When your hunting efforts produce nothing but lemons, make lemonade.
Humans, like deer, are creatures of habit. Just like a wily old whitetail, our downfall is sometimes the result of falling into a pattern. Fortunately, we have the unique ability to reason, even if we don’t always use it to our advantage. When your preferred hunting methods don’t produce, step back and evaluate the situation. Often, you’ll find a solution by trying something different.
My first experience with this came early in my hunting career. Looking back, the concept seems simple and straightforward, but I had no one to mentor me, so most of my learning was through trial and lots of error.
I started mornings like pretty much everyone else I hunted with, sneaking a short distance into the woods and waiting for the sun to rise and for deer to come my way. When that didn’t happen, I would slip quietly along, hoping to sneak up on an unsuspecting deer. I saw some, but it was usually in the form of a flash of brown and the old white-tail salute. Then, I’d hear a shot somewhere in the distance.
It didn’t take long to figure out I needed to get in front of the deer, not behind them. And I needed to be patient. I began hiking farther up into the hills before daylight and sitting much longer, sometimes all day. Slowly, my success improved. As my confidence and experience grew, I started finding more ways to turn the tables on deer.
Back then, we did a lot of deer drives. I don’t do as many now because I prefer to hunt deer rather than just shoot deer, but I learned how to conduct a more effective drive.
The standard practice consisted of a line of noisy drivers pushing deer toward strategically positioned standers. It worked sometimes, but often the deer would simply slip around us and back into their security cover.
Our first step toward turning the tables was to slow down. Rather than trudging along, the drivers would still-hunt slowly toward the standers. Deer that moved ahead were now sneaking rather than running, providing a better shot opportunity for the standers. But the drivers also got their share of opportunities.
Then we discovered another trick, somewhat by accident. If we got too far apart or the cover got too thick, we might occasionally lose sight of another driver. Mistakenly waiting for the others to catch up, that lost driver would fall behind our advancing line. The hole he created in the line offered an ideal escape route for a sly old buck, until he ran smack into the lagging driver. From that experience, we developed a staggered drive formation where the lead man would forge ahead while his wingmen would lag some distance behind.
It should be noted that extreme caution must be employed when conducting any kind of drive, especially one where you might not be able to see the other hunters. Follow the commandments of gun safety and always be certain of your target and what lies beyond. Take only clean, safe shots. No deer is worth risking the safety of other hunters.
I was also able to apply what I learned about staggered drives to situations where I was still-hunting on my own. If I inadvertently bumped a deer, I’d make a quick guess at which way I thought it was going, do a mad dash of a hundred yards or more at roughly a right angle to the deer’s direction of travel, then stop and watch intently.
Obviously, you have to be mindful of wind direction. If it’s straight in your face, you’ve got a 50-50 chance. If it’s quartering, go to the downwind side. That’s where you’ll often find them as they circle downwind to try to identify whatever disturbed them. I’ve caught several deer sneaking along, looking and smelling in the direction I was when I first jumped them.
Rattling can be an effective way to dupe a deer into coming closer. Still, a lot of folks complain it just doesn’t work for them. There are several reasons, but one is exemplified by a Texas research project where observers in elevated towers watched how deer reacted to antler rattling.
They noticed several trends, not the least of which was that bucks often circled down-wind of the rattling, presumably to scent-check before approaching possible danger. The hunters were often unaware of how many deer they rattled in.
The simple solution to turning the tables is teaming up. Set a shooter some distance, 100 yards or more, downwind of the rattler. A deer might come straight in and provide the rattler with a shot, but the downwind hunter will probably get more opportunities.
Hunters are forever trying to pattern deer. It can be done, although not as often as we’d like. More often, deer pattern us. In fact, some research suggests that mature bucks actually learn to avoid permanent stands during daylight.
I’m fortunate in that I’ve been able to hunt the same areas for well over 20 years. In that time, I’ve learned a lot, not the least of which is that success rates at permanent stand locations decline over time.
There are a few select stands that continue to produce, but most are rifle stands where I can see and shoot longer distances. Over several seasons, many of my preferred bow stands got colder. In response, I simply moved a short distance away, usually to the downward side of prevailing winds.
You can sometimes speed up the process by enlisting the aid of trail cameras. Buckmasters’ advertising director Scott Maloch did just that with a particular buck he was after, although it took some innovative thinking.
“I had trail camera pictures of a particular buck frequenting one of my food plots,” said Scott. “All the pictures showed him entering from the west.” So he went in and set up a stand for a southwest wind and used the easiest approach to the plot, which was down a roadway from the northeast. The buck didn’t show.
After several unsuccessful hunts, Maloch hung a Plotwatcher and discovered the deer was actually entering the field first from the northeast, scent-checking the stand before it did. Then it would cross the plot, go back into the woods and re-enter from the west. In response, Maloch moved his stand to the southeast corner of the plot, entered from a different direction and killed the deer on his next sit.
Food plots provide another example of how you might turn the tables in your favor.
Lots of folks like to hunt on food plots and experience a fair amount of success doing so. They might do even better if they considered that older, more experienced bucks are more likely to scent-check a plot from a concealed downwind location before waltzing into the open.
This is especially true during the rut, when they’re more interested in does than food. You can keep your shooting house on the field edge but you might also set up a temporary stand 75 to 100 yards back in the woods, on the downwind side. You’ll see fewer deer, but you might see more of the type you’re after.
Sometimes turning the tables involves literally changing the way you approach a situation. I once found a really hot spot that at first appeared un-huntable. It was a narrow strip choked with dense brush connecting two larger tracts of open woods.
The strip provided a perfect funnel and was loaded with beds, rubs and scrapes. But there were only two avenues of approach on foot: one through thick, noisy cover, and the other from upwind. Either seemed a risky proposition, but the spot was too juicy to pass up.
Then, I recognized a third way. It would take a bit more effort and time, but by canoeing upriver, I could slip silently to within 30 yards of my stand on the downwind side of the bed-ding area. The stand produced for several years until someone else found the area and started approaching it on foot.
I used to work in an outdoor retail store and was griping to a manager one evening about some policy or procedure that wasn’t working out favorably. After listening indulgently, he calmly replied that I should view it not as a problem but an opportunity. “Find a way to turn the situation around in your favor.”
I thought that was such an interesting philosophy that I started applying it to other aspects of life, particularly deer hunting. Every situation is different, but these examples show how thinking outside the box can often turn problems into hunting opportunities.
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