Friday, October 31, 2008

Was it Deer or Turkey?

This afternoon while I was scouting for tomorrow's opening of muzzle loader season, I came across this area of freshly churned up leaves. If you hunt in an area with lots of turkeys, it can often be difficult to distinguish between deer sign and turkey sign if you don't know what to look for. Here are a couple tips to help you avoid hanging your deer stand over a bunch of turkey scratchings.

The first thing to look for is whether the leaves are broken up into small pieces like this (click on the photo for a closer view:

If the leaves are broken up, chances are that the sign was produced as deer walked around feeding on acorns or other mast. Their weight and their small hard hooves break up the leaves pretty quickly.

Turkey, on the other hand, tend to flip the leaves over without breaking them as they search for insects underneath. Here is an example:

Notice that the leaves are pretty much intact.

Of course, the best indicator of what was there is to look for what they left behind. If you are not familiar with what deer droppings look like, there are pictures here and here to get you started.

Here is an example of what turkey droppings look like. I've heard them described as looking something like popcorn.

Unfortunately, the spot I found in the picture above turned out to be turkey sign. I made a mental note for next spring and kept on scouting.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Kaleb's Buck

Kaleb Short connected with his first bow-killed buck while hunting over a white oak that was a dominant tree. Guide and videographer Ted Craddock (Rambuck) captured the action on video. It's really refreshing to witness the genuine excitement and humility on Kaleb's face and in his voice after his encounter with a very nice buck. Congratulations Kaleb!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Stand Placement

Rambuck took this video during a recent two and a half day hunting trip with clients. He estimates that the hunters he videod had shots at over 25 deer, including the nice buck at the end of the video (more on that deer later).

The video illustrates several points.

First and foremost, hunting a dominant tree dramatically ups your odds of getting within shooting range of a deer. The dominant trees on this trip were all white oaks that were actively dropping acorns. In three mornings and two afternoons, the hunters had shots at deer every time they were in the stand.

The second point that it makes is how close you can get to deer if you know where they are feeding. As a matter of fact, you can easily get too close. Notice how often the deer in the video are directly below the hunter. Despite Rambuck's advice to move about 20 yards away from the dominant tree, the hunters elected to climb trees that were only 5 - 10 yards away. Getting too close creates several problems:

  • A straight-down shot is more difficult to execute due to the awkward angle
  • A straight-down angle makes it much more difficult to get a double lung pass through or a heart shot
  • Deer coming to the dominant tree are much more likely to spot you as they approach
  • Deer are more likely to smell where you have walked around and laid your gear on the ground as you prepared to climb
  • Deer that you don't intend to shoot but that are feeding directly beneath you are likely to detect hunter movement and spook (Murphy's law says that this will happen as the shooter buck you've been waiting for approaches. The buck in the final few seconds of video approached while several does were directly under the hunter and videographer, handcuffing them long enough for the buck to get out of range)
Once you've put in the time to locate a dominant tree, make sure to spend a few minutes considering your stand placement options before picking out a tree to climb. Here are a couple suggestions. Sometimes you will be able to find a stand location that meets all the following criteria, sometimes you can only satisfy a couple. Usually you will have to make some tradeoffs.
  • Remember that deer will often favor one side of a dominant tree. If you notice that the freshest sign is concentrated on one particular side of the tree, choose a stand location that is favorable for a shot to that specific area.
  • Try to find a tree that is about 20 yards from the heaviest feeding area, not the trunk of the tree. Some large trees have limbs that spread out 10 - 15 yards from the trunk. If you are located 20 yards away from the dominant tree's trunk, you could end up with a 5 yard shot or a 35 yard shot if the deer are feeding on the near or far side of the tree respectively.
  • Choose a tree that is downwind of the feeding area and the likely approach route
  • Choose a tree that is on the opposite side of the feeding area from the likely approach route so that the deer don't have to pass directly under you on the way to feed.
  • Choose a tree that is uphill of the feeding area to give yourself a little extra elevation
  • Remember the western movies where the gunfighter tries to position himself so that the sun is to his back? Gunfighter's delight works as well on deer as it does on bad hombres. If you can find a tree to the east for morning hunts or to the west for afternoon hunts it can work to your advantage. Deer don't like to look into the sun
One final note. When you are hunting a dominant tree, be prepared to shoot at any time. If you are bow hunting, that means standing up as soon as you hear deer approaching and all the while there are are deer nearby. You don't want to have to ease up out of your seat for a shot at the buck you've been waiting for when there are several wary does just a few yards away. Oh, and don't forget to be still. This post has some video footage of the heartbreaking consequences of breaking that rule.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Navigation - Getting From Here to There

This is the third article in our navigation series for deer hunters. We've been talking about using topo maps and compasses to help us get off the beaten path to scout new areas. Now we'll show you how to put the two tools together in a real-world scouting situation.

