The Red Zone. In the football vernacular, most of us understand that it refers to the area of the field between the 20-yard line and the goal line. One definition goes on to say, “The term is mostly for statistical, psychological, and commercial advertising purposes”. Bow hunting also involves a small area within which to score - and I can certainly understand the psychological part of the definition. It is a reality that we occasionally spook the bucks we are hunting; especially while bow hunting. However, the most frustrating and bewildering moment comes when we get busted while preparing for a shot well within our range; even worse as we draw our bow back. Just the thought makes me cringe. Horrific memories of actual encounters gone bad are etched in my brain.
My hunts aren’t captured on hunting shows or even personal videos. For this, I’m often relieved. I do however recall a hunt from earlier this season that was truly made for TV; until the moment of truth when everything fell apart. For me, this was a dream hunt. The kind that will provide detailed memories for as long as I live. It was during Texas’ peak rut and late in the morning, a doe entered in front of me and started to feed. Only seconds later, I heard a series of grunts and steps coming my way from up the ravine to my right. A ravine that led right under my stand. This was one of those moments when you know something good is about to happen. There was no disappointment, as a puffed up 9-pointer soon was in front of me. Over the years, I’ve downed my share of deer, but this time I was a mess. I waited forever for the perfect shot. Looking back, Probably an entire two minutes... The buck was fixated on the doe and slightly screened by limbs from the live oak I sat in. He was ripe for the taking. I carefully started my draw and he jerked, stared at me... and ran. Game over. I spent the next hour sitting in that tripod stand reflecting on my biggest mistake.
Actually, in this case, I flat out didn’t take into account just how close this buck was. In my haste and quest to capitalize on a “chip shot”, I failed to acknowledge that the deer was a mere 10-12 yards away. He was so close, it didn’t even cross my mind. I know that judging distance takes practice and I also use a laser rangefinder. However, in this case, all I really had to do was wait long enough for the buck to move out a little farther. After all, he wasn’t going to venture out much beyond the hot doe, which was at about 30 yards. Adrenaline had gotten the better of me.
Though this was by far my biggest miscue during this hunt, here are just a few others to avoid when bucks come in too close for comfort. Though this short list doesn't include scent control, it may still seem like bow hunting 101 - but if you’re anything like me, they’re mistakes that are sometimes repeated.
Movement and Impatience
As bowhunters, we try different tactics to keep deer from seeing our movement when coming in close. For example, when a deer is approaching, some hunters simply draw earlier to prevent being spotted. While this can work, it can be a real wild card. Not only can it be a strain and effect accuracy, letting down results in a lot of abrupt movement. However, if you’re going to wait it out, then truly wait it out. Be still and let the situation unfold. Says the bowhunter that blew a chance at a nice buck at 10 yards… My fidgety ways have at times cost me shots. I’ve also been fooled by bluffing deer lowering their head only to catch me trying to capitalize on it. Yes, suspicious deer try to sucker you into moving by dropping their head and then picking it up abruptly. It’s like they’re staring into your soul. Most of us know this all too well. Though it’s often hard to hold off, be patient and take extra time to let them settle in. Also, make your set up comfortable enough to minimize squirming.
Hunting Equipment: Less is Better
I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve inadvertently bumped into my quiver or other gear. The resulting noise is almost always a deal breaker during close encounters with whitetails. If you insist on taking a lot of equipment, at least organize it in a way you can maintain silence. Set it or hang it within reach, but far enough away to avoid blunders. This goes for smartphones and reading glasses too by the way.
Decreasing Exposure Through Stand Adjustments
Most of us set our blinds and tree stands directly on a major food source. This, of course, gives us a bird’s eye view and a clear shot at deer. However, it also gives deer VIP seating for viewing us – especially later in the season when many trees have lost their foliage. This doesn’t mean we have to make wholesale changes to our stand placement, rather a little fine-tuning. For example, tree stand hunters can simply move their stand a few degrees to the right (for right-handed shooters), for better concealment. This provides a means of somewhat using the tree to screen you when drawing. While this makes spotting deer a little more difficult, it can help you to get off a shot undetected. For ground blinds and other bow setups, this can mean simply moving or angling the stand just enough to better take advantage of cover or minimizing silhouetting. Here, adding cut limbs or camo cloth for additional cover is always an option too.
It’s ironic that our goal is to bring bucks in close, yet it can be so difficult when they truly get in our kitchen. And there is a lot to lose regarding spooking deer. Making mistakes in close quarters with them not only can ruin the hunt but have long-lasting implications. At a minimum, bucks adjust their travels when they encounter humans. Usually, however, our up-close gaffes result in shocked deer that have now pinpointed our location. Deer certainly remember it too. Even if they return to the spot, they’ll be overly cautious – once again, making close encounters difficult. The fact of the matter is that we will spook deer at times. Nonetheless, it’s good to keep in mind the implications of doing so. To minimize disaster, the little things matter. There is a lot on the line when deer draw near.
Based in Texas, Jerald Kopp is President of 1st Light Hunting Journal. His content is largely about hunting strategies and the outdoor lifestyle – often from a Christian perspective. Jerald is an avid outdoorsman with deer hunting and whitetails being by far his greatest passion. In 2005, he established the Empowerment Outfitter Network (EON) – a faith-based non-profit organization that provides hunting opportunities for disabled and terminally-ill children and youth. When not hunting, he spends his time traveling and enjoying life with Amy, his wife of 30 years. Jerald and Amy have two adult daughters and a son-in-law.