Sitting here this afternoon mid-October, 25’ up in a tree in a lock-on deer stand, I am thinking about how far I have come in all aspects of hunting and bow hunting. For the most part without a teacher, mostly trial and error other than what I can glean from the experts I gravitate to. I have come a long way, the hard way – from becoming an expert with my bow to reading the woods and signs and stand placement and scent control and, as important as anything, to be able to tolerate being more than 8 or 10 feet high. Judging from the times I get busted as one measure of my progress I know I have yet a long way to go!
The stand height is clearly a big deal but so are the other aspects. Seems like every serious bow hunter I know of considers 25’ to be the minimum for both concealment and scent control and even at that, a fat old doe will see you in a flash if not concealed in cover. Just this morning I was hunting an old 15’ ladder that was in the wrong place and that I moved this summer but did not know how it would look in the fall. It was primarily a gun stand but I wanted to set it up so you could actually bow hunt out if it. Only reason I hunted it was that it was quick and easy to find in the dark and I did not want to disturb the woods in the pre-dawn darkness going into my lock on which went through prime deer feeding area. So I sat and proceeded to have 3 groups of deer get on top of me including a 8 point inside of 15 yards and I could not manage a shot. I was in the thick canopy with no lanes and completely open on one side and a tangle of vines on the other. Couldn’t move for fear of being seen and the ladder did not facilitate turning and shooting behind the tree – 15’ felt like eye level. In fact the vines and twigs actually got caught up in my cam when I was trying to draw on the buck, preventing the cam from rotating. The deer was standing there not ten yards away broadside unaware but it was not to be. So here was one more thing in a long list of things to consider. As I consider all the mistakes I have made over 30+years bow hunting I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I read a guys comment saying we try to get ‘less bad’, that there are no great bow hunters, only ‘less bad’ ones… this resonates perfect with me! Some day I may make a long list of all the mistakes I have made. I’m sure I remember each of them!! I imagine I am in pretty good albeit quiet company – my guess is that for every skilled and accomplished bow hunter posting pics on Louisiana Bowhunter of mature bucks killed there are 100, maybe 500 of us, who are still trying to figure it out, and that’s OK! That’s a big part of the appeal and pleasure of it!
Bow hunting has not been a year round obsession and passion for me except for this last year or two when I had the desire and time to devote to getting better. I have gone 5 or 10 yrs at a time without even hunting as we concentrated during one period of time for one example on scuba diving and fishing and spear fishing on our Hatteras in the gulf year round. But bow hunting has taken hold of me now and I am craving skill and experience and success and enjoying the pursuit immensely. I will share some thoughts on the similarities between spearfishing the oil rigs in the gulf and bow and arrow hunting deer soon….very similar and equally thrilling!
I remember my first mistake and it is still gut wrenching to think about. It may have been about my first bow hunting experience. Jackson and I had joined a cruddy little hunting club right before the season started, maybe it was a couple of hundred to join. This was the kind of club where in the rare case when somebody actually killed something, the 12 or 15 members would all join in the cleaning and divvy up the deer, each member (including the hunter) getting a tiny chunk of deer meat to take home. The club had a few stands anyone could get in. The president took me to a spot he felt really good about. It was one of those ‘board in the fork of a live oak’ type stands about 10’ high with a couple of spikes in the tree. He showed me where he had smeared peanut butter on a log about 20’ in front of the tree and explained how much the deer loved peanut butter. Of course I lapped up this cheap talk and had enthusiastic visions of what was about to happen. Well on my first bow hunt I get up the tree and am sitting there admiring the view and imagining a fatty coming by to lick the peanut butter. Literally not 5 min into the hunt I hear a sound, a nice fat spike was coming up right behind me easing along. Right behind me, then under me, then right in front. Only problem was I had not nocked an arrow nor put on my release and there was zero cover between me and the deer. Of course the deer never paid a lick of attention to the peanut butter and eased right on out of my world. I was sick and I was only barely getting started. I was (and still am) destined to be sick a lot over things ‘not to be’.
The thought about bow hunting we had when I was getting started was that it extended the deer (meaning doe) season. We planned out our hunting times around when the ‘doe days’ were, maybe there were 6 or so of them? Now with does available for most of the whole Oct-Jan time period it was on! Remember it was a different world 30 years ago. Seems ancient in comparison to now – this was before the PC was invented, or the internet, or email or cell phones or smart phones, or digital cameras let alone game cameras, or electronic maps, or outfitters or TV hunting shows or personalities, or managed ranches or high fences or QDM, or scent free soap/detergent/clothes, or the general pre-occupation with antlers. 32gb SIM cards for $40 were not even a gleam in the distance – would have been unthinkable a few years ago. There were no skilled young hunters like we see today, making use of vast amounts of technology and the instantly available collective experience of thousands and thousands of hunters. There were very few deer in comparison to today. People generally believed spikes were inferior deer with bad genes and should be shot on sight as a service. It seems hard to imagine I know.
We had little interest in bucks and didn’t think they were in the cards for us but the chance to shoot some does which were comparatively plentiful seemed really appealing and more realistic. In fact it has only been until recently that, when it came to bow hunting, it was not ‘shoot the first legal deer you see’. Killing one with a bow, as casual-at-best bow hunters with mediocre skills, hunting with little scouting on the kinds of varied properties we have hunted where you have limited access, has always seemed like a monumental accomplishment and does were more than good enough. There is still nothing easy under the conditions we hunt, about killing a fat old doe with a bow – maybe for some but not for everybody. Fatness (or body size) was the virtue we were impressed with, not antlers. We wanted to be able to enjoy the fruits of the labor on the table!
