May 12, 2022
By Don Higgins
As I drove to my hunting area in the pre-dawn darkness, the rain which had been pouring all night was still coming down at a steady pace. I checked the radar before leaving the house and it looked like the rain would end around daylight.
The conditions were perfect for the stand I had waited two years to hunt. There was an old bruiser of a buck running the area that I had named Joey, and although I had three years of trail camera history with him, this would be my first hunt for him.
The property that I was hunting had only a small brushy area no more than three or four acres in size. I had placed this stand more than a year earlier, but I let one whole season slip by without ever hunting it. I knew I needed some very specific conditions if I was to get a crack at Joey.
Finding the Right Conditions
First, I needed an easterly wind, and southeast would be perfect. Secondly, and just as important, I needed some significant hunting pressure on the properties surrounding the one where I had hung my stand. I guessed that this little thicket was probably the hiding place for this mature buck when the pressure was on, and trail camera photos from the two previous seasons had proved me right.
I parked my truck a mile or more from my hunting area so I wouldn’t tip off any other hunters to my location. With the rain still steadily coming down, I elected to sit there in the dry truck for a bit waiting on the rain to stop. When I accepted that it was time to head out, the rain had slowed to a light drizzle, but it was still enough to cause me to leave my video camera in the truck.
I quickly covered the mile or so to my stand with an ATV and stashed it in the brush where it was unlikely to be detected by a hunter or deer. I hustled to get to my stand as it slowly became lighter. Once there, I did something that I rarely do: I broke out a bottle of Smokey’s deer scent and poured out the entire bottle right on the path I expected a buck to be on, splashing it on nearby bushes and other vegetation so that a passing deer would surely smell it and hopefully lock up, giving me a chance for a shot. I had one narrow shooting lane, and if a buck passed through without giving me a shot there would be no second chance.
As I climbed into the stand, I couldn’t help but wonder what any other serious deer hunter would think if they saw this setup. My stand was in some extremely thick cover, and there really were no trees in this spot that would accept my preferred Lone Wolf hang-on. Most of the trees were gnarly old hedges with multiple trunks growing at odd angles.
More than a year earlier, I had dragged an old ladder stand in and actually did not even use the bottom section of the ladder. I ended up leaning the shortened ladder stand against a solid branch that was perfectly horizontal but at just the right height to accommodate the improvised stand. The seat was roughly eight feet off the ground.
I quickly settled in for what I expected to be a long hunt. My bow was sitting across my lap as I knew I needed to be on my toes, or a buck could quickly slip through my only shooting lane. Barely 15 minutes later, it was light enough to see good within the thicket when I noticed a buck about 100 yards away out on the edge. He appeared to be coming my way, but the brush was so thick that I soon lost sight of him.
A few seconds later, he passed through another small opening in the brush, and I noticed a forked G-2 tine and knew it was my target buck Joey. I shifted in my seat and snapped my release on the string. Within 10 seconds I saw the buck entering my only shooting lane and came to full draw.
As bucks often do on November mornings when they are searching for does, Joey was moving at a very steady gait. As he entered my shooting lane, he smelled the scent I had poured out less than half an hour earlier and locked up. I was already at full draw, and before the buck had a chance to react to the scent, my arrow pierced his chest. His death run was short, and I watched him fall.
This was literally the shortest successful hunt of my 43-year hunting career. From the time I left my truck until I grabbed Joey’s antlers, roughly 30 minutes had passed. His rack later grossed a fraction over 185 inches, and he was officially aged at 8 1/2 years old.
As I think back on that hunt, the thing that sticks with me is the stand setup. If another deer hunter ever saw that stand, I am sure they probably laughed and brushed it off as some dumb beginner. I still shake my head thinking about that ancient ladder stand with the bottom section missing, and how I had to prop it against a horizontal limb to make it work in this tree. However, one huge key to this successful hunt was the tree.
Factors to Consider
Based on the terrain, I knew exactly where I needed to place my stand in the thicket to have the best chance at success. But there just wasn’t a “good” tree anywhere close to where I needed it. Instead of walking off to look for a plan B, I tried to figure a way to make this gnarly old hedge tree accept a stand. The end result wasn’t pretty, but it worked.
Another huge factor in this hunt was wind direction. Terrain is often the determining factor for where I place my stands, but wind direction tells me when to hunt it. You can pick out the right tree, but if you hunt it with the wrong wind you not only won’t kill your target buck, but you will educate him on your ambush.