Let's say we parked our vehicle at point B, walked northwest up the logging road, then turned right and headed out the ridge to point A. We've been following our progress on the map as we walked using the technique we talked about in the compass article, so we are certain of our position. Now we want to take the most direct route back to our vehicle.

The first step is to place our topo map on a flat surface and orient it with our compass.

Now, without moving the map, we are going to lay our compass on the map with one edge of the baseplate lying on the imaginary line from our present position to our destination, making sure that the destination end of the baseplate is the one that has the index mark where we read the compass direction. Now we will rotate the bezel to line up the arrow with the north end of the compass needle. When we're done, our map and compass should look like this:

Now, getting back to our vehicle is a simple matter of walking a straight line. With a sighting compass like we prefer, there are two ways to do that. Either by holding the compass at waist level and following the line down the center of the mirror.

Or if we want to be more accurate, we will hold the comapss at eye level with the mirror angled back so that we can see the reflection of the needle while using the notch at the top of the lid like a gun sight.

Either way, we will pick out a tree that lies on the line indicated by the compass, walk to the tree, then repeat on another tree until we arrive at our vehicle. By the way, the compass in the photos is about 30 years old and has lost part of the silvering at the bottom of the mirror. That's why you can't see a reflection of the far side of the bezel.

Before you head deep into the back country, practice these skills in a familiar area until you are comfortable with them. Once you've mastered them, you'll never hesitate to venture wherever your feet take you.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Navigation - Compass Basics

If you've mastered the mapreading basics we talked about in the first navigation article and you've located a good topo map of your hunting area, then you need one more thing before you head off the beaten path on a scouting expedition- a good compass. I'm not talking about the cheap little things you hang on your jacket zipper or slip on your watch band. I'm talking about a real outdoorsman's compass. There are three important things to look for in a compass, a rotating bezel that allows you to set the compass for any direction of travel, a baseplate for aligning with map features, and a liquid filled capsule that helps steady the needle. The basic Silva compass pictured above retails for about $20. AS you can see from the photo below, I prefer to use a compass with sighting capability like the Silva Ranger.

Of all the things that a compass is useful for, like locating likely locations for a dominant tree the most basic - and most important - is keeping your topo map oriented with the world, just like a car GPS rotates the road map around as you make turns so that the map is aligned with the road you're driving on.

Here's how you do it. Set your compass bezel to 360 degrees (straight north) and align one of the long sides of the base plate with any north-south feature on the map. I normally use an edge of the printed area or a fold that I've made carefully so that it is aligned north and south. Make sure that the north mark on the bezel points toward north on the map. Now rotate the map and compass together until the north needle lines up with the little arrow underneath it. Once that is done, your map is oriented to the world around you.

If you are scouting in unfamiliar territory, keep your map and compass in your hand as shown above. Stop frequently, orient the map, look around at the land features and compare them to the map. Start doing this at a known location like an intersection or some other obvious feature on the map. As you travel, keep up with your location on the map using the stop, orient, look around approach. Make a mental note of your location. If you don't trust your memory, put your thumb on your location and keep it there until the next time you stop and re-evaluate your location.

It may sound like a lot of work to do this, but trust me, it beats walking for twenty minutes then trying to remember how many ridges you've crossed. This brings up the most basic rule of navigating in the woods. The best way to avoid getting lost is to stay found. In other words, if I know where I am on the map, I can always find my way to wherever I want to go. We'll talk about how to do that next time.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Acorns vs. Persimmons

On a deer hunting message board, I read a post the other day from a hunter who was upset that the deer in his area were all staying on a neighboring piece of property because it has white oaks and his property doesn't. His plan was to hunt some persimmons on his property. My experience this weekend suggests that he might be in for a long wait.

