June 28, 2016
By Steve Bartylla
When the buck I was hunting stepped out, I almost couldn't believe my eyes. There, gift-wrapped at 100 yards, was the deer I'd made my goal the year before, knowing he'd be my target this fall.
Having chased him for over half the season, only seeing him from stand once in that span, I now happened to have a shotgun in my hands...and he was there for the taking.
Unfortunately, I was simultaneously falling apart. At the realization it was "the one," I immediately started shaking and hyperventilating at a level I'd never experienced. All I had to do was pull it together and make the shot. And I failed.
Many whitetail hunters talk about targeting specific bucks, and some pull it off. Amazingly, there's very little in print on exactly how to do that. I sure can't say my approach for getting a shot at a given deer is the best or only way. However, it's worked fairly well for me — regardless of how the shot sometimes turns out.
Perhaps within my approach you'll find a nugget or two you can use, as well.
THE AGGRESSION FACTOR
Before ever heading out after a specific buck, the first task is determining how aggressively to hunt him. In my early days, that decision was greatly influenced by how badly I wanted to kill him. The bigger the buck, the harder I hunted him.
It took me far too long and too many blown opportunities to realize that approach was a mistake. So I swung to the other extreme, placing too much importance on keeping my impact low at all costs. The result was a different sort of failure: I watched surrounding hunters kill the bucks I was after.
It wasn't until I finally determined neither approach was right that my success rate started to climb. I needed to adjust my strategy to the situation, location, weather conditions and rut phase.
It only makes sense to be more aggressive when hunting a buck that splits time between your ground and a hard-hunting neighbor's place. In such a case, it's basically a race to see who can get to the deer first. Sure, you won't do yourself a service by driving him off your ground, but neither does it help to be so cautious you give yourself too little chance at an encounter.
The same applies to bucks that suddenly show up on your ground, as typically occurs during the rut. Assuming you have good scouting camera coverage of the property, odds are that if you didn't know of him before, he's a roamer and has only temporarily set up shop where you hunt. Of course, the catch is that he's likely to leave soon. So if you don't hunt him fast, hard and smart, you probably won't have many chances at him before he's gone.
Mature bucks on the public ground I hunt are somewhat different. Although there are exceptions, most bucks that reach age 3 1/2 on public land do so because they've found pockets that hunters don't enter and then spend almost all their daylight hours within them. So despite heavy hunting pressure, I'm not overly concerned about other hunters killing such a deer.
No doubt it happens, but that buck typically got to 3 1/2 or older by regularly avoiding danger. He's older and more experienced now. That tells me he isn't going to suddenly get foolish and forget his survival training.
However, hunting his core area hard does risk pushing him into the danger zone, as can a troublesome "hot" doe. The very real risk of a doe being his demise adds a little urgency to killing him before breeding really begins. At the same time, the only locations in which I've been able to consistently kill these heavily pressured bucks are their core areas.
So as you can see, it's a balancing act. I don't want to pressure a buck to the point of pushing him out of his core area and into the danger zone. On the flip side, I also don't want to risk letting a doe lead him out when most other hunters are in the woods during peak rut.
The balance I've found is using high aggression by hunting that core area, but really picking my spots to do it. To me, that means waiting until the end of October or very early November to hunt him. By that point, his testosterone levels are inspiring him to move more during daylight, but there aren't yet all sorts of evil temptresses running around.
Taking it a step farther, I only go in when the weather is good for deer movement. I'm using a temperature drop to further encourage him to move within his core area. That ups my chances of killing him that first time in. Frankly, I generally have no more than three legit cracks at killing these bucks. I need to make them count. Most public-land bucks I kill are on that first sit.
On the other extreme is when you control the ground Mr. Big spends the majority of his time on.
That was the case with Tweenie, the 5 1/2-year-old buck I referred to at the top of this article. At 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 he was very visible and easy to keep tabs on. On the infrequent occasion he did leave the property, his forays were short.
In such situations, the best odds of someone else killing a buck occur when he gets pushed out. So long as we don't do that, odds are if we don't kill him in a given year we'll have another chance the following year.
