There are many moments that are forever etched in a bowhunter's mind, and one of my most memorable is the first Booner whitetail I ever laid eyes on. Every detail of that encounter is still as crisp in my mind as if it happened yesterday, and I often find myself thinking back to that cold, blustery November evening.
It was the last hour of the last day in my Iowa bowhunt, and the pelting sleet and bone-chilling north wind had me frozen to the stand. For two days I had hunted in those conditions, and I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel until he showed up. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. His 10-point frame had it all — mass, height, width — and I couldn't begin to count the drops and stickers that seemed to jet out in all directions. The mass and tine length his frame carried alone easily put him in the Booner category; the added junk simply elevated him to a class of his own.
For nearly five minutes I watched him as he slipped through the frozen woods a mere 60 yards away feeding on the remaining acorns the ridge still provided. Even though it was early November I couldn't coax him any closer with the calls. He turned his massive rack towards me a time or two only to tease my thumping heart, but in the end, all I could do was watch as he slipped out of my life.
Booner bucks are a completely different whitetail. Not only do they act, think and react differently than their younger counterparts, they also carry themselves in a whole different manor. As bucks transition into this mature stage, they spend most of their lives thinking about one thing — surviving, and they are extremely good at it. These generally reclusive and wise giants use every internal and external element to their advantage to survive, and needless to say, killing just one in a hunter's lifetime is a remarkable feat. That being said, when you find a bowhunter who has killed multiple Booners, you have met someone with an intimate knowledge of these elusive giants.
Recently, I had an opportunity to meet two of these Booner-addicts and both were willing to share some of the tactics they use to get into bow range. Collectively, they have killed 21 bucks that have grossed over that magical 170-inch Boone & Crocket threshold, and they no doubt have the instincts and knowledge it takes to lay heavy bone on the ground.
Bowhunter Adam Hays needs no introduction. As one of the hosts of "Team 200," (www.team200.com) this Ohio native has been chasing whitetails for over three decades. He has killed countless deer with his bow over the years, but when he arrowed his first 200-inch Ohio giant in 1999, something changed in his whitetail psyche. Since that fateful day he's almost exclusively hunted for the biggest whitetail buck he can find, and let's just say he has found his share since then.
Hays has well-over 40 Pope & Young class bucks to his credit, but what's even more impressive is his knack for killing true-blue monsters. Of those bucks, ten have grossed into the elite Booner class, four of which busted the 200" mark. His latest was a 219-inch non-typical that he killed in Kansas this past season.
Hays says the first step to targeting a Booner buck is locating one, and this means spending countless hours glassing crop and hay fields in the evening during the summer months. His goal every season is to find at least one buck that meets Booner standards, and once found he begins learning everything he can about the buck. He notes the hows, whens and wheres of the buck's behavior in an effort to capitalize on a future opportunity.
Trail cameras are also a significant tool in Hays' Booner arsenal. Not only do they give him a deeper understanding of the buck or bucks he's after, but they also allow him to zero in on specific travel locations and eliminate others. He uses this information to pattern the buck's movement in an attempt to find the perfect location to setup an ambush.
While Hays is figuring out a buck's travel patterns, he is also determining the best locations along the buck's typical route in which to kill him. According to Hays, Booner bucks generally use the wind to their advantage most of the time so the key to capitalizing on this is to find chinks in this armor or "weak spots."
These weak spots can be a funnel that briefly forces the buck to give up the security of the wind, or a location where you have to kill him before he hits your scent line or that's right on the edge of it. Hays further says the first hunt for the buck is always the best. In fact, virtually all of his Booners were killed the first time he hunted a particular stand location.
Timing is also critical to the Hays' system. If he is not getting day time photos of the buck, he's not hunting. You can't kill a buck in the dark, and hunting a stand hoping the buck will come by will end up doing more harm than good. In fact, all six of his Ohio Booners were killed in October, and five of them in the last week of the month. According to Hays, bucks are generally on a primary bed-to-feed pattern at that time, so slipping in before the unpredictability of the rut starts is the best option.
