— By Dana R. Rogers
I wish I could hunt more. And I know I’m not alone.
If you are the average guy you probably have a full-time job and, perhaps, a wife and a couple kids you are responsible for every day of the week. Maybe you are a single parent or a high-school or college student with obligations that only leave you a handful of precious mornings, evenings or weekends to get afield in the fall.
Regardless of their situation, most hunters seem to dream about getting out more often, but everyday life cuts into time spent on stand. The vast majority have limited time, so making the most out of the time you have is critical to enjoyment and success each season. If you are a busy mom, dad or regular long-hour working man, getting away and maximizing time afield can be tough.
So, what can a hunter do to get the most out of those precious opportunities while holding down a job, taking care of the house and chasing kids? It’s hard to make time for yourself, but if you get a little creative and plan ahead you might be able to squeak out a few extra sits and ensure you put the odds in your favor. If the entire family loves to hunt, hopefully you can make it a family affair. If not, then here are a few options and examples that might help.
Build up some credit at home. Get as many of those “honey dos” knocked out or make a deal to take care of them at night or during the offseason. Maybe you have parents or other family members close by or a good neighbor friend that might watch the kiddos for a few hours in the afternoon. Set the stage long in advance so that when November finally arrives you can muster as many hours in the field as possible.
All of these can possibly get you some extra time on the ground. If these won’t work for you, it’s even more imperative for you to have done everything you can in the way of scouting from home, having a spot or two close, and watching and waiting for the perfect conditions to try and connect.
Scout from Home
You might not have time to drive an hour or more to your hunting spot on a regular basis, but you can scout it now from your house. Check aerial photos and topo maps, or go to Google Earth on the Internet. The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department has some great interactive maps that show public lands as well as section lines and hunting zones. Public land do-it-yourself guys will want to get a GPS chip like the great ones made by OnXMaps (www.onxmaps.com), which includes landowner names to help get in contact for permission.
Spend a few evenings poring over the images. Study the lay of the land, fields and waterways. Look for any terrain and obvious crop fields where deer will feed and travel. Check for thick cover such as tree strips, CRP grass or dry sloughs where deer may bed and hide. Don’t overlook streams, erosion ditches or even brushy fence lines that funnel and connect feeding and bedding travel corridors. By studying and analyzing the imagery, you can eliminate a ton of marginal deer habitat before you ever leave your home. Then, when you can get a day off, you’re ready to drive out and scout the areas to pinpoint where the deer sign confirms your initial thoughts.
For the weekend warrior, a morning or afternoon of “speed scouting” will be time well spent. Slip on rubber boots and go for a walk. I prefer to take a few hours in the middle of the day when deer often are bedded up (except for during the chase phase). Refer to the maps you made at home, and hit those spots you thought looked the best. Hike the edges of fields, checking for trails that lead into bedding thickets, sloughs or CRP fields. Don’t dive too deep into the security cover and spook your quarry, though. Look for fresh tracks, droppings, rubs and scrapes to find where the hot movement is currently taking place.
You’ll likely locate the best sign near food sources such as soybeans, alfalfa or corn. When your scouting and hunting time are limited, you can never go wrong by hunting near a hot food source. Also, be sure to monitor where other hunters will park their trucks and hunt. This is critically important on public land. Plan to set your stand or blind off the beaten path of a major parking entry area. This can help keep others from messing you up.
If the area is large enough, you may have two strategies to look at. The first is to get as far away from the other pressure as you can. The other is to hunt closer areas that other hunters bypass. Don’t forget word of mouth and social media to get the most recent information. If your neighbor is combining corn and pushes some deer from the field he’s harvesting into a spot you have permission to hunt, getting a call from him might just put you in the chips.
The Stand Next Door
If you have the access, being able to hunt a spot within close proximity to your home can really be a huge benefit. Urban areas often allow bowhunting, or if there is a piece of public land close by, you can get in a few hours after work or even a quick sit before work if your schedule permits. There are some really productive opportunities for bowhunters within just a few minutes of several of the larger communities in the state — you just have to seek them out and go.
If you are heading to “The Hills” or West River, you will have to rely on some past history or exclusively on in-home scouting to give you a leg up on your weekend-warrior excursions. In those cases, I highly recommend doing some midday scouting or even dedicating the day before opening morning to scouting or even hunting from a good observation point that can give you a few nuggets of intel on movement patterns.
If you are hunting close to home and time is at an ultra-premium, waiting for the perfect opportunity to go and striking while the iron is hot is absolutely paramount. Personally, I prefer to bowhunt, but if I am limited on time and need to maximize my yield of deer meat, rifle hunting is the way to go. Sure, there will be more pressure, but the other hunters will get deer moving, and the first day or two of the season is your best chance to tag some venison, especially if you aren’t too choosy. Rifle success rates easily double, if not triple, the annual harvest rates of archers.
If your time to hunt is limited like most people, you can still experience some success hunting and traveling for deer. It just takes planning and forethought.
When I have an extra day off, I like to take it later during the week or on a Friday. You can catch the deer in a bit of an unpressured state, or certainly with much less pressure than you will find on the weekend or on a Sunday or Monday just after they’ve been pushed around all weekend.
When I’m bowhunting in November or December I’m watching for critical rut timing patterns and later weather that pushes rut- and winter-weary deer onto hot food sources. A few years ago I noted a solid cold front moving in from the north in late October. I was able to take off from work and load the truck for a quick three-day bowhunt that I’d initially planned to take the following week. Setting up a few tree stands in previously located pinch points, I was able to intercept a nice, fat buck the following morning as the cold front and impending rut had bucks on their feet.
Later that same year I drew a coveted muzzleloader license and saved it for late December when I knew the local herds would be yarded up on some standing food sources. With temperatures hovering around zero degrees the day after Christmas, I knew it was a now-or-never scenario. Though my camera froze up and prevented me from capturing it on video, I sealed the deal on my largest buck ever by utilizing trail camera images to drill down on this particular buck’s late-season food patterns. Only hunting two days, I was extremely blessed to wrap my muzzleloader tag around that gorgeous South Dakota buck.
It’s never a bad idea to wait until conditions are perfect to strike. With limited time to hunt, don’t waste it on terrible weather patterns and force a low-percentage sit. If you have to pick your poison, rifle seasons offer far better success rates and getting permission on something close to home really puts you ahead of the game. If you are traveling for a weekend turn and burn, put in your time pre-scouting online. Hunt hard, hunt smart and hunt all weekend.
Think about your historical success. I always note dates and locations in a journal and refer to those for future hunts. I also have a library of trail camera photos from a few properties that shows me historical trends on when bucks show up and actually move during daylight.
Not every hunter out there can take a week or two of vacation for hunting. I’m blessed that my career allows me to take a few days off each year that I can dedicate solely to hunting. I also have a very understanding family that knows this is the time I gather our meat and regain my sanity.
Unfortunately, most parents with young children don’t have that type of luxury, especially when a job needs to take precedence to pay the bills. If this applies to you, think about a few of these ideas, as they might just help you maximize your chances of filling your tag this fall. As always when afield, respect the land, respect the landowner and respect the wildlife.
About the Author: Dana R. Rogers grew up in central South Dakota before joining the U.S. Air Force. He can be reached with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.