Listening, really listening, is an art form that takes practice. Some of the sounds we hear in the woods are nothing more than distracting noise that we sometimes try to ignore, some of the sounds are native to the environment and are enjoyable, even entertaining, and some are so subtle that we have to concentrate to hear and interpret them. Paying attention to these “layers” of sound can help us be better bowhunters.

The outermost layer, which is mostly normal background noise, includes the obvious sounds in and around the woods–cattle mooing, dogs barking, highway traffic, farm machinery–day to day sounds that may not affect animal movements, as wild critters are more than likely accustomed to hearing those sounds.

My favorite autumn sound is the music made by migrating geese. There is a mountain lake near my hunting property and every evening I hear geese making their way to the lake. On calm evenings I can even hear them hitting the water when they land. The writer, Paul Annixter, in his book, Swiftwater, wrote that the sounds of wild geese are “elfin.” That is an appropriate description of that magical sound.

This outer layer may also include listening to conversations we have with other people that are peripheral to our hunts, conversations we should not only hear but really listen to. Keeping our antennae up is akin to gathering intel, and takes some practice.

One fall afternoon, I was sitting in my truck eating a sandwich between hunts when a beat up pickup rattled up in a cloud of dust. An old codger stepped out and hobbled up, introduced himself, and asked me if I minded if he gathered walnuts in the area. During our visit he casually mentioned seeing some deer in a small grove of trees, an island in the middle of a fifty acre hay field, a place I never dreamed would hold deer. It was an off-hand comment that I almost missed, but I didn’t. That evening I shot a fat doe in that little grove.

Sometimes these outer layer sounds include comical conversations. A decade or so ago, I was sitting in a tree at the top of a big river bluff on New Year’s Eve. It was a cold clear afternoon, and sounds were magnified by the conditions. Someone was having a New Year’s Eve party at a vacation cabin on the river a mile away. Two party attendees, guys who had apparently thrown back a few too many drinks, were standing outside of the cabin arguing about a girl. I could hear every word clearly, as though they were twenty feet away. I almost fell out of my tree I was laughing so hard. I’ll never know if any deer were nearby that night.

Sometimes these “outer layer” sounds, like the two drunks, may not affect animal movements, but sometimes they do. Earlier this year I set up on a tiny food plot I had planted on a terrace on my hunting land. Unfortunately, my neighbor who owns a cabin about a half mile away decided to work on his roof that afternoon. It was the week of Thanksgiving, the leaves had all fallen, the air was clear, and the banging on his roof sounded like it was fifty feet away. I pretty much figured that the evening was going to be a bust. Just as the sun touched the mountain peak to the west, he must have decided to eat supper or watch the evening news, because the racket abruptly stopped. It wasn’t five minutes later that a big doe walked up the slope behind me and popped out into my clover patch where I arrowed her. To be fair, it was the witching hour, that gloaming time when deer move, but I can’t help but think that deer had staged up down in the woods, mildly alarmed by the racket, waiting for it to stop.

I actually witnessed this “staging up” last year. I was hunting just inside a fifty acre woodlot when the farm owner and his wife pulled up in the pasture and began chain-sawing a downed tree, no more than two hundred yards from my perch. Again, I thought for sure my hunt was over, but soon a group of five or six does filtered through the forest toward my spot and began meandering around, nipping on tree buds and pawing for acorns. I was content to watch, as I was really hoping to see the big buck I had been hunting all season, so I sat back and enjoyed observing deer up-close and personal. I knew from experience that they were headed for a neighbor’s food plot, but I was amazed that the buzzing of the chainsaw and conversations didn’t run the deer off. Finally, the sawing stopped, I heard the tailgate slam, and the truck rumbled away. The deer immediately turned and headed for the food plot.

The next layer of woods sounds, the middle layer, includes the sounds like far-off coyotes yipping, the assembly yelp of a hen turkey, and the staccato sound of squirrels chattering and scurrying across the forest floor. These are natural woods-sounds that are very noticeable but require some attention to interpret.

Squirrels are great indicators of forest activity, as they will bark and chatter at predators and intruders. In my experience, one of the best signs that a deer is near is that squirrel activity will suddenly cease and squirrels will vanish with no warning or sound at all. That silence during an afternoon of frantic squirrel activity is a dead giveaway that something is about to happen.

