What's a very overlooked, but important bowhunting routine? Setting up strategic observation locations. I learned the importance of this a couple seasons ago, and learned it through heartbreak. What I found from that experience was that observing from afar can help you see more deer throughout the season, increase potential harvest opportunities, and provide more high quality woods time. Not sure about you, but those are the qualities I’m looking to increase each season.
It was early October 2019 and I was hunting a friend's 25 acre parcel after doing some timber stand improvement (TSI) work (white dash area on map) in the northwest corner of the property. This property has a long finger ridge running from the northwest corner to the southeast corner of the square-shaped property. I was set up on the northside of the main saddle of the ridge, about 30 yards southeast of the TSI work, and on the opposite side of the ridge of it, and I had a westerly wind. My first mistake here was assuming where the deer were going to come from without prior intel, and the second mistake was setting up on that assumption. Some does came in from the southwest section of the property towards my location, and over the saddle to my south, somewhat like I hoped they would. The trouble started when the bucks started moving along my side of the ridge. My wind and stand set up were perfect if the deer were going to do what I assumed they would, but they didn’t. The first buck appeared about 20 yards northeast of me, and passed by on my downwind side at 7 yards. At this point I was thinking my wind was going right over them and I’d be okay for any other deer that takes that unexpected route. The next deer that took that route was a nice tall 8, a shooter f`or me, but instead of passing through my downwind side and moving on, this guy stopped and sniffed. At this point I’m thinking it’s over, but he spun around and I was able to stop him at about 30 yards where I was at full draw, but sadly my nerves, from the close encounter, got the best of my steadiness and I sent the arrow right over his back. After I calmed down, I thought about the whole experience, and at that point I realized the importance of observation sits.
So how would a strategic observation sit potentially have changed the outcome of that hunt? Knowing what I know now from that hunt, I would’ve set up on the south side of that ridgetop saddle to observe how deer move through the area. This would’ve allowed me to see all those deer, learn how they travel in that area, and, most likely, they all would have still been well within bow range. Observation locations usually do not equal bow range opportunities at shooter bucks, but you will usually gain highly valuable, big picture intel on what trails the bucks and does are traveling on that time of year. Being able to understand the big picture of how deer move through different habitats is what separates success from mishap. This also allows a hunter to move into a more aggressive stand position where they have very high odds of killing a shooter buck just a day or so later if all other conditions are consistent.
There are a ton of great gadgets available to the hunting community these days, things like cellular trail cameras, deer prediction apps, or mapping apps, but do those improve a person's Woodsmanship? I would argue that they can’t without other effort. In my example I could see the ridgetop saddle on onX, but because I overlooked the importance of the “patient approach” quality of a woodsman I was not properly prepared for my opportunity. Don’t hear me wrong, I think the new gadget options available to us are awesome, and many have become a part of my regular hunting preparation, but I feel our focus should still be on becoming better woodsmen or woods-women rather than just more successful hunters. Ultimately when we become more well-rounded woodsman higher success rates will naturally follow, but it may take lots of time in the woods simply observing and documenting how and where critters interact in your available habitat types. This “step” of intel gathering is one that cannot be gained by simply putting up 8 different cell cameras up on the 40 acres you hunt because they are simply a “snapshot” into the world of wildlife. The picture or video captured does not give a wide enough view of what’s happening across the landscape. Time needs to be spent patiently observing what all the animals are doing while we’re present in the woods, and that may mean leaving our phones in our pockets.
All that being said, I would be willing to bet money that if you sat a half-dozen to a dozen, strategic, observation sits this fall, and intentionally observed and documented, preferably with paper and pen, how and where critters interacted on your property you will become a more knowledgeable woodsman (or woman) that will be able to find success of your own year after year. By adding strategic observation sits to a hunting routine, in addition to other intel gathering, a person will gain invaluable woodsman wisdom, increase their harvest opportunities, and understand their property in better detail. This fall try to patiently sit back and observe from afar to learn and understand the focused details of your property. If you’d like to see other written examples of the detailed knowledge someone can gain by patient and intentional observation read, “Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold. God bless and good luck this season.