BowHunting – Preserving the Element of Surprise

Sometimes you have to learn your lessons the hard way. I know of a spot located on one of my hunting areas where four different guys have set up with high expectations only to abandon the location after only a few sits. It looks great, like every deer on earth must walk past there each day. I found it first and hunted it only once before realizing it was a sucker stand. Two years later, my friend Jim gave it a try. One day and he was out. The next year it was Dan. Again, he stopped hunting the spot after only a couple of times. Recently, I was scouting through the area and was amused to find my friend Jack’s stand hanging within bow range of my original tree. Like the rest of us, Jack will find out quickly enough that some spots just can’t be hunted.

That stand, located down in a bowl-shaped ravine, was such a traitorous location that every deer walking past eventually picked up human scent – regardless of wind direction. The wind swirled in there like a milk shake in a blender. We stopped hunting the stand not because of a lack of sign or even a lack of deer sightings. We gave up on it because it was impossible to hunt the stand without educating deer. Savvy deer hunters know that keeping the deer in their hunting areas from realizing they are being hunted is the key to success. If there is a secret in deer hunting, learning how to preserve the element of surprise is it. The better you learn to play this game, the more big bucks you’ll take.

The First Time's a Charm

The first time you hunt a stand each season represents your best chance for success from that stand. I came to realize this fact through experiences early in my deer hunting career, but I never fully understood why it happened. Deer hunting held a lot of mysteries then (and still does to a lesser degree). I wrote off the first time phenomena as just another unsolved mystery associated with the forest phantom. Rather than try to figure out what made it happen, I simply worked my tail off to make sure I was hunting fresh spots as often as possible.

The full-court press is definitely an option but it is not always possible. Your hunting area may be too small to permit you to hunt stands only once before moving on. And it takes a lot of effort, eliminating all but the most gung-ho and physically fit hunters. Also, if you are trying to hunt a specific buck it makes little sense to jump around. You need to stay in his home range as much as possible to give yourself a chance. In other words, all deer hunters must at some point learn to make the most of a limited number of good stands. Understanding what makes a stand so hot the first time you hunt it can help you to preserve this kind of action well into the season.

The first time you hunt a new area is often the very best opportunity to see a nice buck.  This is because you still have the element of surprise on your side.

First time stands are so good because the deer are moving naturally. It is that simple. Your job is to keep it that way, which unfortunately isn’t always so simple. It is pretty obvious that if you alarm a mature buck around your stand you are not likely to see him there again. It is not so obvious that educating non-target deer can have just as much affect on your odds. This is because deer communicate in large part through body language. When a doe approaches your empty stand warily, maybe even stomping her feet, she sends the same message as if she were shouting, “Hey everyone, this spot is dangerous.” Deer pay attention to these signals in the same way that we react to warning sirens and flashing lights.

If you want to hunt a stand more than once you need to keep the deer from realizing they are being hunted. This becomes more and more difficult each time you hunt an area. If you don’t select your stands cautiously and then take measures to assure secrecy, your stands will become noticeably less effective each time you hunt them.

Keeping every possible deer in the dark should be your number one priority this season. Letting this philosophy guide your every move will make you scout smarter, hunt more carefully and ultimately bag more big bucks.

The route you take to and from your tree stands will determine, in part, how effective you will be hunting these areas. If you can keep from being seen, heard or smelled while in transit, your odds for success skyrocket.

How Deer Find Out They're Being Hunted

Biologists have determined that deer can smell human scent in locations that we have touched with a bare hand for up to a week. Granted, this period is shorter when only grass brushes pant legs, but the scent still remains for many hours.

If deer can smell where we've been long after we've left the woods, wouldn't it be logical to expect them to become leery of our stand sites even though we don't realize it is happening? A high percentage of the deer that come past your stand, even after you've left it, are going to know immediately that a person has been there. Deer don't like anything to do with humans!

Of course deer can also detect us while we are on stand, by sight or by airborne scent. These “hot” encounters are even more damaging than when a deer discovers ground scent because the actual stand location, not just a general area, gets nailed down.

Deer also learn they are being hunted by seeing, hearing or smelling us as we enter and exit our stands. Many deer hunters mistakenly reason that because the day’s hunt is over, it makes no difference if they bump a few deer on the way back to the truck so they pick the easiest and most direct route. It doesn’t work that way. Deer have the ability to remember encounters with humans, and as a result they won’t use the area in a relaxed manner again until repeated visits verify that the encounter was a one-time event. If they run into your scent or your presence in the same area again they will very quickly abandon all activity there. Both your entry and your exit routes play a role in the success of your season and deserve special attention.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes the areas with the best sign are not the best places to hunt because you will educate too many deer in these places after just one hunt.

Access is Everything

It can rightfully be said that no stand is a great stand, no matter how much sign it overlooks, if it is tough to get to and from without educating deer. Accessibility is one part of the hunt strategy that many hunters don’t fully appreciate. They discount the perceptiveness of whitetail deer at knowing what is happening in their living rooms. There are four ways deer can pick up your access routes: sight, sound, airborne scent and ground scent. Any one of these can spoil an otherwise good spot.

A deer that picks you up as you head toward your stand is not likely to come past that day and its body language will make it likely that few others will either. I’ve hunted some great looking stands that were completely dead because I wasn’t able to get in clean. Unless you are very careful you will be educating a lot of deer that you didn’t even realize were nearby. Some deer will stand back in the shadows and watch you pass before sneaking away, while others bedded hundreds of yards away may pick up your scent and then dash off through the woods in the opposite direction taking all the other deer in the area with them. You may not even realize that you’ve spooked deer at all. Your only clue will be a lonely stand session.

