May 06, 2022
By Dan Cole
Gaining access to quality hunting ground has always been a challenge, and the continually growing interest in big whitetails certainly hasn’t lessened the demand. There are few undiscovered honeyholes left, so if we don’t have deep pocketbooks, we generally can expect that “our” deer will be known of and hunted by others. Whether it’s due to neighbors or land partners on private property or strangers on public land, seldom can we get a big buck all to ourselves.
That means we need an advantage — and it comes in the way of finding what’s typically called a “sanctuary.” These can come in many shapes and sizes. The most obvious ones are bordered by signs or fences. State, national and provincial parks that are closed to hunting fall into this group, as are off-limits city and county lands. These are the sanctuaries we all know about, the ones seen on maps and found with a simple Internet search.
Savvy hunters know they can capitalize on bordering properties to gain access to bucks moving into and out of these lands. Such spots can be incredible to hunt; however, as with most other prime locations, the competition for access and the price to gain it will leave most of us looking elsewhere.
Fortunately, some sanctuaries we can access feature much less competition, if any. That’s because they aren’t mentioned on maps and seldom come with signs indicating their borders. They aren’t found everywhere, but they are found just about everywhere mature bucks live. They’re refuges people have inadvertently created by simply not hunting a particular location or habitat feature.
One of these subtle sanctuaries can take any of a number of forms. Maybe it’s an out-of-the-way pasture or hidden valley between two remote ridges. What about a hard-to-access cattail slough? Whatever the feature, it’s been keeping hunters away long enough for a buck to set up shop there and reach maturity. These locations might not be easy to recognize, but finding one or more can be just the edge you need to punch your taxidermy ticket next fall. And right now is the perfect time to find them.
SHOULD YOU GO DEEPER?
For a couple decades now we’ve been told that to escape hunting pressure on shared land, we need to go at least a quarter-mile from the nearest access point. For the most part this is still true — but after many years of seeing the same message, should we more serious hunters perhaps extend the distance?
I think somewhere beyond a quarter-mile now is the starting point for locating most hidden sanctuaries. We don’t necessarily have to find the perfect cover, and we don’t necessarily have to find locations where other hunters never go. We do, however, need to find buck-friendly areas where other hunters seldom go. So let’s start with our maps and see if we can narrow down our search to some likely locations.
Note that what I’m going to share are principles and ideas only. Every geographic region will have its own set of challenges and environmental circumstances. These are far too numerous to list, as are the other complexities that can differ from region to region.
That said, these ideas can be applied no matter where you chase mature whitetails. A sanctuary in southern Arkansas serves the same purpose as one in central Saskatchewan. The principles for finding these sanctuaries are the same no matter where you hunt; they only look different because of their geographic variances.
If you’ve done your homework, your map or aerial photo should be for an area known to produce the class of deer you’re after. The next step is to mark those quarter- and half-mile lines from roads and other access points. In a general sense, somewhere between those lines we should be able to start finding less-pressured deer. It’s also within these lines that we should look for places other hunters don’t go.
Learn to identify such spots and mark them on your map or photo. Good options include thick, lowland briars, willows and alders. A swamp or bog also is worth investigating, as is a steep ridge or bluff. Open prairie might not look like much but can be productive because it gets ignored. Also check out any thick brush/blowdowns. Identify and circle areas where you know the majority of hunters simply won’t go.
Your map or photo is now giving you a pretty good starting point for finding a mature buck. Your more lightly hunted zones indicate where you should begin looking, while your circles indicate areas that could be sanctuaries.
THE CONFIRMATION PROCESS
So far it all sounds pretty easy — but this is where boots need to hit the ground. You must prove to yourself that a mature buck is not only in the general area but hopefully is also using one of the spots you’ve circled.
This time of year, it’s helpful to find sign that’s recent enough to show a buck survived hunting season. Confirming relatively fresh beds and trails indicates deer are still using a circled location as a sanctuary and repeatedly returning to its safety. Post-season thus is the most important time to walk the area and look at whatever sign can be read.
You’ll need to use your buck knowledge and sign-reading skills to decipher whether a buck you want to hunt is using that area. The sign you need to find probably won’t jump out at you, so take your time and be thorough; its critical not to miss anything. Of course, trail cameras are helpful, especially before bucks shed. It’s always possible you won’t find what you’d hoped to and so will decide to leave the area, but be sure you’re making that decision with confidence.
