Mind Games: How to Outthink a Trophy Buck
June 21, 2016
Like humans, deer aren't all cast from the same mold. Some are passive or shy, while others appear almost aggressive.
Combine this with the fact that their demeanor can change in an instant, and the idea of teaching yourself to "think like a big buck" could be very helpful.
A handful of bucks I've bowhunted over the years stand out from all the others. These were not necessarily the highest-scoring or most impressive animals I've pursued, and I never did get within bow range of some of them.
However, these bucks taught me the most about patterning (if that's possible) or how to think like a mature male whitetail. The real "trophy" from each of them was the experience gained from pursuing these cagey veterans.
Most of the areas I hunt are not very conducive to glassing or summertime scouting. I do have a few agricultural fields and food plots that help with pre-season inventory. But for the most part, I hunt big woods by Midwest standards. For this reason, most of my pre-season strategy revolves around sheds found and visual sightings from the previous winter.
DON'T ASSUME ANYTHING
Early one spring, I found a shed from a genetically promising 3 1/2-year-old buck. I had seen this buck numerous times the previous fall. This deer spent a lot of time in a fairly small area (less than 50 acres), and I would see him in the same clover food plot most evenings.
The following fall, the trophy buck had grown tremendously. As a 4 1/2-year-old "breeder" buck, he had grown a few stickers, and his easily recognizable rack would potentially gross in the 170s. It would probably net over 160. When bow season arrived, I had four strategic stand sites set up to ambush this great buck in the area he had frequented the previous fall.
My confidence level was high. There was no reason, I thought, to try to climb into this buck's mind. This was going to be easy! After all, the year before I could barely "shoo" him out of the clover plot.
However, to my great disappointment, this was the year I discovered how far mature bucks can travel during the fall, especially when more-dominant bucks might inhabit the same area.
My first sighting of the buck during archery season was over 1 1/2 miles from where I thought his home range was located. Later that year, I bumped him out of the food plot and immediately assumed "He's back." In a six-week period, I saw this buck twice from a tree stand. He eventually wound up falling to a hunting buddy's arrow two years later.
Sometimes, to think like a big buck, you've got to broaden your horizons. In the case of the aforementioned buck, I erroneously assumed his home range would remain the same as he matured from a 3 1/2-year-old subordinate buck to a 4 1/2-year-old breeder. With other bucks of at least equal status within the local population, it is logical that he would have to expand his territory during the fall rut.
Another mistake I made was assuming that just because this buck had the most impressive headgear that I had seen in the area, he would automatically be the most dominant animal. The old adage "It's not the size of the dog in the fight but rather the size of the fight in the dog" most definitely applies in the whitetail world. It is certainly possible that a rival buck had displaced him from the area where I anticipated finding him.
A PAINFUL MEMORY
On the afternoon of Oct. 17, 1998, I was perched 25 feet up a mature white oak looking at a fresh scrape that was exactly 21 steps from the base of my tree. I'm not really good with important dates like birthdays or anniversaries, but this date would be etched in my mind for the rest of my life. About an hour into the hunt, I caught movement about 75 yards up the wooded ridge from my tree.
It was a buck, and within seconds I knew it was the buck I had waited for my whole life! He was working his way toward the scrape in front of me. At about 50 yards out, he stepped behind a large tree and I tried to get in position for a shot. As I stood up, the lip of my knee-high rubber boot caught the edge of my portable tree stand seat, lifting it just high enough to come down with an unmistakable metal-on-metal "ca-pink." I froze in a three-quarter standing position, shaking like a dog passing bones.
The giant typical 10-point trophy buck paused for a second and scanned the horizon. Then he wagged his tail as if nothing had happened and walked down to freshen the scrape in front of me. With his head in the licking branch, I drew back and settled my 20-yard pin in the center of his boiler room.