As a result, I hunted Tweenie in an extremely non-aggressive manner. I stayed out of his core area for most of the season, hoping to catch him passing one of the very low-impact stands surrounding it. I didn't hunt either of his main food sources within his core area until the end of October. Frankly, I felt I could afford to take shots at less likely stands and hope to get lucky.
LAYING OUT A GAME PLAN
All this talk of how aggressively one hunts a buck sounds great, but it doesn't actually "say" anything. That's because the term "aggressively" has a lot of wiggle room.
To give a better perspective, let's look deeper into how I hunted Tweenie. In the accompanying map, his core area is within the red outline. A saturation of Reconyx cams and other history with this 5 1/2-year-old buck made it pretty clear he spent the vast majority of daylight hours within that area.
The blue dots show all the various camera locations that captured at least one image of him. There were no other camera within his core area, but another 11 not shown outside that core area never got a single image of him.
The red dots are considered high- impact stand locations. There were several more within his core area, but I'm only showing those at which I hunted him.
The yellow dots are low-impact stands at which I hunted the deer. Now, one must understand that the risk of disturbing Tweenie was the only factor used in determining high- vs. low-impact stands. Several of the low-impact stands shown I generally would consider higher impact, as the only way to get out safely after an afternoon hunt is to have someone drive in to extract the hunter.
A high-impact camera setup right in the heart of Tweenie's core area confirmed he often bedded on those points just to the northeast and southeast. History with him and other mature bucks made me believe that was the case. Setting up and swapping chips on a Reconyx on several stiff-east-wind days, when I could slip in and out without being busted, removed any doubt.
Complicating my hunting plan was that Tweenie's nighttime travels were unpredictable. I surmised he could realistically be coming from any direction when returning to bed. That made most morning hunts too risky for my taste, particularly since that risked pushing Tweenie to neighboring hunters during legal shooting light. Aside from the yellow dot to the southeast of his core area and the yellow dot in the southwest corner of the map — both offering hidden access and departure — I deemed all other stand options too risky for morning hunts.
In a nutshell, when hunting a specific buck, I view aggression as being married to the odds of the buck I'm hunting busting me getting to stand, while in stand and when departing the stand.
The better my odds of avoiding detection, the more aggressively I'll view sitting a given stand. On less-aggressive stands, I then factor in how great the risk of busting deer I'm not hunting. Sure, you might still kill the buck you're after despite busting every other deer in the woods, but you're always better off when none of them knows you're out there.
All of this results in a fairly clear breakdown of my approach to setups. Stands that offer the greatest risk of any deer busting the hunter should be hunted least aggressively. These are the stands I'll head to every time unless I have reason to believe I can kill Mr. Big via a more aggressive option.
Stands that carry risk of busting other deer, but not much of a chance of busting the buck I'm after, are still considered non-aggressive setups. But I generally hunt them less. I need a reason to believe I might kill Mr. Big there on that specific day. I need to know he's been there before, whether that confirmation is from a camera image, direct observation or sign I believe he left. Next, I'm not risking spooking other deer unless the weather or rut phase is good for getting the buck moving.
"Many whitetail hunters talk about targeting specific bucks, and some pull it off. Amazingly, there's very little in print on exactly how to do that."
I start getting into "aggressive" stands when there's a legitimate chance of taking the buck I'm after. With all of the red dot stands on the map, there was a risk of my busting Tweenie getting out following my afternoon sits. Sure, I could have a driver pick me up from most of these stands at dark, but I don't want to give a specific buck I'm chasing any reason to shy away from these stands.
Being driven off a food source by a truck once is forgivable to him. Twice probably is, as well. But at some point, he'll stop visiting that area during daylight.
I hunt such a stand when there's both good hunting weather and intel demanding I hunt it right then. Days that have a 10-degree or more temperature drop but without high winds are good choices. Add recent daylight photos or visual confirmation of that specific buck near that stand and it's time to hunt him there.
The most aggressive stands in this example are the hidden food plot stand and the one next to his bedroom. In those situations, I need to satisfy the same criteria I did for weather and intel, but I also need to believe that I'm not going to get it done in a less aggressive location. Consistent daylight photos trump everything else. If they tell me a buck is ripe for the killing, I jump on it. Minus that, I save these most aggressive stands for the end of the peak scrape phase on through early post-rut. High testosterone levels make bucks more forgiving of our intrusions then.
