Hunting Is Difficult–Yet Extremely Effective
For many hunters the 2009 deer season was disappointing. I can only assume that many thought about all the post- and preseason work they did in an attempt to get the upper hand, but it all seemed for naught. By the end of season they may have asked themselves, what did I do wrong? If you were hunting in an agricultural area, the answer to that question may have very well been nothing.
Why? Because of huge impenetrable bedding areas in the form of standing corn.
Why was there so much left standing in 2009?
During wet seasons farmers test the moisture content of their corn before harvesting, and if it is too high, which it was in 2009, they leave it standing in hopes the weather will dry it out naturally, which it usually does by mid to late October. Grain elevators only pay full price for corn when moisture levels are at or below 15 percent, but when moisture levels exceed that amount the elevators without dryers will not accept it and elevators with dryers will charge a drying fee as well as a shrinkage (volume) fee for every percent of moisture over 15 percent. In 2009, depending on the area, moisture levels going into late October were 25-35 percent.
Some large farms have their own dryers, but the propane or natural gas costs of removing 10-20 percent of moisture were too high, so many let the corn stand longer before harvesting. The longer corn stands the more chance it has of becoming brittle, developing toxins, and becoming moldy, none of which is good for farmers.
During a typical hunting season cornfields usually take on a couple different criteria, each of which affects deer movements in a different way. They start the season standing and usually during October they are cut for silage or picked. However, fall rains and high humidity days in 2009 kept the corn too wet to harvest at a typical seasonal time frame, creating all of the above issues for farmers. The negative byproduct of the standing corn to hunters was that it created superb bedding areas and escape routes for deer.
When cornfields remain standing, deer sightings and general signposting away from the cornfields in the form of rubs and scrapes decrease in comparison to seasons when the corn gets cut.
Why? Because many deer, mature bucks included, will spend most of their daylight hours in the standing corn. Other than the rare cattail marsh there are few if any other types of vegetation, natural or otherwise, that grow tall enough to totally hide a standing deer, headgear and all, and no others double as a food source.
As corn grows, it transforms into an area that is literally in a class by itself. Standing cornfields become secure bedding areas, daytime transition corridors, and daytime feeding areas that totally alter daytime deer traffic and the area’s hunting situation. Once a cornfield has been picked it not only loses its bedding area status, it confines daytime deer traffic to other easier to hunt areas.
The owners of two of Michigan’s largest gun season buck poles both stated to me that during seasons when the majority of corn is left standing, general deer sightings are down and the number of bucks and especially big bucks brought in are lower than average. They both also contend that the very next year if that season’s corn is down there is not only an influx in the number of buck entries, the average size of the bucks are larger. This confirms that many mature bucks spend most of their daylight hours, even during the rut, within the confines of secure standing cornfields.
As always, I must mention hunting pressure because even though some don’t want to hear it or admit to it because they have never had to deal with it, it is a hard reality that in heavily hunted areas mature deer are much more nocturnal and severely react to human intrusions. When hunting pressured areas, no matter how well you control your hunting habits other surrounding hunting pressure will push many mature deer into nearby standing cornfields if the cornfield is suitable as a bedding area.
Obviously if you own or lease a large tract of hunting land, standing corn is not as much of a factor because you control the hunting pressure, you have no competition, you likely have multiple mature bucks on your property because it has been managed, you likely have food plots and other preferred food sources that attract does which in turn attracts bucks, and you likely have other dense bedding areas that hold deer. Other than being upset at me for mentioning the adverse affects of hunting pressure, you should feel fortunate you don’t have to deal with it.
So what in the world does the blue-collar bowhunter with limited access do when the core area of the mature bucks in his or her hunting area is infested with large cornfields that are left standing throughout the season?
In pressured areas if you don’t have access to the farm on which the corn is planted, your property doesn’t butt up to the corn, and you have no alternative natural food source such as apples or white oaks, there isn’t much you can do other than pray that you might catch a buck pursuing an estrous doe during the rut phases.
If you are fortunate enough to have access to a large standing cornfield and the corn is tall enough and dense enough to offer security you might consider improvising your hunting methods and try something outside the typical hunting mindset. Learn to hunt standing corn and even in heavily hunted areas there is a possibility you will have it all to yourself.
During the early part of the season most cornfields will be standing no matter what the weather conditions and you can hunt in or along the fields without harming the rest of the property with your presence. You can experiment with stalking corn, ground hunting within it, or hunting its perimeter with little if any detriments to your pre-set rut phase hunting locations that should be left totally alone.
Stalk or Still Hunt
The first method is to stalk or still hunt. While I have taken several bucks while stalking corn I have taken many does for property owners and my own freezer, in fact on one hunt I took three does. When gaining permission many farmers will dictate that you take some does and this is the ideal manner to do so while still having a slight possibility of taking a big guy. Also, deer shot while stalking usually die within the field, leaving no invasive human footprint outside of it.
Weather conditions, daily timing, and scent control are all important factors when stalking corn.
