We bowhunters are well aware that deer behavior changes the moment the first shot cracks on the opening morning of gun season. Bucks and does alike become more reclusive and harder to kill.
We all have different goals when the gun season arrives, and some of us drop our big buck standards to fill our freezers. Firearms may seem like a sure way to success—after all, with a gun in hand it sometimes feels like the limit goes as far as the hunter can see. While we all imagine ourselves making 1,000-yard shots, like the sniper in Saving Private Ryan, deer have something different in mind. I can honestly say I’ve been humbled on more than one occasion with a rifle in hand.
As with any type of hunting, there are strategies you can employ while rifle hunting to increase your chances. Not surprisingly, many of the techniques you’ve been perfecting while mobile-bowhunting will come in handy. Here are 4 steps to help transfer your bowhunting skills and mentality to the gun season.
Step One: Eliminate Ground
If you’re trying to eliminate ground and avoid heavy hunting pressure, go a long distance. I’m sure you’ve heard or read something to that effect before. While this may be true, the majority of the time, gun season brings on a new brigade of fresh legged hunters. Some people will say a good distance is about ½ mile. Others will say 1½ miles, while even more will say any kind of long distance with a significant barrier (i.e. flowing water, steep inclines, dense cover) is fine. With the rise in hunting interests and influence of social media, those ideas aren’t secrets to the average hunter any longer.
Eliminating ground starts by crossing off elements like obvious terrain. Features such as saddles, wide flat benches, and the end of easily seen points. All are places you might suspect to be heavily occupied during gun season. Also, consider eliminating large food sources. Food is easily eliminated in agricultural land; however, in a big woods setting, it’s almost always requires in-person scouting to locate food sources. The obscurity makes many big woods food sources worth your attention. Lastly, eliminate classic ground closest to the access, but don’t make the mistake of discounting what is in between the obvious topography.
If a spot gives you good vibes, that same spot will give someone else good vibes as well. Those barriers you crossed—just how difficult were they? That long hike, was it a flat 1½ miles? Or did the terrain vary often enough to require a better level of fitness?
Ultimately, determine the willingness others have to permeate those hard-to-reach places. Loose the ego and approach the elimination step with a realistic mindset. Realize that you’re not the only hunter in your area who works their ass off. When you find a spot weigh the pros and cons: Does the sign smack you in the face? If so, would it likely smack someone else in the face too, or did it require a keen eye? Keep asking yourself questions about what makes that spot a draw for someone else.
Step Two: Arrival Time
Arrival time is more important than people give it credit. For public land hunters who want a small victory, arrival to the parking area should be approached in these two ways:
- Get there along with the crowd.
Wait for everyone else to start hiking in, then go where people decided not to go. While that might seem a bit lazy, people are generally going to go to routine and obvious spots. If you decide to go this route, you will learn and confirm where people have been hunting. That’s a good piece of information if you wish to validate some of your scouting efforts. That spot you believed to be overlooked might be hunted by someone else who was also looking for an overlooked spot.
2. Get to the access first.
An hour prior to the crowd is best. During the archery season, this isn’t a very difficult task. But gun season brings a whole new set of rules. That might mean arriving at ridiculous midnight hours. If you need a power nap to maintain your focus, make it happen. The base of your tree won’t mind. More hunters hiking into the woods means more spooked deer. If you spook a deer on your way in, it won’t mean much to that deer when it’s being pushed during the wee morning hours by 15 other hunters. That deer won’t even remember that you exist. If you want to be in a deer’s safe retreat, you need to prioritize being ahead of the crowd.
Step Three: Pack Lunch
Mid-day cruising occurs at a high rate during the gun season. Usually, during the 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM hours, many hunters abandon their stands for lunch. Hunters leaving for lunch are stirring the pot and bumping deer on their way out of the woods. That is the biggest reason some of the best bucks are killed during that timeframe. Pack your lunch every time, not just on the opener. Bucks will often stick to the safety of moving during obscure hours, even on slow days in the gun season. Don’t make the mistake of letting your guard down during the lunch hours!
Step Four: Hunt Protective Cover
Hunting security cover is a no-brainer. Yet, many hunters fail to utilize substantial cover during gun season, because, simply put, thick cover makes it hard to see.
I think back to my very first gun season opener. In my hideout, a wide stereotypical fencerow surrounded by fields, I counted 60 deer by the end of shooting light.
Visual confirmation on a day like that one is a good representation of Pavlov’s dog theory: “If I sit where I can see, I’ll be rewarded with shot opportunities at a lot of animals.” The truth is, on that opening day, I didn’t see a single buck. Even after realizing that being in cover might give me a better chance to get a buck, it still took me a long time to feel confident with a shorter visual field, especially with a gun in hand.
Whether you choose to hunt with a bow or a firearm during gun seasons, you’re going to want to hunt tight cover. Tight cover may mean an average of a measly 30 yards or less. You may not see as many deer, but security cover will greatly increase your odds of seeing the one you want.
As a disclaimer, I can’t say that all field edges are bad when hunting with a gun. In fact, my favorite gun stand is on a field edge. However, that stand looks over a very thick valley that connects two large blocks of timber. The best cover to hunt is tight cover, but it should also provide easy travel to places that meet a deer’s needs: bedding, food, and safety. See the theme here? Cover is king!
Most of what I’ve gone over here isn’t new information. I even find myself easily distracted by the plethora of information out there. If I had to boil it down to the two most important things I keep in mind when I’m scouting or hunting, it would go something like this:
- Don’t forget the fundamentals of a deer’s needs. Deer are seeking food/water, bedding, and safety.
- Don’t let ego get in the way. If I return to the parking area and someone else is celebrating a great kill, it’s time to drop the jealousy act. Celebrate with them! Hunting isn’t always about killing the best buck. Buy that dude a beer, then go keep building your own experiences.