telltale signs of danger. I get absolutely anal with anything that could cause a hunt-ruining noise, and find a way to eliminate it. In fact, I developed a product to silence gear this bothered me so much and created the company Sound Barrier to help hunters with this big problem.
When it comes to scent, have a no tolerance attitude and regimen. I wash clothes every few hunts in scent free detergent, and dry them in a room closed to outside scent. Then, I put them directly into garbage bags and into a sealed tote. These are not put on until I get to my hunting spot, and are always removed and returned to this storage system before I leave and get into my truck. Also, I douse everything with ozone every few days, and before hitting the woods wipe down hair and exposed skin with no scent wet wipes (Walmart has some real cheap ones). Finally, every chance I can (when it’s above 40 degrees or so) I wear rubber hip boots. These keep scent off grasses and brush, an overlooked detail giving another advantage and keeping my approach undetected. With this regimen I regularly get deer downwind, or crossing my backtrail, that do not scent me. These details give an added advantage that lead to shots instead of busted hunts.
THE DETAILS: In 2016 I was hunting public land bedding area on several trails headed to a corn field. As dark approached I heard a slight noise downwind and behind me, and noticed a nice buck working toward the field. As he crossed my wind and path in, I worried he would catch scent and bolt. However, he kept working his way toward the field through the tall weeds, and after ten minutes stepped into a shooting lane at 28 yards. Thirty seconds later he was down for the count, and now he’s a nice Euro on my wall. I attribute my attention to details on scent and sound to be the contributing factors on this hunt. He not only crossed my wind, but walked the same trail I did coming in for about 40 yards. He also was bedded close by, making my quiet gear and silent approach an essential key to this success as well - the difference
between filling the tag and wishing I’d have paid attention to the little details.
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