Once you find that great stand site, these tricks should help you close the deal on your buck.
How often can we safely hunt a given funnel without hurting our chances of success? This topic needs exploring, because as our access to hunting land dwindles, so does the number of funnels we can hunt.
While I have heard it said that you cannot over-hunt a funnel, I believe that over-hunting can be a problem with any stand. How much hunting one funnel several days in a row can hurt you depends on why the buck is passing through it.
There are three major reasons why a mature buck might move through a funnel, and I believe it would be beneficial to briefly discuss them. This will give us a better understanding of how hunting a particular funnel day after day can affect our chances of success.
First and foremost, some bucks travel randomly during the rut, covering several miles a day. In the course of this rut-crazed traveling, if a buck comes upon a restriction or an open area such as a field, lake, ditch, etc. that he does not want to cross, he will skirt it until he can move around it or through a gap in it. If the buck is approaching your funnel because he is one of these traveling bucks that cover miles during the rut, it will not matter how many times you have hunted the stand in the past week or two. This buck will not suspect you are there, because it will probably be his first time through the area in a long time, if not his first time ever.
The second reason a buck might pass through a funnel is because it is in his core area. In this situation, the buck might use the funnel routinely, because it is the easiest or safest route for him to use while moving around the area. How much he uses it during the rut depends on the buck. Some are real travelers that cover miles looking for a “hot” doe. These ramblers will go from one to the next without returning to their core areas for some time.
If the does become aware of your stand location in a funnel and therefore stop traveling through it, do not expect mature bucks to use it when one of those does comes into heat.
On the other hand, we have found that some mature bucks hardly ever leave a small core area, even during the rut. They breed and tend does in and around that core area. I believe a combination of having learned of the danger presented by humans and the rut urge having slowed down keeps these mature bucks close to home.
How much a buck will use a restriction in his core area thus depends on his individual personality. One might travel through the funnel a few times during the rut; another might use it several times each week. So, if you are hunting a funnel in a buck’s core area every day or two, spooking non-target deer and leaving a lot of human scent around, it could cost you a shot at the buck. In short, if you know the funnel you are hunting is in a buck’s core area, use as much caution as possible while hunting it. If you have other stands you can hunt, you are well advised to alternate with them, so as not to over-hunt the buck’s core-area funnel.
The last reason a mature buck uses a funnel is that he has hooked up with a doe in whose core area the funnel is located. The local family group of does, knowing the easiest and safest routes around their area, will move through the funnel regularly. When the does start coming into heat, you can have some great opportunities by hunting a funnel in their core area. Of course, if you over-hunt a funnel a family group of does routinely uses, it could easily cost you a buck. When the does become aware of your stand location and stop using the funnel, the bucks will not use it when those does come into heat.
So can over-hunting a funnel hurt you? In some situations it can. That is why I use as much caution as possible when hunting any funnel and why I alternate my hunting among several funnels if they are available to me, just as I would with stands that are not in funnels.
On the other hand, if I have only one funnel to hunt and the rut is on, I will hunt that funnel every day my schedule allows, of course using as much caution as possible. In some situations, it will not matter how many times you have hunted the funnel; a few bucks will still move through it, because it will be their first time through the area.
Because of the restriction that causes the funnel, there is usually a way for a hunter to approach the stand without crossing the corridor of deer travel. This often can be done by walking in or close beside the restriction itself. For instance, if you are hunting a ditch funnel, you can walk right in the ditch. This not only offers you the opportunity to travel in an area most deer will not walk, it also can visually hide your approach.
Again, since switching to the Elimitrax system, I have all but wiped out my previous problems with deer picking up my ground scent. However, if you have a problem with ground scent, spend some time looking over the area well before bow season to figure out the right approach. Again, you need one that will allow you to get to and from your stands without having to cross or walk where the majority of deer travel.
I make very large scrapes in all funnels I might want to hunt. However, I do not make them because I believe mature bucks will take them over and hang around the area. There are several other good reasons to make mock scrapes.
One is so I can use the scrapes to spot-check each funnel to see how much deer traffic it is receiving during rut movement. I will especially note any large track that shows up regularly. During the rut, it is hard for a buck to walk close to a scrape without coming over and leaving his own scent (and track) in it, particularly if he is mature.
This brings me to the next reason I make scrapes in all of my funnels: because sometimes the funnel will not restrict movement as close to my tree as I would like (or need). When a mature buck passing through a funnel sees a large scrape a few yards away, he usually will take the time to check it out, offering a close shot.
Another reason I make mock scrapes in my funnels is that doing so helps me get standing shots at relaxed deer. As you probably are aware, during the rut mature bucks are constantly on the move. If you have ever tried to settle your sights on one of these travelers, you know how difficult it can be. Numerous shot opportunities at fine trophies have been lost because the buck would not stand still long enough for the bowhunter to make the shot.
