If there was ever a time I needed for the stars to align, it was on this hunt. I was taking my niece Sydney hunting for the first time and she looks up to me as some sort of deer hunting “expert”, a title that makes me cringe. Syd isn’t a soft girly girl that needs to be led around the woods by the hand. In fact, she had been hunting hard on her own all fall but had not yet closed the deal on a good buck so I gladly volunteered to take her out. I knew the pressure would be on me to produce.
A recent weather front had dumped a few inches of snow and dropped the temps well below normal for mid-November. Syd and I made our way across an open field and climbed into the 360 hunting blind in the predawn darkness. In front of us was a food plot of Real World soybeans and on each side of the plot was a good bedding cover. The northwest wind was the last ingredient in the recipe that I hoped would make it look like I really knew what I was doing.
The sun had barely cleared the eastern horizon when we spotted a deer feeding in the plot 80 yards out. We couldn’t tell if it was a buck or doe with its head buried in the soybeans so I grabbed my binos for a better look. When the deer raised its head a nice rack was obvious even without the optics. Even better, the buck was slowly feeding towards us.
As I focused on filming the buck I listened for any sign of nervousness from Syd but she remained cool as a cucumber as the buck slowly got closer. It soon became obvious that the buck was likely going to offer us a shot so I told Syd to get ready. At 25 yards the buck turned broadside and started walking as if he were going to walk right into the thick field of bedding grasses. I gave a grunt with my mouth to stop the buck and then turned my attention to filming what was about to transpire as Syd did her thing.
I had never seen Sydney shoot her bow before so I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. I hate to admit it but I halfway expected to film an arrow sailing three feet over the buck’s back. I heard the bow release and almost instantly the familiar “thud” of a well-placed arrow hitting a rib cage. The buck took off on a death run into the tall grass and within seconds all was quiet. It sure appeared as if he had died on his feet.
I always take the cautious approach when dealing with bow-shot deer so we slipped out and went back to the house to look at the video footage. It sure looked like a good hit to me so back we went to retrieve the buck. He had run less than 100 yards and indeed had died on a death-run and crashed into the grass … a perfect heart shot! Sydney had her first buck, an awesome 12-pointer and I am not sure which one of us was happier!
This entire hunt lasted maybe 30 minutes at the most, helping solidify my deer hunting prowess in my niece’s eyes. To be honest, though, we were hunting in a great location. Just a few days earlier my friend James Morgan and I hunted the same blind and James shot a nice 10-point buck. In fact, a lot of other good bucks have been shot from this same blind including my 206” buck “Smokey” from 2017. I have personally shot 4 bucks from this stand in all including two Booners and have four friends or family members that have shot good bucks here. I have also taken two young hunters who have missed good bucks from this blind. This location might be the best spot I have ever hunted in over 40 years in the deer woods.
I am guessing by now you are wondering just what it is that makes this spot so special. To put it in a nutshell, there are a lot of things that come together at this location. There is the food plot, the field of tall bedding grasses, thick wooded bedding cover, and a small patch of thick conifers all within bow range of this blind. The final and most important piece of the puzzle however is the access. The access route to this blind is as near perfect as any stand I have ever hunted. With a northwest wind, this blind can be accessed with almost no chance of a deer seeing, smelling, or hearing the hunter.
I learned a long time ago that tree stand access is important but with each passing season, it becomes more obvious just how important it really is. Today I fully believe that access is everything when it comes to stand selection. A stand location that seems great based on everything else can become worthless when access is poor. Bumping deer on the way to a stand is a sure-fire way to an unproductive hunt.
For many years I thought that what separated the consistently successful big buck hunters from other deer hunters was passion; their heart. Today’s deer hunter has access to all sorts of information so I didn’t see knowledge as the factor that separated the best from the rest. There are plenty of very knowledgeable deer hunters who have mediocre results so I reasoned that passion drove some to go to extreme measures and thus have extreme success. While I am sure passion is a major factor, I have come to believe that discipline is the primary thing that separates the best from the rest. One can be knowledgeable and passionate and yet without discipline, their success will not be what it could be.
