Thursday, December 13, 2012

Early Elk - Bow Hunting

Don’t resist the chance to bowhunt elk before the rut – it’s not as challenging as you might think.
By Jason Stafford

The author's dad took his
first-ever archery elk during
 a mid-August hunting trip to Wyoming
As darkness turned into dawn, my dad and buddy Ron could see 11 velvet-clad bulls feeding on an open hillside. The elk were above several fingers of dark timber.  It was late August and two days into Wyoming’s early archery elk season. 

They had no problem finding bulls feeding out in the open during various scouting trips and for each day of the season so far. The animals were around, it was just a matter of playing cat and mouse in the woods and setting up a shot. So far that hadn’t happened, though. Dad was the shooter on this hunt, and he was hoping for a pretty slam-dunk shot on what would be his first-ever archery bull. 

As the scorching sun began to warm the hillside, three bulls broke away from the big group and headed for a patch of trees that Ron was very familiar with. It was the moment to strike, but they had to move fast in order to intercept the bulls before they got into timber too dense and noisy for quiet stalking.

The jungle-like timber was in a deep canyon along with a small spring pond. They moved in and set up near this pond and a small clearing.

Moments later, the bulls fed out in front of them, just inside dad’s effective range. Once Ron checked the distance with his Nikon rangefinder, old pop came to full draw and let ‘er rip. The arrow flew true, and the nice velvet-antlered bull was down for good.

Most guys who bowhunt elk prefer to call or chase them when they are bugling, rutting, and chasing cows around. They enjoy the excitement and thrill of hearing thunderous bull elk talk echoing through the trees and canyons.

There’s no doubt mid-to-late September elk hunting can be exhilarating and productive, especially for those that love to call. But I’ve found bow hunting elk earlier on to be such as effective if not more so. During the rut, bulls become rivals and separate in order to sort out their dominance and to search for cows in estrous. This makes them harder to follow at times, I believe, which can add frustration to the hunt.

Whereas, during the early season, elk follow a consistent pattern, the same one they followed during the late-summer and the weeks leading up to opening day. This means if you’ve located elk during your scouting trips, then you can find them in the same place again.    

August and early September can surely bring warmer temperatures, but sometimes this can actually make animals more concentrated near water sources. This can make for more hunting action.

Also, in most western states, such as New Mexico, earlier hunts are much easier to draw. This could make them even more attractive if you know how to approach this kind of hunting. 

In this article I would like to offer a few tips for harvesting early-season elk. Each one has been proven to work well for me and my close hunting buddies. 

Pattern & Ambush
Like early whitetails, early elk are easy to pattern. Their daily rituals are straightforward -- they bed in heavy cover during the heat of the day, and then they move to feed, usually along open hillsides.

In the evenings, when they first start moving, they often prefer to water. They also like to water just prior to bedding in the morning.

Understanding these basic patterns will allow you to take an effective ambush somewhere along their travel routes – to and from feed or water. It’s that simple.

Another great thing about early elk is that they are still in summer bachelor groups. During August bowhunts, mature bulls are commonly seen in groups of three to ten, all feeding together. They are easier to locate this way, and more bulls in one spot means a high chance for shooting opportunity.

Be Patient & Aggressive
Depending on the terrain, early elk are ideal for employing spot and stalk. If you can glass them, then you should be able to move on them. The key is glassing them up early enough in the day so you can catch them in a vulnerable spot.

...  Subscribe to Bow & Arrow Hunting Magazine!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Bow Hunting - Trail-Cam Smarts

For as great as scouting technology is, you still have to use it right for top success. Here’s how.

The use of trail cams has become a staple of bowhunting, from using them to identify potential harvest-worthy bucks on a piece of ground to patterning. We all love heading out to check our cams in anticipation of what we might have a chance at slinging an arrow at.

The unfortunate thing about trail cams is that in most cases they aren’t used correctly, which can cost hunters a true buck of a lifetime buck. As an archery outfitter in South Dakota, my livelihood relies on being able to pattern mature bucks, which means I really need to know the ins and outs of effective scouting.