Generally we believed the only ones who ever killed mature bucks did so by pure dumb luck – certainly not an intentional thing. Like the guy riding his 4-wheeler and noticed one standing in the woods, or the guy standing up in his ladder smoking a cigarette and a jumbo happens by. Or the guy who gets down out of his box stand to relieve himself and here comes the big rack, etc. We literally did not know a soul who understood, appreciated and targeted only mature bucks back then, as is common today – I think what we see today is a relatively new phenomenon.
But back to the beginning –
My main hunting partner before Jackson had always been my brother Scott. We were intrigued by the prospect of bow hunting since it seriously lengthened the season. So we would do it! Only problem was I had just closed a business and had no job and no money for a bow. Scott stepped up and said ‘I got this!’ We went and picked out the most basic entry-level Bear bow they made and a few aluminum arrows. About $100 and we started trying to figure out how to shoot; which was no small feat. In those days bows, peeps, pins, arrows, releases, everything was crude by comparison to today. There were no real shops or ranges to learn in. We managed to improve I think. Even if we couldn’t hit the bullseye we’d agree, “That would be a dead deer.” Heard that before? Famous last words of guys destined to wound a lot of deer. I can’t imagine a serious bow hunter today who would be satisfied if his best shooting from 20 yards was 6” groups.
In those days it was mostly public wildlife management areas like Sherburne. (Spelling and pronunciation varies based on your geographic origin) So the first climbing tree stand I invested in was a first generation API steel contraption. This thing was so unsteady and I was so afraid of heights that once I started getting up about 8 ft I’m thinking ‘this looks good’. Scott, who was a lineman for the cable company and was up and down poles all day, would get up 20’ in his climber. That looked impossible to me. My thought was that I was gonna have to figure out how to kill them without getting anything like that high. If I saw a deer trail I would get about 8’ up in a tree right smack on the trail to give me a nice close 5-10 yd shot…….once in a while I actually saw one, or more accurately, saw the butt-end white-flagging of one. (It was not until the last couple years when I began using my modern Muddy safety harness, in combination with either sticks and lock-ons or the Aluma-lite by Ole-Man that I got comfortable much higher up and it has made all the difference).
So with my bow and loud, squeaky and heavy climber, into the woods I’d go. Not a thought about scent control. I’d pick a tree based on whatever under standing I had at the time of deer behavior and for the most part wouldn’t see a thing. Meantime brother being up 20’ with better skills was seeing deer, and shooting at them, but missing them left and right.. Among the many problems looking back was that we never practiced from an elevated position and we knew little if anything about tuning Thunderhead broadheads and our mostly seriously imperfect aluminum arrows. We had so much to learn.
One of the things that has helped me get the most out of my life is not being afraid to be a beginner. If you are going to learn anything new you are not going to come out of the blocks with fully formed and mature skills. You are going to be a beginner, clumsy and confused and over whelmed and self conscious – I’ve been all of those things many times. Want to learn how to play golf well? Get ready for a humbling. Likewise snow skiing, or any other serious but wonderful endeavor. Being compulsive and competitive I have craved getting better and breathing the rare air with the guys I saw who were at the top – whether deer hunting with bow or otherwise, or snow skiing, or tennis or golf, or scuba diving and spear fishing, or cooking or vegetable gardening or a million other pursuits, as I like just about everything on the buffet of Life Experiences. I start as a beginner and suffer through the myriad of beginner mistakes and with insane intensity learn fast and achieve a reasonable level of skill and expertise. I am drawn to the people at the top of whatever I am trying to learn and for a season I feel really outclassed like all these seasoned bowhunters posting their pics on Louisiana Bowhunter. I soak up information and work as hard at it as anybody, day and night, and pretty soon, considering where I came from, usually can achieve some success. This comparatively small buck I shot this year on Oct 3 was years in the planning and literally no telling how many thousands of hours of prep and practice went into getting ready for him to appear, and when he did I pulled off the shot in spite of massive heart palpitations, and it was the greatest hunting thrill to date for me.
Bow hunting is a formidable, humbling undertaking particularly when you start passing does and yearlings and trying to set up on and wait for bucks – I bet I have been blown at 50 times this year by mature bucks and old does, over and over, but at least I am getting in close proximity. In one hole, they had blown me so many times in my lock on, they would not even approach without wind checking me, so I hung a second stand on the opposite side of the hole leaving the first one in place, trying to trick them – well they got down wind of me in the new stand the first time I hunted it and I got blown three times that afternoon. So it goes. One thing for sure I have learned – to scout pressured property you do not own, trying to identify deer patterns with ‘hurry-up’ scouting and set up on them and hunt and kill mature bucks with a bow requires immense skills and dedication over many years. These guys that do it do not rely on luck and I want to be like them. I love the challenge of getting better! But I also love hanging out for hours and hours in the trees enjoying my thoughts and imagination and relishing all you see and hear – so if nothing happens I could not be happier. I know my time is coming and I am happy learning and adjusting and growing in skill and experience, the long, slow, hard way. And, like I heard said, I am learning to consider it a successful hunt if I do not get blown at.
- Mark A. Wilson, Baton Rouge, LA