If football is a game of inches, then hunting is a chase of split-seconds.
Hunts are made or lost with one turn of the head. If you turn one second late, you can overlook the buck of a lifetime or watch it step into your scent stream before you can react. Either way, it’s an opportunity squandered.
Some hunters consistently capitalize on those chances and others regularly fumble them. Translation: Some hunters are apex predators and others master spectators.
Yes, luck and location always factor in, but long hunting seasons and years in the woods eventually take their measure of every hunter. Computing and analyzing those “measurables,” however, is hard.
Greg Miller, a veteran whitetail hunter from Wisconsin, has dragged big bucks out of Northern forests and Midwestern farmlands for decades. One look at his intense eyes and you think, “predator.” But when asked what separates a good hunter from the pack, Miller thinks a bit and shrugs.
“At risk of sounding weird, you have it or you don’t,” Miller said. “One guy who always had it is Myles Keller. That guy’s a predator. He’s extremely intense. He’s got it figured out. I don’t know how to describe it, but Myles knows how and where to kill big whitetails.”
It’s interesting that Miller singles out Keller, a Minnesota bowhunter with dozens of record-book whitetails on his wall. Keller also caught the attention of M.R. James, founding editor of Bowhunter magazine. In his 2007 book, Unforgettable Bowhunters, James, a top predator himself, wrote this about Keller: “He exudes a quiet confidence shared by all successful athletes—and hunters. … Myles is one of that rare breed of bowhunters who can walk into the woods, look around and say, ‘Here’s where I’m going to kill a big buck!’ And then do it!”
Okay. So good hunters are intense and confident, traits easier recognized than measured. There are two other traits of top predators that can be measured, at least in part: “experienced” and “observant.”
Chris Jacques, an associate professor at Western Illinois University, previously worked as a researcher for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. To assess how well hunters see telemetry collars on whitetails, Jacques and his research team placed full-body deer mounts at 30, 60 and 90 meters from elevated stands during tests in early August and late September 2009. The decoys were positioned facing, broadside and quartering away from each stand, with three levels of vegetation obstructing the hunter’s view.
In all, 246 hunters participated in the study, including 130 novices and 116 experienced hunters serving as mentors. Who had the better game eye? Not surprisingly, the experienced hunters performed best, with 81 percent of mentors vs. 53 percent of novices spotting all three deer. Experience also proved more important than visual obstructions in determining which decoys they saw.
“Time spent afield probably better develops a hunter’s ability to search and recognize images like ears, noses and horizontal lines against natural backgrounds,” Jacques said. “An experienced hunter’s awareness goes beyond the animal itself. They’re consistently more aware of their surroundings, and what fits and what doesn’t.”
Researchers at Mississippi State University also documented that some hunters have “it” and others don’t. In a study of how GPS-equipped deer respond to different levels of hunting pressure on a property in Oklahoma, the MSU team also noticed some hunters consistently saw more deer than their counterparts. This caused one of the researchers, Andrew Little, to remark: “As hunters, maybe we’re one of the reasons we don’t see deer.”
As the researchers charted time on stand and deer observations for 83 rifle-hunters in the 2008 study, the hunters’ deer observation rates (minutes per deer seen) placed them in one of three categories: 25 percent were rated “successful” hunters, 50 percent rated “average” and 25 percent rated “least successful.” Good hunters saw a deer every three hours and 20 minutes on average, while the poor hunters averaged more than seven hours and 54 minutes per sighting.
“Some hunters went afield and saw deer each outing, and another group went out day after day and barely saw a deer,” said Stephen Webb, one of the MSU researchers. “Maybe they were novices or maybe they didn’t hunt good areas, but some hunters consistently didn’t see deer. As to why they don’t see deer, we’re still working on that.”
Can We Study Hunters?
One reason for that mystery is because deer aren’t as tricky to study as hunters and their personality traits. “We can’t ask hunters about some things that probably matter a lot in their effectiveness,” said MSU professor Steve Demarais. “For instance, we can’t ask if they have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or some other condition.”
Of course, researchers could ask hunters if they scout hard, monitor food sources and stay quiet, alert and focused on stand. But unless you can watch hunters with a surveillance camera the entire time they’re in the woods, you can’t certify their behaviors match their answers.
For instance, how often do you text and check email on your smartphone? Do you play games or read news on your smartphone, and for how long? How much time do you spend scouting? Do you keep your blind’s weather-proof windows closed? Do you need glasses or hearing aids, but decline to use them? Do you choose your site each time based on wind? Do you regularly scan your surroundings with a binocular? How far do you walk to your stands?
Demarais and his MSU colleague Bronson Strickland hope to get such insights into hunter behavior as more hunters download and use MSU’s “Deer Hunt” app on their smartphones. The app lets hunters log their deer sightings, harvest data, stand selection, wind direction, hunting method and many other factors to help assess which stands or conditions yield the best results. Assuming enough hunters participate, all that data can then be pooled at the local, state, regional and national levels by MSU to learn more about hunters, success rates, hunting tactics and deer-herd dynamics.
Optimism is Vital
In the meantime, and no matter what the researchers might find, hunters will always be responsible for gaining experience and honing their craft. Given that, hunters with optimistic personalities probably stand the best chance of succeeding.
