Friday, August 31, 2007

Last Respects

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 .

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.

Photo: Joella Bates
This was a business trip of sorts though, so here I was, walking through the dark on the first morning, about to hunt a spot I’d never seen before. As I followed the guide’s bright-eye trail to my stand, I reflected (pun intended) on past business trips spent in conference rooms, convention centers, and airplanes. I decided that things could have been worse, much worse.

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.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Dominant Tree - Part 2 Identification

Yesterday, we defined what a dominant tree is. If you missed that discussion, click here before reading on. The rest of this article will make a lot more sense if you do.

We talked about the importance of determining that deer are actively feeding on a particular tree. The only way to know that for certain is to find fresh deer droppings like these. I bet this is the only website in the world that features pictures of poop! Notice the dark, almost black, color which indicates that the deer who left this little clue for us has been happily munching away on acorns. The moist surface tells us that it was not too long ago.

When deer are feeding primarily on browse (green plants) the droppings tend to be greener in color like this: Typically, you will find droppings like this in the early fall before the acorns are mature or in the late winter when the mast crop has been depleted. Guess which time of the season this was taken - hint: green leaves. If you find green droppings under an oak tree, it probably means that the deer is in the process of transitioning its diet from browse to mast.

OK, so we know we're looking for trees that have fresh deer droppings under them, but there are an awful lot of trees to check. Tomorrow, we will talk about some techniques for narrowing down your search, so for now, let's talk about some quick visual clues that can help you decide whether to take the time to do a thorough search under a tree.

First, as you approach a mast producing tree, (we will talk about how to identify them soon) look for fresh nuts or fruit on the ground. Make sure to look up at the limbs overhead and pay particular attention to the ground below the thickest foliage. If you don't see fresh mast on the ground, move on to another tree.

If the tree is an oak, look for broken acorn caps, which deer often drop while eating the nuts. Here is an example:

It may be difficult to see in this small picture (you can click on it to enlarge it), but the acorn caps are not only separated from the nut, but several of them are also freshly broken. This is a good sign! Squirrels and other small animals generally do not break the caps when eating the nuts.

One final clue to look for is the condition of the ground and the dead leaves. When deer are feeding heavily on a dominant tree they will often churn up the ground and break up the dried dead leaves into small pieces like this:

If you find broken acorn caps or mulched-looking ground, but have not seen any fresh deer droppings spend the time to do a thorough search of the ground. If you find some, pick out a tree for your treestand, then get out of there! Oh, by the way, you are wearing rubber boots aren't you? If you don't find any deer droppings or you find ones that are old and dry, move on to the next tree. Chances are that the deer have too.

In our next Hunting 101 article, we will talk more about acorns.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Dominant Tree - Part 1 Definition

Yesterday, we began talking about the Dominant Tree, and how learning to find a dominant tree will improve your chances of getting a shot at a deer. Notice I didn't say "shooting a deer". I can help you get close. Taking and making the shot are up to you.

If you are like many of the hunters who have learned to hunt the dominant tree, you may find that with some practice and some success, scouting will become the most challenging and most rewarding part of the hunt. In my mind, hunting takes place before I climb up into my treestand. What happens after that is just shooting. I have found myself passing up shots that I would have taken in the past simply because I feel like I have been successful when a deer shows up under the exact tree that I set up to hunt.

So let's back up and review what a dominant tree is. A dominant tree is a specific mast-producing tree - that means that it produces nuts (hard mast) or fruit (soft mast) - that has ripe mast on which deer are actively feeding.

Let's break that definition down a little. In most parts of the country where whitetails live, the primary mast producing trees (from a deer's point of view) are oaks. Secondary mast producing tree species include persimmons, locusts, osage oranges, pawpaws, and various other wild and domestic fruit trees.

Next, we said that the tree must have ripe mast. Generally, that means that the nuts or fruit have fallen off the tree and are laying on the ground.

Third, we said that deer must be actively feeding on the mast. By actively, we mean that there have been deer feeding under that specific tree within the last 24 hours.

Finally, we said that we are looking for a specific tree. In other words, we aren't looking for an oak ridge where we have seen deer before, or returning to the hollow where Uncle Ned killed a bigg'un last year. We are looking for that one specific tree where we know deer are actively feeding.

By far, the most important part of that definition is that deer are actively feeding there. As I said yesterday, deer are creatures of habit when it comes to their food. If they are feeding on a particular tree, they will tend to continue to do so until something in their environment changes. Bear in mind that things are constantly changing in a deer's world, so a particular tree may be a dominant tree for only a couple days, or it could last for several weeks.

