December 10, 2010
In deer camps everywhere, you hear all sorts of stuff put forth as "fact." And some of it really does have at least a ring of truth to it.
"It's better to be lucky than good."
OK, so it's best to be both. But I guess we'd have to admit that when it comes to bagging a mega-buck, the smart money is on the guy whose fanny pack contains more good fortune than anything else.
"You can't shoot a big one while you're sitting on the couch."
True again -- unless perhaps the living room window is open, offering a clear view of the grain silo that local monster buck regularly checks for loose corn.
"If you want to kill a trophy whitetail in the morning, don't hunt around an open food source. Those are strictly afternoon spots."
Now wait just a minute. I used to assume this little nugget was true, too. But after nearly a half-century in the deer woods, I finally learned otherwise.
Many of the bucks I've tagged in recent years have been shot in direct contradiction to that last "fact." Indeed, of the 11 bucks I've taken in the past two seasons of taping hunts for North American Whitetail Television presented by Arctic Cat, 10 fell in the morning -- and every one of those was either in or adjacent to a feeding area. That suggests a pattern worth time being spent investigating.
Yes, we've been told the only reliably good time of day to hunt mature bucks in open feeding areas is during the afternoon. To be more specific, if it's going to happen, it most likely will be right at last light.
Few other truisms in deer hunting are as widely believed or as religiously followed, and maybe that's understandable. To see why this afternoon-only mindset is so entrenched, let's look at how the average whitetail hunter decides where to put his stand and when to hunt it.
Driving around the countryside, he sees more deer in fields and food plots in late afternoon than in early morning. So right off, he makes two assumptions: (1) the spot in which he sees the most deer is the best place to hunt; and (2) afternoon is clearly the time to be there.
If the guy isn't convinced of it at that point, after a few hunts he probably will be. He watches a good feeding area in the afternoon, and sure enough, he sees deer almost every time. Occasionally he might even see a good buck coming out at last light. The hunter is on the right track.
Sooner or later, he decides to try his luck in the morning. The result? He sees only a doe or two as dawn breaks, and a few minutes after sunup even they drift back into the woods. With the light growing brighter and all deer having vanished, the hunter soon vacates his stand. This really is only an afternoon spot, just as he'd suspected.
There's a fair chance he's wrong.
I'd occasionally shot bucks while hunting around feeding areas in the morning, but it never struck me as a real pattern. Then, the last week of October 2008, I started coming around to the truth.
Cameraman Mike Clerkin and I were bowhunting a farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Our host was Kenny Schrader, owner-operator of Schrader's Bridgetown Manor. His multi-species outfitting operation has access to miles of farm fields, swamps and hardwood timber.
In our scouting, guide Richie Lindsay pointed us toward a huge standing bean field adjacent to a swampy creek bottom. It looked great, and there were a lot of big rubs and tracks. But with the weather warm and peak rut still weeks away, the first few days of our hunt were slow. All we saw were does, fawns and immature bucks.
Then the weather changed. On Halloween morning we awoke to the first solid frost of the season. Mike and I eased into a ground blind on the edge of a woods finger poking into the beans. We'd hunted there the previous afternoon and had watched several young bucks approach our Carry-Lite decoy. Nothing big had showed up, but we knew the weather change would help our odds.
Sure enough, as the impending sunrise began to illuminate the fog hanging over the beans, we saw bucks -- one of them big -- trailing does far in the distance. The deer were moving back to the swamp after a night of frolicking in a field farther south.
Just before sunup, I crashed my rattling antlers together as hard as I could. A minute later, I repeated the sequence. Then we waited. Suddenly, 300 yards out, the sizeable rack and thick neck of a mature buck poked up over the horizon. He'd heard the fake buck fight, and he'd spotted the decoy standing in front of the blind.
The mature 6-pointer ultimately walked to within 17 yards of where Mike and I sat. When the deer finally turned, I drew my Mathews DXT. Seconds later, a 75-grain Muzzy punched into the rear of the rib cage and angled forward into the vitals. Our bull-necked trophy had an estimated live weight of around 250 pounds.
As I began to reflect on that exciting hunt, I at first dismissed it as the sort of thing that occasionally just happens if you hunt enough. We were in a good area, the weather had turned sharply in our favor, the local bucks were itching to start rutting and we rattled and decoyed in exactly the right spot. The food wasn't really a factor.
Or was it? Over the next four weeks, I saw many more examples of morning success in and around feeding areas:
November 15: Bowhunting a ranch being offered for sale by Kansas Whitetail Properties, we arrowed a beautiful 10-pointer around 9:30 a.m. The buck was out cruising for does on a small alfalfa plot, but once he spot
ted our decoy, it was all over.
November 18: On the fourth morning of gun season on my own land in northern Missouri, we watched from our tree stands as an old 10-pointer walked a thin line of timber between a creek and a recently cut crop field. My Thompson/Center Pro Hunter dropped him right at sunup. No doubt this guy also was out in search of female companionship.
November 21: While rifle hunting with Two Rivers Outfitters in South Dakota, Mike and I got on the trail of a massive buck outfitter Gary Snook had seen looking for does in an alfalfa field early in the morning. Mike and I took off after the buck on foot and finally shot him on the river's edge. By then it was late morning, but the 15-pointer was still out snooping around only 100 yards or so from the field.
