Shane Easterling was brimming with anticipation as he secured his climbing tand high up a tree and prepared for the afternoon bowhunt in one of his favorite places.
Easterling had found this honey hole when scouting near Starkville as a student at Mississippi State University. He’d hunted the stand a few times and seen several deer but passed on them.
Would this be the day that he finally scored?
“I found an area that had hardwoods with a bedding area on one side, and crops and fields on the other side of the woods,” Easterling said. “There was a creek running through the area with high banks and one place had a crossing, and it created a bottleneck that the deer were using to cross the creek. There was also a honey locust tree, and a few acorn trees were also dropping there.”
Easterling scanned the woods around the stand and watched for any sign of deer movement. It didn’t take long.
Deer started filtering through the area on their way to their feeding grounds. Easterling let several does pass before spotting a rack buck heading his way.
“I spotted him about 100 yards out, feeding toward me,” Easterling said. “At 20 yards he turned broadside and I shot him.”
The deer ran out of sight, so Easterling let him lay awhile and went and got his dog to trail the deer. The dog soon found the downed deer.
“That 8-point buck was my best bow buck to that time and the first deer my dog trailed, so it was really special to me,” Easterling said. “Watching those deer from my stand and getting a buck in range is the fun part, but getting him in range is only half the story.
“Actually making a successful shot on the deer without spooking them is the hard part.”
A Bass Pro Staff hunter from Wesson, Easterling is a talented archer who has many kills and a lot of 3-D archery wins in the hunter division to his credit.
But he enjoys bowhunting for deer more than anything else: tournaments were just a means to become a better shooter while having fun.
Once you’ve found an area with plenty of food, cover and deer, the fun begins, but getting to that point is the hard part. There are a few basic things you must do to put the odds in your favor.
Easterling has been bowhunting since he was 15 years old, and he knows a thing or two about getting down to the basics. Though hunting has changed for him over the years, he still does a few things that prepares him for the hunt and helps him find deer to hunt.
These basic tips can help others become better hunters.
Practice makes perfect
Although many veteran hunters take it for granted, practice is the first thing each bowhunter needs to do.
Easterling bought into that philosophy at a young age, though it was more a product of his enthusiasm and passion for hunting that prompted him to go full bore into archery.
“When I first started hunting, I shot every day,” Easterling said. “We’d shoot year round and have competitions with friends and just have fun. I think from age 15 through college I shot every day. I also put on a lot of 3-D and pop-up tournaments at my church, and that was a lot of fun, too.
“You can have fun and hone your shooting skills at the same time.”
Obtaining the right bow setup that fits you and with which you are comfortable shooting and hunting is the first order of business.
After that you need to become proficient with that equipment. If you put in enough practice, shooting will become second nature to you — and then you’re ready to start hunting seriously.
Mineral licks and cameras
Easterling is a high-tech bowhunter who takes advantage of modern-day technology in his quest to harvest good deer.
“The first thing I do is take an inventory of my deer herd and bucks on the property I’m hunting,” Easterling said. “I’m going to do that by using mineral licks and conducting camera surveys.
“Now when we go hunting we know what’s in the area and how many (deer) are there.”
That’s a big step from the old days when hunters went into the woods blind. Without the use of game cameras, they had no way of knowing what was out there on their hunting lands.
“My uncle taught me what to look for in the woods, and back then you looked for food sources — droppings and tracks,” Easterling said. “If you found an acorn tree dropping acorns with lots of tracks and deer droppings around, that was a hot spot to hunt. Over the years I’ve found a lot of trees with plenty of acorns dropping but no deer sign around them; that’s not a good place to hunt and you’d just be wasting time there.
“There was a lot of trial and error in finding those productive spots to hunt.”
Now he’s at work long before the season begins to ensure he has a handle on what’s happening on his hunting property.
“During August and September, I’ll have feeders and mineral licks out on my private land hunting areas and take inventory of what I have,” Easterling said. “One of my favorite things to do is bushhogging and planting.
