Sunday, November 21, 2010

Southwind Buck

I love it when a plan comes together!  This was the view from my treestand at about 7:25 this morning.  I didn't have a real camera with me, so I took the photo through my binoculars with my Blackberry.  It's kinda hard to make out, but that little patch of white 2/3 of the way up is a deer laying about 40 yards away.

Meetings and a nasty head cold have kept me out of the woods for a while (including yesterday's opening day of gun season), so for my first day of gun season I had to pick a spot without the benefit of any recent scouting.

The Weather Channel was predicting a south wind, so I broke out my topo map - and between sneezes - looked for terrain features that would be good candidates for setting up downwind of cruising bucks.  One particular saddle that runs directly north-south caught my eye. 

I've noticed a good amount of walk sign there over the past several weeks.  I've also seen lots of does in the general area, but nothing in particular had screamed out "hunt here."  I figured by setting up on the north end of the saddle I could cover it without stinking up the likely approach routes.  In the absence of a better plan, it was worth a shot.

By flashlight, I picked out a nice straight white oak that seemed to offer a clear view across the saddle and hauled my sneezing, wheezing butt up the tree.  At about 7:15 I noticed movement in a patch of thick stuff about 50 yards away.  I could make out a decent set of antlers but didn't get much of a look.  There was another opening about ten feet in front of the deer, so I settled my scope on it and waited. 

In just a couple seconds, the buck stepped into the small opening and gave me a clear shot.  The .270 ballistic tip hit behind the right shoulder and took out both lungs on the way through.  The buck managed to go only about 20 yards before piling up right beside a logging road.  Tracking and retrieving couldn't have been easier - which was a good thing, because I really wasn't looking forward to dragging him out of a hollow.

As I sat there in my stand trying to line up my phone's camera lens with my binoculars (not an easy task) a little basket-rack 8 point walked right by the downed buck and never even broke stride.  Unfortunately, I couldn't get everything lined up in time to capture that.

What a morning!  What a start to Thanksgiving week!  Just last week, I promised my neighbor some sausage from my next deer.  He'll be thrilled to have it in time for the holiday.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Badfinger Bucks

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I missed the actual opening morning of muzzle loader season.  My son Hunter (that's him above) had an away football game on Friday night.  Neither of us was looking forward to heading out on only a couple hours sleep, so we reluctantly bagged the Saturday morning hunt. 

Mid-day Saturday, I headed out to do some scouting for our day-late opening day.  I hadn't been at it for long before I walked up on a pretty nice eight pointer who crossed the logging road about 40 yards in front of me and never even noticed I was there.  He had his nose to the ground and was moving along at a determined pace.  "That's a good sign," I thought.  Only one thing that gets a nice buck like that to let his guard down.  The rut!

I made a mental note of where he had crossed and backed out.  It was an area where two secondary ridges meet at a high point on the main ridge.  I've noticed a smattering of buck sign there over the past couple weeks, but never could find anything like a dominant tree or a funnel that would give me a high probability shot with a bow.  Now that we could reach out a little further with a muzzle loader and with an actual buck sighting, it was looking much better.  

I checked some other spots that have had a good amount of deer sign for a couple weeks, but that I hadn't hunted for the same reason as the place where I had seen the buck earlier.  I eventually got to a spot that I've had a gut feeling about for a while now.  It was a saddle that I bow hunted early in the season. I had seen several does but no bucks that morning and just never went back. 

As I approached the saddle I stopped and immediately noticed a tremendous amount of walk sign.  The newly-fallen leaves were already crunched up and broken.  Several trails were bare dirt despite the fresh layer of leaves.  It was obvious that lots of deer were in the area.

As I explored further, I discovered a couple fresh scrapes and rubs.  Then I noticed a cluster of red oaks in the middle of the saddle.  I had just walked under them and found fresh droppings when I heard movement down in the nearby hollow.  I looked toward the source of the noise and saw a really nice set of antlers sticking up over some thick brush.  I threw up my muzzle loader and tried to find a clear shot but couldn't ever see anything that I was comfortable with.  Eventually, the buck turned and walked downhill without offering a clear shot.

To say that I was excited was a huge understatement.  A natural funnel with lots of walk sign, fresh buck sign, a cluster of dominant trees, and now a shooter buck sighted just 75 yards away.  It just doesn't get better than that!

Hunter had a commitment that night so I picked out a tree on the downwind side of the saddle and settled in.  A couple does and this little nine pointer that I shot with my cell phone came through.  On the fourth photo, I accidentally pushed the voice-dialing button on my phone instead of the camera button.  "PLEASE SAY THE COMMAND" the female voice demanded.  That little buck nearly jumped out of his skin and I just cracked up.

At dark, I climbed down and marked my way out with bright-eyes so that I could find the same tree in the morning.  Sunday morning Hunter and I returned to the same tree.  He was the designated shooter and I was videographer.  Wow! what a morning.  It was truly a once in a lifetime hunt.  The fact that I got to share it with my son and that I captured it on video made it that much more special.

The only low point of the day (other than watching a nice ten pointer walk away) came when Hunter accidentally filleted the side of his finger while field dressing his deer.  Luckily I had my first aid kit with me and got the bleeding stopped, but it eventually took six stitches to close up.  It was a good reminder that sharp knives and adrenaline can be a hazardous combination and that a properly stocked first aid kit is a hunting necessity. 

I like to name my hunting spots.  Since this one hadn't been named yet, it became Badfinger Saddle.  The two bucks became, obviously, the Badfinger Bucks.

A long day of meetings on Monday kept me out of the woods, but Tuesday morning I was back in the same tree again.  I was determined to get another crack at the ten pointer that had eluded us twice on Sunday.  I saw far fewer deer than on Sunday, but a couple eight pointers that were a little smaller than Hunter's deer came through.  Eventually the direct sun shining on enough layers of clothing to keep me warm at 32 degrees heated me up to the point that I was driven down the tree to shed some clothes and cool off.

