Hunting From A Ground Blind
by Patrick Meitin
Notes from inside a pop-up ground blind.
Returning to western Oklahoma last October felt like a homecoming, getting together again with old friends like Gary Sefton, Mike Jordan, Jason Pickerill and a handful of outdoor writers I’ve come to know well. I also looked forward to seeing Scott and Joni Sanderford, owners/operators of Croton Creek Ranch, and Josh Barfield, my guide who’d became a quick friend after last year’s foray. Croton Creek’s overall atmosphere’s like visiting family, complete with Old West accommodations and great cowboy cooking shared in the vast Social Barn where visitors assemble in clusters to chew the fat, drink adult beverages and generally relax in a way that’s become difficult in these hectic times.
As is customary on any guided hunt, my guide, Josh, pulled me aside after dinner that first night to form a battle plan, teasing me with enticing trail-cam photos. After weighing our options, Josh asked how I felt about bowhunting from a pop-up blind. “If that’s where the big bucks are, I’m fine with it,” I answered without thought.
So it was, I would spend much of my waking hours in the coming week hunting from a ground blind.
I’ve certainly bowhunted from pop-ups on many occasions. There’s absolutely no better way to approach bowhunting for turkeys than from a pop-up blind. In fact, pop-ups have turned what was once the most challenging part of the endeavor—getting your bow drawn undetected by the turkeys’ seemingly laser-guided vision—and made it the simplest. I’ve also used pop-ups with noteworthy success in South Africa (resulting in my best warthog, just as a highlight) and Zimbabwe (my only zebra, taken in broad daylight—rare indeed), turning the tables on some savvy critters who otherwise would’ve remained out of reach to a bowhunter. Then, of course, pop-ups have accounted for some fine water-hole pronghorns in both Montana and Colorado.
Yet, admittedly, I haven’t pursued whitetails seriously from pop-ups—because that one week, in South Texas, the hunt was difficult to take seriously.
I was “guided” by “Larry;” not his real name, but one I affixed him because his bumbling efforts brought to mind a Three Stooges skit. I only say this after being subjected to several laughable (only in hindsight, of course) pratfalls. It started the first morning, a spin feeder having recently issued it’s a.m. ration of maze, several does and a gorgeous buck ghosting into the clearing, drawing my bow carefully as the buck turned broadside, believing I would be spending the remainder of the week chasing javelina and hogs—which was just fine with me. All this just before the blind came crashing down around me, one too many camouflaging mesquite limbs applied. I assume the deer vacated the premises. I was too tangled up in blind to say for certain, as they may have stood clutching their sides in laughter for all I knew.
There was another evening spent waiting in anxious anticipation of that rattle-whirl of solar-powered, timer-activated corn feeder. I sat five hours only to learn the feeder had run completely dry. One skittish doe arrived, hoping against hope for a single golden kernel, but left unfulfilled. The final blow—blows actually—came on the final morning. All week each time we passed a certain farm-equipment corral it was alive with feeding deer. After days of hinting, I finally loudly insisted we install a pop-up. Larry didn’t accept direction well, but finally relented.
That morning I saw exactly three shooter bucks, arriving to nibble some sort of clover-rye grass cover crop amongst parked plows, disk harrows, bulldozers and such. Problem was, any time one of these bucks edged into bow range Larry arrived promptly in his roaring diesel pickup to inquire if I’d seen anything—four times to be exact.
I generally keep a couple whitetail pop-ups deployed near home, guarding water generally, though occasionally on agricultural fields lacking sizable trees for a tree-stand. Typically, I set up these arrangements for my acrophobic wife, but I do sit them sporadically, though admittedly not with the same dedication given my better scrape-guarding tree-stands. I especially enjoy pop-ups when it’s unseasonably cold, wet or breezy; like it was in Oklahoma last October.