“You can have good luck if you have a good stand of grass the first couple weeks of the bow season when there’s not a lot of acorns or hunter pressure yet. The deer really love that tender grass, and they’ll come to it really good.”
With 7- and 11-year-old sons, Easterling spends the early bow season hunting alone, takes his kids to stands during the gun seasons.
So that also means planting a few food late-season plots for them.
“I always plant a couple of patches for my early season bowhunting, but I’ll also plant some patches later so that we can hunt some tender grass during the gun seasons, too,” Easterling said.
Easterling puts cameras out around food plots in early September when the grass is sprouting and the deer start feeding on the tender shoots.
“Learning the trees and available food sources in an area is also very important,” said Easterling. “Knowing what acorns the deer prefer and when those acorns are falling is also a key to finding deer. The white oak trees in your area might start dropping the first of November, so you wouldn’t hunt under one of those trees until they start dropping.”
Does your hunting area have any fruit trees or natural food sources that you could take advantage of?
“You need to learn to identify persimmon trees, crab apples, pin oaks, water oaks, red oaks, muscadine vines, possum grapes and all types of natural fruits,” Easterling said. “And you need to learn when those trees and vines are producing to take full advantage of them.
“During the early season you might have persimmons, crab apples, muscadine or possum grapes falling. Later you’ll find the pin oaks and water oaks dropping first, and then the red oaks. Once the red oaks start falling, the deer will go to them. And later, when the white oaks start dropping they’ll go to those, so finding the right food source at the right time is a key ingredient to finding and killing deer.”
An added tool in Easterling’s high-tech toolbox is his GPS, on which he marks acorns trees. That’s something you can do on public land, as well.
Then he’ll keep a record of when they first start dropping and when the deer are eating them.
“That’s a crucial part of the process of finding deer because the trees are only going to last a week or two and you need to hunt those trees when they’re producing the best,” said Easterling. “After that they’re going somewhere else to feed.”
The lay of the land
Learning the lay of the land almost goes without saying, but young hunters should be aware that this is a key component of any hunting situation. By that we mean to learn everything about the property you are hunting.
If you know the topography of your property you will be able to make moves and react in certain ways depending upon the way a deer acts.
“Focus on the core area you plan to hunt and determine what the food source is in that area,” Easterling said. “You need to know where that deer is coming from and what direction he’s going.
“If he’s coming from a bedding area and moving toward the food source during the late afternoon hours, it’s imperative to know the lay of the land and the food source so you will be able to intercept him on his route to the feeding area.”
Easterling also uses cameras during the season to keep track of buck movement. In addition to putting cameras on food plots, he will also put them on trails and on scrape lines.
“When the deer start scraping, I’ll move some cameras to the scrapes so that I can see what bucks are using the area and how many are there,” Easterling said.
Hunt by the wind
“After I determine an area that I want to hunt, the biggest key is to hunt by the wind,” Easterling said. “I want to know which direction the wind is blowing and which direction the buck normally comes from and position my stand accordingly.
“If the wind is wrong for a certain stand I want to hunt, I’ll hunt it another day.”
Being disciplined and hunting a stand only when wind direction won’t rat you out is crucial, he said.
“It only takes one time for a big buck to smell you while you’re hunting a stand to change his pattern, so you better take advantage of every hunt — especially the first few times you hunt a hot stand — or you may never see that buck again during the daylight hours,” Easterling said.
After he has scouted an area and has an idea a buck is working that area, he usually hangs a couple of lock-on stands so he’ll have options on northerly or southerly winds.
“If the wind is wrong you’ve got to be smart and stay out of the area and weigh your options,” Easterling said. “Make sure the wind is right before you hunt and know where the deer will come from. If you have multiple options, then it should be simple to choose one to hunt where the wind is right.”
While Easterling preferred climbing stands when he was younger, these days he prefers lock-on stands.
The reason is pretty basic: During the early season, hunters will sweat a lot carrying a stand in and climbing the tree.
So using permanent stands cuts down on the amount of effort expended to get in your stand. By using lock-on stands Easterling while keeping his scent at a minimum.