From time to time, we will feature On The Hunt articles that are intended to illustrate the scouting techniques we discuss in our regular articles. If you have an article that you feel is relevant and would like to have it featured, please email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
On October 2, 2006, I was fortunate enough to connect with this nice P&Y-class deer on the first day of a hunt on land that I had never set foot on before. Was it luck? Perhaps there was an element of luck (as there always is in hunting), but I believe that luck favors those who carefully prepare and work hard at their sport.
On this particular hunt, I was hunting with a commercial outfitter in Western Kentucky on my first guided hunt. As a died-in-the-wool do-it-yourselfer, I was admittedly less than enthusiastic about hunting a stand that I hadn’t personally scouted.
As I approached the lock-on stand, my spirits lifted as I heard the sound of acorns hitting the ground by the bucketful. A quick scan with my flashlight revealed the source, two large white oak trees – my favorite bowhunting setup. Things were looking up! Maybe Mr. Big would drop in for a little taste of acorns on his way from a nearby cornfield to his bedding area.
At first light, a four pointer hustled up the ridge on a deer trail from behind me then turned left and disappeared downwind over the side of the ridge. About an hour or so later, a six pointer approached cautiously from the opposite direction, turned right and disappeared over the ridge in the same general direction as the earlier deer. Although neither deer was a shooter, both passed within twenty yards of my stand offering ample easy shots.
Two bucks in easy bow range within an hour’s time. Sounds like a great spot, right? Wrong! You see, neither of those two bucks paid the least bit of attention to the thousands of white oak acorns lying on the ground nearby. My experience has been that when there are fresh white oak acorns in the area, deer will be feeding on a dominant tree somewhere. The trick is to find it. It was time to move! I had an hour and a half until I had to meet my guide for the ride back to camp, so the pressure was on. Just the way I like it!
I climbed down from the stand and made a thorough search of the area under the two nearby white oaks and confirmed that they definitely were not dominant trees. Despite acorns so thick on the ground that it was like standing on ball bearings, there was not a single pile of deer droppings. The deer in the area definitely were not feeding there. If a shooter buck showed up, it would be pure luck, and I didn’t like those odds.
Bowhunting is a game of odds and inches. If you aren’t stacking the odds of having a relaxed deer within easy bow range, you are going to waste a lot of time hunting unproductive spots and likely only getting long shots at moving deer. In my experience, if you can locate a dominant tree, you will have deer within shooting range at least 80% of the time. And the best part of hunting a dominant tree is that the shots you get usually will be at relaxed deer that are relatively stationary while they feed.
So where to look first? I made a quick check of the Tiger Whiskers wind sensor mounted on my stabilizer and determined that the wind was still blowing toward the end of the ridge, slightly angling across it, so I headed off in the direction in which the two deer had gone. My strategy was to look for a dominant tree on the side of the ridge along the likely travel route that a large mature deer would take on the way to the bedding area.
As I dropped over the side of the ridge, I was excited to see numerous large white oak trees. Stopping to listen, I heard the sound of acorns falling from several of them. Time to get busy! I methodically checked under each and every one, working my way toward the downwind end of the ridge (we will talk about why deer favor those areas in a later article). The closer I got to the end of the ridge, the more walk sign (fresh tracks and disturbed leaves on the ground) I noticed. Deer definitely were using this area. I was starting to get really excited!
Then I found it, a double-trunked white oak that was raining acorns. Underneath, the ground was churned up, the dead leaves reduced to small bits and pieces by deer’s hooves as they fed. Broken acorn caps and shell fragments were everywhere. This was looking good! A couple more steps into the mulched-up leaves and I found what I was looking for… fresh deer droppings and lots of them. There must have been twenty piles! In addition, there were some very large tracks and numerous rubs in the area. The evidence of a hot dominant tree was unmistakable.
Now my heart was racing. That 80% probability of seeing deer under a dominant tree that I mentioned earlier was looking more like 90% in this spot. As I stood there collecting my thoughts and looking for a tree to climb with my climbing stand, I heard the sound of running deer and looked up in time to see a very nice buck running off. I couldn’t make out any of the details of his rack, but it was definitely big!
I gulped my heart back down into my chest, checked my wind sensor, picked out a climbable tree that was about twenty yards downwind of the feeding area, then got the heck out of there. On the way out, I marked the tree I had picked out to climb and my travel route with the flagging tape and bright eyes that I always carry when I’m scouting.
Back in camp, I was too excited to even taste the lunch that I mechanically chewed and swallowed. As soon as the dishes were cleared, I talked the guide into giving up his afternoon nap to drive me back to my new found honey-hole, arriving there at about 2:30.
The afternoon temperature was in the mid-90’s as I slowly worked my way up the hickory tree I had picked out earlier, cutting about a dozen rock-hard limbs on the way up. Thirty minutes and a couple gallons of sweat later, I finally had my climbing treestand in position and secured to the tree. I stripped off my drenched t-shirt, used it to mop the sweat off my body, and stuffed it into my pack. There’d be no fooling a deer’s nose if he got down-wind of me today. Luckily, the wind held steady, blowing from the feeding area toward me. Perfect!
While I waited for the sweating to diminish from a torrent to a trickle, I sat shirtless in my stand using my rangefinder to take measurements on several nearby trees. I was anticipating a long hot wait until the last thirty minutes of daylight when deer typically move so I wasn’t in any hurry to put on my long sleeve shirt and camo face paint. A spike buck trotting down the side of the ridge at 4:00 jolted me into action.
About 45 minutes later, I caught movement to my left out of the corner of my eye. As I stared at the area about fifty yards away, a deer leg materialized, then a set of antlers, then another set of antlers, then another. Three bucks, all shooters, were slowly working their way down the side of the ridge toward my stand, pausing every couple steps to pick up an acorn, look around, and test the wind. About forty yards out, they stopped and milled around, still looking around and testing the wind. They were alert but relaxed. I had numerous opportunities to take a forty yard shot, but decided to wait. My wind sensor was still indicating that the wind was blowing from the deer toward me, so I knew there was no chance of them winding me. I figured that they would eventually move over to the dominant tree to feed.
After about fifteen minutes, which seemed like an eternity, the largest of the three bucks slowly made his way over to the dominant tree. I’d like to say that I made an incredibly difficult shot, but in truth, it was probably the easiest shot I have ever taken on a deer. He paused right next to a small tree that I had previously ranged at exactly twenty yards then looked back over his shoulder at the other bucks as if to say, “what are you waiting for?” His chest seemed huge compared to the Tennessee deer I’m accustomed to.
When he turned his head, I drew and settled my twenty yard pin on his heart, then concentrated on a smooth release and follow through. The arrow flew true. On impact, something happened that I had never seen before. The buck barely flinched, as if he had been bitten by a horsefly or something. Nothing in his actions indicated that he knew he had been hit! Calmly and slowly, he walked about thirty yards, then laid down.
Holding his head high, he looked up at me for the first time and we made eye contact. We held each other's stare for several seconds. During the fleeting moment that I looked into those dark eyes, I had the strangest sensation of some primal communication of mutual respect passing between us. There was no fear, there was no celebration. There seemed to be an acceptance that we had each fulfilled our respective roles in the natural order of things. Watching him peacefully draw his last breath was a bittersweet ending. "Farewell my friend," I whispered.