Early preparation for consistent DEER HUNTING SUCCESS
The 2014 Michigan deer hunting seasons are now in the can and many hunters found lower deer numbers and experienced tougher hunting compared to previous years. Even under ideal conditions, deer hunting is still a challenging endeavor, but many of Michigan hunters are facing lots of hurdles that have contributed to an overall decline in the deer hunting experience. It’s no secret that the DNR has been trying to lower deer numbers across much of the state and by all accounts, they have been very successful and some might even argue that they have been overly successful and have gone too far in their deer reduction agenda. Diseases have also reduced deer numbers greatly across much of Michigan. The bad winters we experienced the last couple years certainly slammed deer numbers across much of the northern half of the state and last winter even whacked a lot of deer in southern Michigan too. A burgeoning predator population including: wolves, bears, coyotes and bobcats has also literally taken a bite out of the deer herd across the state. Now cougars are making a comeback adding another top tier predator into the venison eating mix. It would be naive to believe that Michigan’s deer hunters will face anything but increasing challenges for years to come. As bleak as it seems, savvy hunters will still find consistent success on quality Michigan bucks every year. These hunters make their own luck with year round preparations that up their odds greatly for taking the deer of their desires. Read on for an off-season blueprint on how to fully maximize your chances to fill tags during the fall.
For many reasons, the quality of deer hunting spots often fluctuates from year to year. Some of the most constantly successful hunters that I know don’t tie themselves down to one small area. I own hunting property in the U.P. When I first bought that property, deer numbers there were very high there. Then two horrible back to back winters in 1996 and 1997 really whacked the entire U.P. deer herd. Deer numbers eventually improved and for a number of years, the deer hunting was good there once again. Over the last few years though, due mainly to over-abundant wolves combined with over harvesting of antlerless deer in the area, deer hunting on my land is now a shadow of what it once was. Because public lands in my area have had scant quotas for antlerless deer tags, I have found much better hunting on select public land spots and have shifted much of my hunting effort to those areas. The end result was a very successful 2014 deer hunting season for me with plenty of venison in the freezer and two nice racks on the wall.
Hunting public land is not the only way to stay mobile in your hunting strategy. These days, it is certainly not easy to gain free permission to hunt private lands, however with diligence, it is still possible. Free permission is quickly becoming a thing of the past though with sky-high land prices and real-estate taxes, one can’t blame land owners for wanting to offset some of their expenses by leasing their lands. Leasing private lands has become very popular in Michigan in recent years. I have both paid to lease hunting lands and have also been paid to lease out my own hunting lands, so I have a lot of experience in this arena. Regardless of whether you desire free permission or a lease, now is the time to make those contacts with land owners. Prime hunting lands tend to get grabbed up early. If you even wait until spring to start looking, you could be left with the dregs. When you see an opportunity for a quality lease pop up, I’d advise to not dilly-dallying either. For example, when I advertised on the Internet to lease a southern Michigan property that I own, I had dozens of people respond in just a couple days, so in some areas, the demand far outpaces the supply.
A lot of deer hunters scout hunting spots during the fall just before the season begins or even do some in-season scouting, but it amazes me how few people take post season scouting seriously. For me, post season scouting occurs as soon as my buck tags are filled, which is usually before the firearms deer season is over. The best time to scout out new spots for the following year is right during the firearm deer season. The second best time is right after the season is over when the ground is bare. Besides attributes of good deer numbers, in Michigan, hunting pressure, or lack there of, is perhaps the most important aspect of a quality hunting spot. Being able to adapt to hunting pressure is usually the key to consistent hunting success in Michigan. Therefore, scouting should focus as much on hunting pressure analysis as it does on deer sign.
In 2013, I got lucky and filled both my buck tags during the early archery season. To me tagging out early really gives me a huge advantage in preparing for the next years deer seasons. That bit of fortune freed me up for some serious scouting during the firearm deer season which is usually the best time to scout for hunting pressure. Earlier in the fall, while bird hunting, I had found some spots on public land with awesome potential. I had kept an eye on the spots through the early archery season and didn’t see any activity there from archery deer hunters, bird hunters or bear hunters, so all through the early bow season, the deer in that area were unmolested by man. In the U.P. though, gun hunters have a much bigger impact on deer populations than bowhunters, so I made sure to survey all my public land spots carefully assessing any impact that the gun hunters may have had. As a result, I set up stand sites for 2014 in areas that had no, or minimal hunting pressure during 2013. Odds are that those spots will have some older age class bucks remaining alive for next season. This was the exact formula I used the previous year in finding a new public land area which eventually bore fruit in the form of an 8-pointer that weighed 204 pounds dressed, which I shot on Nov. 8, 2013. The second buck I shot in 2014 was in one of my public land spots that I set up in Nov. of 2013. That buck weighed 180 dressed and was aged by the DNR at 3 ½ to 4 ½ years old. In 2014 I found yet more archery spots that were not hunted during the 2014 firearm season and hopefully the pattern repeats itself this coming fall.
