I Shot a Deer: Now What? On the Trail

After sitting in the cold for hours, you finally get to draw back your bow.  You stare through your peep sight and down the sight, focusing your sight pin on a single hair on the deer’s body.  You ignore the coat rack on top of his head, and you take a deep breath while gently squeezing your release, sending the arrow hurling towards your target.  Schwack, thump, your arrow has hit its mark.

Carefully watch the deer as it runs off into the distance.  If you are hunting over an open field or some other type of open terrain, follow him with your binoculars for as long as you can.  Listen to hear any sounds of breaking sticks or wrestling of leaves: anything that might sound like a crashing animal that might give you a clue later to his final resting place. 

Your heart is racing and your blood is pumping through your body like never before.  You are beginning to uncontrollably shake a little as your body gets a full shot of adrenaline.  Despite the freezing temperature outside, your body is now warm from the excitement of the shot.   Quietly, you cheer and pump your fist to celebrate from your perch.  Your body is experiencing a natural high from all the excitement. You check your watch, note the time, and wait to climb out of your stand, for if you don’t and the deer is still nearby, you will spook him.

Finally, after a 30 minute wait, which seemed like an eternity, you can climb down out of the tree and the process of blood trailing begins.  That ever-slow process by which you’re carefully following every single drop of blood on the ground, leaves, trees, rocks, and anything else it ends up on, until it leads you to the animal that you just shot.  Once on the ground, make sure that you nock another arrow; you just never know when you might need to shoot again. 

If it’s raining, snowing, or precipitating in any way, you should climb down immediately, as the rain and the snow make it difficult to find the blood, for it gets washed away fairly quickly. 

Before you take a single step down the trail, you need to determine where you shot the deer on its body.  The first clue of where a deer was hit, is its initial reaction to the arrow.  If the deer was shot through the heart and lungs, its back legs will typically buck up in the air, much like a bull does when it leaves the chute at a rodeo.  If the deer gets shot in the stomach area, it will run away hunched over.  A deer that gets shot in the spine will drop immediately to the ground and will require a second shot to kill it.

If you are not sure of where you shot the deer, a second indicator of where a deer was hit begins with an arrow examination.  If the arrow has little-to-no blood on only one side of the shaft and one or two fletching’s, or has meat or hair on it, it is likely a meat hit.  If there is no blood, you probably shot the deer in “no man’s land” and the deer will likely heal and live.  Any vital cavity hit will completely cover the arrow in blood.  An arrow covered with bright, red, frothy blood that bubbles signifies a lung hit.  Dark red blood is from the liver or stomach area and will stink.  A leg hit produces thin watery blood.

You are going to have to wait longer to track a liver or stomach-hit deer.  Patiently wait three to four hours before following the deer.  If an animal was shot in the gut, wait at least 12 hours.  This will give the animal the chance to bed several times and die.  It is typically more profitable to wait too long to track, rather than not long enough.

Once the blood trail has been located, do not leave it to randomly search the woods.  Always stick with the blood trail moving cautiously and slowly.  You never want to jump an injured deer, as they can run a long way on adrenaline.  Constantly scan your periphery for the deer.  I have had a lot of deer run a curl pattern on me. 

Attempting to find deer in dense terrain is nearly impossible without a blood trail.  Even if you think you know where the deer went down, just stay on the trail.  As you follow your trail, it is often helpful to use neon colored survey tape to make the blood trail.  This will give a reference point to look back to if you lose the trail at any point.  As you are trailing the deer, stop every ten yards and use your binoculars to look ahead.  When looking out ahead of a blood trail, look at the tree stumps, compost piles, hay bales, and such, as deer will often curl up next to these items.  I have even had one crawl into a thicket and die there. Patience is your best friend when you are trailing deer. 

You do not want to spook the deer if he has not died yet.  If you go more than 150 yards and do not find him, stop, back out, and wait four more hours.  Deer will head to water when they are injured.  If you shoot a deer near a creek or a river, expect the deer to head in that direction. 

Blood trailing is best done with the help of only one other person.  Any more than that will make too much noise and could spook the deer.  If it is dark, make sure you have a high-quality blood trailing flashlight.  You should only ever add additional people after several hours of searching and when you are going to do a grid search. 

Sometimes, you may even be down crawling on your hands and knees.  It is when you find your dead animal that you can truly appreciate the power and magnitude of the weapon that you hold in your hand.  It is also the moment you realize how majestic the animal is that is laying front of you.  It will definitely cause you to pause for moment and thank the Lord above. 

Aiming Points – Dead Down Wind

Nothing bothers me more in hunting than failing to find an animal that I shot.  Knowing well ahead of time what represents a good first shot will make you a more aggressive and successful deer hunter.  Knowing when not to shoot will make you a more ethical deer hunter.  Too many people get caught up in the moment and lose focus, and thus lose their best opportunity to shoot. 

While many people go with the “if it’s brown, it’s down” philosophy, others take a more mature attitude when hunting.  This is evident in the size and age of deer they shoot.  It is important that you evaluate every situation and be able to differentiate between a good shot and a bad shot.  Making the right shot takes time and practice in the field and on the range.

If you are hunting with a gun, a head-on shot is an option.  This should never be done with a bow.  This shot presents gun hunters with three vital targets.  A shot in the chest will hit the heart or lungs.  A bullet in the neck will usually break the neck or cause enough shock to drop the animal instantly. It could also destroy the esophagus and/or carotid artery or jugular vein.

For a bow hunter, the best shot is when a deer or any other animal is standing broadside to you.  With this shot, the archer has the ability to easily pass the arrow through both lungs and the heart.  This will allow for the quickest and most ethical kill.  Look for a spot one third to one half up the deer, and about a hand’s width behind the shoulder.  That is your aiming point.  You should avoid hitting the shoulder blade, as this will cause your arrow to deflect away from its intended target.

For archers, the quartering-away shot offers a chance for success in the field.  Even if the arrow hits a bit too far back, it can angle the arrow forward into the chest cavity for a quick kill.  When taking this shot, the point of aim should be through the deer to the opposite shoulder.

When an animal is quartering towards the hunter, the shot should not be taken.  It is possible for a properly placed arrow to hit the vitals and make for a clean kill.  However, often times when bow hunters take this shot, they miss the lungs and hit the stomach and intestines.  This will ruin most, if not all, of the meat on the deer.  It is better to simply wait for a better shot to present itself.   

Making a clean and quick kill should be the goal every hunter.  Thinking each shot through will help you become a better and more ethical hunter.  Remember the list of facts below to help you become a better hunter in the field.

When shooting at deer with bow and arrow, aim for the heart regions.  If the deer “jumps the string” by dropping sharply before bounding away, the arrow will still hit the lungs.

The average Whitetail deer, weighing about 150 pounds, carries about eight pounds of blood in its circulatory system.  Massive hemorrhage is necessary to bring the deer down quickly.

A deer must lose at least 35 percent of its blood.  The better the hit, the quicker the loss.  Deer blood carries high levels of vitamin K in early autumn.  Vitamin K is an anti-hemorrhage agent, which greatly aids blood clotting.

Frightened Whitetails produce high levels of B-endorphin, which supports rapid wound healing.

Deer, particularly in northern areas, have thick layers of tallow along the back and below the brisket.  This can plug wounds, preventing a good blood trail.

Remember, above all else: if you have any doubts about the shot, do not shoot.  Be patient and wait for the animal to give you the opportunity to take a quality shot.

Scouting – These Are Not Your Grandparents’ Woods

Daylight was just breaking on a late-December morning.  I had been in the barn stand overlooking a small area that I had cut free of trees and was littered with old rotting logs.  I was freezing and could not wait for the warming rays of the sun to get above the horizon and begin to thaw my body.

As time passed, I sat quietly and watched the squirrels go to and fro looking for food to stuff in their thin winter cheeks.  Then, around mid-morning as I was about to climb down out of my stand, I spotted him.  I looked through my binoculars and discovered what I had been waiting for: a beautiful ten point, the one I had named “Rusty” because of his reddish brown tone.

How did I know it was Rusty?  Just by looking at his antlers.  I had seen him numerous times on the trail cameras that I had set up around my property.  Today’s trail cameras are awesome, with fast shutter speeds, infrared flashes, and animal centering technology.  You never know what you might see when you download your pictures.  Those ghostly deer images, which we used to only be able to see through a thick fog, have now given way to full-color photographs and the ability to name and monitor deer. 


I only recently began using trail cameras, and now I wonder how I ever hunted without them.  They definitely make hunting more fun.  Every time I go into an area where I have cameras set up, I can target a specific deer.  It can also give me specific information about what times certain deer visit certain areas.  Am I always successful at targeting the bucks that I see on the pictures?  No, but it does give me one more tool in my arsenal to make me a more successful hunter and put the odds in my favor. 

How do you choose the right camera for you?  The age old adage of “You get what you pay for” has never been truer than when it comes to buying a trail camera.  You should buy the best camera that you can afford to buy.  If you have to choose between buying one $200.00 camera or two $100.00 cameras, buy the one that costs more and move it around your property.  You will be much happier with the results in the end.  Build your trail camera arsenal slowly over time, and you will be thankful that you did.