Of course, you can try grunting to stop the deer, but that will put him on alert. It is better if he stops on his own. When a buck in rut encounters a large, recently worked scrape, he will nearly always spend some time in it, offering the hunter a standing shot. Making a large scrape 15 to 20 yards from my tree stand has made the difference for me on several occasions.
It is best to initiate your mock scrapes in the spring or early summer, because you will need to stay in the area for some time to figure out exactly where to make a scrape and to get the scrapes the way you want them. If you do this close to the time you want to hunt, you will disturb the area and possibly leave a lot of human scent around. This would be counterproductive. However, if you make the scrapes in the spring, when fall rolls around all you will need to do is slip in and rework the ground in the scrapes, again using a rake. You might even find that a buck has opened up one of your scrapes for you. With my trail camera, in early August I have taken photos of velvet bucks working mock scrapes I had made back in the spring.
Next, let’s look at the issue of where to make the scrape in the area you plan to hunt. Obviously, you first need to decide which tree you will be hunting from, if you have not already done so. After you have picked a tree for your stand, move to the area the funneled deer will be passing through. The place on the ground where most of the deer will be naturally stepping should be your first choice for the location to make the scrape. If you have picked the correct tree for your stand, it will be within easy shooting distance of this spot.
As you look for the exact spot for the scrape, you might have to move back and forth a little to get it just right. You will be looking for an open shooting lane or one that can be opened up to your tree at the height you will be hunting from. You should always be able to take a shot at a buck while he is standing in the scrape.
Also, when considering the exact location, keep in mind that you will want a limb over the scrape. However, do not move out of the funneled deer traffic or your shooting range to find such a limb. It is always better to place an overhanging limb over the perfect scrape location yourself, rather than place a scrape in an undesirable location where a limb naturally exists.
If there is a limb hanging close to the scrape but not over it, or if there is a sapling close by, you can maneuver either one of these around to the exact location you need it, then tie or wire it into place. Snap the foliage and small ends off the overhanging limb. Bucks seem to prefer a limb that is between the size of a pencil and a man’s finger. They also seem to prefer one that is coming toward the scrape at a sharp angle from above.
The author’s sons, A.J. and Clay, make a mock scrape in a funnel at the head of a ditch. A mature buck passing through a funnel often will stop to investigate freshly worked soil.
After you have the limb in place, remove any sticks and brush from the ground under it. Next, use a heavy rake to tear the ground up really well in an area as big as a truck hood. (You do not need to apply any type of scent to the scrape.) Also, if it is necessary to cut a wide shooting lane between the scrape and the tree you will be hunting from, do it now.
When you have finished with the setup, back out of the area and stay out until around the middle of October. This is when you will need to return and work the ground up again. Make sure you use scent control while doing this, and then get out of the area as quickly and quietly as possible. When you come back to the location to hunt, you will more than likely discover that the scrape is being worked regularly by bucks passing through the funnel.
Calling in Funnels
I do not often call while hunting in a funnel. I have had a lot of luck calling in deer and am confident in my ability; however, if I am hunting a tight funnel, I will not call unless I see a big buck whose path of travel is not going to bring him within bow range. If I am set up in a good funnel, most (if not all) of the deer moving through the area will come near my stand anyway.
Why put a buck on alert, looking for something around my stand, if that is not necessary to bring him into bow range? When a buck comes in looking for another deer, he is more likely to see or smell something that is not right. Also, some older bucks that have been called in and then spooked over the years might go the other way when called to without my even realizing they had been coming toward me on their own.
Be Ready to Shoot
Let’s look at a few points to keep in mind while you are in your stand. This is a short refresher of things you probably already know, but you might need to be reminded of their importance. They are critical for the bowhunter to remember, whether hunting a funnel or not.
First, stay prepared to take the shot every second you are on stand. It is imperative that you see a buck coming in as soon as he is visible to you, so you will have as much time as possible to prepare for the shot. Never let your guard down, even during the last minute of a hunt. The buck of a lifetime is just as likely to appear during the last minute as in the first. You must understand this and keep this mindset throughout your hunt.
The opportunity to shoot a mature buck will most of the time be an unpredictable event. He is likely to materialize from a direction and at a time of day you least expect, and perhaps even while you are hunting from a stand you do not think is all that special. This is why it is so important that you enter your stand with the mindset that you will be prepared to take a shot at any second, no matter how slow things are.
I would like to relate to you a story of an event that took place a few years back. While I was not in a tree stand, the mistake I made and the lesson I learned from that mistake will apply to any hunting situation. On this hunt I missed the opportunity to shoot one of the best bucks I have ever laid eyes on, simply because I let my guard down.