“If you wake up thinking, ‘I probably won’t see anything today,’ well, guess what, you probably won’t,” said Janis Putelis of Montana, who grew up hunting whitetails in Michigan and then spent a decade guiding elk hunters in Colorado. “A big part of optimism comes down to stamina and physical conditioning. If you’re in shape, you’re typically happier, more alert and more comfortable in the woods. Your attitude keeps you sharp. If you aren’t seeing animals where you’re hunting, you’re fit enough and optimistic enough to go find them.”
That can mean eagerly hiking deep into the woods. “A lot of guys spend their entire season road-hunting, either from inside their truck or within five to 10 minutes of it,” Putelis said. “Once you’re in the woods, you’ll see a huge difference if you can start hunting at the 2-mile mark rather than turning around at the 2-mile mark.”
That ability to avoid crowds and find unpressured game is vital to success. In the MSU study mentioned earlier, researchers fitted GPS-equipped collars to 52 adult bucks and soon learned they respond quickly to hunting pressure.
In general, the researchers found that one hunter for every 250 acres had minimal impacts on the bucks, but sightings dropped steadily during the three-weekend season as the bucks moved less in daylight. The impacts were greater with one hunter every 75 acres. At that density of hunters, bucks quickly avoided open areas and increased their use of security cover. Those actions reduced their risks and decreased the hunters’ observation rates.
“We saw behavioral impacts almost immediately,” Webb said. “These were adult bucks, and they started moving away from fields and openings once hunters entered the woods. They moved into the better woodland habitats and sat tight. They didn’t flee the country. Even in the areas with high hunter densities, sightings dropped right off.”
In other words, even with more hunters moving around to bump deer—one benefit often cited for hunting crowded areas—the bucks hunkered down and stayed put.
Increase Your Options
Hunters who understand those hunter-caused impacts usually have options if they’ve scouted the area, know what’s out there and respect the wind direction at all times. Maybe they’ve also placed trail cameras and identified some deep-woods areas deer use early and late in the day. Even so, don’t fixate on those photos.
“Assumptions aren’t your allies,” Miller said. “Pay attention to what’s around you, all 360 degrees, the whole time you’re on stand. Trail-cam photos are nice, but too many guys put their stand where they can watch the exact spot where that buck got his picture taken. They lose their edge when they forget about their surroundings. They’re so focused on that spot they don’t hear or see the buck walking in from behind. The same thing happens with baiting.”
The possibility of being caught off-guard further increases for each second focused on a book or smartphone. Enclosed blinds can cause similar handicaps, especially those with solid walls and sliding windows that seal out sound or make it difficult to pinpoint noises. And if you’re afflicted with tinnitus (permanent ringing in the ears), realize you’re at a further disadvantage.
“My hearing is getting bad,” Miller concedes. “I’m seriously considering hearing aids. When your wife constantly has to repeat things when you’re not facing her, it’s time to admit you’re losing an edge in the woods. The closer a buck gets without you hearing or seeing it, the better the chances you’ll blow your chance.”
If you’re doing everything right and still not seeing deer, don’t panic. Get creative. “If you’ve done your homework, you know the deer are around somewhere,” Miller said. “Go to Plan B, but not the next county. If you haven’t figured them out at ‘home,’ you’re not going to kill them somewhere else. I always have a backup plan. I’m willing to try stuff other guys consider nuts. Why not? I’ve got nothing to lose.”
For instance, who would use a buck decoy right after Labor Day for whitetails? Miller, that’s who. One afternoon he saw three bucks challenging each other far beyond bow range in a hayfield. He returned the next evening and staked out his decoy. As the shadows lengthened from the round hay bales around him, Miller watched a large buck enter the field a quarter-mile away, spot the decoy and march over to exert its authority. The buck learned a lesson seconds later, but it provided him no further benefit.
Extend Your Learning
When hunters enjoy such success, Putelis encourages them to find ways to stay afield. “A predator spends the same amount of time afield in one year than most guys do in five,” he said. “Too many guys shoot something, spend 15 minutes taking photos and posting them on Instagram, and then go home for the season.
“If I could do it, I’d never kill anything till the last day of the season,” Putelis continued. “I want as many experiences in the woods as I can get. If that means going back out grouse hunting or squirrel hunting, that’s what I’ll do. Learning to spot a squirrel flattened on a branch 50 feet up a tree makes it much easier to see a buck coming through the woods when you’re deer hunting.”
That extra time afield also provides insights into deer patterns, bedding sites and food sources. “What makes guys successful often comes down to basics, and taking time to assess things,” Putelis said. “It’s not all effort. I know guys who are always out there tearing it up, but they can’t put the puzzle pieces together. The more you learn about your area, and the more you know what’s between here and there, the more likely you’ll know what’s going on.”
All the while, be patient. Transforming yourself from a woodland spectator to a well-fed meat-eater won’t happen in one season. Even the best predators come home empty-handed more often than not. The difference, though, is that no matter how often they fail, they awake the next day feeling wiser and more confident, eager for the next opportunity.
After all, as the saying goes, experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.