I decided that I was going to have to change tactics to kill that deer so I set off scouting/still hunting.  I had been at it for a couple hours when I heard deer running down in a deep hollow off to my left.  I hadn't seen any white flags and the wind was blowing from them toward me so I knew they hadn't smelled me.  I looked around and noticed that I was in another saddle.  "They're going to come right through here," I thought.  I quickly picked out a nearby tree and sat down on the ground next to it facing the hollow.

In about five minutes, my stomach began to grumble and my mind began to wander toward getting up to go for some lunch.  Just then, a doe came barreling up the hill straight at me!  When she was about twenty feet away, she finally saw me, slammed on the brakes, and took a hard left.  Forty yards behind her was another deer that stopped as soon as she veered off.  I threw my muzzle loader up and only had time to make out that it was a mature buck from the shape of its head.  In an instant, he began to make that little lean that can only mean he's about to get gone quick.  He was facing straight at me so I put the crosshairs on the center of his chest and squeezed.

The first good look I got at him was as he ran off.  I could tell he had good width and I could tell that he had been hit, but he disappeared back down in the hollow in about two seconds so I was left wondering if he might have been the ten pointer from Sunday and whether the shot I had made would put him down quickly and with a good blood trail.  I've shot two other bucks in the throat with a muzzle loader, including this one captured on video on opening day two years ago.  Both of them dropped like a sack of potatoes, so I was a little worried that this one hadn't.

I decided to give him some time to bleed out if necessary, go get some lunch, and call some friends to help me do the tracking.  David Watson was kind enough to drop what he was doing and give me a hand.  Turns out I needn't have worried as he only went about 120 yards before piling up against a tree in the bottom of the hollow.

As I approached him I could tell immediately that it was the same ten pointer that Hunter and I had seen.  He was a beautiful deer and a worthy opponent.  This time, perseverance and a little luck had paid off for me.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Crown Buck

What do you do when you have three dominant trees to hunt in the same area?  You have to pick one, of course.  What happens when you pick wrong?  Well... you might get some good video footage.

But I'm getting ahead of myself...

About a month ago, I spotted a large-bodied buck with an impressive set of headgear leaving a hay field at dawn.  It was a foggy morning and I was looking at him through binoculars from about 200 yards away.  I couldn't make out the details of his rack, but from the general shape, it looked like he might be a pretty nice non-typical.

Last Sunday, my buddy Ted and I did some scouting along a ridge in the area of his likely travel route to and from that field.  We found three dominant trees, all white oaks, that were spread out in a straight line 75 yards long and running perpendicular to the length of the ridge.  One tree was on top of the ridge, another was about midway down the side, and the third was close to a creek that ran down the hollow next to the ridge.  All three trees had good fresh feeding sign and the lowest tree, next to the creek, had a couple feeding rubs nearby.

To the east of the three trees is another ridge with very thick cover where I guessed deer would be bedded during the day.

On Monday of this week, I hunted the  area and set up between the two lower trees.  Soon after I climbed the tree, the wind shifted from the North to the West, which sent my scent right over to the bedding area.  Almost on cue, a deer started blowing, and blowing, and blowing some more.  It blew at me for twenty minutes straight before finally moving on. 

About 30 minutes later six does came straight upwind toward me blowing occasionally.  One of the does walked directly to the tree I was in, stopped about ten yards away, and looked up at me.  They obviously knew I was there, but I guess the lure of fresh white oak acorns was more than they could stand.

So when I returned yesterday with Ted (who was videoing), my plan was to pick out a tree to climb that would provide the best chance of keeping my scent out of the bedding area and the feeding areas.  I seriously considered climbing a hickory tree that was about 15 yards downwind of the uppermost dominant tree.

As we stood there checking the wind direction, it began to swirl so we decided to bag trying to set up for a downwind position and hunt the lower tree with the buck sign.  BIG mistake!

At about 5:30, I noticed movement near the uppermost dominant tree and signaled to Ted that there was a deer up there.  Well, to make a long story short, we watched a beautiful buck feed on the upper dominant tree for 25 minutes.  He was about 50 yards away, so I wasn't going to risk a shot.  Unfortunately, he never came closer, so all we could do was watch as he fed contentedly about 15 yards from the tree I almost climbed.

He was close enough that I couldn't move to reach for my binoculars so I really didn't know how big he was.  Since Ted was watching him through the video camera he got a much better view. When it got dark and we started to climb down, I asked Ted, "am I going to cry when I look at the video?"  All he could say was, "yup."  Boy did he say a mouthful there!

The best I can tell, he is a mainframe 10 with two kickers on his left G2 and one kicker on his right G2, giving him 13 scorable points.  I named him the Crown Buck because of the way the kickers curve out, which gives his rack the appearance of a crown.

Needless to say, I was disappointed for second-guessing my gut feeling, but that's just the way it goes sometimes.  Oh well, the season is young.  Hopefully, I'll get a second chance.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ryan Winchester, Bowhunter

All photos courtesy Scott Winchester
 Ryan Winchester is a stud. 

The 12 year-old seventh grader from Powell, Tennessee has accomplished a feat that few adults can claim.  He has now taken a deer with a bow.  In fact, the photo above of him and his bow kill was the first one posted on's popular kill picture thread for the 2010 season.

Ryan's path to bowhunting success has been carefully guided by his dad Scott.  Scott is an avid deer hunter and diehard proponent of hunting dominant trees (which he calls "killing trees").  Ryan is learning to identify trees and read deer sign, so he and Scott spent lots of time scouting in the pre-season.  It's no accident then that he was hunting a hot chestnut oak on the opening morning of the 2010 archery season.

It's also no accident that Ryan made a perfect shot when the time came.  He worked hard shooting his left-handed bow three times a week in the months leading up to deer season.  Due to the difficulty of finding a proper fitting left-handed youth bow, his dad had to modify one that started out with a draw length that was too long and a draw weight that was too heavy.  If you look closely at the photo below, you will notice that the limb pockets have been modified to achieve the proper draw length and a 38 pound draw weight.  Pretty ingenious!

