May 19, 2022
To consistently take big bucks in often pressured areas, it takes a hunter with precise skills, plans and executions. Let’s face it, huge mature bucks aren’t hiding behind every tree, even in “big buck” states! And sealing the deal on one of these wary ghosts is an extremely challenging feat.
Sure, a hunter can luck into bagging a brute occasionally; but what does it take to do this year after year? The answer is precise hunting tactics, which I refer to as “surgical hunting.” Like the hands of a highly skilled doctor, some of the best hunters have learned that delicate and exact moves are needed to take a mature whitetail. There’s little room for error. By looking at the habits of two successful hunters, we’ll see the exact skills anyone can replicate to go from novice to having a whitetail PhD. Let’s look at how to surgically remove a big buck from the woods.
Timing Your Hunts
Many hunters find a great location and simply hunt it without figuring out exactly when they should hunt it. Whether it’s a fencerow along an ag-field, a pinch point between varying types of cover or a hot bedding area, these locations won’t be great unless hunted at the right times.
Hunting at the wrong time of day or season can absolutely destroy your chances in a spot. Many hunters make this mistake.
The surgical fix for this mistake is proper hunt timing. Seasoned hunters find the optimal time to hunt a location using patterns, crop or food availability, and current sign. And they know if the spot is best for the morning or evening.
John Eberhart is known for getting it done on mature bucks in arguably one of the hardest states to hunt: Michigan. According to John, figuring out when a spot is at its best is essential for getting opportunities.
“Knowing the proper seasonal and daytime timing for a location and only hunting it accordingly is critical to a potential opportunity,” says John. “Destination feeding locations should only be hunted during evenings, as morning entries would spook deer feeding at them. A location’s entry route should often be different than its exit route so you don’t spook deer.”John continues, “Improper seasonal, daily timing and improper entry and exit routes are the most common mistakes I see hunters make.”
A great example of hunting a location at exactly the right time is my 2020 season in Ohio, when I caught up with a 16-point. After getting multiple trail camera pictures of him in a thick valley in August, he disappeared as the season approached. Until I had the intel I needed to know the time was right, I avoided his core area.
I didn’t push it early on, and I let him tell me when the time was right. My opportunity came the morning of Nov. 1, when I got a picture of him next to a ridgetop stand the evening prior.
This stand required a morning hayfield entry, which was off limits to me due to the high probability of bumping deer on my way in. Since my Ohio time was limited, I took the strategic chance. I snuck in an hour before light, and I shot him about an hour after daylight that morning.
Continued hunting of this stand would most likely have pressured him out of the area before he became daylight active. And waiting for the right time was key in surgically removing this Ohio brute from his lair.
Surgical Entry and Exit
I’ve made this mistake many times. I’d find a hot spot and then force my way into it to somehow hunt it. The problem is the amount of intrusion that you create when doing this with scent, sound and visual pressure. The challenge is not letting deer know they are being hunted, and this method creates a high chance to blow your opportunity before you even get it.
The surgical way to solve this problem is to hunt backward. Bill Winke is a renowned whitetail slayer, author and host of the popular show Midwest Whitetail. He attributes much of his success to a technique he calls “hunting backward.”
With this approach, you basically find where a target whitetail is living, and then find a spot you can hunt him while being completely undetected. “Truly surgical hunting is all about mapping the perfect routes to and from your stands,” Bill says. “The stand location itself is actually less important than the route you take to get to it. Spend nearly all your efforts figuring how you can get in and out of that area, (or the fringe of that area), without alerting any deer.”
Bill continues, “Even non-target deer can transmit danger to the buck you are hunting through their body language around your stand sites. They also do it through the fact that they are not moving as naturally in those areas.”
Hunting a mediocre stand many times while remaining undetected is much better than hunting a hot stand where you get one low probability opportunity at him.
Properly Using Deer Sign
A mistake I often made when I was younger was hunting deer sign that was made at night. Open woods sign like rubs and scrapes can rob precious hours from your season, and it doesn’t create many surgical-like opportunities to extract a big buck from his reclusive home.
The surgical way to solve this problem is to hunt cover. Mature bucks need thick cover to feel safe and to move during daylight. This “security cover” is the only way to have a chance at slinging an arrow at the bucks making the sign in the open timber.
The key to benefitting from open timber sign is to use it as a guide to where the buck may be spending his days and bedding. He won’t move far from this area in daylight, so be cautious but get in tight.
John Eberhart says, “In heavily pressured areas, no matter how much or awesome the buck sign looks at a location, it’s meaningless for hunting if it is only being visited during the security of darkness. This is due to a lack of perimeter and transition security cover.”
On Oct. 8, 2016, I arrowed such a buck within his secure bedding cover. Having discovered a great bedding area near a chopped cornfield on public land, I slipped into a stand I’d strategically placed early in September along a thick travel corridor leading to the field. About 15 minutes before dark, I heard cracking of the chest-high goldenrod and saw tips of antler meandering through the weeds.
The buck was cautious and would not leave the cover, constantly stopping to scent and visually check the field for danger. Finally, just before last shooting light, he felt comfortable enough to step into a slight clearing in his secure cover at 30 yards. And I quickly zipped an arrow through him.
The area did not show as much sign as the nearby field and neighboring oak wood lot did, but it was the only good security cover in the area to allow for safe bedding and catching a good buck moving in daylight.
Controlling Your Scent
The common phrase “playing the wind,” is familiar to whitetail hunters; but many times, it doesn’t go far enough to fool a wise old buck.
Minding the wind can lead to taking undue risks and being lackadaisical when it comes to a whitetail’s keen sense of smell. This lacks precision and is a big mistake if you want consistent success.
The surgical solution to this problem is to micro-manage your scent. John uses a meticulous system of washing and storing his clothes and gear to make sure no human scent contaminates his hunting area. On top of that, he utilizes activated carbon clothing from head to toe to make sure no trace of scent is left on the ground, or in the air, while in his tree saddle.
In fact, he believes in his system so much he doesn’t even pay attention to wind direction anymore when choosing hunting locations. And his success suggests it works.
Bill strategizes and perfects his entry and exit routes, so ground scent and his scent on the wind cannot waft to a deer’s nose. As stated previously, he only hunts stands that allow for this.
Bill says, “In 2011, I shot a buck and had to use a series of ditches to arrive at a stand on top of a ridge where the wind would blow my scent out over the valley. I hunted that spot often, because it was very rare that I ever busted deer in this setup.”
My personal success has increased dramatically since adopting my own no-scent system. Although not as extreme as John’s, it includes a tote system with garbage bags for all clothes. Clothes are washed and immediately stored, then changed into and out of in the field during each hunt.
Also, pantyhose filled with activated carbon I purchase at the local pet supply store are in each bag, which acts to remove any odors picked up accidentally on clothing. These can also be used to absorb boot odors and to “dust” clothes that can’t be washed immediately, effectively removing any odors gained during a hunt.
Whitetail hunting for mature bucks is a daunting challenge, and it’s not for the faint of heart. However, honing and practicing these precise skills will drastically help boost your chances as you learn to surgically remove big bucks from the woods.