November 10, 2023
Sometimes you simply must get creative to punch a tag on a whitetail. Consistently taking down mature bucks is not always straightforward, and every now and then you must use an unusual plan of attack. You may have no other choice, or it may simply just be the killing move that comes to your mind on the spot.
Either way, being unconventional and trying an “outside of the box” or “against the grain” tactic can often feel uncomfortable, and you may feel dumb even thinking it could work. In this article, I will share stories of hunters that used imaginative tactics to take some amazing bucks. I hope that by the end you’ll have all the evidence you need to try some new techniques of your own.
THE SNOW FORT
My first story is from 2021. I’d had several unsuccessful hunts earlier that year, and I had traveled back to North Dakota for a 6-day hunt. It was late December, and deer season was fading quickly. Since I hadn’t had time to prep, I started in a tree stand on a small piece of timber I had hunted during the rut.
The first evening was dismally slow. But one of my good buddies, who was driving around nearby looking for deer, spotted a cornfield that was just loaded with deer, including lots of bucks. He sent me a pin with the location, and I drove to the field after my evening hunt. Though it was getting dark, I could make out what easily looked to be over 50 deer in the corner of the field, just off the dirt road. I was pretty excited and decided I’d return midday the following day to give it another look and decide where to set up.
When I arrived the next day, however, I realized the spot would be a challenge. I had hoped to set up on the edge of the picked cornfield, but in true North Dakota fashion, the area was flat as far as the eye could see. No cover whatsoever. This is when things got pretty unconventional very quickly.
My buddy and I had faced a similar situation a couple seasons earlier, and we used snow to construct blinds in the shape of half igloos. Although we never got the chance to shoot a deer, the blinds worked pretty well. We thought this situation might warrant giving our “snow blinds” another try. So, on the corner of the cornfield, not more than 50 yards off the minimum-maintenance road, we built our small blind. We used a ghost blind that I had borrowed from a friend and built up the snow around it. That evening we gave it a try.
A pile of deer came by me that evening, but they all knew something was up. They’d feed close to me but were definitely on edge. The next day, I ditched the ghost blind and built up the structure with more snow. I continued to modify the “snow fort” every day until it was perfect. I had allowed enough room to draw back and had even covered the outside with corn stalks I had collected, making it appear more natural in the flat area. On my last day of hunting, everything worked perfectly. It was a brutally cold evening, with a windchill of around -30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hidden in my snow fort, I watched as over 50 deer came within bow range. Eventually a good buck made his way to within 15 yards. I am proud to say that on my last day of hunting the 2021 North Dakota archery season, I killed a buck from inside a manmade snow fort in a cornfield with zero cover. I’m not sure I’ll ever kill a buck more unconventionally than that.
THE TURN AND BURN
Sometimes being unconventional isn’t about your physical setup in the field. It could involve an 18-hour round trip for one sit. That’s how Brennen Nading was able to kill a North Dakota whitetail in 2013. Brennen says: “Back in 2011, I made my first-ever trip to North Dakota to see what it was like to chase whitetails on the northern plains. Until that point, I had only hunted in Wisconsin. With roughly a decade of hunting experience under my belt in the Badger state, I quickly realized that plains hunting was going to be a whole different type of challenge. Let me tell you about one of the hardest-earned North Dakota deer I have ever wrapped a tag around.
“When I moved from Wisconsin to Iowa in 2013, my drive to North Dakota got a whole lot longer. What used to take 7 hours now took 9. At the time, I was working 45-50 hours a week Monday-Friday and only had the weekends to hunt. On Friday afternoon I’d hit the road right after work, meet a buddy along the way somewhere in Minnesota, and we would generally arrive in North Dakota around 3:00 a.m. “We would hunt Saturday and Sunday, and immediately head home after the Sunday evening hunt. Early in the season, when the longer days meant I could hunt later into the night, I’d be pushing it to get home in time to change my clothes and get to work on time Monday morning.
“This particular year, I made the trip to North Dakota nine times in one season! I was running on fumes, but not about to give up. Unable to fill my tag in September or October, I was looking forward to hunting the brutally cold late-season. After a couple of unsuccessful trips in early December, I was getting frustrated that the best hunting weather just wasn’t aligning with my weekend hunting availability. “Then, the week before Christmas, a massive cold front was forecast to hit North Dakota mid-week, bringing heavy snow and subzero temperatures.
I kept a close eye on the weather, and the day before the cold front was due to arrive, I made the “executive” decision to call in sick and make the 18-hour round-trip drive to North Dakota. “It would be just a one-evening hunt, but it would occur during the best hunting weather of the year. Just a couple hours after climbing into the blind, my plan paid off, and I was blessed with a beautiful North Dakota buck that I will never forget.”
Though Brennan didn’t use an unusual setup to bag his buck, his drastic measures could certainly be classified as unconventional. An 18-hour drive for one evening of hunting might seem downright crazy, but recognizing and taking advantage of the opportunity, no matter the challenge, paid off for him in a big way.