I’ve also had mature does that either saw, heard or smelled me go past and then came sneaking in more than an hour later trying to figure out where I went. Sometimes they will even track me to my stands by my ground scent. They aren’t satisfied knowing that danger came near; they want to know where it went. This often brings them right to my stand and results in another educated lead doe.

If I am hunting an area where I have doe permits in my pocket I always save them for situations like this. I’d rather shoot that doe and live with the disturbance of her running off than to have her out there keeping other deer away from my stands. Any doe that figures out where my stand is located would do well to put on a casual act until she’s out of range. Otherwise, she’s feeding my family this winter.

A common misconception involves a deer’s night perception. Some hunters think they can walk across or along the edge of a feeding area where deer are present as long as it is dark. For sure darkness will help conceal you because deer can’t see a whole lot better in the dark than we can, but they are still very sensitive to sky lined forms, scent and even the sound of human footfalls. Don’t try to slip around feeding deer in the dark. Find a backdoor that permits less risky entry.

Your exit route is just as important as your entry route in keeping your hunting area as fresh as possible for as long as possible. You should plan it just as carefully. Seek routes that keep you away from deer, keep your airborne scent away from deer and keep your ground scent in places where it is unlikely to be noticed. Obviously trying to satisfy all of these requirements with a single route is challenging, but when you consider entry and exit when choosing your stands everything falls into place better.

Stands in valleys often suffer from swirling winds. The best chance for steady wind occurs on higher ground.

Stands to Avoid

The stand I described in the introduction is definitely a stand that should be avoided. Such locations can be particularly attractive and hard to walk past without picking out a tree for your stand. Another classic example comes to mind. There is an open gate in a fence line at the bottom of draw in one of my hunting areas. The trails that go through that gate look like cow paths but no livestock have roamed this property for more than a dozen years. They’re deer trails all right, and impressive to say the least.

Believe it or not, I don’t have a stand there, nor do I want one. Because the gate is located in a low area it is protected from the direct flow of the wind on most days. Even small gusts will produce swirling that soon gives the hunter’s presence away to every deer within several hundred yards. This location is also very hard to get to in the morning or from in the evening without spooking deer. Rather than educate every deer in a short time, I’ll be more patient and try to kill those same deer on nearby ridges and other spots that set up better for maintaining the element of surprise.

These high-activity/high impact stands should be avoided like the plague until the very end of your vacation when there is nothing to lose from educating a few deer. Your season is almost over anyway; why not go out with a bang? Actually, under these conditions it makes good sense to swing for the fence by hunting the hottest sign you can find without having to worry about the consequences.

Stands to Search Out

I’ve talked about the bad, now I’ll talk about the good. Here’s an example of what you can get away with if you choose your stand and your access route carefully. A few years back I had a stand on the edge of a bedding area used by lots of does. I hunted it during the peak of the rut and buck activity on the ridge top was impressive. The wind remained favorable for nearly the entire month of November and during one stretch I hunted the stand 12 out of 14 mornings!

The deer never did catch on to the fact that I was hunting them – either that or they came to regard me as harmless. That may be true enough, but not that season. One of their number – a nice 10-pointer – got fitted for my tag on the 12th morning.

I was able to hunt that stand repeatedly because it was on the prevailing downwind fringe of the bedding area and I was able to approach it into the wind using a shallow draw from the direction opposite the feeding area. It also helped that the stand was on a ridge so I didn’t have to contend with swirling winds.

Study your hunting area carefully and determine several fringe areas where you can effectively hunt your area without having to risk leaving a lot of ground scent in places where the deer may detect it.

To be good day after day, stands located on high ground are always better than stands located in protected pockets. This is because the wind doesn’t swirl nearly as much around exposed stands. When scouting make it a point to determine if the wind will swirl around your potential ambushes before committing a stand to them. Always remember, some of the best looking sign is found in places that you shouldn’t hunt.

Take maximum advantage of terrain features, such as this ditch, to help conceal you while you are sneaking to and from your tree stands.

Tips for Keeping Your Hunting Area Fresh

1. Start your hunting from the lowest impact stand site that also offers a decent chance of getting a shot.

2. Pick the path to your stand carefully. Never let your scent be blown toward areas you think deer might be using.

3. Only hunt spots that you can walk to easily without the risk of bumping into deer. Avoid crossing open fields in the dark, because that's where the deer are going to be. Take maximum advantage of cover and terrain to keep from being sky-lined.

4. Never give up the wind. On still days consider hunting far from your best areas. Don't take the chance that an unexpected breeze will carry your scent to the deer.

5. Study aerial photos of your hunting area. There is a lot you can learn from a couple of hours of studying an aerial photo. And the best part is, you don't have to leave any scent in your hunting area to learn it.

6. Avoid in-season scouting in the places where deer spend most of their time. When hunting without the benefit of post-season scouting from the previous winter, confine your scouting to downwind edges.

7. Keep your binoculars handy. Often they'll tell you what to do next as you unravel deer movement patterns from a distance.


When you've got an area that you want to keep fresh for the whole season focus on picking stands that offer every possible tactical advantage: an undetectable entry and exit route and a spot where the wind won’t swirl. Stick to the fringes where your ground scent won’t be detected readily. By keeping the deer you hunt from knowing they are being hunted, you greatly increase your chances for success this season.


  1. Great tips on bow hunting!

  2. Dayne Shuda says:

    Great post. Lots of great info and tips.

    I have always had a difficult time keeping my level of excitement down when hunting new and old terrain.

    When I first started out I always wanted to get down in the valleys and the ditches to get close to big bucks.

    But this lead to difficult winds and spooked deer.

    Do you also sit down after each hunting season and reevaluate property you've hunted for many seasons?

    Do you ever decide to change your own hunting patterns based on areas you seem to pressure more and areas you pressure less?

    Thanks again.


Speak Your Mind