Dealing With Hunting Pressure…
Once you find a good hunting location picking out a tree may seem like a relatively simple task, but in a state like Michigan there are many factors to consider when doing so.
Hunting pressure is likely the most critical phrase explaining why mature bucks in light and controlled hunting environments move more during daylight hours, react less severely to hunter encounters, and are much easier to take than their brethren in heavily hunted areas like most of us in Michigan contend with.
In lightly hunted or managed areas, hunters rarely target year-and-a-half, two-and-a-half, and quite often three-and-a-half year olds in their quest for that big buck. It is only common sense that if there are no consequences for bucks with hunter interactions while growing to maturity, there are no reasons to alter their movement habits.
Think of it this way; if you knew there were a “hit” out on you, the types of areas you walk through, your daytime movements, and your interactions with people you don’t know would be severely altered – same for deer. Deer are not stupid and while growing to maturity they react to consequential hunting pressure in the exact same manner, they severely alter their habits. The few bucks that survive to maturity in heavily hunted areas can almost be considered a different breed of animal when it comes to survival instincts.
In my 45 years of hunting in Michigan I cannot think of one 3-½ year old or older buck I have taken that did not have a scar from a previous hunter encounter or carry a bullet, buckshot, birdshot, or broadhead. In two instances I found three different types of hunter projectiles in one buck. A good percentage of the 2-½, and a few of the year-and-a-half old bucks also carried projectiles or scars. On my 12 hunts in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois I have taken 11 mature bucks and none of them had a scratch from a previous hunter encounter. Sure, there are some fortunate hunters in Michigan that control and manage large parcels of property that share similar hunting conditions, but they are few and far between.
Unfortunately the vast majority of Michigan hunters hunt in areas where it is a struggle to pass on any antlered buck, knowing the neighbors will not. Sound familiar? The few bucks that survive beyond their first set of antlers in these areas must alter their movement habits and be on constant alert in order to survive. To receive shot opportunities at mature bucks in heavily hunted areas your set-ups must be thoroughly scrutinized.
Seasonal Timing And Cover
Back to picking your tree; the majority of bucks entered in record books were taken during the rut phases. Poplar, ash, maple, hickory, beech, and chokecherry trees are usually leafless prior to the rut phases beginning, while oaks often hold a good percentage of their leaves into the rut, and conifers hold their needles all year. Knowing when trees lose their foliage along with when you plan on hunting a location must be taken into consideration before selecting and preparing a tree.
When post season scouting, if you locate a previous season primary scrape area or an area that received heavy traffic during the previous rut, you will likely be hunting that location during next falls leafless rut phases. When preseason scouting, if you locate a fruit or mast tree that is dropping a preferred food, you will be hunting it early in the season when trees still have their foliage for cover.
Hunting Field Edges
Most hunters like to see lots of deer, and hunting preferred short crop field edges generally allow that. However, unlike TV and videos where big bucks frequent open vulnerable areas as if they were walking in the park, in heavily hunted areas mature bucks rarely move into open fields during daylight hours. About the only exceptions would be during the first day or two of season prior to hunting pressure or during the rut with a hot doe.
When setting-up near short crop fields look for a tree inside the timber within comfortable shooting distance to the field edge and clear a lane to the field edge. Mature bucks will occasionally cruise a field edge scent checking or visually looking for does but more likely they will have a runway just inside the timber that parallels the field edge. This set-up will make your entries and exits less noticeable and the tops of the trees closer to the field edge will offer some background cover when deer are moving towards the field on evening hunts. Setting up along a field edge once the foliage is gone will silhouette your body against an open sky background.
It is common on pressured private property in Michigan to have large deer herds with severely out-of-balance mature buck to subordinate buck and doe ratios. In fact, during the 2008 Michigan bow season I passed on over 30 different subordinate bucks and never sighted a mature buck. I did end up taking a beautiful 12-point on state land in Illinois two days after their gun season ended in December.
In pressured areas mature deer actually look for hunters in trees and when seen they immediately spook, they do not offer the laughable lag time for a shot opportunity like you see on TV and in videos. When hunting destination locations such as food sources where it is common to have several deer in the immediate area when and if a mature buck ever shows up, your set-ups must offer adequate cover, because every deer must be treated with the same respect if you expect a shot opportunity.
Tree Set Up
Quite often conifers, maples, beech, and ash are laden with sprawling lower branches that require a lot of trimming for shot opportunities. In such situations, walk every runway within shooting distance while looking at the tree and pick out the area in the tree that allows the most shot opportunities with the least amount of clearing.
If you have options between a rough and smooth barked tree, choose the later. Severely rough barked trees such as white oaks, hickory, prickly locust, and some conifers are difficult to ascend and descend quietly and any rough bark should be removed from any area your boots or body may come in contact with from the moment you leave the ground.
Unfortunately, the perfect tree rarely exists and you must choose from what is available. In pressured areas mature deer are quick to notice body outlines and movements in leafless trees, so unless there is a large crotch that offers concealment cover, set-up higher in the tree than normal. In heavily hunted areas the higher you hunt the more shot opportunities you will receive.