THE TINY OBSERVATION TREE
Deer hunters typically use two types of setups — an observation spot and a kill spot. Sitting in an observation tree gives a hunter the ability to see long distances and observe an area before making his “move.” Killing an Iowa giant from an observation tree just 10 feet off the ground over a decoy definitely constitutes unconventional in my book. But that’s just how Brad Bever was able to take down a buck he named “Milly” in October 2020. “The buck I called Milly tested my critical thinking more than any other deer I’ve hunted,” says Brad. “Not only did he force me to try some unconventional techniques, but to get a step ahead of him, I had to seriously consider why he was behaving the way he was. At first glance the hunt may not seem that unusual, but because I found myself in challenging situations, I had to get creative.
“When I first laid eyes on Milly, it was Oct. 25. He hadn’t shown on camera in over 13 days, which was unlike him. So, with little or no MRI (most recent information), I did a hang-and-hunt on a field edge that evening just as an observation sit. “With about an hour of light left, I saw Milly get up from his bed. I was surprised to see him in the area, and even more surprised I correctly guessed where he might be. He was with a 3-year-old buck we knew well. After lightly sparring for a bit, the two bucks started walking away, so I decided to try a light rattling sequence to entice Milly. “Remember, this was supposed to be an observation sit. My equipment consisted of just the bare essentials, and I was only about 10 feet up in the tree. When I rattled, the two bucks could easily see into the field I was sitting in, but couldn’t figure out what was making the noise. Confused but curious, the inexperienced and uneducated 3-year-old came screaming in. But the 5-year-old Milly knew something wasn’t right. He flicked his tail and walked out of my life. Or so I thought.
“This is where I had to get innovative. I knew Milly was still in the area, and I knew he was aggressive, but he wasn’t easy to fool. So after my hunt that night I left my observation set in the tree, went to Scheels, and bought the only decoy they had. “Less than 24 hours later, I snuck back into the same tree, something I don’t often do. I’m usually a big believer in being mobile and not hunting the same area twice. I also had never used a decoy. And on top of everything, I was just 10 feet up in a tiny tree. It was one of those strategies that just felt like it wouldn’t work.
“Even so, as soon as I got settled in, I hit a hard rattling sequence. To my surprise, Milly came running in like a strutting Tom in the spring. I had essentially called him out of bed! I arrowed him frozen next to my decoy around 4:30 p.m.
“Later, I considered the events of the previous evening and contemplated why Milly acted as he did. Sitting only 10 feet high, using a decoy and getting it done early in the afternoon was no doubt an unconventional way to hunt. It was the kind of plan that sounds good on paper, but when you’re setting up you think there’s no way it’s going to work. I’m just thankful that it did. It taught me to trust my gut, no matter how crazy it might have seemed in my head.”
THE ACCIDENTAL BUMP AND DUMP
A truly out-of-the-box hunting method is one called the “Bump and Dump,” where the idea is to bump a deer out of its bed and then remain there in hopes of catching him returning to the same bed. It’s risky, as all unconventional tactics are, but it can work. And sometimes the “bump” can be accidental. Zach Ferenbaugh was able to kill a great Nebraska buck utilizing this technique.
“In 2018, Logan Wright and I were hunting together in Nebraska,” Zach explains. “It was the first week of September, so the days were long and hot. During the heat of the day, we decided to take some time to check out a new public land area we had never seen. On the way, we talked to a friendly local who said not many people had been hunting in that area. After reaching the area, we eventually came upon an access path through the middle of the property. We slowly drove down the road, checking out the habitat. “As we approached a creek containing what looked to be good bedding cover, a buck and a doe jumped out from the vegetation and disappeared from sight. We suspected that because this access path was not used by many folks, the deer felt comfortable bedding close by.
Satisfied that the location would be a promising place to hunt, we began turning the truck around. “As we gave it a little extra gas to get up the sandy road, a third deer (significantly bigger than the first two), escaped from the same bedding cover. Now that we’d caught a glimpse of him, we had even greater confidence that this would be a productive hunting area. “We drove out of sight and parked, then we snuck back into the bedding area. That evening we spotted the first buck that had jumped out of the bedding area earlier. Although it stayed out of bow range, we now knew that our truck had not spooked the deer too badly.
“Before daylight the next morning, we returned to the area. We didn’t see any bucks, but we did spot another group of hunters drive down that same road. We decided to give the spot a rest for a while. “A few evenings later we snuck into the bedding area again, and from a distance we glassed the same big buck we’d seen three days prior, still bedded down! With Logan filming from about 70 yards away from him, I crawled closer. I got to within 19 yards, and as I watched, the younger buck from the first day emerged from the cover, grunting and rubbing as he made his way toward the bigger one. “The wind was in my favor, and I stayed perfectly still, picturing the shot I would take if given the opportunity. The young buck never spooked, and he got as close as 7 yards from me. Then, as he continued his approach, the bigger buck finally stood up, giving me a perfect broadside shot. I sent my arrow through a gap in the brush, just as I had visualized.
“The biggest lesson I learned on this hunt is that if deer in a bedding area have food, water, cover and are unpressured, there is a good chance they will return even if you bump them. I would consider this hunt to be a bump and dump with a unique spin on the bump. I also believe that startling him with a vehicle had less of an impact than if we had spooked him on foot. And had we not driven down the road to investigate new spots, we would never have known this buck existed.”
Hunting whitetails is not always straightforward. Resourcefulness, creative thinking and unconventional setups are often required, especially if you’re trying to fill a tag on a mature buck. If you’re not afraid of getting uncomfortable, this might just be the key to bagging your next big whitetail.