It was the first Wednesday of Virginia's bow season last October, and I was halfway through my opening-week plan of venturing to a different farm every evening after work. As a high school English teacher, I have limited time to bowhunt, and except for Saturdays, it's either after school or nothing.
Usually teachers can leave at 3:45, but on this day we were receiving an in-service on some matter. As the clock approached 4, I began to fret if I would have enough time to drive the 5.6 miles to the cattle farm where I had permission to hunt, change from khakis to camo, walk for six minutes and 200 yards to the hardwood that grows 15 yards from a tote road enveloped by oaks dripping acorns, and ascend to the hang-on before the evening feeding period began.
"Looks like no bowhunting for you today," whispered a friend during a PowerPoint presentation.
My response was a grimace.
The speaker finished her presentation at 4:10 and I darted out of the building and toward my destination. At 4:40, I was comfortably seated in the stand — and, luckily, no whitetails had been spooked on my way in.
Around 5:30, I noted two deer meandering down the road some 40 yards away. I experienced that old familiar adrenaline rush and readied myself to draw. When the lead whitetail's head passed behind a red oak, I drew, and seconds later the arrow was on its way. The deer ran only a few yards before collapsing, and soon the satisfying chore of field dressing had begun.
I greatly admire those talented individuals who are trophy hunters and travel the country — or their home county — chasing big bucks. Holding down two jobs, I don't have the time to be one of those persons, and a lot of sportsmen are just like me.
Indeed, recently, I was manning a booth at an outdoor show, and a hunter, who had just attended the seminar of a well-known TV personality, came by and vented. The gist of what he said was that even though the celebrity killed a lot of bucks by hunting all over the country during prime times, the celebrity's success/tactics had no meaning to him, a working man who scraped together time to go a few times a week after work and on Saturdays. The guy said his major goal for the upcoming season was to arrow three does instead of his usual one or two as he was "just a meat hunter."
So am I, as are most real-world archers. Last October I experienced a very successful early bow season, killing four antlerless deer. I never saw a shooter buck, never let a doe walk, and successfully began the process of filling my family freezer with healthy, tasty venison.
I rarely see meat-hunting stories anymore, and frankly, that is baffling. I have studied deer hunting with a bow success rates from all over the country, and generally only about 30 percent of bowhunters nationwide kill a deer, period, let alone a trophy buck. Some of the best deer hunters I know are individuals who can consistently arrow three or four does per season. Here's my game plan for bowhunting in the real world.
Obviously, much land is leased, but much acreage is also available to the courteous sportsman who takes the time to contact landowners. In my home county of Botetourt County, VA, I have permission to bowhunt 14 farms. In July and August every year, I renew my permission to hunt at those locales and try to add a place or two more.
Some of these landowners don't want me shooting trophy bucks, some want me to refrain from targeting any bucks, and some don't want me coming on weekends as that is reserved for family. All, though, encourage me to kill does, and I'm happy to do so.
Three weeks before the Old Dominion's season begins the first Saturday in October, I begin the process of visiting every farm. I make notes of sign present and food availability. A week before the opener, I use those notes to determine the five best places to hunt Monday through Friday of opening week after school. Every week thereafter, I add or delete stand sites, depending on what I judge to be their potential. I infrequently return to a stand site after I have killed a doe there, or at least wait a couple weeks before coming back.
Some of the most important figures I keep in mind are 5.6, 4.8, 7.3 and 11.1. Those are the exact number of miles that I have to drive to reach some of my favorite after-school farms. Earlier I mentioned the precise miles to a cattle farm and the distance and walking time to a favorite stand site. Each stand site on each farm has similar data that I keep in mind. We after-work bowhunters have to time our approach so we can venture deep enough into the woods to reach a spot that deer will walk to before dark, yet not so far in that we are likely to warn whitetails.
Of course, wind direction can never be ignored. Many times I have had to change farm destinations after the wind changed. Before leaving school, I check Internet weather reports for an update.
