Monday, September 24, 2012

Hunter's First Bow Kill

Saturday, September 22, 2012, 3 p.m., I call my son Hunter on the phone.

Me:  Hey dude.
Hunter:  Hey.
Me:  You gonna hunt in the morning?
Hunter: I guess (that's teenager-speak for "if nothing better comes up.")
Me: I think you ought to.
Hunter: Why
Me:  Lemme put it this way, if you don't come hunt this dominant tree I just found for you, I'm going to hunt it myself and I'm going to kill your deer.
Hunter:  Looks good hunh?
Me: Uhh Yea!  You wouldn't believe this spot.  The ground is all churned up and the leaves look like powder. 

There are white oak acorns and deer droppings everywhere

There are a bunch of scrapes, including one where a buck was sparring with a limb and broke it off.

You'll kill a deer here in the morning!

To say I was excited would be a huge understatement.  I had spent the entire prior day and most of that day scouting.  I had walked many miles and checked hundreds of trees.  This was the first place I had found that looked worth hunting.  If it had been a mediocre-looking spot, I would have been excited, but this was the kind of hot spot that keeps me up at night before a hunt.

Hunter had heard all he needed to hear.  He was looking to kill his first deer with a bow, and he was in.

I marked the dominant tree with a 2 inch section of flagging tape tacked to the trunk with two reflective tacks so I could find it in the dark or in the daylight.  I picked out the best climbing tree for the current wind, marked it too, and got out of there.

Sunday, 3:25 a.m.

I wake up five minutes before the alarm goes off.  Funny that never happens on a work day.

We need to get an early start because our spot is only a couple hundred yards from a field where I think the deer would be feeding during the night.  I don't want to take a chance on them beating us there.

4:45 a.m.

We arrive at the parking spot.  The thermometer on the truck reads 45 degrees.  The coldest morning of the year so far.  We're pumped up by the cool temps and discuss what to wear for the four wheeler ride, the steep uphill walk with forty pounds of climber and gear, and in the stand.

We step out of the truck and into the cool night air.  Not good!  Every coyote in the county is howling, every dog in the county is barking at the coyotes, and all the commotion is coming from the direction we are headed.

5:15 a.m.

We arrive at the dominant tree, sweating profusely after climbing the steep trail up to the top of the ridge.  We check the wind to see if we need to climb a different tree than the one I had picked out the day before, but the wind is still blowing straight down the ridge.

I get my climber on the tree, give Hunter a few last minute safety reminders followed by our customary good-luck handshake, then head up the tree.  The Hickory bark is hard so I go slow to make sure that the climber gets a good bite.  I have to cut about a half dozen limbs on the way up.  Luckily they are pretty small and my folding saw is sharp so it goes quickly.  The smell of the freshly cut wood reminds me of cutting firewood in the winter.

I finally get settled in and discover that the battery in my video camera microphone is dead.  Not only had I forgotten to check the mic before I left home, I also forgot to grab some spare batteries out of my main camera bag when I transferred my camera into my camo bag.  Crap!  Video without sound sucks.  What a beginning-of-the-season rookie mistake.  I start to beat myself up over it but decide not to let it ruin my day.

6:00 a.m.

Daylight breaks.  I listen carefully for the slow crunch, crunch, crunch of deer walking from the nearby field.  Nothing.  Fifteen minutes go by.  Nothing.  A half hour.  Still nothing. "The deer should be coming," I think.  "Did the coyotes run them all out of here?"  "Did I pick the wrong spot?"  Doubt starts to creep in along with that little gnawing sensation I get when I feel like I've let my son down.  I know he has been hunting long enough to realize that you can't expect to kill something every time.  I still want him to though.  I start to beat myself up again.

6:50 a.m.

A slight noise on the far side of the ridge catches my attention.  I turn my head slowly and catch movement in the trees about 75 yards away.  All I can make out is legs, but they definitely belong to a deer.  Tap, Tap, Tap!  I give Hunter our "I see a deer" signal of three raps on the stand with the knuckles.  He looks up and I signal for him to stand up and get ready.

I fire up the video camera and zoom in on the deer.  Holy Crap!  He's huge! He feeds around on acorns exactly where I expected him to be.  Notice my flagging tape/reflective tack marker on the white oak tree in the foreground of this frame I grabbed from the video.

At one point, the deer looks straight at us and I just know we are busted.  By that time, I'm twisted around shooting over my left shoulder and my ab muscles are starting to scream while I struggle to hold still.  The camera moves up and down with each breath I take and there is nothing I can do about it.

Meanwhile, Hunter is caught with his bow arm fully extended ready to draw.  He has to remain that way the entire time the deer is looking our way.