On Saturday morning, I returned to the spot I tried to hunt last Sunday but couldn't due to the wind direction. The location featured a large white oak and two persimmon trees. See last week's article for a description and photos.

The only way I can describe the volume of acorns falling was to say that it sounded like little acorn avalanches every couple minutes. One falling acorn would start the process by knocking a couple more nuts loose, which multiplied the effect by knocking even more loose. You could literally hear the avalanche picking up steam, until by the time it hit the ground it was literally hundereds of acorns strong. The does started showing up at first light and several groups fed heavily throughout the morning.

This group of three does (one is partially hidden at the bottom of the frame) was oblivious to the sound of my camera shutter until I took the closeup of the lead doe at the top of the page. She was about 10 yards away at the time. That was the last I saw of that girl. I guess you could say she was a little camera shy...

Anyway, no bucks showed up, so eventually I climbed down and walked over to the persimmon trees to look around. I was surprised to see that the ground was littered with ripe persimmons, but the deer weren't paying them the least bit of attention, despite the fact that they were only twenty five yards away. Several does had even walked right past them on their way over to the white oak.

Obviously this is not a scientific study, but it sure seems to be pretty compelling evidence that deer prefer white oak acorns over persimmons. I'm going to predict that soon after the white oaks stop dropping nuts (even if there are still nuts on the ground) the deer will pick up interest in the persimmons. For whatever reason, deer don't seem to care as much for acorns that have been on the ground for a while.

In the next article, I'll continue the navigation series I began a couple days ago.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Navigation - Topo Map Basics

If you are going to get serious about scouting, sooner or later, you are going to have to venture into unfamiliar territory. That might mean exploring public land, or a new piece of property that you've gained access to, or maybe just getting out of eyesight of those landmarks like roads or fields that you've been hunting around. Whatever the case, you need to be able to navigate with a topographic (topo) map of the area.

For deer hunters, anything other than a 7.5 minute quad with a scale of 1:24,000 is pretty worthless - it won't show enough detail to translate into what you are seeing on the ground. You can get paper 7.5 minute quads directly from the USGS or from a variety of other places. If you are computer literate - I assume you are since you are looking at this online - you can purchase mapping software or find free sources on the internet. I use the Topo! State Series Software from National Geographic. It isn't cheap (about $95 for Tennessee and Kentucky) but you get some really neat tools and the ability to print out custom maps on your own inkjet printer. I recommend their adventure paper for printing. Again, it isn't cheap, but it makes the maps waterproof and virtually indestructible.

OK, on to the basics of topo maps. Topo maps are a way to represent the three dimensional hills and valleys of the real world on a flat two dimensional map. The brown lines, called contour lines, connect points of equal elevation. On the examples I've shown here, each line represents a twenty foot change in elevation. One way to visualize a contour line is to imagine flooding the landscape simulated in the bottom 3-D view with twenty feet of water and drawing a line around the shoreline, then adding another twenty feet of water, and drawing another line, repeating until everything is flooded. The last line you would draw would be at the top of the highest hill, like point "C".

Point "B" is in a valley, or hollow. Notice that the contour lines make a sharp V shape. A rule of thumb to remember is that the V's always point toward the head or top of the hollow and the open end of the V points toward the mouth of the hollow.

Compare the shape of a hollow to the typical shape of the contours for a ridge. Point "D" is at the north end of a ridge. Notice that the contour lines are rounded or U-shaped at the end of the ridge.

Another feature that deer hunters are interested in identifying on a map is a saddle, which is a low spot where two hills or ridges come together. Often deer will travel through a saddle to cross from one side of a ridge to the other. Point "A" is in a saddle which can be identified by the two sets of U-shaped countours whose rounded ends point toward each other.

One final point. You can determine how steep a hill is by looking at how closely the contours are spaced. Point "E" is on a gentle slope. Notice that the contours are spaced much further apart than at point "F" which is a very steep hill.

In the next navigation article, we will show how to use a topo map in conjunction with a compass. I may even get on my soapbox and talk about how a GPS is no substitute for a map and compass and knowing how to use 'em.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Dominant Trees and a Southerly Breeze

Here's a can't miss recipe for deer:

Take one white oak, loaded to the gills and dropping nuts. Click on the photo for a better look at the amazing number of acorns on this tree.
Add two persimmons dropping ripe fruit just 25 yards away.