I mention this because it takes a lot of discipline for a deer hunter to walk away from a great-looking stand location just because it has poor access. I see this all the time with my consulting clients as well as deer hunters on various internet forums. When someone says that they know a stand has questionable access but they will only hunt it once or twice a year during the rut, I know that person does not have the discipline to be the best hunter they could be. Poor access doesn’t just burn out otherwise great stands; it can also burn out a great property. Think about that.
A mature buck may have a core home range of a couple of hundred acres or so where he is most killable. That doesn’t mean that a hunter can kill that buck anywhere within that core area though. A buck is certainly disciplined in his travels and thus moves about his range in ways that keep him safe. As hunters we need to look for chinks in his armor and find those one or two locations where he can be killed. Those locations will always have good access. Notice I did not say “easy access”, I said “good access”. There is a huge difference. Good access may mean a lot of extra effort to get to a stand but it allows a hunter to do so undetected.
Good stand access simply means a deer is unlikely to detect your presence while you traverse to and from a stand. Sometimes access might need to be altered to prevent deer from detecting your presence after you are in a stand. In recent years I have seen a couple of situations where this situation has played out. Let me explain.
In one situation I access a couple of very good stands by riding an ATV across open farm fields and park it in a depression. I then walk from there to those stands. This worked great for many years but then over time things changed. In the evenings deer would feed out into the open fields and if they got to a point where they could see my ATV parked in the slight depression they would totally flip out; blowing and snorting and carrying on until every deer on the property knew something was wrong. The deer came to realize that the parked ATV meant that I was somewhere on their turf that I shouldn’t be.
In a similar situation on a different property I park my truck along a country road next to a farm field. The field has a slight rise with the woods on the back side of the rise. As long as the deer are in the woods or in the field along the woods edge, everything is fine. However if the deer get out into the field far enough where they can see over the rise and see my truck parked along the road, they go nuts! I have hunted this property for 20 years and this situation is something that has just happened in the last couple of season. The deer have learned that when there is a truck parked out there on the road, there is a hunter in their woods. The crazy thing is that if my truck is not out there, the traffic on that same road does not affect the deer at all. It is only a parked vehicle that gets the deer on this property worked up.
In both of these situations what was once good access to these stands has turned sour and I have had to improvise my access to continue hunting these stands. I now use an electric Quiet-Kat bike to access these stands. In the situation where I once drove my ATV I now use the Quiet-Kat bike and lay it over in the cornstalks or few weeds in the slight depression. A deer has to be within a few feet of it to even notice. At the other property I simply park my truck a half mile down the road and ride the Quiet-Kat closer to the stand.
Good stand access means the deer can’t see, smell or hear you access your stands so let’s look closer at each of these and what we can do to address them.
Staying out of sight is pretty obvious. If the deer you wish to kill sees you, the hunt is over. To stay out of sight you have to use terrain and cover to your advantage. Actually, this is the same thing a mature buck does to avoid detection so you need to turn the tables on him. Use every terrain feature to your advantage. A good example is walking down in a creek bed to get to stands. Hunting the early season when the leaves are on the trees makes undetected access a lot easier than it will be later. Plan your hunts for each stand accordingly.
Sound is also a dead giveaway to a buck that a human has invaded his space. I often hunt right on the edge of bedding cover and more than once I have quietly climbed into a stand and quickly spotted a buck bedded within bow range. The closer a stand is to a bedding area the more important it is to wait for windier days to hunt it. Nothing will cover your sound better than wind. If you are hunting a buck in his bedroom you will likely want at least some breeze to cover your entrance. Furthermore a steady breeze causes your scent stream to be much more predictable.
Obviously a deer can smell you just as well if you are on the ground walking to your stand as they can once you are in the stand hunting. It might seem obvious but you don’t want to have an access route to your stand that will allow your scent to blow into an area you expect may hold deer as you walk in. The same wind direction that allows you to hunt a specific stand must also allow you to access it undetected.
It takes a lot of discipline to walk away from a potential stand site that appears to be the best place in the woods to kill that trophy buck just because it lacks good access. I know because I do it every year. I have learned that spooking even a single deer on the way to a stand can ruin a hunt before it even starts. Even spooking deer on the way out can quickly burn out a great stand. When it comes to hunting mature bucks, access is certainly everything.
Don Higgins has authored 2 books on hunting trophy whitetails and runs a whitetail consulting service. To learn more visit his website www.higginsoutdoors.com