Deer Season: 6 Steps to Remember in September
by Gary Lewis
Pick up any lifestyle magazine and you’ll find 1001 ways to change your life forever. Better career, better relationships, better golf game, sculpted abs, how to stage a romantic getaway. Important stuff, but none of it counts the last week of September.
If you haven’t looked at the calendar lately, opening day of deer season is not far off. If you’re a bowhunter, the season is only a month away. For me, it hit home when I received the postcard that said I’d drawn a Snake River deer tag.
I’m not ready and you probably aren’t either, but we can get there. Here are six steps to take as the days grow shorter and the aspen leaves turn yellow in the high country.
Get in shape. I’m convinced there are a lot of deer that hunters never see. Most of them live more than half a mile from the nearest road. To reach them takes the kind of endurance that is forged in the gym, on a bike or on the butte. The last two months before the season is when I switch from weight training to biking and hiking. After a couple of trips up the hill, I put on a full pack.
Target practice. A lot of people sight-in the rifle before the season. They fire a few rounds from the bench to make sure the bullets are hitting the paper and call it ‘good enough.’ It’s not good enough. Chances are sometime in September or October, there’ll be a shot that will make or break the season.
It may be a 70-yard standing offhand shot like my first crack at a forked horn. It may be a 137-yard running poke like the one I had to make on my best-ever mule deer.
If you’re a bowhunter, shoot at least twice a week. The week before the season, concentrate on making one good shot each day. You can hit the shots that matter if you create an attitude of accuracy, commit to regular practice, learn the ballistic characteristics of your favorite load or arrow and focus on the fundamentals. Best of all, target practice calms the jitters that lead to buck fever.
Scout deer country from your kitchen table. Fuel costs are high, but paper is still relatively cheap. Focus your interest on three or four core areas and buy the topographic maps for each spot. Pick out the saddles that deer use to cross from one drainage into another. Find the springs where they get their water. Identify the benches where they sit, three-quarters of the way up the hill to catch the scent of predators on the rising thermals. Hint: a buck will rarely bed more than 800 yards from its water source.
Watch from a distance. In mule deer country and in some blacktail habitats, a spotting scope can help you get close to the deer. Until the end of August, most of the bucks will seek out the high, open slopes to make their living. Bucks tend to avoid brushy cover while the antlers are tender. Set the spotting scope at 20x and scan a pattern from closest country to furthest then do it again until the deer start to show.
More than seeing deer on a scouting trip, I want to see deer sign. I want to identify buck tracks around a water hole. Once I find a spot where a big buck gets his water, I can make reasonable guesses about where he’s bedding and feeding. And where he’ll go when pressured.
Devise a back-up plan. The best-laid plans go awry on Opening Day. Someone else got there first or a forest fire pushed the deer into the next unit. It can happen. Maybe it’s just as simple as a change in the wind and weather. Whatever the reason, you need a Plan B. In fact, I plan my hunts so that, if I have to, I can hunt three different areas in the first three days.
Look at pressure limiters. Cattle, campgrounds, fences, road closures, rimrocks and water all tend to limit or redirect hunting pressure. Pay attention to how certain factors tend to channel your fellow hunters in predictable patterns, then do something different.
Once we noticed how the hunters at the next camp roared off north, south and east at first light every day. We made it a point to wait until they were gone, then we hunted 200 yards west of their camp. We jumped a 30-inch buck. My partner missed because he hadn’t practiced for that going-away shot. He hasn’t been the same since.
Come to think of it, after I hunted my first deer season, my life was changed forever, too. As long as mule deer inhabit the high and wild places and as long as blacktails ghost along the edge of the timber, I’ll be there with my binoculars and a rifle. And the better for it.