By Mark Kenyon

This 2013 season I’m planning on documenting my hunts in much more detail than ever before, and I plan on sharing those stories and experiences with you as we go along through the fall on at least a weekly basis. To identify these articles, I’ll be prefacing each article title with the series title of “The Journey 2013″. As is often the case, I’m sure there will be plenty of ups and downs and lots of screw ups. But hopefully you can learn something along the way with me! I’ll be sharing details regarding my plans, my observations of deer behavior, rutting activity and much more. So here’s to the journey, and here’s to hoping there’s a big buck at the end of it. – Mark

My plan worked perfect… Almost.

Three mature, Pope & Young caliber bucks in two sits. Two of which were within shooting range. And this is in Michigan!

Somehow though, no shots. It was an almost perfect early season ambush. Unfortunately, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. So instead of a big buck on the ground, I’m left with a mess of regrets, a pit in my stomach and a few hard lessons learned.

That said, today I’m going to share the heartbreaking story of my weekend hunts, and lay out in detail how I set this almost perfect early season ambush up, and how it all went bad in the end.

The Set-Up

This summer I went to work on this property with a very specific plan in place. I planned to set up two different hunting food plots, for two different times of year.

One plot would be in the core of the property, and would not be hunted until November. The second food plot would be much closer to the front, easy to access and would be hunted very early in the season. It was this front food plot that was the scene of the story this past weekend. You can see the plot in the aerial image below, with the red square being my blind on the Southern edge of the plot.

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Knowing that I would hunt this plot early, I made several strategic moves to improve my chances. First off, in this plot I planted Whitetail Institute’s “Pure Attraction”. This is a blend of forage oats, winter peas and brassicas. Those forage oats are an awesome early season attractant, and I was counting on them to bring deer in to the plot during that first week of the season.

In addition to Pure Attraction, I also planted a “food plot screen” of Egyptian Wheat and Sorghum around the edges of the plot. This “screen” would grow up to become a 10-12 ft tall wall of vegetation, which essentially closed in the food plot from the surrounding open areas. The goal for this was to encourage daylight activity in the plot, as now that the plot is screened in deer would hopefully feel more enclosed and secure. This is especially important, given this plot is in a power line – so without the screen, it would have been in the wide open.

Speaking of location, I purposely placed this food plot in this location as well. If you look at the aerial image above, you’ll see a block of timber and brush to the NE of the plot. This is a major bedding area, and I’ve seen multiple mature bucks using this location in past years. Additionally, I had a trail camera due North of my food plot, on the other side of the creek you can see, which got photos of several of my top hit list bucks on this property all summer. My thought was that at least one good buck would be using this bedding area to the NE, and if I could get an attractive food source in that plot I would have a good chance at catching one coming in to feed early in the year.

This nifty little early season plot was topped off with it being the location of my Redneck Hunting Blind, an elevated box blind, which I had set on the southern edge of this plot – you can see that marked in the aerial above as a red square, and in the photo below (which was taken in late August just after planting). This summer I spent a lot of time preparing this blind, clearing lanes, cutting a path through the timber to access the blind and just fine tuning every little detail. I then got out of there in August and haven’t returned again until now.

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My plan was to wait for the first cold front to hit in early October, and then head in to hunt this location one or two times. After those first two sits, I’d stay off this property until late October. This is my best area, and I didn’t want to over pressure the deer before the best of the best times in late Oct/early Nov.

The “perfect” early season ambush location was ready, and it was just a matter of waiting til the right time.

The Hunt – Night 1

This past Saturday would be the first opportunity I had to hunt this season, and it looked to be a great night. Temperatures were still warm, in the 70’s, but a cold front was supposed to hit that night. The wind was perfect for this stand, coming from the SE. I assumed that with the front moving in, there would be a great chance for evening movement.

I snuck in carefully and was set up in the Redneck by about 2:30 PM. Soon after, I began seeing does filter in and out of the CRP and timber surrounding me, and I watched a couple does feed in the food plot as well. Finally at 7:00 PM, I noticed the bottom branches of an oak tree, due north and just outside the food plot, start shaking (you can see this tree in the photo below). I pulled up my binoculars and peered through the wall of egyptian wheat and sorghum. Through the gaps in the stalks I could make out a brown body, ears, and then antlers. Nice antlers!