Several years ago, after Michigan’s gun season, a friend was trying to kill an old dry doe on state land. During the early season, no matter where he sat, if this doe came by she would spot him, stomp the ground, snort a few minutes spooking every deer within hearing distance, and leave.
He knew I had a doe permit and asked me to try my luck. I set up about fifteen feet above his 16-foot hang-on stand on the route she frequented most. She came out exactly where he predicted and cautiously moved towards me peering into every tree like a sniper. At about 40 yards she stopped and glared up into the tree I was perched in. This confrontation was quite different for me, and for the first time in a long time I was actually a bit geeked about trying to take a doe.
My advantage was that I hunted from an Ambush saddle and had set up on the opposite side of the tree, keeping the trunk between her and me. After scrutinizing the tree and feeling comfortable that the area was safe she continued on her route that would bring her within fifteen yards. When the opportunity arrived I slowly swung into shooting position and slid an arrow through both of her lungs. The additional height, coupled with hiding behind the tree in my saddle gave me the required advantage in that situation.
More often than not when scouting the other hunter set-ups I see are so low that I can’t imagine how they ever get a shot opportunity at a mature deer, and obviously I do not know if they do. Being afraid of heights is not something to be ashamed of, but it is something that you must admit and adjust to. If you fall into that category and a tree can’t be found that offers adequate cover at a comfortable height, you will be better served setting up a well-concealed ground blind.
The best ground blinds are those that utilize natural cover to make them as inconspicuous as possible. Fallen trees, large fallen dead branches, root systems from fallen trees, and saplings and brush from cutting shooting lanes can be utilized as blind material as well as anything else in the immediate area. In the fall of 2008 I made a ground blind out of such materials for my daughter Traci to gun hunt from and she took a 2 ½ year old 7 point at a distance of 12 yards and could have easily taken it with a bow.
Pop-up blinds, and 3-D fabrics of similar color to the surroundings can also be used. All pop-up blinds and fabrics have foreign odors when new and should be adequately aired out for several weeks prior to use in the field. Pop-up blinds should also be set-up well in advance of the hunt to allow deer to adjust to them as part of the natural surroundings because most are offered in dark camouflage patterns that stick out like sore thumbs when the foliage is down and all the surroundings are earth tone drab.
In non-pressured areas hunters can get away with setting up out of place and dark colored pop-up blinds on the spur of the moment and still kill bucks. You are hunting a much smarter animal and therefore do not have the luxury of making mistakes and still receive opportunities.
The ground inside any blind should be cleared down to bare dirt and a quiet chair, preferably with a backrest, is also a necessity. There must also be a couple openings from which you can shoot when making a blind from surrounding materials.
Public Land Set-Ups
Public land hunting in most of Michigan is another huge step lower (from a shot opportunity standpoint) than heavily hunted small private parcel land hunting.
On public land where cutting branches or lanes is illegal try to find large diameter trees or trees with large crotches that will aid in masking your silhouette, or set-up 25 feet or higher. The down side of large trees is that most conventional stands will not fit on them, and that is why I exclusively use an Ambush saddle whenever hunting from trees. The saddle allows me to choose from a much larger variety of trees. It weighs only two and a half pounds and easily fits in my backpack with leftover room for all my other gear and extra clothing. I frequently hunt public land in southern Michigan and my hearts out to you guys that are confined to public land because I know how difficult and frustrating it is.
Public land hunters in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula definitely have it the worst from a shear numbers standpoint due to the high general population and limited public land. Think about it; they have to deal with immense competition, they have zero control, they are hunting areas with few if any 3 ½ year old or older bucks, they are hunting deer that are extremely conditioned to avoiding hunters, they have to remove their stands every day to keep them from being stolen or hunted from by others, they have to use strap-on steps or sticks, and they can’t cut branches or shooting lanes.
If the so-called experts had to hunt heavily hunted public land, the vast majority of them wouldn’t know where to start because it would be totally foreign to them. They would have to totally re-learn how to hunt.
Shooting ability varies from one hunter to another. For instance my hunting comfort level and practice accuracy beyond 25 yards is poor, so when setting-up a new location I look for a tree within 12 to 20 yards of where I expect my shot opportunities. Locations should always be set-up so that the majority of sign is within your shooting comfort level.
Another minor issue is that most hunters do all their practicing from the ground. This allows a perfect stance and form when shooting. Not that I am doing it right, but I rarely practice from the ground, choosing to practice and sight in from the peak of my homes roof which simulates the height I hunt from.
Many shot opportunities force hunters to contort their bodies for the shot. Shooting behind you, or to the right if you are right handed, will alter your anchor point, head placement, gripping of the bow, and follow through, any of which can severely alter accuracy. To combat these potential problems shoot at least half your practice arrows from awkward positions, trying to replicate all possible hunting situations.
I rarely set-up locations lower than 25 feet and set-up for 12 to 20 yard shots. This type of set-up creates a steep angle of trajectory and a narrow target area on the deer. For set-ups similar to this it is suggested to practice and sight-in prior to season from similar heights.
Note: To enrich your bowhunting skills John Eberhart produced a 3 volume instructional DVD series titled “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” and an instructional archery DVD titled “Archery Mechanics” and co-authored with his son Chris the books “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” and “Precision Bowhunting.” They are available at: www.deer-john.net