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.