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Bow Hunting

Success is in the Details

Bow HuntingThere is an advantage to being a relative new-comer to bow hunting. The lessons I have learned in my relatively short ‘career’ are still vivid in my mind and memory. The basic instincts and awareness that seasoned veterans may take for granted, I still consciously account for each time in the mountains during elk season, in the tree stand waiting for wary whitetails, or patiently stalking late season mule deer.

This September, I will embark on only my 7th big game hunting season with stick and string. The memories of that very first elk hunt; walking up the drainage at dawn, moving slowly, brushing the heavy dew off of my pants, and listening to my very first elk bugle still make the back of my neck tingle like it did that crisp autumn morning. It is this clarity that gives me an advantage in relating some of my hard-earned lessons to those starting out or anyone looking for an edge.

As clear as my memories are of that maiden hunt with my good buddy Jason, the knowledge that I was completely clueless are even more pronounced. Other than a few close calls, probably more like blind luck, our efforts were pretty futile that year. However, it was the lessons of that season and the next few that built the foundation for whatever hunting prowess I now have (or don’t have in some cases).

One of the most important lessons that I have learned, and continue to learn is to listen to what the animals are telling me even when they are not there. What clues did they leave? Some are easy to spot, some are much more subtle but they are there nonetheless. ‘What were they doing when they were here?’ ‘Have they been here more than once?’ ‘How long has it been since they were right here?’ Examples of these clues are elk wallows, whitetail rubs and scrapes, bear marking trees, creek crossings, etc.


One of the best examples of this took place several years ago when one of my hunting buddies and I started seriously hunting whitetails here in southern Idaho. After elk season, we talked nonstop about setting up some trail cameras and hanging some tree stands, but we continued to procrastinate well into October. Finally, one day, I decided to take my Labrador out to look for some pheasants in the same area we planned to chase the whitetails later in the season. Combing through the brush and crossing the creek, I began to see deer tracks everywhere and lots of potential choke points to hang some cameras. I began to get excited.

I quickly packed up my dog and started the hour plus long drive back to my house. As I was driving I called Doug and told him to leave work early and meet me at my house, we were going to do some scouting work. He debated for a minute or two and then agreed. As it was already late afternoon, we hustled as fast as we could to our destination. Frantically, we loaded our gear and disappeared into the tangle of river bottom foliage. As we traveled through the same area I scouted earlier, Doug began to point out to me all of the things that my inexperience and excitement hid from my eyes earlier.

“Look at this rub!” He exclaimed. “And this scrape here, there is a lot of buck activity in this area!”

As he showed me some of these signs, it felt like the blinders were removed from my eyes. I started to slow down, look harder and–surprise–see more. I knew what each piece of sign was I just wasn’t looking hard enough. I was only seeing the surface, not what the clues were telling about what was going on below the surface. It was a matter of

knowing what to look for and where to look, but most importantly to just be aware of all of it.

Good Whitetail Buck

I can think of countless scenarios before and since that point to the importance of paying attention to these clues. Several years ago, while hunting elk here in my home state, I took off after an unsuccessful morning glassing session. In a meadow not far above our camp I noticed a cluster of elk tracks that appeared to be extremely fresh because the dry, cocoa colored dirt was still pressed down solid in spite of little moisture. In an area like ours, there are a lot of tracks so telling fresh and old apart is a much needed skill.

Again, Doug was with me so I motioned for him to come and check out my find. “Those are really fresh,” he acknowledged. We quickly made a plan. We would move down the drainage, alternating calling sessions with one guy as a ‘shooter’ and the other as the ‘caller’. I volunteered to call first, nothing. We moved down 100 yards and he started calling, nothing. We moved again…nothing. Less than an hour after seeing the tracks and on our fourth session, Doug called up a nice 5-point bull that I arrowed at 16 yards. You have to love when a plan comes together.

Sometimes it is more than visual clues that tell us the habits and whereabouts of our quarry. Learning to pay attention to the sounds and smells of the outdoors is a skill to be honed like any other. Most hunters are aware that elk have a very distinct odor and hunting into the wind can help lead you in the direction of the herd if you are paying attention to your senses. Some people like to charge through the forest, a lot like we did during that maiden season. A ‘hunter’ has the discipline to slow down and be aware of all of his senses and surroundings.

The year before the elk hunt mentioned earlier, I was probably still in that class of hunter–charging through the mountains, mostly oblivious to my surroundings. However, curiosity was something that I had in spades. So, much to my best friend Jason’s dismay, I scrambled off of our intended path to investigate a strange sound I had heard on the finger ridge above us. Several minutes later, and only two hours into our week-long adventure, I had arrowed my first bull elk, a nice 6-point Idaho monarch. To this day, Jason swears that it was a bird squawking and not any sound an elk would make that drew me up the hill that evening.
196527_1009345246062_2275_nPaying attention to my surroundings paid off that day as it has many times since. It doesn’t always lead to harvesting an animal but all of it contributes to my education and knowledge bank. Again, sometimes it is a familiar smell or a nearly inaudible sound that leads us in a direction. Sometimes it is the way the grass is still folded over in a peculiar way. Other times it is a splash of water from hooves or paws leaving a stream. All of these things tell us something, even in the absence of game. It’s how we process and use this information that makes the difference.