Put them in a natural funnel with deer droppings everywhere and you have a combination that's as close to a sure thing as you're going to get in deer hunting.

In case you've forgotten, however, there are no sure things in deer hunting.

Everything seemed perfect as I climbed the one suitable tree to hunt this spot. A couple hours earlier when I found it, the deer I ran out as I approached were literally circling around me to get back to it. I figured the deer would be feeding all afternoon so I decided to get in my stand early. At 2:00 I was going through my mental checklist: safety harness on - check, camo makeup on - check, binoculars, rangefinder, and camera ready - check, wind sensor attached to bow - uh oh!

There was a gentle breeze blowing out of the south and straight down the ridge where I could hear deer milling around. Within five minutes a doe circled downwind, got a nose full of my scent, and sounded the warning alarm as she turned inside-out getting out of there. A couple minutes later another Shheeewww... crash, crash, crash directly downwind of me.

I looked around desperately for another tree to climb that would get my scent out of the deer's approach route. Nothing. Reluctantly, I repacked my gear, climbed down, and headed for the house. I'll return when the wind is out of the West.

Oh well, at least I got to see my RedSox play in game three of the ALDS when I got home. Go Sox!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What a Difference a Week Makes

With a heavy week of travel, work, and family commitments last week, I wasn't able to do any scouting so I returned to the spot where I had hunted on opening weekend. As I walked through the darkness on my way in, I was excited to hear chestnut oak acorns dropping by the bucketfull in every direction. This is going to be good I thought...

That's what I get for thinking. By 9:00 I had seen one flash of white tail when a deer got downwind of me, but that was it. I had a hunch that things had changed dramatically. I got down and checked every chestnut oak in the area. There were thousands of acorns on the ground and there were plenty of old dry deer droppings, but after about an hour of hard scouting I hadn't found a single pile of fresh deer droppings. That could only mean one thing - white oaks!

We've seen the pattern year after year, the deer will feed hard on the chestnut oaks until the white oaks start dropping nuts. Once there are white oak acorns on the ground, everything else is just chopped liver to the deer.

Because the area I was in had such heavy buck sign during the chestnut oak "glory days", I decided to see if there were any white oaks close by that may be holding the bucks in the area. Another disappointing hour of scouting yielded a couple of luke-warm possibilities, but no dominant trees. I hated to abandon my honey-hole, but it was getting late in the day and I was going to have to try another tactic.

I remembered a large white oak on the edge of a large open area that had a bumper crop of nuts. It was a long haul on the 4 wheeler to get there, but it was worth a try.

As I rode up close to the tree, I jumped a couple does and found enough piles of fresh deer droppings to convince me that it was a dominant tree. I climbed a nearby tree and within 15 minutes of settling in had does (but no bucks) under me for the rest of the afternoon. I had decided not to shoot does on this property this year to let it recover from the heavy EHD die-off last year, so I settled for some photos instead. The doe at the top of the page posed for a couple shots then moved off to feed under the large white oak pictured above.

Tomorrow morning I'll try again and hope for something with horns

Thursday, October 2, 2008

2008 Opening Weekend - Part 2

In part 1 of my opening day story, I described the chestnut oak ridge where we were hunting. We located a dominant tree on the tip of the ridge that looked perfect. The nuts were falling by the bucketfull, the ground was churned up, there were fresh droppings everywhere. The best part was that there were at least a half dozen rubs and a couple scrapes in about a 30 yard circle around the dominant tree.

We picked out a tree and Rambuck climbed up first with the video camera. At about 4:45, this deer came into view headed toward our little ambush. Unfortunately, he decided to stop and chew his cud for a while before he got there. I was standing with my bow ready to draw but got antsy after about six minutes of watching him and decided to take a peek through my binoculars, which turned out to be a big mistake... Needless to say that ruined our day. I call this video clip the I've Been Busted Blues.

It may be hard to see, but at about 1:00 on the video, the buck is chewing his cud and breathing very hard as if he had been running. He hadn't been breathing hard just seconds earlier. Does anyone know whether the heavy breathing is part of the normal digestive process?

On another note, Rambuck called from Illinois to say that he videoed a hunter on a hot dominant tree this morning. They had about twenty deer come in to feed. We'll get the video up when he gets back to town.