Failure To Fill Tags by James L. Bruner
There are copius measures with which one will use as benchmarks to gauge success and failure when it comes to filling your deer hunting tag at the end of the season. Some are very subtle instances which, when tallied together, will spell inevitable failure. Others are as clear as the tail of a buck running for the next county but are often overlooked or regarded as regional or traditional hunting techniques. In either scenario the end result is another year passing without fresh venison in the freezer. For this article we will open the pages and dive into the blueprint of mistakes that many hunters follow with great anticipation for consistent failure in the field.
One of the most common infractions, if you will, is the announcement of arrival or presence of danger in deer country. It’s a repetitious story I hear played out year after year where the hunter carefully scouts a possible hunting area with the precise adequacies of a fine tuned predator. Cautious to leave any scent or create a disturbance he, or she, runs a plethora of advanced safeguards to ensure minimal impact on the game animal or environment. In the process the hunter observes the surrounding information with meaningful intent and creates the judgment call that this is indeed the place to setup for the upcoming season. All is well at this point. Two days later the same hunter returns on an ATV with a hunting blind, saws, feeders, and a small bottle of cover scent to mask the area that has just been turned into a tract of forest laden with all the warning signs that tell the local herd that this area is no a longer safe harbor. It goes without saying that when you have the knowledge and forethought to carefully scout your hunting area in a concise and pre-determined manner that these actions should carry over into the hunting aspect for optimal success. Not to say this will not work in your favor but it is counterproductive to your scouting. Treat your hunting as you did your scouting and you will view more deer in a natural state and in turn provide yourself with a more relaxing shot on the game animal.
Case in point.
An old friend of mine hunts a sprawling farm country that holds a substantial deer herd with numerous large whitetail bucks. If you were to view the antlers hanging on his wall you would undoubtedly be impressed. If you were to view his daily hunting routine you may think otherwise. This consists of driving his pickup truck out into the field a short distance from where he has a solid hunting shack situated in a very visible location. There’s no hiding the fact that it’s there by any stretch of the imagination so the deer have become accustomed to it. The following process is to shovel the corn from the back of the pickup roughly 80 yards from the hunting shack. Next you slam the tailgate and drive home, which is roughly 200 yards, and then sneak back on foot and wait. In reality you cannot ’sneak’ back to begin with as the shack sits in the center of a field. Regardless, the theory is he announces his presence by the food that has just been delivered and the danger has passed by the sound of the pickup leaving the area. All must appear well in the eyes of a whitetail, right? The hook comes when he walks back out to hunt shortly afterwards. At least in his eyes. And this does work for him to a certain extent yet overtly contradicts the days he spends on the same small tract of land glassing for deer before season in preparation for the upcoming hunting season. It’s irrelevant. He’s going to hunt the same spot year after year using the same technique. Although this is an expanded view of the previous scenario it is actually one in the same using a larger scale. You are probably wondering how this intersects with a failure to fill his hunting tag.
Let’s remove this traditional method he uses, and, the tract of farmland, and, set the hunter in an unfamiliar rugged wilderness area. I can say firsthand he hasn’t developed the skills to efficiently scout and pursue whitetail deer on the level where most of us begin and end our hunt every single year. In short, he’s lost and looking for answers. Although all the signs and information is on the ground staring back up at him he is unable to digest what the big picture says. Your scouting is learned through the years of gathering information and, again, if you effectively treat your hunting and scouting as one in the same you greatly increase your percentages of success.
Misuse Of Scents
Mixing scents with surroundings can be rewarding in both the attractant and masking qualities that deer find acceptable. The whitetail, for all it’s built-in survival mechanisms, is also a creature of curious habit but it is my interpretation that there is a distinct line of perception when evaluating the possibility of danger. In an extreme visual sense you could take this very pointed research I performed years ago in order to gauge the immediate response level of perceived danger.
Mid-summer brought several weeks of watching a mature doe nurture her young fawns. Each morning they traveled the same path below a hardwood ridge that transitioned into an area that consisted of balsam and pine before making their way up the ridge to browse. I had prepared six film canisters at home that contained five samples of vanilla extract with exactly one teaspoon of extract each. Canisters were placed to the side of the trail at roughly 15 foot intervals and held in place with moss and leaves. The sixth canister held a single drop of coyote urine and was also placed in sequence as the extract in a position where the deer would encounter the urine last on their daily travel. The reaction was as you might expect. Unsure about the vanilla extract they proceeded cautiously along the trail after a short pause to evaluate this new scent. They did not appear attracted nor did they appear overtly alarmed. With the doe in the lead they stopped several feet from the canister with a single drop of coyote urine and she raised her head slightly before the three of them made a hasty retreat into the swamp with the wind at their backs. Although this research cannot be completely controlled in this natural environment it did appear that there was a definite acceptance of the vanilla extract even though it was a foreign scent. I would also surmise that the coyote urine sample was quickly perceived in relation to danger at least by the mature doe by her actions of leading her fawns away from the area. It’s a harsh study that cannot be controlled on wild deer in a natural setting but it gives some insight into the trigger mechanism that allows a deer to distinguish and evaluate scent even in very miniscule amounts.