I also do a lot of post season scouting during the early spring. As soon as the snow melts, deer sign left from the previous fall becomes visible and that valuable intel can assist hunters in evaluating both new areas and old haunts. I also like early spring scouting because the leaves are not out yet, so it lets me see the woods similarly to what it will look like during late fall, which is important in selecting stand sites.
I typically have over 25 deer stands set-up every year in Michigan. While to some, this may seem like overkill on stands, I only consider my stand count to be minimal as I know some more serous hunters that have twice as many stands setup than I do. Having ample stands separated so that you are hunting separate deer family groups is essential to avoid overhunting your areas, which causes deer to change their movement patterns an oftentimes go nocturnal. I split my hunting between private and public property to help me spread out my hunting pressure and maximize my chances for success. I certainly like to have multiple stands for all the different possible wind directions in the areas I hunt.
On my private lands, I go to great lengths to create ideal ambush situations by creating open entry and exit routes usually mowing them if possible. I also install food plots, mineral sites and create man-made funnels that focus deer activity for high odds hunting opportunities. Some of those setups were so complex that they took multiple years to complete and dozens of hours of labor to complete. Some of the setups use treestands and some use ground blinds, but I spare no expense in building the finest, most efficient stands imaginable.
On public lands though, my setups are typically very simple affairs that take advantage of natural deer travel corridors and funnels. I hunt both from treestands and ground blinds on public lands. In the past, most of my ground blinds took advantage of natural cover, but now that the DNR made it legal to leave portable ground blinds in the woods on public lands, I will now start using my Ameristep Dog House blinds a lot more. In fact, as a result of that law change, I will now be hunting some remote areas that don’t have good natural cover or large trees.
I hunt from treestands a lot on public lands and in the past relied heavily on a Tree Saddle for most of my public elevated hunts. The Tree Saddle was a good product, but unfortunately they are no longer made and were not practical for long sits anyway. Last year I started hunting with a new, harness style treestand called a Guido’s Web (www.guidosoutdoors.com). This is a mobile, harness-style treestand that is like a Tree Saddle on steroids with a super comfortable seat for all day sits. The Guido’s Web allows for a full, 360 degree shooting radius with its unique design. You just wear the Guido’s Web like a pack on your entry and exit and it sets up very quickly for the hunt. I have logged a lot of hours in the Guido’s Web and highly recommend this product.
My public land treestand setups are simple affairs. In fact I only select spots that are nearly ideal and require no trimming or cutting. My goal is to leave no trace that I hunted my spots so as not to draw the attention of other hunters. Using a harness style treestand that sets up on each hunt really helps me to keep my spots hidden.
Getting to and from my public land spots is typically aided by using white colored, glow in the dark tacks. I use a minimum number of the glow-tacks and my entry and exit routes are precisely planned for stealth. I also mark my trail at least 100 yards past my stand which throws off other hunters that may stumble onto my tack trail and thus lead them away from where I’m actually hunting.
One of the biggest impediments to success for many deer hunters is poor physical fitness. If I were not in good shape, my success rate would plummet because I wouldn’t be able to hunt nearly as effectively. In fact, most of my hunting spots would be out of reach if I were fat and out of shape. Now is the time to start getting in shape for next fall. Getting in hunting shape is really an easy endeavor. Regular hiking and walking exercise is really all that’s needed. I’m not talking about taking a short stroll either: Your walks should be no less than one hour in duration and at a sufficient pace to get your heart working into the realm of cardiovascular exercise. I like to walk at least three or four times a week and I augment that exercise with some other simple exercises that are targeted at helping me to hunt better. I keep my upper body strong by doing push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups along with some light workouts on a punching bag. I also do some regular weight training exercises for strength. An active lifestyle in the offseason will pay great dividends for the fall hunting seasons and may even extend your lifespan