May 11, 2023
In recent years I’ve repeatedly heard hunters remark that modern technology has essentially leveled the playing field in trophy whitetail hunting. Some believe that even those who spend all their time hunting in a private environment could be considered “expert trophy whitetail hunters.”
To be quite honest, I view this as a very unfair comparison to what true “pioneer” trophy whitetail hunters have accomplished over the years. Considering the amount of time and energy these hunters invested to achieve their level of success and notoriety, it’s like comparing apples to lemons. During the course of my white-tailed deer hunting career, I’ve hunted 23 different states and taken trophy bucks in 17 of them. But what I’m most proud of is that the majority of those bucks were taken on hunts where I did my own thing, so to speak.
I did my own scouting, picked out my own stand sites and hung my own stands. I then managed to harvest mature bucks, despite often having less than a week to get the job done. And for many years, I did it by putting “boots on the ground,” without the use of hunting aids like scouting cameras, internet mapping apps, satellite images, etc.
Now, I’m certainly not knocking the abilities of people I’ve hunted with over the years. Truth is, they did exactly what I asked them to do. They’d take me to a chunk of hunting ground, show me where the property boundaries were, and then say, “There you go, Greg. Have at it and good luck!” As far as I was concerned, that’s all that was required for a guy like me who grew up hunting one of the country’s most grueling whitetail habitats – the public lands of northwest Wisconsin. My many years of chasing whitetails in that environment really helped develop my appreciation for “getting it done” under extremely tough conditions.
WHERE’D THEY GO?
I’ll never forget the story a fellow Wisconsin bowhunter told me some years ago. It was about a week after our home state’s archery season had closed for the year, so as you might imagine, the majority of our conversation centered around that particular topic. I wanted to share my past season’s experiences with him, and he was anxious to do likewise. After listening to a few of my stories, he told me about a really big buck he’d been watching on a particular tract of land throughout the month of August.
The buck, he said, had a large, mainframe 10-point rack that sported a very distinctive hook-shaped sticker point off its left G-2 tine. “I’d been watching the buck off and on for the better part of a month,” he told me. “But then during the first week of September he suddenly up and disappeared. My first thoughts were that the deer had either been hit and killed by a car, or that someone had poached him. So I decided to spend my time and efforts on another tract of land in the area that I knew was harboring some good bucks.
“Around the first week of November, I started hearing stories about a big 10-point buck that had been killed by a bowhunter a good five miles north of where I’d been watching that 10-pointer with the sticker in August,” he related. “I found out who had killed the deer and got in touch with him. He sent me photos of the buck, and I knew after just one look that it was the same deer that had been on my property earlier in the fall.” It’s important to know that this incident had occurred back in the days before scouting cameras. And quite honestly, though some of us believed we knew all there was to know about white-tailed deer behavior back then, we really didn’t know all that much. I make that statement based on the fact that I was one of those people who believed they knew it all. And wow, was I wrong!
As anyone who has pursued mature whitetail bucks for any length of time can surely attest, we know a LOT more about trophy deer now than we did years ago. For instance, I was taught from an early age that whitetails live essentially their entire lives within a one-square-mile area. And I would never have suspected that they might get a notion to suddenly take a walk. I know better now. Whitetails, especially when it pertains to mature bucks, will pull up stakes and relocate to other areas…sometimes regardless of the time of year or the amount of pressure they are under.
And I still don’t know it all — not even close! As I told a fellow hunter during one of my recent deer-hunting seminars, it’s like looking at a shot glass of water with a gallon pail of water sitting next to it. The shot glass represents what I knew about mature whitetails 30 years ago, while the gallon pail is what I know now.
The bowhunter’s story about the buck that “disappeared” is only one of dozens of similar stories I’ve heard over the many years I’ve been doing what I do. I’ve shared these stories with literally hundreds (if not thousands) of fellow deer hunters. And I’ve paid strict attention to the knowledge that many of those individuals have shared with me. Please forgive me if I come across as judgmental here; that’s not my intention. But something I’ve noticed about many modern-day trophy-whitetail hunters is that they appear to take a less diligent, more short-cut approach to scouting. They make broad generalizations about mature whitetails based solely on information they gather from scouting cameras located on their own property.