I now want you to think long and hard about what I am about to say, because it is the most important sentence in this entire article. Any time you are hunting a mature buck, there is one tree that is going to give you the best odds for success. You need to find that one tree!
Now let me expand on this a little. I will acknowledge that this “one tree” might change throughout the season. In other words, there is one tree where you have the best chance to kill your buck during the early season, but during the rut and late season, it will likely be different trees. Still, I am always looking for that one tree while also putting the other pieces of the puzzle together as well.
I often have multiple trees for the same buck, but each tree has a very specific circumstance when I hunt it. I might have a stand for early season evenings, a different stand for early rut mornings when bucks are cruising and totally different ones for the rut lock-down and late season. My point here is that the best tree to kill a buck might change during different phases of the season, but there is still one best tree during each phase.
Let’s look closer at the hunt for the Joey buck that I just described. I knew that the old hedge tree was in the best spot to kill this buck under some very specific conditions. This was not a stand I would have ever hunted in the early season or the late season. This tree was located in the best spot to catch Joey when he was searching for does during the rut.
Furthermore, I knew that having substantial hunting pressure in the area would increase my odds of Joey being there when I decided to hunt. Thus, I waited until after the firearms deer season had closed before hunting this stand. Finally, the southeast wind was the final ingredient.
Here is something else that is very noteworthy about my hunt for this buck. I had watched Joey for three summers, and over the two previous hunting seasons through trail cameras without ever hunting him. Then when everything was right, I slipped in and killed him on the first hunt.
If you think this is a fluke, let me throw out an interesting figure that might raise your eyebrows. Since 2014, I have shot four different mature bucks on the very first hunt for them. If you are thinking this surely happened on a large managed farm, you would be wrong. All four of these bucks were shot on three different small properties that I simply knocked on doors for permission. There was not a food plot or any other deer management projects done on any of the properties.
These bucks were as “real world” as it gets. I simply learned of their existence, spent a couple of years or more learning their habits and then, when the time was right, I slipped in and killed them on purpose. Now let me state right here that I don’t typically kill the bucks I am hunting on the first hunt. Most of the time it takes several hunts for me to kill my target bucks, but I will also say that a very high percentage of the time I do eventually get them killed.
Finding the “Best Tree”
Before we close this article, I want to get into a little more detail about finding that “best tree,” because I firmly believe that any deer hunter can do the same thing I am doing if they are willing to devote the same amount of time and effort.
I learn about the bucks I hunt through various ways. Sometimes others tip me off. Usually these are very close friends who know how serious I am about chasing giant bucks. I know that at times I am led on some wild goose chases by jealous hunters who don’t appreciate my success, but I still check out almost every lead no matter where it comes from. With that said, most of the bucks I hunt are ones that I have found myself. Often these are bucks that I have watched grow up through years of trail camera history.
When I learn of a mature buck, the first thing I want to do is figure out his home range. To do this, I use trail cameras. Once I have a confirmed location of a buck, I spread out from that point in all possible directions with more cameras trying to locate his home range. By the time I am ready to hunt a buck, I will have dozens of photos of him and know precisely where those photos were taken.
Eventually, I have an idea of an individual buck’s annual pattern. I learn not only where a buck travels, but exactly when he is within his range at different points of the season, and how he gets from point A to point B.
Eventually, I discover very specific spots within a buck’s range where he either spends a disproportionate amount of time, or where hunting him tilts the odds a bit more in my favor than if I were to hunt at other spots in close proximity. This might be a spot where undetected access to a stand is easier or hunting the wind is more reliable.
Back in the October 1993 issue of North American Whitetail, my good friend and mentor Alan Foster penned an article titled “Zero In On the Weak Spot,” which closely shared the same theme as this article. In his article, Al wrote that “The difference between filling a tag and coming up empty can be as subtle as moving your stand 20 feet one way or another.” This sums things up perfectly, and I will point out that Al said “20 feet” not 20 yards.
Al went on to say that every mature buck he shot was alert as he moved past his stand. They all used the wind and terrain to their advantage, but his stand was in the one location where the buck took a chance for a short distance and gave up something. I have noticed the very same thing, and the Joey buck described at the beginning of this article is a perfect example.
Al says that any buck moving in daylight should be vulnerable somewhere along his travel route if a hunter is sharp enough to figure it out. Terrain will tell a smart hunter where this spot is, and wind direction will tell him when to be there.
I will be the first to admit that in some instances a hunter might have multiple trees to choose from when hunting a specific buck during a specific time of the season, but often this is not the case. In my experience, success starts with choosing the right tree for a stand; that one tree where your odds of killing your target buck are best.