My inner-most, third layer of listening is to focus on the most subtle noises, sounds that are easily missed or dismissed as nothing. Standing up in a treestand for hours at a time, with your bow ready for a shot is impractical. But if a deer shows up unannounced while you are sitting down with your bow in your lap, you run the risk of busting the deer when you move. The subtle sounds that you may normally miss can announce the approach of those quiet deer so you can make ready. Sometimes the approach of a big rutting whitetail buck will be signaled only by a single soft “urp”, or the clicking of a hoof on a pebble if the deer walks across stony ground or crosses a rock fence.

Sometimes, subtle sounds can be a puzzle. Twice in my years of bowhunting deer, I have heard soft sounds of something walking in the leaves, sounds that I at first mistook for a deer approaching, but I couldn’t spot a deer, even when those little footsteps seemed to be right on top of me. For the life of me I could not see what was making the noise. In both cases it took some serious focus to decipher the sounds. One was a terrapin camouflaged by his spotted shell, slowly walking in the leaves, and the other was a ruffed grouse pecking around in the weeds. The terrapin finally ambled off, but I arrowed the grouse for supper.

A perfect example of the subtle sound of approaching game is a love-sick bull moose. The moose hunter cow calls loudly with a birch bark megaphone, and the sound of an approaching thousand pound bull may be quite noisy, but is sometimes as subtle as a snapping twig or a soft grunt.

My last hunt of 2013 was a great example of listening to the different layers of sound. Keep in mind that most traditional bowhunts end up with more memories than meat, but on this one hunt, it all came together.

A buddy of mine, who owns a farm adjacent to one that I often hunt, made a casual comment to me on the phone that he had seen a nice buck along an old dirt road near the farm boundary. I made a mental note and on a mistletoe hunt with my grandson before Christmas, we scouted the spot. There were large fresh tracks in the mud on the road, deer hair at a low spot in the adjacent barb wire fence, and droppings in the woods at the fence crossing. The buck had been feeding on fermenting hedge apples that lay on the forest floor.

The day after Christmas I hung a stand near the fence crossing and settled in for the afternoon. I was kept alert by the squirrels scampering about, but right before dark, the squirrels suddenly vanished. I focused on listening to footsteps in the leaves, but I instead heard the soft but unmistakable sound of the crunching of ice in a frozen puddle in the road. I stood up and prepared for a shot. Five minutes later the buck walked down the road, jumped the fence, and turned broadside fifteen yards in front of me. I shot him and heard the crack of bone. He took off like a racehorse. I quietly climbed down and went home, unsure of my shot placement. The next morning I easily found the buck, seventy five yards away. My 170 grain broadhead had center-punched his shoulder blade and taken out both lungs.

Although this little dissertation is about interpreting sound, it would be negligent to leave out a short treatise on the role of the wind in this episode. When I discovered the fermenting hedge apples, there were a half-dozen different trees in which to hang a treestand. I hoped and anticipated that the buck would walk west on the dirt road, just as his tracks promised. The timber lay on the south border of the road. The prevailing wind is from the southwest. There was no way to avoid my scent blowing from me to the road. My best hope was that the buck would intercept the scent of the hedge apples and react before he smelled me. Therefore, I hung my stand fifteen yards west of the hedge apples. And that is exactly what happened. The buck smelled the sweet, mushy fruit, turned, jumped the fence, and walked south, directly to the food. Just like that. However, had I not heard his approaching footsteps and been on my feet with my bow up, he would have surely seen my movement.

He wasn’t my largest buck, and he wouldn’t be classified as a “monster,” but his nine point rack and heavy body were nice Christmas presents. I sure was tickled!

Paul Annixter also wrote in Swiftwater, “Yet these were the days and nights that marked his initiation into the cult of the finished woodsman.”

When we hunt, we use all our senses. We see the colorful autumn woods and the signs left by the creatures, and we smell the aroma of the forest. But some of the woods sounds are difficult to hear and interpret. Listening to and sorting out the layers of sound may help us to be the finished woodsmen that we all aspire to be.

Equipment Note: The author shot this deer with a 55 pound Black Widow takedown bow, a Three Rivers Traditional Only arrow and a 170 grain Abowyer single-bevel broadhead.