Ah, the dreaded deadline of the firearms season. For many years of my bowhunting life, I considered the start of the Minnesota firearms deer season the end of my archery hunting. As the date would grow closer and closer on the calendar, I would get this overwhelming feeling that I needed to close the book on whatever deer I was after because the blaze orange army was about to enter my world. Then, a few years ago, I started looking at the firearms season as a chance for new opportunities. I tried to focus on some of the positives of dawning that blaze orange vest with bow in hand that can come during this time of year.
For archery hunters, one of the keys to success is hunting pressure. This is true on both public and private land. The idea is, the less pressure you put on the deer you are hunting, the better your odds of success are of harvesting mature deer. Pretty simple right? It’s harder to do than most think. I only get so many days in the field every year. It’s extremely difficult to convince myself to stay home when I have the opportunity to hunt. But if the wind isn’t right or the conditions are not what I need them to be, I don’t risk it. One of the fears I always had with the firearms season was all the additional pressure that is added to the local deer herd. This is a disadvantage almost all the time. However, most firearms deer seasons are scheduled during the month of November. We are all precisely aware what happens in the whitetail woods during this glorious month. Archery hunters can use the additional hunting pressure to their advantage when the bucks need a little incentive to leave their core areas.
If you share private land with hunters that only hunt during the firearms season, you have the opportunity to set yourself up for success. If you are a public land hunter, there is a good chance you are always sharing your hunting areas…but more so during the firearms season. Even if you don’t share your woods with firearms hunters, there’s more than likely folks that do on the neighboring properties. These scenarios can play out the same way if you take a little extra precaution and put yourself in position for success. The additional hunting pressure is more than likely going to send that buck you’re after into seclusion or it might force him to try and escape. Let’s focus on the secluded buck first.
It’s opening morning of the firearms season. You are perched in your stand or nestled into your blind, well before legal shooting light. Other hunters in your woods and on the neighboring properties are doing the same thing. The difference is, you are situated in a prime buck bedding area that you would not consider hunting except this time of year. You chose your entry route very carefully to make sure you stay down wind. You even took extra time to make sure you were setup long before sunrise. As that mature buck makes his way back to his bed, he’s bumping into the scent of other hunters. He carefully maneuvers through all the strange new smells and sneaks toward his normal bedding area. Only this time, since he is extra precautious, he goes even further into the thick stuff. What he doesn’t know is that you had already planned for this and are patiently awaiting his arrival. This scenario has a lot of risk involved as the big guys are extremely difficult to fool. But, given the circumstances, he’s a bit off his game. He’s got does on his mind and suddenly, a surge of hunting pressure. Even with all that, this tactic requires careful planning and preparation to pull off. If he senses something is up, he might go into seclusion for the rest of the season. If the plan works as detailed, there is potential to arrow a big mature whitetail.
During those first couple days of the opening firearms season, I try to stay in stand as along as possible. Not only is that wise because the bucks are chasing does, but it also helps ensure you are in position on the escape routes. I learned this tactic a few years back while bowhunting the opening weekend of the firearms season. I was all alone in the woods I was hunting, but I noticed a bunch of orange on the neighboring property. It was late morning and I was contemplating climbing down for a lunch break, as the only animal I saw all morning was a squirrel. Just as I was packing up my gear, I noticed a small group of hunters walking down the property line between the two woods. I waited to see if my assumption was correct, and sure enough, they started stopping individually at different locations. They were preparing for a deer drive and I was in the path the deer could potentially take. As I watched the hunters spread out across that property line, I started studying the terrain in more detail to see if I could determine possible escape routes. I wasn’t about to try and move my stand, so I settled back in and decided to observe and use this as a learning opportunity.
One difficult aspect of a deer drive for the hunters who are on post is you never really know how long it will take. This was the case on this morning for me as I had no idea where the drive was starting or how many hunters were involved. All I knew is that I was going to sit tight for as long as it took. After about an hour, I caught movement coming through the woods towards my direction. Since I was far enough behind all the posted hunters, I could see the entire hillside. I watched a group of five does sneak their way quickly, but cautiously, through the timber. As they got closer to the posted hunters, the lead doe in the group decided to switch routes and take a different trail. It just so happened, that trail led the group between two of the posted hunters on a small rise so neither hunter could see the any of the deer. That was also the same trail I was on a couple hundred yards away and the entire group trotted right past my stand. Had I been doe hunting that morning, I could’ve taken my pick. Not ten minutes later, I caught movement in the timber again. This time, it was a mature buck. He was all alone and weaving his way through the woods ever so carefully and quiet. He too altered his route just before the posted hunters could see him and slid between two of them once again. Only this time, he took the trail that veered away from my stand. I couldn’t get a shot, but I learned a valuable lesson that morning. Bowhunting escape routes, both in your own hunting area and routes that might be from adjoining hunting areas, can be very productive during the firearms season. Even if there aren’t deer drives taking place, the additional hunting pressure alone can cause the deer to try and escape. Position yourself in one of these travel routes and if possible, sit all day. You never know when you might have a deer sneaking right past your stand.
If the firearms season is open in your state or is about to open, try to use it to your advantage this year. What I used to consider a deadline or ending point of my archery season has now become one of my favorite times of year to hunt. Yes, the tactics change slightly, but if you stick to your scent preparation, careful consideration of stand placement and stay in stand as long as possible, the chances or arrowing a mature whitetail are pretty good. Good luck!