Don’t get me wrong — scouting cameras can tell us a lot about when and where mature whitetail bucks prefer to travel. However, there’s also a LOT about deer behavior that scouting cameras will never reveal. Furthermore, the deer on your property may not behave anything like the deer residing somewhere else. It’s always wise to keep that in mind when discussing what you’re seeing on your own property compared to what adjoining landowners, as well as those in other areas and states, are observing.
BUCKS UNDER PRESSURE
Pressure, whether it’s from hunters or through simple human intrusion (crop farmers, ATV traffic, campers, hikers, etc.), can have a significant effect on how whitetails behave. Any pressure by humans, regardless of what form it takes, will influence the daily habits of whitetails — especially mature bucks.
My “boots on the ground” theme speaks volumes about the approach that is so often necessary when scouting mature whitetails. However, it’s important to keep in mind that, while “laying down a lot of boot leather” can be a very beneficial scouting strategy, it’s crucial we’re careful about when and where we’re laying that leather down.
My personal discovery of how this “boot leather” strategy can pay huge dividends took place many years ago in a huge northwest Wisconsin wilderness area. The block of mostly public land I was hunting was more than 30 square miles in size without any sort of “through roads” dissecting it. This was back in the days before scouting cameras and ATVs had made their appearance on the hunting scene. I’d had a very close encounter with a mature whitetail buck on Dec. 31 — the very last afternoon of my home state’s late archery season. I was perched in a tree stand I’d placed in a large oak when the old whitetail sauntered into view. As I watched, the buck eventually walked to within 10 yards of my position, then came to an abrupt stop and looked right up at me.
Now it just so happens that the temperature on that late December afternoon was a “balmy” 15 degrees below zero. I’d already shed the glove on my right hand in anticipation of what I thought would be a shot opportunity. But that’s not quite how it went down.
I can’t recall exactly how long that 10-pointer continued his stare-down with me, but I do know it was long enough for me to develop an impending case of frostbite on my right hand. I finally had no choice but to slowly work my hand toward my coat pocket to try to warm it up. The old whitetail was having none of that, however. At my first hint of movement, he let out a loud snort, did a quick 180 and quickly bounded out of sight.
I’m not the type of person who takes such incidents lightly, so I was determined to find that buck again and this time take him down. I can’t recall the exact number of scouting trips I made to that huge chunk of cover later that winter and into the following spring. Suffice it to say, I put down a tremendous amount of boot leather.
All that time and energy proved to be very beneficial during the following season. After having several close calls with the 11-pointer (the same buck I’d encountered the prior season) while bowhunting, the big deer finally made a fatal mistake on the fifth day of Wisconsin’s November gun deer season. It was some time around midmorning when I spotted a flicker of movement in the snow-covered woods approximately 40 yards from my stand site. Seconds later a big buck strolled into view. A brief glance confirmed that it was the buck I’d been pursuing the past two seasons. The 11-pointer eventually walked to within 20 yards of my stand site where a single shot from my .270 rifle ended the two-year quest.
So how will post-season scouting prepare you for the upcoming season? Based on my personal experience, getting out into the woods during the off-season can often result in a lot less walking and searching when deer season opens the following fall. I will close by clarifying that I’m not against the use of scouting cameras, and I actually embrace some of the modern trophy whitetail hunting aids. Truth is, a fair number of the mature bucks I’ve taken over the years were harvested as the eventual result of information captured by scouting cameras.
But there also have been many instances when getting out in the field and taking a good look around was, without a doubt, the main reason I was able to take a good number of trophy whitetails. So, along with using as much modern technology as possible, I’ll continue to lay down a lot of boot leather for as long as I possibly can.