Beyond Basics: What Special Forces Can Teach Us About Hunting Deer Part II

 By Craig Dougherty

In its simplest form, hunting bad guys is about finding where they eat, sleep and have sex. However, Bill, a Chief Warrant Officer 3 in a special missions unit, and his troops never stop there.
They gather all kinds of bad-guy information and bring it together in a document called a concept of operations, or CONOP. I don’t want to get too deep into military jargon, but a CONOP is basically a plan. It identifies the mission, challenges, strategies and solutions of a situation. Basically, it’s what the guy in charge wants to accomplish and how he intends to do it. The more relevant information incorporated into the CONOP, the better. Deer hunters might simply call it a plan. That doesn’t mean a plan to simply grab your stuff and go hunting, but a detailed analysis of what deer you’re pursuing and how you plan to hunt him. Many good hunters hunt one deer, not just deer in general. After spending a few hours with Bill, I began to realize how important a thorough CONOP was to his passion for hunting bad guys and deer. Bill is a planner, and his CONOP experience makes him a real pro when preparing for a hunt. He prepares a plan, a fallback plan and a fallback to the fallback. I wouldn’t say he is an obsessive- compulsive planner about hunting, but he’s pretty close, and when you think about what he hunts (bad guys and deer), it’s understandable. The more we visited, the more I realized Bill and my son, Neil, were on the same page about hunting deer. Neil understands deer and how they interact with the land. He develops detailed hunting plans for our property and the properties of clients. He gathers data and folds it into a detailed plan. In Bill’s terms, Neil is developing a CONOP. He intimately understands how and why deer move on our property. He constantly monitors food sources and keeps a watchful eye on changing cover patterns. He knows which stands hunt well in specific winds and which ones to avoid. He knows when and how the neighbors hunt and folds it (and 100 other data points) into a plan. He uses cameras and binoculars to find the buck he wants and then starts patterning him with cameras. By the time he hunts a buck, he knows him like one of his children. And he knows how to hunt him. He is definitely a CONOP kind of guy and has the heads on the wall to prove it. I hit the woods when I feel like it. My stand choices might be based on the beauty of the autumn light coming through the leaves or the view. Or maybe I pick a stand because it’s easy to get into or close to the truck. Typically, when Neil asks why I chose a stand, I have some lame reason and wind up blurting out, “Because I felt like it.” No plan, no reason — just an idea of sorts. I’m definitely not a CONOP guy, and I don’t have the heads on the wall to prove it. I do get lucky once in a while and kill one.

What Kind of Hunter Are You?

Digitals don’t lie. If you think there’s no place in hunting for digital technology, you’d better think again or at least talk to Bill. He uses digital stuff every day in operations. Digital technology lets him zoom in from 30,000 feet to three inches. He takes pictures, intercepts messages and listens into conversations. He’s a big fan of cameras, and photos are an intricate part of anything he does tracking down terrorists. He takes pictures from three feet to 30,000 feet. He needs a good look at the enemy and must decide if he’s the bad guy he’s pursuing. He uses auto-recognition cameras and an ALICE pack full of electronic special-purpose tools designed to keep track of those guys. In his line of work, you must know the difference between a bomb builder and his twin brother. You have to know where the bad guys are, where they’ve been and where they’re going. He uses all kinds of gadgets and specially designed apps to keep track of the enemy — some top secret, some not so much. He’s even designed a few gadgets to keep track of deer he’s chasing back home. Neil drooled when he heard about the surveillance stuff Bill was working with. I saw the if-only wheels spinning a million miles per hour in his head. When Bill pulled out a homemade deer-activitymonitoring device, Neil about turned inside out. “If only I had a few dozen of those,” he muttered. Each year, Neil analyzes about 200,000 deer photos. They tell him where deer are feeding, when they show up and how they get there. He uses cameras to identify rut behavior and tell him when it’s time to move on Mr. Big. Cameras are a necessary component of his attack plan. He uses chip and texting (cellphone technology) cameras. Cameras using cellphone technology tell him what’s going on in real time, which is often the difference between knowing and wondering. A big part of Neil’s hunting technique is keeping track of what’s going on with the deer he’s hunting. He wants to know what they are doing at all times. Neil goes almost paranoid when a deer he’s after disappears for any time. He has always been a big fan of game cameras and has the properties he manages rigged with remote setups so he can monitor things from hundreds of miles away. Again, he and Bill are on the same page with surveillance cameras. The only difference is that Bill’s can do a lot more, such as peek in a window at 30,000 feet and identify and keep track of who they photographed and where. Cameras have become a staple of the modern deer hunter. The trick is to use them to help you put your hunting plan together, not just to judge your annual big-buck beauty contest. We rely on them to tell us what’s going on in the deer woods. Our cameras tell us what deer are eating, where they’re sleeping and when they’re breeding. We like cameras that relay pictures in text-like digital-message formats. The less scent and disturbance in the woods, the better. Neil spends more time messing with photos than hunting deer. And therein lies the problem. He needs a technology to identify and track individual bucks for him. No wonder he and Bill are becoming buddies. If only he could borrow Bill’s gear for a season.

