Top 5 Bowhunting Mistakes: How to Become a Better Whitetail Bowhunter
Are your Facebook and Instagram feeds filled with monster buck after monster buck, does every pickup truck at the local gas station have a Pope & Young buck hanging off the tailgate, but no matter what, somehow you can’t quite put the pieces together to tag a big buck for yourself? Read on to see if you are making any of my Top 5 Bowhunting Mistakes and learn how to become a better whitetail bowhunter by fixing these mistakes.
Mistake #1 – No Scouting or Inadequate Scouting
It’s no accident scouting takes the number one slot on this list. Short of an outfitted hunt, scouting is the key to killing that big buck on any do-it-yourself bowhunt, period.
When I began to take bowhunting seriously, I adopted the pre-season scouting tactics contained in John Eberhart’s Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails, which is an excellent primer on the topic, especially pre-season scouting. However, over the past 11 years, I have spent countless hours in the woods at all times of the year, across all parts of the country, and refined my scouting efforts based on my own experiences. At the same time, I have also frequented Dan Infalt’s “The Hunting Beast” forum and added more tools to my scouting toolbox. Most notably, I gained a more in-depth understanding of E-Scouting and in-season scouting. I now follow a simple, 3-step process, to maximize the effectiveness of my scouting efforts. The process consists of three critical components: E-Scouting, Pre-Season Scouting, and In-Season Scouting.
How to Fix This Mistake: Implement a 3-part scouting process that consists of E-scouting, pre-season scouting, and in-season scouting.
Why E-scout at all? With practice, proper application and repetition, E-scouting is an effective method to scout large tracts of land and quickly eliminate low odds areas. This is why my process starts with E-scouting. Long before I lay a single boot track down on a new property, I invest a substantial amount of time dissecting a property via e-scouting. Identifying high odds areas in advance of my “boots on the ground” scouting saves my time and my legs.
My approach to E-scouting has evolved considerably over the past 11 years, and I have a very detailed blog post on what I now look for when E-scouting a new property. My goal for e-scouting is to use a variety of resources (aerial maps, topo maps, forestry reports, harvest data, trophy registries, etc.) to focus on the highest odds location(s) found on each property that I intend to scout. It is important to remember that E-scouting is a learned skill and a process of continuous improvement. One of my favorite exercises to increase the effectiveness of my E-scouting is to revisit the assumptions I made while E-scouting and compare them to my actual observations during my “boots on the ground” scouting. Inevitably, patterns will emerge that will result in a higher degree of accuracy in my future E-scouting efforts.
E-scouting is invaluable. However, E-scouting alone generally does not provide enough information to ensure consistent success. Relying on E-scouting alone is a trap many novice map readers and time crunched hunters fall into. One of the greatest benefits of E-scouting, in my opinion, is how much more efficiently I can scout a property once I put “boots on the ground.”
How to Fix This Mistake: Devote 20% of your total available scouting time to E-scouting.
Pre-Season Scouting – “Boots on the Ground”
I know a lot of deer hunters spanning the entire spectrum of the deer hunting skill continuum, from first time hunters to grizzled public land veterans who put down giants every year. One factor consistently holding hunters back from achieving consistent success is a complete lack of or inadequate pre-season scouting.
What are the advantages of pre-season scouting? The pre-season is the perfect time to dive deep into new properties and scour every inch of them. Across much of the whitetail’s range, February through the end of April provide hunters with an excellent opportunity to analyze the previous Fall’s deer sign. Rut sign is still relatively fresh, and a lack of new vegetation growth makes last year’s sign easier to find and interpret. Additionally, pre-season scouting is the perfect time to fine tune treestand setups by picking out and trimming (if allowed) the ideal tree. In my opinion, this time of year is where the majority of scouting time should be spent.
Another advantage of pre-season scouting is the opportunity to find a few shed antlers. Check out this post for my favorite shed hunting tips.
Unquestionably, the biggest advantage to pre-season scouting is the ability to discover and thoroughly investigate bedding areas. Bedding areas are the secret sauce of consistent success. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet when it comes to pinpointing a great bedding area. However, great bedding areas will generally share some of these key attributes.
- Lack of human pressure
- Adequate security cover (e.g. thickets, areas surrounded by water, isolated points in hill country)
- An obstacle—generally on the upwind side of the bed (e.g. downed tree, rock outcropping, mountain laurel, green briar, etc.)
- Shade—I think this feature is often overlooked
However, be cautious! Pre-season scouting can be deceptive. Whitetail bucks in February through May are a very different animal than they are in September, October, November, or even most of December. To become a consistent killer, it’s important to understand the seasonal changes that occur in whitetail behavior. For example, from September through mid-October, the average whitetail buck has a home range of around 640 acres (Check out Podcast Episode #2 with early season specialist Jordan Kurkowski for some killer early season tactics). From mid-October through the end of November, the same buck’s home range will expand to approximately 3,000 acres. If you find a cluster of giant rubs, realize that buck may spend the majority of the year in a relatively small area, possibly several miles away. Use all of the available sign to piece together the habits and haunts of a target buck, rather than putting all of your eggs in the “big sign” basket. For a deeper dive into seasonal changes in whitetail behavior, check out Podcast Episode #5 with Penn State University Biologist, Duane Diefenbach.