Again, it's best to adjust aggression on the specifics of the situation. When a new buck I want to kill shows up out of nowhere during the prime rut phases, I'm going to bet he's setting up only temporary residence. I'll be much more aggressive on him than I was on Tweenie, a buck that lived there.
On public or heavily pressured private ground, a non-aggressive approach just doesn't consistently get it done. However, hunting these spots aggressively before peak scrape phase also offers poor odds. So I almost always wait for the first good-weather day in the last part of the peak scrape phase, on through early breeding, to go in after them. I need to make it count that first time in; I won't be getting many do-overs.
THE HUNT FOR TWEENIE
With all of that in mind, I hunted Tweenie on the cautious end of the spectrum. I nipped away at the yellow, less aggressive stands until Halloween. At that point, I began picking my shots at hunting the red ones, moving closer to his core area. During this period I hunted the two stands on the main food source within his core area a combined three times without encountering him.
Entering November, I was getting frustrated. Frankly, what had been a very killable buck the two years before had become much more of a challenge. The only location in which I was consistently getting his photos was at a mock scrape at the doorstep to his bedding area.
With a stiff wind covering the noise of my approach, I slipped in there during the chase phase. After checking the area for deer, I began ranging markers for the shot I'd hoped would occur.
Then I heard the branch snap.
Looking to my right, I saw Tweenie standing at 70 yards, staring right at me. As he drifted away, I knew I'd blown the one crack I'd given myself at hunting his bedroom. I hunted the hidden food plot twice during the rut. Once, I had what might have been him at about 40 yards, but I couldn't see into the cedars where the buck held a doe hostage for about an hour. All I heard were deep grunts.
This brings us to late November. From recent photos, I knew Tweenie was still alive. Unfortunately, he still wasn't cooperating. And I was out of new ideas on how to kill him. So I did what I almost always do in that situation: I headed for the lowest-impact stand I believed offered a chance at the buck being hunted while also offering the highest level of deer activity among my low-impact options.
In this instance, that was the yellow dot in the southwest corner of the map. With a north wind, I could get in and out of there undetected. And deer were hammering the Antler King Honey Hole and corn I'd planted in that plot.
I'd barely settled in when the deer started pouring into the plot. It was one of those sits you just plain enjoy. When Tweenie stepped out, I assumed it was a 4 1/2-year-old we'd decided to give another year. Scoping him, just to be sure, I immediately turned into a quivering mass of Jello at the realization it was my target deer.
Placing the crosshair behind his shoulder, I jerked the trigger so hard I'd have missed a barn. It would've been the most inglorious disaster — if only I'd remembered to click the safety off!
Although I was still a trembling, hyperventilating mess, I somehow hadn't blown it yet. Momentarily closing my eyes, I had a very blunt conversation in my head. I still could get this done. None of the surrounding animals had a clue I was there, but I had to get my act together — and I had to do it now.
Opening my eyes, I cranked the magnification on the scope. Taking a deep but still more jagged breath than I'd have liked, I focused on placing the crosshair right in front of the shoulder. Tweenie now was slightly quartering toward me, but there were plenty of vitals in view for a well-placed slug.
Taking another deep breath, I remembered to hit the safety. Somewhere during the long exhale, I squeezed the shot off. And the deer dropped in his tracks. With a gross score of just over 175, he was the biggest buck of my life.
Every buck I've hunted has been different. Frankly, I've failed at killing more of them than I've shot. However, a closer look at the successes shows they almost all have fallen within the approaches laid out here.
Public land and other heavily pressured mature bucks must be hunted within their core areas when the time is right. I'll likely have only one or two cracks at them and need good environmental conditions to get it done.
New arrivals during the rut and bucks routinely jumping property line fences need to be hunted more aggressively. After all, it does little good to play it so safe that the neighbor kills him. But driving him over the fence does you no favors, either.
In the far more rare situation in which a big buck spends the majority of time on your hunting ground, taking a less aggressive approach only makes sense. After all, if you don't push him off or kill him this season, he's one of the few that likely will offer another chance next year.