Some factors that determine how long a tree will remain a dominant tree include:

  • Amount of mast on the ground under the tree
  • Availability of other foods
  • Deer's preference for that particular type of mast relative to other foods
  • General travel patterns that are influenced by wind direction, hunting pressure, the rut, and a hundred other things
So how do you know where the deer are actively feeding? Simple. Deer go poop (that's a scientific term that a wildlife biologist taught me. OK, maybe it was my daughter) where they eat. Disgusting but true. I don't know whether it's the process of eating that gets their constitution working or whether they poop all the time and just happen to be standing in one place while they eat. I don't guess it really matters to anyone but a deer.
In a nutshell, finding a dominant tree is simply a narrowing down process of looking for mast producing tree species, finding the ones that are producing fresh mast, then finding the ones with fresh deer droppings underneath.
Here is a picture of one of the piles of droppings that we found under the white oak tree where I shot the 8 pointer featured in yesterday's post. The size of the droppings indicated a fairly large deer (the wind sensor case is 5.25 inches long). The moist surface told us that they were only several hours old, at the most. Some hunters (Ted) believe that clumped together droppings indicate that the "creator" was a buck. I'm not sure I would agree, but then again, I can't prove it wasn't.
In the next article we'll talk about how to identify a dominant tree.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Introduction to Pursuit Style Hunting

Welcome to the Pursuit Hunting website. The purpose of this site is to educate whitetail hunters about pursuit style hunting, which simply means using your knowledge of deer and deer sign to take the hunt to the deer rather than hoping the deer will bring the hunt to you. The rewards of pursuit style hunting are two-fold. First, you will see more deer. Second, as your knowledge and your woodsmanship skills grow, you will get the sense that you are an active participant in the natural order of things, rather than a mere observer.

You know, as humans, it's our nature to want to control things. Whether its our work, our kids, or our spouses (good luck!) we are much more comfortable when we feel like we are doing something to make things go the way we want. When I started deer hunting, I approached it with that same mentality - I'm going to DO something to make the deer come to ME. I had it all figured out. With the help of all the latest gadgets, gizmos, sprays, powders, and assorted other stuff, I was on my way to becoming the greatest deer hunter in the world.

The only problem is that the deer didn't get the memo about how they were supposed to cooperate. I spent more hours than I care to remember sitting up in a tree fantasizing about squirrels (easy now, this is a family site) magically transforming into huge ten pointers. Every once in a while a deer would blunder by, but I was basically counting on luck to see (much less shoot) a deer. Needless to say, I wasn't loadin' up the truck very often.

My hunting "luck" changed about fifteen years ago when I met my hunting partner Ted Craddock, a.k.a. Rambuck. That's him wavin' at you. Ted has taken over 400 whitetails personally and has put friends and clients on hundreds more. The dude knows his stuff! Ted taught me that the key to consistently killing deer is to figure out where they are. Pretty simple huh? Unfortunately "somewhere out there in the woods" wasn't going to cut it. Okay, how about "walking down this trail?" Nope! "Freshening this scrape?" Nope! "Checking this rub line?" Wrong again! Boy did I have a lot to learn.

Ted taught me that I could dramatically increase my odds of getting close enough to make a bow shot if I could figure out what they were eating. You see, deer are creatures of habit when it comes to their feeding behavior. He introduced me to the concept of the dominant tree.

So what is a dominant tree? Well, simply put, a dominant tree is one that is producing fruit or nuts on which the deer are actively feeding at that particular time. Figure out which specific tree that is out of the thousands in the woods, and your chances of getting a shot at a deer will go way up. "Wait a minute," you say, "you're telling me I have to find one tree out of thousands? Isn't that like finding a needle in a haystack?" Yup and nope!

Yes, you do need to find that one tree out of thousands, but it really is easier than it sounds. All you need is a little knowledge and the willingness to put some serious time and effort into scouting. Does it work? Absolutely! On average, only about 10% of bowhunters, nationwide, successfully harvest a deer during the entire hunting season. In contrast, last year, we kept detailed statistics on how often we had opportunities to kill a deer. When we were hunting a dominant tree, we saw deer within bow range 85% of the time.

One of the biggest benefits of learning to find and hunt dominant trees is that the technique works anywhere there are mast-producing trees. With huntable private land becoming increasingly scarce, it's nice to know that you can go to a public hunting area and still connect with deer. Sure, your odds of taking a record book class deer are lower on public land where there is more hunting pressure, but with some practice, you will come to enjoy the challenge of finding that hotspot that may be under everyone's nose.

Here is a video clip of an 8 pointer that I shot on public land in Illinois last season. He and about six does were coming to feed on a dominant tree. He stood forty yards away for about thirteen minutes before he finally walked over to the white oak tree and offered a good shot, which is what you see here. Note: to get the video to play, you have to click the triangle in the center of the frame then click the small triangle at the bottom left.

We had two things in our favor that day. 1. We knew exactly where the deer was eventually going to go (notice the direction my stand was pointed). 2. We also knew that he wasn't going to smell us before he got there (notice the wind direction indicated by the wind sensor on the end of my stabilizer). I was confident in passing up several iffy shots and waiting for a good angle and a clear shot.

Tomorrow we'll continue talking about dominant trees and how to find 'em.