I have been hunting big game, mostly deer, for over forty years and I am still surprised by the lack of preparation most hunters take before the season starts. Most of my buddies simply throw some gear in the back of a truck on opening day and head for the woods. By the way, most of my friends are not very successful hunters either, because they don't do their homework or fieldwork. See, some serious planning is needed to insure your hunting efforts pay off and you get that big buck you've been after. Well, I suggest we prepare for our big game hunt both at home and in the field, and perhaps months in advance.
For me, the time before the hunt at home is as important as the time in the field, and maybe even more so. Now, keep in mind, not all the time before the hunt is spent at home, because some fieldwork is required if you want to be successful. I have discovered, mostly through trial and error, ten steps that usually make my hunt productive and safe.
1. Determine where you will be hunting and who you will be hunting with. Both of these considerations are important and we will look at them individually. Where you hunt, has a lot to do with the gear you take along for the trip, because a short afternoon hunting trip close to home will require less gear than extended treks into remote backpacking sites.
2. Decide if special permission is required where you will be hunting. If the area is on private property or posted you should get permission before you hunt. Many good hunting trips have gone sour because folks were hunting on land clearly posted "no hunting". Besides being illegal, it is plain common courtesy to ask permission before you enter someone else's property. Keep in mind, some special state hunts may require you to submit a request form (for controlled hunting areas) prior to the season starting, so check on your states regulations early in the year. Some selected spots are hard to get into because they are quality-hunting areas and the competition to gain access is high. Additionally, check with your state and determine if any special permits are needed for your trip.
3. Home preparation is the easiest task to accomplish, but often done incorrectly. Besides checking your guns and ammo (bow and arrows), also check all of your gear. I check each piece of equipment closely to make sure it is still in good condition and works as it should. Nothing is more frustrating than getting in the field and finding you have a piece of gear that no longer works. It means you have to do without the gear or perhaps find an alternated method of doing something. Remember to check out your new gear, so you understand how it is used and are capable of using it safely and properly. I once went on a hunting trip with a man that brought along an unopened (new) tent, only to discover it was a pink child's play tent. Some other considerations are:
4. Item four is very important, though often forgotten, and it is getting your hands on a map of the area you'll be hunting in. Your local Geological Survey should have maps of any areas you'll need, if not contact your fish and game department for suggested locations to purchase topographical maps. A good map is needed not only for navigation, but also for you to take a long look at to determine where the deer or other game may be. Large game will need food, water, shelter, and a good detailed topographical map will should you where all three areas may be located. The map should be used only as a guide to let you learn about the area without ever leaving your kitchen table. I once discovered a prime hunting spot by studying a detailed map that indicated a small river, a heavy wooded area, and a farm (which I discovered later was planted with alfalfa) in the area. After scouting the area, I simply moved in, put up a tree stand between the water and food source (above a heavily used deer trail), and had my buck by midmorning. I did have to scout the area first to determine what trails were being used most frequently, but animals will usually move between food, water, and shelter, so know where they're moving.
5. Another important consideration is thoroughly knowing the area you'll be hunting. If there are homes, domestic animals, or roads nearby you need to know this prior to shooting at your big game for safety reasons. I have seen arrows go right through a deer and of course, bullets will do the same, so make sure the area behind your target is clear and not endangering property or life. Also, spend as much time as possible scouting your hunting area prior to the actual hunt. I often start months before season starts looking for sign of deer movement, both coming and going. I will regularly track the movement to see where the animal was coming from or going to. Deer don't usually travel very far from their home turf, so this is not as time consuming as you might think. They will bed down in good cover and then leave to drink or eat. At the same time, remember to take your map and mark it with trails, water and food sources, as well as any building or other obstacles not on the map. Once you've looked the area over, spend a few early morning and late evenings in a tree stand checking for time of movement. Many times, I've spent an exciting dawn watching a big buck moving down a tail toward food and once the season started I had this valuable information available to me and it greatly increased my success rate.
6. Once you have done your work at home and in the field, you can decide what type of hunting technique you want to use. Some folks like to sit and wait, others prefer to stalk, and many more prefer a tree stand. Me, I prefer a tree stand for a number of reasons.
7. Agree with your hunting partners to meet back at your base camp at certain times of the day (lunch or dinner for example) for safety reasons mainly, though it can also be used as a time to discuss what has been seen or heard during the hunt. I have had many lunches were the movement of deer was discussed and it was always good information to know. Now, I usually hunt with a partner fairly close by and we always agree to climb from our tree stands at noon on the dot for lunch. We agree to this to avoid scaring game that may be near and as an added safety factor. If I expect the person at a certain time, then I am prepared for their arrival. I once had a nice buck sighted in when my hunting partner neared my stand at midmorning and scared the animal away, but I won't tell you what I said to him. Your partners still might scare game away if they arrive at a given time, but at least you'll know they're coming.
8. One area most hunters never consider is the campsite. Often we just find a good spot, put up a tent, build a fire, and then forget about it. I used to do exactly that, but not any longer. By doing both my homework and fieldwork, I now place my base camp away from where most of the deer travel (trails). I always will find a spot away from the animal's food, water, and shelter sources to make my camp. I have found it to my advantage not to stress the deer in the area by making my camp to close to where they move and bed down. Besides the normal camp, make sure you have a nice spot picked out well in advance where you will hang your big buck to do the skinning and bagging. Keep in mind you want a shaded area (warm or hot meat will turn bad quickly due to bacterial growth) and I prefer a big oak limb that I can throw a rope over to hoist my game up to make skinning easier. Then again, some folks prefer to wait and skin when they get home, so that choice is yours. I suggest you skin in the field to cool the meat quickly, but use a game bag in either case.
9. Once your animal is down for good, as soon as possible follow your states requirements for tagging. Some states require the tag on the horns, some on a leg, and the there may be others in different states, so know what your state requires. Failure to tag or mark your tag per your states game laws can cause you big legal problems, and I'm not even going to bring up what it might end up costing you in the long run. As quickly as I discover my animal is dead, I tag it before I do anything else. Tag and then start to work.
10. After you have got your animal back at camp and dressed, you need to discuss the situation with your hunting partners. If all were successful, then the trip home will be almost immediate, but if some have not done well so you may have to stay in camp a bit longer. Make sure you keep your animal completely covered with a game bag, hang it up and off the ground, and watch the temperature. If you have a vehicle parked near your hunting camp, then leaving will not be a problem, but if you backpacked in you might have some serious talking to do in order to get some assistance in getting your game home from the field. I have seen plastic sleds, portable carts with wheels, and other devices made for transporting game from the field and all may work, but unless I am on a fly-in hunting trip I usually hunt where my car is within a mile or so. The way you get your game from the field to waiting transportation is the individual hunter's choice, but I always put some international orange on the deer's horns and on the game bag for safety reasons (as well as wear it). Oh, and if required by your state do not forget to check your animal in.
As you can see, there are many things you can do before the hunt that can assist in making your trip a successful one. Rare is there a hunter who goes to a new area, climbs just any tree and bags a huge buck on the first day, though I have seen it done. Most good deer hunters start to work well before the season starts and they stay busy up until they down the big one. Remember to do both your homework and your fieldwork, and I am confident I'll meet you at the check-in station on opening day.