September 22, 2010
By Steve Bartylla
The doldrums of an uneventful afternoon vanished at the sound of a snapping branch. Straining in the direction of the sound, I spotted the 3€‚1/2-year-old 10-pointer steadily making his way toward my ambush point.
With a solid 10 minutes of shooting light left, I hoped that there was still ample time for the shot. As his steady approach continued to draw him closer, my confidence was bolstered. Reaching the 20-yard mark, the buck came to a halt, inhaling the odors of estrous scent I'd placed on my way in. The scent wick had done its intended job of luring the buck into a spot where I had a standing shot at him. I came to full draw and settled the pin behind his front shoulders. As I smoothly triggered the release, the shot felt good.
That good feeling changed rapidly as the buck bolted down the opposite side of the steep ridge. Everything felt right with the shot, yet the sound of the shot indicated that something had gone terribly wrong. Straining in the waning light for clues, I spied the freshly severed branch. Sure enough, I'd clipped a small, unseen branch and sent my arrow harmlessly veering off course.
Hunting the big woods can be an intimidating task. Seemingly endless miles of homogenous land combined with an apparent lack of concentrating food sources can leave many hunters scratching their heads. However, even though the hunt just described did not end with the tagging of the 140-plus-inch buck, it does illustrate a good point.
Because there are features in the big woods where buck activity is concentrated, you can find these areas if you understand what to key in on.
Before we continue, I feel I should point something out. Over the years, I've successfully hunted big-woods settings in Alberta, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and, believe it or not, even Iowa. Though I'm certainly not foolish enough to believe I know everything, I feel that I can speak with some degree of intelligence on hunting Northern big-woods bucks.
Conversely, I've never chased bucks in the big woods of the Southern U.S.
In an effort to provide a more encompassing geographic look at this topic, I enlisted the help of Duncan Dobie. Although Duncan is not one to seek credit, the man has been successfully chasing Deep South big-woods bucks for over 40 years. Between the two of us, I believe we can present a well-rounded view of chasing bucks in the big woods.
Also, for the purposes of this story, let's define "big woods." A big-woods tract can be composed of thousands of acres of wooded or cut-over land with little to no open planted areas, or a big-woods tract can be as little as 300 acres adjacent to other blocks of land that are 100 percent wooded. Because of the advent of the use of food plots and good deer management in recent years, it's probably safe to say that true big-woods tracts do not exist in the numbers they once did a few years ago, but there are still plenty of them around in many parts of North America.
In my conversations with Duncan, I wasn't surprised to find that there wasn't a significant difference between Northern deer, Midwestern deer and Southern deer and their habitats (although there are huge differences in weather in the respective regions). In most cases, the majority of deer concentrate in a relatively small percentage of the available habitat.
"That's true," Duncan agreed. "To be successful, you've got to find that percentage of habitat where big bucks are spending most of their time."
FINDING THE EDGE
Obviously then, the first step in taking big-woods bucks lies in locating these pockets of deer. With more land available than could possibly be scouted, one must find ways to narrow the search.
"When first scouting a new area, I gravitate toward water," Duncan revealed. "Creeks, drainages and rivers are where I go first. I look for those heavily used creek crossings and well-used trails. All the while, I'm also looking for big-buck sign."
Because observation scouting isn't often practical in the big woods, hunters have to rely on sign to tell them if a good buck is in the area. "Large scrapes, rubs and big tracks are what I find most helpful," explained Duncan. "I pay particular attention to big tracks. When I find a set in a hot scrape, I try to backtrack his trail to his bedding area. Tracks can tell you so much. Just like Vermont's Larry Benoit used to write about in regard to snow-tracking big bucks in Maine, when you find the track of a 220-plus-pound buck in the Georgia red clay, you know you're onto something special.
"The other way to find his bed is by learning to read the land," Duncan continued. "Most times, he'll be bedding on a nearby ridge. I'm from the old school of thinking that says you don't hunt bedding areas but finding the bedding area is still important."