After years of experimentation, here are my suggestions for getting the most out of your scouting techniques, and the best way to use scouting cameras.

Early Bird Catches the Worm
To start with, start scouting in early summer. I spend countless hours behind my spotting scope and binos watching pinch points and traffic areas during the hottest days of the summer. During the summer, whitetails are less nocturnal and this will also give you the chance to see the ratio of does to bucks and also fawns. After two seasons of counting your herd, you will have a good idea of the actual ratio.

Optimal ratio is one or two does for every buck. If you are seeing multiple does without fawns and not a lot of bucks, you better get some extra doe tags and even it out a little. Of course, bucks will be in velvet and still growing, so rubs will be from last year. Dress and prepare as if you were climbing into your stand in the middle of the rut. That’s right, wash your jeans and shirts in scent-killing detergent and spray down before you make your way in. Spray your boots LIBERALLY and also your hands.

For most that have newly acquired ground, the first thing you want to do is find the spot with the most sign, and put a cam or two up. This could be a hunter’s biggest mistake. If you find that spot, there is a good chance you have treaded deep enough and left enough of your own “sign” to make that ghost buck just that—a ghost.

Even the slightest hunch from a wary, mature buck that he is being watched will do one of three things.
1. Turn him nocturnal. 
2. Make him change his travel routes. Or 
3. Make him pack up and head to a different piece of ground all together. Going nocturnal will kill your chances of harvesting him.

If he changes his travel routes, then it’ll start a game of cat and mouse that that will keep you guessing and wondering if he didn’t choose number three and head out altogether. It’s best to avoid all three options. Don’t hesitate to hike into a good glassing spot or park your vehicle a mile or so away from your newly acquired ground and observe. When scouting mule deer, it’s not uncommon to spend three or even four days behind the scope getting a feel for the ground. Whitetail can be observed in the same manner.

Cameras and Placement
You want to start with your camera(s) in spots where there is sign of course, but you should keep it minimal at first; a spot where a row of trees meets a fence, a shallow spot in a creek where the deer are obviously crossing, or just along a fairly used trail. Stay away from rubs, scrapes and definitely bedding areas.

When a mature, dominant buck makes a scrape in the same spot for a couple of years in a row, he is defining his territory. This buck, especially, knows the area well. The last thing you want is a bunch of red lights or a flash lighting him up when he is in one of his most testosterone-filled moments, besides breeding a doe or battling another buck. After all, he is the same deer 20 yards away from the scrape that he is when he is making his presence known on the scrape.

If you insist on placing cams on scrapes, set the unit on “daytime only” mode and place it as far away from the scrape as you can, and also above a deer’s head height. When you hang a picture on your wall, where do you put it? Eye level so everyone sees it. When you set up a stand, where do you put it? Above the deer’s normal line of vision, right?

Do the same with your cameras and not only will you help avoid deer knowing something is different, but you could capture more deer in the background that you might not have caught if the camera was at deer shoulder or head height. I am not saying you should hang your cameras 20 feet up, but simply above head height and facing down where it’s much less invasive.

During the summer months leading into early fall, I only check my cameras once a month; this ensures that I’m not impacting the ground and deer behavior. If I have seen a buck that looks mature with my own eyes and want to verify that he is using the ground, I will pull the cameras completely after the first photo I get of him. Then, I place them back out there three weeks before the season and only check them one time—five or six days before the opener to see if he is pattern-able—but not all bucks are!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Better Way of Learning

As serious archery enthusiasts, we’re all looking for that “silver bullet” piece of advice that will help improve our ability and performance. And in today’s information-packed world, you seemingly don’t have to go very far to find it. One finger click here on the PC and voilĂ ...there’s that magical piece of wisdom we all wanted so badly. Or so we think. 

