The Surprising Benefits of Ground Blinds
Posted on December 20, 2011
Everyone knows that to kill whitetails with a bow you have to be at least 15 feet off the ground, right?
Wrong. Today’s combination of safe, inexpensive portable treestands and an extreme focus on hunting trophy bucks has turned ground hunting into a dying art–a trend that’s likely causing bowhunters to miss out on some great opportunities and a lot of fun. On nearly every property I hunt, there are excellent ambush sites that offer no possibility of placing effective treestands. I emphasize the word, “effective,” because there are sometimes trees available, but those in poor position relative to deer movement don’t offer shot opportunities, and trees with too little cover are sure recipes for getting busted.
Deer move in spatial patterns governed by food, habitat structure, topography and wind direction. Bucks especially like to move in thick cover or on the edge of it–for instance, where a thicket meets a swamp or field. It’s no coincidence that the thickest places have few trees, since tree canopies block sunlight, which prevents development of brushy security cover.
In my area of upstate New York and much of the Northeast, farm abandonment during the past 50 years has created a plethora of brush-choked fields that provide bedding cover and food but lack trees for hanging a stand. I would guess that many of the very best areas for daytime deer activity go unexplored by bowhunters who think that hunting on the ground is a waste of time.
I remember watching a video several years ago that featured Mark and Terry Drury hunting the early season in Wyoming. After numerous unsuccessful hunts, the reluctant brothers decided to set up on the ground at the edge of a brushy bedding area.
Improvising, they used 5-gallon buckets for seats and brush trimmings for cover. The duo seemed embarrassed at trying this ridiculous tactic, and Terry was genuinely dumbfounded when he tagged a wide eight-point that went down within sight. It takes just one experience like that to make you a believer.
Hunting mature bucks is fun, and I don’t deny that it’s what turns my “bowhunting crank.” However, I also like to eat venison, so filling the freezer is important to me, too.
For the experienced hunter, it can get a little routine shooting does, especially in farmland and suburban areas where deer are abundant and relatively easy to ambush from elevated stands. So, awhile back, I started spending more time on the ground for the added challenge. Getting down to earth (pun intended) has taught me a lot about deer behavior and what works and what doesn’t when you’re at eye level with deer.
The main principles of successful deer hunting are the same–whether you’re aloft or planted on the ground, but there are some nuances that are particular to each approach. Nevertheless, they’re all about fooling a deer’s senses.
Be Easy on Their Eyes
In their video, the Drury brothers unknowingly debunked a common misconception about ground hunting and a deer’s ability to see.
Many hunters believe that if you are on the ground, you must be totally hidden within a pop-up blind or wall of brush. I’ve actually found that having complete concealment isn’t necessary and is sometimes a liability, because it limits your line of sight and effective shooting zones.
I like to set up with a sparse screen of brush or mesh fabric in front of me and a visually complicated backdrop behind me. Good backgrounds include upturned stumps, the dense tops of fallen trees, thick shrubs such as rose or honeysuckle and rocky outcrops. The idea is to break your silhouette, not completely hide your form.
My standard set up is a lightweight, folding aluminum stool and a skirt-type blind, which is nothing more than camo fabric attached to telescoping fiberglass stakes. With these items attached to my backpack, I can be set up in a few minutes. Brush blinds work great if they are built ahead of time, but for wily whitetails, building an impromptu blind can exceed acceptable disturbance and scent levels.
If I’m hunting an open area where I know that it’s difficult to find a good backdrop, I’ll often wear a ghillie suit. One note of caution, however: Ghillie suits are great at breaking the human silhouette, but they are not so great for uninhibited bow shooting. I strongly suggest practicing with your full suit on and trimming the strands that interfere with the travel of your bowstring.
When evaluating your ground setup, try to imagine how a deer might see the situation. Because deer are prey animals, their eyes are positioned on the sides of their head, allowing for a wide field of view and an excellent ability to sense movement, but poor depth perception. In my experience, the keys are to stay in the shadows, make sure you have adequate back cover and limit your movement.
If you’re nestled in heavy cover, such as a cattail marsh or standing corn field, cut a few narrow sight windows to either side of your shooting lane so that you can see deer coming and be prepared. Otherwise, if a deer pops from the cover unexpectedly, you’ll have to make too much movement to get ready. The key is to be in position before the deer steps into your shooting lane.
In open habitats, such as field edges and power line cuts, it’s good to give the deer something other than you to focus on. Deer decoys work best, but they are often cumbersome and can be dangerous to use when hunting from the ground. As a safe alternative, a turkey decoy will focus a deer’s attention and give it confidence that everything is safe.
Several seasons ago, during New York’s late archery season, I pushed the limits of good sense by setting up on the ground in a large opening with little cover. It was too cold to crawl up in a tree, and the unusual east wind didn’t allow me to hunt from my usual ground blind on the opening’s opposite side. I hoped my doe decoy would keep any passing deer distracted enough to allow me to draw my bow unseen. It worked–in the middle of a wicked snow squall. A year-and-half-old doe tarried too long at my decoy, giving me just the chance I needed. The shot was true, adding some much appreciated venison to the freezer.
Nullify Their Noses
Deer are notorious for their acute sense of smell. Scent molecules from our bodies drift from a treestand like snowflakes on a gentle breeze. On a day with consistent wind, we can use this to our advantage, as a deer approaching from upwind can move downwind near our tree while our scent drifts harmlessly overhead.
From the ground, however, there is no buffering of our stench. If a deer gets downwind, you are usually busted. For this reason, playing the wind is do or die when ground hunting. I’m pretty careful about my scent-control, but the fact is, if a deer gets downwind of you, you might as well have a neon sign advertising your location. The best medicine is to not let that happen.
For this reason, I try to follow these rules: (1) Never hunt flats on days without a predominant wind direction; (2) In the evenings, take advantage of downward-moving thermals on ridges; (3) always be cognizant of when the wind shifts uphill during mid- to late morning; (4) when possible, hunt with your back to a feature that deer are reluctant to move through, such as a water body or open field. To be sure of my wind situation, I like to use baking powder in a squeeze bottle to frequently check wind direction. During pre-dawn, a disposable lighter works great to detect subtle air movements.
Sometimes, the wind just doesn’t cooperate. Last season I was after a good buck that I called “Sandy’s Slammer,” in reference to the landowner’s name. Arriving at Sandy’s property, I discovered that the weatherman must have been smoking something funny, because the wind was not behaving at all as he predicted. I knew that to hunt the blind I had hoped to would just send my scent sailing through the “Slammer’s” bedding area, so I headed for the other end of the property.
Decked out in my ghillie suit and tucked into the top of a fallen white pine, I was eager to see how my setup performed. I didn’t have long to wait.
Just after nocking an arrow, I saw legs approaching through the dogwood brush to my left. Before long, the old doe was nearly in my lap. With a steady wind in my face, I focused on remaining completely motionless.
After browsing some multiflora rose not 25 feet from me, she moved to the far side of the opening, turning away at a hard angle. I remember thinking that the angle might be too hard, because it really narrowed my effective target. But I was already committed, and the string slipped from my fingers.
I watched, dismayed, as the arrow struck the right hindquarter and disappeared, angling forward into the body cavity. After a tough tracking job that took me in a half-mile semi-circle through head-high dogwood, I finally found the doe very much dead.