October 18, 2011
By Travis Faulkner
Without question, anyone who has ever clashed a pair of antlers together on a cold November morning knows how difficult it can be to consistently tag top-heavy bucks. For good reason, a mature buck that has survived long enough to grow some major antlers is a completely different breed of whitetail. Years of intense hunting pressure have forced these deer to evolve slowly and transform into long-tined ghosts with extraordinary senses. You're dealing with a gifted adversary that has mastered the art of evading, escaping and fooling other hunters.
In most cases, conventional hunting techniques and traditional tactics are not going to generate any close encounters with these phantoms of the fall woods. The first hint of hunting pressure will cause major pattern shifts and behavioral changes to occur that can severely limit your chances of closing the deal. However, taking calculated risks and finding ways to push the envelope can help stack the cards back in your favor. If you want to start knocking the big boys into the dirt this year, then you're going to need some hardcore strategies that will enable you to exploit mature bucks inside of their whitetail sanctuary and comfort zones.
1. THINK LIKE A MONSTER
First of all, in order to locate and pattern wall-hangers you really need to start thinking more like a thick-racked buck. What would you do on opening day when an army of hunters floods the woods? Would you turn and run into a different time zone or search for a safe place somewhere close by to hide? It's highly unlikely the buck you're after is going to completely leave the country. The only logical answer is that Mr. Big simply is going to switch over to a strict nocturnal schedule. This move will enable him to avoid those two-legged predators dangling from the treetops during the daylight hours.
With this aggravating scenario, textbook setups that rely on intercepting the deer somewhere between their feeding and bedding areas are practically useless. Traditional ambush points like these will typically only produce encounters with a lot of slick-heads and small basket-racks. The really mature monsters will already be safe in the bed by the time you climb into your morning stand, which completely eliminates any window of opportunity. During evening hunts, these same bucks will stay stubbornly locked to the bed until after nightfall. As a result, you're stuck hunting a combination of ghost sign that has been left behind by the heavy-racked shadows of the dark.
When you think like a monster buck, another sneaky strategy to avoid hunters would be to make overlooked or hard-to-reach locations your core living areas. A few days of pressure is usually all it takes for a long-tined giant to pattern the habits, routines, and common tendencies of hunters. An educated whitetail will utilize this knowledge to modify and adapt their survival skills. They learn how to stay away from highly pressured stand locations and the key times to move through the woods without being detected.
As hardcore whitetail addicts, we all know veteran bucks that drastically restrict their daylight activity and strategically choose core areas or safe zones in which to live can cause major problems. In most cases, traditional hunting techniques and ordinary strategies are just going to make big bucks smarter and harder to hunt. This is exactly why you'd better be prepared to switch gears and adjust your tactics to meet these demanding challenges.
2. IDENTIFY CORE AREAS & COMFORT ZONES
Consequently, one of the first steps that must be taken in order to solve these problems is to pinpoint big buck core areas and comfort zones. These key locations are exactly where the bad boys that are packing around rocking chairs on their heads will spend the bulk of the daylight hours. The majority of these daytime hideouts and sanctuaries have been chosen because they create a sense of security among skittish bucks. For good reason, most core areas and comfort zones are well protected, overlooked by other hunters and very tough to hunt.
As you can imagine, infiltrating these sensitive locations without being detected by a buck's nose, eyes, or ears is no easy task. All of these hangouts will generally offer suitable cover, good visibility, multiple escape routes and reasonable access to a current food source. In most areas, impenetrable thickets, hard-to-reach sanctuaries and overlooked hotspots will be the perfect places to find a wise old bruiser that has survived several seasons. Some of my personal favorites would have to be brush-choked draws, small islands of cover in the middle of an open area, abandoned home places, overgrown power lines, aged clear-cuts and backwater swamps.
In addition, isolated pockets of cover that are protected by natural barriers should also be at the top of your hit list. It's amazing how cliff lines, thickets, deep-water creeks, rivers, or rugged terrain can hide and protect some target-rich environments. The trick is to pinpoint locations that encompass adequate cover with limited human traffic or outside interference. As mentioned earlier, focusing on overlooked areas like small tracts of woods along the edges of heavily populated cities, towns, subdivisions, golf courses, hospitals, and businesses can pay huge dividends. For the most part, these overlooked safe havens receive little to no outside hunting pressure, which allows bucks to survive and live long enough to grow some jaw-dropping racks.
3. PRECISION SCOUTING
Without question, hunting these highly sensitive locations requires stealth and precision scouting techniques. Being able to get in and out of mature buck core areas and comfort zones without being detected is very crucial. The golden rule is to always scout the way you hunt. In other words, take painstaking measures to be scent-free, quiet and invisible when checking out a possible big buck core area or comfort zone. The last thing you want is to educate the deer of your dreams before you even get a chance to climb into the stand. Precision scouting strategies will enable you to pattern bucks without allowing them to pattern you in the process.