One of the main features that you will have to decide between, at any price range, is whether to purchase a flash camera or a no-flash, infrared camera.  The infrared cameras are becoming more popular with hunters these days; however, I prefer the flash style because of their ability to take color photos at night.  Some hunters want to argue that the flash scares the deer, but I have plenty of photos that show otherwise.  Others features on digital cameras include being able to erase unwanted pictures, downloading the photos onto your computer, and putting the photos in different files for viewing and management purposes.

Common sense in using trail cameras is useful and smart.  I know it sounds stupid to say, but if you photograph a big buck in a certain area, odds are he will be harvested within a half mile of that area.  I have learned that if you stick to an area where a certain buck was photographed, your chances of harvesting him will go up.

If I know about a certain buck from earlier photos, I’ll try to locate him in the fall by placing cameras in areas where I think he will be.  I begin the process of trying to locate a summer monster in late September, and use cameras throughout the hunting season. If you set up a camera on a scrape area, the number of pictures you get will often be low, but most of them will be bucks.

I’ve gotten pictures of as many as eight bucks on one scrape in one night. A key behavior pattern I’ve learned through the use of trail cameras is that older bucks don’t always visit the same scrapes every night.  Instead, most mature bucks I’ve photographed seem to be on a three- to six-day rotation.  That means if a buck was in an area, he will be back. This knowledge keeps me in the woods longer, and ultimately increases my hunting success.

After the season is over, it’s time to find a mature buck for next season.  Using trail cameras for this endeavor is much more than a hobby for me.  I enjoy it as much as I do actually hunting, if not more.  The first thing you want to do is make sure you know how your camera operates before placing it in the woods.  Most cameras will trigger themselves when facing direct sunlight, and you don’t want moving limbs, sticks or weeds in front of your camera lens.

Where is the best place to put a post-season camera?  Food sources or feeders (if you use feeders) are always excellent locations in which to get multiple pictures of different animals.  If you do set up over a feeder, be sure to set your camera’s timer to take pictures at 15- to 20-minute intervals because the animals are usually there for a while and you don’t want to end up with 10 pictures of the same deer.

Older aged bucks usually won’t come to new feeders.  However, if you put some feed on the edge of a food plot or trail, they’ll often come to this feed without hesitation.  Doing this may get you a picture of an old buck that no one has ever seen before.

As mentioned, I like to use my cameras year-round.  This enables me to monitor such important things as when bucks are shedding their antlers, when fawns are being dropped, when new antler growth starts (allowing me to watch the progress of that growth), when the bucks start getting back into their bachelor groups, and when they start shedding their velvet.  Perhaps, most importantly, my cameras help me pinpoint areas where the bigger bucks are hanging out before anyone else knows this information.  This is also a great way to get younger kids involved in hunting.  My two year old daughter loves to fill feeders and check the cameras.  It is one of the things that we can do together before she learns to hunt.

Trails are good bets for locations likely to provide a variety of deer photos, but unless you have a quick-reaction camera, you will miss a lot of pictures.  For a trail setup, place the camera facing up or down the trail so the deer will be in the trigger area longer. With the aid of my trail cameras photos, I try to keep an annual log of how many different deer I know about in certain areas and what their ages are.  It is important to keep track of your does as well as your bucks.  If you do not have a good number of does, bucks will not frequent your area as often.  Also, if you have too many does, you will need to do some population control hunting. 

The cameras also allow you to determine which bucks made it through the season, so that in January or February I can start planning to fatten them up for the next season.

Here Deer, Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are – Calling and Decoying Tips for Bringing Them in Closer

Okay, so you bought a call, now what?  You have two choices: use it or lose it.  If you bought a call, the only way you are going to know how effective it truly can be is if you learn how to use it and learn from your mistakes when you use it.  Everyone hits a bad note now and then and scares off a deer.  That is just part of the learning curve.  You will learn more from your failures than you will from your successes.  It is just like anything else: the more you use it, the more proficient you will become at it.  Get yourself a quality CD or DVD and listen and learn how to reproduce the sounds that deer make from the professionals. 

Some calls are so simple, like a can call, and all you have to do is turn them over and they produce a perfect doe bleat.  Unlike waterfowl calls, deer calls are extremely affordable and very user-friendly.  Most cost fewer than $25.00, and are found at sporting goods stores everywhere.  Rattling bags and rattling horns are designed to imitate the sounds of two bucks sparring in the woods.  Whether you choose a can call, a mouth call, or rattling antlers, if you are not going to use them, then just leave them in the truck.  They will just get in the way. 

There are four basic sounds that every hunter should know how to make.  A doe bleat, a snort/wheeze, a grunt, and a growl.  By mastering these four sounds, you will become a much more effective hunter in the woods.  Each of these calls has a time and purpose.  A bleat is the sound a doe makes throughout the year, but in particular during the rut.  The wheeze is a defensive sound that is supposed to intimidate other animals.  The grunt is the basic “what’s up?” sound in the deer world.  It is a greeting call.  Finally, the growl is a sound of dominance that bucks make during the rut to get the attention of a hot doe. 

When to call is a question that is up for debate.  For me, I like to wake them up early, right before dawn, with some soft grunts and soft bleats.  This can often get older bucks up and moving, especially during the rut.  They can interpret this sound as a young buck trying to move in on his hot does.  Remember: these are soft, tender grunts. 

When using your deer call, do not use your call more than once every 15 minutes, and preferably no more than once every 30 minutes, to maximize your opportunities.  You want to give the deer the opportunity to respond to your call.  If you see a buck and he does not respond to your call, stop calling; he might not be interested in what you have to say.  If you do not stop calling, you might very well educate him to your sounds.

When calling, you always want to have an arrow nocked up and your release ready to go. You never know when a big buck is going to hear your call and come charging in your direction. This is especially true when you are using a rattling bag or antlers.  They interpret these sounds as a threat to their personal space.

A highly effective sound that can be used in conjunction with rattling is the snort/wheeze.  This is a very aggressive sound, and it will often put a rutting buck into full fight mode. 

Another effective tool that can help you bring that bruiser buck into bow range is a decoy.  Where and how you place your deer decoy may determine how successful you are, and which sex and size deer respond to the decoy.  For your own safety, when using a decoy, wrap the decoy in blaze orange when you are carrying it in and out of the woods.  Also, disassemble the decoy as much as possible when carrying it.  Many of today’s decoys have legs and a head that can fit in the belly of the decoy.  Failure to disassemble could result in someone shooting you as you are carrying your decoy. 

After you have set up your decoy, make sure that you spray the decoy completely with a cover scent.  You need to avoid getting any human or unnatural scent on the decoy.   Remember a deer’s nose if far more powerful than ours.  It is helpful to wear gloves when carrying and positioning the decoy to eliminate human scent.  It is important to place your decoy in a high-use area where you have previously seen deer, such as feeding, bedding, and trail areas.  Your decoy set-up should match the terrain that it is in.  For example, you do not want to put a bedding decoy in the middle of a soybean field.

You should place your decoys on the upwind from where you expect the deer to appear, as bucks like to approach other deer from downwind side of cover if they can.  It allows them to feel more secure in their approach.  You should place a doe decoy with its tail side toward you. Bucks often approach does from the rear or side, and this will present you with a quartering away shot.  When using a buck decoy, position it with its head toward you.  Bucks generally approach another buck cautiously from the front.

You should never place the decoy in a direct line between you and where you expect the deer to come from, as the deer may see you.  Instead, place the decoy off to one side of your stand to distract the deer’s attention from your position.  To help get the buck’s attention on the decoy, tape a small piece of white plastic or white feather to the tail area.  You can also tape feathers to the ear area, as well.  They will blow in the wind and give the appearance that the decoy is moving.  To keep the buck’s attention focused on the decoy, place a few drops of deer urine on it, doe in estrous for doe decoys, buck in rut for buck decoys.  More sure that you use the correct scents with your decoys, otherwise the deer will know that something is wrong.  Use buck or doe scents, and calling or rattling to create the illusion of another deer in the area, and to initially attract bucks to the decoy.

Will decoys and calls work every time you use them? No.  Nothing is effective every time.  However, if they help you kill that once-in-a-lifetime buck, they are worth every penny you spent, and all the time you put in to learning how to properly use them. 

An Exercise in Patience and Fitness A Hunt for a Dall Ram

Like many hunting stories, this one started last year with a phone call from a stranger who is now a good friend.  Outfitter Forest Smith of Southern Gold Mine Outfitters called to inform me I had drawn one of the most coveted tags Alaska has to offer: Dall sheep, unit 14C, archery only.

Forest’s call was quite a shock, as I had no hopes of actually winning this bow hunting lottery.  I had been applying for this tag for the last ten years and had never been chosen.  After a lengthy conversation with Forest, I immediately called a few of my friends who frequently hunted in Alaska and listened to their praise for him.  He was a legend.  Soon, I called Forest back and said, “Forest, it’s Steve, and I will be seeing you in October.”  The hunt was now booked, and it was up to me to turn up the dial on my workout meter!  I needed to lose 50 pounds if I was going to be able to do this hunt.  My weight has been a constant battle I have fought since my mid-twenties.  Hunting has served as a great motivator to get in shape and loose unwanted weight each summer. 

