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How to Hunt Target Bucks When They Disappear

Sometimes no matter how good your plan is, a target buck will still give you the slip.

How to Hunt Target Bucks When They Disappear

Photo credit: Bill Weekley

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as making a game plan for taking a big buck, then seeing him do exactly what we wanted him to. As some members of our hunting group are fond of saying, it’s as if he’s read our script and agreed to follow it to a “T.”

On the flip side of this, however, are those mature whitetails that seem to have read and rejected our plans even before we’ve drawn them up. While we might suspect they’ll be using a certain travel route or visiting a particular food source at a certain time, such suspicions often remain unconfirmed.

Along with not making himself visible, a buck might be leaving less and less fresh sign to show he’s still hanging out where we originally found him. Even putting out more trail cameras doesn’t produce any evidence that he’s still somewhere close by. Truth is, it suggests he isn’t. The buck is gone, or so it would seem.

What’s Going On?

As most serious hunters know, during two times within deer season can target bucks be expected to “take a walk.” One of these naturally is during the rut. The other is immediately after velvet shedding, an early phase in which many states and provinces now allow bowhunting.

That said, there also are other times when mature bucks can suddenly become super-reclusive. What makes these situations doubly irritating is that, regardless what we do in the way of attempting to relocate that deer, our efforts often wind up going for naught.

At times, the best approach to taking a difficult trophy buck is to just back off for a bit. Just give the target buck a little “alone time.” How long is enough? I wish there were a standard rule. Unfortunately, there isn’t. Some big bucks I’ve dealt with seemed to get back into earlier patterns within just a few days, while others took a week or a bit longer to return to normal. And of course, some other big deer never did resume their earlier patterns.

Naturally, it’s possible that whatever we’ve been doing in our hunting area has something to do with a buck’s disappearing act. Then again, there’s also the possibility that our invasions had nothing to do with it.

How to Hunt Target Bucks When They Disappear
Part of trophy hunting is being familiar with the view of a big buck walking away. Until your hunt plan works out, be prepared to undergo some failures. (Photo by Greg Miller)

Of course, it’s also common to continue to get scouting camera photos of a big buck, but all are from the nighttime hours, and there appears to be no predictable pattern to the deer’s nocturnal visits. I speak from experience on this, as it happened to me just this past season.

The buck was a big 10-pointer I discovered in live photos during mid-October here in Wisconsin. Although each photo of him over the next 10 days was taken well after dark, I was confident he’d become more daylight active once the rut kicked into gear.

But that’s not how it worked out — at least, not in front of my cameras. To make a long story much shorter, over the next month I captured dozens of photos of the 10-pointer, but only two were in daylight. And as luck would have it, I was on a bowhunt in North Dakota when those photos were taken. By the time I returned home, the peak of the Wisconsin rut had come and gone, and that deer had returned to his strictly nocturnal movement pattern.

While I did spend some time hunting him during gun season, the area he’d been frequenting the previous few weeks appeared to have gone sterile. I wasn’t even capturing photos of small bucks or does. With no way to blame this sudden occurrence on hunting pressure or natural predators, I had to assume that it was due to the sudden availability of a more preferred food source elsewhere.

I well remember a conversation I had with a fellow trophy hunter at a deer show years ago. After showing me photos of an absolute giant he’d arrowed the previous season, the guy began telling me his story.


“Initially, the buck was spending a lot of time on a small tract of land I had permission to hunt,” the guy said. The cover on the property consists of several 10- to 15-acre brush-choked woodlots and a number of brushy fencelines that dissect a huge tract of farmland with corn, alfalfa and soybean fields.  

“Since the property is only a few miles from my house, I spent a lot of evenings in late summer and early fall watching the crops from a distance with my spotting scope,” he continued. “It didn’t take me long to figure out that, while most of the antlerless deer and small bucks were traveling and feeding throughout the entire property, the buck I’d targeted traveled in and fed in just a few very specific spots.”

Although discovering this pattern of behavior would seem to have dramatically increased the guy’s chances, that wasn’t the case. “The buck always fed where he could use the wind to his advantage when approaching and feeding in those spots,” he stated. “Making matters even worse, there was no way I’d be able to slip into those areas without bumping a bunch of other deer.”  

