After a summer of stacking up trail camera photos of good bucks, the temptation to rush in and hunt can be mighty strong. As a lifelong public land hunter, I have often given in and hunted my best stands from day one. And hunted them and hunted them and hunted them, and three weeks into the season wondered why I wasn’t seeing as many deer as I had those first few sits of the year. By the time the weather actually cooled down and deer activity picked up, I’d burned out my best stands and scrambled to scout out new ones that might offer better opportunities.
One year, I decided to do things a little differently. Rather than rush in, I’d play it cool.
In early September, I found a scrape on the edge of a bedding area. Throughout September, that scrape grew as multiple bucks visited it, each leaving their mark. And then, the week before the archery opener, daylight deer movement all but dried up. Many of the buck photos I got on my trail camera were right at dark, after legal shooting times. In the past, I’d have hunted that stand anyway and hoped to get lucky and catch a buck exiting the bedding area during daylight. And the odds were pretty good that I would’ve spooked any bucks coming through that funnel as I was climbing down out of my stand to walk out.
This time, though, I hunted fringe areas where I could access stands with very little disturbance. To keep stands fresh, I rarely hunted them more than two consecutive days, and I was pleasantly surprised, come mid-October, to find that I was having one of my best archery seasons ever. Not only was I seeing more deer, but I was also seeing more bucks, and bigger bucks. I knew it wasn’t just a coincidence.
Anyway, I kept track of that funnel with the scrape. First week of November, bucks were cruising and I knew it was time to strike. The first evening, I sat about 200 yards from the scrape and encountered a gnarly 7-point that never offered a shot. The next morning, I moved about 75 yards closer and had a big-bodied buck coming straight toward me until my treestand creaked underfoot and the deer took notice. But that afternoon, around 2 o’clock, I no sooner settled into my treestand only 20 yards from the scrape when a nice 8-point worked along the edge of the cut and angled past me, offering an easy 25-yard shot. The deer ran less than 50 yards before piling up.
First Sit Coincidence or Fact?
Upon harvesting that buck, I reflected on the season and tallied up the bucks I’d encountered during the previous weeks. The overwhelming majority of the deer I’d seen – especially bucks – had occurred on the first sit in a fresh stand. And it wasn’t even close. I’d estimate that almost 90% of the bucks I’d encountered that season were on the first sit.
So what makes the first sit so special? I believe it all comes down to the element of surprise.
Deer are creatures of habit, and they know their core areas as well as we know our own homes. Combine this with the fact that mature bucks are some of the wariest creatures on Earth and you have a recipe for frustration if you’re a deer hunter. In short, once they detect a human presence or any hunting pressure at all, they can completely shift their patterns in a blink.
An Auburn University study revealed just how little hunting pressure it takes to make bucks change their behavior. In the study, researcher Clint McCoy and his team placed GPS tracking collars on 37 bucks on a 6,400-acre study site within Brosnan Forest in South Carolina. The study included bucks of all ages and tracked each deer’s movement every 30 minutes over the course of nearly three months (August 24-November 22). During that time, they also tracked the habits of local hunters, monitoring when they hunted, how long they stayed on stands, and how often they hunted stands. The results were incredible.
“We found an immediate effect of hunting pressure, where the amount of time spent in a particular stand over the course of a week impacted deer behavior,” writes McCoy in the October/November issue of Quality Whitetails. “The odds of a buck entering the ‘harvest zone’ during daylight hours were reduced by half after 12 hours of hunting pressure. In other words, a buck was twice as likely to avoid putting itself at risk if the stand had been hunted for 12 hours over the course of the previous week.”
Looking back over my hunting career, I can’t even count how many times I saw a nice buck during the first sit in a fresh stand. Unfortunately, the sighting often spurred me on to hunt a particular stand even more in hopes the buck might return. Meanwhile, according to the Auburn University study, my odds of success declined significantly with each sit, and if I think about the many times spent in the same stand for three, four, five days in a row during my early years of bowhunting, I can’t disagree with that study’s findings.
(Photo: When and how you access stands can impact deer behavior on any property, especially in wilderness settings where deer don't encounter human activity on an everyday basis.)
Can A Stand Recover?
The logical follow-up question the Auburn University study asked is this: can a stand recover from overhunting? Can a stand become “fresh” again? Researchers compared deer movement data near stands that were hunted one day earlier, two days earlier, three days earlier, and so on.
McCoy writes that, “if the stand was hunted the previous day, bucks appeared to respond immediately and displayed avoidance behavior. This avoidance lasted on average for three days. By the fourth and fifth days following a hunting event, the response was no longer significantly different from neutral, and thus deer were no longer considered to be avoiding the hunted stand – though they still were not ‘attracted’ to the site as they were before the stand was hunted.”
In this example, theoretically, you could expect the same results as a “first sit” if you hunted a particular stand only about once every five days or so. This is definitely something to consider if you’re hunting small parcels of land where there aren’t many good stand options. By having enough so that you can rotate through them each week, you can keep those stands fresh and productive.
Outliers and Caveats
Of course, every rule has at least one exception, and the idea of “the first sit is the best sit” might have several. For instance, the Auburn University study doesn’t address the experience of each hunter while on stand. It would be interesting to compare each experience and look for a correlation between low impact encounters and high impact encounters, such as when a buck winds or sees you or you blow the deer out of the food plot while getting down out of the stand. Does how bad you spook deer effect the length of time before a stand becomes fresh again. Or is it possible to hunt the same stand repeatedly with excellent results as long as the wind is always in your favor, human scent is kept at a minimum, and you’re diligent in regards to how the stand is accessed?
Another exception would be areas with low deer densities, such as big woods/mountainous situations where bucks have a much wider range than those found in agricultural areas. Food sources are more spread out, so deer must travel farther, which means that your target buck may pass through a particular funnel only once a week. I know numerous very successful big woods hunters who will dedicate a whole week to a single stand, from daylight to dark, to make sure they’re on stand when that buck finally comes through. More often than not, they kill that buck, too, often on the fourth or fifth consecutive day spent in that stand.
A third caveat to “the first sit is the best sit” mindset would be what type of food source you’re hunting near. How productive each sit is could be influenced by whether you’re hunting a deep woods funnel, a food plot, or a corn pile. In the Auburn University study, for instance, many hunters used stands near food plots or feeders. In these situations, where deer are coming to a specific location, and usually from downwind, it’s easy to see how even a little bit of hunting pressure could have a negative impact, much more so than a big woods situation.
Regardless of whether you’re hunting a food plot, feeder, or big woods, it’s never a bad idea to have multiple stand options. And they don’t even have to be spaced far apart to constitute as a first sit. I often spend whole weeks hunting around a single 100-acre cut without ever climbing the same tree twice.
My stand selection is typically based on weather and wind direction, and even though I’m theoretically hunting the same general area, every sit is a first sit in a fresh stand. Do I think this has contributed to my overall success as a bowhunter? For me, the answer is undoubtedly yes.
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