A Bowhunting Strategy During Gun Season – It’s About The Edge

Deer love edges—areas where different habitats meet.

Tim Knight | November 12, 2016

The first week of November last year called for warmer than usual temps—not what I was looking for. However, the wind was out of the east, which was exactly what I needed. I parked my truck beside a busy highway and gathered my bow and safety harness, and I put my Lone Wolf climber on my back.

My GPS on my phone said the walk to the spot I wanted to hunt was a little more than 800 yards. So, wearing only a short-sleeved Realtree camo shirt, I struck out to a spot I had not scouted by foot. This location I had picked out by studying maps.

The hunting spot was a finger branch in a drain left by the timber company. The hardwood finger ran for three-quarters of a mile and was surrounded on both sides with an ocean of planted pines choked with briar beds and broom straw. There were several smaller hardwood fingers, like spokes, that joined the main finger on the branch. One of these smaller spokes would be my access point to slip into the main branch and climb a tree.

On the far side of the ocean of pines to the east were several large food plots. The plots were torn up with fresh deer sign, but they were being hunted heavily. This told me the deer were laying up tight in the pines or in the hardwood drain and waiting until well after dark to visit the food plots. Not to mention the deer could hear any truck or ATV that approached and parked close to the plots, and with an east wind a plot hunter’s scent would be blowing straight into the bedding areas.

An experienced bowhunter’s mentality has to be totally different from that of a gun hunter. You must develop a plan of surprise or ambush for deer that are being gun hunted heavily. It’s not uncommon for gun hunters to sit the same plot or the same stand or hunt where they can see a long way in hopes of catching a buck on his feet in the open during daylight hours.

The biggest advantage to a climber and being mobile is the element of surprise, and I can tell you from experience that your best chance at any good buck is the first time you hunt him. With a climber you can change your location from morning to evening, or change as the wind does, or as the food sources change. Too many hunters handicap themselves with a fixed stand simply because you can burn it out before you get to hunt it by setting it up, or the wrong wind dictates when you can or cannot hunt that spot when all other conditions are perfect. With a climber, most times you can adjust which tree to climb and play the wind, or you can change locations in a matter of minutes.

You can write this down as FACT—the temperature outside has very little to do with deer-hunting success. Success in the deer woods has more to do with it being the right time of the year and the right moon phase. I have killed some of my best bucks on warm afternoons or mornings.

When I got to the hardwood finger that would lead me to the main branch, I paused to check my Google Earth view on my phone and saw I had a little more than 150 yards to go. As soon as I got in the hardwood finger, I started doing light turkey yelps and pausing every five or six steps. Keep in mind that I am going into the very bowels of the bedding area with the hopes that I don’t bust the deer. I’m hoping that my turkey hen yelps will convince any deer that hear the movement that I am not a threat. This is a trick I use a lot when approaching an afternoon setup, especially when the leaves are dry as potato chips.

I made it to the main branch and started scanning for a tree to get to climb. As luck would have it, there was a medium-sized sweet gum with no limbs for 20 feet right in front of me. I knew with my Lone Wolf that I could slip up that tree and not make a sound. When I climbed up, I realized how tight this spot was—only 30 yards wide in this drain between the two edges of pines. One edge of pines I was facing, and the other was right behind me at 10 yards. I literally had two shooting lanes, and both were less than 20 yards.

I got settled in at 3:30 p.m. This would give me two hours before sunset and prime time. I took out my VOO-DOO deer lure and broadcast it with the cap around my tree.

By 5:30 p.m., the sun had set, and everything was shaded over. Not a sunlight ray to be found. I took out my grunt call and hooked my antlers to my pull-up rope and lowered them to the ground. I did a little light rattling with the antlers on the string and took my grunt call and grunted to my right down the branch. Then I turned my head to the left and grunted up the branch.

As I was sticking my grunter back into my fanny pack, I heard a deer coming fast, and he grunted loud as he approached. I literally had just enough time to grab my bow, stand up, come to full draw, and put my pin on the first shooting lane. It would be a split-second decision to see, judge and shoot this buck.

I caught a glimpse of his rack at 20 yards and thought “SHOOTER!” When he stepped into the first shooting lane, he stopped on his own, and I remember him raising his head as if he were starting a lip curl to smell the VOO-DOO scent, but it was too late…

I had settled the pin and let the 165-grain, all steel Bipolar fly.

This is just one example of hunting edges, or changes in timber or habitat. There are many types of edge, and I can promise you that deer love edge.

Edge can be where hardwoods meet planted pines, or where planted pines meet clearcut. Edge can be where hardwoods meet clearcut, or where a crop field meets hardwoods or pines.

