Friday, September 8, 2017

Fly Fishing for Whitetail Deer: 10 Ways Fly Fishing Tactics Can Make You a Better Deer Hunter

Before fly fishing took over my life, I was a diehard bowhunter.  I hunted whenever I could.  I watched all the latest hunting movies (they came out on VHS at the time).  I read all of the magazines, and when internet hunting forums started to gain traction, I read every thread.  I scouted and scouted and scouted.  The thing is, despite having bowhunting whitetail deer on the brain literally 24/7, I wasn't very successful at bowhunting.  To further paint the picture of how pathetic of a hunter I was, I wasn't even measuring success as being able to kill a big buck, I never actually saw a buck while I had a bow in my hand-- I could barely even fill my freezer.

Then I discovered fly fishing.  I loved it so much that I didn't pick up a bow for almost 10 years.  During that period, I was just as hardcore about fly fishing as I was about bowhunting, except I was a much more successful angler than a bowhunter.  When I came back to deer hunting, I threw out everything I hadn't forgot and decided to hunt using the same tactics I used to catch fish, and as crazy as that sounds, it worked.

From that first day back in the woods, I was seeing deer on almost every trip out.  It was awesome-- I was even seeing bucks!  The more I thought about the different tactics and strategies I used to catch fish, the more I realized that the two sports had a ton in common.  In a lot of ways, it was almost as if fly fishing was like cross training for hunting.  Following are 10 ways you can apply basic principles in fly fishing to make yourself a better deer hunter.

Don't Leave Fish to Find Fish

Its perhaps the first rule in fishing and probably an appropriate place to start.  Don't leave fish to find fish.  If you are catching fish, thats the whole point.  The grass is not always greener on the other side and moving to a different location could result in getting skunked.

That translates right into deer hunting.  If you're seeing deer and they don't seem to be alerted to your presence, keep hunting them!  Every time you hunt an area and don't spook deer, you're learning more and more about their habits, eventually, you'll get a shot opportunity.

With that said, sometimes after you've fished a spot for a few days in a row, the fish seem to just disappear.  Its not that they crawled out of the lake or swam to a different river, they're still there.  The problem is you overfished them.  Only then should you try a different piece of water, or in the case of deer hunting, move to a new stand location.  Which leads right in to our next tactic...

Insanity, doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result

If you're not catching fish, its time move or try something different.  This may seem like a no brainer but you have no idea how many people I see casting the same fly to the same spot over, and over, and over, not resting the water at all between each cast as if the fish don't realize how great they are.  If something doesn't work, change things up!

The change doesn't have to be huge, its often just doing what you've always done, but subtly different, that turns the game in your favor.  A great example in fly fishing is changing the angle at which you're casting to the fish-- instead of casting from where you're standing repeatedly, move over to change the casting angle or get closer to where the fish is rising- or both.

In deer hunting, that might mean doing something as simple as hunting from a higher treestand height, or moving your stand 50yds.  It might mean getting to your stand from a different entry route, or taking a different route back to your truck.  I could go on and on, the point being, if something isn't working, fix it.

Don't Fish Where Everyone Else Does

Another no-brainer, but judging by the number of access points I see during fishing and hunting season with multiple trucks parked at them, maybe its not.  Even little fish are harder to catch in areas with heavy fishing pressure.  Trout might have a brain the size of a pea, but they catch on pretty quick.  The same can be said of pretty much every other game fish or animal, especially whitetail deer.

If I see tire tracks or boot prints in a particular area, I fish somewhere else.  That might be as simple as walking in further than the guy before me was willing to go, or it might mean I don't even get out of the truck and fish somewhere miles away.

Since there are more hunters than trout anglers, I usually won't even scout within so many yards of each potential access point on a tract of public land, which is all I hunt.   Once I've determined where other hunters aren't, I'll take the hand I'm dealt and plan how to play it accordingly.

But even then, sometimes that spot you were sure you'd have to yourself has other hunters when you show up, which is why you should learn to...

Pick Their Pockets

During particular insect hatches, our rivers can become very crowded.  Its not uncommon to have over 20 boats on a particular stretch you normally have to yourself.  When that happens, you have three options:  go home (not an option), fish somewhere else and miss the hatch, or pick their pockets.

I will sit at the access and let all of the other boats get far downstream to all of the "good spots."  When they do that, they skip over a lot of really great, overlooked, water.  And I get it all to myself.  #boom.

I did the same thing during a recent rifle season.  The piece of public land I planned to hunt had three cars there when I arrived an hour and a half before first light.  There was a fresh layer of snow on the ground so instead of going somewhere else, I decided to walk the trail back into the timber and see where the other hunters had set up.  All three cut off of the trail at various points just a little ways into the treeline, and knowing the lay of the land I was able to get between them and the deer.  I don't think they knew I was there until they walked out and saw my tracks checking out their tracks.