Shaping the Battlefield, or ‘Deerscaping’

Soldiers are good at gaining the advantage over an enemy. They have been shaping battlefields for centuries. According to Bill, they still are. In fact, it’s one of their most-used tactics when hunting bad guys, and they use the term all the time. They do it by using various intelligence tools. Soldiers are not above modifying terrain to set the bad guys up for the kill. They do all kinds of things to shape the battlefield, including placing a blockade on a well-used highway to force bad guys into using back roads (where our guys are ready for them), or deliberately planting a decoy (munition by the side of the road) to distract the enemy. Bad guys make easy targets after they’re forced out of their spider holes when their food supply has been taken out. Bad guys on the move are much easier to kill than bad guys in hiding. And the ultimate battlefield shaper is the drone. No, we don’t use drones (it’s probably illegal) to hunt deer, but at NorthCountry Whitetails, we’ve been shaping deer hunting battlefields for more than 25 years. We call it “deerscaping.” Every property we work with is deerscaped in some form. It’s part science and part art, but shaping the battlefield is a big part of the deer hunting battle. You have to pay attention to how you access the area, where you locate bedding areas and how the wind will affect your food plots. You should decide how you’re going to hunt a plot before you create it. Details matter when it comes to creating worldclass hunting properties. It’s not enough to have good deer. You must have deer you can kill. If you leave it to chance, the bigger bucks usually win. Building a few large feeding plots in the center of your property helps anchor populations of deer on your land, and hunting plots tucked here and there help you kill the buck you’ve watched all summer. How about some Imperial Whitetail Clover in a cool, moist pocket for some early-season hunting, or some Winter-Greens or Tall Tine Tubers planted on a warm southern slope to provide you with your best ever late-season hunting? We especially like tailoring air movement to play into our hunting strategy. We take out turbulence-creating trees when they create wind eddies and plant a double row of spruce or pines to move air in a specific direction. Setting a stand so your scent drifts over a valley, lake or highway can keep the air clean downwind of your stand. No, we don’t make four-lane highways, but we do plenty of hinge-cutting and brush crushing. How about building a fence or dropping a line of trees to force deer to use a specific trail? What about piling brush to move deer to where you want them? How about clearing a brushy draw to move them up the ridge a few hundred yards? What about posting a plywood shadow man in a tree stand to make deer move to the right or stop avoiding that stand every time you hunt it? Or maybe killing does from a load of hay bales that disappear when the shooting’s finished? The list of deerscaping tactics is endless. You get the picture. If military guys can shape the battlefield, so can deer hunters.

Sensitive Site Exploitation; Walking ’Em Back

The intelligence community regularly uses sensitive site exploitation, or SSE. They find where a terrorist has holed up and go through anything he might have left to analyze where he’s been and what he’s been up to. They analyze every bit of evidence. They’re looking for clues about how he operates, who he knows and how he spends his time. A bad guy’s cellphone is a real find, and his computer is solid gold. But simple stuff such as wrappers and food can be important, too. Pictures he kept and people he knows help good guys hunting terrorists get the jump on bad guys the next time around. The trouble with deer hunters is they quit hunting the last day of the season. Some post-season work would set them up for a successful subsequent year. We hit the ground as soon as the season ends to determine how deer beat us (I lose more than I win). Neil calls this walking ’em back. You hope for snow or at least some mud so you can get on a good track and take it backward. This lets you learn how a buck avoided your stands and kept clear of human traffic areas. You will see where he fed and where he went to bed. We’d been doing sensitive site exploitation long before we encountered the term in a military context. We just called it post-season scouting. It’s a critical data point of every plan Neil develops. We also open the rumen of every deer we hang in the skinning shed. We paw through it with rubber gloves or a knife blade to see where deer have been and what they’re eating. A rutting buck on the move has much different rumen contents than one hanging out in an acorn flat. It’s sure beginning to seem like one of the few differences between hunting bad guys and hunting deer is that bad guys can shoot back.