September 22, 2010
By Don Higgins
Even though it has been more than 25 years, I still remember the hunt on which I killed my first whitetail like it was yesterday. It was Nov. 16, 1979, and I was hunting with my dad on opening morning of the Illinois firearms season. It was my third deer hunting season, and at 16 years of age patience was not one of my virtues.
I was ready for my luck to change. I wanted to kill a deer. I didn't care if it was a doe, just as long as I finally tagged a deer. The deer hunting gods must have thought I'd suffered enough. Barely an hour after sunrise, a nice 9-point buck walked down a field edge near my stand. He was soon wearing my tag. A well-placed slug from Grandpa's Remington shotgun dropped the buck, and at last I had entered the ranks of successful deer hunters.
Now let's fast-forward 25 years to Dec. 1, 2004. On that fateful day, I was fortunate enough to tag a monster whitetail grossing 214 inches after seeing the buck a total of four different times that season from four different tree stands. The story of this buck was detailed in the January 2006 issue of North American Whitetail. It was my second mature buck of the season and the third season in a row in which I had tagged two good bucks. In Illinois, hunters are allowed two bucks per season, all weapons combined. The gross scores of the six bucks I took over that three-year period average a fraction over 155 inches, and all were killed by bow.
During the 25-year period mentioned above, I went from the greenest beginner tagging my first deer to a bowhunter who finally started realizing some consistent success tagging mature bucks. It has been a long and enjoyable journey, and I have learned a lot of lessons along the way. Most of those lessons were just little things. But when compounded with each other, they made a significant difference in my whitetail hunting success. On the other hand, there have been a couple of lessons learned that have instantly made me a better hunter.
When I look back and try to analyze my hunting career, I can identify two distinct times when drastic improvements were made in my hunting success. In this article I am going to attempt to share those lessons learned with you. I like to refer to them as "giant steps" taken toward consistently being able to kill giant bucks.
GIANT STEP 1 -- THE WIND
I was around 20 years old when I first met Alan Foster. Al was a regular contributor to North American Whitetail in the 1980s, and we both worked for the same company at the time. With our shared passion for deer hunting, we soon became good friends and our daily conversations at work nearly always revolved around hunting big bucks. Al is 10 years my senior, and he was killing good bucks on a regular basis when I was still dreaming about it.
I didn't just trade hunting stories with Al, though. I saw a great opportunity and I seized it. I figured Al could surely teach me a thing or two about hunting mature bucks, and so I did two things: I listened to what he said and really took it in and tried to digest it. That was a good move on my part because my buck sightings instantly increased.
The key lesson learned from those first conversations concerned using the wind when hunting mature bucks. I was smart enough to know that you don't sit in your stand while the wind is blowing your scent toward the trail where you expect the deer to be traveling.
But Al took hunting the wind to another level for me. He explained how I could use the wind to my advantage rather than just trying to work around it. My initial experience after following his advice caused my success to immediately take a giant leap forward.
Now, after a couple of decades, using the wind instead of dealing with it has become second nature to me.
It's no secret that a buck's greatest defense is his sense of smell. A whitetail's scenting ability is beyond what most of us can comprehend, but this is the first thing that we as hunters must grasp. We also need to understand how a mature buck will react to human scent, especially a fresh stream of human scent radiating downwind of your body. A mature buck will react to this scent stream the same way that you would react if I jumped out from behind a tree and screamed "B-O-O!" as you were walking in the dark to your stand.
"FLIRTING" WITH THE WIND
Serious buck hunters need to understand that a buck reacts to scents much the same way that we react to sights and sounds. A buck's nose is as important to him as our eyes and ears are to us. You need to not only believe this but also accept it and remember it at all times. As hunters, we can never underestimate a mature buck's scenting ability and how he will react to our scent. At the very least, one whiff of human scent and the hunt is over from that stand for the day (and very possibly forever).
I hope you appreciate how important a buck's nose is to his survival and how important it is for you to address this issue in your hunting approach. A lot of hunters who do take the wind seriously make the mistake of expecting a buck to be waltzing around the woods with the wind at his back. That makes about as much sense as you driving to your hunting area with your eyes closed.
You might get lucky once in a while with this approach, but success will never be consistent. Mature bucks are not comfortable moving when the wind is not to their advantage. I am not saying that they never do it. It does happen, and bucks get killed that way occasionally. However, a far better approach is to hunt a situation in which a buck has the opportunity to move with a wind that appears to be at his advantage.
The best way that I've ever heard it put is this: Hunt a wind that is almost right for the buck and almost wrong for you. Let me explain this in a different way. Don't expect a buck to be walking past your stand with the wind at your complete advantage.
When you hang a stand, you should have an idea of where the bucks will be coming from and where they will be going. A good example might be from a bedding area toward a feeding location in the evening. Let's say that you've found a travel corridor between a bedding area and a field where the deer are feeding.
Let's say that you've placed a stand along this route, preferably in a funnel. A lot of hunters would hunt this stand on evenings w
hen the wind is blowing from the bedding area toward the food source or with a crosswind blowing from the trail toward their stand.
ALMOST RIGHT FOR HIM, ALMOST WRONG FOR YOU
While this would certainly keep any deer from winding you, a mature buck is not likely to walk by under such conditions. In most cases, he will hold tight to the thick bedding cover until after dark. To hunt this setup effectively, you want to have a wind quartering from the feeding location toward the bedding area.