But I’m 6-foot, 5-inches tall, fitted with gorilla arms, and drawn to longer axle-to-axle bows; a bad combination in a compact, run-n-gun style blind like I was stuffed into in Oklahoma. In Josh’s defense, all those Oklahoma boys are pretty compact, so I’m sure he’d anticipated no complications. If I’d only known, I could’ve shipped one of my “magnum” pop-ups ahead; the kind I wield traditional bows from inside, like my Double Bull Dark Horse or Barronett Blind’s Big Mike (designed to allow shooters to stand while wielding archery equipment).
I spent that first morning—dropped off well before daylight so the other hunters in Josh’s truck could be installed in stands/blinds ahead of shooting hours—digging up and tugging at copious roots and removing accumulated leaves from the blind’s sandy floor, so I could maneuver quietly. While whitetail might have a difficult time seeing you inside a pop-up they certainly can still hear you.
Too, there’s much debate on the proper approach to deploying whitetail pop-ups, but I’ve invested in enough trial-and-error set-up (for my wife’s benefit mostly) to glean some basic insights. In the simplest terms; when setting up in the wide open (cattle-pounded ground near water-holes or harvested agricultural fields) the more conspicuous your blind, the less likely deer are to spook from it. Try to hide it with branches or grass – or even set a blind covered in fluttering 3-D leafy camo—and it becomes something suspicious in a deer’s mind, eliciting snorts, stomping and waving white flags of departing posteriors. My guess is deer are used to farm equipment appearing in these settings suddenly, accepting an obvious blind as just another form of such activity.
In natural settings, wooded areas in particular, it’s always better to invest an honest effort in making a blind blend by artfully adding clumps of grass, foliage and limbs from the immediate area (leaving as little scent behind as possible, of course). Better yet, carefully carve a slot in a wall of riparian willow, the edge of a bank of high weeds or hedgerow, just big enough to stab your blind into before camouflaging with natural materials (preferably at a site where deer cannot get behind you or the wind). Black-hole shooting ports seem to spook whitetail as much as the sudden appearance of a blind, making shoot-through screens welcomed. This can present problems of its own.
Back in Oklahoma, it soon occurred to me I had but a single shooting port at my disposal. I had an entire face of shoot-through screening available, but I’d learned the hard way (on a behemoth Montana pronghorn), that the aggressive mechanical broadheads I’d been issued by a hunt sponsor presented potential disaster sent through even light screen at high speed. I’ve watched videos in which hosts claimed no ill effects from mechanicals when combined with shoot-through screens, but this hasn’t been my experience. If you want to take advantage of shoot-through screens (which I highly recommend) stick with fixed-blade, cutting-tip broadheads.
I would soon discover another issue directly relating to pop-ups, shooting at a passing coyote early on, pointing the arrow into a blind corner to draw undetected, and slouching in the creaky folding chair before leaning into my shooting port, my drawing-arm elbow pushed against the rear blind wall, my stabilizer against the front. In short, I missed miserably because my top limb smashed into a roof strut. If you’re going to bowhunt seriously from pop-ups, it’s wise to conduct some pre-season test shooting from the blind in question. It’s better to work out roof and shooting-port clearance issues at home—not in the field where real animals are involved.
It wasn’t long before I began to feel fairly claustrophobic in that Oklahoma blind, namely because deer kept sneaking up on me. I was unable to take advantage of some close-range opportunities a tree-stand would easily allowed (had there been any trees) because of the lack of shooting ports in that particular blind (a brand that no longer exists, by the way). It was deer on feed at 20 yards, though my single port, or nothing.
When my opportunity arrived—a gorgeous buck wearing two “acorn points” and antler-base sticker, surrounded by six neurotic does—I went through the complicated procedure of sliding from protesting-metal-chair, onto my knees to lower my bow’s upper limb, getting drawn without touching the noisy nylon walls, carefully balancing the pressure of drawing elbow and stabilizer into opposing walls, holding my breath and awaiting a blowup the while. Everything seems to require a painful amount of time in these instances.
I aimed intentionally low, anticipating a string jump—which is the only reason I center-punched the buck’s heart with that 2.3-inch wide mechanical when he held stock still. My hunt was over, anxieties unwarranted, my allergic aversion to pop-ups temporarily cured. And come to think of it, hunting from a ground blind wasn’t all that bad.