The story of Ryan's hunt begins on the Wednesday prior to the opening of Tennessee's archery season when Ryan and Scott discovered a chestnut oak with lots of feeding sign underneath.  The tree was on a very small plot of private land that most hunters would overlook, thinking it to be too small to possibly hold deer.  Fortunately, they put their trust in the sign that they saw and they hung two lock-on stands on trees that were about twenty yards apart.

Although some hunters claim that deer will not eat chestnut oak acorns, Scott knew that in the early weeks of bow season, before other, more desireable species of acorn drop, deer will gobble them up.

Opening morning found Ryan, Scott, and Scott's dad waiting out the rain that had moved in overnight.  Ryan and Scott arrived at their stands right at daylight, just as the rain was easing up.  They had only been in the stand for about fifteen minutes when Ryan motioned to his dad that there were two deer approaching.

Ryan maintained his composure for the ten minutes or so that it took the deer to make their way to the dominant tree they were set up on.  Ryan knew that he would have to wait for the deer to get within 25 yards to ensure a clean kill with his light archery tackle.  Because he was hunting a dominant tree, he knew exactly where the deer was headed and he knew that he was set up in a location to get that close shot.  It was just a matter of time.

As the deer began to feed Ryan waited patiently to draw his bow when the deer's head passed behind a tree.  He made a perfect shot and watched happily, but carefully, as the deer ran off.  In a few minutes Ryan and Scott climbed down and Ryan walked directly to the spot he had mentally marked to find his arrow covered in bright red blood.

Ryan led the tracking job, finding the deer piled up a mere 50 yards away with a perfectly placed hole through both lungs.  He then took care of the field dressing and dragging chores on his own.

Needless to say, grandfather, father, and son were all thrilled to death and very proud of what Ryan had accomplished.  Although Ryan has killed larger deer, including this impressive buck taken during the 2007 firearm season, his first bow-killed deer will certainly rank among the most memorable of his life.

In this day of quick fixes and instant gratification, it's truly wonderful to see a young man accept the challenge of learning the skills of a woodsman and practicing his craft so that when the moment of opportunity presents itself he is ready.  He can now proudly wear the title of bowhunter.

Kudos to Scott for passing along the skills and values that will serve Ryan well in the years to come.  We should all be so lucky to have a mentor like Ryan does.

Oh, did I mention that Ryan Winchester is a stud?  Way to go dude!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tree ID - Saul Oak

I'm going to go out on a limb on this tree ID article, because I'll admit that I'm not 100% sure I have this tree identified correctly.  I first talked about it in this article about a recent scouting trip.  I'm also going to go out on a limb and guess that only other tree nerds like me will give two hoots about any of this.

First off, I have never seen another tree like this one.  I believe it is a Quercus Saulii or Saul Oak which is a hybrid of a Chestnut Oak and a White Oak.  The leaves, acorns, and bark are consistent with the descriptions, dimensions,  and illustrations given in this obscure scientific article which is the only information source I've been able to find.  I'm posting this in hopes that through the magic of Google, someone with more expertise than I will find this and help me confirm my identification.  Please leave a comment below if you have any knowledge that you would be willing to share.

This particular tree is the only one of it's kind that I could find in the immediate area.  It is growing on an upland ridge in a stand of white oaks.  There is a stand of chestnut oaks nearby.  The tree is about 24 inches in diameter.

This is the same photo of an acorn  and leaf that I posted earlier.  The leaf is 10.5 cm long and about 5.5 cm wide at its widest point.  The acorn is about 27 mm long and 20 mm in diameter.  It may be a coincidence, but both of the acorns I picked up were attached to a second undeveloped acorn (visible just above the cap). They are intermediate in size between a white oak acorn and a chestnut oak acorn.

Here are what the leaves look like against the sky.  When I first saw them through my binoculars, I thought that they looked like either very "shaggy" chestnut oak acorns, or very "regularly shaped" white oak acorns.

Here are a couple photos of the bark which clearly lacks the flaky appearance of a white oak - particularly at the point where the large limbs branch off.  It is somewhat furrowed, but not as deeply as a chestnut oak.

I will be checking this tree when it begins to drop acorns to see if it develops into a dominant tree (for any biologists or foresters who might be reading this, I'm not referring to the classic definition of a dominant tree that you would be accustomed to).  Assuming that my identification is correct, I think it would be really neat to kill a mature buck under such a unique tree.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Scouting Tip - Think Like a Deer

With whitetail bow season underway in a few states and just around the corner here in Tennessee and other places, lots of deer hunters are hitting the woods to find that perfect hunting spot.  I'm really thrilled that more and more of them are getting interested in finding and hunting dominant trees.  In the past week I've gotten at least a dozen emails and messages on message boards either asking for help in finding dominant trees or talking about how the hunter had shots at deer every time they hunted a dominant tree. 

One of the things I've heard many times in recent weeks is that there are acorns everywhere and the deer aren't focusing on any particular tree.  There is a possibility that is correct, but I'd wager to say that there are dominant trees somewhere, the hunter just hasn't found them yet.  Even when there are acorns everywhere, deer remain creatures of habit.  As a result, they will follow short-term patterns that will take them through preferred feeding areas and past dominant trees on a regular basis.

With that in mind, I thought it would be a good time for a few advanced scouting tips.  Before I jump into that, if you need to brush up on dominant tree basics, start with this article for an overview of Pursuit-style hunting, then this one for a definition of dominant trees, this one for an overview on identifying them, and finally this one for some basics on acorns and oak trees.

So here are a couple tips:

#1 Scout With a Plan

Don't just wander aimlessly looking under every tree you come across.  Think like a deer.  Where would I be at night?  Where would I go during the day.  How would terrain features, the prevailing wind, and cover (or the lack thereof) influence my travel routes between them. 

Get out a topo map and aerial photo of your hunting area and study them with those questions in mind.  Then develop a scouting plan that takes all those variables into account.  Mark your best guesses for the deer's preferred travel routes on your topo map, or better yet, use some topo mapping software like this to create custom maps.  I use one symbol to designate spots to be scouted and other symbols to record what I find.

#2 Look for Visual Clues About Deer Movement

As you are out working your plan, keep your eyes open for obvious things like slick trails, creek crossings, or places where deer are crossing under fences like this spot I found yesterday.

