Want to maximize your time afield? The time to start planning is now!
Almost every hunter has done it at some point. Life has happened and it has impeded your deer hunting season plans. Maybe it is a new job cutting into your time afield, the arrival of new child or simply lost access to private lands. Almost all of us has had a season that basically was a throwaway at some point. Odds are you knew it was not going to go well when you were in the store buying your hunting license at the last second.
Maybe you are facing such a season this year. Or you just want to have a better year deer hunting than last year. Whatever the case may be, now is the time to start planning and preparing to maximize your time afield this year.
Today we will give you some tips to help you fill the freezer and feel like you have maximized your big game hunting to the highest potential, no matter what obstacles life tries to throw in your way.
The time for scouting is NOW
If you are a professional procrastinator like I have been for much of my life, it is easy to look out the window here in June and think: "Oh, I've got four more months until archery deer season. No need to rush!" I know it because I have done that many times in the past myself. However, the summer moves fast and between work, BBQs, parades and time at the lake fishing, it is easy to forget about the seasons that are fast approaching.
Personally, I like to do most of my off-season scouting during shed hunting season in the spring once the snows are gone. There is no vegetation, old scrapes and rubs stand out like a sore thumb and fallen antlers are a clear sign of what is wandering around an area. If you did not go out and do that, no worries, you can still go scouting in the summer. The hard part is carving out time for it. Even if it is just an hour or two one evening once a week to go glass a nearby food plot or a short walk through the woods one Saturday morning. If you spent most of last season sitting in stand wishing you had setup some new locations, you should be thinking of doing that now.
We would even go so far to say that you should consider setting up stands soon. Deer notice when something has changed in the woods and you need to give them time to get acclimated to them. Setting up in the next couple months will give ample time for the animals to become used to them, putting their guard down the first season dates open. We know that it may be difficult to break away and do scouting during the busy summer, but it is something you simply must make time for. The best deer hunters on the planet do not spend their whole summer lounging in a hammock. They are out there scouting new wildlife management areas, planting food plots and making their plan of attack.
The larger point we are trying to make is that summer planning is what separates the hunters who harvest mature bucks season after season and the hunters who struggle to fill even a simple antlerless deer tag.
Buy some trail cameras
Ever heard the phrase: "Work smarter, not harder?" It applies to most things in life, but it applies to deer hunting too. Thankfully, digital trail cameras have made working smarter easier than ever before. A good trail camera with times, dates, moon phases, temperature readings and more gives you a wealth of information that you can use to start building a profile on each of your target bucks. As you get closer to the seasons, patterns should start to emerge that will make it easier to predict when and where a buck will be in the area, maximizing the use of your hunting time.
In keeping with the theme of "working smarter," keep your checks of cameras to a minimum, even in the summer. I only check my cameras once a month at the most. Put a large SD card in that cam and let it work. The less you are in the area, the more photos you will get and the more comfortable the bucks will be in hanging around. We know this requires some patience, but trust me, it is worth it.
I also recommend owning several cameras. Covering your hunting area with cameras is like working a spinnerbait or topwater over the lake to find where the bass are holding. You need to cover a lot of ground and multiple cameras will make that easier. I run up to six cameras at a time these days. You do not need to be rich to do it either. All my cams are cheapies. I probably have less than $400 invested in all six. Look for sales in the off-season or on discontinued models if you are looking to save some money.
One quick tip for any camera check you make is to limit your time in the spot. Unless the batteries need changed, carry a spare SD card with you. Swap out the cards and move on. I like to give my camera a shot of cover scent after checking to help mask that I was there. Cameras effectively allow you to be a fly on the wall in the forest. They are always there scouting for you in a low-impact way that will allow you to be fully prepared once archery season arrives.
Watch the weather and be patient!