Eventually the buck continues moving to our left.   I run out of flexibility to keep turning with him and I can't see the viewfinder unless I adjust my position.  Rather than take a chance of spooking the deer by moving I decide to just zoom out and hope that the wider view will capture the action.

Just seconds later, the deer steps into an opening 35 yards away and Hunter lets an arrow fly.  Here's the video.

"Oh... My... Gosh," said Hunter after the deer had run off, "that was the coolest thing I've ever done! My kneecaps are shaking so hard I can barely stand up.  Now I get what you've been telling me about what an adrenaline rush bowhunting is.  That was unbelieveable."

I just smile and try to pretend I'm less shaken up than him.

We wait as long as we can stand it before getting down.  Our goal is thirty minutes.  We might have made it fifteen.  We search around for Hunter's arrow, but all we find is the nock lying on the ground.  We know the arrow hadn't passed through but we had no way of knowing whether he had hit shoulder bone.

Fortunately we find good blood and take up the trail.  The deer had headed downhill then turned onto a deer trail that ran along the side of the ridge.  About a hundred yards down that trail, we find a pool of blood and nothing beyond it.  Figuring he had backtracked, we parallel the blood trail we had been following and eventually find where he had peeled off down the hill toward a large creek.

As Hunter and I are standing on the creek bank trying to figure out whether he has entered the creek, we hear crashing on the other side of the creek and look up to see the buck run up the hill and over the next ridge.

We look at each other.  "What do we do now?" Hunter asks.  "I don't know," I say.  "I don't know whether to back off or keep pushing him."  We talk about it for a couple minutes and decide to keep pushing him.

As we get over the ridge we had seen him cross and head down the other side into a large creek bottom, the blood trail starts getting more sparse. At one point, the trail heads into some tall weeds and we lose the trail. 

As we stand there searching for the next drop of blood, wondering whether we had made the right decision to keep up the chase, two separate groups of four does trot through the bottoms less that fifteen yards away from us and never know we are there.  One doe stops, puts her nose to the ground and sniffs something nervously.  We watch silently, enjoying the experience.

When the does had moved on, I tell Hunter that we will find blood where the doe had stopped and sniffed the ground.  Sure enough, we did.

From there, the blood trail heads toward another creek.  As I'm looking down at the ground for blood, Hunter whispers, "there he is, lying in that grass beside the creek."  We approach him slowly.  Hunter has an arrow nocked and ready to shoot if he gets up again, but there is no need.  He is dead.

After about a dozen high fives, back slaps, and hugs, we get on with texting buddies and taking photos.  This photo is taken exactly where we found him.

He green scored 165 5/8 gross and 156 6/8 net.  Not a bad first bow kill.  I told Hunter that he just saved me a bunch of money in taxidermy bills since we have a rule that in order to mount a buck it has to be larger than the prior best deer. 

Update 9/25/12

I got the jawbones back from the taxidermist and cleaned them up.  I'm hoping to have them aged by someone with more experience than I have.  Looks like 4.5 years to me, but I'm likely wrong.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dominant Tree Hunting for 9 to 5'ers

The following question from a new friend I met at this week's QDMA meeting and my answer were posted on this TnDeer thread. I get asked versions of this question often by folks who can't get to their hunting property to scout during the week , so I thought I would post it here for others who don't follow TnDeer.

Originally Posted By: Football Hunter:

We talked some at the meeting,but really interested in trying to learn how to hunt the dominant tree.

Ive done my own thing for years,and I see plenty of deer,but its always just a gut reaction,something like "this looks like where a deer will be" kind of thing.

It has worked ok,but with all those acres of hardwoods behind me on my lease,seems like a perfect oppurtunty to look for dominate trees.

The main problem I see from listening to you is.........what I discover this saturday,wont really be good for next saturday most likely right?

My place is about 1.5 hours from my house,which I actually love. Little get away each trip.

So,my thought is to hunt on Saturday morning in a spot I am confident in,assuming the wind is right,funnel,saddle,leads to oaks and a food plot,kind of the perfect storm type place,and its near some thick stuff.Then when Im done,go check out some ridgetop fingers and look for hot action near some of the white oaks.

Question,does the time of year dictate anything to you as far as ways to narrow down things,north facing,west facing etc?High,low?There are so many w/os ,just wondering a way to narrow it down some.And yeas,Im partial to white oaks,chinkapins,for whatever reason.


Nice meeting you the other night. Glad you could come.

You are correct, the dominant tree they are feeding on this week will likely be old news next week. Not necessarily though, it depends on how much food is available there and what has changed since last week. If the tree is still dropping nuts, there is a good chance the deer will still be feeding there.

