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.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Garmin eTrex H and TOPO! Mapping Software

This Straight Shootin' Gear Review is a two'fer special. In the following multi-part video review, I'll show you how you can exceed the capabilites of a high-end mapping GPS with the plain-Jane Garmin eTrex H GPS and the TOPO! State Series topographic mapping software from National Geographic... at a fraction of the cost.

I chose to review these two products together because in my method of using them, they are a tightly (though manually) integrated duo that I depend on for outdoor navigation and for recording important details of my scouting and hunting trips. Any decent GPS can help get you where you are going and back in the woods, but only by adding the capabilities of a custom topographic mapping tool will you be able to create historical views of important details like feeding areas, bedding areas, trails, rubs, and scrapes. You can even attach photos and custom notes that can be viewed with a simple click of the mouse.

As an added bonus, I'll also show you the terrific Adventure Paper that lets you create totally waterproof, nearly indestructible custom topo maps straight from your inkjet printer.

Remember, no GPS is a substitute for a topographic map, a compass, and the knowledge of how to use 'em. If you are a newcomer to using those two essential outdoorsman's tools, or if you just want to refresh your memory, take a look at this article about topographic map basics then this article on compass basics and this article where I show you how to use them together.

Happy trails!

Update: This article shows how I use the system out in the field.






Garmin eTrex H Sources

The eTrex H is widely available including these online retailers:
Gander Mountain
Amazon had the best pricing at the time of this review

National Geographic TOPO! Sources
Cabelas has a limited selection of states
Again Amazon had lowest prices plus the complete line of states

National Geographic Adventure Paper Sources