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Saturday, July 23, 2005

Want a twist? Try woodchuck archery

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., July 23, 2005.)
Improve your stalking expertise and test your skill on live targets at various ranges.
Now that summer is in full swing and woodchuck love has produced lots of young naïve whistlepigs, why not improve your archery skills and stalking ability with a summer safari in the short grass? Yes, golf courses and lawn work beckon. But a worthwhile diversion is a tour into fresh-cut hayfields to target the farmer's nemesis -- those 7-pound grass-eating machines.

Almost any rifle will do, from the humble .22 rimfire (or the pipsqueak.17 rimfire) to high velocity loudenboomers. The rifleman's objective is to gain practice at holding, breathing, and squeezing the trigger.

But, for once, try the challenge with a bow. The hunter choosing a bow chooses a handicap. But while sacrificing the ability to reach out and touch groundhogs in the next township, you'll improve skills that will serve you well in deer season when it's most important to make a clean kill.

You won't get many shots with a bow, but you'll improve your stalking expertise, test your skill on live targets at various ranges, and even attempt shots beyond your known ability -- something you wouldn't dare to do on deer. (A warning: without the proper tip, arrows will burrow under the grass. If you lose an arrow and it ends up puncturing a tractor tire or baled with the hay, you'll lose hunting privileges with that farmer.)

Even though woodchucks are everywhere, it is not easy to get close enough for a bow shot. To better your chances, keep in mind that when a woodchuck sees you, it knows you're a predator unless it's habituated to humans. Every predator -- wolves, cats, hawks, humans -- has eyes on the front of its head for better depth perception, helping the predator to estimate distance. Every prey animal -- deer, mice, squirrels, woodchucks -- has eyes on the sides of its head, giving it the ability to see almost a complete circle, except for the area directly in back of its head. When prey animals see a creature with eyes in front, they recognize it as a threat.

To defeat the sharp eyes of a woodchuck and get within arrow range, a skilled stalker must carefully consider how to approach unnoticed using terrain and cover. Here are five situations that offer stalkable conditions -- and all of them are challenging.

1. Hunt the hay bales. Those big, round bales create a good setting for stalking woodchucks. Sometimes you can approach to within 25-30 yards of a woodchuck by keeping a big bale of hay between you and him.

2. Where old barns and outbuildings are sometimes off limits to high-powered rifles, the archer might be welcome because woodchucks can eventually destroy foundations. Get to know the habits of the groundhogs that populate these places so that you know when they're out, how far they get from their dens, and which direction gives you the best approach.

3. If you know any property where grass, goldenrod and sumac grow, and someone mows trails and lanes through it, it is an ideal setting for stalking. The more curves and bends, the better. Sneak along slowly and quietly, and sooner or later you'll find yourself within archery range of a chuck that is looking the other way.

4. Along the edges of hayfields are plenty of woodchuck holes. When the chucks are feeding in the field, maybe 10 yards from the edge, keep about 10 yards into the woods and you'll have one of the easiest shots, especially when the woods are heavily shaded. It will be more difficult for a woodchuck in bright sun to see into the woods, and a chuck feels safer from that direction since that's where he'll seek the protection of his den.

5. Not least is the fencerow. Where fields are separated by a fence with brush growing along it, you can sometimes approach unseen using the brushy fenceline as cover. Before beginning the stalk, pinpoint the chucks you see in relation to the features along the fenceline. Then stalk that spot from the opposite side.

Undoubtedly, you'll find other settings that offer good stalking opportunities. But always ask permission of the landowner, always wear a fluorescent orange hat whether you're hunting with a rifle or a bow. Then when deer season comes, always add the vagaries of the wind to your strategy.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Brad Herndon’s Mapping Trophy Bucks — A Review

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., July 9, 2005.)
Since a master's degree in hunting mature whitetails isn't available, you can do no better than immerse yourself in this book.
Most Pennsylvania hunters don't consider themselves trophy hunters. But as long as the current antler restriction policy protects spikes, four-points, and six-points in many areas, we might as well hunt as though deer are older and smarter, because they are. And Brad Herndon's Mapping Trophy Bucks promises to help us hunt more intelligently and increase our odds of getting a shot at a 2½, 3½ or 4½ year old buck, a few more of which are roaming our woodlands.

His book could be a textbook for a master's degree in whitetail hunting. If it were, its course description would read something like this: "How to use topographic maps, aerial photos and plat books to develop a terrain strategy, giving consideration to wind and approach avenues, to find and predict when to use high-percentage stands for harvesting mature whitetail deer in forest and farmland." Since a master's degree in hunting mature whitetails isn't available, you can do no better than immerse yourself in this book.

According to Herndon, hunting mature bucks is all about terrain strategy. He ignores the products that promise to make us better hunters -- scents, calls, camouflage, cartridges, tree stands -- because these things are far less important than terrain and wind. If you don't handle terrain and wind correctly, your success may be dependent on nothing more reliable than luck.

The average hunter knows that certain things can't be changed. These factors include hills, streams, croplands and access to land. Topographical features — saddles, points, edges and benches — are givens. But wind is a variable, and the greatest unseen factor on the hunt.

The wind that snakes through our valleys and washes up and down our hillsides is a great betrayer. We have a very difficult time dealing with it, we are often tempted to ignore it, and it costs us more shots at bucks than we know. Wind is fickle, and it's easy to see why the hilly country that is home to our whitetails is such difficult terrain to hunt. We can be thankful that Herndon doesn't oversimplify the wind nor mention it as though all we needed was a reminder to hunt into it.

He says, "You can't change the wind, but you can understand how the wind changes." He explains how the unpredictable nature of the thermals and vacuums that drift around our hunting grounds interact with terrain features and how we can learn to use them to neutralize the whitetail's greatest defense — his nose.

With chapters detailing the many terrain features deer use, Herndon explains how to identify hubs, funnels, and other places where deer are concentrated. He explains why a stand at a double inside corner of a pasture or crop field is only half as effective as a single inside corner. He advises that your approach to a stand site is as important as identifying the site. He even covers how to make a trail that deer will adopt. The variety of terrain features and land uses make it critical that we understand how they relate to deer behavior and air currents. The more thought we put into our strategy, the more successful we will be because "Good thinking pays off," he says.

The book includes a chapter with a national perspective covering record book trophies — how to zero in on where they come from, how to judge them, and several stories about some of the biggest. This will not likely offer Pennsylvania hunters any advantage in hunting home stomping grounds, but it is interesting and it rounds out the emphasis on trophy whitetails.

The final chapter called "Dot-Com Deer Hunting" includes helpful information on how the hunter can access topographic maps and aerial photos online.

This 191-page, 8" x 11" book is well illustrated, includes numerous maps and drawings used as case-studies for the lessons Herndon teaches, and it even has an index, which always makes a good book better.

It's already time to begin planning your next whitetail season, and for about the price of a box of shells, Mapping Trophy Bucks is available at Amazom.com, and might be your best resource for positioning yourself within bow or gun range of a mature buck. Whether you're a trophy hunter or not, deer hunting is more challenging than ever and the lessons here will aid your success.