Before I got in the land business and was working a corporate job, I didn't have the flexibility to go scout during the week. I would usually just hunt a spot on Saturday morning that was good the week before or someplace else that either had produced before or that I had some reason to think might be good. Basically, hoping to get lucky - which I usually didn't.

If I wasn't seeing activity by 8 or 9 at the latest, I would get down and start scouting for Saturday night and Sunday morning, which is when I killed the majority of the deer.

As far as where to look... That's where you have to rely on your knowledge of the terrain, what trees are dropping nuts, where the deer are at night, where they go during the day, and whatever else dictates their behavior on your land.

Scouting near fields and thick cover, around saddles, on converging ridges, near funnels are all good starting points. Remember, deer will feed on trees that are near where they want to be any way.

If they are in fields during the night look for the tracks of where they leave those fields and backtrack from there into the woods. If they are going to an overgrown area to hide during the day, figure out where they are most likely to enter it and work back toward the direction they are likely coming from.

Like I said the other night, the most important thing is to constantly be asking yourself "why". Why is there a track here, why are those leaves scuffed up, why is there a rub there, why was that deer standing where it was when I jumped it? The answers to all those "why" questions will lead you to recognizing patterns that you can apply toward narrowing down where to scout.

That said, the most fundamental advice I could give you is to use your ears. Stop and listen often. When you hear nuts falling, go check under that tree. If you find a lot of sign, figure out how you want to hunt it and do so ASAP. If you see some sign, but not enough to get you excited, look around and see if nearby trees are getting hit harder, or maybe even the other side of the tree you are checking is getting hit. Also notice what characteristics that particular spot has that other places have then check them. If you don't see any sign, don't get discouraged, just keep moving. Eventually, you will find what you are looking for.

All else being equal, if white oaks or chinkapins are dropping, that is most likely where the deer will be. When they stop dropping, the deer will go to the various species of reds. Learn which one they seem to prefer and look for others.

It may seem like a lot of work, but trust me, when you get the hang of it, you will probably enjoy the scouting more than the shooting. In my mind, hunting takes place before you climb into your stand. Everything after that is just shooting.

Good luck.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Holy Hotspot!

The final two weeks until the opening of deer season just got a whole lot longer.

Yesterday, I checked on the chestnut oaks that I wrote about in this post.  Last time I was there, I had discovered that the trees were loaded with acorns.  I was curious about whether they had started dropping yet.

Oh my gosh!  The acorns were dropping and the deer were absolutely hammering them.  If the season were open today, I would 100% guarantee a sub-20 yard shot at multiple deer.  And the best news is that there is at leat one buck using the area.

The rub pictured above was very fresh.  Notice the shavings on the ground.  It was on a tree that was about as big around as my wrist.  A rub that size is much larger than what I normally see this time of year.

Click on any of the photos to see a larger view.  Click on the "X" in the upper right corner to return.

There were several other rubs on trees ranging from one to one and a half inches in diameter, which is much more typical for early season feeding rubs.

My theory on clusters of rubs at this time of year is that they are not made for communication, like like they are later in the year.  Of course no one knows what goes through a buck's mind, but I believe, after observing lots of them around dominant trees, that the smaller rubs they make in feeding areas is just a case of boys being boys.  Bucks will casually feed around on acorns and if they get close to a small tree, they will pause to try out the new headgear. It isn't aggressive rubbing.  It's almost like they are just bored.
Normally they don't pick on trees much bigger than thumb-size, so I'm pretty excited to see if larger rubs mean larger deer.  It's probably just a six-pointer with an attitude, but I'm going to remain hopeful for another two weeks.
I also found this small scrape
As exciting as it is to see a cluster of rubs, the thing that really got me fired up was the quantity and concentration of feeding sign that I found in the area.  There were cracked acorn shells and fresh deer droppings everywhere. 

In an area about the size of a half basketball court, there was literally no where you could stand and not see deer droppings.  It was unbelievable. 
Here's the problem though.  Deer season is still two weeks away, and a lot can change in that time.  The acorns can all fall and be consumed.  Although with the number of nuts on the ground and still in the trees, that isn't too likely.  A greater risk (as far as hunting this particular spot is concerned) is that some white oaks will start dropping nearby and the deer will change their pattern.
Even though the deer are hammering the chestnut oaks right now, they are their least preferred acorn.  If they have any other option, they will take it.
I'm really hoping that when I return in a couple weeks to check this spot the day before the season opens that I won't find only dried up sign like this:

If I do, it will mean that they have moved on and it would be a waste of time to hunt there.  Sooner or later, it is going to happen.  I just hope that I get a chance to hunt this spot before it does.  If not, I will enjoy the challenge of figuring out where they've gone, which for me, is the best part of deer hunting.