September 28, 2022
For many modern whitetail hunters and deer club members, a trip to the woods starts at a locked gate on a tract of private land. From there the next stop is often a box stand, maybe even with a comfortable chair and carpeted floor, that sits on the edge of a food plot with a feeder out front. Maybe the hunter props the gun up in the window, and then he picks up his cell phone to see what’s on Facebook that day. He glances up occasionally to see if a buck will decide to step out to sample the greenery on the plot or nibble on corn beneath the feeder. If that doesn’t happen, he’s not too disappointed, because he has snacks and his phone to pass the time away.
Jonathon Zell, 32-year-old employee of Union Pacific railroad who lives in the tiny community of Dry Prong in central Louisiana, doesn’t fit this scenario — not by a long shot.
While the private landowner or hunting club member described above has access to a sizeable tract of land, Jonathan has access to a big tract of real estate, some 604,000 acres to be exact. Wow, you think; Jonathan must be rich to afford membership in a club of that size! No, Jonathan doesn’t hold membership in a hunting club. Instead, the vast area he hunts is public land. Specifically, it’s the Kisatchie National Forest located in central and northern Louisiana within a few miles of his home.
Some hunters would shy away from spending their hard-earned free time on such an area with no food plots and no feeders. After all, the Kisatchie is just wide-open, never-ending woods. The hunting club member joins with others in scouting, planting, stand set up etc. But Jonathan hunts in solitude; he figures things out on his own, and he has gained the reputation of being a master at it — as evidenced by the impressive trophy mounts hanging on his wall.
In 2014, for example, Jonathan brought down a 10-point buck that measured an impressive 148 inches. In 2017, Jonathan tagged an even bigger buck that scored 168 inches and had 12 points. In 2018, he downed a 138- inch buck, and in 2019, he dropped a 145-inch 8-pointer. Of particular interest is that only one of these trophies was taken by Jonathan’s rifle; the others all fell to the hunter’s bow and arrow.
Okay, so did he just walk into the woods, pick out a good tree to climb and have these four big bucks walk out on him? No, Jonathan is student of deer behavior, and he’s a master at figuring out a buck’s travel pattern. Jonathan doesn’t tell all his secrets, but he revealed a bit of how he has gone about patterning big bucks, a process that has worked well for him.
“I start my season preparation each year in July, when I begin tuning my bow and shooting several days a week,” Jonathan says. “I try to get my muscles toned, in order to be as accurate as I can when a buck steps out.” Once season opens in October, typical weather in Louisiana means temperatures can still be on the warm side, but that doesn’t hinder Jonathan.
“I tend to not let warm weather and the problem of scent control stop me, because I am a believer in using scent cover to mask my scent,” the hunter explains. “I like Dead Down Wind scent eliminator, but even so, I prefer to be downwind from where I expect a buck to step out.” Once season opens, Jonathan combines scouting and hunting. He is on the lookout for areas that have specific features.
“I start my scouting after the season opens with my climber on my back and my bow in my hand. There are features I’m looking for. For one, I try to find small drainages located next to the thickest cover I can find. I’m also on the lookout for oaks that are producing acorns. All oaks don’t have acorns every year, so I look for the ones that have them when I’m hunting,” says Jonathan. The first thing Jonathan looks for is the travel pattern of does in the area, well-worn trails along with actual sightings. He knows that when the rut kicks in, those does will be attracting deer of the opposite sex and occasionally, those males will be heavy-antlered bucks.
For example, on the morning of Oct. 6, 2019, Jonathan hiked back three-quarters of a mile to an area that had captured his attention; it was the same spot he tagged the heavy-antlered 10-pointer that scored 148 inches back in 2014. This time, Jonathan hung his climbing stand just 80 yards from where he’d taken the 10-pointer, and he climbed 35 feet high on a big pine that gave him an elevated view of the area. Jonathan’s selected hunting spot featured a convergence of three drains that were bordered by a dense thicket. Soon after climbing the pine, the bowhunter watched several does bed down on a ridge within sight of his lofty perch.
“I decided to give my grunt call a try to see how the does might react,” Jonathan recounts. “I gave out a few grunts on the call and sure enough, the does got up and began making their way toward me. Keeping my eyes on the does, I heard some brush being disturbed in the thicket, and out charged this big buck. I knew if he kept heading my direction, he’d wind up directly under the tree I was in. The buck stopped 20 yards away at full alert, and I was able to get an arrow in him. He ran only about 20 yards before falling,” Jonathan remembers. The great buck sported 12 antler tines, weighed 220 pounds and was scored by Jonathan’s taxidermist at 168 5/8 inches.
Among the several considerations Jonathan makes before selecting exactly where he’ll hang his stand is the wind, the direction from which it is blowing and the velocity. “Wind is a huge factor, and keeping it in your favor is extremely hard, especially during fall when it can quickly change directions and velocity,” says Jonathan. “And it’s even harder to predict if a weather front is moving in. This is one reason I scout with my climbing stand on my back. Old bucks are smart. Once you spread your scent like I do after a mile walk into the area, that could keep the one you’re after in hiding until after dark. Therefore, I’ll choose a different tree to favor the wind, a location that still gives me access to the drains and thicket.”
Once the rut kicks in, Jonathan has at least a couple of tools in his arsenal that enable him to improve his chances at a trophy buck. “I’ll use my grunt call periodically, but I also have a set of Black Rack artificial antlers I’ll crash together to attract the attention of a good buck,” explains Jonathan. “I rely on calling especially during the rut, when bucks are looking for does.”
Are there certain days that seem to produce better success for Jonathan? If given the choice, he keeps his eye on the calendar to see what the moon is doing. “I seem to have better success when the moon phase is less than 10 percent,” he continues. “That said, that’s not the only time I hunt. I go when I can, but the dark moon has worked best for me.”
Is there a specific time during the day that Jonathan prefers to hunt? You might find him in the woods in a tree during the early morning, at mid-day or just before dark. “I spend every hour I can in a tree. A lot of it has to do with being in the right place at the right time. The more hours you spend in a stand, the better your chances of being there when a big buck makes a move,” vows Jonathan.
Jonathan believes that Louisiana has a good many trophy bucks, with vast areas such as the Kisatchie National Forest having its share. As Jonathan says, you just have to spend a lot of hours on stand to cross paths with them. He has one other belief that keeps him in the deep woods hours on end, and that’s an extension of what being out in nature gives him.
“Hunting is not just the harvest of a mature whitetail, but the blessings of being out there and enjoying God’s creation,” Jonathan explains. “I give all the honor and glory to God.”