Although a masking scent of pine or spruce may not appear out of place in a natural forest setting always try to match your cover scents to those of your surroundings. Hardwoods scents of natural earth are very acceptable as the forest floor in these areas is in constant change throughout the year and often the chosen places for well-defined scraping activity. Deer scrapes and even turkey scratchings uncover fresh earth and are very strong in scent which can carry and sustain a sensory impact. Your earth scented masking scents can work both as a cover scent and an attractant in this case as bucks may investigate further.
When utilizing attractant scents pay attention again to your surroundings. Just because deer love apples doesn’t mean they will find you irresistible because you have inundated yourself with apple or similar food scents. For all intents and purposes the deer will probably pinpoint your location quickly due to the scent being so easily defined. As in the case with some hunters using actual bait such as apples, you could consider a complimentary scent but keep in mind that you would already have an abundant source of natural attractant scent on the ground. The situation is the same when using deer attractants such as a rutting or doe in heat scent. Although a buck is ready and can mate as soon as it sheds it’s velvet that doesn’t always make a doe in heat scent the perfect choice.
When using any scents whether they are masking or attractant be sure to clean your hunting clothes before venturing to a new hunting area. Simply spraying your hunting apparel with a new cover scent to match the current scenario does not rid the articles of clothing or mask it completely. You may smell like a pine forest to another human but to a deer you could still be sending out the scent of apples or acorns. All too often scents, whether they are attractant, cover, or masking scents, play a large role in the failure to fill you deer hunting tag.
Finding Your Deer
To be perfectly frank this is an area where a large majority of hunters will fail and many times this is due to lack of knowledge or sheer laziness. I’ve been on many tracking expeditions with fellow hunters who had turned their intention toward actually finding a deer rather than the sign leading up to the animal. This is most common, but obviously not only directed towards bowhunting for the very reason that deer seldom drop in sight even with proper arrow placement. I’ve met several hunters who had shot deer with a rifle and never pursued the animal simply because it didn’t appear wounded as it fled the scene after the shot. Stomping around in the woods looking for your deer usually will only serve to diminish, if not ruin, the actual evidence needed to complete the recovery process. I won’t go into this subject in any detail because I’ve already written an article on Tracking Wounded Deer but you can create a habit and general rule of thumb that will help you in the future.
Even if you watch your deer fall and expire, take the time to follow the trail it made and view the fresh bloodtrail. As redundant as it may sound this will provide insight of how blood splatters across leaves and grasses, tree trunks and branches, when a deer is wounded and moving. You watched the action take place and realize this deer was running full speed before slowing down and expiring. This will reflect in the blood you find on the ground and in turn serve it’s purpose in later hunts. The information is right there and should be viewed. Gather this fresh material either mentally or in a journal. Color of blood, evidence of deer hair, trajectory of blood, consistency of blood loss, and even lack of blood evidence can be distinguished during this moment.
Keeping It Mobile
It’s really easy to get bogged down in today’s busy lifestyles and time is more than just a premium for most as work duties, family, and hobbies seem to chomp away at every second of your day. This reflects in many hunters regimen as they create time for some basic scouting and hang a treestand with the hopes of, more or less, getting lucky. You can usually decipher which hunters these are by the tone in their voice or lack of excitement and enthusiasm. Often these are the same men and women who end their season with an unfilled tag and a self-made promise to make next year more productive by dedicating more time to scouting. There is one easy method for combating this scenario and it involves more than just attitude. Understanding your deer herd densities and their appropriate relation to relative ranges will provide further insight and increase your percentages of connecting with a suitable set of antlers and a freezer of fresh venison.
First off most states have a growing deer herd and offer plenty of hunting for those willing to put their feet on the ground and get back what they have put into the process. Keep in mind that deer have a home-range of roughly one square mile. You can most likely find deer density information locally for the area you plan to hunt. Around this area deer densities per square mile fluctuate rapidly so let’s use a constant of 12 deer per square mile as an example. Understandably that number is going to be extremely low for some areas and high for others. We’re talking examples here.
Let’s now take your hunting area and, because I live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I will need to draw a very narrow figure since our forests stretch practically from end of the state to the other at over 16,000 square miles. We’ll use a 10 square mile tract of land for this equation. At 10 square miles with a deer density of 12 deer per square mile we conclude 120 deer minimum population for this tract of land. You could go further and filter results according to buck to doe ratios for the county but we’re simply looking at deer here. Now you can view the accessibility of this particular tract. You probably didn’t walk here so this means that you access by public or private roadways. Let’s calculate a road runs parallel 3 miles to the tract with the outlying acreage being tucked behind the main access. For many hunters a mile through the woods is a long trek so, dealing with the first square mile of forest and adjusting for your minimum access of 3 miles you have roughly 36 deer to hunt. If you’ve figured your own buck to doe ratio than you also have the perceived number of bucks in the area. Now here’s where you increase your percentage by providing the ability to stay mobile.