If you find fresh walk sign, there is a reason why deer are in the area at that particular time.  Ask yourself, "why would a deer be here?"  It may or may not be because they are feeding on a nearby dominant tree, but the odds that they are just went up.  I found this fresh feeding sign literally twenty feet from the fence crossing.

Sometimes the walk sign you are looking for will be much more subtle than a slick trail.  Unfortunately it's very hard to photograph, but often I've found dominant trees by noticing disturbed and broken leaves where numerous deer have walked through an area and followed the "trail" right to a dominant tree. 

Also, in the early season, look for small rubs like these, which I call feeding rubs.  They are often located either directly under or very near a dominant tree.  I believe that bucks tend to make them soon after they have shed their velvet.  They are not so much about communication like the larger rubs you will see later in the year, but rather, they seem to be more a case of boys being boys and just trying out the new hardware.  For whatever reason, they tend to do it near feeding areas. 

#3 Use Your Ears

Deer seem to prefer the freshest acorns available.  As you are walking through the woods, stop frequently to listen for dropping nuts just like deer do.  I've probably found more dominant trees just by following the sound than any other way.

I hope these little tips help you improve your scouting skills.  Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.

Good luck this season!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why I'll Never be a Bait Hunter

I attended a panel discussion this weekend that featured a couple well known deer biologists from the middle Tennessee area, Bryan Kinkel, a private consultant, and Daryl Ratajczak, the Big Game Program Coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.  Bryan and Daryl fielded questions on a variety of topics and did a terrific job of addressing several hotly debated topics including bag limits, antler restrictions, and baiting.

On the subject of "why baiting is illegal in Tennessee," Daryl and Bryan agreed that there are a variety of biological reasons including disease transmission among deer and possible toxicity to wild turkeys.  It was a non-biological reason that really resonated with me, however.  One of them (I can't remember who) said that baiting lowers the skill level of hunters since they never have to get out and actually learn to scout.

I agree with that point, but I would also add that by not scouting, you miss out on the best part of hunting which is getting out and learning about the natural world by observing and participating in an activity as old as life itself.

I love scouting.  In fact, I actually enjoy scouting as much as I enjoy sitting in my treestand (what most folks would call hunting).  If you'll scroll up to the top of the page, you'll see my mantra that "hunting takes place before you climb into your stand, everything after that is just shooting."

Seems like every time I hit the woods, I learn something new. This past weekend was no exception.

In addition to locating several promising-looking spots for the opening of bow season in a couple short weeks, I made three discoveries that may or may not ultimately contribute to my success as a deer hunter but which added to my knowledge of and appreciation for the world that deer live in.

Discovery #1 - Deer Like to Eat in Bed

I found this deer bed near the first dominant tree I found this year.  The bed was obviously fresh because the leaves were dry while the surrounding area was damp from an overnight shower.

As I looked more closely, I discovered a pile of wild plum pits that had apparently been separated out of the cud of the bed's recent inhabitant and spit out in a neat little pile.  When I picked one up, it was still moist.

I never did find the source of those wild plums (which are not very common in my area), but you can bet your last dollar that I will be keeping my eye out for it in the future.  I'd be plum crazy not to!

Discovery #2 - That's My Kind of Hybrid, Jack

After checking literally hundreds of white oaks with binoculars, looking for acorns, I looked up in what I originally thought was a white oak but saw leaves that look nothing like anything I've seen before and acorns that were absolutely huge.  I searched around under the tree and found a couple of acorns that look like white oak acorns on steroids - luckily, one of them had a couple leaves attached.

On closer examination, I noticed that the bark lacked the characteristic flaky appearance of a white oak.

I've checked every tree reference I know of and can't find any species that matches the physical characteristics and the location of the tree (on a south-facing upland ridge).  I did find several references on the web to hybrids of white oaks and chestnut oaks which  I believe this to be.  That hybrid is actually common enough to have a name, the Jack Oak or Saul Oak.

Based on the size of the acorns, their white oak lineage, and numerous old feeding rubs in the area, I have high hopes that this tree will be a hot spot when it starts dropping nuts in a couple weeks.  How cool would it be to kill a nice buck under this unique tree?  I will definitely be keeping an eye on it.

Update: I found this article from a scientific journal that describes and illustrates the characteristics of a chestnut oak/white oak hybrid, scientific name Quercus Saulii.  The tree I found matches every leaf, acorn, and bark characteristic described in the article.

Which brings me to the weirdest discovery of the weekend...

Discovery #3 - The Stinking Phallus

So I'm riding along a logging road on my four wheeler, minding my own business, when I catch a whiff of something dead.  A couple guys on had been talking recently about finding isolated pockets of deer that had apparently died of EHD.  With that in mind, I grabbed the brakes and came to a quick stop to check it out.  The wind was swirling around so the odor came and went a couple times. 

I dug out my handy bottle of milkweed floaters and launched one the next time I got a whiff of death.  Getting a fix on the wind direction, I began backtracking upwind expecting at any minute to see a decomposing deer.  Instead, I found this.

I swear I'm not making this up.  This thing looked like, well I don't need to tell you what it looked like, but the end of it was covered with a vile greenish-brown goo that looked like poo and stunk to high heaven.  The flies were climbing all over each other to get to the poo-goo.  You can click on the photo to get a better look.

Turns out it is a type of fungus called (appropriately) phallus impudicus, commonly known as a stinkhorn and that foul-smelling goo is full of spores that are spread by the flies that land in it. 

It never ceases to amaze me how nature adapts to ensure the survival of even the most vile-smelling fungus. I'm also baffled that anyone who calls himself or herself a hunter would miss out on the education that you can get by simply walking around in the deers' world and observing.  The satistfaction that I would get from killing a deer over a pile of corn wouldn't hold a candle to the pleasure I get from all the little stuff I learn when I take to the woods.

Thanks Bryan and Daryl for making me think about that.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hitting the Crackberry in the Great Outdoors

Two things happened recently that came together in a very interesting way.  First, I got access to several hundred acres of new hunting property that I'm not very familiar with.  Second, I finally gave up the old flip phone and got myself a crackberry, er, Blackberry.

