Bowhunting’s Toughest Yard

Getting within bow range of your target animal isn’t enough. You’ve also got to close the deal. Here’s how to start improving your success on wily whitetails.
Bowhunting’s Toughest Yard

That today's bowhunter is better-equipped and more knowledgeable than ever is no debate. So how come so many of us are constantly searching for that final piece of the puzzle? In my opinion, the last yard your arrow travels could be why you’ve got the cigar and the matches without the sweet aroma of victory.

Put another way, it's not enough to get a buck within bow range. You also have to get an arrow to the buck…

Don't Get Blind-Sided

tree stand trim branchesLong ago I learned that one of the best ways to increase my odds was to increase my effective range. By "effective" I mean how far I can consistently and confidently execute under pressure in hunting conditions. As impressive as the math is, don't let it fool you: A guy limited to a 15-yard radius isn't half as effective as one capable of shooting out to 30 yards. In the real world, that extra 15 yards translates into enough opportunities to transform an average hunter into a major league predator.

Still, what good is the extra yardage if it's perceived and not real? Consider a buck sneaking behind you, say, on the cusp of your effective range. If it's dry and the wind cooperates, your ears might help save the day. Should everything fall neatly into place, you might be able to react in time to get off a quality shot. But who wants to trust Mother Nature? Instead, why not make your backside a non-factor when setting up treestands? Sounds elementary, but it’s going to take some forethought.

For example, try re-positioning your treestand to "half-cover" the highest percentage trails. Just be sure to err comfortably on your bow-hand side to eliminate difficult opposite-shoulder shots. Standing also helps. You can swivel your upper torso more easily from an erect position than from a sitting one. And if it's a morning-only or afternoon-only spot, you should be able to handle the extra neck movement it takes to monitor such an area.

What I'm saying is that hunting 360 degrees from a treestand is a must, not a luxury. I'm also saying it isn't easy. I'd hate to calculate the number of bowhunters who come up empty because they get blind-sided year after year. So make this a priority, not an option.

Shooting Lanes Aren't Sight Lanes

My friend Mark Wasbotten had the same monster buck within bow range two years in a row (one year within 10 yards!), yet failed to drive an arrow home. Mark's a topnotch bowhunter, but I think his sight lanes need to be shooting lanes. Let’s not beat around the bush: What good is a hot stand location that majors on sightings and minors on interceptions? Indeed, finding the right tree is just the beginning; the rest of the story is about execution, and that revolves around shooting lanes. (Again, shooting lanes are not sight lanes.)

Much has been written on the subject of pruning, but there's only one rule that has no exception. It demands memorization. When in doubt, over-prune. That includes your backside and areas where you don’t expect deer to show up. One recent Minnesota hunt is a case in point. I failed to clear a lane behind my stand and, sure enough, that's where a dandy Pope & Young-class buck slipped by without me drawing my bow. I didn't draw because the brush was so thick, and I didn't do any clearing because there was no sign to suggest the need. Repeat after me: When in doubt, over-prune.

Cut Branches, Not Corners

trim branches tree standHow you prune is as important as where you prune. In a recent column I mentioned a familiar garden accessory, the lopping shear. Get one with extended handles, and you'll prune twice as much in a fraction of the time. Though folding camp saws are handy for the backcountry, they're no match for what lopping shears can do.

I like to clip all saplings at ground level and remove all cuttings from the immediate area. The lone exception is the extreme late season up North, where my "slashings" become handy browse for hungry deer. Another exception is lane-clearing before the season, when I can erect brush piles where I don't want deer to go.

Yes, you should consider "blocking" trails you can’t cover, especially early in the season when you've got more time to set your treestand trap. Coniferous blow-downs are my favorite because they're plentiful and can be relocated easily. But anything—from a tumbleweed to a discarded Christmas tree—can work as long as deer get a chance to get used to it.

What about pruning tree limbs, especially those beyond reach? If you're as serious about bowhunting as I am, you'll invest in a decent pole pruner with an extension handle. At the very least, consider the handy-dandy Pole Thread Adapter.

In spite of these precautions, you're sure to encounter branches and limbs that are too high to prune effectively. Don't cut corners! When I'm setting stands, I always tote along a fistful of treesteps; they allow me to scale any tree to remove any branch or limb. (Be sure to wear a safety belt at all times.)

Finally, adopt a Zero Tolerance policy for potential buck-robbing obstructions. Before considering a stand "set," survey all four quadrants, and imagine a buck stealing within range. You certainly don't have to remove every single branch, but you must critically evaluate every single one. And that includes the ones you think you can "aim around." I'm still recoiling from a deflected arrow that should have found my biggest North Country buck ever: The 2-inch sapling was easy to see during daylight, but it somehow disappeared at dusk …

Bucks always have, and always will, give hunters the slip. But when it's entirely your fault, you've got to change. The first place to look is that last yard.


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