I have been lucky enough to have mentors that have showed me some of these things, which definitely expedites the learning curve, and that is what I hope to do for others by sharing my experiences. I have had opportunities to take a few young hunters with me on an adventure or two and passing this knowledge on is highly rewarding. Seeing the light bulb flicker on when you show them some of these tell-tale signs can be just as much fun as the hunting itself.

10 point whitetail buck

Whitetail Hunting in Texas Ended with a “Bang!”

Texas is an amazing state. It contrasts sharply with what I have been accustomed to in the Rocky Mountain States. Texas has very little private land, but a lot of big game opportunities. While Whitetail deer are the primary wild big game in Texas, there are a number of Exotic species that have claimed Texas as their own and now successfully breed and maintain robust populations due to game ranching in decades and centuries past. I had spent thanksgiving holiday on a small parcel of land that my father had recently purchased. After spending the holiday chasing whitetails, hogs, and whatever exotic might come my way, I had returned home buck-less. We had a fantastic trip, despite not filling my tag and had made some progress towards property development and planning. Nevertheless, my tag (which allowed me 5 whitetials) remained unpunched.  There seems to be something about unpunched tags and open hunting seasons that don’t get along too well–so I made some last minute arrangements and returned to hunt the last week of the season.

Dad and I, along with a friend, Ken, left Western Wyoming early December 27th. The temperature was hovering somewhere near -16 F. 1300 miles and 75 degrees later, we were traveling south of Sonora,TX in T-shirt weather. When we arrived at the Ranch, we stopped by the south gate and retrieved the memory card from the trail camera that was placed in a high traffic area on that end of the property. I promptly plugged it into my laptop and began to view the first of nearly 500 photos.  The pictures were of many does, yearling bucks, we got excited when the first 8 point starred in a few consecutive photos. I was only a couple dozen pictures in when we reached the Cabin, and with the light getting lower, we were anxious to get out and and do a little hunting.  So, I skipped forward to the most recent ten pictures and was excited to see what appeared on my laptop screen.

Having recently obtaining this property, this was the biggest buck we had record of to this point. Rumors spread of some monster bucks being taken prior years on adjacent properties, and while this wasn’t a giant buck, we were excited to see a different age class of deer than we had previously encountered. We grabbed our gear and guns and headed out for the evening hunt. Dad and Ken took a tour through the middle of the property, as I headed down the east boundary to a high traffic area closer to where the trail camera pics were taken.

Typical Texas hunting in this area is done from elevated stands and blinds, placed over feeders and food plots. The Double Draw is still under development, and none of these features are in place, so I picked a likely spot between some shin oak and cedars to sit down and see if any deer would move past me. I did jump several deer as I walked through part of the property, including a small eight point.

I sat for what I would estimate to be about 30 minutes. I  had discovered during my hunt earlier in the year that “still hunting” whitetails is more difficult than I had anticipated. So I thought it best to try a true “still hunt” and not move at all. I sat motionless, hoping something would come my way. I had a great shooting lane right in front of me, and a decent one to my left. To my right I could see through the scrub oak, but leafless branches didn’t allow for a good lane to shoot through. I anticipated the deer to move through my shooting lanes, but as always, animals do unexpected things. I suddenly caught movement to my right through the scrub oaks, where I didn’t have a shooting lane. A good 10 point was quartering away from me at about 40 yards. I couldn’t shoot due to the scrubby shin oaks, and was afraid if I stood I would startle the deer and it would be the end of it. I only had moments to decide what to do, and decided stay seated, and hoped he would move to his left and into a large opening. He didn’t. The buck turned straight away and walked behind a large juniper. One six inch opening in this juniper which was about half way between the deer and me caught my eye as I expected the buck to possibly move through it. Luck shined my way as the bucks shoulder moved through the opening. He had even quartered back towards me a little and was almost broadside. I realized my time was short, and fired through the opening in the tree.  The buck whirled and ran back the way it came. I jumped to my feet in hopes of seeing where the buck was headed. He bounded through an opening, looking healthy as ever, and disappeared into the trees. I heard his hooves clamoring on the rocky ground as he ran, and then a large crash of broken branches.

Hoping the crash meant he was down, I followed and quickly spotted him laying down, head up in a bush and facing the opposite direction. While he looked alive and alert from behind, he had actually expired, falling into the tree which held his head up and ears alert. I had bagged my first Texas Whitetail, and a dark horned 10 point at that!

The next morning Ken took this 8 point near the cabin. He made a great shot and dropped the buck in its tracks.

Overall we had a great trip. We saw a lot of deer every day. Dad ended up passing on a few smaller bucks and did not take a buck. After a few more days of working on projects around the property, we started the 2 day drive towards home. I finally had some time to look over all of the trail camera photos I had retrieved the first afternoon. The camera had taken a single photo of my buck. It was neat to have live photos of both the larger bucks, taken a few days before we arrived. While neither of the bucks were consistent on the trail camera, they still stayed close by, and with their cooperation — made for a great hunt!