To be honest I don’t think of my style of hunting to be defined as run and gun. I feel like it is more than that. It is the evolution of the savage and predatory instinct that drives me to be a hunter and to harvest prey. We all see it these days in the social media driven, “Look at me” world we live in. Everyone is a big buck expert. No one hunts deer anymore; they grow them, feed them and have 24-hour surveillance on them with the finest technologically, advanced gear, and gadgets on the market! That’s not me. I don’t have a scent eliminating air conditioner, a scent proof closet worth over $600.00, or trail cameras texting me pictures!
Don't get me wrong, I love technology; however, I have seen how something as simple as a trail camera has both helped and hindered me. I found myself relying too much on a picture with a timestamp. I trusted the camera that the deer were not showing until dark. I believed that there weren't deer in the area simply because they didn’t show up on camera. It wasn’t until I took a step back and returned to hunting basics, that I saw a change. I began to enjoy myself as much as when I was a kid and applied 15 years of experience to that same excitement and passion.
Success came when I looked at the bigger picture. If you are like I was, you would find an area that is tore up with sign. You hunt the first time and declare it an amazing location. You hunt it again and again, each time seeing less sign and less deer. You begin to get frustrated and blame the moon, mass crops, or the hunting pressure from hunters on neighboring properties. Sound familiar?
At this point, you know something has to change. You move trail cameras and wander through the same section of woods scratching your head. Yes, I’ve been here. The deer have us patterned. It’s time to move!
Run and Gun may sound fast to people, like it’s a race to walk miles to discover far-away honey holes. It’s marketed as if you have to carry gear lighter than dental floss and ascend a tree in a matter of seconds. That’s not all true! Run and Gun can be slow and methodical. It can be planned or totally done on the fly! It's time to get back to the basics.
One day, after leaving one of the same small pieces of private land, where I’ve consistently killed mature bucks, I stopped at the edge of the field. I needed a new perspective. I forced myself to sit down and look at the same topographic map that I’ve stared at one hundred times before. What was I missing?
I had to think like a deer. Where would I feel safe? Where would the average hunter not have the ambition to go? This led me to look beyond the property boundaries. Eventually, it led me to a piece of public land accessible only by kayak.
With a fresh outlook, new research and scouting led me to the edge of a river. We tend to forget that deer swim. For a deer to plunge into a river and swim a few hundred yards is not out of the norm. I strapped my bow to my kayak and approached the island without a sound. It was then that I realized, the nearly impenetrably thicket would severely limit my shot opportunities. I’d have to be elevated in a tree.
I couldn’t find a way to strap a tree stand to the kayak and haul it through the undergrowth. This is when I began saddle hunting. It became vital to simplify my gear. What is absolutely necessary to kill a deer from a tree, and how can I bring it all in and out with my kayak and carry it through the scrub?
I had to reevaluate my entire set up because this location didn’t allow for anything superfluous. The landscape was far too impenetrable to roll up with the duck boat and place 10 stands around the island. I also did not want to do this. This was an opportunity to move through the woods like a predator, not a herd of cattle. I had the chance to start fresh and be invisible.
It was Veterans day, and it was the perfect morning to be hunting. I slid my kayak out of the bed of my truck, stepped into my sling, strapped a set of Stepps and my backpack on the back and my bow to the front. After a short paddle, I arrived at the shores of the thick jungle, threw my backpack on, slung the Stepps over my shoulder, and grabbed my bow without a sound.
It took 30 minutes to walk 100 yards as the brush grabbed at every inch of my clothing. I took my time and setting up in a scrubby oak only 12 feet off the ground. Once the sun came up I knew this was the ticket. I could now shoot over the thick brush and actually see what was coming.
This was only the second time I had stepped foot on this island and the first time in a tree. The night before I visualized the scenario on repeat. I planned everything from wind direction to access time, from packing my gear into my kayak to setting up in the dark. I immediately began seeing deer the first morning. A doe snuck by with a nice buck on her tail. A few short grunts later and he was playing cat and mouse with me. It wasn’t long before a nice 8 pt. came looking for a fight.