“To be honest,” he continued, “I was just about to give up on the idea of even attempting to hunt the buck when I got a huge break. The guy who owned the land harvested his soybean fields. And just a week later, he started harvesting his corn fields.”

“This dramatically changed the dynamic of the situation!” the guy told me. “Because a big part of his environment had suddenly become wide open, the buck’s traveling and feeding activities were restricted to an even smaller area. It took only a few evenings of watching his activities to figure out exactly where I needed to establish my stand site. Believe it or not, I killed the buck on the very first evening I hunted the spot.”

How to Hunt Target Bucks When They Disappear
We’ll never know why some bucks disappear, even despite previously holding a strong pattern. When this big 10-pointer showed back up, the author was waiting. (Photo by Greg Miller)

Is He Even Still Alive?

Back in the late 1980s, a friend discovered the whereabouts of a big drop-tine buck not far from my hunting cabin in northwest Wisconsin. Now, deer with drop tines are extremely rare in that part of the state, so my buddy figured he’d have no problem keeping track of him on camera. The fact this whitetail also sported a huge, unique 7-point typical frame would make him even easier to identify in photos or on the hoof.

As you might suspect, my friend hunted the buck every chance he got throughout the first 1 1/2 months of archery season. While he did manage to lay eyes on him twice, the deer never wandered within bow range. And then just before the rut kicked into gear, he flat out disappeared.  

My friend spent the next several weeks searching tirelessly for the buck. But try as he might, throughout the remainder of early bow season he never was able to gather any more intel on the animal. Then, during the late-November gun season, things changed.  

“I began to hear rumors about a big drop-tine buck having been killed in an area a little over seven miles from where I’d been hunting,” he told me. “Because of the distance involved, I naturally assumed there was no way it could be the same deer I’d been hunting. But then I happened to run into someone who was actually hunting with the guy who took the buck. He showed me a photo, and there was absolutely no doubt it was the same deer.”

While the vast majority of bucks seem to remain homebodies throughout their lifetimes, a few maintain very nomadic lifestyles even in maturity. They can suddenly pull up roots and relocate many miles away, leaving us to wonder what became of them. In many cases. we never do find out for sure.

Right Under Our Noses

There also are instances in which we strongly suspect a big buck has gone nomadic, but in reality he hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s simply not showing up on camera or from your stand. When a big buck wants to keep his presence a secret from you, you’re going to have one heck of a time finding him.

Unfortunately, I speak from experience on this particular subject. For instance, consider a big 10-pointer a few years back near my home in west-central Wisconsin. In the days leading up to our mid-September archery opener, he was an absolute regular in front of the scouting cameras I’d put out. But then, just two days before opening day, he went underground — and sent me into panic mode. He’d been like clockwork before, so I feared he might have relocated.

That concern was reinforced when opening day came and went with still no sign of the big whitetail. But I decided to try again. The next afternoon found me perched in a huge oak on the edge of a small, hidden CRP field.

While I wasn’t holding out much hope of seeing the 10-pointer, about 15 minutes before sunset he strolled into view on the opposite side of the field. I was elated to see the buck was still around, though also a bit dejected by the fact he was well outside bow range.

Little did I know, however, that the situation was about to take a turn for the better. The big 10-pointer eventually worked his way to within 15 yards of my stand, then made it under 75 yards after the hit. It’s a good thing I didn’t give up on him after his sudden disappearance from my camera.

I’m sure some of you think it’s not such a big deal if a big buck pulls a sudden Houdini right before early bow season. After all, you have months to wait for him to reappear. But it’s a different story when you’re after a certain buck on your annual road trip. Then you don’t have the luxury of adopting a wait-and-see

approach. For this reason, we often employ a much more aggressive approach on out-of-state hunts. When we aren’t finding the buck we know should be there, we do a lot more walking/scouting, put out even more cameras and spend more time glassing outlying areas we hadn’t previously observed. The clock is ticking.

Keep the Faith

One of the most important things we can do is to head into every hunt with a confident attitude. Although we know there are going to be many more instances when things don’t go our way than vice versa, it’s imperative to stay positive.  

Again, few big bucks follow our script perfectly. Of course, that’s exactly why so many of us are so enamored with what we consider to be the grandest big-game animal walking this planet.

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