Football has its share of special terms, usually created for marketing and later turned into a statistical category before eventually crossing the boundaries to become part of American language.
The “red zone” is one of the latest, and refers to the part of the field between the opposing team’s 20-yard line and the goal line. Once Team A’s offense has reached Team B’s 20 or inside the 20, Team A is said to be in the red zone.
Statistically, once in the red zone, there is a higher expectation that the offense will score, either with a touchdown or a field goal.
Obviously, a mistake in this area can prevent either.
Doesn’t that sound a lot like the sport of deer hunting, especially when trying to score on a trophy buck?
There are special scenarios and times when everything comes together to create a hunting red zone, where the hunter has put himself or herself into a situation where there is a heightened expectation of seeing big antlers and achieving a winning result.
Just like in football, the more times you can get to the red zone the more often you have a chance to score.
Real trophy bucks are far and few between, and we should always be on the ready to take advantage of any red zone opportunity or work to create them.
Football teams don’t always score in the red zone, either because they suffer a turnover, miss a kick or make some other mistake.
And sometimes it’s because the opposing defense realizes it’s exposed, it tightens up and it gets tough.
Again, the similarities to deer hunting are apparent.
The timing aspect
In deer hunting, the red zone can either involve timing and/or location, but usually it’s both — being in the right place at exactly the right time.
Obviously, at virtually any second a deer can seemingly appear from nowhere, like out of thin air.
How many times, how many hours have you spent sitting in a tree stand or a shooting house looking in all directions, and for hours you see nothing?
Then all of a sudden you hear a rustle in the leaves that is not a squirrel, or you hear a snort in the woods across from your food plot stand and out walks a buck. That moment suddenly becomes a red zone.
In such a situation, it is easy to blow the scoring opportunity. If you’re caught completely off guard, with either a bow still hanging on the tree stud holder, or the rifle is sitting in the corner of the box stand an arm’s length away, you’ve fumbled. The buck usually bolts across the plot and out of the scene before you can even react, and takes away your scoring opportunity.
Red-zone moments come in all sorts of modes. It could be the surprise element of opening day, when deer least expect a hunter to be in the woods. That’s a one-time thing, catching a buck off guard before he realizes an increased human presence. The surprise advantage of opening day fades quickly as deer become aware that hunters are out in force.
The typical red-zone moment happens during the crucial last 30 minutes of the day.
“Of all the times to hunt, this is my favorite,” said Gary Adams of Holly Springs. “For years now we have been seeing fewer and fewer deer move in the morning. From 3 p.m. (to dark) seems to be the prime time to be in your stand. Even then the absolute best time is the last 15 minutes of dying light.
“You really have to be on your toes to see a buck and be able to make a quick evaluation of the rack, then make the shot. This is like attempting one more pass in the red zone on third down and 10.”
The mating season, or rut, is taken for granted by all deer hunters as the time of year when a buck is most likely to make a fatal error; yet, all of us have been fooled by that over confidence during this phase of buck behavior.
Even so, the rut does generally figure into the favor of the hunter most of the time. This is especially the case if the hunter actually encounters a buck chasing down a doe out in the open, but usually it means an encounter with a buck searching for a doe either in or near estrus.
Weather and temperature play a role in creating a red zone, too, which makes monitoring forecasts imperative.
It is still advisable to be in a stand hours ahead of a pending weather front or storm. Even if rain is on the way, go hunting. Obviously, once the rain arrives and does so with a deluge driven by cold and brisk winds, you are no longer in the red zone and should punt (return to camp).
Always hunt ahead of an approaching cold front. While there may be no biological proof that approaching hard cold fronts actually stimulate bucks to become more active, the vast majority of hunters believe it does.
A deep freeze at daylight might not see much buck action, but sooner or later they have to get up, move around, eat, and/or check for does. That scenario can put you right in the middle of the red zone.
Calling the right play
Every sport has a playbook, which includes plays that maximize successful opportunities in all situations that can arise during the course of the game. Deer hunters should have a playbook, too, either stored mentally, in an actual notebook or on a computer.
It should be a checklist of items to consider before planning each hunt. Preparation is the key to getting in the red zone. Here are a number of playbook offensive and defensive plays to consider.
Camera data — Check all your cameras to see the results. Decide what camera proof is evidence enough to influence your choices of hunting stands. Did a particular buck visit a specific camera set up more than once, or only one time? Was the buck headed in the same direction each time or different directions? Are there a large number of does congregating around the camera area? These clues can tell you if a red zone exists, but also when and where it can be pinpointed.
Deer sign — Hunting right on top of rubs or scrapes is not advisable, since the likelihood of seeing the responsible buck are minimal.
However, it is smart set up or hunt a stand along a trail or funnel leading to a rub line or an active scrape. Hunters need to know when and where these types of deer sign start to show up.
Watch for tracks, too coming out of a thicket entry or exit point. Figure out which direction most of the tracks are headed to or from to determine the primary course of travel. Hang a camera there to catch the times and frequency of deer travel at such points.
Weather and wind — Scoring in the red zone means a hunter has to be aware of all the elements at work in the game and these are two big ones. When the weather is clear choices are much easier to make. Otherwise, you have to plan your hunting strategy to use the conditions to maximize your advantage, or to at least minimize the disadvantages.
Stand choice — Once you know all the variables, then you can move forward with calling the day’s plays. Study your playbook — considering camera data, deer sign scouting, weather and wind — and then make choices balancing the variables to reach the red zone. Call the right plays, and your chances of scoring on a big buck increase.
But, obviously, scoring in the red zone is far from a given deer-hunting proposition. While a football team gets four downs or more to score, a deer hunter may only get one chance.
Do your homework, check your playbook, and hope for the best that all your efforts will turn into a productive red zone moment.