After five months of training, my mind and body were ready.  The only problem would be leaving my daughters for such a long time.  I would be gone for at least two full weeks, and possibly a third. The thought was weighing heavily on my mind, but I also knew if Campbell was 25 instead of 4, she would be stoked for me to go on the hunt of my lifetime.  In fact I am positive she would be trying to go with me.  So, I set my sights on this hunt, made the plan, and visualized success!

September 30th had finally arrived, and it was time for my epic adventure to begin.  I had been waiting for this day for over twenty years.  This was one of the hunts I dreamt about when I was kid.  Like all hunting trips, this one began by getting all of my stuff through the airlines and to my final destination.  That, in and of itself, can be a nightmare.  Fortunately for me, this time everything arrived with me.  Luckily, I found a direct flight from D.C. to Anchorage.  With a direct flight, I knew I was more likely to land with all of my belongings than if I had taken a cheaper two stop flight. 

After landing in Anchorage, I collected my gear and made my way to the hotel for a good night of rest and reorganization.  All I could think about was if I was really ready for this.  I wondered whether I had trained enough, whether my job would be okay without me, and most importantly, whether my girls would be okay.  I had my cell phone and a newly purchased satellite phone so I would always be able to communicate with them.  For anyone who plans to go on any hunt where cell phone service is nonexistent, or sketchy at best, a satellite phone is well worth the investment.  It not only becomes a piece of comfort equipment like a good sleeping bag, it becomes a piece of survival equipment like a first aid kit.  I really had to make an effort to not let my mind run away with the low percentage “what if’s” and “maybes” that were tormenting me.  I just kept thinking about the Zen master Phil Jackson and his book along with its great lessons.  The practice of positive visualization came into play, and it slowly began to lead me in a positive mental direction.  I couldn’t wait for this hunt to begin.

An Alaskan Dall sheep hunt requires extreme physical and mental fitness on the part of the hunter and the guide.  After a full-day hike into base camp, hunters can expect to spend their days climbing and descending several thousand feet at a time as they attempt to glass for trophy rams.  Again, I said to glass for them, there is no guarantee you are even going to see one.

The next morning, I re-packed my backpack, got my personal bag together, and made positively sure my bow was ready.  I spent an hour shooting in the parking lot out to distances of 60-80 yards.  At 7:30, Shane Reynolds, one of my guides, showed up at the hotel to pick me up, and we were off to meet Forest at a small airport about an hour away and then would head out to our spike camp.  Forest’s wife, Linda, and their two kids were there to give their daddy a proper send off before he headed off, once again, into the Alaskan bush.

Forest talked to Shane the entire drive up to the trail head in the famous Chugach Mountains.  Almost all of unit 14C is located within Chugach State Park, which covers 495,000 acres in Southeast Alaska.  Fortunately, it was an area Forest and Shane knew well.  They discussed certain land features and past hunts they had worked on together and a part, and described where particular bands of sheep possibly were, and how we would go after them, how we would make our approach, and how to maximize a shot opportunity.  That’s all you get there, is just one shot.  I paid close attention trying to familiarize myself to the features they discussed.

Accommodations on an Alaskan Dall Sheep Hunt aren’t fancy; but after climbing mountains all day in search of a trophy ram, extreme comfort isn’t usually required to fall asleep.  Our camp consisted of tents with sleeping bags and portable stoves for cooking.  Prepared, freeze-dried meals in a bag would be plentiful.  I felt like I was like a kid on his first dove hunt; I was beyond excited to be one of the very few who had been granted permission to hunt these awesome animals with bow and arrow!  Adrenaline was starting to build.  When we arrived at the trail head after what seemed like an eternity, we immediately started to prepare the final preparations for the nine hour hike into the Alaskan wilderness. 

It was about 10:00 am, and we were on the trail with our heavy packs.  In my mind, I knew I was ready because I had trained exactly for this!  Training is a must for this type of hunt.  I had spent the spring and summer training with an eighty pound pack on my back five to six days a week.  My motto was “train harder than you will hunt,” and now it was about to start paying off.

After two hours, we stopped for a quick lunch break.  I asked Shane how much farther it would be to our camp.  “Oh, about 12 more miles should get us to the general area where we’ll start looking for sheep,” he said matter-of-factly.  Believe me when I say, I thought he was pulling my leg…he wasn’t!  Seven hours later, we stopped to set up camp, but only because it was about to get dark.  We were still about two miles from where base camp would be located.

The next morning was cold, and Shane had the camp stove fired up and hot coffee was soon to follow.  The mountains that surrounded us were quiet, yet screamed with adventure.  After a quick breakfast, we hastily packed up camp and headed up the moose trail towards what I will call “Emotion Mountain.”  After about 15 minutes, Forest pointed out a healthy grizzly on the mountainside.  You could tell these two spent many months each year hunting wild game in the Alaskan bush.

Only in their early 30’s, Forest and Shane are well- seasoned guides, and they really know how to have a good time and make hunts fun; that is if Dall sheep hunting can really ever be described as fun.  It can be the most rewarding hunting experience of your life, but fun?  Ask an experienced sheep hunter that question, and I’m sure you’ll get a surprising answer.

Later that afternoon, Forest spotted a band of sheep with a pretty good ram in the group.  We looked him over through the spotting scope, and the general consensus was that he was good, but we should continue glassing.  I had told them I would be happy with any ram, they both told me not to settle for anything less than a true trophy.  After climbing for another 45 minutes up a small “hill,” as Forest called it, we leveled out and slowly moved around Emotion Mountain.  We set up to glass for the rams we had seen earlier.  As I sat there with the cold wind blowing in my face, I let my mind race off again and dreamed of the giant rams that lived here on this mountain.

Soon, it was back to the task at hand, which was keeping up with my guides and spotting sheep.  I thought I better get focused, because these two guides weren’t here to babysit.  I can tell you one thing, as long as I was safe, they weren’t waiting for me. 

That evening, we climbed high on the mountain and glassed for a few hours.  Forest and Shane kept whispering as they glassed the hills, “They’re here.  I know they’re here.”

After hearing that, I was confident the rams were in fact there, but also knew they must have gone higher up the mountain.  Going any further would not be in our best interest, as they most likely would catch our wind and be gone.  And when sheep are gone, they are just that; gone for days.  We elected to back off and search for these rams from farther down the mountain.  Soon after we descended, we found the rams and watched them get out of their beds and walk within 20 yards of the position we had just left early in the day.  We continued watching them until they were out of sight, which was our sign to head back to camp and get ready for the next day.

On morning three, we woke up to yet another awesome day.  Yeah, my boots were frozen solid, and rather than try to pry my feet into them and wear them around camp for about 30 minutes before I could tie the laces, I opted to put on my sneakers and set my boots by the fire to warm them up.  It was still an awesome morning, even if I had to defrost my boots.  The sun would soon be over head, my feet would be warm, and my belly full of Forest’s gourmet instant coffee and oatmeal.  We didn’t even eat much breakfast that morning.  Instead, we threw some energy bars into our packs, gulped a cup of hot coffee, and headed up the mountain after the two rams we had seen the night before.  Forest stayed on the valley floor, and Shane marched me up the mountain.  I kept positive and reminded myself I wasn’t a slouch in the mountains either.  I had hunted deep into the Montana wilderness many a times, played lacrosse, and had trained hard.  So, I figured I could keep up well enough, but I was only fooling myself.  By the time we got to our first glassing position, I was sweating like a fox in a forest fire, and Shane was proving just how seasoned he actually was.  He was hardly breaking a sweat!

After Shane let me catch my breath, he told me he was just going to peek around over the edge to see where the rams were.  Soon, he returned and said, “Let’s go!”  Quickly, I put on my pack and followed him through some unfriendly terrain.  Shane moved like a mountain goat, and I followed in his footsteps.  Soon, we were right on top of two giant rams, but still out of bow range.  The wind was perfect, so we watched the rams feed, and Shane got some great video footage. 

After watching for an hour, the rams began to move up-hill, and Shane and I followed, always climbing just a bit higher than the rams as to prevent them from catching our wind.  Shane whispered “82 yards,” a little too far for my bow.  So we waited and waited, and climbed higher and higher, until we ran out of cover.  It was at this point, many hunters elect to pull out the gun.  But, on this hunt, it just wasn’t an option.  This was a bow hunt, and I am a bow hunter.  Eventually, the rams caught our wind and climbed up and away from danger.

Later that day, we caught up with Forest and had lunch.  We continued to glass Emotion Mountain and found our two rams from earlier that morning.  The only difference was, they were about 2,000 feet higher.  We also spotted a group of five rams and watched them the rest of the day.  They just kind of hung out, and we bedded down with them for the afternoon.  Just before dark, three of the five came down the mountain to feed on some of the last remaining grasses.  We left them there, feeding peacefully, but knew tomorrow would be a different day.