NEVER STOP LOOKING
If you find that your lines or circles fall on land you can’t legally access, you’ll either have to find a way to gain permission or move your interest to an area you can access. That’s part of the angst of being a trophy hunter: the constant moving to find the next big buck. But that same mobility is also an integral part of a trophy hunter’s game plan.
Several years back, I got an invitation to hunt the islands of northwestern Ontario’s Lake of the Woods. The idea had my interest immediately. I knew that because of difficult access, the islands were rarely hunted by anyone. If I wanted to hunt mature whitetails, this seemed as likely a place as any other in the region. So friends and I drew our lines and circles on our maps, then away we went.
For the next couple years our group did pretty well, taking a handful of big, mature bucks. Then word got out, and interest in the islands caused the hunting pressure to explode. I soon found myself in a situation that, if I were to continue hunting Ontario, I’d need to stick with the mainland and find new sanctuaries.
Using the lines and circles on my map, a friend and I were able to locate an area abutting a large no-hunting zone. The huntable property was only 40 acres, but what a spectacular place it turned out to be. Over the next six years, I took several mature bucks from the area. Not once did I ever see another hunter in the area. It was like my own little slice of whitetail heaven. Unfortunately, the land was eventually sold, resulting in my loss of access to that small but utopian hunting world.
KEEPING SANCTUARIES PURE
Kansas resident Kevin LaRosh uses the same principles to target sanctuary-loving bucks. He finds his biggest deer hiding out within the farthest reaches of the biggest pastures.
Kevin’s part of the country is quite hilly, with steep ravines separating the hills and ridgetops. He usually finds those deer by long-range glassing during the post-rut. He sees many mature bucks bedded two-thirds of the way up the downwind sides of ridges, giving them a scent advantage over any predator coming from behind and the ability to see potential danger approaching from in front.
Through glassing and shed hunting, Kevin has learned which draws and ridges mature bucks most like to use. He’s separated five of these areas into sanctuaries he rarely enters. When he does go into them, it’s either done shortly after the season or in early spring for a quick run-through looking for sheds.
During the 2019 Kansas archery season, Kevin was able to arrow a mid-150s 4x4 after first finding him hunkered down on a sidehill in a seldom-used area of an open pasture. In ’20, the bowhunter followed up his 4x4 with a beautiful 6x7 typical that grosses well over 170 inches.
“I’ve known of this deer for four years,” Kevin says of his latest trophy. “I have three years of shed antlers off him, as well. Once I figured out where the buck was going for safety, I left him completely alone. I didn’t want to put any pressure on him at all. Mature bucks are really sensitive, especially when you mess with their sanctuary. So I stayed out of the area. I left it alone until I went in there to hunt him. It worked. He stayed right where I’d hoped he would.”
I can’t overemphasize the importance of not pressuring a known sanctuary. Outside the immediate post-season into early spring, stay completely away from the area. Old bucks tend to pick up on things we’re usually reluctant to give them credit for knowing. Why give them any reason to vacate the area or at least tip them off to your presence? It pays to get all your work done in spring, causing less commotion come fall.
Ideally, you want deer season to be purely for hunting and not scouting. So try to get all your scouting work done in the near future. That way, come fall it’s hopefully just a matter of showing up at the right time.
Once you have an active buck sanctuary located, treat it with the utmost respect and care. Big deer are in these locations because they feel safe; they know hunters aren’t supposed to find them there. They become comfortable with no human intrusion, at times moving more often than normal during daylight. But one little mess-up on our part and the secret is gone — and often, so is the buck.
Another one might move in to replace him, but that could take a year or two. In the meantime, our mistake costs us an entire season of work. The buck we spooked one too many times is now long gone, most likely safely hunkered down in a secluded sanctuary we’ve yet to find.
For anyone serious about killing the buck of their dreams next fall, now is the time to begin that journey. Once you’ve found undisturbed, huntable deer, you’ve substantially increased your chances of locating a mature buck. Taking the time and effort to pinpoint overlooked sanctuaries can forever change the appearance of your trophy room.
Granted, the quality of bucks will still be determined by the region you’re hunting — but mature is mature, no matter the size of the headgear attached, and taking a mature buck is always an accomplishment. Learning to find sanctuaries within known big-buck areas will get you on a first-name basis with your favorite taxidermist.