I was pretty sceptical about whether I would like the Blackberry at first.  My standard speech to my kids has always been, "Harumph! Why would I want one of those fancy phones?  All I want is something that rings when someone wants to talk to me and that makes your phone ring when I want to talk to you."

Well, once again, my old crumudgeonly ways have been proven outdated.  As a matter of fact, I now consider the Blackberry to be one of the neatest pieces of hunting gear to come down the pike in a long time, thanks to the free Google Maps application that can be downloaded onto the phone.

With Google maps running on my Blackberry, I can access topo maps like the one above and aerial photos like the one below.  The built-in GPS in the phone shows me exactly where I am on the map or photo.  I can mark locations while I'm in the field with a star and when I get home, I can change the star to the push-pin type marker, add detailed notes, photos, even video to the location notes. I can access all of that information from my Blackberry at a later time if I need to refresh my memory about a particular spot.

On my home computer, I can also draw in property lines (blue) and trails (red and green)

I have spent two mornings on the new property learning my way around and clearing trails.  I had a paper topo map, a compass, and my Garmin eTrex GPS with me, but never pulled them out. I was able to navigate quickly, easily, and accurately with nothing but my Blackberry.

In future articles, I'll go into more depth on how I use the Blackberry and Google maps. My prediction is that smartphones will make conventional GPS units obsolete in the near future, at least for users in areas with good cell coverage. For the time being, I'll still carry a GPS and a phone, but as my confidence grows I may just decide to leave the GPS in the truck.

Never thought I'd say it, but I'm now a Crackberry addict.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Broken Records

Records are made to be broken. So says conventional wisdom, but in this day of rampant cheating, maybe its our record-keeping system that's broken. I say it's time to rethink how we keep score.

Home runs, 100-meter sprints, Boone and Crockett scores. Way back in the naive innocent days of my youth (when I was about forty) those hallowed records represented the pinnacles of human achievement. Their holders were rightfully accorded the admiration and respect due someone who had perservered through formidable odds and achieved a level of success that we mere-mortals can only dream about. Ahh, those were the days...

Today we're bombarded with news about cheaters in all walks of sport - and life in general. Our obsession with records has created a win-at-all-cost mentality that pervades any activity worthy of keeping score. It is sad to me that my children's first reaction to a new world record will always be suspicion rather than awe.

This past deer season, two truly awesome deer were killed. The deer picured above on the left was killed by Troy Reinke of Cannon Falls, Minnesota. Its gross green score was 190 5/8. Net was 185 even. According to the Boone and Crocket club, this is the largest eight pointer ever killed. The deer on the right was killed by Johnny Clay of Adams County, Ohio. It measures 214 gross and nets 197 2/8. It may be the largest typical buck killed during the 2009-2010 season.

Unfortunately, these two bucks have something in common besides awesome, world-class racks. They were both killed by poachers.

It seems that Troy (who is not pictured above - that's apparently a taxidermist) neglected to check in a couple deer that he killed prior to killing the whopper that locals had named Fred. Then there's the little matter of what he killed it with. He originally claimed that he killed it with a bow during archery season, but when forensic results showed that the deer had been killed with a firearm, he tried to claim that he didn't shoot it, but just found it dead. Yeah right! Well the judge didn't believe him either and sentenced him to 245 days in jail, ordered him to pay $1,500 in restitution, and revoked his hunting privledges for five years. You can read more about it here.

Johnny "Bigger is Always Better" Clay, who is pictured on the right above, is a true piece of work. He went to the trouble of making up an elaborate story about how he gut shot "his" deer with a bow on public land in Kentucky and looked for it for a week and a half before finding a completely bare skull and no other evidence, err... remains. You can see and hear him spin his tall tale here.

Unfortunately for Johnny, some guys in the neighboring state of Ohio had trailcam photos of "his" deer (watch the video to see why I use the quotes) over a hundred miles away from where the deer was supposedly killed. The case has not gone to court as of this writing, but reports are that Johnny has confessed to shooting the deer with a firearm in Ohio and transporting the head to Kentucky. Why go to all that trouble? Because his Ohio license had been revoked for a prior poaching conviction. You can read more about the story on this thread from the Kentucky Deer Hunting Forum.

Unfortunately these two guys are just the tip of a big, smelly, rotten dung-heap of cheaters who will stop at nothing to claim their spot in the record books. I'm thinking that maybe the real sport these days is not in killing a big deer, but in catching the guys who are doing it illegally.

In keeping with the tradition of naming hunting scoring systems after the pioneers of the sport, i.e., Boone and Crocket and Pope and Young, I propose a new scoring system for the guys in green who track down and convict scumbags like Troy and Johnny.  I am hereby proposing the creation of a Leopold and Stoddard (L&S) scoring system, named in honor of two of the fathers of modern wildlife management.

Poachers would be scored and points awarded to arresting wildlife officers on the following basis:

Net B&C score of the poached animal(s) (rounded to the nearest inch, minimum score 100 per deer), plus
Number of days of jail time, plus
Monetary fine/10

Using that scoring system, Mr. Reinke would score

+   245
+   150

Making him my current world record holder.

Mr. Clay can't be officially scored yet since his mandatory pre-trial drying-out period hasn't expired yet, but estimates coming out of Ohio place his potential fine in the magnitude of tens of thousands of dollars, so he could easily eclipse Mr. Reinke to become the new L&S World Record.

Congratulations to Mr. Clay and Mr. Reinke for making it into the record books. May you get all the noteriety you deserve.

Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching - even when the wrong thing is legal. - Aldo Leopold

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Summit Viper Review

If there is one piece of hunting gear that I just couldn't be without, it would have to be my Summit Viper climbing stand.  Like a faithful friend, it goes everywhere I go during hunting season.  Sure, there are times during gun season that I'll set off on foot for some still hunting, but the core of my strategy revolves around figuring out where the deer are feeding and then getting close enough to make a clean bow kill.

