Baiting whitetail deer made me a better bowhunter. You see, I bowhunted my first whitetail deer while attending college in Texas. I considered myself a fair hand at bowhunting by then, having taken a number of trophy elk, many mountain and desert mule deer, a few pronghorn, Coues whitetail and black bears, all while growing up in New Mexico and occasionally venturing to neighboring states such as Arizona and Colorado. By then I’d also successfully guided bowhunters for several years.
Texas — more accurately the whitetail it harbored — soon convinced me I’d lost my touch. Bowhunting from elevated stands was new to me (I’d only engaged in spot-and-stalk ploys ‘till then), Texas brush country certainly not fitting the feeding- and bedding-area model offered by the magazine whitetail “experts” (especially those from the Midwest), Texas deer-movement patterns wholly random and unpredictable. And my whitetail luck started out nothing but bad, bad. I was jinxed, pure and simple, barely able to scratch out the occasional doe while everyone around me arrowed trophy bucks regularly.
All of these Oklahoma whitetail were baited legally during the opening week of archery season. No one in the group outwardly offered any feelings of remorse or felt they had to justify their actions.
But there was one huge difference between myself and those successful friends. They could afford feeders (several of them, in fact) and truck-loads of corn. I could not. It was only by the good graces of those friends I was able to hunt at all, coat-tailing onto their expensive deer leases, allowed to shoot does or management bucks to satisfy lease agreements and management objectives. And it was only through these friends’ good graces I was able to tag as many deer as I did – when they’d feel sorry for me and allow me to occupy one of their corn-feeder stands.
Just like most nimrods who have zero experience bowhunting in this manner, I assumed it would be slam-dunk, all too easy (“shooting fish in a barrel,” “slovenly unethical,” “taking candy from a baby”). Did I miss any predictable anti-baiting clichés? I needed meat, pure and simple. If guarding one of these feeders proved any of these things…all the better. A steady diet of Ramon noodles and priced-to-sell dented canned goods afforded by a college budget was wearing a bit thin. But I had it all wrong. When it comes down to it, shooting younger does and bucks off of bait is indeed sometimes simple. But it’s the rare instance when trophy bucks more than 3 ½ years old is easily taken due to baiting.
Easy As Pie
Texas feeder deer proved some of the most neurotic, hunter savvy and jumpiest around. If you can put arrows through five of five mature whitetail does visiting feeders without getting busted, outright missing due to a wild string-jump or otherwise blowing it, you’re truly a shot-timing master. Texas feeder deer ultimately taught me a higher degree of patience, provided insight into body language directly pertaining to shot timing; when to draw, when to hold still, when to wait or pass, when to push it, how deer react to the shot when they do “jump the string,” how to aim to compensate for this, how equipment set-up affects string jumping (the old speed vs. silence debate), how to make bows quieter, and especially shooting under pressure.
Author Patrick Meitin killed this handsome Oklahoma buck over bait on the very last day of a tough hunt. The presence of bait did not make shot timing or shooting under pressure any easier.
On one hand bowhunting feeder whitetails made everything to follow seem like child’s play. On the other I admittedly would’ve received many fewer shots without the attraction of that corn. The great bait debate’s one of those topics — like shooting game beyond 40 yards, taking shots at animals standing anything but broadside, mechanical vs. fixed-blade broadheads, just to name some obvious controversies – with the ability to instantly polarize the bowhunting community. Feeding deer is most beneficial in areas with no natural focal points like limited bedding cover and concentrated food. This makes baiting extremely popular in dry, brushy areas like Texas and Oklahoma – no doubt one of the reasons baiting took such a firm hold in these states.
The anti-baiting crowd shouts indictments including words such as “unsporting,” ”unethical,” “lazy,” “slovenly,” “wrong” and so on. Those who do bait shrug and carry on, feeling they’ve nothing to justify. It’s also interesting to note those who object most vehemently normally have no firsthand experience to back their claims – to which they will respond, “I don’t need to murder someone to know it’s wrong;” or something as inane. It sometimes seems to me many bowhunters, given the power and opportunity, would immediately force everyone to do everything exactly as they do (this also holds true of personal equipment choices, such as the tired traditional vs. compound debate). I really don’t care if you view baiting as wrong – even where it is perfectly legal. If you wish to make bowhunting more difficult than it already is good for you. Really, I understand that. I regularly still-hunt whitetail with traditional bows when I know perfectly well sitting a tree-stand and shooting a compound (which I also do regularly) would prove much more productive. Sometimes I simply feel like testing myself.
A friend of the author eventually put an arrow through this gorgeous Texas buck, but only by applying proper woods skills – minding the wind, executing the entire scent-control program and approaching his stand carefully.
And, while I defend baiting as an ethical and sporting means of pursuing whitetail (again, where legal), in reality sitting directly over bait to get my deer constitutes a minuscule percentage of my annual approach (only Oklahoma in recent years). I only qualify that statement because I have fed deer to get better trail-cam photos and provide starting points for trailing missions on snowy mornings to learn more about deer movements, discover scrapes and so forth. In Idaho – where I live and bowhunt whitetail most extensively – feeding deer’s perfectly legal, hunting those sites is not.
Is It Personal?
Which is really the crux of the matter when it comes right down to it… Whether you condone deer baiting or not generally hinges directly on the regional practices or customs you’re subjected to. Darn few negative comments to this post will begin with, “I live in a baiting state but refuse to do so because…” Bowhunters who aren’t legally allowed to bait typically look down their noses at those who live in states where baiting is perfectly legal and locally accepted. Baiting laws, after all, are rarely based on solid biological strictures. An easy example: Idaho allows hunting directly over bait for black bear in a plethora of selected units, but not for deer (or elk).
Deer know they are vulnerable when approaching food (or limited water), making them understandably nervous. Deer on feed can prove some of the toughest around to get drawn on because of this.
Neighboring Washington allows wide-open, unrestricted baiting for deer and elk, but bear baiting is strictly forbidden. Identical habitat, different rules. Or another: In Texas (and Oklahoma) baiting has evolved into an institution, darn few hunters pursuing deer without feed involved at least partly. Across the border, in New Mexico, feeding deer even recreationally can get you in hot water with the law.
Game laws are usually based on local tradition or hunting conditions. Idaho’s dominated by rifle hunters, who really don’t require bait to collect long-range deer. Archery’s more popular in Washington, baiting making bowhunting more productive in many of its thickly-vegetated regions. Much of Texas is dominated by brushy, flat country with few funneling terrain features. New Mexico deer habitat is mountainous, making glassing and stalking much more feasible. This is my take in any case. Discovering the real impetus for such laws would require digging into century-old records.
Bowhunter Daniel Hawthorne uses bait to pursue northeastern Washington’s monster big-woods whitetails, but this hardly assures his success. He has been chasing this behemoth for three years without a shot.
In bowhunting, whether pursuing deer, elk, bears or turkeys, following the food is key to success. Wild game is found most readily in their pantries. When we bowhunt big game we are, in essence, hunting food. So the question finally begs asking: Is bowhunting near a small, heavily-manipulated food plot more ethical than a bait pile? How about a Midwest corn or soybean field corner littered with deer sign? Or that sharp ridge of acorn-bearing white oaks? The place where the farm truck hit a bump, spilling a bit more peas than is normally provided via standard machinery waste? Obviously, avoiding feed altogether makes bowhunting very tricky indeed. What are your thoughts?