An aggressive hunting procedure and skill every bowhunter should know…
Grabbing my bow and backpack I set off through the public land timber to a pre set hunting location. Once there I couldn’t help but notice the lack of deer sign in the area. No rubs, scrapes, very few droppings, and the old runways were barely noticeable. This was not normal for this area. To my disappointment, the white oaks I had hunted the previous year had no acorns. It was the first time in my hunting career I felt that I had to improvise and wander in search of a better location.
It was late October and the mature bucks were starting to pursue does, so I had to locate an area with doe traffic. The breeding season concept in this big woods area was simple, find a white oak with acorns to attract does, and the does would hopefully attract a buck.
I walked until a white oak with acorns was discovered. The tree was easy to climb, there were droppings under it, and it was bordered by a several year old cutover which now consisted of dense eight foot tall poplar saplings with fresh rubs along its edge. There were also three well-used runways within easy shooting distance of the oak.
Within several minutes I was sitting on a branch and had my feet on another. It wasn’t long before a doe and her twin fawns stepped out of the saplings and began to nervously feed on acorns. Within several minutes the unmistakable noise of a buck chasing a doe in the saplings made the doe uneasy and she and her fawns left the area.
After an hour of quiet time I heard the chasing in the saplings again, and as hard as I tried to see in the saplings, they were just too dense. The noise kept getting closer until the pursued doe busted out of the saplings right in front of me. With her mouth open, tongue hanging, and panting with every breath, she was desperately trying to put some ground between her and her pursuer. After about 30 seconds a beautiful 10-point popped out of the saplings, nose to the ground and in hot pursuit.
I immediately came to full draw in hopes of stopping him and getting off a shot. It took me three vocal doe bleats, each bleat louder than the previous, to get him to stop his hurried pace. As he looked back over his shoulder to see where the bleat came from, I took the 25-yard quartering away shot. The shot was true and he expired within 100 yards.
If that hunt seemed archaic in terms of climbing and sitting on limbs, it was because it took place in 1975 prior to steps, treestands, and all the other paraphernalia we have today. What was not archaic was the beginning of what I now term as freelance hunting, which I have done successfully on many occasions since that date.
Freelance hunting is defined in two ways: The first is to head into a new piece of property (such as on an out-of-state hunt) with your hunting gear in search of the best available deer sign, set-up a location at that sign, and immediately hunt. The second is to sense your current hunting location is not going to produce so you climb down pulling your stand, steps, climbing sticks or whatever, and take off in search of a new location. The second scenario would be after sitting on stand for a while, or like the previously described hunt where the sign when you get to your location doesn’t warrant a hunt.
Let’s put the stark reality of freelance hunting into perspective for most Michigan hunters. Freelance hunting is classified as an aggressive hunting procedure and is a skill that every bowhunter that has access to a large enough parcel of property should have in their arsenal. This unfortunately excludes many hunters including myself when hunting in Michigan. While there are some fortunate hunters that have large exclusive parcels to hunt in Michigan that is far from the norm. The general landscape of the heavily hunted areas in Michigan is fragmented into small parcels that are simply too small for freelance hunting. This practice can however work on large tracts of state or federal property.
In Michigan I am confined to very small hunting parcels (usually 40 acres or less). On small parcels my post-season scouting ventures have totally familiarized me with every inch of the property and I already have hunting sites in every decent location. It is not uncommon for me to set up a location in a primary scrape area during post season and when I go to hunt it during season, the area is inactive. When this occurs I will move to another pre-set location, but that is not freelance hunting.
The common denominator of freelance hunting is that it is always done without any previous personal attachment or knowledge of the final hunting location.
I bowhunt in Michigan until our gun season opener in an attempt to take one of our super intelligent, primarily nocturnal, spookier than you know what mature bucks. On the evening of the 14th of November I travel out of state to continue bowhunting for much more simple minded, non-pressured, mature bucks. Most of my recent freelance hunting successes have came on these short-term out of state trips where I had little time to scout, all day to hunt, and large tracts of land to wander on.
Early November is the time when many hunters take out of state hunting trips to new places. Usually their time to hunt is limited, so their trips are taken to take advantage of the pre rut and rut phases. During this time frame mature bucks move more during daylight hours and are more susceptible to tactics, both of which are due to the competitive nature of the rut. Also at this time most cornfields have been picked, confining deer traffic too much smaller areas.
Freelance hunting during the rut phases is an excellent exercise in judging and immediately reacting to fresh sign because you do not have the luxury of time to wait for things to happen at a previously set-up location.
When preparing to hunt a new large area of land, the first thing to do is to go online and print aerial and topographical maps of the entire area you plan on hunting. Print them in the highest zoom possible, which will be about 60 acres per sheet, and tape them together into one large map of the area. Even though the aerials may be a couple years old, combined with the topographical maps you can pinpoint and mark areas on the maps in which you would like to concentrate your efforts. Most major terrain features such as timber, funnels, saddles, draws, inside corners of crop fields, marshes, and swamps will be fairly obvious. These maps should be in your pack at all times and will keep you from blindly walking around. Time and unnecessary molestation of your hunting property is not your friend when freelance hunting.