Pre-season scouting for food sources is extremely important, but so is in-season scouting. Particularly in years when the acorn crop has been spotty, I often have to come up with a whole new set of stand sites partway through October. We working -class deer hunters should have a profound knowledge of the hard and soft mast foods that deer will eat in our home counties.
Over the years, I have perused tree field guides to learn how to identify by leaves, bark and acorn shape every species of oak that lives in my home county. If, for example, Northern red oaks on one farm feature a heavy crop of acorns and are attracting whitetails, then I need to know where the Northern reds live on every farm and ascertain their potential as deer magnets. Given my limited time afield, it's not good enough just to know that generic oaks are dropping nuts.
I also spend a lot of time studying the major varieties of soft mast foods (persimmons, grapes and paw paws are very important wild foods, and apples are significant domestic ones) in order to increase my chances. A stand site halfway between a bedding and feeding area where the first, say, persimmon is shedding its orange fruits is practically guaranteed to experience deer traffic. Similarly, a paw paw that is dropping its custard-like fruit will be red hot for a week or so every autumn.
Scent control will always be a challenge for anyone spending eight hours a day in the work environment. To combat this issue, my first step begins at lunchtime when I brush my teeth and floss after eating. Once I arrive at a farm, I employ an antibacterial wipe to scrub my face and hands.
The next step shows how we after-work hunters must be absolutely and meticulously prepared so as not to waste a minute while we are dressing inside or next to our vehicles. We might only have a half-dozen or so chances a year to kill a deer after work, and the worst possible scenario is to have spent an extra minute or two dressing or organizing our gear and then to walk toward our stand and see a doe feeding under it.
The night before a hunt, I place a clear, hard plastic container in the passenger front seat of my vehicle. I own four such containers and each contains hunting clothes, socks and boots of different weights for different temperatures. Three of those containers always remain at home; the fourth is the "travel" case — the one I take afield.
For example, the standard contents for an early October outing are Scent-Lok Savanna pants and jacket, lightweight Scent-Lok BaseSlayer top and pants, hat, lightweight socks, rubber boots and a daypack. Those contents are meticulously organized in the order they are donned.
Underwear is at the top of the case, followed by camo, socks and boots, and then the daypack. Every item inside the pack is in the same compartment every time I go afield, and everything is checked the night before. For instance, the upper center compartment contains a drag rope, knife, gutting gloves, camo gloves and a release; the bottom center compartment a water bottle, two apples and cover scent. Flashlights go in the left side compartment, hunting licenses and a plastic bag (deer heart is a true delicacy) on the right side. The bow resides in the back seat, a tarp for placing a field-dressed deer on in the trunk.
Obviously, every season on my way to a stand, I am going to bump a deer or two. But if I do so, it's not going to be because I wasted time looking for some item that was left at home or placed in the wrong compartment.
Workaday bowhunters live for Saturdays, and that is certainly the case for me. Even if I have been unsuccessful during the week, I can put the knowledge gained from those outings toward enjoying a successful Saturday.
For instance, on an October Tuesday last year I drove to a 140-acre woodlot that took a good 40 minutes to reach. During a scouting foray, I had located two bearing black oaks that featured mounds of deer droppings under them. But when I arrived at the stand site at 4:35, two deer were already feeding there and two more were on their way. The quartet spooked, snorted and skedaddled, and I spent a solitary evening on the mountainside.
Four days later on Saturday, I was back at the same stand site, but this time at 1 p.m. A few hours later the first deer of the evening meandered down to the oaks, and 30 minutes later the plastic bag in the daypack and the tarp in the trunk were proving their worth. Several Saturdays later, I killed a second whitetail from the same area, as I had learned that weekday after-school hunting at the spot was folly.
One day I would like to have the time and develop the skills to become a trophy hunter. Those individuals who have reached that level of expertise should truly be admired by those of us who haven't. But for now, I'm just an after-work bowhunting bloke who relishes going afield every chance I have and bringing venison home to my wife.