Narrow Your Zone

Knowing Every Square Inch of Your Hunting Turf

Is the Key to Setting Up On Big Bucks

By Greg Miller

http://www.bowandarrowhunting.com/

I’ve managed to arrow a mature buck during each of my home state’s past three archery seasons. Now I’m sure some of you reading this would just naturally assume that I spend all my time bowhunting on huge chunks of exclusively private ground. No doubt some of you also harbor the illusion that my home state of Wisconsin is literally overrun with large racked, hog-bodied whitetails. In your opinion then, knocking over three big bucks in three consecutive years is no big deal.

But the simple truth of the matter is that I don’t have exclusive access to huge chunks of prime big buck habitat. And with the exception of a handful of countries in the southwestern part of the state (where very strict trophy deer management policies have been in place for more than a decade), Wisconsin definitely isn’t “overrun” with big bucks. In fact, when compared to the bordering bordering states of Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota, my home state of Wisconsin actually runs a distant fourth in big buck production.

The truth be known, the single biggest key to my string of successful seasons has to do with my intimate familiarity of the ground I’m hunting. As my brother Jeff told me recently, “You’ve been bowhunting that area since you were just a kid. You know what the resident bucks are going to be doing and exactly where they like to walk at all times during the season. You must admit, that is a big plus!”

Familiarity Spawns Success

I can’t argue with Jeff’s assessment of my run of successful seasons. He’s right. I am extremely familiar with the area where I’m currently bowhunting. And as my brother stated, I’m also very familiar with exactly how the deer in my hunting area relate to their home range during all parts of the season. It’s a situation that has paid huge dividends the past three seasons for me.

If I see prospective trophy whitetail bowhunters making one mistake more often than any other it’s that they spread themselves way too thin. In other words, rather than becoming intimately familiar with a few areas, they gain only a slight understanding of a bunch of areas. Sure, they might have dozens of stand sites at their disposal. But it’s highly doubtful any of them will be in the right spots. Trust me, this type of approach is not conducive to a high success rate on mature bucks.

My personal success rate on big deer rose considerably the day that I quit making uneducated and irrational guesses about the animals I was pursuing. More specifically, I quit guessing as to where the bucks I was hunting were bedding down. I also quit making assumptions as to where those deer most preferred to walk when traveling about their ranges. (For those bowhunters who don’t already know, being in possession of these two bits of information can dramatically increase your chances of filling your tag.)

Downsizing is the Key

I learned years ago that it’s much easier to gain an intimate familiarity with your hunting spots if you concentrate all your attentions on only a few areas at the most. As I noted previously, many bowhunters fail to achieve consistent success rates on mature bucks simply because they spread themselves too thin. Instead of limiting their scouting and hunting efforts to just two or three spots, they attempt to expand their horizons to include five, six or seven (or maybe even more) different areas.

Of course, I always hear the same argument in support of such an approach. A bowhunter I chatted with recently expressed this argument perfectly. “A person can never have too many good hunting spots,” the guy stated. Well excuse me for saying so, but yes you can! In truth, having too many good hunting spots can actually be detrimental to your chances for success. (I’ll explain later.)

Okay, so now that I’ve made my point about less being better, it’s time to talk about how you decide which two or three of your precious hunting spots you should keep. In most instances it’s merely a matter of applying a bit of logic to the situation. You’re surely going to limit your attentions to those two or three areas that you feel harbor the most big buck potential. Rock-solid evidence, like an abundance of big buck sign and /or consistent sightings of mature animals, does help considerably when attempting to narrow down your options.

But I’ve found that another factor sometimes play a huge role in my final decision as to which areas I’m going to hunt. That factor is the location of the areas in relationship to my home base. Personally, I’ll shy away from hunting a great area that’s a long way from home in exchange for hunting a fairly good area that’s just a few miles from my driveway. Why? Because I’m able to spend a lot more time walking, scouting, observing and hunting those spots that are closer to home. Remember, the more time you spend in an area, the more familiar you’re going to become with that area. And that’s exactly what we’re talking about here!

A couple years back I arrowed a 140-class nine-pointer during my home state’s archery season. That buck is a perfect testament to the positives of hunting close to home. Due to a pressing business commitment, I could stay on my stand only for an hour on that fateful morning. I shot the buck about 20 minutes after daylight and had just enough time to track and recover my trophy before having to head out for my appointment. Had my hunting area been any further from home I wouldn’t have had time to even hunt that morning, let alone track and recover a wounded deer.

There’s another interesting fact about my successful hunt that bears mentioning. I harvested the nine-pointer from an area that harbors very few trophy-sized whitetails. Along with intense pressure during gun season, the area sustains an over-abundance of antlereless dear. Neither factor is conducive to high numbers of mature bucks. However, it seems there’s always at least a couple large racked deer running around in my hunting spot. My intimate familiarity with the area keeps me supremely confident that I’ll eventually get a chance at one of those deer.

Starting Fresh

To this point the information I’ve put forth in this article pertains only to those bowhunters who already have secured a number of hunting spots. However, everything I’ve said also applies to those individuals who are in the process of searching for some prime hunting spots. If I could offer only a few words of advice to such people it would be, “Start small and stay small!” Depending upon the size of the areas you’re considering, I’d highly recommend selecting no more than three different spots on which to concentrate your attentions.