On out-of-state hunts I pre-load three freelance fanny packs. Each pack contains everything needed to set up a tree, including; safety climbing harness, compass, 18 steps, bow hangers, folding saw, reflective tacks, rope, etc. Once at the property I put on my backpack containing my extra hunting clothing and gear, one of the freelance packs is worn below my backpack, and I grab my bow and head into the field to what looked to be the best spot on my aerial photos. Of course this is done while wearing a properly cared for carbon suit, rubber boots, and carbon lined gloves for scent control. The process of going to pre-marked locations is done until a satisfactory hunting location is found.
Look for the absolute best sign, this includes, active primary scrape areas, runways with rubs in funnels offering transition cover between bedding areas, well used runs along creek or river bottoms, and well used travel routes between bedding and feeding areas. There is not enough time on such hunts to explore every aspect of the property in detail and these target areas should yield opportunities.
It is rare for me to set up on a short crop field edge because I am so used to hunting in Michigan where mature bucks feel vulnerable moving into them before dark. While hunters fortunate enough to hunt exclusive areas commonly target field edges, you must keep in mind that they are usually hunting managed areas that in no way replicate normal hunting conditions or normal deer herds. On my out of state hunts I have found that sticking to the best available transition cover still yields the most consistent results.
When freelancing, if possible pick trees to set up that require the least amount of trimming and lane clearing, this will aid in keeping human odor to a minimum. Even when diligent scent control is practiced, it is nearly impossible to cut lanes, trim branches, place steps, and set up a location and have it remain totally scent free.
Once a location is discovered set up a tree wherever the most sign converges (smallest destination area) and hunt it that evening. If the tree allows access for a morning hunt without spooking deer with your entry, take another freelance fanny pack with you when you go back the next morning. If after the next morning’s hunt you are satisfied with the potential of the location you are in, leave the steps in the tree and using the other loaded freelance pack head for the next locations on your maps and set up another site for that evenings hunt.
Replicate this procedure one more day with your last freelance pack. Rotate your locations as sightings warrant. The key is to optimize your hunting time at the best locations.
If a site does not meet expectations pull your steps as you descend the tree and return them to its pack. You now have another pack available for adjusting to visual deer sightings and movements. With this system it is easy to move to a tree a hundred yards away. You can have a new tree set up in a matter of minutes, and silently.
It must be stated that when hunting from trees I hunt exclusively from an Ambush saddle that fits in my backpack and negates carrying around cumbersome hang-ons or climbers. A 2 ½ pound nylon webbing Ambush hunting harness is awesome for not only freelance hunting, but hunting at all times because they allow; mobility, quiet set-ups, 360-degree shooting, great concealment, it’s total safe, silent, comfortable and it can be stolen because it’s always with you.
Some other items to take on freelance hunts include: a rattling device, grunt calls, doe calls and proper scents for the time frame you are hunting in. Generally hunting trips are made to locations with descent mature buck to doe ratios where it is perfectly acceptable to attempt aggressive tactics that you would otherwise not do at home. I suggest that your first hunt remain clean (no tactics unless an out of distance target animal is seen) in a new location that has active sign. A clean hunt will allow normal traffic through the active area, whereas improper use of tactics may alter it.
In 2007 on an out of state hunt I took a nice buck after freelancing to a new location. I was morning hunting in a freelance location set up the previous day. My plan was to sleep in and get to my tree at about 9 a.m. and sit the rest of the day, but by 11:30 a.m. after sighting only two deer I felt out of place and decided to move.
Once on the ground the Bobb’n Head decoy (set up as a doe) I had set up that morning was disassembled and put back in its scent free military duffel bag. After about an hour of slowly freelancing my way through cover towards a large river bottom I discovered what looked to be an awesome location. The area consisted of knee high weeds with scattered trees and brush throughout it, and there was a maze of runways, rubs, and scrapes.
Of course the only tree that offered a good visual of the area was a leaning maple covered in poison ivy. After carefully placing steps and cutting poison ivy for about an hour, the tree was set up. All that was left to do was get down, set-up the decoy about 20 yards upwind of the tree, get back up and hunt.
My first sighting of the evening was a doe that stopped and urinated in one of the nearby scrapes as though she was in or close to her estrous cycle. She had no interest in the decoy and casually left the area. A few minutes later an 8-point showed up at the same scrape, got her scent and took up the chase. No sooner did he leave and a 5-point came in to the decoy and hung around the fake doe for several minutes before leaving. This was turning out to be a very good move.
The next deer I saw was a shooter buck making his way to a scrape about 50 yards downwind of my position. My vocal doe bleat enticed him to look in my direction and notice the fake doe, and he slowly moved towards her. Working his way towards her he passed by the tree and offered me a 20-yard broadside shot. My arrow found its mark and I watched as the 10-point ran about 70 yards and expired.
While I definitely do not recommend frequently adjusting your position due to boredom, if the actual sign does not exist freelancing may be warranted. Successful freelance hunting will give you pride in knowing that you have the ability to adjust to the current areas of activity. If you feel the need to adjust, try this freelancing method, you will be surprised at how productive it can be.
To enrich your bowhunting
skills John Eberhart produced a 3 volume instructional DVD series titled “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” and co-authored the books “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” and “Precision Bowhunting”. They are available at: www.deer-john.net