How to Fix This Mistake: Devote 60% of your total available scouting time to pre-season scouting.
In my opinion, in-season scouting is one of the most misunderstood concepts when it comes to deer hunting. Many hunters fail to scout in-season for a number of reasons. First, many of us have limited time afield, so why scout when that precious time could be spent in a treestand? Second, why risk blowing a buck out of an area by venturing too close during a scouting session? Finally, I believe television shows and celebrity whitetail personalities with managed lands have promoted the idea of a sanctuary—an area of a property that is off limits to human intrusion 24/7/365 —which results in many hunters imitating this approach and never accessing the best areas of a property during the season.
In recent years, in-season scouting has become the bread and butter of my scouting efforts, and I firmly believe it should be the main focus of every bowhunter aspiring to greater and more consistent success. The key to effective in-season scouting is two-fold. First, like many other pursuits in life, in-season scouting requires practice, practice, and more practice. Second, in-season scouting requires a tolerance for failure. Inevitably, an aggressive scouting session will result in bumping a target buck or two. However, the time invested and knowledge gained will pay off by shortening the learning curve. In fact, bumping a buck can pay off immediately by executing the “bump and dump” strategy, popularized by Andrae D’Acquisto. It’s hard for me to think of more valuable knowledge than seeing a target buck in a given area, during hunting season in daylight hours.
During the hunting season, my binos and spotting scope are a constant companion. Glassing and shining (where allowed) can be killer in-season scouting tactics to gain intel on reclusive bucks without scenting up a hunting area. It’s best to employ glassing and shining during early season and late season, when bucks tend to have more predictable bedding and feed areas—relative to the unpredictable rut. It might seem counterproductive to spend an evening or two sitting in a vehicle trying to locate a target buck, but this can be the most valuable form of scouting. However, it’s absolutely critical to maximize the value of these long-distance scouting sessions by taking note of the details. It’s not enough to simply observe a target buck. Be sure to ask yourself the important questions: where did the buck enter the field, what was the wind direction, the temperature, the food source? Relate these observations back to bedding areas discovered during spring scouting sessions for a winning formula.
How to Fix This Mistake: Devote 20% of your total available scouting time to in-season scouting.
Scouting for Hunter Pressure
During my pre-season and in-season scouting, I am constantly on the lookout for signs of hunter pressure. Scouting for hunter pressure is very similar to scouting for deer. The key is to slow down, note the details, and adjust accordingly. I like to look for obvious signs of other hunters: vehicles in parking lots, boot tracks, permanent tree stands, bait piles, cut trees or branches, climbing treestand teeth marks on tree trunks, flagging tape, trail cameras, well-worn foot paths, etc.
How to Fix This Mistake: Keep an eye out for areas with abundant hunter sign. Adapt to the pressure; the deer certainly will! I try and counter hunter pressure by looking for unconventional access routes or capitalizing on faint deer trails skirting areas that have received obvious hunter pressure.
Mistake #2 – Being too Conservative
Apart from inadequate scouting, being too conservative is the second mistake holding a lot of hunters back from being successful. There is an overwhelming tendency in hunters to “play it safe.” It’s the same tendency that prevents many hunters from effectively employing in-season scouting. Hunters too often stop well short of big buck lairs or fail to properly execute in-season scouting for fear of bumping a buck out of an area for good. When bowhunting, the result of a conservative approach is almost always frustration and a lack of target buck sightings.
Being too conservative is certainly a mistake, but being recklessly aggressive is equally disastrous. I prefer to describe the ideal approach as “calculated aggression.” A popular, but often misunderstood, tactic that exemplifies calculated aggression hunting is the “bump and dump,” popularized by Andrae D’Acquisto.
Executing a “Bump and Dump”
One of the most difficult things to do on a DIY hunt, especially in a new area, is pinpoint exactly where a target buck is bedding. Cyber scouting can be beneficial, but nothing beats in-season scouting. When I go to a completely new hunting area, I almost always spend the entire first day scouting with my bow in hand.
Brief caveat: NEVER scout without your bow. You will regret it sooner or later!
I prefer to walk into the wind and move from suspected bedding area, to suspected bedding area at an average walking speed of around 1 mph. It’s important to move slowly. My goal, when I get anywhere near a suspected bedding area (based on E-scouting) is to move at a pace somewhere between still hunting and a slow walk. I want to bust deer out of bedding areas, but my ultimate goal is to get eyes on them and see if a target animal is bedding in that area. Ideally, the buck believes they escaped before being in too much danger (as opposed busting them at super close ranges after a stealthy approach).