Your three acres of hunting area need to be divided mentally, visually if you will, in your head. By utilizing the land accordingly you can place 3 treestands or create 3 hunting areas near center of each square mile quadrant. This should allow the best results for viewing deer that are relative to each quadrant and provide the possibility of deer activity from acreage that resides beyond the furthest marker of the square mile you are hunting. Optimizing these percentages would mean walking through the first mile of forest and placing your treestand at roughly the borders of the square mile mark. Keep in mind for those who are really just learning that there are no actual markers. You need to visualize or guesstimate each mile to make these decisions. Chances are if the herd density is roughly 12 deer per each square mile you won’t be walking very far to setup your first treestand but keep your goal in mind of optimizing your percentages. Don’t park your butt 50 yards off the road and expect a bonanza of bucks to filter past your stand on command.
This practice will take the entire afternoon if everything goes well but if you look at the dividends you allow yourself three different hunting areas all in one short tract of land with different deer in each tract. All are accessible from the same road and it comes down to a simple matter of where you want to hunt today. Sometimes all it takes is that change of scenery and a deer or two wandering by to adjust your outlook on the season. This technique will help keep you mobile even in a small area and provide alternative options to play wind direction while keeping travel times to and from your hunting area to a minimum. It’s an effective method for those who are truly limited in their time afforded to hunting.
Your Attention Span
This may sound completely irrelevant for many hunters but for those, like myself, who have struggled to spend more than a couple hours on a treestand, you’ll understand the bigger picture here and know when to call it quits. By referring to the phrase of calling it quits I don’t mean giving up by any means. It’s simply a matter of knowing your limits, pushing that limit, and expanding the total length of time spent on the stand.
I’m one of those people who can sit at a desk and write an article in a fairly relaxed fashion from beginning until end. But, get me outdoors and it’s like a kid in an arcade with pockets overflowing of freshly minted quarters. I like to move about and view the other side of the hill, the greener grass on that side of the fence, and of course everything else I might be missing. As relaxing as it is, twenty minutes use to seem like an hour to me on a treestand and before you know it my fingers and toes were tapping a silent rhythm to my favorite music. It wasn’t long afterwards and my head began to swivel in an effort to find that deer that wasn’t there yet. During all of this mayhem I could still vividly hear my father’s voice telling me to sit as still as stone decades earlier. In his own words, “Jim, when it’s cold your nose will start dripping like a faucet. Don’t move! Let it drip! If you absolutely have to move do it in slow motion.” Probably not the best visual picture with that example but it that’s how I was taught and it quickly snapped me back to the moment and my constant fidgeting.
Unless your creating a rattling sequence or performing a drive I learned that being still and quiet while deer hunting was paramount to seeing deer and even moreso to shooting deer. I also learned that when you can’t adhere to these basic rules that your most likely better off to leave the stand rather than tipping your hand to every whitetail in the area. So, what can you do to increase your attention span and spend more time hunting? Here’s a few pointers that have helped me through the years and increased my total time spent on the stand by hours, not minutes.
Be your own mentor. As crazy as it may sound it really comes down to discipline and creating structure. If you use the mindset that you are leading and teaching by your actions you inevitably underscore the basics as you would when teaching a new hunter the groundwork of successful deer hunting. Act as you would if you had a new hunter along with you on the hunt anticipating that first whitetail to pass by your stand.
Challenge yourself to keep your mind active and occupied. I often scan the woods from my hunting area for fresh buck rubs. I’m not speaking of a quick scan across the landscape. Pinpoint the known travel routes that you are hunting and visually inspect the base of each tree from your blind or stand. It sounds like an exercise that would take seconds but when you deliberately view each tree from your vantage point it can pass the time quickly while still keeping you alert to your known entry and exit points that deer frequent. It’s not uncommon to view a deer standing just beyond a clear shooting lane when viewing the trails with this extended attention.
Adopt additional hunting techniques like calling and rattling. Calls like the fawn and doe bleat are common throughout the year and can be used to set the tone that this area is safe. Obviously calls like the tending grunt can be used during the rut. In either event there are numerous social deer calls that can be used to your advantage not just for the sake of calling deer but for spending some extra time hunting. Typically I refrain from calling during my first couple of hours on the stand. My objective is to hunt the local herd that I know reside in the area. I prefer to execute that hunt by utilizing the element of surprise. I’m not looking to draw attention to my location at this point in the hunt. When I get to the point where my attention starts to wander I break out the calls and create a short, soft sequence of bleats in 15 minute intervals. My anticipation and attention levels begin to soar as the senses once again become alert with this additional interaction. The same can be done with rattling although the usage will be more dictated by the season and any expected response.
I’m sure there are many hunters out there who also use portable media devices to listen to music, play games, surf the internet, text message, and whatever else is available. For myself that is merely a distraction away from the actual hunt which in turn dampens the attention span. My own exercises for lengthening time hunting revolve around the hunt itself with a sharp focus on staying alert and hearing what is taking place around me.
All in all if your deer hunting falls into any of these categories they could have serious drawbacks to your realization of filling your hunting tags. Try stepping back for a moment with an honest judgment of your annual hunting activities. You might just find that with an adjustment or two that the taste of fresh venison backstrap’s goes down much easier than tag soup.