You’ve just settled in your stand. In a few moments the grayness of dawn will bring the woods to life. For a while, maybe since last season, you’ve been longing for this moment, this spot. Comfortably you await, and then you see it—a flashlight approaching. You flash back, but it comes nearer and nearer. Less than 50 yards away, whoever it is stops. Minutes later, you hear the sound of crunching bark as another hunter ascends up a nearby tree. Enthusiasm and anticipation now becomes worry and frustration.
Does this sound familiar? Why or how did it happen? Is it their fault, or is it something you could’ve prevented? Can you adapt and still salvage your hunt? Can you learn from it? Lots of questions, with lots of answers.
Realize a WMA is public land. Some folks among the many may not be respectful or simply just not adept at maneuvering through the woods. I’ve even met some who were scared of the woods and only wanted to hunt near others, strangers or not.
Today, there are a lot of WMA newbies. From decades of experience, my WMA peers and I learned answers to many of these questions. Here are a few tips and suggestions to aid in WMA mutual harmony, success and enjoyment.
1. If it looks good from the road, it will attract others: Scout places people tend to drive by because it doesn’t have “curb appeal.” It may look too thick and nasty or have no climbable trees, steep terrain and no nearby pull-off spots to park. Many times a band of seemingly impenetrable cover may hide a very nice spot.
On Georgia WMAs, we have a lot of young pine plantations. Most folks tend to drive on by them. Get among them and find those odd scattered trees that are big enough to climb. Always keep a limb saw handy, as the limbs will be lower than the more mature trees.
If there are no climbable trees, always be open to the idea of hunting on the ground (OTG) with chair or blind. A tree is not required to kill a deer.
2. Hunt overlooked spots right under people’s noses: Over the years, some of my best spots have been right behind or beside check stations, gun ranges, four-lane highways with its roaring traffic, narrow strands of cover, or the very first places you come to when you enter a WMA.
3. Avoid spots with lots of ribbons, markers and foot trodden paths: Especially avoid these areas when you see varying ages and colors of markers. These areas will guarantee unneeded drama at some point. Somebody will definitely come in on you, and there will be lingering residual scent. I like to find spots with no history of use, even snubbing those with one rusted glow tack or a tree that was once climbed long ago. I’m always searching for that hidden honey hole that will produce for years to come.
4. If you feel the need to use ribbon, mark the dates you will be hunting there: If you feel the need to hang your climber early, it’s a good idea to go ahead and run a ribbon trail and date your ribbons. When you are done with your hunt, please take all ribbons down. Do not place excess ribbon or place a ribbon across an entire access road or other opening.
If you see fresh ribbon, please be courteous and honor someone else’s hunting spot if they beat you there. A good tact to take is first-come, first-serve.
5. Do not hang your climber early or you may get blocked from your area: Only hang a climber the day before if you are highly confident you are deep or hidden enough. If not, you will likely find yourself in a flashlight war that could end in hurt feelings. Most will be determined to get to their climber, like it or not. The other guy may not have scouted the day before and does not realize you even have a climber in the area. By the Golden Rule, he was there first. However, had I seen a dated ribbon, I would’ve gone elsewhere.
6. Have a back-up spot should someone beat you to your first choice: If you place an early climber, have a second climber in your truck should you have to relocate. Simply go to another pre-scouted choice. You could pull the other stand when the other folks leave at midday. Or they may move on after that one sit. Scout for nearby spots in the same block of woods. If you’re on the stand and someone comes into your immediate area, simply slide down and move deeper or off to the side, perhaps across the drain or over the ridge. I have ditched the climber and went OTG nearby.
7. Stay quiet when you make eye contact: Whether someone comes in on top of you or is just going deeper in the woods, use sign language. Put your index finger to your lips. Everyone knows the universal sign for “Shhh.” Give them a thumbs up, and motion them on by. If they are not going beyond, maybe they will be courteous and turn around. There is no need to echo a full-blown conversation throughout the woods, especially those still, quiet cool mornings. If not spotted, most times I let them go on by because most folks will not whisper.
Last season, I was at Oaky Woods WMA. I’d found where a buck had been bedded earlier in the season as evidenced by his old rub clusters, pills and matted bed. I’ve found that if it’s good cover, many pressured bucks will return to these spots as they do remember a safe haven.
As I was about to head in the little tunnel I’d sheared in a wall of roadside briars, a truck came flying up. Slamming on the brakes, a feller jumps out in a fast walk and 15 feet away says in a loud voice, “Hey, where ya going, so we won’t mess each other up?” I did a “Shhh,” but I don’t think it registered.