Like all the “professionals” say on tv he wasn’t the biggest deer, but I was happy with him. I don’t judge a good deer by his age or the size of his rack I judge it by the experience and the hunt itself. This deer was the first legitimate deer I killed from a sling and the first deer on public land accessed by a kayak. The hunt got even more interesting when I then realized this deer would not fit on or in my kayak, nor would I be able to carry or drag him out of this thick island. I always carry contractor garbage bags for this reason! I deboned him and took his head just as if I was packing out an elk. I did all I could to fit the meat in every square inch I had in the kayak and paddled back with 80 extra pounds than I had on the paddle in!
This hunt was more than a public land hunt. It was the realization that hunting from a tree doesn’t have to mean setting up a tree stand in advance of the hunt. It was proof that scouting can be done while hunting. Now, there is rarely just scouting or just hunting, I am always hunting. I did not have trail cameras taking surveillance, no shooting lanes trimmed or preset stands. I trusted my gut instincts and just hunted! As corny as it may sound, I always think like a predator, as if I am a bobcat or coyote. How often do you see a bobcat or coyote aimlessly walking with no care in the world and no interest in their surroundings? That is how many hunters walk to their stands. On the way to my stand, an arrow is always knocked, and I am alert. The run and gun set up I have established allows me to carry everything I need on my back and around my waist. It allows me to climb any tree I see fit, without stopping to make adjustments, or reorganize. To me there is no reason to go into the woods and scout during the hunting season without hunting, I just hunt. The first time in is always the best time so why spread your scent and give the deer a fair warning you are there and coming back! Just Hunt!
Have you ever seen a set of products advertised by a company you’ve come to know and trust? They take some really badass photos with a clever tag line about their success as “Run and Gun” hunters. They even have the article to back it up.
At this point they’ve got you. They’ve sold you on this persona and false representation of the “ultimate set up” that turns out to be nothing more than an ultimate disappointment with a laundry list of limitations.
Don’t worry, I’ve been there. And I’m not going back.
How I Got Started
When I was a kid, my dad and I were always moving our stands throughout the season. We would begin in the summer and set stands. We would put some in trees that had been successful in the past, and others in completely new areas. We would rotate our single trail camera between the different sites hoping to catch a glimpse of their patterns.
We would often go through the effort of trimming shooting lanes, only to move the stand 10 yards closer to the “highway.” Eventually, my patience would wane. I would get down from the stand and actively pursue the deer. I didn’t know what “Run and Gun” was, but if I saw a deer out of bow range I would go after it.
Sit and Wait? Never.
I am not one to ever sit still, and my hunting style developed just the same. I was always getting down from my stand, pushing deer to a friend, or simply trying to cut them off myself. It’s a game. A game of predator and prey but i'm too impatient for chess. It’s easy to sit still when you’re surrounded by deer, but much less so when the army of squirrels descends upon your bait without a deer in sight. This is when my feet hit the ground.
Back then, running and gunning meant just that: boots on the ground and gun or bow in hand. I would free climb trees and boulders for better vantage points. I would follow game trails, creep through thick cover and search for the flicker of a tail, the horizontal silhouette of the body, or if I was lucky, the points of a big rack.
This works, for me.
At 15, I got permission to hunt a property after the land owner lost all of the apples and peaches off of his fruit trees. I began by creeping into the woods and setting up at the base of a big oak.
After a few minutes it just didn’t feel right. I moved 50 yards and found a boulder the size of a Peterbilt. I hoisted myself atop of it and hunkered in. Moments later, I sent an arrow through the lungs of a 130” 8-point at 5 yards. He was so big and so close that all 5 of my sight pins were in the vitals!