There’s an ol’ adage that says you can have too much of a good thing. Personally, I think that applies a lot in archery and bowhunting.
Bow & Arrow

Certainly, I can appreciate the basis for Internet forums, blogs and the plethora of “expert”-written articles on the technical aspects of archery gear and technique. It’s fun to offer opinions, participate in friendly debate and to pass on experiences to assist archers in learning. But, my advice is to be careful. Not all guidance is well tested, well thought out or clearly written in order to prevent confusion.

If there’s one thing I can say from my 25 years of shooting and hunting with a bow, it’s this: success often comes down to having a clear head and feeling confident in what you are doing. This means filling your brain with an obscene amount of information can actually be detrimental to learning correctly.  

Would you give a first-time driver 25 tips on how to drive a car correctly? If you did, they’d surely goof. The same goes for archery. The only way you can execute discipline and sound technique is to have a simple map to follow. The “what,” “how” and “why” of what you are doing should be crystal clear and easy to follow, or you’ll likely falter. 

I know this from actual experience. In my beginning years as an enthusiast, I read everything I could get my hands. I wanted to shoot and hunt like a true master. In time, I took what I was reading as the “gospel” and applied every word of it.

The problem was, I found out quickly that words could only take you so far. I slowly realized—through months, if not years, of trial and error—that a lot of what I was reading was actually flawed rather than true. Or, it simply required hands-on instruction to complete. This left me frustrated, confused and unclear on how to proceed. In the end, I lost a lot of valuable learning time due to my so-called “academic” way of learning.

This is where a good bowhunting mentor could have shaved off years of bad instruction. He or she can confirm what you’re reading about, or shoot it down, all based on real-life experience.

Monday, December 3, 2012

7 Accuracy Myths

Bow & Arrow
Through much analysis and testing, this bow hunter knows the truth behind these common bow-hunting fallacies.

Every now and then I come across a new promotional ad that claims how superior one bow hunting product is to another. Of course, being an insider of sorts, I take every one of these “catchy” pitches with a grain of salt.

Over my years as an archery technical guru, I've learned that many things just aren't true—especially smoky sales slogans. Much of my knowledge was gained by actual field experience and religious scientific testing, which seems to disprove many of these theories.

When it comes to bow-hunting gear, here are seven things that I just don't buy.

Myth #1
Mechanical Out-shoot Fixed Heads
This claim is based solely on blade surface area. Although certainly an important component behind broad-head aerodynamics, blade surface is not the only factor that determines how well a broadhead will shoot. 

For example, consistency, in terms of how precise the head is made from one to the next, is crucial as well. I define “consistency” as broad-heads that weigh within one grain or two of each other, no exceptions.

In my experience, most of today’s fixed heads are made more precise because they are machined from a smaller, shorter section of steel, and they utilize fewer moving components. This makes them easy to manufacturer and to keep tolerances extremely tight.

Another constituent is faulty blade capture on many of today's mechanical. Centrifugal force (fast spinning of the arrow) causes many expanding blades and o-rings to flop around at high speed (which you can’t see), causing added vibration and surface area that disrupts an arrow’s flight pattern. With fixed heads, nothing moves, so you don’t have this problem.

Lastly, most mechanical are difficult to practice with. I shoot every one of my hunting arrows several times at 40 yards, using the same broad-head I plan to hunt with. If the arrow/broad-head combo doesn't group well, multiple times, then it doesn't make the cut.

When accuracy is good, I inscribe a small “G” on the arrow's vane using a Sharpie marker, then I install new broad-head blades (or sharpen them), double check alignment by spinning the arrow across rollers and load the arrow in the quiver.

With some mechanical, it’s hard to practice over and over with the same head, without redoing rubber bands, securing blades with wire or epoxy (which changes the grain weight), or dealing with snapped-off blades. The normal procedure is to use a “practice head,” but not all these target heads match the exact blade geometry of the real broad-head, which certainly lessens my confidence.

I’m certainly not saying that all mechanical are poorly designed. Some I actually plan to use out hunting this fall, mainly the models that require little resistance to open and that you can also practice with without having to glue or wire the blades shut.

All in all, to say that mechanical are more accurate than “fixed heads” just isn't true.