Solving the Puzzle

After scouting again a property I’d hunted for five years, I hung a south facing stand in a tired, old oak overlooking a well-traveled trail. I bought a new-to-me bow that same year, asking the guy who sold it to me for a guarantee that it’d kill a big buck. He laughingly agreed and shook my hand. A 140” eight point moseyed past my new stand site later that fall and gave me the opportunity to make good on that guarantee, but I sailed my arrow right over his back. That miss left a bitter taste in my mouth to be sure, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that the buck was, after all, every inch of 13 yards away. 

As hard as I looked for one, I just couldn’t find an excuse for missing that deer. None, that is, except for a bad case of buck fever. I’m sure it didn’t help, though, that I never could get completely comfortable in the new stand I’d hung. I realize that it’s ridiculous to complain about a 13 yard shot but the fact is my stand site had issues. It could only be hunted when the wind blew strictly out of the south and because it was so close to the trail that ran in front of it, every shot angle I had was a steep one.

Missing that buck turned out to be a pivotal moment in my development as a deer hunter and it began an ongoing and maybe too-often tweaking of stand setups. Like rearranging the living room furniture, every deer season brought with it another inspection of available trees and another round of moving stands.

We all have our favorite stand sites, and for good reason. It’s completely natural to feel an affinity for the spots where we’ve seen or taken our best deer. But is there a chance that familiarity – success, even – might lead us to complacency as hunters? Let me be clear here; I’m not advocating wholesale change. Don’t abandon a stand site just because you haven’t been able to put it all together. There’s a reason you chose to hunt there in the first place. I’m simply suggesting that a reevaluation of our sets, even a midseason reevaluation, might make each one of us more successful this fall.  

Let me illustrate that truth with the history of my own personal honey hole. I’ve been blessed to hunt the same eighty acres for the last fourteen years and I’ve hunted from at least five different sets in the same quarter acre on that eighty acre parcel over the last decade. That quarter acre contains a unique pinch point, thanks in part to an impassable ravine that opens on the neighboring property to the west and extends 150 yards or so onto the property where I have permission to hunt. There’s a low land crossing at the mouth of that ravine that connects a cedar-choked bedding area with the south-facing slope of a steep ridge. In the early days, I hunted the quarter acre because of the number of deer I saw there, not because I recognized the lay of the land. In fact, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it took me as long as it did to identify such an obvious funnel. From that quarter acre have come my best bucks to date, in addition to new and invaluable lessons learned from year to year and from deer to deer.

A year after missing that trophy eight point I was busted by a rattled-in buck who didn’t have to step into a shooting lane to see who he’d heard fighting. That buck was a good one and as I watched him melt back into the tree line from whence he came, I felt yet another twinge of doubt in my setup. I had a chip shot at any deer using the primary trail in front of me but had no shot at all at any deer walking the equally impressive trail running off the ridge behind me.

Later that season and from that stand, I was blessed to shoot my biggest buck to date, a 7.5 year old 16 point monarch, but I’ll be the first to admit that luck played a larger role in that hunt than did skill, as is the case most every time a buck that ancient is taken. Fortunately for me, the old warrior was dogging a doe that led him down a path I’d never seen a deer travel, but one that still afforded me a clear shot. As thrilled as I was to wrap my tag around that buck’s main beam, killing him actually gave me a false confidence in my stand setup. I still had enough doubt niggling in the back of my mind following the season, though, to hang another stand across the lane to the southwest. From that stand I had lots of deer in range – just not as many as I could see walking the trail fifty yards to the northeast.

The next season found me in a ground blind hidden in a clump of cedars and immature oaks at the mouth of that ravine, and I wound up liking that spot better than anywhere else I’d sat. Except for the fact that it put me in close confines and at eye level with spooky deer, I felt like I’d finally found the right spot – just at the wrong elevation. But there just wasn’t a tree sturdy enough to support a stand there. I did kill a buck from that ground blind, but he was so close he actually heard me thumb the safety on my rifle. I had to figure out a way to get elevated.

A few years later I sat in the same spot on the remains of what had once been my ground blind. An Oklahoma wind, the kind that composers write musicals about, had ravaged it beyond repair so I simply tucked in among that same group of cedars and leaned my back against the trunk of one of those unsuitable oak trees. That’s when I realized there were actually three trees in the bunch that had grown large enough to support a stand. I quickly hung one and then sat it the second Monday morning of Oklahoma’s Rifle Season. I didn’t see a deer. On my way out of the woods that morning, I pulled cards from a couple of cameras and discovered two new mature bucks that were just big enough to convince me to sit that spot one more afternoon.

A spike buck walked out at 4:51 PM, just 50 yards from me. With a .270 in my hands, he was easily within range, and had the antlers atop his head been brow tines instead of main beams, he would’ve been in serious trouble. He didn’t have to worry about anything that afternoon, though. The buck milled around for a minute or two, glanced back the way he’d come, and then worked his way on up the ridge. Just five minutes later, another buck stepped out at 26 yards, and at 26 yards I could count each of the ten inches on the buck’s right G2. With a squeeze of the trigger, my season came to an end. Killing that buck snapped everything into focus for me. I’d finally solved the puzzle.

Any number of factors have the potential to make or break a hunter’s season. Some can be determined before the season ever opens. Maybe a summer scouting session reveals that a perfectly placed tree has finally grown large enough to support a stand. Maybe the field that’s been sown in wheat for the last twenty years was sown in cotton this year instead. Maybe a new house or barn was built causing a traditional travel route to shift. All are possibilities that can be recognized and prepared for before the season opens.

But some signs have to be read on the fly. Maybe an early ice storm felled the tree that just so happened to have your stand in it. Maybe the hunting pressure on the other side of the fence has increased or decreased, changing how deer move on your side of the fence. Years ago, I found lots of sign under a stand of oaks on the northwest side of the property I hunt. I returned the next day, excited to hang a stand there, only to discover that the neighbor to the west had already erected a ground blind on his side of the fence. The point is, that set you hung in July may not be as perfect as you pictured come November. So be flexible. Keep your eyes open and your senses sharp. Don’t be afraid to spend a lunch break doing some inseason scouting. You might be glad you did.

I lost permission to hunt that eighty acres of paradise last year but then picked up access on another quarter section this spring so I’m off to figure out a new property. I’ve already hung a ladder stand on it but I admit that I’m not entirely happy with it. I know it’s going to take some trial and error. I know my moving stands is going to look like a game of musical chairs until I find just the right fit. But I can’t wait to get started.

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