I love to bowhunt, which is definitely my passion over hunting with a gun. However, I love to hunt with a gun too! The tradition of opening day, the shear # of hunters that come out of the woodwork and the level of hunting excitement is hard to beat. The bow opener is cool, but often I skip the opener in favor of a better day in the forecast within a week of the day on the calendar. But during a gun season opener...I am in the woods, regardless of the weather! I also have a strategy during the opener that has allowed me to connect on over 1/2 of my personal opening days stretching back to 1993. Whether I hunt public land or private, WI, MI, OH or PA...my opening day gun season strategies have all followed the same set of tactics.
I have a love for scouting concentrations of heavy mature buck sign, for locating adjacent heavy security cover and then practicing non-invasive access tactics for my entrance and exit to a stand location. However, you may be surprised to hear just exactly what I do with that information to find consistent success: I hunt away from the heaviest concentration of sign. That's right, I find the best of sign, analyze the cover, plan my personal access and come up with an opening day strategy that often leads me away from the best of rubs and scrapes. And it works-it works very well!
Concentrations of Sign
Often the mature buck sign I find to plan a hunt around includes a concentration of old sign but not necessarily new sign. Historical sign is always more important than scouring the woods for current sign, because the history of sign shows where bucks have preferred to utilize for many years, and not just for the current year. Finding concentrations of old sign can be a great strategy during your off-season scouting hikes, while using those findings to define exactly where you hunt during the following season. When you combine evidence of historical mature buck use, together with remote quality security cover your first step is complete, whether you hunt on private or public land.
The next step is to make sure that you keep your hunting pressure to a minimum, and that means that you often have to stay well away from your monster buck honey hole. What's a safe distance to stay away? In heavy agricultural regions with small woodlots and a high level of human contact, you may be able to get away with a distance of 100 yards or more. In remote wilderness public land settings 200-300 yards or more could be the answer while hunting deer that rarely see a person, let alone a hunter. While maintaining a core area for a buck to call his own, the table is set for your to choose a stand or blind location that allows you to access to the edge of that core area, without intruding on the core area. An extreme example of this would be a 2 acre island of cover surrounded by low brush and grasses. If that island is full of obvious mature buck use year after year, than you are often better off hunting on the edge of the marsh to potentially shoot a buck as he enters or exits the island, then attempting an access into the center of the core and potentially ending your hunt before it even begins. An island in a marsh is no different than a thick cedar-filled bench surrounded by open mature hardwoods, or a small hardwood knoll in a spruce swamp. By staying away from the core and the surrounding cover, you are set for a non-invasive hunt around the edges of thick cover, while waiting for a mature buck to enter or leave his daytime bedding hotspot.
When bowhunting you may not have a choice but to enter very early into a core area and hope for the best, but during a gun season opener there is no reason to take a chance when you can easily take much longer shots. By hunting conservatively with a gun, I have found that you can not only experience a high level of definitive success, but you can hunt a particular buck's core area numerous times during the entire gun season by slowly chipping away at the outside. Often though, your hunt can end on opening day by using the surrounding hunting pressure to help you out!
You've found a core area that showcases a history of mature buck sign both old and new, and you've identified non-invasive potential access points to the exterior edges of that core area; so what do you do next? The first thing you need to ask yourself is where do your neighbors hunt, and access their stands. Whether it has been on private land or public, I've always been able to get an assist from neighboring hunters. Once you establish where your neighbors are hunting, I like to set-up on the opposite side of the core mature buck area, but the set-up doesn't end there!
After choosing a potential area to take a stand for opening day, I like to make sure that my own access goes completely around the core area, with no chance of that area being pressured by myself in anyway. You can see an example from my 1993 hunt below, where I used my neighbors core buck area on their own land, and their access, to my advantage.
Often by attempting to walk completely around a core area, you may be in for a much longer walk than if you simply walked straight to your blind location! For example in the 1993 hunt illustrated above, I would have had to completely change my game plan had their been Southeast winds, instead of Southwest winds. If I was able to hunt that portion of the land, I would have done my best to access from towards the Southwest corner of the core area by crossing the river from the South while walking North. I often see hunters (hopefully your neighbors!) who walk completely through their woods, through their core area, and then enter a blind. I have even experienced neighbor's that practice this by not only walking...but with an ATV, which is even better. Often it's not the blind that is hurting the hunt, but the access to the blind.
Scent Control For Gun Season
Once you have identified a core area and then established a safe hunting distance from that area for potential access points and blind locations, it's time to hide your scent! Effective scent control doesn't start with the latest spray, detergent, liner or scent eliminating contraption, instead it starts with proper stand placement and access. With a gun, there is rarely a time that your scent should be a factor because you really don't have to be tempted to hunt within the middle of a mature buck's bedroom. One of my favorite opening day gun season strategies is to identify blind location positions that allow my scent to blow into "non deer" areas. Open hardwoods, field edges, ponds, swamps, and significant elevation changes are all examples of habitat features that are often safe to blow your scent into while in a blind. Most of those habitat features can also be great spots to access through or along side, as well. I like to make it a practice to find my scent blocking habitat feature, and then move as close to the core mature buck area that I can get while still having a very low % of chance that deer will travel behind me, and downwind.
Gun season traditions are historic, exciting, and a great time for both family and friends to enjoy the bonds of the hunt. It seems that just about anyone, and everyone...are in the woods on opening day! I have experienced that you can use that hunting pressure to your advantage, even if you have to walk a bit extra. If you have a lack of hunting pressure in your area, you can still take advantage of a buck's movements from a distance while hunting the exterior of his core bedding cover, and not in the middle of it. Last year my 11 year old son and I took advantage of an old giant by taking a 40 minute hike through a neighboring cowpasture and through the side of a long draw to eventually crawl into a pop-up blind placed in the middle of a rock outcropping, safely above and to the side of a core buck area of several acres. We ended up being 10 minutes from where we could have parked the truck, but the short walk on the logging road through obvious mature buck sign, would have surely ruined our hunt. We connected on the 167", 5-6 year old monster as he lazily fed towards us within the hardwoods from the direction of the closer parking area, at 10 in the morning. A little extra sweat didn't hurt us either, as our scent was blowing well away from the deer movement below us.
Do your opening day gun season strategies including hunting in the core area itself, or off to the "safe side" of expected deer movement. What about your access? Do you use any habitat features to harmlessly capture your scent? And finally, where are your neighbors hunting and how do they access their land? During our last year's gun season opener, the neigbhors we were counting on for an assist were most likely over a 1/2 mile away. While they were most likely entering the mature buck's core area to hunt, the buck was pushed and worked his way towards the core area that we were watching. Does it always happen that easily? No it doesn't! However it can happen to a very consistent level by developing proven opening day gun season strategies for success!