The next morning, we headed back to our glassing location about a mile up the river.  Soon, we spotted two of the rams from the previous evening.  After watching them for a while, Forest said, “Look, they are right where we want them. Let’s go!”  And off to the races we went!  Again, Forest and Shane showed why they are professional guides and sheep hunting extraordinaire.  They are mentally tough, physically strong, and most important, driven to assist their hunters to succeed.  When they say, “Let’s go,” they mean “Let’s go!”!  By the time I had shouldered my pack, I was 100 yards back and had to double time to catch up.  Twenty minutes later, we were directly across the river and about 1,500 feet below the two shooter rams.  This time, Shane stayed to direct Forest and me.  It was still very early in the morning, and I did not have those 30 minutes to warm up my frozen boots enough to tie them tight before we headed out.  I was climbing in loose boots, but it didn’t matter, because we had a “giant ram” to stalk, and I had a great guide pulling me up the mountain to do just that.

After a 25 minute climb, Shane signaled that we were even with the rams.  Gulping breaths of air, Forest and I labored to whisper to one another about our plan of attack.  Shane signaled the rams were 300 yards away, and as we moved, he signaled 200 yards.

From afar, we must have looked like two hungry coyotes moving in on a well-guarded chicken coop.  Soon, Shane signaled 100 yards.  I couldn’t believe what was happening, and adrenaline definitely took over.  I wasn’t tired, cold, or nervous.  My feet no longer hurt.  And, like my two guides, I was feeling seasoned.  Forest said, “Give me a puff,” and I was like, “Huh?” And he said “Give me a puff!” again; then I remembered my wind checker.  I checked the wind, and it was perfect.  We continued to move to what we figured was about 80 yards from the rams.  There, we dropped our packs and became one with the mountain as we morphed into extreme stealth mode.

After slithering in another 30 yards, Forest slowly raised his head and peeked over the ridgeline.  He immediately dropped back and whispered, “They are right there!” He ranged them at 50 yards.  I nocked my arrow and started visualizing my broadhead slicing through the vitals of a giant ram.  Forest nodded as if to say, “Let’s go.  It’s show time, Steve.”  I slowly stepped toward the sheep and moved to the edge.  I could see the back of one of the rams and knew he was feeding toward me.  I ranged him at 42 yards, came to full draw, and slowly stood up.  As I cleared the grass, I suddenly moved my eyes to the left, and spotted a ram at 18 yards!  He was larger than the other, and at freaking 18 yards!  I immediately focused on the closer, bigger ram, turned quickly, and picked a spot just behind his front leg.

At the release, everything seemed to go into slow motion.  The arrow struck just behind the heart and passed through the ram to the gravel mountainside.  As the ram ran uphill, I had already nocked another arrow.  He stood there, looking back at where he had been standing, rather than take a chance of him going much further, I ranged him at 70 yards and let another fly, and watched the bright Blazer vanes disappear into the vitals.

After the shot, both rams ran away from us along the slope, but my ram was leaving a crimson trail for us to follow.  Just 54 yards out, he crashed, rolled over, and landed softly on the only flat spot in sight.  At this moment, I heard a distant “Whoa, yeah!” from about a mile away.  It was Shane celebrating.  He had witnessed the entire stalk from the riverbed below.

I raised my arms to the sky, followed by my eyes, and lastly, my heart.  I could feel the powers from above touching me.  Within seconds, I was experiencing emotions I had never experienced before.  The lump in my throat brought on salty tears I just couldn’t fight back.  I dropped to my knees and placed my hands over my face. There was no stopping the flood of emotions.  I prayed; thanking the Lord above for all that he had given me.  As I knelt there, I thought about my early failures as a whitetail hunter, and just how far I had come. 

Soon, Forest came to my side and slapped me on the shoulder. I hugged him and said, “Thank you!”  I was so happy and thankful that I could hardly talk.  Forest and Shane had guided me to a real “smoker ram,” and I was now feeling seasoned enough to be a part of their team, which was a good thing, since we still had a 22 mile hike back to the truck.

Ground Blinds – A Playhouse for Hunters

Over the past decade, more and more companies have begun to produce ground blinds. Why the explosion?  They work.  Not only are they responsible for a large number of kills each year, but anyone can use them.  Anyone can hunt out of them, and for people that are afraid of heights, they are the perfect way to conceal yourself in the woods.  The best part is if you fall asleep in a ground blind, the only thing you might fall out of is your chair.  Ground blinds weigh typically less than twenty pounds, and are easy to carry in and out of the woods.  They can keep you out of the wind and rain and they turn a normally miserable hunting day into one that is comfortable.  Companies have begun making specialized light systems, fans, heaters, and chairs for ground blinds that are quiet and scent free. 

The most popular style of ground blind is the hub design.  It sets up in minutes and comes in a variety of camo patterns.  You want to choose a camo pattern that matches the area in which you plan to hunt.  Most even have mesh windows that you can shoot through.  It is important to remember that set up does not end with an erect blind.    

Next, you need to try to arrange the blind so that the sun does not glare off it.  A good way to do this is to face a morning blind west and an evening blind east.  Set up your blind downwind of where you will see any game, especially if you are hunting deer. Spray your blind with an odor-killer.  Make sure to close the back door of your blind, so that game cannot see you through the other side.

It’s a good idea to set up your blind, and then let it sit for a while in the weather.  This will cause it to blend in a little better.  Don’t set up your blind in the middle of a path or thoroughfare, as this will alert game to your presence.

Next, look at the vegetation around you and decided how to use it to help your blind blend into the environment that it is sitting in.  I, normally, try to find a variety of tree branches and leaves to help blend my blind into its surrounding.  Always carry a small saw when you are hunting out of a ground blind.  This will make trimming branches and limbs a snap and will allow you to set the height exactly the way you want it.

You may want to bring a pruning shear, as well.  These two tools do not add significant weight to your backpack and make a world of difference in the overall look of your blind.  I am also very cautious not to block my shooting lanes.  Finally, I always put the blind about 10 to 15 yards back off the edge of a trail or field.  That helps the blind stay concealed and undetected by the animals.  Remember, the goal is to make the blind look like it has been there forever.  If you spend a few extra minutes doing it the right way, it will pay off later. 

Camouflage is the standard uniform for the bow hunter.  However, black is a better option for the ground blind hunter.  Inside the blind is dark, and darker clothing helps conceal you even better than camo.

Ground blinds may not be for everyone, and they won’t work in all circumstances.  They limit your mobility to some degree, and you can’t see or hear, as well, from inside.  But they do offer some distinct advantages.  Portable blinds weigh less than most climbing stands, and you can set them mostly anywhere, instead of hunting for the right tree.  They also take minimal effort and time to move, should you want to make minor adjustments in your location.  You don’t have to worry about moving when game is close-at-hand, and they help to control your scent.  They’re also safe; to my knowledge, no one has ever fallen out of a ground blind.

In Search of Rocky and Bullwinkle – An Alaskan Moose Hunt

Despite the single digit temperature, the small outboard motor came to life on the second pull.  I let the 50 horse power Yamaha water jet engine warm up for ten minutes before shoving our 20-foot aluminum skiff off into the fog-engulfed river.  I navigated slowly, making my way through the shallow water by memory and bumping along the exposed rocks as the first crimson rays of sunlight crested the nearby hills.  It was opening day of the archery moose season in Alaska, and I was back guiding magnificent hunts.  The previous three years, my buddy, Tim, had gone home empty-handed, but not this year.  I was determined to make it happen.  I also knew that there was a good chance that I could connect on a moose, as well.  We were heading towards a glassing knob four miles upstream from which we could scout for moose in the area.

As I slowly navigated the skiff upriver, Tim was sitting on the bow glancing from side to side, trying to detect movement along the willow-choked riverbanks. Tim Higgs and I have hunted together several times before.  Tim’s last hunt with me was a Dall sheep and caribou hunt, during which he took a beautiful 36” ram and an excellent caribou that narrowly missed the Boone and Crockett record book.  I recalled the day, two years earlier, when Tim had moose hunts on his mind and booked this trip for us.  He was so excited then.  I bet he thought this day would never come.  I know I did. 


I gently idled to a tree that we had used the day before to tie up the boat while scouting. The ride took twenty minutes longer than normal due to the fog, but we still had plenty of time to make the 400 yard climb before we had good glassing light.  Tim hopped onto the riverbank with the bow rope in hand, as if he had done it a hundred times before, and tied off the boat.  We donned our packs, grabbed our bows, and headed up the hill.

About halfway up the hillside, we heard a bull grunt, followed by the unmistakable sound of antlers on brush. The bull was no more than 600 yards in front of us, but with the low blanket of fog, we could only guess how big he was.  Tim looked at me with a smile. “Should be a good morning,” I whispered.

We continued to the top, took off our packs, and waited for the fog to clear.  We listened through the calm, cold, autumn air as our mystery bull continued to destroy everything in his path.  Our eyes were intently focused where our ears thought the bull was, hoping to catch any movement.  The sun was still a few minutes from its unveiling, when the north wind chilled my face.  The bull’s only means of protection was about to disappear.  I gave a bull grunt and raked some brush with an old paddle from where I was sitting.  The bull immediately grunted back with every step he took in our direction.  “Maybe I called a little too soon,” I told Tim.  “Will he climb the hill to us?” he asked.