I was bowhunting a remote area in East Tennessee at the time. I was in my early 20s and had not taken many whitetails. On this particular morning, it was very windy. In fact, it was so windy that I decided not to climb into my tree stand. It was late October, and I decided to still-hunt around a standing cornfield.
As I occasionally did at that time in my hunting career, I carried a shoulder quiver full of blunts for shooting squirrels and other small game. Easing around the edge of the cornfield with a broadhead on my bowstring, I was regularly walking up on squirrels feeding on corn ears that were hanging on the stalks. Two or three times I placed my broadhead back into the bow quiver and tried to retrieve a blunt to get a shot at the main ingredient of some would-be squirrel and dumplings. However, each time the squirrel refused to stand long enough for me to fulfill my intentions. After two or three such blown encounters, I decided to leave my broadhead in the quiver and keep a blunt on my bowstring. I reasoned that I would probably not see a deer that day anyway, because of the high wind.
Well, you probably can guess what happened next. I had taken only a few more steps when I saw what I thought was two people walking through the woods parallel to me. As I became fixated on the two sets of legs, I realized that they belonged to one the largest whitetails I have ever seen! The reason I did not realize it was a buck to begin with is because the two sets of legs were so far apart; it never dawned on me that a buck so large could be walking 15 yards beside me!
The huge buck walked up and stopped with his head behind a tree. I eased the blunt off my bowstring and touched the point end to the ground, then let the nock end fall. As it fell, it hit some object, making a slight noise. That was enough for the sharp-eared old buck. He ran off with a big doe that I had not seen close behind him.
Although I was very immature in my hunting career, I learned a valuable lesson that day: Anytime you are in the woods deer hunting, always be in position to quickly take a shot. Failure to follow this principle could cost you a great buck; believe me, I know! You should never have anything in your hands, whether you are eating, drinking, calling or whatever else, that you don’t have a game plan to put away quickly and quietly.
In most activities, there is a gradual buildup to a climax, which makes it easier to be prepared for what is coming next. On the other hand, in trophy whitetail hunting there might be several long hours of no activity . . . and then, all at once, the opportunity of a lifetime is before you. You must understand that this is the nature of the beast in our sport and never let your guard down.
Another point you should not forget while in your stand is to keep your head turning slowly at all times. You simply cannot afford to get lazy or fixed on a single focal point, whether it be a non-target deer or any other item of interest. A trophy buck can be on you in a matter of seconds, and you must see him coming as soon as possible, so you can stand and prepare for the shot. Even if I am eating a snack or lunch in my stand, I will constantly be looking in every direction around the tree as I do. Never sit down, stand up or make a lot of movement with your hands or body without first studying the area a full 360 degrees around your stand. Failure to keep this point in mind can cost a bowhunter big time.
Always keep your bow in a position where you can reach it easily with a minimum amount of time and movement. I liked the new-style bow hangers that screw into the tree and hinge in the middle. They are designed so that you can screw them into the tree above your head and swing the bow in any position in front of you. With the bow hanging in front of you, you can have it in hand and be ready to shoot in seconds.
I should also mention a point or two here concerning wrist straps (slings). You definitely need to use one, for reasons noted in our earlier discussion of shooting technique. However, if you do not choose the design carefully, it could end up costing you a trophy buck.
There are two main features I look for in a wrist strap to help me to get my hand on the bow grip faster. First, I want one that stays open and does not lie against the grip. It can either be made of stiff material or have a wire in it to hold it open. If you have a wrist strap that stands open, it is far easier to reach through it and grab the bow, and that translates into precious seconds saved.
I also want the wrist sling to be made of friction-free material. If you have a sling made from braided rope or something else that has a lot of friction, you could have a problem sliding a gloved hand into it. Again, this can mean critical time lost. Conversely, if the sling is made from a slick material, your hand will slip right in, even if you are wearing a glove. For some reason, a lot of wrist slings today are both made from rough material and lie against the bow grip. With a sling designed in this way, you might need to use both hands to work your bow hand into it. The extra time and movement could cost you the shot you have been waiting for.
This might seem a trivial matter. However, in trophy whitetail bowhunting, I have often noted, “The devil is in the details.” If you consistently give attention to all of the little things, you will be more successful.
Calls & Rattling Antlers
Putting away a grunt call to prepare for a shot has been a problem for me in the past, as I am sure it has been for a lot of other bowhunters. I never seemed to have a good game plan to put the thing away, especially if I was trying to coax a buck in that last few yards. With a buck close, you do not want to make enough movement to hang the call on a tree limb. And, if you carry the call around your neck, there is the danger of having it interfere with your bowstring as you try to shoot.
