“Lunch was good,” I thought as I walked across the large hay field that sat between me and my river-bottom stand site I vacated earlier. It was midday, and white-tailed deer movement had slowed to a city-like commuter crawl. As I hit midfield, I looked up— and then looked again. There he was! It was the big 5x5 I’d been chasing for the previous two seasons. He’d been an apparition except for his shed antlers I displayed in my home office, but there he stood in the flesh, watching my every, obvious step.
I dropped to the ground while simultaneously extending my rifle bi-pod, but it was too little too late. The Boone and Crockett contender had seen enough, and while I prepped for a shot he leapt a fence back to his brushy refuge. I’d screwed up—big time.
ERROR ON THE PLAY
SCOUTING SHORTFALL Not scouting during the days and weeks before your hunt can hinder success, but it can also lead to shooting the wrong buck. How? Understanding an area’s full potential begins with research at home by scouting record book entries and dates of harvest. Next, use your scouting cameras continually to get an idea of the buck inventory and age-class structure. Now you can set your goals.
If the area has a history of big bucks and you’re seeing potential, you might want to consider being a bit choosy. How much time you have available and your trophy goals will shape your patience, but without this strategic scouting you could be hunting for a phantom buck that exists only in your mind. You could also screw up by shooting an immature 2½-year-old buck when the area supports numerous older ones.
FORECAST FALLOUT Understanding how the weather affects your deer hunt determines which days you hunt and which days you stay home. If you don’t have the flexibility and have to hunt when schedules allow, you still can use a forecast to choose high-probability locations. Fair weather usually means deer will follow standard operating procedures, so edge stands can produce. But foul weather means whitetails could stay in dense cover to avoid wind, rain or snow. Forecasts such as this mean you have to plan a bedroom attack. Having interior stands or ambush locations pre-scouted gives you this flexibility when your smartphone tells a tale of weather misery to come.
And don’t forget about the moon forecast. If you must plan your deer hunt months in advance, check lunar tables for information on moon phases. The debate still rages, but most avid hunters would rather hunt during a new moon as opposed to a full moon; many believe a full moon increases the amount of nighttime deer movement. And if you follow research by noted deer authority Charles Alsheimer and his peers, you’ll want to note the second full moon after the autumnal equinox. Three to 4 days after this event marks the kickoff of the period when bucks begin searching for does, and the chase for breeding rights will follow shortly.
BETTING ALL YOUR MONEY ON THE RUT The rut delivers whitetail hunters an early Christmas present by hindering a buck’s common sense with lustful urges. Many a buck has fallen to both arrow and bullet because of this once-a-year dating game. Nevertheless, some bucks still retain enough sanity to avoid a lover’s demise. According to research, other bucks are reluctant to even participate in the rut. And what about temperature spikes? This means you can’t gamble on the rut, and you should have a savvy plan in play.
Begin by setting up traps where antlerless deer congregate, including food sources. These can be utilized if the rut follows textbook rules. Next, set up interior ambush locations if the rut fizzles, or your target buck can fight the urges. If a buck stays hidden restlessly moves about in heavy cover, you still have a fighting chance for a shot with bedroom stands.
Lastly, get aggressive. If wind or moisture is forecasted, plan a still hunt. Think of it like trolling for fish and use good bait. Deer calls combined with realistic decoys add the illusion of a deer party, but avoid using either in heavily hunted areas or during firearms season. Hunt hard and use aggressive strategies to get a shot during your hunt window.
DOLLAR STORE DEVICES Value stores that offer discounts and economical prices have their place in society, but skip them for hunting gear. If you want to be successful, you need to have good gear with emphasis on your bow, firearm and optics.
After garnering essentials for the kill, consider shopping for topnotch clothing. You can’t skip the lousy days because of cold, snow, showers or even heat. Find attire that will keep you comfortable and able to withstand the elements. To date, I’ve hunted whitetails in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees and wind-chills of minus 60 degrees. Searing temperatures can be uncomfortable, but numbing cold is miserable and accounts for more of my partners abandoning hunts than all other factors combined.
CALLING IT QUITS Infrequent deer sightings, lack of mature bucks, weather, work, family and pals who would rather talk hunting than hunt can wreak havoc on your mindset. You have to keep a civilized balance, but you also have to be in the field to find success. Televised hunting shows give you a 22-minute snippet of hunting entertainment. What they don’t reveal to you is that it takes days, oftentimes 5 and up to 10 days or more, to make a single episode. And a large percentage of the time—especially when bow hunting—the host never gets a shot and goes home empty-handed; footage from these hunts ends up on the cutting room floor.
I tallied the better part of one November trying to waylay a monster buck that I’d only heard about. I hadn’t seen it nor were there any scouting cam pictures of it, but my hunting partners swore it was a giant from a brief sighting. By hunting hardcore through blizzards, unrelenting mud and ignoring neighboring hunting pressure, I felt success was achievable. Unlike the buck in the opening of this column that got away, I was waiting in the right place for the giant and tagged it after a long season of avoiding mistakes.