Go Low-Impact When Hunting Big Bucks
It's not just how often or when you hunt a stand, but details like how you get to and from the area that can make the difference.
It is often said that a hunter’s first time in a particular area yields the best odds of taking a mature buck, or any deer for that matter. The reason for this is simple: The hunter alerts deer to his presence, and the deer adjust accordingly.
I am a firm believer that it only takes one negative event to cause a mature deer to significantly alter where it feels safe during daylight. In a perfect world, every hunter would have access to enough land that they could simply choose a new, unpressured spot every time they went hunting. Unfortunately, this is far from reality.
Fortunately, there is a seemingly endless number of precautions that a hunter can take to decrease his impact—his level of disturbance—upon the deer and increase his odds of taking a mature buck that otherwise would have learned to avoid his hunting area during daylight.
There are three main categories of things that affect how “low-impact” a hunter’s strategy is: where he hunts, how he gets there and how he hunts once he is there.
There are basically three types of hunting areas—feeding areas, bedding areas and travel routes. Feeding areas are where deer eat, bedding areas are where they sleep, and travel routes are the funnels, edges, saddles, trails etc. that deer follow when getting from feeding to bedding and vice-versa. Although big bucks are killed at feeding and bedding area stands, I feel the most productive and low-impact stand sites are travel routes.
One reason for this is that deer are crepuscular, meaning that they are most active at dawn and dusk. Unless rutting, a deer’s crepuscular activity essentially revolves around feeding. Deer are likely to be at a hunter’s feeding-area stand when the hunter is attempting to sneak in before daylight, and deer likely won’t come to feed until after dark in the evening.
In regards to bedding areas, deer spend so much time in and around them there is next to nothing “low-impact” about hunting bedding areas, especially within bow range.
However, a hunter overlooking a travel route has the opportunity to intercept deer heading toward their bedding area just after daylight and back to a feeding area just before dark. Accordingly, a hunter overlooking a travel route has a much smaller chance of running deer out from under his stand in the morning, or being forced to spook deer or wait however long it takes for deer to leave on their own once it gets dark. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times both of these things happened when I was primarily hunted feeding areas. I was around 12 when my mom, bless her heart, organized a party to come get me because it was an hour after dark, and I was still sitting in my tree waiting for deer to leave.
Another reason watching travel routes is a lower-impact method of hunting than watching feeding or bedding areas is that deer are on the move on travel routes. Which is least likely to smell a hunter or their residual ground scent: a deer that meanders all around the stand for 30 minutes with its nose near the ground while eating acorns, a deer which lays on the ground in different spots all around his tree for hours at a time, or a deer that walks past the hunter’s tree on basically the same trail every time and stays just long enough to present a shot opportunity? The answer is obvious, the third one. A deer in a feeding or bedding area would be closer to your ground scent, have a larger amount time to smell it, and wanders all over which makes it harder to avoid walking where deer walk.
Travel-route hunters also have an advantage in regards to avoiding being seen or heard. A deer thoroughly examines its surroundings before slowing down to feed or bed down, but a deer generally is not as aware while traveling. Additionally, if a hunter sees a deer that he does not plan to shoot in a feeding or bedding area, it has an extended amount of time to become aware of the hunter’s presence and alert any mature bucks in the area by blowing, stomping, and/or running off.
Even when hunting travel routes, utmost caution is necessary to avoid disturbing deer and causing them to change their tendencies. As a general rule, it is best to hunt a particular spot no more than once per week. Furthermore, it is imperative that a hunter take all precautions to prevent deer from smelling where he walked in or out of the woods. In many cases, this is fairly easy for rifle hunters, because they can step right off of a camp road and shoot a deer several hundred yards away. However, for a bowhunter, or someone hunting in very thick areas, it is necessary to get close to where the deer are. This is when having good trails leading to and from a stand site comes into play.
The next building block in a good low-impact hunting strategy is planning good entry and exit routes. Creating a low-impact entry/exit route is incredibly important because without it, every deer in the woods will be exposed to the hunter’s ground scent and become aware that they are being hunted. Creating a low-impact route is simply the result of finding the best downwind route to your stand location and altering it to decrease the odds that a deer will smell residual scent left on that route. Additionally, a hunter should strive to disturb deer as little as possible while discovering and altering that route.
When planning an entry/exit route, a hunter should try to walk places where deer don’t usually walk, and also places where deer are used to smelling humans when they do walk there. Personally, I use public roads to get as close to the downwind side of my stand as I can, whether or not that is the shortest way as the crow flies. Well-used camp roads apply here as well. Anywhere downwind of the stand that a deer would smell humans, whether a hunter had been there or not, should be used as much as possible.
My route planning progresses using geological features to help me avoid being seen, smelled or heard by a deer. For example, a deep, rugged ravine is not usually traveled in much by deer, so there isn’t a substantial chance of having one smell where I walked. In addition, the ravine hides my figure from deer at surface level and keeps airborne scent from dispersing as much as it would out in the open. Any body of water like a creek is another great example of something to aid a hunter in getting to a stand because it will not hold scent where he walked like the ground would.
Anywhere a hunter can walk that a deer usually wouldn’t, or wouldn’t be alarmed that if a hunter did, is good to use in an entry/exit route. Once I have reached the end of a geological feature, or if none are present, I will attempt a straight shot to my tree. However, if I come to a deer trail, I will do whatever it takes to avoid crossing the trail. It is not uncommon to walk several hundred yards out of the way or re-map part, or all, of the route to avoid a deer trail.
