I crawled ahead and eased one eyeball above a knob. There was the mule deer buck, bedded exactly where he’d been when I started the stalk. His smaller compadres were all bedded farther down-slope, the wind was still perfect and the shot was reasonably short. I drew my bow low, rose to my knees and filled my 2006 Montana deer tag with one arrow through both lungs. It was one of those rare bowhunting moments when everything goes right.
As we photographed the buck, I couldn’t help but think how similar to a card game this bowhunt had been. Texas Hold ’Em Poker is all the rage these days, with online tournaments galore and widespread TV coverage. Even if you’re not a gambler, it can be fascinating to watch experts compete, and once you understand the game, you realize how complicated it can be.
You also begin to notice that the same select group of players wins most tournaments. Those who lose at poker are often quick to accuse the winners of being “lucky,” but good poker players beat the odds on a regular basis. They make their luck by using strategy, playing percentages and correctly reading their opponents. Sure, there’s always an element of luck, but professional gamblers don’t really “gamble” all that much.
In archery hunting, pure “gambling” is racing around like a headless chicken and hoping things turn out right. It’s putting a stand in the first tree you stumble across and hoping a whitetail walks by, or spotting a distant mule deer and making a beeline for the animal even if wind or terrain are wrong.
Once in a while, pure gambling works. The casual poker player bets on low-odds cards and gets a lucky draw. The haphazard bowhunter sits in the right tree by accident, or stumbles headlong into a buck or bull with its head buried deep in a bush. But consistently successful poker players and bowhunters both succeed by carefully playing the game. Luck might influence individual poker hands or sits on stand, but ability overshadows luck in the long run.
FIVE KEYS TO WINNING BIG
1. EVALUATE YOUR HAND
After every deal, a poker player peeks at both of his hole cards. Based on the strength of the hand, he folds or decides to bet and play. Bowhunting is similar. When you scout for a stand site, you accept or reject setup options. The strength of each “hand” you consider is based on many things, but it all boils down to odds.
A treestand 20 yards downwind from two converging trails tattooed with fresh whitetail tracks is a strong hand. Another tree upwind from the same trails is a no-brainer fold, because animals are apt to smell you every time.
2. READ YOUR OPPONENT
At the card table, players scrutinize their opponents and look for clues (tells) about what’s likely to happen. In the woods, an archer reads animals to predict a likely bowhunting outcome. For example, I watched my Montana mule deer feed for more than 2 hours as cold rain drizzled down. Then the buck bedded in a sheltered nook on the downwind side of a rock. His belly was full, his eyelids drooping and his location shielded from the storm. I was certain he’d stay put for several hours because there was no reason to move.
When hunting white-tailed deer, I consider the time of year and lay of the land before I place a stand. In early October, before the rut, animals are apt to move directly from bedding cover to feeding fields. Wise old bucks will dawdle in security cover until darn near dark, so I set up as deep in the woods as I dare to along well-traveled trails.
After the rut kicks in, my white-tailed opponents operate with different motives. Big-racked bucks are cruising for a doe-in-heat downwind from bedding thickets on a lateral line to feeding trails. Rubs and scrapes mark these travel routes where a bedded estrous doe might wait for a buck. I place my stands near scrapes and rubs on the downwind edge of bedding cover, because this is a high-odds bet.
3. MAKE THE DECISION
Good poker players often fold six or eight hands while they wait for the right one, and you should do the same and decide on a high-odds hunting plan. Given six or eight whitetail stands in your hunting area, you can sit in only one each morning or afternoon. You reject the others because of wind direction, numbers of deer or the animal behavior you’ve witnessed the past few days.
The same applies to still-hunting or spot-and-stalk sneaking. Is the bull elk in a high-odds stalkable position, or should you back away because the wind or terrain is wrong? It’s better to try another day than spook the animal into the next county. Is the forest floor damp from a recent rain so you can pussyfoot through your favorite whitetail woodlot, or do all those cornflake-dry leaves from a week of hot weather make a treestand the only silent bet?
4. WATCH THE HAND UNFOLD
In Hold ’Em poker, you play two hole cards and hope the remaining five about to be dealt will strengthen your hand. Anytime during the hand, you can back out (fold) if luck is running against you. As a bowhunter, you have the same option.
Several years ago, I stalked a big Arizona Coues’ deer. I crawled inside 50 yards, but couldn’t get a shot. I backed off, circled a half-mile and eased in from another angle. Two hours later, I discovered I still couldn’t get a shot. Nearly a half-day after I’d started, I finished my third stalk on that buck. This time, my crosswind approach was magic. The deer was broadside and looking straight away. I side-stepped to the left, drew my bow and nailed the handsome 4x4 from 45 yards.
5. GOING ALL IN
At some point, you must commit to final action. Timid poker players and timid bowhunters wait for a perfect chance that seldom comes. Aggressive action wins more games—and takes more animals. Crawl the last 30 feet with a risk of being seen, or take the first decent shot from your treestand because you aren’t sure you’ll get a better one.
In the final stage, bowhunting is all about risk. You evaluate your chances and then commit to a series of steps. Don’t wait for a perfect chance—instead, act on a reasonably good chance. This is what poker players call “going all in.” You stick your neck out and take your best shot at winning. You might lose it all because you’ve calculated incorrectly, read your opponent wrong or simply gotten unlucky.
But week in and week out, intelligent poker pros win most all-in plays, and so do careful but aggressive bowhunters. They strike when everything seems to be in their favor, and more often than not, the result is a pinpoint shot and nice antlers on the wall.