I walked close enough to whisper, pointed and said, “Straight in there about 200 yards.’’
Loudly again, “Oh, we are going to be on the other side of the road. My brother is going farther down. We are going to come back this afternoon and put a ladder stand in there!”
I swear I heard everything echo at least twice and probably half the WMA heard it, too. Then his brother got out of the truck and slammed his door so hard it knocked the dried clay out from underneath it. It was funny at the time. They didn’t mean no harm. I wonder why they didn’t just pull off to the other side where they were going in at. At least the buck still arrived later in the morning.
8. Most WMA walk-in only access trails are designed so multiple hunters can reach larger and deeper portions: Some areas just do not have adequate road systems, and access trails may be the only route to traverse the majority of a WMA. Some of these access trails can be hundreds of yards or even miles long. This is probably the most prominent area that people will walk upon or past you, especially if you are one that may only go in 50 to 100 yards. I see this a lot. So, expect company, be courteous and quiet, and let everyone get in place. Similar to access trails but wider and straighter are power, gas and cable lines.
Once at Bullard Creek WMA, I was 100 yards or so walking down a gas line with my climber on my back. A guy gets dropped off at the road and comes running all the way to me. Out of breath, he haggled out, “I got a ladder stand right ahead of you.’’
I said, “Fine, I’m cutting off the gas line and going into the pines. I won’t be looking down the gas line and will be way out of sight.’’
He seemed relieved and climbed atop his perch as I went by. Not long after daylight, I shot a heavy buck. Knowing I needed to drag him to the gas line, I decided to be courteous and looped out through the woods to let him have some time and his long view undisturbed.
About 8 a.m., I was back at my truck and saw two does pop out on the gas line 150 yards away. The does were trailed by an even bigger 8-point than I had shot. I waited for the shot. And waited and waited. What in the world? He walked to the far side of the gas line to where I could see the upper portion of the stand. Nobody in it! I reckon he lost his confidence because of my nearby shot at daylight. By saying all this, keep your butt planted during deer time, especially the golden hour of 8 to 9 a.m.
9. Learn to use a hand-held GPS or your smart phone: Having GPS is a very valuable for hunting and trekking across our public lands. I opt for the hand-held GPS, as a smartphone may not have good service in areas. Get a model that has the electromagnetic compass, which is more accurate when you are immobile or in thick cover. My favorite model is the Garmin 64s. You will have no need for markers scattered throughout the woods. One drawback of flagging and markers is they are a magnet to attract nosy hunters who are interested in where you are hunting. The GPS will put you in the most direct walk to your stand or alter a route in case you have to swing around someone, come in from another road, or get you back to your vehicle quickly in the dark after following a meandering blood trail, etc.
10. Avoid “dock talk” at the check station: Outside your trusted hunting group, do not brag on good spots, the great number of deer you consistently see there, the bucks you pass up, etc. If so, be prepared to lose them soon. Some “friends’’ may even race you there the very next sit.
11. Get up early: This tip will mitigate most drama. When camping on WMAs, my circle of friends and I usually set our alarms for 4 a.m. to 4:30. We dress, have a little small talk and leave to our spots before most people even get up. Once I park at a pull-off spot, I may take a catnap for a few minutes if I don’t have a long walk. Have all your gear in order beforehand, so when you see the first headlights, you can take off quickly.
In a closing summary, scout well, find places that are deep or overlooked. Access trails that are lengthy, know where they end and what you can access from them. Avoid places that look good from the road. Avoid places that already have ribbons or signs of frequent use. Get up early, and be there first. If you feel the need to flag, do so modestly and retrieve them when hunt is over. On the entry ribbon put date(s) you will be there. Maybe even a short note such as “stand in place’’ or “.17 miles SE’’ or “end of access trail.’’
Use a GPS efficiently. Study maps and aerials. Have alternative stand routes. If you are physically healthy, carry your climber in and out each sit. You will always be in position to adapt and not have to possibly run a gauntlet of hunters to get to your stand, which messes everyone up. If it’s too heavy, buy a lighter one. If you feel you are too slow and/or make a lot of noise putting it on the tree in the wee hours, practice in the off season. Or get one that works better for you.
Don’t forget the option of OTG. Besides scouting and precision use of your gear, one of the strongest attributes to be a successful WMA hunter is having the mentality to adapt. Learn to be nomadic and not glued to one spot. Learn the other hunter’s historic patterns of use for each respective WMA.
Hopefully these tips can help you while hunting on public land, share with your peers and any newbies you may meet. Good luck, play nice and God bless this deer season.