There’s never an offseason for serious hunters…
Of course, the 2021 whitetail season is half a year away right now, but hunters with consistent success each year on mature whitetail have one thing in common: they take no time off. No, I’m not talking about poaching, but the idea that hunting whitetail is a yearlong pursuit to these dedicated few, and this means that winter and spring are just as important as the fall. You can’t expect to start thinking about whitetail in September and “luck” into good hunting every year. As the axiom says, if you fail to prepare, you are indeed preparing to fail.
After observing and talking to some great hunters around the country over the years, a few things stick out to me that make the difference for their hunting seasons and that I think will for yours too. So here’s a list of eight ways you can be involved in hunting whitetail right now.
1) GEAR PREP
Some people are obsessed with fads and trends in the hunting realm. The most successful hunters are not. They, however, are obsessed with finding the best gear that works for them, never settling for “good enough,” and making sure their chosen gear is ready to go months in advance. This is why the winter and spring are key for getting gear ready for the next hunting season. Take a look at what works, what didn’t, what needs to be tweaked, what needs to be replaced, and what gear needs to be dropped. The goal is not to see how much “new cool stuff” you can cram in your backpack, but find out the exact gear you need to efficiently reach your goal and then perfect the use of that. So, now is a great time to take inventory of your gear and make adjustments and the fixes necessary to be ready to go well in advance of October first.
2) BUYING GEAR
Once you’ve done this, now you can objectively see if there are any gear needs. Don’t fall victim to the latest marketing ploy. What truly could have helped you out this past year that you didn’t have? What truly needs replacing so that you have a better chance when the leaves turn color and you hit the woods? The offseason is a great time to find deals on gear, and if items are on backorder, you aren’t pressed for time in getting them. There are months to test them, make minor adjustments, and get used to using them, so you don’t feel awkward as a fish out of water when it matters – during hunting season.
Although finding hot sign and hunting it when the season is on is very important, finding how deer use an entire property is arguably more vital information and should be gathered now. During the season, you don’t want to invade bedding cover or tromp up your best areas, but now you can safely do this and see exactly how deer used it last year (and most likely will this year). Old scrapes, rubs and rub lines, and trails stick out like a sore thumb when the snow is off, and leaves aren’t on yet. Seeing this sign and trends will help you tremendously in the fall. When coupled with fresh sign, it will help you put the puzzle pieces together and make much more informed and better hunting decisions.
4) NEW PROPERTY
A recipe for disaster is putting all your eggs in one basket. In whitetail hunting, this means only having one hunting spot or property. This feast or famine mentality does not lead to year after year success. Options are the name of the game, and having a large number of potential locations spread across a wide range is your best bet. Be willing to drive to find these. Each year you should make a goal to find new public and private land hunting locations and get to know these areas thoroughly (see #3 scouting).
I’ve found success knocking on doors and cold calling on the phone to access new private property. Realize, though, that most of the time, you get a “no” response. Don’t take it personally; it’s just a numbers game, and the more contacts you make, the more chances you’ll get a “yes.” Higher odds locations are ones where you have a referral, so work your network of friends, coworkers, and family to help out.
Public ground is as easy as printing maps from the DNR website or looking on a hunting app which is now prevalent with various good options. Then it’s merely setting a day here and there throughout the winter and spring to do your deep dive scouting. Keep a notebook (or your app notes) of what you find to reference in the fall. The more information you have, the better you can decide when it comes time to get on stand, so don’t cut corners here. Prep these spots, determine the time of day and year to best hunt them (i.e., morning vs. evening, and pre-rut, rut, etc.) and then find the best entry and exit routes so the next time you come, you are ready to hunt.
5) TURKEY HUNT
This is one that may depart from some “top hunters,” but that I find helpful. The fact is that being in the woods more makes you savvier to the ways of the woods. Honing your hunting skills on any animal helps with another, and in particular, turkeys are wary creatures that keep your skills sharp. No, they cannot smell you, but their acute eyesight and ability to quickly become educated mimic whitetail. Matching wits against this quarry will teach you many lessons on stalking and how to increase stealth and disappear in the woods, which is a very transferable skill for whitetail.
Most people do not pick up their weapon until just before hunting season starts. This is a big mistake, as this skill needs to be practiced consistently until it is pure muscle memory. If you’re not bow shooting year-round in some indoor league, then starting back up when you can in the spring is a good idea. At least shoot several times a week (minimum) and increase this as season gets closer. Don’t go for quantity, but quality, as overshooting can lead to fatigue and bad habits.
Try shooting at various distances and from ground blinds, tree stands, and under duress (like breathing heavily after a workout), which puts you in hunt-like situations and prepares your mind and body for the moment of truth. The best athletes know that you cannot show up on game day and expect to excel. Indeed, you play how you practice, so how you prep now will make all the difference when a big buck gives you a slight window of opportunity in November.
There are many 3D archery shoots around the state that help you get out of the monotony of shooting in the backyard. These can put you in different and challenging situations, exactly when you need to hone your skills and mind. The Total Archery Challenge is one I’ve been doing for several years and is a great way to start your summer shooting regimen. This is also the time to try new arrows and setups and get everything shooting perfectly months in advance of when it matters. Doing so in September is just asking for trouble.
7) Testing New Setups
So you picked up some new gear at a discount or decided that new fad will actually help you shoot a big buck this year. Now is the time to test it out and work out the kinks. For example, if you’ve decided, like many people, to use a tree saddle this year, actually getting in a tree with it and discovering all the little surprises early on is absolutely necessary. Believe me; there will be surprises and things you didn’t even consider. In this scenario, you may also have a new climbing method. Practice every element as if you’re hunting, including hauling your bow and backpack up and down the tree. Things as little as the sequence in which you do things, how you place your steps, and how you pack your backpack are all things to find out and note. You don’t want to find these things out while fumbling in the dark at your best new hunting spot.
8) Property Prep
Although I’m not a property expert (I do 95% of my hunting in areas I cannot manage), I have managed my backyard food plots for a few years and managed my few acres of deer habitat. This can be a full-time job and obviously takes planning. One thing I’ve learned is that you cannot treat all properties the same and need to be honest with what you can and cannot do with your acreage. Big buck slayer Don Higgins travels around the country consulting people on setting up and managing their land, and he suggests the same thing: Getting a long-term plan with goals is critical to making your property the best it can be. Make a ten-year plan and goals, then break this down into what you can be doing each year to get there. Some things are immediate, like a food plot or annual cover screen planting. Others take much more time, like planting trees that will add cover years down the road.
In my case, I cannot hold deer on my land since I have about three acres of deer habitat, and it’s all within 150 yards of houses. I can, however, attract them. I’ve used the spring the last few years to focus on planting screening cover and enticing food offerings to draw in deer from neighboring parcels. My goal is to get deer comfortable using my property to draw in a cruising buck in the pre-rut or rut. Maybe on your property, you can hold deer, everyone’s scenario is different, but get a plan and then work the plan to meet your goals. A series of articles could be written, but the biggest things to focus on are deer bedding, security cover, better food than can be found nearby, and bulletproof ways to access your hunting stands or blinds depending on wind and deer bedding and feeding trends.
Whitetail hunting is a year-long pursuit for the serious hunter, so get busy now and reap the rewards this fall.