Lastly, regardless of what part of the whitetail season he hunts, Adam is a huge believer in the moon phases and how they affect deer movement. In fact, of the ten Booners he has arrowed, nine of them were moving during what Adam considers these peak moon times, or the "Red Moon" as he refers to it. As Hays explains, when the moon is directly overhead (straight up) and directly underfoot (straight down) it has the greatest gravitational pull, which he feels influences animal movement.
When these correspond during the peak movement hours in the morning and evening, it has an extreme effect on Booners and often will cause them to move during shooting light when they ordinarily haven't been, or just become more active in general. He believes in it so much that he has dedicated a website to it, www.moonguide.com.
Similar to Hays, Ben Rising also hails from the Hawkeye State, and his Booner resume is pretty extensive as well. The host of the popular internet show "Whitetail Edge" (www.whitetailedge.com), as well as the owner of "Wicked Ridge Outfitters" (www.wickedridgeoutfitters.com), Rising has anchored nearly a dozen Booners ranging from 173 to 215 inches. Furthermore, five of those bucks were killed in the last two seasons across Ohio, Illinois and Kansas. A logger by trade, Rising grew up predator hunting and trapping with his dad and credits a lot of his whitetail success to being an overall good woodsman.
Because Rising hunts in numerous states and properties throughout the season, he really utilizes trail cameras and mineral sites to locate the particular bucks he wants to kill. Minerals are a magnet for deer during the late spring and summer months, and it generally doesn't take long for the trail camera photos to reveal what bucks you have living on the property. For the most part, Rising prefers to establish mineral sites on the fringes of feeding areas in secondary transition zones and close to water. Ideally, he likes to have the ability to access them with a vehicle because he feels the impact is significantly less than someone sneaking through the woods.
Speaking of impact, according to Rising, "human pressure is the number one factor when it comes to killing a big deer. Once a mature buck knows that he's being hunted it becomes a totally different game." To combat this, Rising just doesn't start hunting when the season opens, but limits the time he spends in the woods to when he feels it's the best opportunity to kill a particular buck. Whether it's during the high pressure side of a cold front, or consecutive photos proving that a buck is moving during daylight hours through a high percentage spot, Rising limits his impact throughout the season. In fact, 85-percent of the Booners he has killed happened within the first few times he hunted the property, and five of them were killed during his very first visit.
Not only should you limit how many times you access deep into the property, explains Rising, but having a stellar entrance and exit strategy and using effective scent control methods is a must. Finding good stand locations near heavily used trails, food and water sources always seem to be at the top of most hunter's agenda when it comes to prepping for an upcoming season. However, your primary focus should not be where your stand should be hung, but determining the best approach to and from it to minimize your impact. Rising feels that virtually every time you step deep into the woods the mature deer living there will know you've been there, and it doesn't take too many penetrations to move a mature buck out of an area.
Timing a hunt is also important, and although many feel the "rut" provides the best opportunity, according to Rising it's his least favorite time to zero in on a specific buck. In fact, of the 11 Booners to his credit, only three have fallen during the rut. The rest came in October and once the rut was winding down in late November and December. Sure, the rut is fun to hunt and activity can be impressive, but if you want to consistently kill mature bucks you might want to start understanding early and late season movement patterns and learn to capitalize on them.
Lastly, Rising feels that every Booner has a weakness, and the best approach to killing it is to "hunt smarter, not harder." Its weakness may be a particular pinch point between the corner of a field and creek bend that it has to walk through to keep from exposing itself, which is how Rising killed a recent 183-inch Ohio giant the second time he hunted the property. Or hunting a wind that is almost wrong for you but the buck feels it's right for him, which has also proven fatal for Rising more than once. Mature buck have zones, and once you decide to invade it you risk future opportunities. However, Rising feels that hunting the fringes of those areas and letting a particular buck come to you is often the smarter way to hunt.