Edge can be a creek or river, or the sloughs and oxbow lakes that meander through the swamp. It can be the bottom of a steep ridge or the top of a ridge. Edge can be created by high water on the river, or by the water’s edge around a beaver pond. Any time there is a timber harvest, it creates new edge, and more importantly, it attracts deer due to the new browse provided by the new growth that replaces mature woods.

A prime example of this, I witnessed a new clearcut from last season grow up in pokeberry bushes, and you would have thought it was soybeans the way the deer stripped those plant of their leaves.

Most big, beautiful stands of hardwoods provide for good hunting as long as the acorns are falling, but after that, the deer go back to their thickets and back to browse, or they will utilize food plots that sportsman have planted.

Keep in mind though that it is very easy to put too much pressure on any food source, and a mature buck in particular will go nocturnal or will leave an area completely if there’s too much hunting pressure.

Studying topo maps and Google Earth are great ways to find edge to hunt, and more importantly these mapping tools show how to approach these edges to hunt without spooking deer in their bedrooms. The apps now available on your smart phone can show you an aerial view of the terrain, the current wind direction and the distance to hunting spots or edges.

Another advantage of hunting an edge you found by studying an aerial map is the ability to find a way to slip in without walking all over an area and scouting. I don’t use trail cameras. I don’t have anything against them, but I prefer old school to find a good buck. To me a big buck is like a big boar hog. He is a loner, a traveler, and he very seldom stays in one place for very long. Once a buck sheds his velvet, his patterns totally change. His summer range is totally different from his fall or rut territory.

Food sources are changing rapidly in the fall. For example, water and pin oaks will be first to fall, but deer will step over these to go to white oaks and swamp chestnut oaks that fall a little later. Does will be keying on these white oaks and swamp chestnuts if they are available. Bucks will be laying sign around these food sources in the form of rubs and scrapes.

When these scrapes start to show up, it is an excellent time to rattle lightly and do some soft grunts. Most hunters don’t have the confidence to call up bucks, but these same hunters would not dream of going turkey hunting without a call. Just think how many turkeys you would kill if just took a gun and went to the woods and simply sat beside a tree in hopes a gobbler would just happen to walk by you so you could shoot him. Yet, this is the method most deer hunters use—go sit, and hope and pray that a big buck gets up out of his bed before dark and walks by.

Why not give him a reason to come your way?

Don’t be afraid to try and call up a rutting buck. When he is territorial, he is killable because he will not tolerate competition in an area he has claimed. This same scenario is why a gobbler decoy is so deadly in the spring when turkey hunting. No man likes competition when it comes to messing with his girlfriend.

Another key to hunting success is having full knowledge of what deer prefer to eat on your hunting property. It is an invaluable tool as a hunter to know all the food sources on your property, whether it be browse, hard mast like acorns, or soft mast like persimmons. Learn your trees and shrubs, and locate them during the off season so you can make notes to go back and hunt them when the time is right.

And maybe most importantly, and too often ignored by deer hunters, is taking the time to learn all your edges on your land. Keep in mind that hunting edge is a great way to hunt and learn a new property you may have acquired.

Studying topo maps and using Google Earth will help you learn where these edges are on your property and with a little effort on your part. Do like I do, and go beyond what the average guy will do to access or hunt a remote spot. And then you will have the edge!

• • •

As I watched the Ignitor lighted nock zip right through the buck, he made a mad dash, crashing through the branch and then running into the planted pines on the other side. The sound of the buck’s dash was followed shortly by a loud crash, and then silence. I sat back down in my climber and almost had to pinch myself and ask, did that just happen?

Until someone has experienced it, they can never understand the roller coaster of emotions that a hunter feels after shooting anything with a bow, much less a great buck. I climbed down after a short wait and walked over to retrieve my arrow. The sign was everywhere as the Bipolar had done its job. The buck made it less than 50 yards. I always stop to give thanks to the good Lord for the ability to enjoy this awesome resource and to reflect on how blessed we all truly are. When I got the buck back to my truck, I realized I had this buck’s shed from the previous year that I found in the before-mentioned food plots. He had not grown much, but he did add a couple of devil stickers to his bases. The buck probably weighed 160 pounds on the hoof and was aged at 4 1/2 years old by jawbone.

A mature buck of any kind is a trophy, especially in a swamp area with only browse and acorns and no agriculture to help pack in the nutrition and pack on the growth. A buck has no idea what is growing on his head, but I can tell you this for a fact, a 4 1/2-year-old buck that scores 110 is no easier to kill than a 4 1/2 that scores 150. Not all bucks are genetically built to grow trophy antlers; some just never will no matter how long they live.

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