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I immediately got set up and I watched as the buck started to turn and head into the food plot. But just as he poked his head into the food plot screen, he stopped and just stood there. After a minute or so he slowly turned and started walking the other way. At this point I got worried that he might be walking out of my life, so as he got another 15 yards away or so I decided to give him a light “contact grunt”. I thought that one light grunt might be enough to just make him curious, so I let out a soft “Urp”.

He kept walking and didn’t even pause, so I assumed he hadn’t heard me. So again, I let out an “Urp”, just a little louder.

And BANG! He was off to the races. That buck ran so fast and so far that you’d have thought I shot a cannon at him. I don’t know why the heck my grunt scared him so much, but it just about scared the antlers right off him. Confused and frustrated, I just dropped my head and began cursing myself out (a trend that would continue much of the weekend).

First sit, and first potential shooter buck spooked. Awesome start to the season.

The Hunt – Night 2

This takes us to day 2, this Sunday. I really wanted to get two sits in on this spot before backing out for the rest of the month, and the next two days were my best opportunities. The cold front hit, and we had 15-20 degree cooler temps and rain. That said, the wind wasn’t looking great. The wind for Monday was awful, the wind for Sunday was at times ok, at times not great. I sat and pondered and thought and stressed for quite awhile about what I should do. Finally, I decided I needed to take a calculated risk. I had to hunt the spot again that day.

Conditions were so good, and the spot was just right. I just felt in my gut that a big buck would be on his feet. On top of that, I had a couple tricks up my sleeve that I thought would help me alleviate the risk of the sub-par wind. First, I was hunting in my Redneck Blind again. If I kept the windows shut, I would be able to keep most of my scent contained. Secondly, I had my Ozonics unit, which should eliminate most of whatever scent does get out of the blind. I thought I had myself covered. I was wrong.

That said, I snuck into the blind just before the rain started coming down at 2:30 again. It was at this point though that my first sign of bad things to come arose. I got my Ozonics unit all set up and hit the power button, but nothing happened. I tried again, nothing. I had charged the battery the whole night before, but for some reason it hadn’t taken. I was without my Ozonics, a scent eliminating device that was a big part of the reason I chose to still hunt this stand with a sub-par wind. Crap.

That said, the hunt continued, and the rain started and did not want to stop. It just poured and poured and poured. There were a couple hours there where I just thanked my lucky stars I was in this box blind. It was a life saver.

Soon as that rain stopped though, the deer came out of the wood work. Does started just popping up all over the place. Around 5:00 a group of does came busting out of the timber behind me and I noticed one other deer about another 100 yards behind them, running from the same direction. I pulled up my binoculars and immediately my jaw dropped. It was Six Shooter!

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Six Shooter is a buck I have a TON of history with, and if you’re not familiar with him read THIS ARTICLE. I watched Six Shooter slowly meander through the CRP and then eventually bed down in the tall grass. Unfortunately, he disappeared in the grass after awhile and I never saw him again. Interesting to note though, this is the same area that I watched him bedding in two years ago!

Fast forward another couple hours. It’s 7:00 PM and I notice a deer emerge, from the bedding area to my NE, and start walking down the power line toward the food plot. It’s a nice 2.5 year old 8 pointer with a uniquely very white face. Behind him is a 1.5 yrd old 6 pointer. As they run into the food plot, I spot another deer and when I zoomed in on him with the camera I immediately realized it was a giant. In fact, it was another buck I have a ton of history with. Leaner! (Here’s an article with the skinny on Leaner and summer pics)

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At this point I zoomed the camera out, and started getting in position. I made sure my rangefinder was handy. Repositioned in my seat. Picked up my bow, double checked the arrow was nocked properly and clipped on my release.

Breathe, exhale, breathe, exhale. I had to keep telling myself to focus on breathing, as my body’s natural response was to go into meltdown mode.