Stealth, mobility, and security are all vitally important characteristics of a stand that is going to go with me to the farthest corners of my hunting territory to get me up close and personal to my quarry. In the following video clips, I'll review the (mostly) high points of the Viper and pass along some helpful hints that I've figured out over the six or seven years that I've been using this great treestand.

If you are ready to start enjoying the Cadillac of climbers, you can pick one up at Cabelas or at Gander Mountain or for the best price try Amazon.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Harvesting Deer

Harvest – verb (used with object) to gather (a crop or the like); reap.

In this politically correct, advertising-driven world that we live in, it has become standard practice for the mainstream hunting media to talk about what we hunters do in watered-down language designed not to offend the sensibilities of anyone who might possibly spend a dollar on a sponsor’s product. Witness the popular use of the word “harvest” to describe the successful conclusion of a hunt.

Let’s get this straight. Farmers farm. Farmers harvest. Hunters hunt. Hunters kill… sometimes (more on that in a second). If the word “kill” offends you, then you’re definitely reading the wrong blog. Bye.

Anyway… I ran across this article the other day and it has stayed on my mind. It was written a couple years ago by a lady who (I’m just guessing) is probably not a hunter. In the article, the author describes a day at World Class Whitetails of Ohio (WCWO) in Millersburg, Ohio. All in all, I thought she did a pretty good job of recounting what she saw in a non-sensationalized, balanced kind of way.

In fact, I have just one beef with her story. That gripe is in regard to her description of hunters killing huge bucks at WCWO. Sounds like I’m contradicting myself doesn’t it? Well, read on.

You see World Class Whitetails of Ohio provides its clients with abundant opportunities to shoot 150+ class deer. In fact, WCWO guarantees that the 100 or so guests they serve each season will all get a trophy-sized deer. Their guests have about 200 acres of prime southern Ohio land to roam around in.

Yup, 200 acres of high-fenced, big buck infused feedlot where the number of inches you hang on the wall is limited only by the thickness of your wallet. Why, you can even browse their website and choose “your” deer before you arrive. All you gotta do is show up, shoot him, and sign the credit card receipt. No fuss, no muss, and no disappointment. You’re guaranteed to head home with a real honest to goodness wall-hanger, sure to impress.

Can I just say that I’d take an oath of allegiance to PETA before I’d pass through the gates of that killing field where guests are called hunters? What an obscene perversion of the word hunter. They are no more hunters than the guy at the slaughterhouse that whomps slobbering cattle between the eyes with a pneumatic sledge hammer. To call them hunters is an insult of the highest order to anyone who has ever put in the time and effort to kill a wild whitetail.

No, they aren’t hunters, they’re simply shooters, harvesting genetically manipulated, hormonally enhanced, hand fed, pen-raised livestock. No more, no less. I’m not here to pass judgment on either sellers or buyers, but let’s just call ‘em what they are - farmers and shooters. Please don’t associate what I do with what takes place at WCWO.

So here’s a vow. I’ll never harvest a deer, and I’ll never join the Safari Club which (according to the WCWO website) has awarded two world records and one pending world record for deer harvested on the WCWO feedlot. I’ll nominate ‘em for a 4H award though…

What do you think?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Top 10 Reasons to Scout in the Off-season

I saw a question posted the other day on TnDeer that got me thinking. And when I thought I was through thinking, I got to thinking some more because it was a really simple, but very good question, which was, “Why should I scout in the off-season when deer will be on a completely different pattern when next season rolls around?” You can click on the link to see the ensuing discussion.

I started writing down all the reasons I could think of and the list quickly grew pretty long. Being the obsessive/compulsive mess that I am, I started categorizing and grouping reasons until I came up with my very own (with all due respect to David Letterman), Pursuit Hunting Top 10 Reasons to Scout in the Off-season.

A point of clarification: I consider the time between the end of hunting season and the emergence of green vegetation in the spring to be the post-season. Anything between green-up and opening day is pre-season.

So now, without further adieu, (drum-roll please) I give you the first-ever Pursuit Hunting Top 10 List:

#10 Look for Sheds

OK, I have to admit that I really don’t do this much, unless I accidentally trip over one, but if you need a tangible reward for hitting the woods, this is a good place to start. If it gets you off the couch during those days when there’s nothing in season, then by all means do it. Just try to incorporate some of the more productive things that I’ll talk about as we get further down the list.

#9 Look for last year’s Rubs

Well, I don’t really do a lot of this either, or at least it isn’t my specific purpose. I do take note of ‘em whenever I see them, however, particularly if they are signpost rubs. Some folks like doing it though, so if you do, go for it. Whatever it takes. I’ll talk more about what I try to learn from old rubs shortly.

#8 Practice Using Map, Compass, and GPS

Alright, now that I’m warmed up, I’ll start talking about stuff that I really do.

The post-season is a great time to hone your navigational skills. GPS’s work better without leaves on the trees and you have much better visibility for sighting ahead with your compass and just getting a visual reference on terrain features to compare them to the squiggly brown lines on your topo map.

The lack of low-lying vegetation and briers makes it much easier to bushwhack cross-country following a compass heading too. The cooler temperatures and lack of biting critters of the flying, crawling, and slithering variety also make bushwhacking much more enjoyable.

Here are some ideas for incorporating navigational drills into your scouting.

Study a topo map of the area before you go and create waypoints on your map and GPS for terrain features like saddles, funnels, or converging ridges that you want to check out. Try getting there with just your map and compass. Do it by following a straight line compass heading and also by following terrain features like creeks and ridges. Check your GPS from time to time as you are travelling if you want and also when you think you have arrived.

Set a waypoint at the spot where you park your vehicle and practice using map and compass to plot a straight-line course back once you are through scouting. Use the GPS waypoint to set your initial bearing if you want or as a fallback if you get turned around. Make it a game to see how close you can get to your vehicle using just your map and compass.

The time you spend getting comfortable with your navigational system in the off season will pay huge dividends when it comes time to head back into the boonies during the season.