Mother Nature must provide the proper weather conditions for bowhunters if they are to be successful at stalking corn. Extreme winds of at least 20 mph, a steady rain, or a combination of the two are required. The odds of getting an opportunity at a mature deer on a calm day in a dry cornfield are about zero.
Daily timing is also important. Midday, between the hours of 10 am and 5 pm, when most deer are bedded is the most opportune time. During early mornings or late evenings most deer will be up and moving making it more difficult to move in for the kill once a targeted deer is located. It can take up to 10 minutes to move into position for a shot once a deer is located, and if that deer is up and moving, it is very difficult to do.
When stalking corn, 50 percent of your viewing distance will be downwind of you and for that reason a complete activated carbon suit and rubber boots are advised. Since no carbon clothing company makes a suitable pattern for stalking corn it is advised to purchase some sort of light beige exterior garment (doesn’t have to be camouflage) that blends well in corn. The corn colored outer garment should be washed in a non-scent detergent prior to wearing it over your properly cared for activated carbon suit.
You will want to dress on the light side because you will be constantly moving, not standing still as you would be when stand hunting. Once you think you are dressed just right, take off another layer. This will save you from having to go back to the vehicle to drop off excess clothing.
Bows are cumbersome, so use a bow sling for carrying your bow or carry it in the least intrusive manner. You will get frustrated if you attempt to stalk corn with bow ready and arrow nocked.
You will be stalking perpendicular to the cornrows and you start the stalk about 50 yards up either side of the field. Slowly poke your head into each approaching row and look both directions for bedded deer. If nothing is seen look forward through the rows for deer bedded in front of you before stepping into the next row. When stepping through a row, plant your boot against the root of a stalk and push the stalk sideways with your knee, then step through the gap. If the wind is blowing in gusts you may need to remain stationary and wait for the next gust before continuing the stalk. Continue this process until you have completed a pass through of the field, then move fifty or so yards down the field edge and stalk back in the same manner.
How far you move down the side of the field after each pass will be dictated by how far down the rows you can see. For example if you can see 30 yards in both direction down each row, you would move 60 yards down the edge before re-entering the field for the next pass through. Basically you move down the field edge twice as far as you can see down each row. Continue this until you have covered the entire field.
If you see a deer chances are it will be bedded, and if it is a doe or a fawn, chances are it will have company bedded in a nearby row. If the deer is one that you want to shoot guess at how far down the row it is and then step back 5 rows and check the wind. Take your time; the deer is likely not going anywhere. Very slowly sneak down the row you are now in, in whatever direction is required to get downwind of the deer, counting footsteps as you go and keeping a lookout for other deer that may be bedded nearby. Once you are at a comfortable shooting distance from where the deer is bedded, nock an arrow and slowly stalk back through four rows until you are one row from the row the deer is bedded in. Slowly poke your head into the row the deer is in and wait for its attention to be elsewhere before stepping into the row for the shot.
If the bedded deer is one you do not want to shoot, move a couple rows back, sneak far enough away from the deer (counting your steps) so you can cross the row the deer is in without being detected, cross the row, count your steps back to your original position, and return to stalking. At this point be extra cautious for other deer bedded nearby the one you just passed on.
Stalking corn requires patience because you may cover a lot of field before seeing anything. Do not get overanxious and go too quickly through the field due to lack of sightings. Deer can and will be spooked if you go too fast no matter what the weather conditions.
Another method is to set up a makeshift ground blind within the field. This method is likely your best bet if pursuing mature bucks. For this you need to walk the edges of the field that butt up to other transition cover, looking for the most used runways when doing so. When done, go back and follow the best-used runways into the corn and try to find a location where other traffic converges with it. Or you can simply walk the field (similar to the stalking process) looking for the rows that have the most traffic. It is relatively common to find a row that is wider than the others and usually that row will have the more traffic down it simply because it is easier to transition through. Once the field has been stalked go back and set up a location or locations in the best spots you found.
Using cut or bent over cornstalks, set up a makeshift ground blind 5 to 10 yards to the side of the peak of activity. You can also use a pop-up blind of similar color to the corn and stand some stalks against it for added concealment cover. Cut the cornstalks to the target area (shooting lane) about 24 inches from the ground (just below a deer’s chest level). Leaving as much stalk as possible will aid in your concealment. Make sure to gain permission from the farmer before cutting any corn stalks.
It is relatively common in many fields to have old rock piles and small openings that were too wet for the corn to grow or for the tractor to plant in the spring and usually the inside edges of these openings will be well traveled. This is another type of location that can be set up in the exact same manner with cut stalks or a pop-up blind to the side of the opening. As described in the stalking section, wear a light beige exterior garment when ambush hunting in the corn. Whitetails have excellent peripheral vision and will likely immediately pick you off if wearing a dark camo pattern.
Occasionally there may be a swale with big trees within a standing cornfield. The edges of these will likely receive deer traffic and if a tree that offers suitable concealment cover is available, set up in it.