After some trial and error, I finally hit upon a good system. I use one of those elastic chest straps to hold my rangefinder close to my chest, and onto this I attach my grunt calls to the strap that runs over my right shoulder and down my chest. I use a 1/8-inch nylon cord to fasten my grunt calls to the strap so that they are within a few inches of my mouth. With my calls attached in this way, I can place a grunt call in my mouth with my right hand, then lower the hand back to the bowstring to prepare for the shot. When it comes time to shoot, all I have to do is release the call with my mouth, and it will quietly move a couple of inches back into place and away from the bowstring.
The author’s rattling antlers are shown ready for action. If you connect them as described, they will not make unwanted noise by touching each other, even when hung on a limb by the hook at the end of the 26-inch cord.
Rattling “horns” (antlers) can be another problem in a tree stand. A lot of hunters today use rattling bags, and I must admit that actual antlers are a lot to handle at times. However, I like the real thing, and I am sure a lot of you feel the same way. But real antlers can be the most cumbersome and noisy things in the world, especially when you are trying to get rid of them for a shot. I learned early on that when a mature buck is coming in, it is not a goo to hang the antlers around a limb with the cord tied to each, because the things just want to keep on rattling for you.
After much thought, I came up with a system that works pretty well. First, I take a 26-inch length of 1/4-inch cord and attach a wire hook onto one end. I then bore a hole in the butt end of each antler. The hole needs to be large enough for the cord to be threaded through, but not so large that a knot in the cord would pull through.
I then slide the antler I will use in my right hand up the cord to the hook. Next I tie a knot about halfway down the cord below this antler, then slide the other antler onto the cord and tie a knot below it at the end of the cord.
The thing to check for is the position of the middle knot. When you are holding the hook, the top antler should not be able to slide down the cord enough to touch the other antler. If you have this adjusted correctly, when you hang the antlers on a limb by the hook and they are still swinging they will make no noise, because the top antler will not slide down far enough to touch the other one.
When you get ready to rattle, simply pull the top antler up the cord to the hook, which will give you enough slack between the antlers to rattle. While this is not a perfect system, it is the best way I have yet found to handle my rattling antlers quietly while in a tree stand.
Stand or Sit?
Most of the time I remain seated while hunting. I will stand and slowly move my feet around for about 10 minutes after every hour of being seated, breaking the monotony and getting the blood flowing in my legs and feet. Of course, the whole time I am moving my feet for this purpose I will be slowly turning my head in all directions, looking for deer. Sometimes while I am standing I will draw my bow a few times. This keeps my muscles and joints loose and working. (Before I ever reach for my bow, I will spend a couple of minutes studying the area around my stand to make sure there is no deer in sight.)
A lot of bowhunters choose to remain standing while hunting, and that might work fine for them; however, I see a few problems with it. First, if you are hunting during the rut and plan to stay all day, your legs might get tired after a few hours. You could have started out planning to hunt all day but after a half-day or so of standing be in so much pain or so tired that you call it quits early. I have seen this happen to more than one hunter.
Another reason I do not like to stand longer than necessary while hunting is that it is hard to do so for long periods without placing one shoulder or the other against the tree. When you do this, you have your feet committed in one direction. If you then must quickly prepare for a shot on the other side of the tree, you will need to do a lot of repositioning of your feet. While trying to do so, you could spook a deer that is closing in on your position – or you might even get into position too late to make the shot. On the other hand, if you are still seated when you spot the buck moving in, you then can position your feet and stand in the direction you need to face in order to shoot.
Attaching your deer calls to the strap that runs over your shoulders and down your chest to your rangefinder or binoculars offers some key advantages. The author likes to use 1/8-inch nylon cord to fasten his calls to this strap, so that they always hang within a few inches of his mouth, ready for use with little motion.
That said, I do not like to remain seated for the shot. As soon as I see a target deer, I slowly come to my feet. The reason I stand is not that I cannot shoot sitting down; it is that I cannot be versatile enough while sitting. A buck might be on a course that would put him on the side of the tree I can shoot to . . . then all at once change his direction of travel, putting him on the wrong side of the tree for a sitting shot. If I have to stand up and reposition myself when the buck is only 10 or 15 yards away, I could spook him.
Will simply reading the information presented thus far in this book guarantee you a mature buck? Absolutely not! All the knowledge in the world will not help you unless you apply it. This is where most bowhunters fall short: They lack the time or tenacity to apply what they know. Make no mistake about it, consistently shooting mature bucks involves a lot of time and hard work.
In the next three chapters, I will illustrate the effectiveness of my approach with the stories of three great whitetails that ended up on my wall. In so doing, I hope to show what can be achieved by a person of normal means who works hard to develop his archery and hunting skills, then sets about trying to close the deal on a mature buck under real-world hunting conditions.