Once I bust a buck worth targeting, I quickly note all of the important details (wind direction, bed location, access route, ideal kill tree and stand height, etc.) for my treestand setup. I will then get back into the same area (within 100 yards) I jumped the buck, and I get back in there immediately. I adjust my setup location and access to account for any changes in the wind direction between bumping the deer and the next hunt, which ideally occurs that evening or the following morning. Bucks find these areas for a reason, and they rarely abandon them completely after a single intrusion.
Check out this blog post for a successful bump and dump I pulled off on my 2020 Montana whitetail (pictured above).
How to Fix This Mistake: Trust the intel you have gathered, and make an aggressive move when the weather conditions and seasonal behavior patterns dictate.
Mistake #3 – Abandoning a Hot Area too Early
The recent increase in the popularity of mobile hunting has introduced an entire generation to a new set of bowhunting tactics. One of the key tenets of mobile hunting is built right into the name—staying mobile.
However, one of the single biggest mistakes I see new mobile bowhunters making is moving on from an area that is producing for the sake of “staying mobile.”
Mobile hunting is an extremely effective hunting strategy—when applied correctly. By hunting a new area often, even daily, hunters reduce time wasted in unproductive areas. However, the opposite occurs when a hunter finds a productive area (for example, observing a target animal), but then moves on to a new area during the next hunt for the sake of “being mobile.” Don’t move on too quickly! Assuming you haven’t been winded, it is much more productive to hunt the same area (we will call an “area” 10 acres, for the sake of discussion) then it is to move to a completely new property.
Hunting a productive area (not necessarily the same tree) for a second, third or even fourth sit increases the odds of killing the observed buck tremendously! Remember, outside of the rut, bucks have a relatively small core area within their home range, and it generally takes repeated pressure to alter their patterns or have them completely relocate. However, we must keep in mind that every area will burn out eventually, typically after two to four hunts. When that happens, pack up the stand or saddle and jump back on the mobile merry-go-round.
How to Fix This Mistake: Throw a second, third, or even fourth sit at an area, not necessarily in the same exact tree. Adjust access and stand site locations to account for any change in winds and account for the most recent intel available to maximize the effectiveness of follow-up sits in productive areas.
Mistake #4 – “Knowing” What You Don’t Know
Time and time again, I see examples of or hear stories of hunters making overly optimistic assumptions based on extremely limited actionable information. What do I mean? Everyone has had a hunting buddy convinced he is about to kill the next state record hunting over the 10” cedar tree with the completely shredded trunk or the scrape the size of a car hood.
If a guy finds one monster rub in the middle of a hardwoods, it doesn’t tell him a whole lot other than some deer made an impressive rub there at some time in the past. It can’t tell the hunter if the rub was made during the day or at night, how far away the deer is likely bedded, if it is a resident deer or a stranger on the fringe of his home range during the rut. A rub on public land also can’t tell the hunter how many other hunters have found the exact same sign, and have the exact same idea of catching the big buck coming past the exact same 10” shredded cedar. The same is true for a scrape, although primary scrapes often see multiple return visits, and can be monitored with careful trail camera placement. Yet, time and time again, guys throw all of their eggs in the “big sign” basket. Dan Infalt has stated repeatedly, if big bucks walked past big sign during daylight, every average deer hunter would have a wall full of big bucks. The fact is, deer make most “rut sign” (rubs and scrapes) under the cover of darkness.
The key to increasing the odds of being successful is assembling an entire story of a target buck’s movement by reading all available sign, rather than drawing inaccurate conclusions from limited and incomplete information.
How to Fix This Mistake: Don’t get married to one piece of sign, one stand location, or one small property. Keep an open mind and look at the bigger picture, taking into account all of the sign in the larger area. Have a plan B and C; your target buck certainly does.
Mistake #5 – Attitude, Attitude, Attitude
Last on the list, but certainly of equal importance is attitude. DIY bowhunting for big bucks is no easy endeavor. There will be countless failures every season, and even the saltiest veterans can begin to question their chosen hunting areas and tactics when the winds of fortune fail to blow. This is where a lot of DIY hunters commit a cardinal sin—they give up. A positive attitude is imperative to consistent, long-term success.
It’s difficult to be confident the first few seasons, with a small knowledge and experience base. However, confidence is a key to killing big bucks. So how does one go about gaining confidence and maintaining a positive attitude? For me personally, it comes back to number one on this list: scouting. The more time I spend E-scouting, pre-season scouting, and in-season scouting, the more confidence I have in every area I have scouted, and hunting location I have chosen.
How to Fix This Mistake: Keep in mind the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” Every DIY hunter with a wall full of big bucks started at zero, and through great, effort, pain, and difficulty add one buck at a time to their accomplishments.
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
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