Late summer and early fall are busy times for Texas deer hunters. Those who are truly serious about the sport may have been hard at work for weeks now, tending to chores in preparation for the upcoming archery and general seasons.
The month-long Archery Only season gets underway statewide on Sept. 28. Rifle season begins on November 2, except for select properties that qualify for an earlier start using special managed lands deer permits provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Just about every deer hunter will agree that half the fun is getting ready for game time. Some hunting clubs may schedule weekend work days in August or September where members gather to mow roads, mend camp houses and perform other odd jobs. In most cases, however, it’s every man for himself when it comes to doing preseason dirty work.
Here’s a list of tasks that should always be tended to before heading to the woods on opening morning.
Every deer stand needs a little love every now and then. It makes no difference if it’s a portable tripod, leaning ladder, climber or permanent box blind.
Pulling maintenance may turn up nothing more than a squeaky seat that needs a little oil, but it could be worse. Screws or nuts might become loose with time. Safety straps and ropes can rot or become weak. Bolts, chains and cables get rusty, and some can break unexpectedly when placed under pressure.
It’s always best to inspect deer stands for faulty parts and other needed repairs before they are put to use. Attempting to use a deer stand that has been left exposed to the elements since last year without checking for stability is risky business, especially when carrying a firearm or archery gear. Doing it in the dark can spell double trouble.
Check for Intruders
Enclosed stands are inviting places for wasps, snakes and varmints. Blinds that are left sitting in the woods unattended for a while are just about guaranteed to attract some unwanted guests. Always expect the unexpected when cracking open a door that’s been closed since last winter.
My good friend Lendell Martin, Jr., knows that all too well. Martin owns a large ranch in Kinney County near Del Rio. Dozens of deer stands are scattered around the 15,000 acres.
Martin was pulling stand maintenance one day when he opened the door on a tall tower blind. He received what appeared to be a violent greeting. A turkey vulture had homesteaded the stand and there were three little ones inside. The stand reeked badly of droppings and rotten carrion the parent had regurgitated to feed the babies.
“They babies came at me hissing and hopping around,” Martin said. “They were mean looking little suckers.”
Martin elected to take the stand out of rotation for the season rather than evicting the young tenants.
“There was no way I could have put a hunter in that stand — it smelled way too bad,” Martin said. “You’ve got to be careful out there. Owls are really bad about getting into deer stands if you don’t close or board up the windows. Ring-tailed cats will get in them, too. They aren’t going to hurt you, but they’ll make you think they will.”
Entering a deer stand unaware that it’s occupied by wasps or yellow jackets can be a real shock. Things can get dicey if the insects attack, especially if the box is elevated above ground and you lose your cool trying to get away.
Always bring along a can of wasp spray and a flashlight when visiting a stand that has been sitting idle for a while. Open the door slowly and be sure to have a good look around before going inside. Check beneath seats, in dark corners, under the floor and along rafters for nests.
Placing New Stands
It’s a good idea to get any new hunting blinds in place as soon before the season opener as possible. This is especially true of large box blinds or ground blinds, which are easily noticeable.
Deer are inherently wary of anything that looks out place around their home turf. Many hunters believe setting stands early gives the animals an opportunity to get used to the new furniture in their living room before hunting season starts.
Keep in mind the prevailing wind direction for the region when placing new stands. The best set-ups are those that position you downwind from where deer are most likely to approach.
Trimming Up and Safety
Lock-on platforms and climbing tree stands are especially popular with bow hunters. They allow for easy mobility and hunting from elevated locations, which reduces the chances of being seen or smelled by deer.
It’s a good idea to scope out new stand locations early so you can trim any limbs that might obstruct your view. Trees are constantly putting on new growth, so it may be necessary to do some pruning on a tree you hunted from last year.
Glen Mayhew with the Tree Stand Safety Awareness Foundation says it is just as important to wear a full-body safety harness when trimming limbs as it is when hunting. The harness should be equipped with a heavy-duty tether for attaching to a lifeline or safety rope that connects to the tree above the stand and near the ground. The system keeps you connected to the tree and prevents a dangerous fall from occurring just in case something goes wrong while above ground.
Most tree stands come with a full body harness or you can buy one separately. Alabama-based Hunter Safety System makes a full line of high quality harnesses, lifelines, straps and other accessories designed to keep tree stand hunters safe.
“Any time you are elevated off the ground you have the risk of falling," said Mayhew. "But you won't fall to the ground when wearing a safety harness that's properly attached to a safety line."
Planting Food Plots
Many deer hunters plant fall and winter food plots for the purpose of luring deer into the open for evaluation. Like corn feeders, “bait plots” work especially well during years when acorns and other natural forage are low in abundance. They also benefit animals by providing some valuable nutrition throughout late winter and early spring, when their bodies are stressed and need it the most.
Planting food plots isn’t hard, but there is some time, expense and risk involved. The process often begins with light discing to break up the ground.
Discing can be performed any time during August and September, but most Texas wildlife managers agree it is best to wait until early October before sowing any seed. Plant too early and there is a high risk the weather could turn off hot and dry. This could kill succulent young plants before they get established.
There are a variety of food plot mixes available, but some plants produce faster results than others. Hunters looking for a quick green-up often prefer oats, rye and wheat. Another advantage to cereal grains is the seeds will germinate when sown on top untilled ground, provided existing vegetation isn’t too thick and moisture is sufficient.
Austrian winter peas and various types of clover also are good choices. Just remember legumes usually don’t sprout until later in winter. An added benefit of legumes is they may continue putting out through spring and into early summer. Discing will yield best results. Legume seeds should not be covered more 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep.
Seeding rates and fertilization will vary with the size of the plot. Pine Island Hunting Club is a well managed club in eastern Texas spanning about 5,200 acres.
Long-time member Ben Bartlett says they typically plant about 50 acres in food plots each year. The normal per acre seeding rate includes 100 pounds of Buck Forage Oats, 25 pounds of wheat, 25 pounds of Austrian winter peas and 8 pounds of arrowleaf clover. The plots are top dressed with 200 pounds of 13-13-13 fertilizer per acre.
It’s usually a good idea to have soil tested before planting. This will indicate the soil’s existing pH level and provide some solid guidelines about fertilizer blends, rates and whether or not the soil needs lime. Local county extension agents should be able to steer you the right direction for soil testing.
Pulling maintenance and doing prep work are key parts of the deer hunting gig. It’s dirty work, but it’s worth it.