But selecting your “new” hunting areas is only the beginning of the process. Personally, I wouldn’t even consider walking into a prospective hunting area without first thoroughly studying topo maps and aerial photos of that area. In addition, before heading into the woods I slowly drive all the accessible roads that border my newfound area. An incident that happened to yours truly a number of years ago was an embarrassing reminder of the importance of doing this.

I was scouting a big woods area in northern Wisconsin when I came across what appeared to be a virtual big buck honey hole. The ground was littered with steaming fresh scrapes, and at least a half-dozen four to six-inch trees had recently been rubbed clean of bark. Amazingly, all this sign was concentrated within a relatively small area. I quickly picked out and prepared a spot for my portable tree stand, then headed out of the woods. I didn’t bother doing any further scouting of any kind. That proved to be a terrible mistake!

I returned to the spot the very next afternoon and quietly put up my portable stand. Two hours slipped by, and “primetime” was rapidly approaching when I heard a sound I couldn’t initially identify. Then I realized that someone was operating an ATV somewhere off in the distance. At first I couldn’t tell which direction the off-road machine was heading. But a minute later I’d pinpointed its exact line of travel. The damn thing was coming straight toward my position!

Initially, I was irate that someone would be irresponsible enough to drive an ATV through the woods on public forest land. But my anger disappeared almost as soon as the machine came into view. Unbeknown to me, and just far enough from my stand site so that I couldn’t see it, was a brand new logging road. In fact, as I discovered later, loggers had punched the road into the area just a couple days earlier. Had I done my normal thorough scouting job I would have noticed the new road. And I would have known that the buck responsible for all the fresh sign had already relocated to another part of the forest.

My experience with the ATV makes a very important point. Gaining an intimate familiarity with your hunting areas is important for a reason other than learning how the deer relate to those areas. You’ll also gain an understanding how other hunters are utilizing the areas. Of course, this may not be a concern to those who do all their bowhunting on private property. It’s a different story, however, for those of us who still do a fair amount of our hunting on public lands. In my opinion, figuring out what other hunters are doing is equally as important as figuring out what the resident deer are doing.

Hunt Smart!

While I am a strong proponent of downsizing for deer, I’m always quick to add that the approach can cause problems for some hunters. The most obvious of these problems has to do with keeping your hunting areas “fresh.” Having fewer hunting areas means you’ll have fewer stand site possibilities. But regardless of how much a person downsizes his hunting efforts, I remain convinced that they can still find enough stand sites to ensure that they won’t burn out a potentially good area(s). Or, they can come up with a system that allows them to continue to hunt their spots hard, yet keep the deer guessing.

My son Jake and I have what I consider the perfect system for hunting our two chosen spots. Several times during the week we hunt farmland area near our home, but on weekends we hunt a big woods area in the northern part of the state. This “system” ensures that we don’t put too much pressure on either of our areas. Just about the time the deer in one spot catch on that they’re being hunted, we pull up stakes and disappear for a few days.

More Isn’t Better

Earlier in this piece I mentioned that having too many good hunting spots can actually be detrimental to your chances for success. How is this possible? Simple. The more good spots you have, the greater the tendency to second-guess yourself. My observations would indicate that people who have dozens of great setups are always struggling to figure out which one they should hunt. And when they finally do make a decision, they invariably end up second-guessing themselves. I once bowhunted with a fellow who fit into this category. The guy just couldn’t shake the feeling that while he was sitting on one stand a monster buck was walking by one of his other stands.

Unbelievably, he would sometimes relocate three times during a three hour hunt. Talk about spreading yourself too thin!

As I mentioned earlier, trusting totally to guesswork won’t put you within range of many trophy whitetails. Without a doubt, this is the biggest perk of limiting your scouting and hunting efforts to just a few areas. You’ll eventually learn the everyday habits of the deer you’re hunting. Remember, mature whitetails are notorious for using only tiny slivers of all the available cover out there. What’s more, big bucks don’t always leave behind evidence (rubs, scraped, etc.) that they’re frequenting a particular spot. Often, the only way to pinpoint these places is by spending time observing deer activity in your hunting areas. The more you watch, the more you’ll learn.

Don’t Ever Stop Looking

Just prior to writing this article I did some post-season scouting on a 400-acre chunk of ground I’ve been bowhunting for better than 30 years. Now you’d think there wouldn’t be anything left to learn about a tract of land after all those years. You’d be wrong. In fact, I found that I fully believe is going to be a literal big buck hot spot. The spot is located a mere 75 yards from a logging road I walk when traveling to and from a distant stand site. I’d never bothered to check it out simply because I’d never actually seen any signs of big buck activity near that section of the logging road. Hey, even I still make some basic mistakes once in a while!

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when I believed that a person couldn’t have too many good hunting spots. I’ve since learned that there definitely is a danger to having access to a large number of quality hunting areas. Spreading your efforts over a bunch of different areas almost always means that you aren’t doing justice to any one of them.