Those hunters created an artificial funnel that pushed the deer right to where I was waiting at the base of a big white pine.  Fortunately for them, I didn't have a doe tag that year.

Have a Plan B

All that said, sometimes no matter how clever you think you are, something can come up and ruin your trip.  Going home isn't an option, so instead of having to figure out a backup plan on the fly, have it figured out before you get there.  I can't tell you how many of my "Plan B" fishing spots are now on the "Plan A" list.

The old adage holds true, "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."  An example of this in the hunting world is an oak stand I hunt off of a seasonal, not snow plowed county road.  We had almost 18-inches of snow fall overnight a few years ago during rifle season.  Had I not found a little known, alternate route to get there, that spot would have been off the list until the next year.

Understand Your Prey

Good trout anglers could probably pass most college biology classes.  They know about each life cycle of the bugs fish eat, as well as how and when they eat them.  They understand how fish see, where they can see from where they're stationed, and how they eat different prey types.  They understand how fish use the terrain features in a stream or lake to their advantage and a whole host of other things that have nothing to do with fishing, but have everything to do with catching fish.

To take your deer hunting success to the next level, you need to understand deer behavior.  Let me tell you, it might not sound like much fun picking up a book about deer behavior at your local library, especially if its written by an author who has little to nothing to do with the hunting industry.  But trust me, you will savor every page.

Make Every Cast Count

Something you see a lot of beginning fly anglers do is get into the river and basically start flailing away at the water.  They might catch a fish now and then, but could have caught three fish in that spot they only caught one.  Don't just blind fish.  Cast to each spot for a reason, read the water, pick it apart, and then ask yourself why you caught that fish where and when you did.  Pretty soon you will be able to read the water and start seeing trends that will make you a much more efficient angler.

The same can be said for hunting.  Over time as you get more and more experience in the woods, you'll start to read deer sign and predict deer movements.  Some, like funnels, are obvious.  Some, like bedding areas, will only start to stick out once you've...

Put Your Time In

When you're first getting into any hobby or career path-- or anything, really-- you aren't going to immediately be awesome at it.  Sure, there is always that guy that goes out and catches a huge fish on on a twizzler.  In hunting its the guy that wakes up late, gets out to a piece of timber he has never been, sits down on a random stump, lights up a cigarette and shoots a monster buck before he has enough time to finish it.

I've never been lucky enough to be that guy, which is great, cause I don't want to be that guy.  I want to be the guy who earns it because eventually, you catch big fish regularly and on purpose.   Which will help you to...

Be Prepared to Catch Big Fish

We've all heard of buck fever, and if you're lucky enough, you've experienced it.  Fishing has its own version.  You hook up with what you thought was a normal-sized fish only to have it nearly pull the rod out of your hands when you set the hook.  Inexperienced anglers freak out, make simple mistakes and unless they're lucky, wind up losing the fish.

There are two ways around this.  The first is to fight a lot of big fish so you know how to play them, which takes time.  The other is to expect to catch big fish.  When guiding, I almsot always tell my clients, I'm a guide, not a god.  I can't make the fish eat.  But if you're lucky enough to catch fish while we're out today, there is a possibility you will catch a really big one.  You probably won't, but know that they're in there and they might eat your fly.

We then talk about how to play fish, how we'll get it in the boat when they land it, etc.  Again, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. If you spend enough time in a treestand, even if you're the worst hunter in the world, you will eventually have a deer walk by.  Its going to happen.  If you are an intermediate hunter and put yourself in an area with a few bucks around, eventually, you will have a buck walk by.
Its going to happen, so don't let the surprise of a buck walking by let you forget you were expecting it to happen.  Because when you're expecting something to happen, you don't freak out about it.  You're ready!

Don't Blame Your Gear, Master It

If you're in your mid-30's or older, you might remember when a particular brand of shoe came out in the late 1980's that had a pump on the tongue.  You'd repeatedly squeeze the pump and the shoe would inflate around your foot, giving a custom fit.  Kids my age also thought this would help you jump higher or run faster, yet somehow, none of us could suddenly dunk a basketball when we wore them.

In fly fishing, there are rods that cost over $1,000.  That doesn't even include the reel or the line.  There are also rods that cost under $100.  Put both of those rods in the hands of a beginner, and even some intermediate anglers, and other than the expensive rod probably being lighter, they won't be able to tell you what the other differences are.  They won't cast further or more accurate, or catch more fish.  Yet there are many people out there who will buy a high-end rod to improve their casting.
What they soon find out after their purchase is their casting doesn't noticeably improve because the problem wasn't the rod, it was the hand holding it.   The same can be applied to bows, rifles, etc.  If you can't hit that grouse with an 870 Express, you probably won't be able to hit it with a Caesar Guerini Ellipse Curve Over and Under.

Practice, practice, practice.  And once you've become a journeyman at your craft, you'll be able to make educated buying decisions and avoid wasting your hard earned money.

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