November 26: An hour into the first morning of a rut rifle hunt with Trophies Plus Outfitters in northeastern Wyoming, we watched as a mature 4x4 worked a scrape under a big tree just below the lip of an alfalfa field. Guide Skip Peterson ranged the big deer at 230 yards, and in short order we had that buck in the back of the Arctic Cat.
December 18: Late on the fourth morning of a wind-plagued rifle hunt at Wayne Kirk's QB Ranch in North Texas, Mike and I were glassing from a ridge when I spotted a buck in a wheat plot more than a mile away. Cranking the spotting scope all the way up, I could see the buck was mature. We bailed off the ridge, slipped through the thick cedars to a spot just downwind of the plot -- and immediately saw the buck walking right toward us, heading back to bed. The shot was only about 30 yards.
That was a wild seven weeks of hunting and quite a run on good bucks. And the streak continued in 2009, with morning food-plot successes in central Kansas (October 18, at the Buck Forage research facility), northern Missouri (November 17, with Joe Ream and Sean Salisbury of Blackbird Creek Outfitters and S&K Food Plots, respectively), South Texas (December 17, at McAllen Ranch) and northeastern Mexico (December 29, at Rancho las Cuevas). The Kansas buck was taken roughly a month before the peak of breeding there, the Missouri buck right during the heart of the rut and the Texas and Mexico bucks slightly past the peak time for breeding in the Rio Grande region.
A WAITING GAME
You might have noticed that on only a few of these hunts did the shot come within the first half-hour of legal light. That's a point worth stressing, because it's counterintuitive. Clearly the best time of the afternoon to catch a mature buck in a feeding area is right at last light, so common sense says the crack of dawn is the best time to do so in the morning. But that's not been my experience.
No matter how sneaky you are in getting to your stand, big bucks usually will head back into the thick stuff before day breaks. Some even will be in their beds by then. And if you're not ultra-careful, you'll bump off any stragglers as you make your way there in the darkness.
Sure, we hope to catch a big buck lollygagging at first light, whether he's looking for a doe, tending one or grabbing one last bite. But what we need to focus on is the next wave of movement around the food source. If bucks are behaving somewhat naturally (that is, not being fully nocturnal, due to hunting pressure and/or weather), from late pre-rut on through peak breeding there's a good chance of seeing one well after dawn.
And by "well after," I mean as late as 11 a.m. So this really isn't an ideal game for the guy who can hunt for only 30 minutes before hustling off to work or school. If you're going to hunt this pattern seriously, plan on making a full morning of it.
If your setup has you worried about the chances of bumping deer on the way in, it might make sense to wait until you have a bit of daylight before going there. Move slowly, be quiet and glass constantly. If all goes well, you'll make it into position right after the last deer have moved off on their own.
The buck activity I've noticed suggests they retreat to their beds (or at least more secure rutting areas) around first light, then eventually wander back out to check again for does around the feeding area. A mature buck wanting to check the feeding area for does might not walk right into it; to the contrary, he's more apt to stand in cover and scan the opening before stepping into the clear.
Depending on whether or not he sees anything worth investigating, he might duck back into the brush, or perhaps walk the edge for at least a short distance. If he encounters an active scrape along that edge, he might well work or at least sniff it. Regardless, he's now out in a fairly open spot, and that greatly improves your chances of at least seeing him, whether he offers a shot or not.
It's tempting to put your stand or blind where you have a great view of the food source, and that often works. But the more exposed the feeding area is, the better off you probably will be setting up where you can see into the surrounding cover. That's where most daytime buck activity usually will be, even during the heart of the rut.
As with any other ambush, a morning setup in or near a feeding area must be hunted only when conditions are right. This is particularly true in bow season, when mistakes of all types are magnified.
Playing the wind is critical, both during your approach and while on stand. Along with taking the usual scent-control precautions, put yourself as far as you reasonably can from where deer are most likely to travel and feed.
Setting up away from the action doesn't sound like a recipe for bowhunting success. But when hunting feeding areas in the morning, it can be -- as long as you add one key piece of gear to your setup. That item? A buck decoy.
Remember: we're mostly going to hunt this morning pattern when bucks are at least somewhat focused on the rut. That happens to be prime time for decoying. Whether you rattle and call over a decoy setup or simply let the fake deer work its visual magic, there's a good chance any unoccupied buck cruising the food source will investigate. Be sure your decoy is free of human odor, and try to position it so the buck doesn't catch a whiff of you as he approaches.
And here's another helpful hint for morning hunts: If possible, don't set up the decoy until moments before legal light arrives. Otherwise, you might have a big buck walk in, check out the decoy and leave before you can shoot. It's happened to me.
For many reasons -- not the least of which is having much better light for trailing and recovering a shot deer -- I'd rather get one in the morning than in the afternoon. I've never really been a "morning person," but based on recent successes, every fall I now find it a little easier not to hit the "snooze" button at 4 a.m. Tag a trophy on a field or food plot while the day is still young, and you just might become an earlier riser yourself.