If I deem it impossible to avoid crossing a deer trail, I will carry some enzyme-based scent killer and a bottle of Bowhunter’s Fatal Obsession (which I always carry anyway) with me and spray myself and the trail excessively before and during crossing it. This seems to fool deer most of the time. However, it is not uncommon for a deer to follow the Bowhunter’s Fatal Obsession to the base of my tree and get nervous when they realize that the scent trail ends there. Although this level of planning requires a lot of thought, effort and trial-and-error to perfect and implement, it pays dividends in regards to mature buck sightings.
Once I have determined the best route to a given tree, I alter it to further increase my odds of getting to my stand location without being detected. First, I place a reflective tack on a tree roughly every 5 yards along my route. This allows me to get to and from my stand in dark using the dullest flashlight I can find. Next, I remove any crunchy sticks that I might step on and cut down any plants I would walk on or rub against and leave scent on while walking to my stand. Finally, to discourage deer from adopting my trail as their own, I stack large limbs and small logs every-so-often along my trail so deer will have to jump them and will likely not adopt it as a path of travel.
Another thing to consider is how to avoid disturbing deer while planning and cutting entry/exit routes. I try to always do all of this during the middle of the day immediately before or during rain. This greatly reduces any scent from when I walked all over the woods trying to figure out the best way to avoid walking over a deer trail.
In addition, I believe in making a lot of noise while you are far away from where you expect deer to be and using power tools to cut your trails. I would much rather have the deer spook gradually as I get closer than sneak right up on them and spook them. Using power tools to alter trails helps with this. Although it may be months before deer season, it is wise to take as few chances as possible when trying to gain the upper hand on a mature buck.
The buck pictured with this article is evidence of the effectiveness of having a good entry and exit route to a stand location. I hunted the spot where I shot this bucks three times. The first time I did not see a deer. The second time, I killed the buck featured in my “Hunter’s Journal” entry of the January 2014 issue of GON, and the third time I killed the buck whose picture accompanies this article. With a sloppy entry/exit route, these bucks would have likely been alerted to my presence and not have shown themselves during daylight.
The route to that stand started in the landowner’s driveway. I walked down the driveway and then 200 yards down a public road to a drainage ditch that eventually led to a ravine. I followed the ravine to where it tapered out 40 yards from an edge deer walked along when moving from a thicket to a hardwood ridge. The entry/exit route played a significant role in taking these two bucks, but the precautions I took before and during my hunt also helped.
Precautions When Hunting
The hunt begins long before the hunter steps foot in the woods. It is beneficial to have all hunting clothes washed in scent-free laundry detergent. If I had none, I would opt to wash clothes without detergent rather than use the scented kind. After washing, I put my clothes in an airtight bag until I am out of my truck at the hunting property. Another important factor is bathing in scent-killing body wash. Additionally, I like to brush my teeth with some baking soda toothpaste, and then I eat a couple of spoonfuls of peanut butter immediately before heading toward my stand sight.
Another thing occurring before the hunt even begins that affects the amount of impact on the deer that a hunting strategy has is equipment selection. A hunter can move less, make less noise and sit longer when comfortable. It is important for a hunter to be wearing enough comfortable clothes to stay warm and be equipped with a comfortable tree stand or blind seat. It goes without saying that a hunter should possess plenty of scent eliminator and cover scent. Additionally, weapon choice is of utter importance. I prefer a short, light bow, and a short, light rifle for hunting out of a tree stand. A youth model rifle fits the bill perfectly for this situation.
Now that I have established the importance of preparation and equipment selection, I can finally discuss low-impact tactics that take place while hunting. The first is allowing plenty of time to get to a stand location. I like to walk very slowly to my stand, so I don’t sweat. Additionally, I take heel-to-toe steps without any form or fashion of rhythm while making sure to avoid stepping on any crunchy leaves or twigs, so that any deer within earshot hear a noise here and there instead of a definite human walking pattern. Another advantage to this is that it increases the chance of seeing a deer that is already at my stand sight before I am seen.
Upon reaching a particular stand location, I use my climbing stand to slowly ascend at least 30 feet up my selected tree. Climbing this high lowers the odds of being smelled by a deer that is directly under my tree and reduces the chances of a deer seeing me. At 30 feet a deer is very unlikely to see me, and at 35 to 40 feet I can practically do jumping jacks without being spotted. However, I would not recommend climbing any higher than 30 when bowhunting due to the shot angle on a deer.
Wind direction is also of utter importance. Most hunters know it is important to be downwind of deer, but how many actually make a point to do so? In my experience, there are far more hunters who ignore this simple rule than those who follow it. The difference in deer sightings, especially mature bucks, over the course of a year when paying close attention to the wind is absolutely astonishing. The first year I began paying close attention to the wind, I saw dramatically more deer and a lot closer to a 1:1 ratio of bucks and does. Simply put, it is necessary to pay close attention to the wind direction in order to kill mature bucks. I will leave my stand if the wind changes to an unfavorable direction in the middle of a hunt. It is that important to have a good wind direction.
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Deer, especially mature ones, are wary creatures. By nature, they will avoid an area if they believe human intrusion has occurred. This means it is important for humans to avoid being seen, heard or smelled by deer. Hunters can do this by hunting in stands watching travel routes, carefully planning entry/exit routes to these stands and taking all feasible precautions when hunting. Hunting is like many other things: You get out what you put in.
The hunter who is willing to take the steps necessary to lessen a deer’s awareness of his presence is much more likely to take a mature buck than a hunter who is not.
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