#7 Explore New Areas

This idea goes with #8 like peas and corn, Mamma always said…

Expand your hunting opportunities by getting familiar with a new piece of property. If you don’t have access to private land, don’t let that stop you. I’d be willing to bet that there are some great pieces of public hunting land within easy driving distance. Get more than a couple hundred yards off the nearest road or field and you’ll probably have the place pretty much to yourself.

An area that you’ve never visited before is a great place to practice the navigational skills we just talked about. Study a topo map ahead of time and pick out spots that you think should have pretty good deer activity, then go there and see how well you did.

Use your experience also to develop your record keeping system. Keep detailed notes of what you discover. A couple months from now when the season is drawing near, you’ll be glad you made note of that big ‘ol female persimmon tree, or that slick trail leading into a cedar thicket.

#6 Get More Familiar With Your Hunting Area

When the season rolls around, you want to be completely comfortable getting anywhere on the property in the dark. If there is anywhere you are hesitant to go because it is difficult to find, figure out a way to get there. Cut a trail, put up flagging tape, put up reflective tacks, study terrain features like creeks and ridges that you can follow in the dark, make mental notes of landmarks like odd-shaped trees or rocks. If you want to consistently be on deer, you are going to have to move around a lot. Don’t hamstring yourself with self-imposed un-huntable areas.

#5 Study the Terrain

Identify major terrain features like saddles, funnels, edges, and points and note how they affect deer travel patterns. In the post season, you should be able to easily see the contours of the land and the well-used travel routes.

It is also a good time of year to look for micro funnels like blowdowns or fence crossings that can impact travel patterns in a big way. A major storm can instantly create micro funnels by knocking down trees across trails or fences, so it is important to check for any major changes since last season.

#4 Head into the Thick Stuff

When it is late in the season and there is less available cover, deer will stick close to the thickest, gnarliest stuff they can find. Take the time to find it and get into it to figure out how deer are using it. How do they get in and out? Where do they bed? Are there any good ambush sites nearby?

The post-season is the perfect time to explore thick cover because it is easier to read the sign. Its easier to get around in, and if you bump a deer out of its sanctuary, it isn’t going to affect its behavior six to nine months from now.

#3 Look for Future Mast Sources

Although the post season is too early to identify specific trees that will develop acorns or fruit, it isn’t too early to start narrowing down the areas to scout again later in the pre-season. A good pair of binoculars will help you cover a lot of ground.

If you need to brush up on your tree identification skills, this is a good time to practice. There are lots of photos in the Tree ID articles on this site and you can pick up an inexpensive field guide to help. See my recommendations in any of the Tree ID articles.

Some species of trees like white oaks and red oaks are pretty widely dispersed, so concentrate on finding areas where there are several large trees in a relatively small area. All things being equal, deer will prefer to feed in areas with the highest concentration of available food. Look on the ground for old acorn caps under any promising-looking areas. If everything looks good, make note of the spot on your map so you can come back in a couple months and check for maturing mast.

Other species like persimmons tend to grow individually or in tight-knit clusters. Chestnut oaks commonly grow in almost pure stands. Know where they are likely to be (check the Tree ID articles for tips) and spend some time locating them now for future reference. Keep in mind that only female persimmons produce fruit, so check for old calyxes and seeds on the ground to determine the sex.

As the pre-season progresses, you will start to be able to use binoculars to look up into the canopy of mast-producing trees and figure out which ones will bear fruit or nuts. Remember, only a small fraction of trees actually produce mast in a given year, so use your off-season scouting trips to narrow down the number of places to scout once the season rolls around. Make note of any promising trees so that you can come back later to see if they have become a dominant tree. A little work now will pay big dividends later on when the pressure is on.

#2 Hone your Powers of Observation and Interpretation (Eyes and Whys)

Let’s face it, even when you know what you are looking for, deer sign can be hard to see. Rubs and scrapes are easy, but you actually have to train your eyes and your brain to notice small things like a couple of moist deer pellets, or a single track in soft dirt, or the browsed-off tips of a cedar limb, or maybe just some turned-over leaves. There is a ton of information for our brains to process as we walk through a deer’s world. The only way to get better at seeing it all is through practice.

As if finding deer sign wasn’t hard enough, interpretation can be even harder. Constantly asking yourself “why?” will go a long way toward helping you improve your scouting skills. Why was a deer feeding here? Why was a deer travelling here? Why did a deer take cover here? Why would it choose to bed on this side of the ridge rather than the other? Figuring out the role that external factors like wind direction, food availability, predation, and a hundred other things played in all those “why” questions is the key.

The answers to your “why” questions can help you spot patterns that you can extend to other areas and other situations. I firmly believe that the ability to recognize patterns of deer behavior and to adjust hunting strategy as a result is what sets the truly skilled hunter apart from the average hunter. The more time you spend in the deer’s world, the more skilled you are going to be at recognizing and interpreting the little details and patterns that can tell a big story.

And the #1 reason to scout in the post-season is:

#1 To Enjoy More Time in the Great Outdoors

In any survey of why we hunt, “spending time outdoors” always ranks near the top of the list. Don’t let the lack of an open season keep you indoors.

This is a great time of year to take a child, or a new hunter, or even your dog out to your favorite hunting spots and just enjoy being there. Absorb all the knowledge you can from the activities we’ve discussed and pass along some of what you’ve learned to the next generation. I feel like I learn something every time I’m in the woods.

During the season it is hard for me to relax when I’m in the woods. I feel pressure to scout that next big white oak, and the next one, and the next one, all the while staying alert for game. In the off season I can just relax and enjoy the sounds of the woods and the sun on my face and the wind in my hair (what’s left of it).

Take a snack and enjoy a bite to eat under your favorite oak tree. Sit on a log and talk. Take a nap. Enjoy a leisurely stroll. It’s all good…

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Navigating with the eTrex H and TOPO! Custom Maps

A short time ago, I posted this review of the Garmin eTrex H GPS and the TOPO! custom mapping software from National Geographic. In that review, I stated that for the combined price tag of about $200, you can meet or exceed the capabilities of mapping GPS units that cost two or three times as much.