This way, a buck can walk toward the feeding area with the wind at his nose. You simply need to be set up on the correct side of the trail so that the quartering wind is carrying your scent almost parallel to the trail but also slightly away from it. There is no doubt that hunting such a setup is often a case of flirting with disaster.
Swirling and inconsistent winds can give you away without you realizing it. You have to be certain of the exact wind direction needed for each stand that you hang, and you have to be willing to bail out and leave if things get questionable. Again, things should be almost right for the buck and almost wrong for you. A slight switch in wind direction can easily make things totally right for the buck and totally wrong for you. In that case, you have absolutely no chance of success.
Here's another tip to keep in mind when using the wind to your advantage. Many times a buck will travel the downwind edge of heavy cover, even when there is a well-used trail within the cover. By staying on the downwind edge, he is able to walk with a quartering wind or a crosswind and scent everything within the cover. This not only keeps him safe from hunters but also allows him to find hot does. I've seen this happen many times with mature bucks. Because of what I've learned, I now routinely set stands to take advantage of bucks walking along the downwind edge of cover, especially during the rut.
HANG YOUR TREESTANDS HIGH
I've also noticed that mature bucks following tree lines in open country will generally be on the downwind side of the line of cover they are following. This allows them to scent anything that might be in the cover of the tree line while using their eyes to cover the open terrain in the other direction. It took me a while to figure out how to hunt such conditions. It seemed impossible when the good bucks were always on the downwind side of the only cover that I could hide in.
I finally figured out that I just had to get high enough in the tree so that my scent would blow over the top of any bucks walking the downwind side of the cover. It works perfectly as long as the breeze is strong enough to push your scent out and away from your location a good distance before it drifts down to the ground. In fact, I have killed a few good bucks that were actually downwind of my location, but they couldn't wind me because my scent was blowing over their heads.
If you are not using the wind to your advantage while hunting mature whitetails, I can assure you that you are not seeing or shooting as many good bucks as you could be. This is true no matter where you hunt. As you head to the woods this season, always be aware of what the wind is doing. Ask yourself if a buck would feel comfortable walking past your stand under the current conditions. Don't expect him to commit suicide. Hunt situations in which the wind is almost right for him and almost wrong for you and see what happens.
GIANT STEP 2: LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
When I changed my methods and started placing my stands so that I could use the wind and hunt it to my advantage, my buck sightings and filled tags immediately increased. I began averaging about one good opportunity a season at a mature buck. Some years I would complete the task at hand and tag him, while other times I experienced blown opportunities by missing the shot or making some other mistake.
Then I started thinking about how I could get more opportunities at mature bucks. Over and over again, I mentally reviewed everything I had done with regard to my hunting through the years. I was convinced that my hunting tactics and approach were fundamentally sound. Finally I realized that I was not spending enough quality time hunting good properties. I always had a number of places to hunt, and I moved around a lot in order to keep my stands fresh.
Even so, I hunted some places that were a lot better than others. Some stands and some properties could always be counted on to offer more mature buck sightings. The second giant step that I took in my hunting career came when it finally dawned on me that I needed to spend as much of my hunting time as possible on better properties where I could expect to encounter mature bucks.
I studied each of my hunting areas and pulled out of any that had not produced at the level I had come to expect. I then sought more hunting areas away from other hunters where I thought it was possible to encounter giant bucks.
Soon after realizing that time spent on lesser properties was time wasted, and soon after I began concentrating on hunting better properties, I began seeing and killing mature bucks on a regular basis. Today, I routinely pass up more than a dozen legitimate shooting opportunities at bucks scoring over 140 inches each season. To me, that is a giant step from a few years ago, when I used to average one opportunity a year at a mature buck!
What it all boils down to is seclusion. A mature buck is not going to spend many daylight hours on a property that he knows is being hunted. The key words in that sentence are that he knows. He will seek out a sanctuary to bed in, and that is where he will be during most of the hours that you can legally hunt him.
When I seek out hunting properties, I am like a mature buck. I don't want to deal with other hunters. I look for properties that other hunters overlook. Whenever possible, I try to get exclusive permission to hunt those properties, and I now spend all of my hunting time on those places. It doesn't have to be a big property, either. Having 5 or 10 acres of cover all to yourself is much better than sharing 100 acres with another hunter.
DO NOT DISTURB!
When you are able to obtain hunting permission on such properties, you have to be extra careful to maintain their appeal as sanctuaries to the local bucks. Stomping through the hearts of theses areas, as many other hunters are prone to do on other properties, will have you sitting in no better position than they are. You have to get your stands in position long before the season opens and only hunt the edges. Leave the heart of the property for the deer.
They'll feel secure there and continue to use it. And you'll be in a much better position to shoot them as they enter or leave the area or wander too far from its core. Any other approach is flirting with disaster, and it will eventually cost you by ruining the property.
So there you have it, the two most important steps that I have learned in 25 years of chasing trophy whitetails. Spend your hunting time on quality properties without putting pressure on them and learn to play the wind instead of fighting it. Mastering either of these steps is something that i
s not likely to happen overnight. It will take some time and effort to find such properties and a little experience to learn to hunt the wind.
Even so, you should start seeing an increase in mature buck sightings right away, and this should continue as you gain more experience. Hunting mature whitetails is a continuous learning process. Most of the lessons are small ones that will improve your success a little at a time. But when that rare opportunity to take a giant step forward presents itself, it is best to pay close attention. The right giant step just might lead to a giant trophy whitetail!