Best Laid Plans…..Whitetail Hunting Strategies.
Follow me through this hypothetical scenario and see if any of this sounds familiar to you. During an early spring shed hunting trip you stumble upon an antler of a great buck right smack dab in the middle of your prime Illinois hunting spot. You show all of your buddies the awesome buck that you will be chasing for the next year. For the sake of the story, we will call the buck “Hightower”. As summer sets in and the bucks become more visible you start setting out trail cameras in an attempt to capture a picture of your target buck. After leaving your camera out for what seems like an eternity you pull the card and check the pictures. Like opening a present on Christmas morning, you rapidly scroll through the pictures on your computer until…BAM…there he is…Hightower in all his glory. As though you just un-wrapped your first BB gun, you call all of your hunting buddies to give them the news. Not only is he still there but he is even bigger; you proudly explain to them.
Now that you know Hightower is still around, you begin to analyze every detail of your farm to help determine the best locations for an ambush. There are a couple spots that stand out as high percentage locations for encountering your buck, and tree stands go up to make the hunt official. To put the icing on the cake you even caught a few glimpses of him feeding in a soybean field on your farm during a summertime evening scouting trip. A grin slowly creeps up from the corner of your mouth as you know he walked past one of your stands to get to that field. Nothing left to do now but practice shooting your bow and patiently wait for hunting season to arrive.
The Illinois hunting season finally arrives….time to put Hightower on the wall!! Weeks go by as warm weather and improper conditions keep you out of the hunt for the buck of a lifetime. There is no way that you are going to risk educating this deer by hunting him before the time is right. The decision is made to wait until the early stages of the rut to resume the hunt.
One early November morning your alarm startles you out of bed. The weather forecast from the night before signaled to you that this morning would be the morning. You take every possible scent control measure you can before you leave your house and wait till you get to the field before getting dressed. Although the slight NW wind is perfect for your setup you know that minimizing your scent in the woods certainly increases your odds.
Now with bow in hand and at least an hour before daylight you quietly make your way into the woods. The powerful flashlight easily lights up your trail markers strategically placed along the access route. Without these inventions the pitch-black cover of darkness would be an impossible maze. As the rustle of leaves on the opposite ridge grabs your attention you pause to listen to the source. A few alarm snorts and the heavy gallops confirm that they are deer. Not the undetected entry you were hoping for but still confident you press on to your stand. With no other apparent disturbances, you arrive at the tree stand and make your ascent. With the aid of your light, you get your gear organized and ready for the hunt. Pack is hanging up on a limb…check…..grunt call in pocket…check….release on wrist…check…arrow on string…check. “Let’s do this” you say to yourself. After a silent 30-minute sit in the dark the sun finally starts making your surroundings visible.
As the small animal activity increases your anticipation continues to elevate. A few whitetail does shuffle through a small clearing just North of your position and one of them stops to smell a freshly worked scrape approximately 30 yards from your tree. No one needs to tell you that Hightower made that scrape the day before you just patiently wait for his return. Moments later you hear the aggressive grunts of a buck in pursuit of a doe. You stand up and prepare for the shot as the chase draws closer to your position. Bow drawn you can’t help but feel slightly disappointed as a small immature buck bumps a doe through your opening. Undeterred you remain vigilant for the rest of the day. Although you see several other small bucks and does that day Hightower never makes an appearance. –Hypothetical story over—
Now how many of you have ever had a similar experience? Let me pause from typing as I raise my hand! Ok so some of the details may be different but I am sure most of us have been very confident in a set up only to leave the woods disappointed and with no explanation as to why we failed. Please continue reading for my hypothetical reason for your failure in the story above.
Convinced that you needed to be in the stand 30 minutes before daylight you were walking into your stand in complete darkness. The powerful flashlight you were using was visible from a considerable distance. Maybe Hightower saw your light bouncing through the woods and was alerted to your presence….maybe not. It also could have been the two deer that you bumped off of the opposite ridge that ran away snorting…maybe Hightower heard them and elected not to travel in your direction. Finally, maybe when you used your flashlight to organize your gear 20 feet up in a tree, a distant “hot” doe saw it and changed course dragging Hightower with her. There is also the distinct possibility that out of no fault of your own he just went a different direction that day and you will kill him out of that tree a couple days later. There is no way to know for sure the root cause of your failure but for the sake of argument I am going to point the finger at one of the first 3 potential mistakes.
Through my evolution as a deer hunter, I have learned many valuable lessons. One of which (being the inspiration for this story), is that access is everything. It seemed that for many years I completely ignored the importance of a flawless entry into your ambush location. I always had the mindset that I had to be in the stand 30 minutes before daylight. Who the heck came up with that rule anyway???? Even if I was running late, I just had to be in the tree before shooting light. I would rush my way through the woods to ensure that I was sitting down in my stand as soon as legal shooting was possible. Now, explain to me the advantage of being in your tree when it gets light enough to shoot if you have scared away any deer that might have shown up anyway?
Now assuming that you have already picked the best entry point into your hunting location and are approaching it with the wind in your favor, the only thing left to do is not spook any deer. Every stand set up is different. Some will require you to be there well in advance of daylight. In that instance I carry a very dim single LED flashlight. You actually have to squeeze the light to get it to come on and when you release it the light shuts off. This way I only use it sparingly and the light is not very obvious to the surrounding area. For every stand location that does not require me to get in there early I follow a very simple but tedious strategy. I will not start walking in the woods until I can see without the use of a flashlight (bright moonlight skies really help with this). I take very deliberate steps to ensure that I do not break any sticks or stumble. As it begins to get lighter you also have the advantage of other animals making noise in the leaves and birds starting to sing. This noise helps you to blend in as you sneak through the leaves. If a deer is spooked while approaching my stand, I will remain motionless until it has settled down or moved on. Most of the time deer will not completely blow out of the area unless they have confirmed you as a threat with two of their senses. Remain patient and you will usually be able to resume your approach without the horrible sound of snorting deer in the pre-dawn darkness. Do not speed up your approach if daylight is coming faster than you are moving. Who cares? Maybe you will shoot a monster buck off of the ground before you get to your tree. You should also be using this technique when accessing your afternoon stands as well. If you walk impatiently to your tree for an evening hunt you risk alarming every deer within earshot.
Spooking the deer in your immediate vicinity is not your only concern when accessing your stands. It is the chain reaction that is caused by running and snorting deer that can really destroy your chances of scoring on a mature trophy whitetail buck. Deer also release an alarm scent from their inter-digital glands between their toes when stomping their feet in an alert state. This provides an additional warning system to approaching deer in case they missed out on the auditory and visual clues of impending danger. Knowing these facts I consider every spooked deer a failure on my part, most of the time not enough to call off a hunt, just enough to keep me 100 percent focused on making it to the tree without any additional mistakes.
Although there are many aspects to consider when planning a hunt, I am thoroughly convinced that proper stand access is the most overlooked. If you want to increase your odds of success this fall start by slowing down and leaving that mini-spotlight in the truck. I can assure you one thing…When the sky starts to lighten in Illinois on Nov. 9th this year, I will be creeping painfully slow towards my tree stand, keeping my fingers crossed that I don’t spook “Hightower”.
-Corey J. Wilkinson
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Last Updated: September 23rd, 2022