It has since been pointed out to me that there are professional-level GPS/GIS tools used by surveyors, land managers, foresters, etc., that are far more sophisticated than what I demonstrated. I’m not familiar with those tools, but considering the expertise of those who pointed that out to me, I have to assume that is a fact. I’m sure they come with a hefty price tag, however. So I will qualify that statement now by saying that I was referring to popular GPS models commonly available to consumers through normal retail outlets. In other words, the kinds of GPS units that hunters would normally be considering for recreational use.

With that qualification out of the way, let’s dive in to how you can use these very cost-effective tools to determine your location in the field and then navigate to another location. It takes a little bit of prior preparation when you are creating your custom topo maps and a couple minutes of time once you are on the ground, but with a little practice you can pinpoint your location on the map with a very high degree of accuracy.

If you are a newcomer to using a map and compass, or if you just want a quick review, you might also want to check out these articles on compass basics, topo map basics, and navigating with a map and compass.

One final point that I brought up in regard to a photo in the book Mapping Trophy Bucks which I reviewed here... make sure you don't lay your map on anything that contains iron or steel as that can severely affect the magnetic needle on your compass, giving you a false reading. Also, it you are navigating in the dark, keep your flashlight a safe distance away from your compass, because it can affect the compass reading as well.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Chasin' Trail

My buddy Ted and I took advantage of a nice day last week to make a quick run to southern Illinois for some post-season scouting around a large agricultural field that he leases. We knew the deer were hammering the field right now and had been for several months.  A major ice storm in early 2009 had stripped off most of the larger tree limbs, completely wiping out last season's entire mast crop. Anticipating more of the same next season, we wanted to follow the major deer trails back into the woods looking for good ambush sites for next year.

As you can see from the photo above (click on it to get a closer view), we weren't disappointed by the amount of deer activity. The area in that photo shows just one of at least a dozen heavily used trails entering the field. We located a couple promising looking stand locations and shot some video showing how we did the scouting and how we marked the spots we found using the field navigation system that I talked about in the videos of this article where I reviewed the GPS and topo mapping system that I use.

We had to leave before dark, but we were able to stay around long enough to get some video of about forty deer literally piling into the field along the trails we had just scouted.  Maybe we're on to something...

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Mapping Trophy Bucks - Book Review

I picked up Mapping Trophy Bucks by Brad Herndon on the recommendation of several guys who frequently post on the serious deer hunting forum at TnDeer. They recommended it in response to my review of the eTrex H GPS and the TOPO! state series of topographic mapping software which I posted here.

If, like the author who lives in southern Indiana, you are lucky enough to gun hunt for rutting whitetails in the farm belt of the Midwest where there is lots of cropland, lots of deer, and limited blocks of cover, then this is a good deer hunting tutorial. If you hunt (particularly with a bow) in other areas of the country where deer are much less likely to be concentrated into small blocks of cover, I think it offers some sound advice on recognizing and using terrain features, but I think it falls short in one very critical area which I’ll discuss below.

First, the good points:

This book is written at a very accessible level and contains useful information that will appeal to both novices and hunting veterans alike. The author liberally sprinkles in examples and anecdotes from his long hunting career which gives the book the feel of a campfire conversation more than a classroom lecture. It is chock-full of high-quality photographs taken by the author and his wife.

There are separate chapters with detailed descriptions, illustrations, and examples of funnels, saddles, benches, corners, points, converging hubs, breaklines, and fencerows. The reader will come away with a good understanding of what each terrain feature is, how it affects deer movement, and how to recognize it on a topographical map. The book also contains good advice on related topics like choosing stand locations based on wind direction, keeping detailed records, dressing appropriately, and hunting during mid-day.

Now my gripes:

I have to say up-front that bowhunting is my passion, so my impressions of this book are heavily influenced by my goal of getting within 30 yards of a relaxed deer in order to maximize my chances of making a clean, ethical shot.

In a nutshell, if a hunter were to follow the author’s advice, he would study a topo map of his hunting area, identify the key terrain features listed above, determine the optimum wind direction for each potential location, and then hunt whichever one(s) matched up well with the wind conditions on any given day. All of that is good, but it neglects the most important aspect of consistently getting within bow range of a deer and that is that you’ve gotta hunt where the deer are! The only way to know where the deer are is by reading the sign.

The author’s discussion of sign is limited to a few brief sentences on scrapes and rubs which he (correctly in my opinion) advocates paying limited attention to. There is no mention however of using tracks, feeding sign, or most importantly, droppings to determine whether deer are using a particular terrain feature at that specific time of the season. Yes, deer will typically travel through saddles or follow funnels, but only if there is a reason for them to do so at that specific time.

A deer’s activities are dominated by three things, food, cover, and reproduction. Without knowing how those factors are influencing the herd’s behavior at that instant and reading the sign to know how they are reacting, you are simply depending on luck to see and kill a deer. Will you occasionally get lucky? Sure, but those aren’t the kind of odds that will get me out of bed at 4:00, morning after morning.

Update: check out the sign in the video in my next post. Now that will get me up long before the alarm ever goes off!

Another gripe I have is the lack of information on how to use a map and compass to get around in the woods. The author discusses using a compass to determine wind direction but doesn’t mention using it to actually navigate. It’s one thing to say I’m going to hunt that saddle. Actually getting there can be another.

My final gripe has to do with one of the things I pointed out above as a positive, the photos. As a photographer for Realtree, the author has drawn heavily on his library of photographs taken for advertising and promotional purposes. Virtually all the photos are posed (sometimes in goofy situations) with the models wearing perfectly matching camo that has obviously never seen the first washing. Not terrible, but enough to get slightly annoying. Oh yeah, then there was the photo of a guy with his map and compass laid out on a steel treestand – not something I’d recommend if you want to get where you’re going.

Final Impressions:

Overall, this is a worthwhile book for the description of terrain features and how to recognize them on a topo map. It is an easy and pleasurable read that I enjoyed next to a roaring fire on a cold, rainy, March day. Just recognize that it is only a useful tool and don’t look for it to be the definitive guide to regularly killing mature whitetail deer – despite the title.