I continued to evolve my style with the addition of more advanced gear. I was ecstatic to add a Lone Wolf sit and climb tree stand to my arsenal after the Christmas of 2005. By age 16 I weighed in at a whopping 120 pounds. I remember the effort of strapping 30 pounds on my back. I would secure a backpack to the climber and waddle into the woods with my weapon in one hand and 20 additional pounds of bait in the other.
The set up took time, the stand caught on branches and briers, and I was lucky to find a perfectly straight tree to climb. I hit the lottery if that tree happened to be in the area I actually wanted to hunt. And, there was always the added fun of realizing you’re 10 feet lower than you thought you were once the sun came up.
Oh, how things have changed.
Hunting equipment has advanced so much over the years that it is now possible to carry an entire set up on your back for miles.
Thanks to the internet, we have access to the best equipment and infinite information on techniques, methods, gear set ups you name it. Unfortunately, this has resulted in an over saturation of information that is often unrealistic.
I’m honestly disheartened by the commercials and graphics that show “run and gun setups.” These typically includes a tree stand with 3-4 climbing sticks strapped to their back and a bow in hand.
Where are the ratchet straps, the extra layers that you’ll need once you stop walking, heck where is any of the gear that you ultimately shouldn’t be out in the woods without (water, compass, headlamp, etc)? Ultimately, it wouldn’t make for a nice photo if they showed a realistic set up.
Now let’s think about how far you can walk with a Volkswagen on your back. Maybe the edge of a mowed field, a paved road perhaps? To truly pursue a whitetail, you will blast through swamps, across river bottoms, up and down steep ridges and cedar thickets. Those as seen on TV setups will have you upside down and sideways, and ultimately frustrated. The good news? When you collapse from exhaustion, you’ll have a ready-made blind from all the brush that got caught in your stand on the way in.
Shown on the left is my entire winter set up. The image to the right shows the competitors on a beautiful day with their version of a "lightweight," "run and gun" set. I support simplicity, plain and simple.
I’m not here to harp on the downfalls of other systems. I write with the intent of exposing the false hopes that other big-name marketing campaigns feed on. There is a better way, and I know because I’ve been on the underside of that same VW.
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“If you consider an unsuccessful hunt to be a waste of time, then the true meaning of the chase eludes you all together.” -Fred Bear
As bowhunters we all want an epic story, rich in history with that specific, elusive whitetail deer. It’s the deer that you “know” and have “passed” numerous times, you’ve found his sheds, and know where he beds. The intimate details of his daily and even seasonal routines are documented in a library of trail camera photos. You tell your buddies, “this deer is too young to shoot. In a couple years he’ll blow into a giant!” He’ll be big enough to make the most seasoned hunter’s heart pound.
That’s cool and all and sure sometimes it plays out like that, but let's be honest, it's pretty rare and nearly unheard of in New England. I have killed numerous pope and young bucks in Connecticut, and there was only one deer that I truly had history with. The rest of the deer I may have caught on camera or run into him a time or two, but they were nothing close to textbook multi-season hunts. Typically, I found sign of a big deer, made a plan, and I hunted until I harvested him.
In today's industry you hear everyone naming deer and creating a “hit list” for the deer that they want to kill. I do not. The only names deer get are, “the 8” or “the 10.” I called the one and only deer with true history, “The Big 6”. The story of The Big 6 began two years ago, or so I thought. It was only after I killed him that I returned to my trail camera archives and realized the history began four years ago in a thick swamp, on the ground, with my bow.
Many of you know that I have grown up in a family of hunters and by extension have become one myself. I began shooting a bow as young as age 6 with my first homemade stick and string longbow. As I grew older, I noticed how much it excited my dad to share this passion with me. When I was old enough to hunt, he dragged me to the local sportsman’s club for the hunter safety course, where I shot a bullseye before heading out the door to pursue my passion on the soccer field. In high school, I was consumed with sports and academics, and I allowed my perfectionist tendencies to take control. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I realized making time to hunt would benefit me and bring me closer to my older brother, Drew. I described hunting as my father’s passion, but it is my brother’s sickness; obsession is too soft of a word.
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