Growing up, my father and I always considered the opener of Minnesota’s gun season as the end of our bow season. The properties we hunted all had plenty of shotgun groups with permission as well, so we handed over the keys to the woods to the orange army.
It never bothered me much, for the first week or so. But it didn’t take long before the urge to get into a stand would take over. Eventually, I found a few places where I could bowhunt mid-week during the gun season, and it was revelatory. The deer were still out there, and the hunting could be good.
It also became quickly evident that the rules changed. What worked during bow season wouldn’t always work while sharing the woods with half of a million gun hunters.
In many whitetail states, the firearms season brings hundreds of thousands of hunters into the field. That’s a big presence of predators in the woods, and it changes everything. Natural movement, at least from a bowhunter’s perspective, is mostly gone (or at least highly subdued). The food-to-bed and bed-to-food travel might exist, but it’s mostly a nighttime affair.
On the plus side, depending on the timing of the gun season, the rut could still be happening. It just won’t be like it was only a few weeks earlier. Deer movement will be compressed down into smaller areas in the daylight, and those areas are not likely to be wide open spaces with nice views.
To succeed with archery tackle when the boomsticks are out, it usually takes a deep dive into something thick and nasty. Cattail sloughs, swamps, old homesteads, and overlooked hillsides all might feature a here-today-gone-tomorrow population of deer that have relocated due to pressure. These deer are killable, but they won’t suffer mistakes. This is where a lot of bowhunters get things wrong during gun season.
With the bustle of hunters heading into the woods from the hunting shack or riding ATVs along two tracks to their ladder stands and box blinds, there is a level of organized chaos in the woods. Add in the deer drives in many states, and it gets even more organized (and chaotic).
While it might look and sound like total randomness, it’s not. There are distinct patterns to our behavior, from how we access stands to how long we sit, that tell the deer what they need to know about us.
Just like when you hunt over-the-counter elk out west, these patterned behaviors position animals in the earlier-mentioned no-go zones. If your property doesn’t have a no-go zone, then assume that the deer are hiding in the thickest cover they have access to.
Also, pay attention to your neighbors, or the other hunters on the property—then do something different. Hunt overlooked spots, obviously, but do it in a way that further differentiates you from the competition. Sit all day, for starters. This gives you the benefit of being in the woods for a few hours each day where most hunters are back at the shack eating nachos and watching football.
Hunt quietly, too. Not only in your approach and ambush setups but also in your calling. This tight-cover, ninja approach to killing with an arrow when it’s gun season means you don’t want to call attention to yourself in any way. The deer are in survival mode, and they have a real low tolerance for anything that might threaten them.
This is why I try to go into stealth mode in areas where my visibility is limited and my shots are going to be point-blank or nothing. It’s not always an easy situation to sit all day, but it can work—especially if you’ve scouted out a few hidey holes already.
The absolute best way to find a good bowhunting spot for gun season is to scout right after the gun season. If you can get out there and walk for a few days right after the orange army leaves the woods, the deer will tell you all you need to know.
I’ve found some incredible spots this way. The key is to go look at everything. Take a walk through the thickest stuff, and pay real close attention to any deer you bump and any place littered with fresh tracks. Forget traditional sign like rubs and scrapes. Well, actually, don’t. Pay attention to them too, because they are good intel. But for this mission, the freshest and highest concentration of tracks wins.
Drop some waypoints on these spots and then figure out how you’d hunt them next year. What tree would you sit? Could you pop up a ground blind early and let it season in a certain spot? Take the intel you gather now, figure out how to capitalize, and then do just that next year when the guns start going off and the deer start pouring into their little sanctuaries.