When I think of bowhunting, I think first of a bright September afternoon. The breeze is balmy, bearing just a hint of cut clover, and autumn. As I wade through the waving hay, I find myself hurrying, though I don't need to, my heart pounding more from excitement than exertion. I can't explain why, after so many seasons, I still yearn for the long sojourn in the old field-edge oak.
This September will bring my 30th opening day waiting for deer at a field. It'll be enough at first just to empty my mind as I overlook the panoramic farmland, feeling the city stress evaporating, carried off on a breeze. Then, just as the wait becomes a bit tedious, there'll come the snapping of a twig. That'll be all I'll need to stay stone-still for the next hour. As the weakening sun touches the horizon, I'll know that with each passing minute the chance of a deer appearing will be better than the minute before.
I probably won't even draw my bow. But I'll spy deer in the distance, stepping tentatively from the honeysuckle into the crew-cut clover, and that'll make my wait worthwhile. As darkness descends, I'll relinquish my stand very carefully. If they see me, these deer will never return in light of day. And I have a passion to replay this game, to see them again and get closer, till I'm finally close enough.
Bowhunting Fields Is Exciting
There's something exciting, refreshing about hunting whitetails around fields. Hunting an expansive, open area gives the feeling of freedom. Deer love the transition zones and abound there in the early season; seldom a day goes by that you don't see deer. And hunting correctly on a field edge is one of your best bets to take a deer with a bow.
Bowhunters are quick to learn that cropland attracts whitetails. Deer make their presence obvious. The sight of a deer just before season, just out of reach, raises a hunter's hopes. But simply posting on the edge of a field where deer appear is not an especially productive method. There are strategies to up your odds of taking a crop-fattened whitetail, and special tactics that are fun and efficient.
Preseason scouting is most important for the field hunter. It seems stylish these days to advocate spending every day of the year in the woods preparing for next hunting season. But the value of this year-round scouting is overrated, and out of the question for most bowhunters, who have jobs, responsibilities, and other hobbies. An early-spring excursion to look for dropped antlers and remnants of scrapes can give clues to where bucks might be found next season. But the most useful off-season scouting is to prepare for the first couple weeks of hunting on the edges of fields. Concentrate your scouting there.
Edges See Daylight Movement
Before the season opens, deer are undisturbed and feed mostly in open croplands. Biologists have found that crops comprise about 80 percent of the whitetail's diet in farmland areas. More daylight deer movement occurs at the edges of fields than anywhere else. This heavy traffic of deer, and their high visibility, makes field edges logical hunting sites as the season begins.
Some fields attract many more deer than others do. Corn is first on the list of a deer's forage preferences, followed by clover, soybeans, and other hay crops. In all cases but corn, it's best if the crop has not been harvested.
Standing corn is, of course, more thicket than field and different rules apply when hunting there. The best type of field, though rare and difficult to find, is a vegetable patch near bedding cover where deer have not been harassed -- they prefer vegetables, such as tomatoes, broccoli, and spinach, to hay and grain. Other factors, such as human activity and the availability of cover and water, will determine how popular the field is with deer.
Generally, most deer hunting is around soybean and hay fields. Deer sign at the field edge is easy to read here. To scout a field, walk a wooded edge and identify the most well worn trails that cut through the thick transition zone. Look for fresh droppings and tracks, which distinguish trails currently in use. In the evening, observe the edges from distant cover, with binoculars, to see where deer commonly enter the field first. You'll usually find the most heavily used field entry and exit points are corners and secluded "coves" where the field juts into the woods.
Deer Wary Of The Wind
Most fields have only one or two sides with cover from which deer enter regularly. Most hunters believe they should hunt an edge upwind of the field so they will not be scented by approaching deer. This sometimes works, but in my experience deer realize they are handicapped when they can't smell what's ahead. Bucks especially hang back and wait for dark, or at least send does ahead to scout. Deer will approach a field by walking into the wind if they can. The best field-hunting strategy is to eliminate as much scent as possible by keeping clean and using a high treestand, and hunting a downwind field edge.
The next best bet is to hunt a field with only one edge adjacent to cover, which gives deer no choice in which direction they can head toward the field. This also applies to mountainous areas, where croplands are found mainly in valleys. Here, deer typically bed on the surrounding hillsides during the day, working downhill toward the field each evening. They usually must travel in the same direction as thermal air currents, which impairs their scent defense. Deer become used to the handicap, but are very wary in such situations.
To play the wind right, have stands set up at various directions from fields, and keep tabs on wind patterns. Remember that in most regions the prevailing wind is from the west, especially as the sun begins to sink, which is field-hunting time.
After identifying favorite field entry trails, follow them into the woods to the field perimeter trail, which can invariably be found running parallel to the field edge about 20 yards into the woods. Erect stands in several good intersections. Block off other nearby entry trails with branches so deer will funnel past your stand. Do this at least a couple weeks prior to the season. All activity in scouting and preparing the site should be done at long-range or at midday so you are not detected by deer.
Edges Good Early
The first couple evenings, you may have the best luck hunting right on the field edge. Does, small bucks, and occasionally mature bucks come out in daylight until they start detecting hunters. They often walk field edges, especially those of standing cornfields, giving a hunter on the edge another intersection to watch. It also lets you watch the entire field for deer activity, which may tip you off to the current "hot" evening trail.
Don't let a few deer sightings at the field fool you, however. Many hunters spend far too much time right on the edge of the field, falsely encouraged by seeing a few deer there, not realizing they'd be better off just back in the woods. In most cases, you're better off hunting the intersection of the entrance trail and the perimeter trail. Deer typically slow their approach as they near the field edge. They search for signs of danger, and often are sidetracked by the choice browse found there. They may turn back, or loiter in the thick field edge until dark. Hunting a few yards back in the woods can make a difference in whether you encounter them before shooting hours end.
In my observations from this type of stand, about three-fourths of the deer seen come straight to the field, and about one-fourth walk the perimeter trail. Perimeter trails get much use by deer that are skirting the field to enter it from a downwind side. They are also used by traveling deer that are circling the field to avoid exposing themselves. Keep that in mind when positioning the treestand -- set yourself up for the most comfortable shot based on the most likely direction of deer travel.
Please read more tips in Part 2.
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