They will occasionally, but they usually wait for a visual before they do that.  The bull came about 100 yards closer, stopped, and commenced destroying a tree, when another bull grunted.  Tim nocked an arrow and was ready if a shot presented itself.  Though it seemed longer, not more than two minutes passed before we could see the two bulls.  They were 20 feet apart, and 50 yards below us, on the edge of a slough.  By now, the butterflies had taken flight in my stomach, but Tim was unshaken.  He was ready with his bow in hand, waiting for me to size them up.

“The one on the right is the biggest,” I said. “Well, the one on the left is huge! How big is the other one?” Tim asked, seemingly in disbelief.

I held my response as the bulls met head-on and began sparring. I made sure Tim was comfortable with his position, and gave a cow call.  The bulls seemed to forget one another and looked directly at us.

“The one on the right is nice. He’s a solid 63 inches, with four brow tines on each side. He might go 65. The left one is about 60. What do you think?” Tim asked.

With any other hunter, I would suggest taking him, but there are bigger bulls here and this is only the first hour of a 10-day hunt.

“I never tell a hunter not to shoot a legal animal, so I am leaving it up to you,” I said.  While we sat for a minute and debated taking one of them, the two bulls milled around the slough in front of us, in no hurry to go anywhere.  Then, I spotted another moose a mile away.  I quickly put my spotting scope on him.

“Your question is answered Tim. This is the bull you want.  Take a look.”

“Holy cow! How big is he?”

“He’s definitely 70 inches, but he’s a mile from the river and moving away from us,” I said.  I made my loudest call, and raked some brush.  The old warrior heard me, stopped for a few seconds, but continued on his way. I had already forgotten about the bulls in front of us when Tim said, “I would have never guessed that those two bulls could look small.”

We hunted the next five days for that bull, and never laid eyes on him again.  In fact, we saw only two other bulls despite the cold and seemingly perfect weather.  One was in the high 50 inch range, and the other about 60.  So, after the morning hunt on the sixth day, we packed our light camp to re-locate to a different drainage.

We navigated slowly downstream through the rocks and ice chunks, which had been getting larger and more numerous.  A mile below our old campsite, our progress was severely hampered by a 300 yard ice jam.  We realized then that if we didn’t get to some faster water today, we would be hiking out.

Luckily, the water was just under hip height.  I was able to walk in front of the boat and chop out the ice with an ax.  It took us 30 minutes to chip through those 300 yards.  I was ready for a rest when I fired up the motor and resumed our trek.  We came to four more ice-jams; luckily, we were able to break through with the boat by leaving it in idle, driving our paddles through the ice, and paddling our way through.  This was why we chose to get a boat with a jet motor.  The water was too deep to wade in.

We were relieved when we came to faster waters.  We continued down the main river for two miles, and then came to the mouth of a shallower, but faster drainage.  The cold, dry weather didn’t help our cause, as we had to get out of our boat and pull it over to more than a dozen shallow spots before we reached our pre-determined campsite.  By 7:00 pm, we were tired and irritable (me, more so than Tim) and ready for sleep.

We quickly set up our tent on a small gravel edge and paddled across the river to get a view from the adjacent hill.  Before 8:00 pm, I spotted a small bull.  A few minutes later, Tim spotted a bull in the timber.  We finally saw enough antler for me to identify him.  It was the same bull I saw on the previous hunt.  I knew, or so I thought, how to get him.

We immediately ran down the hill to the boat and paddled across the river.  With only one hour of daylight left, we quickly stalked to within 100 yards of the bull, when we came to a frozen beaver pond.  I knew we would break the ice if we tried to cross it, so I pulled out the boat paddle and went to work.  I followed with two bull grunts.  The bull grunted in response, followed by multiple cows!

“He’s got cows.  He’s going to be tough,” I told Tim.

The experienced moose hunter knew exactly what I was talking about.  Suddenly, a branch broke.  Through the willows, we could see a moose coming, and Tim was ready.  What we thought was a cow turned out to be the small bull we had spotted earlier.

With day light fading, we heard a bull grunt 300 yards behind us in the timber.  We cautiously approached through the loud spongy tundra, calling and raking brush with every step to mask the noise of our movement.  We stopped when we came to the edge of the timber he was in and waited quietly.  At dark, we quickly slipped back to our tent, which was only a quarter of a mile away.

The next morning found us atop the same hill across the river from our tent; the same frost glistening from the foliage, and the same stiff north wind hitting us in the face.  Again, we heard two bulls in the timber, but we could never catch a glimpse of them.  We decided to wait them out until evening.  Finally, at 3:00 pm, Tim and I simultaneously spotted a moose.  It was a cow.

Then, I spotted an antler, and two more cows came into the small opening.  The sight that followed in the next few seconds was all we needed to confirm that he was our bull.  Tim immediately suggested that he walk across the river to a gravel bar where moose had been crossing, not four yards from the moose, and wait as evening approached.  I agreed.  Tim found a suitable spot, and I stayed on the hill to watch.  By 7:00 pm, having neither seen nor heard a moose, I decided it was time to make something happen.  I walked down to talk to Tim. “The moose are in the same five acre willow thicket we last saw them enter.  We can either go in there, try to call him out, or I can try to drive them to you.  It is so thick in there that if we do get close to them, we will probably only see hair and maybe a flash of antlers.  This wind is perfect, but we have to do it now before it dies down”.

“Then let’s try the drive,” Tim said without hesitation.

I immediately took off, crossed the river, and started looping around the moose.  I cursed myself for forgetting to leave my boat paddle with Tim.  In less than five minutes, I was in perfect position.  The moose were somewhere between Tim and I, with a ten mile per hour wind blowing directly from me to them.

I paced back and forth, spreading my scent through the willows.  I had just begun to enter the willow thicket, when the herd exploded through the willows!  It sounded like they went about 75 yards towards Tim and stopped.  I eased closer.  I busted the moose again.  This time they split up; some of moose went west, but I could tell by the antlers hitting the brush that the bull went east.

I ran, trying to get upwind of the bulls, pushing them towards Tim, but the bull broke out of the willows and into the tundra flat.  Seeing this, I instantly gave my loudest bull grunt.  The bull stopped and looked back.  He started to leave again when I grunted once more, and waved my cursed boat paddle in the air.  The bull turned and faced me.  I hunched over, grunting with every step, waving the paddle as I stumbled through the tundra.  I knew I wasn’t going to win an Oscar, but I was able to get around and upwind the bull once again.  He smelled me and whirled around to the south.

“Here he comes, Tim!” I yelled at the top of my aching lungs.

I was running in Tim’s direction when I heard the twang of his bow strings, and the whack of his broadhead hitting the bull.  I kept running for another 20 seconds before I heard “YEHAHHHH!” I plowed through the willows and came to the river directly across from Tim.

“Where is he?” I asked. “He’s 20 yards to your right.  I think he’s big!”  Tim exclaimed. 

I walked to the bull.  “Tim, he’s not big, he’s huge!  Get over here and check him out.”  Tim was about half an inch from filling his hip boots, but he made it to his bull.

“He’s awesome!  I wasn’t sure we were doing the right thing by pushing him, but I knew we had to do something different, and it paid off big time,” Tim said.


We told our stories to one another, of what happened, and how we both wondered if it would actually work.  We took pictures, and then skinned and butchered the bull. It took us a little while to get to the quarters, and then head back to camp, and we need to take our time given the terrain and the fact it was dark.  We were back in camp after midnight, and we weren’t in bed till much before two.   

The next morning, after a breakfast of steak and eggs, we loaded Tim’s quartered bull on to the boat, along with all of our other stuff from camp and headed downstream.  The 14 miles to base camp was an adventure, to say the least.  The rock infested river would normally be an adventure, but with the ice in the water it made the danger all the more dangerous.  Additionally, we still had time to stop and set up another spike if we saw signs of another good bull.  Without all the obstacles, we could have gotten down the river in under an hour; however, with the moose, the ice, and the rocks it took over seven hours to make it back to camp.  We stopped along the way to check out different spots that we thought might hold some nice bulls, but none answered our calls so we continued downstream.  On numerous occasions we were out of the boat breaking ice and dragging the boat behind us.  I would not have attempted the journey with such a heavy load with any other hunting friend, but I had confidence in Tim.

Later that evening, after we shared a meal with the other hunters in camp, and washed it down with a couple of cold beers, we shared the story of our hunt before heading to bed, knowing that we had made memories to last a lifetime. 

Up, Up and Away Tree Stands 101

Using a tree stand is like anything else: the more you do it, the easier it becomes, and the more comfortable it will feel.  With so many options out there, there is a stand for everybody, and every hunting level.  Ladder stands, climbing stands, and fix stands all provide their advantages and disadvantages.  It is important to remember that any time you are using a tree stand, you MUST wear a harness and a fall arrest system.  Keep in mind that more people are killed each year from using homemade tree stands than all others combined.  Old boards crack, nails and screws become unattached, and rain and sun weaken the boards.  They are just plain unsafe and should be avoided at all costs. Additionally, any time you are hanging stands, you should also be wearing a lineman’s climbing belt for additional stability and balance.  If you are afraid of heights, then a tree stand is not right for you.  There is nothing wrong with hunting from the ground.  I will cover that topic later.