I couldn't have scripted it any better, but from that point on it was all a blur. I remember touching off the release and I know I missed, but I'm not sure how. There were no obstructions with the shot. I'm not a world-class archer, but out to 30 yards, I'm pretty proficient. It had to be "buck fever." At least, that's my story and I'm sticking with it!
That night I lay awake, trying to form a plan that would give me a chance at redemption. My initial thought was to follow conventional wisdom and stay out of the area for at least a week or more and give things a chance to cool down. Then I tried to creep into his mind. I thought, Hey, he never saw me and I don't think he caught my scent. For all he knows, a branch fell from a tree.
If a trophy buck avoids every place where he's ever been spooked, he won't have many places to go. I knew it was early enough in the fall for this particular buck's home range to still be fairly small. On the other hand, if I decided to "give it some time," who knows how far he might travel?
I decided to go for it. Two days later I had another encounter with that monster buck from the same stand. I didn't get it done that time either, as he never came within bow range, but the plan almost came together. And there was at least some satisfaction from putting myself in a position to get lucky.
TOO MUCH PRESSURE?
Every once in a while, I believe we give big bucks too much credit. Don't misunderstand me. A whitetail's senses are razor-sharp, and they have millions of years of evolution behind them. This has not only helped them survive, but it's also helped them thrive alongside humans. They're masters at avoiding things that want to hurt them. However, if they didn't occasionally make mistakes, they would all die of old age.
Every once in a while, I believe we don't give them enough credit. Several years back, a good friend who lived about a mile up the road from my home found a matched set of sheds off a buck I had been hunting. The next year, I had multiple encounters with this buck in the same area but wound up filling my tag with a different deer.
The following spring, I found the matched set of sheds from the first buck in the same area in which my friend had found his set the previous year. The only thing that changed was the formation of a drop tine off the right main beam. The next fall, I had a couple of good prospects, but none as good as the "drop-tine" buck.
This was the year I learned that human intrusion can greatly alter deer movement. Knowing this buck had reached maturity a few years back, I spent every spare moment over a seven-week period hunting various stand sites in the area I believed to be his home range because this is where I had seen him repeatedly in previous hunting seasons. Houdini would have marveled at his disappearing act.
Early that season, a rumor started floating around the local hunting community about a large buck being poached close to the area I was hunting. I was now beginning to think it might have been him. Finally, the buck showed himself on Thanksgiving morning, and I made the best of the opportunity. The only change in his antler frame was the lengthening of the drop tine. According to a tooth-aging chart, he was at least 6 1/2 years old, and maybe older. Based on the minimal change from year to year in his sheds, I think this age was pretty accurate.
WALK A MILE IN HIS HOOVES
I believe this buck knew I was pursuing him. A bloodhound can track an escaped prisoner for hours or even days after the track has cooled. I've got to believe that a mature whitetail's nose is equally sensitive. This deer lived in a fairly remote area with very little interaction with humans for most of the year. My sudden and repeated presence in his domain, coupled with the onset of the rut, more than likely altered his habits around mine -- especially his daytime activity. There's a fine line between being persistent and over-hunting an area.
Suppose you've seen or know of a good buck in an area you can hunt but you're having trouble getting close to him. What should you do? First, consider that in most instances it's very alarming for us to simply appear in a big buck's back yard. Sometimes you need to ask yourself, "Am I trying too hard?
Does this buck know I'm after him? Are other hunters after him?" Then ask yourself, "What would I do if I were in his position? "Where would I go?" Walk a mile in his hooves (figuratively) and try to think like he would.
If you'll apply a few basic principles, try to be flexible and learn from your mistakes (or the mistakes of others like me), you can formulate a strategy that will improve your odds significantly in the whitetail woods.
There's a certain sense of euphoria anytime you harvest a deer. Setting out to take a particular deer and then making it happen through calculated adjustments based on "outthinking him" can make it even more rewarding. Getting close to an individual buck is like a chess match. By getting inside his head, you can often predict his next move!