I couldn’t believe it, the top buck I was after was heading right in. It was all coming together. The risk had paid off. All that work all summer was worth it. My carefully prepared plan was being executed to perfection. Things never go this well for me!

And then they didn’t.

The first two bucks entered the food plot and immediately got a little edgy. Despite having the windows closed, a little scent must have still been seeping out because they just couldn’t get 100% comfortable. At this point a bunch of does started piling into the food plot as well, and they were coming in directly downwind of me. I could see Leaner just on the other side of the egyptian wheat/sorghum food plot screen – carefully walking along the edge. Obviously a little on edge as well.

The 2.5 year old turned and left the plot, but the 1.5 old buck stuck around and started feeding with the does. I still had hope I might be able to get away with it, when all of a sudden one of the does snorted.

No!

She sounded off, and then bounded away. Soon after, her whole posse of does followed, and the field cleared. Off ran the 2.5 year old, then the 1.5 year old, and then finally. There went Leaner.

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Luckily, it appeared that Leaner and his crew must not have gotten a huge whiff of me, as they only jogged about 100 yards and then they stopped and just milled around in the tall grass. Slowly, they walked away, but it didn’t seem that they were incredibly alarmed by the situation. And I guess that was the only silver lining on this whole situation.

All in all, I was overwhelmingly frustrated. My perfectly planned set-up came so close to working, and then it all got flushed down the toilet because the one risky element in my plan. Wind.

I sat in the blind, head down, just pissed. I know better than that! I sit here on Wired To Hunt and preach, over and over, how important it is to never go in with a bad wind. But still, somehow, I convinced myself that it was worth the risk. In the end though, it wasn’t.

What I Learned

So all that said, as frustrated as I am, I still suppose I can walk away from this weekend with a few lessons learned.

First off, regarding the first nights hunt, my mistake was probably grunting while the buck was still too close or possibly too loudly. I thought I was just doing a light grunt, but obviously it was louder than intended, as it resulted in a possibly mature buck nearly pooping himself. Lesson learned here is that when it comes to early season calling, you really need to be careful. I should have waited til he was farther away, and stuck with just the lightest contact grunt possible. Maybe I shouldn’t have grunted at all.

Secondly, I came to realize that while having a food plot screen is great, it also has some downsides. If that egyptian wheat/sorghum wasn’t there, I would have had an easy 45 yard shot at that buck. More on this topic and lesson learned to come later.

Third, and most importantly, I learned that I need to practice what I preach!

I took a calculated risk, despite my better judgement, and it backfired. Yes, it was great to see that my intuition about the spot and conditions was right for mature buck movement. Yes, it was exciting to see my plan for this location and food plot all work exactly how I hoped it would. And yes, it was great to get eyes on Leaner and know that he’s using my property during the daylight.

Unfortunately, all of these good things came at the expense of potentially educating a mature buck that he’s being hunted.

Maybe I could have gotten away with it if those does hadn’t come in just in the one spot I didn’t want them. Maybe I could have gotten away with it if my Ozonics was working. Maybe I should have had the windows fully latched down in the Redneck blind, so that no scent at all could escape. Maybe I could have got lucky, but unfortunately the reality is that I didn’t. My risk ended up being too risky and in the end, it bit me in the hind quarters.

Moving On

It’s a new week now though, and it’s time to move on. There’s lots of hunting ahead of me and hopefully many chances for redemption.

Moving forward, I’m hopeful that Leaner’s somewhat laid back reaction to the clearing of the field is a sign that he didn’t get too worked up, but you never know. My fingers are crossed that he’ll still stick around and feel comfortable, given the fact I haven’t pressured the rest of the property at all. I imagine though that he’ll remember this experience for awhile, and I’m not counting on seeing him from this location again this season.

The plan moving forward will be to leave this farm alone until later in October when the next great cold front hits. At that point I’ll move a little deeper into the property towards some of my better spots.

Until then, I’ve got a couple other spots I’ll be hitting in Southern Michigan, I’ll be exploring some public land, and tomorrow I’ll also be heading to hunt our Ohio lease for the first time!

The journey has gotten off to a rocky start, but at least it’s just the beginning!