What Went Wrong?
by Patrick Meitin
Each fall whitetail hunters everywhere play out familiar scripts: investing long hours scouting, checking trail cameras every spare moment, tuning and shooting bows endlessly, hanging stands and developing fail-proof plans sure to finally bring trophy success. But then the season comes to a screeching halt with nothing to show for your efforts and you wonder what went wrong. To follow are some of the more common reasons for whitetail failure, and what you can do to make next season different.
Investing in the long hours necessary to earn a season-making shot, only to blow it, is devastating but all too common. There’s no reason why this should be the case. Shots at whitetail are typically easy enough, at least in terms of sheer range. It’s the rare shot taken at whitetail beyond 30 yards – ranges most of us easily master during backyard shooting sessions.
The problem isn’t lack of practice – typically – but how we practice. The stand-bound whitetail hunter has three major obstacles to overcome; shooting from unrehearsed and especially elevated positions, shooting while wearing layers of insulating duds (and the cold occasioning such attire), and performing for the surprise shot after hours of inactivity. Mastering the first two stumbling blocks is simply a matter of thorough familiarization. Don’t just stand flat footed in your backyard while shooting. This isn’t how whitetails are shot. Set up a stand in a patch of woods, or climb onto the roof of your house, and actually practice shooting from on high.
Too, practice those twisted, contorted shooting positions sure to arise in real-world scenarios. Practicing for accuracy after hours of inactivity is more difficult, other than honing shooting form to the point that each shot, whether you’ve warmed up or not, comes off as smoothly as possibly. Another smart investment is running through dress rehearsals prior to hunting seasons, climbing into all the camouflaged clothing and gear you’ll be wearing on stand this fall, including constricting insulated layers, safety harness, binoculars and so forth. This is the only way to ferret out potential problems, and become completely comfortable while operating in true hunt mode.
The point is not only to practice, but to practice smart. Strive for realism, strive for better-tuned equipment and correct shooting form. Learn to bend at the waist, maintaining correct T-form, when shooting at targets well below you, instead of simply dropping your bow arm to alter shooting form. Become well versed in the compensation required of the same shots (downhill shots normally fly high). Assure yourself clothing or special stand equipment won’t interfere with the shot now; not when a monster buck appears in range. Teach yourself, most of all, to automatically pick a small aiming spot before each shot — not to shoot at the entire animal.
Spooking close-range deer due to poor shot timing, a squeaking stand or rustling clothing are all too common in whitetail hunting, as the ranges are typically intimate and the average whitetail absolutely neurotic. The smart – and regularly successful – whitetail hunter takes precautions to assure the game isn’t blown before it even begins.
Shot timing’s a complicated subject, hinging largely on the disposition of particular animals, or the population as a whole under the conditions they live. Hunting pressure and natural predators, or lack of, can make whitetail relatively calm (though never pushovers) or as jumpy as a Belfast parking valet. You know your deer better than me, but picking the right time to shoot is always important. Ideally a deer stops with its head behind a screening bush or tree trunk, its vitals otherwise exposed for the shot, allowing you to draw undetected. A moving deer presents the option of coming to full draw as the animal moves behind cover, stopping them with a soft mouth bleat as they emerge once more. Animals with attention directed somewhere else — rutting bucks with their nose in a doe’s rear, a deer with head in cover feeding, one focused on deer moving in from another direction — are also easier to draw on undetected.
When that time comes you should be able to place sights on vitals before bring the string straight back, slowly and smoothly. If you can’t – especially with cold muscles – you’re shooting too much draw weight. Back off poundage until you can accomplish this maneuver without extra gyrations or lifting the bow arm off target. With today’s high-performance compounds and slim carbon arrows you don’t need as much draw weight as you think. Even 45 to 50 pounds is plenty for whitetail.
And for gosh sake take precautions to silence stands and wear only ultra-stealthy bowhunting duds that won’t create rustles or whooshes while moving. Apply scent-less lubricants to all stand contact points to avoid game-spooking noise. Choose quiet fleece, or natural wool (the quietest material available), for your whitetail pursuits; avoiding “softshell” materials, nylons or membrane-backed garments that create noise, especially when cold. Pad bow risers and rest arms, assuring no arrow clicks or squeaks.
Tired Lands & Stands
Bowhunters can be a stubborn lot, good in way of required persistence, but bad if you’re hunting tired properties or specific stands to the point of diminishing returns. “Old Killing Tree” may have produced before, but if it’s been a few years since you’ve experienced any luck there, maybe something’s changed to make it less than ideal.
The savvy whitetail hunter’s never quite satisfied he’s in the best area or tree, continually seeking new hotspots (even if bowhunting public lands) and fresh stand sites. I never quit scouting, even when I’ve a couple sure-fire sites pinned down, scouting nearly year round in search of that magnetic spot. I even take an occasional day out in the heat of rut, seeking fresh rubs and scrapes indicating current activity, continuing well after season close, when snow makes scouting more productive and there’s no fear of spooking deer to be hunted right away. Treat whitetail hunting as a year-round sport and you’re sure to come out on top next season.