For starters, thoroughly research your favorite hunting area by simply logging on to Google Maps. Within minutes, you will be able to pinpoint likely feeding locations, travel routes, staging points, core areas, and comfort zones. All of this can be accomplished without disturbing wary bucks or contaminating the entire area with a lot of unnecessary scent and noise. Studying these maps will allow you to carefully plan possible entry and exit routes that won't bump deer.
Next, quietly ease into these areas and use binoculars to glass potential hotspots from a safe distance. Look for actual deer movement and fresh sign like heavily worn trails, buck rubs and scrapes. This type of legwork can help you confirm current food sources, travel corridors and core areas that you located on the map. The last step involves setting up a series of trail cameras along key points to locate shooter bucks and establish patterns. Strategically position cameras over each food source, possible buck travel routes and core areas to nail down daily routines.
If possible, invest in a couple of the new trail cameras that remotely upload pictures directly to your computer or personal Web site account like the Moultrie Game Spy Management System. These technologically advanced scouting tools allow you to monitor a top-heavy buck's every move without stepping foot into a highly sensitive area. Placing at least two of these units along the edges of core areas and comfort zones will provide up-to-date information relating to red-hot setups and the prime activity periods that you need to hunt. One of the best times to either hang or move trail cameras within these sensitive areas is during rainy and windy conditions. Adverse weather can be a lifesaver by shielding your movement, dampening noise and eliminating scent.
4. SIDESTEP POSSIBLE LANDMINES
Consequently, there are always risks involved when infiltrating big buck core areas and comfort zones. After locating a core area and establishing a predictable pattern, it's time to choose the best possible ambush points. Picking tree stand or ground-blind sites should depend heavily upon prevailing seasonal wind directions, current buck behavior, travel patterns and the availability of safe hunter access routes. All of these factors must meticulously be considered and carefully planned out to avoid making a mistake that could dramatically decrease your odds of success.
Furthermore, the ability to sneak in and out of your setups quietly can be the difference between an action-packed trip and total frustration. Waiting on a rainy day to clean up trails with a rake and hand sheers can save you a lot of aggravation in the long run. Clipping away overhanging limbs and removing noise-makers like leaves, sticks and pointy briar patches will enable you to move through the woods in stealth mode. It's also important to remember that completing prep-work like this during adverse weather conditions can prevent you from ruining a productive core area with major potential.
In addition, hunting mature bucks inside their core areas and comfort zones requires you to take your scent-control practices to a whole new level. The bucks that call these protected areas home are wizards with their noses and it only takes one swirling wind to set off the entire alarm system. Sidestepping past a whitetail's main line of defense is definitely not going to be a walk in the park. However, the following tips just might be enough to keep you out of trouble when the moment of truth finally arrives.
Start out by washing all of your hunting clothes with a scent-eliminating detergent and store them in a plastic bag or container. Always shower with odor-neutralizing soap and shampoo before entering the field. In order to cut down on perspiration, wear light clothing and carry your main outerwear to the stand. Next, throw on a pair of knee-high rubber boots and gloves to prevent alarming scent trails from forming when walking to and from your setup. Finally, thoroughly spray down with a scent-eliminating spray and rub a handful of leaves, dirt, or cedar branches over your clothing to help mask any leftover odors. All of these steps coupled with keeping the wind in your favor will ultimately generate more shot opportunities when hunting these sensitive locations.
5. SUPER SETUPS & STRATEGIES
Undoubtedly, aggressive setups and hard-hitting hunting tactics are required to pull the big dogs out of a safe zone and into a cleared shooting lane. Hanging stands or positioning ground blinds along the edges of core areas and comfort zones can place you right in the middle of all the action. Fine-tuning these setups even further to exploit bucks near their main travel routes that lead into the heart of these locations is very productive. Stand locations that are placed extremely close to known bedding areas can also be the perfect remedy for those nocturnal nightmares that refuse to move much at all during the day.
On the other hand, terrain features, location, and other factors may prevent you from setting up close to primary bedding areas. In this situation, stand locations positioned along the perimeter of these core areas and safe zones will be the safer bet. This type of setup will require you to draw the bucks out with a variety of customized strategies. For example, constructing mock scrapes close to your stand, setting up decoys and periodically calling can coax a mature buck right into your lap. Adding a mineral lick, watering hole, or small shade-tolerant food plot (check state hunting laws) along the edges of core areas may also help create a shot opportunity.
Over the past few seasons, focusing on big buck core areas and applying these aggressive strategies has allowed me to pinpoint, pattern and connect with some really good bucks. In fact, I tagged a giant Oklahoma bruiser last fall during a five-day muzzleloading hunt directly above a textbook comfort zone. Without question, breaking into protected sanctuaries and safe havens can definitely crank up the action when things get tough.
When the monster you're after this season seems to disappear, be sure to take your game to the next level by targeting bucks in the heart of their core areas and comfort zones.