The doldrums of an uneventful afternoon vanished at the sound of a snapping branch. Straining in the direction of the sound, I spotted the 3 1/2-year-old 10-pointer steadily making his way toward my ambush point.
With a solid 10 minutes of shooting light left, I hoped that there was still ample time for the shot. As his steady approach continued to draw him closer, my confidence was bolstered. Reaching the 20-yard mark, the buck came to a halt, inhaling the odors of estrous scent I’d placed on my way in. The scent wick had done its intended job of luring the buck into a spot where I had a standing shot at him. I came to full draw and settled the pin behind his front shoulders. As I smoothly triggered the release, the shot felt good.
That good feeling changed rapidly as the buck bolted down the opposite side of the steep ridge. Everything felt right with the shot, yet the sound of the shot indicated that something had gone terribly wrong. Straining in the waning light for clues, I spied the freshly severed branch. Sure enough, I’d clipped a small, unseen branch and sent my arrow harmlessly veering off course.
Hunting the big woods can be an intimidating task. Seemingly endless miles of homogenous land combined with an apparent lack of concentrating food sources can leave many hunters scratching their heads. However, even though the hunt just described did not end with the tagging of the 140-plus-inch buck, it does illustrate a good point.
Because there are features in the big woods where buck activity is concentrated, you can find these areas if you understand what to key in on.
Before we continue, I feel I should point something out. Over the years, I’ve successfully hunted big-woods settings in Alberta, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and, believe it or not, even Iowa. Though I’m certainly not foolish enough to believe I know everything, I feel that I can speak with some degree of intelligence on hunting Northern big-woods bucks.
Conversely, I’ve never chased bucks in the big woods of the Southern U.S.
In an effort to provide a more encompassing geographic look at this topic, I enlisted the help of Duncan Dobie. Although Duncan is not one to seek credit, the man has been successfully chasing Deep South big-woods bucks for over 40 years. Between the two of us, I believe we can present a well-rounded view of chasing bucks in the big woods.
Also, for the purposes of this story, let’s define “big woods.” A big-woods tract can be composed of thousands of acres of wooded or cut-over land with little to no open planted areas, or a big-woods tract can be as little as 300 acres adjacent to other blocks of land that are 100 percent wooded. Because of the advent of the use of food plots and good deer management in recent years, it’s probably safe to say that true big-woods tracts do not exist in the numbers they once did a few years ago, but there are still plenty of them around in many parts of North America.
In my conversations with Duncan, I wasn’t surprised to find that there wasn’t a significant difference between Northern deer, Midwestern deer and Southern deer and their habitats (although there are huge differences in weather in the respective regions). In most cases, the majority of deer concentrate in a relatively small percentage of the available habitat.
“That’s true,” Duncan agreed. “To be successful, you’ve got to find that percentage of habitat where big bucks are spending most of their time.”
FINDING THE EDGE
Obviously then, the first step in taking big-woods bucks lies in locating these pockets of deer. With more land available than could possibly be scouted, one must find ways to narrow the search.
“When first scouting a new area, I gravitate toward water,” Duncan revealed. “Creeks, drainages and rivers are where I go first. I look for those heavily used creek crossings and well-used trails. All the while, I’m also looking for big-buck sign.”
Because observation scouting isn’t often practical in the big woods, hunters have to rely on sign to tell them if a good buck is in the area. “Large scrapes, rubs and big tracks are what I find most helpful,” explained Duncan. “I pay particular attention to big tracks. When I find a set in a hot scrape, I try to backtrack his trail to his bedding area. Tracks can tell you so much. Just like Vermont’s Larry Benoit used to write about in regard to snow-tracking big bucks in Maine, when you find the track of a 220-plus-pound buck in the Georgia red clay, you know you’re onto something special.