Ladder stands are just as the name implies: a ladder with a tree stand attached at the top of the ladder.  They come in a variety of materials, most often steel and aluminum.  When installed properly, they are the safest of all tree stands.  They are extremely stable, and some are big enough to hold two hunters comfortably.  This makes them ideal for taking young hunters aloft for their first few seasons.  Generally, this type of stand is put up once at the beginning of the hunting season and left up in one for spot for the duration.   

Ladder stands require two people to set them up and are often cumbersome to maneuver around.  Most ladder stands range from 15 to 17 feet in height.  At this height, most people feel comfortable hunting and it provides them with the optimum shooting angle.  The higher you are off the ground, the steeper your shooting angle becomes, making it more difficult to get a double long shot.  Ladder stands are attached to the tree with a series of straps and ratchets the lock it in place.  The ladder is very easy to climb, and is extremely sturdy. 

The platforms on ladder stands vary in width and length depending on your specific hunting need.  It is important to match your platform to your style of hunting.  Rifle hunters generally do not need as big of a platform, because most of their shooting is done from the seated position.  Bow hunters, on the other hand, often prefer larger platforms so that they can shoot either standing or sitting. 

The only downside to a ladder stand is that they are more visual in the woods, thus making it more difficult to hide than the other two types of tree stands.  Also, because of their size, they are not portable. 

A climbing stand is the most portable of the three types of tree stands.  It is carried into the woods the day of the hunt and taken back out at the end of the day.  There are two pieces that make up this type of stand: a seat and a base.  Each piece is attached to the tree via a cable. The hunter then inches his/her way upward by lifting the seat up and the base up, much like an inch worm moves, until he/she is at their desired height.  To climb a tree with this stand, it must be straight and free of branches.  Essentially, you are climbing a telephone pole.  This can leave the hunter exposed to the game if the stand is on the edge of a field or any other open area

Climbing stands are the most comfortable to sit in for long periods of time.  Most come with a heavily-padded seat and arm rests.  Some hunters refer to this type of stand as a lounger, claiming that they are as comfortable as their favorite lounge chair.  I can personally attest that many of the high-end climbing stands have chairs that are very comfortable, too comfortable for my liking.  This is the type of stand that most hunters fall asleep in and fall out of. 

One major advantage of this type of tree stand is its versatility and ease of use.  You only have to carry the stand.  There are no ladders and no other items to carry into the woods with you.   Also, if you are going to hunt public land, this is your best option for getting off the ground.  Any time you leave a stand in the woods, you are at risk of having some steal it.  I have even had this issue on private property.

The third type of stand is a fixed stand.  It requires the hunter to carry the stand, plus some type of a climbing device.  Climbing devices range from portable ladders, to interlocking climbing sticks, to strap-on rail systems.  This type of stand is very popular because of its ease of use and its ability to be highly mobile if necessary.  This is the type of stand that I use most often.

They allow individuals to climb to any height desirable.  Most climbing sticks and ladders max out at 20 feet.  Additionally, they allow you to place the stand above limbs and branches, allowing the hunter to have extra cover from the game below.  The platforms are very spacious and allow the hunter to shoot comfortably from the seated position or standing. 

Fixed stands are stable and very safe when used properly.  They typically attach to a tree with a belt or chain that is affixed to the stand directly below the seat.  Once connected, the hunter then synchs the belt tightly to the tree.  Add a secondary strap on the bottom for stability, and you are all set and ready to hunt.   Many high-end companies such as, Lone Wolf and Summit, now connect the stand to the tree with a strap and a hook system.  This system makes hanging stands extremely simple and fast. 

With any tree stand I hunt out of, I always attached a few extra accessories to the tree to aid in my comfort.  First, I always screw a bow holder to the tree.  From the bow holder, I can then hang my ropes for hoisting my bow and backpack up to the stand.  It also provides me with the space to hang my gear, backpack, range finder, binoculars, and calls.

When trying to decide where to hang your tree stand from, remember it is all about location, location, location.  Logging roads, field edges, and creek bottoms all make excellent locations to hang stands.  You should try to hang them some place where the deer are going to move past as they are following their daily routine.  Keep in mind that all deer have to eat and drink.  You just need to find out how they are getting from their house to the supermarket.  This is where off season scouting and trail cameras can pay big dividends. 

How high should a tree stand be?  Well, for most of us there is no reason to go above the 15-20 foot range.  Within that range, a hunter should be able to find adequate cover, even into the late season. 

Another important factor to take into consideration when hanging a tree stand is your ability to approach the stand undetected.  You need to determine what the prevailing wind is for that area and base your decision of how to enter your standoff of that.  You do not want to wake up the deer as your entering your stand area.  This may require you to go the long way in and out of your stand, but it will pay off in the end.  As walk, go slowly.  The slower you move, the quieter you become.  Do your best to avoid stepping on leaves and sticks in order to minimize noise. 

If you want the perfect tree stand location, keep your mouth shut.  Far too often, people want to brag about the big deer they have scouted around their tree stands.  Whether you do it in person during a conversation or chat about it online, the results will always be the same: someone else is going to either sit in your stand when you are not there, or they will erect one of their own nearby.  If you want to brag, wait till after you shoot the deer and then tell everyone that you shot it in the peach orchard.  Within a week, someone else will have a stand in that peach orchard. 

You must be comfortable on your stand.  You need to be able to sit fidget-free all morning or all afternoon.  The more you have to move around, the more likely that a deer is going to pick you off.  It is also important that you learn how to shoot from your tree stand in the seated position.  This will help you further conceal your movement in the tree. 

If you are seeing lots of deer, but cannot seem to figure out why they keep giving your stand a wide berth, look at the ground below.  Often times, fallen branches, downed trees, and other obstacles may be forcing deer to move just out of shooting range for you.  You want to move obstacles so that they force deer towards you, not away from you.  This is a little thing that can make a world of difference. 

Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy A Montana Elk Hunt

Because of the long summer drought, it was predicted to be one of the worst years ever for hunting Elk in Montana.  I didn’t see much in the way of size that year, until after a week of hunting and right before dark, the mammoth of all bulls appeared 40 yards in front of us.

The beginning of archery elk season in Montana was only a few days away, and the blood in my veins was starting to flow with excitement and a nervous anxiety.  Avid elk hunters everywhere were awakening to the call of the bulge.  The small coffee shops around town were full of old timers retelling stories of their youth of how good the hunting used to be, and how they used to hunt better than we do today.  And, of course, how good they shoot their long and recurve bows back in the day.

In my mind, I could already see the hunt unfolding in front of me.  I could feel the early September heat and sweat rolling down my face, listening to the early morning bugles in the distance, and the chasing and stalking to where we thought we had heard the bugle come from.  There is no better time to be in the woods than during the elk rut.  I knew hunting was going to be tough and slow as we were chasing a 1000 pound monster through the dry and brittle forest.  The drought had dramatically slowed antler growth and there were only few mammoth bulls out there with nice racks.    

I had spent most of the summer with my family in Montana so that I could scout the woods all summer.  It is a challenge to leave my two daughters for 8 weeks.  One advantage of being a teacher is that I have the summer off.  I rented a small cottage outside of Paradise Valley for the months of June, July, August, and the first few weeks in September.  The girls were happy to get away from our suburban home outside of Washington, D.C., and enjoy the mountain air.  While I knew my daughters would miss their friends, I knew that they would enjoy the quality sister time ahead.  While I scouted along the ridges and bluffs during the day where I had seen elk in years before, the girls enjoyed playing outside, fishing, boating, and swimming in the lake. 

The majority of the big bulls I had seen had weak fifth and sixth points, and there were some smaller five by five bulls around that I would see through my spotting scope from time to time.  The morning before opening day, I found a very large bull with another great bull tagging along with it.  I was excited about this duo of bulls.  The bigger bull was very unique and his rack was off the charts.  The terrain he was in was extremely steep and rocky. In addition, it had some rolling hills and wooded areas.  This is definitely not the favorite type of terrain for a chubby hunter like me.  There was almost no way to approach the bull from where I had glassed him.  From any direction, he would be able to hear me, smell me, and probably even see me.  The valley was deep, rocky and extremely long.  Above him, about three miles, there were a lot of cows with mountainous terrain and tall timber.  A few miles below him, there were also some cows and some ponds low on water.  There was still enough water in the ponds for the cows to wallow in.  Cow elk like nothing more than blowing a hunter’s cover as they approach a big bull; they are the watch dogs of the herd.  I cannot lie, I enjoy shooting cows just as much as bulls.  Hey they all taste great.  This year, however, I drew a bull tag, so that is what I was after. 

Longtime client and friend, Jimmy Decico, and I were heading out into the hills the first week of September.  Jimmy had scheduled to hunt with me the first through the sixth.  Jimmy had more money than God, and always made it a point to book with me the same week every year for a public land hunt.  I only guide five clients per year, and Jimmy was one of them.  These five elk hunts would make up a large part of my salary.  I charged a flat rate of $2000.00 per day.  There is five day minimum, though most clients will book ten days.  If they tag out early, most will stay for a few days, unless there is some pressing need at work.  My clients were not average people; they were titans of industries, who book with me yearly to escape the stress of their daily life.  Some would bring a spouse, or occasionally a client.  On more than one occasion, I had to remind my clients to leave the phone at office, if they cannot go hunting without answering every dam call they get.  They are used to having people bow down to them; this is the one time of year where they are taking orders instead of giving them.  The price included lodging, food, and, of course, a world class guide.  I took care of their transportation needs, as needed.  Although, majority of them drove trucks that most only dream of.