While rare, I have found large white oaks within cornfields and during the years the field is in standing corn and the oaks have acorns, these are terrific locations to hunt at any time of season while the corn is standing and acorns are dropping. In this unique situation deer can feed on another preferred food source while remaining within the security cover of the bedding area.
In any natural opening within a cornfield where there is heavy deer traffic you can also set up a mock scrape. Being as scent free as possible, stand in the location where the deer traffic in the opening is most concentrated. Move about 4 feet into the opening and set up a mock scrape by driving a long two to four inch diameter wood pole or cut tree into the ground until it sticks out at least five and a half feet. Keep in mind that bucks may try to rub their antlers on it so it must be driven in deep enough to take some punishment and not tip over. The best option is a cut a tree that has a three to four foot long branch sticking off to the side that will be at the right height (five to six foot) and work as the licking branch once in the ground.
Make a mock scrape below the licking branch and douse it (don’t overdo it) with buck or doe urine. You can also snap the end off the licking branch and smear some licking branch scent on its end. This set-up should be done at least a day or two prior to hunting the location.
The most opportune seasonal timeframe would be just prior to or during pre-rut when bucks are jockeying for dominance. There are many ways of making a suitable pole/licking branch/mock scrape combination setup and this is just one of them. If you make one make sure the farmer knows where it is, otherwise when he combines the corn and hits your pole he could damage his picker and you will likely lose your permission and your inconsiderate nature will be passed on to other farmers in the area.
Ambush hunting within standing cornfields are most productive during mornings and evenings but can be effective at any time of day because bucks can feed or pursue does at will in that type of security cover. While entry and exit routes are critical for success with most typical hunting locations, when hunting in standing corn they are not, because deer can be anywhere. It is however, important to be as quiet as possible when entering and exiting the field. Unlike stalking, weather conditions are not a factor when ambush hunting within a cornfield.
Ambush hunting along the perimeter of a standing cornfield is yet another way. This method requires you to walk whatever part of its perimeter that butts up to other transition cover such as woodlots, swamps, swales, weed fields, etc. and set-up on the best sign. I like to set-up in locations where there are runways within shooting distance on either side of my location into the field. It is also advised to cut a 25-yard shooting lane into the field, you never know when a deer may pass down a row within shooting distance and this will guarantee a shot.
During late October while writing this article I rattled in two bucks from a standing cornfield that were each between 100 and 110-inches. The first buck was sighted out in the corn with a doe and a sparring sequence enticed both the doe and 8-point within 10 yards. They did not exit the corn, but walked right through the shooting lane I had cut into the cornfield. Hindsight being 20-20, I should have taken him, but I didn’t and watched as the pair lost interest and disappeared back into the standing corn.
About 30 minutes later I saw the top of a stalk of corn thrashing around. It was obviously not a deer feeding on an attached ear, but rather a buck sparring with the stalk. Because of the distance I had to get pretty aggressive with my rattle sequence in order for him to hear it. The thrashing immediately stopped and I could occasionally see the tips of his antlers as he moved down a row parallel to the fencerow I was in. I performed another sequence but he kept moving parallel to me and farther down the field. After paralleling well past my location he turned and walked directly to the fencerow and began scraping under a tree 50 yards away. He was a wide 9-point with short tines and I decided to mess with him a bit. I performed several soft grunts and watched as the buck made 3 more scrapes under three different trees while working towards my location. Once under my tree he freshened up the two scrapes that were already there and thrashed the licking branches above them with his antlers, putting on quite a show.
I could have taken two northern Michigan book bucks on a single hunt, but being an idiot I thought would get an opportunity or two at some larger bucks in November in southern Michigan. The later didn’t happen and I went buckless in Michigan last season.
That hunt was also the first time I wore Scent Lok’s new Vertigo grey pattern. I love the Vertigo pattern because it is so open it completely breaks up the human outline, but was very leery of using it due to the noise of the membrane within it, so I put the suit through three dryer cycles to get rid of some of the membrane noise before using it. The tree I was in was very small in diameter and had lost all of its leaves. The highest I could go was 18 feet high and tree had a wide-open sky background. Needless to say that although I stuck out like a sore thumb, the open Vertigo pattern kept me from getting picked off by all three of the mature deer as they passed closely by.
The farmer that owns the property had never taken a good buck with a bow so I suggested he sit in the same tree the very next day. He did and was wearing Mossy Oak Break-Up. The 8-point from the day before passed though an area of low corn about 40 yards out and immediately picked off the landowner and spooked farther into the field. He swears he wasn’t moving a muscle when the buck turned and looked at him, leading me to believe it was the dark camo pattern that got the buck’s attention.
Hunting standing corn is difficult yet it can be extremely effective. Hopefully in the future, by the time the rut phases begin most of the corn will be picked, forcing deer to confine their bedding areas and travel routes. But until that happens, or if it doesn’t happen, you will at least have options.
Editor’s 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 or www.eberhartsbowhunting.com