If you are like me, the fall is your busy time of year. That limits the amount of time you can be in the woods hunting. If your time is already limited, why spend it on low-percentage days where it is too warm, too rainy or the wind conditions are less than ideal? Last year, in the face of a busier work schedule, I decided to get more surgical in my approach to Michigan's firearm deer season. It ended up paying off, I harvested a nice 110-inch, 7-pointer on November 24. Any Michigan hunter will tell you, any time after the November 15 opener is tough for harvesting any deer.
Only hunting the most ideal days has another positive effect on your hunting spot. Depending on hunting pressure, you can effectively make your hunting area into a sanctuary spot if other hunters are baring down on the deer next door. Big bucks will go to where there is the least pressure and if you have been holding off a week, they may decide your area is the place to hide out. I feel like that was a major contributing factor to my harvesting of that buck last season.
Keep an eye out for those incoming storms, especially of snow. The animals, especially the antlered deer you are after, can sense those coming and will be up and moving to feed before it hits. This may require a last-minute change of plans, but weather plays too large of a factor to be completely ignored. Unless you must schedule all your hunting days a month in advance, try to time all your hunts short-term to coincide with cold snaps or other conditions that tend to spur the most deer movement.
Pay close attention to that wind. Too often we have seen hunters who say: "screw it" and go out anyway when it obviously is not in their favor. Do not try to force the issue. If the date is right for a buck's pattern, but the wind is not, you are taking an extreme risk. These animals are smart, and you must play the percentages. We are not saying you should never take a chance on hunting a stand that is risky because of the wind, but you should probably save that calculated risk for later in the season when time is already running out. It is also easier to take a risk on stand and wind factors when you have a muzzleloader or rifle in hand than it is with a bow. It is no coincidence that the best bow hunters on the planet are also the ones who are the most patient and surgical in their approach to hunting each stand placement. Their big game seasons often come down to the wire, but these are also the guys who seem to always pull a magic rabbit out of a hat with a big buck harvest to round out their year.
Sit all day to maximize the use of your time
The biggest mistake many time-strapped hunters make is simply not putting in enough effort. If you only have a few days to hunt and at 10 a.m. you are heading in for breakfast and to warm up on opening day of firearms deer season, you might as well start preparing a dish of deer permit soup right now. One cannot shoot a deer if they are not in the woods. That is why it is so vital to sit all day on stand. Because once the other guys start heading in around noon, the bucks will start moving because they know it is safe or they will be pushed from hiding.
Hunting is hard and to be successful, you must be prepared to put the time in. Sure, anyone can get lucky and shoot a big buck with their crossbow within 15 minutes of settling in for their first hunt of the year, but this is a rarity. Odds are, you are going to have a long, tough wait ahead of you. If you only have limited hours to hunt each day, strongly consider going out in the afternoon and sitting between noon and 3 p.m. instead. Many big bucks will go nocturnal, but when they must move in daylight, then often do it at these times because it is when there are fewer hunters in the woods.
Sometimes you can even use other hunters as a midday strategy. For instance, if you know the neighbors are likely to call it quits before you do, set up along an escape route. You may just catch an escaping buck completely off-guard. This can be especially effective on public land where many casual hunters may only head out a few times a year.
Set realistic goals
My final tip for maximizing deer season is to set goals that are realistic for yourself and the amount of time you have available to hunt. I have seen far too many hunters get frustrated because they are unable to reach the full bag limits every season. That is a ridiculous goal to make if you only have four days to hunt! I suggest making your goal a focus on learning and becoming a better hunter rather than reaching a certain number of animals harvested. That way, there is almost never disappointment. More importantly, do not compare your season to that of someone else's. That will just add to the frustration of a year that is not going well.
It is perfectly okay to make your goal simply to harvest an anterless deer for meat or to pass up more young bucks. If your only measure of success for your season is the number of deer in the freezer or a pair of antlers on the wall, you might want to reassess things and take a different approach.
By making realistic goals, you increase your confidence. With increased confidence you will make smarter decisions about how and where to hunt and you will be able to sit for longer periods, thus maximizing the odds of a successful hunt!
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