Jimmy, like all of my clients, set tough personal standards of never shooting any animal smaller than one they had previously taken.  Over the last five years, we had been successful in besting his previous year’s harvest.  This year, we had to find something bigger than the 800 pound bull he shot the year before to best his mark.  We hoped during the six days of Jimmy’s hunt, the big bull I had seen the other day, or another one as big, would move in our direction; or at least toward the cows to signify the beginning of the rut.  Our plan was to catch the bull on the way toward the cows, or catch him moving around them heading to the ponds.

The first three days, we hunted in the open, rolling, country hillsides.  The temperatures climbed into the high eighties each day and at night would luckily drop into the fifties.  The sun would beat down on us each morning as we glassed the open expanses for the bull I had seen before Jimmy arrived.  We would cover a lot of ground in the early morning before the full heat of the day would set in.  The afternoons were spent sitting near a variety of water holes hiding from the sun hoping a giant bull would appear.  Late in the morning we would hike from where we were glassing, and head towards where we thought the bulls would come out of the timbre and into the ponds to wallow at night.  Every day seemed to produce the same results.  Sporadic calling, long stalks and lots of smaller elk.  We would see a few small herds of cows and some smaller four by four and three by four bulls that would have worked for most people, just not Jimmy.  But there was no sign of the giant bull or his traveling partner that had been with him.  We had yet to see any signs of the beginning of the rut or even to hear consistent bugles.  I wondered if the bull had gone to another area from where I had first glassed him.  With that thought bouncing around in my head, we decided on day four we would head to another area where we might be able to hear some bugles and close some distance on him or another bull.

The fourth morning we arrived at a new location about a mile away from where I had seen the bull.  We made a big loop calling, stalking, and still hunting.  Three different bulls answered my calls, but each of the bulls only answered to say hello.  The good part was they were starting to talk, the bad news was they were not crashing through the forest looking for a hot date.  The afternoon was spent sitting by another waterhole in the area.  Partly because we thought that the bulls would come through the forest to drink at the waterhole, and partly because after four days of hunting we had log nearly forty miles, and Jimmy’s legs were starting to tire.  We saw nothing on the forth evening, but there were lots of positive elk signs around the waterhole.  We discussed, at length, and decided the remainder of our hunt would be spent hunting here by the water hole.  Jimmy and I each had a gut feeling this was the place to be.

The next morning, we arrived back at the area at 4:00 AM, after a big breakfast, in order to catch any predawn bugles that we could hear in order to get an early jump on a stalk.  We drove into the area in an electric Bad Boy Buggy, so not to create any excess noise.  I parked the Buggy, and covered it so not to get busted by any elks that might come up from behind us.  We sat there in the dark and listened to the world around us come to life as the sun began to rise over the horizon.  A cool breeze blew lazily from the north.  For the first time in days, I was actually cold.  I knew that it was only a matter of time until the sun was once again baking us like a couple of biscuits.  As we began to glass the surrounding area in the early morning haze, there was now enough light to make out objects off in the distance.  Suddenly, we could not believe our ears.  It was like someone had turned on the light switch and the rut was finally on.  Bulls were bugling in all directions, and they were bugling loudly and aggressively.  With the adrenaline pumping through our veins, we gave each other a high five and scrambled around to the back of the Buggy for our bows and our backpacks with all of our gear.

We were on a flat stretch of land, on a steep hillside, that had been logged and cleared out a few years earlier.  Tall, native grasses and small evergreen trees now littered the area and provided us cover as we moved cautiously toward the sounds of the bugling elk.  A large group of cows started to move up the hillside and the bulls followed behind in a single file line; filtering into two drainage areas with long thin fingers of pine trees and spruce trees in between.  Running up the middle of the pine trees was a thin old dirt logging road.  It was perfect.  The elk were on both sides of us, and the logging road would allow us to be quiet, and easily move up on the bulls without being discovered by the cows.

The elk that were wallowing to our right were starting to move over to the next drainage and across the finger we had moved into.  We managed to sneak up on two bulls that were bugling, but did not shoot them, they were smaller at only around 500 pounds.  They needed another year to grow before they were big enough for Jimmy.  I called in another three hundred inch bull that we also passed on, as he had a smaller body frame than you would expect on a 300 inch bull.  Let me tell you how hard it is to pass on three hundred inch bulls with a bow standing broadside at 35 yards!  But, it was not my hunt, so we moved on. 

No matter how fast we moved, we just couldn’t catch up to the lead bull to see how big his rack was.  We knew that he was a solid bull, but how big was he?  The whole time, we hoped it was the big monster that I had seen just the week before during my summer scouting trips.  We just needed a look, and we knew we would have to be aggressive if we wanted to see him.  The bull moved into a thick patch of spruce trees and bedded down in the shade for the day; he wasn’t moving anymore.  He would answer our cow calls, but just wouldn’t come out.  By mid-morning, I thought we might be able to slip down to where he was holding in the spruce trees and glass into the thick timber to get a look at him.  We snuck all the way up to within 50 yards of where we thought he was and started glassing into the shade laded timber.  I could not see any sign of the bull.  I knew that if we got any closer, we could spook him, so we backed out to regroup and devise a new plan for the afternoon. 

As the mid-afternoon arrived, it had started to rain lightly.  I had hoped that this might be the lucky break we needed.  The moisture from the light rain would soon soften the ground and wake up the bull from his afternoon nap.  The game plan was to go back to where we had left the bull and set up an ambush point.  He was bedded on the side of the hill of a very long ridge with drainage below him, and with another cut off drainage to the southwest.  I felt the best place to wait for him was 200 yards below where he had bedded down and let him come to us.  At that location, the wind would be right in our faces and it would be on the way to where the bull would be feeding and staging for the night.  We arrived at our ambush point around 2:30 pm, and the rain was now coming down harder.  Jimmy set up 80 yards in front of me, and I began to cow call periodically.  We hoped the bull would walk towards the cow call so Jimmy would have an easy shot.

30 minutes passed, and not a sound.  Making eye contact with each other, we both had the puzzled look of “what happened to all the elk?  Did they all just leave without us seeing them?”  We sat patiently through the rain awhile longer, the raindrops bounced off my hat and landed on my jacket.  After about an hour of hard rain it began to slow, and then stopped.  As the rain came to a halt, we heard a bugle, then another, and another, and then the bull we were waiting for bugled.  He was still there and was moving into the bottom of the drainage coming in our direction, just as we had hoped.  He was right there in front of us, but we still could not see him.  Cows started popping out at 50 to 75 yards away, but still there was no sign of the bull.  The bull we wanted was bugling, but circling the cows on the side hill of the opposite ridge we were setup on.  The cows started to move up the drainage to our left.  I moved quickly down to Jimmy and said, “See that hump where the drainage leads?  If we can make it up there before they do, we have a chance.”

We hustled up the opposite side as quickly, and as quietly, as we could go to get setup on the bull.  On the way up, I caught some movement through the pines and spruce and could tell it was a 350 inch class bull.  With only one day left, I had hoped Jimmy would decide to take him rather than go home empty-handed.  We turned our attention to stalking to get a better look.  The bull was pushing a few cows through the thick timber, towards the same hump and bugling all the way.  On the opposite side of the drainage, the bull we were originally after was bugling.  Sneaking to within bow range of the 350 inch class bull, I told Jimmy to range him and shoot.  He paused and said, “That’s not what I’m here for; let’s just stick to the game plan.  Let’s try to catch the other bull.  We still have time.”  It made me sick to think we might go home empty handed, but I was the guide and he was client, so it was his decision.  I knew that Jimmy was going to say that, so I was not in total shock.  It just speaks volumes about the types of clients I have. 

So we moved aggressively 200 yards toward the hump, and then all of a sudden it sounded like the bull had dropped into the bottom of the hillside right below us.  With weak, tired legs, and sweat pouring down my face, we moved ahead of him trying to cut him off.  We still had not seen the bull that we had been pursuing all day.  The bottom of the drainage was open and had been logged a few years before.  The side of the hill the bull was on was full of thick spruce trees.  From the thick side of the ridge, a cow popped out, then another.  A total of five cows came out feeding on the new grasses right towards us.  Then here he came, but he was another 300 inch bull.  When I saw him, I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach like the one you get when you have a flat tire on the freeway.

Where’s the big bull? The five cows and bull fed only 20 to 40 yards in front of us.  The bull was now 25 yards away.  Jimmy had an arrow nocked and was ready to rock and roll, but this was not the monster we were looking for.  I cow called just to see his reaction.  He picked his head up and bugled and started to feed off in the distance.

With only 15 minutes of shooting light left, I knew we were just about done for the day. Then Jimmy said, “Look to your right, where the other elk came out. “  I turned and saw the top of a rack; I quickly threw my binoculars up. A very large bull was walking right at us on the same path the other just came through.  He was much bigger and had eight on one side, and his sixth points were at least 15-inches long.  His eye guards were unreal; well over 20 inches.  This was him.  This was the bull we were waiting for. 

Jimmy was ranging everything. “I’m ready,” he said.  “Make sure you make a good shot,” I replied.

The bull walked up to 40 yards and stopped behind a big pine tree, with only his head sticking out.  He stood there just looking in our direction.  I was watching through my binoculars, shaking so badly I was seeing double.  He started to step out and Jimmy started to draw.  The bull stopped and stepped right back behind the tree in the same position.  It was as if he knew he was safe standing there.  He stood still for another minute and then decided he didn’t like this and turned to leave.  When he whirled, Jimmy drew.  He cleared the tree, and I cow called.  The bull turned, quartered away and stopped.

Just as soon as he stopped, the shot was in the air.  WHACK!!!  The arrow hit mid-body, but quartered away.  It should be good, I thought to myself.  I turned to Jimmy and asked, “Did you hit him?” He said, “I think so.”  Then, he asked if he was a good one, and I said, “Oh, yea!”  We sat quietly for an hour in the dark.  After that long hour we walked down to where the bull was standing, and I found a volleyball-sized spot of blood with a piece of stomach in it. We looked past where the bull was standing and found the arrow with the same results. With darkness overhead, lack of moonlight and given the indication of the strong blood trail, we decided it would be best to recover the bull in the morning.

Now, you can only imagine what the ride back to camp was like after describing the bull to Jimmy and what I thought he would score.  We were both beat and soaked to the bone with sweat and rain.  Both of us probably could have slept all the next day; but due to my companion, I can say we literally didn’t sleep at all that night.  We spent the whole night talking about the bull. 

The next morning, we arrived an hour before daylight to the spot we had just left hours before.  This time though, I had attached my long trailer to the back of the Bad Boy Buggy.  As the sun peaked over the mountain tops, we begin our search.  Carefully, we followed the blood, noting each speck on the ground.  Finally, we saw him; he had gone only 150 yards and was lying there dead.  Plenty of hugs and high fives were shared between us as we celebrated the kill of this magnificent bull.  This type of bull usually eludes hunters, except in the myths and stories that are told by the old timers in the coffee shop.  This is what keeps us returning every fall.  When he was officially scored, he came in at 405.  Jimmy has already booked for next year and said he hopes to go even bigger.

We carefully quartered the bull and saved the hide and the rack and loaded it in the trailer so we could get it hung to age before Jimmy headed home. 

Once everything was cleaned up and put away I dropped Jimmy off at the airport and headed back home.  Tomorrow another client was coming, and it would be time to do it all over again. 

Safeties on People Using Common Sense

Have you ever wondered why some people jump out of perfectly good air planes, or why others drive dragsters over 200 miles an hour and not worry?  The answer is simple: they have on safety equipment that protects them when something goes wrong.

There are guys who will spend well over two thousand dollars for a bow, a set of arrows, countless accessories, a tree stand and scent proof clothing, but yet are too cheap to buy a quality safety harness.  I just do not understand this thought process.  For many, this line of thinking results in severe injury or death. 

Every year, we read in the papers or in magazines about guys and gals who fall out of tree stands and are severely hurt or die, and for what?  Because they are too cheap or too lazy to wear a full body safety arrest system.  For me, the best $200.00 I could spend on hunting equipment is on a harness and a life line climbing line.  One of the best companies out there is Hunter Safety System.  All they do is make harnesses and harness accessories.  This company is dedicated to bringing you back home at the end of the hunt.  It is so simple: buckle the harness on, (which takes ten seconds) and then clip the harness in the safety carabineer before you step on the ladder to climb up the tree.  It is just that simple.  Now I have no worries.  If I slip off the ladder, not a problem, I will hang comfortably in the air until I can reach the ladder and regain my balance, or wait until one of hunting party comes along to help me down. 

There are just too many things that can go wrong when you are 20 feet in the air.  One of the most common ways in which people fall out of tree stands is that they simply fall asleep.  The early hours of the hunt, the cool breeze, the gentle rocking of the tree, put many hunters right to sleep.  Many do not ever wake up again, and those that do often wake up in intensive care and suffer from severe paralysis the rest of their lives.  The second most common area where hunters fall is while they are climbing up and down their ladders or climbing sticks.  Others fall out of their tree stand as they are preparing to shoot.  They lose their balance or step where there is nothing but air. 

These are senseless injuries that could all have been prevented by simply wearing a full body fall arrest system.  Would you get in your car and not wear a seat belt?  If so, you are gambling with your life.

If you are going to hunt by yourself, let someone know where you are going, and when they should expect you back.  Also, before you ever head into the woods, remember you have to purchase more than a bow and a license.  There are pieces of safety equipment out there specifically designed to get you into the woods and back again safely.  Please considerer all the cost associated with hunting, not just the cost of basic equipment. 

With all of today’s modern techno gadgets for hunters, there are simply no excuses for dying in the field.  Years ago we would hear tales of hunters who would die in the mountains because they would get lost and become so disoriented that they could not find their way out of the forest. 

Now, thanks to hand-held global positioning systems (many that cost less than a set of good arrows), there are fewer and fewer of these types of stories being told in deer camp.  Online, you can find free mapping programs that can give you a complete lay of the land before you ever leave your house.  There is even a spot beacon locator that allows you to communicate to friends and family that you are ok.  Heck, if you want to, you can even purchase a personal EPIRB to take with you into the woods.  There is just no excuse for getting lost. 

As a point of emphasis, I am including the Tree Stand Safety Guidelines from the Tree Stand Manufactures Association, despite some redundancy:

ALWAYS wear a Fall-Arrest System (FAS)/Full Body Harness meeting TMA Standards even during ascent and descent.  Be aware that single strap belts and chest harnesses are no longer allowed Fall-Arrest devices and should not be used.  Failure to use a FAS could result in serious injury or death.

ALWAYS read and understand the manufacturer’s WARNINGS & INSTRUCTIONS before using the tree stand each season.  Practice with the tree stand at ground level prior to using at elevated positions.  Maintain the WARNINGS & INSTRUCTIONS for later review as needed, for instructions on usage to anyone borrowing your stand, or to pass on when selling the tree stand.  Use all safety devices provided with your tree stand.

NEVER exceed the weight limit specified by the manufacturer.  If you have any questions after reviewing the WARNINGS & INSTRUCTIONS, please contact the manufacturer.

ALWAYS inspect the tree stand and the Fall-Arrest System for signs of wear or damage before each use.  Contact the manufacturer for replacement parts.  Destroy all products that cannot be repaired by the manufacturer and/or exceed recommended expiration date, or if the manufacturer no longer exists.  The FAS should be discarded and replaced after a fall has occurred.

ALWAYS practice in your Full Body Harness in the presence of a responsible adult prior to using it in an elevated hunting environment, learning what it feels like to hang suspended in it at ground level and how to properly use your suspension relief device.

ALWAYS attach your Full Body Harness in the manner and method described by the manufacturer.  Failure to do so may result in suspension without the ability to recover into your tree stand.  Be aware of the hazards associated with Full Body Harnesses and the fact that prolonged suspension in a harness may be fatal.  Have in place a plan for rescue, including the use of cell phones or signal devices that may be easily reached and used while suspended.  If rescue personnel cannot be notified, you must have a plan for recover/escape.  If you have to hang suspended for a period of time before help arrives, exercise your legs by pushing against the tree or doing any other form of continuous motion or use your suspension relief device.  Failure to recover in a timely manner could result in serious injury or death.  If you do not have the ability to recover/escape, hunt from the ground.

ALWAYS hunt with a plan, and if possible, with a buddy.  Before you leave home, let others know your exact hunting location, when you plan to return and who is with you.

ALWAYS carry emergency signal devices such as a cell phone, walkie-talkie, whistle, signal flare, PLD (personal locator device) and flashlight on your person at all times, and within reach, even while you are suspended in your FAS.  Watch for changing weather conditions.  In the event of an accident, remain calm and seek help immediately.

ALWAYS select the proper tree for use with your tree stand.  Select a live straight tree that fits within the size limits recommended in your tree stand’s instructions.  Do not climb or place a tree stand against a leaning tree.  Never leave a tree stand installed for more than two weeks since damage could result from changing weather conditions and/or from other factors not obvious with a visual inspection.

ALWAYS use a haul line to pull up your gear and unloaded firearm or bow to your tree stand once you have reached your desired hunting height.  Never climb with anything in your hands or on your back.  Prior to descending, lower your equipment on the opposite side of the tree.

ALWAYS know your physical limitations.  Don’t take chances.  Do not climb when using drugs, alcohol, or if you’re sick or unrested.  If you start thinking about how high you are, don’t go any higher.

NEVER use homemade, or permanently elevated stands, nor make modifications to a purchased tree stand without the manufacturer’s written permission.  Only purchase and use tree stands, and Fall-Arrest Systems meeting or exceeding TMA standards.

NEVER hurry!!  While climbing with a tree stand, make slow, even movements of no more than ten to twelve inches at a time.  Make sure you have proper contact with the tree and/or tree stand every time you move.  On ladder-type tree stands, maintain three points of contact with each step.

Copyright © 2009 by TMA