When you're way back in the woods, on a bottom, and you find that big, musky-smelling scrape, you know the big guy is going to be coming back. If I can find where he's bedding, I then know where he'll be coming from and can set up on him safely in relation to the wind."
Duncan makes several key points that I also find crucial to Northern big-woods success. The first is to focus scouting activities on high-reward features. Water features, including swamp and marsh edges, are also locations that I'll look for to begin my scouting efforts around. Over the years, I've found points of dry land jutting into swamps to be particularly good locations.
Topographical features such as the tips of erosion cuts, ridges, saddles and benches are next on my list of features to investigate. Any one of these features has the ability to focus deer movement through relatively narrow passageways. In a habitat setting where deer can travel seemingly anywhere, anything we can take advantage of can prove beneficial.
"Don't be afraid to get some hip boots or chest waders and check out those swampy areas," Duncan advised. "Big bucks love to hide on little islands in those kinds of areas (both north and south), where the water may be anywhere from 12 inches to several feet deep around them."
I can't stress enough how much Duncan nailed the importance of keying on mature-buck sign. Though I apply this rule in many settings, nowhere is it more important to ignore quantities of sign and focus on quality than in the big woods. To this day, I've yet to kill a big buck on a big-woods hunt when I didn't set up in an area sporting large-buck sign.
If the first step is finding the pockets where big-woods bucks live, beginning by scouting water, swamps, topography and clearcuts gives us good starting points. To fine-tune it further, only focus on hunting areas in the specific locations where big-buck sign is present. With that, we've now cut the big-woods setting down to high-percentage areas and manageable areas.
NAILING FOOD SOURCES
You may have noticed that thus far the topic of food sources has been absent from our discussion on locating bucks. As indicated by the many questions I've received on finding big-woods food sources, a lot of hunters have difficulty with this. Frankly, that's understandable.
The first issue is identifying what big-woods whitetails eat. In the Midwest and Northern regions, acorns, Japanese honeysuckle, grasses, weeds, leaves of berry brambles, leaves of aspen trees, mountain laurel, locust pods and woody browse are some of the more desirable big-woods food sources. With that said, a biologist once told me that it would be easier to create a list of what these animals won't eat, and it would be a relatively short list.
"In the big woods I grew up hunting in Georgia, white oak acorns, red oaks, persimmons, old apple orchards and the browse that's in its first few years of growth in clearcuts all can draw feeding activity," Duncan revealed. "In areas with a lot of mast-producing oaks, a good acorn crop makes it really tough to find where the deer feed. When acorns are lying on the ground everywhere, the deer don't have to concentrate to feed and they can change feeding locations overnight."
Duncan summed up locating feeding areas in the big woods well with one word: tough. This isn't farm country, where food sources are obvious, and an afternoon of observation can easily answer the question of what the hot meal of the moment is.
When determining a feeding area, my first step is to try to find a desirable food source that's in short supply. Pockets of oaks in aspen- and pine-dominated woods and the lone oak ridge that's producing acorns during a poor-mast-production year are good examples. In either case, when the fruit is on the ground, these locations can draw deer like crazy.
In an area of otherwise mature woods, with the production of a bounty of fresh grasses, weeds, berries and browse, a lone clearcut can produce similar results. I like to scout the edges of clearcuts less than 6 years old. They have the potential to be real producers.
Isolated meadows and pockets of Japanese honeysuckle are also worth investigating. In each case, the key is that the food source is in relatively short supply. Because deer crave a diverse diet, the food's limited availability dramatically increases its appeal and concentrated feeding effect.
Of course, if a lone meadow is surrounded by acorn-producing ridges, you know that the deer will be feeding heavily on acorns. However, when the deer get a taste for greens, it will be to your advantage that you just happen to be covering the only major source around. In each case, looking for scat and signs of feeding will provide an answer as to whether or not the deer are hitting it hard.
In areas where it's legal to do so, one can help encourage feeding in specific areas. Frost-seeding meadows with clover is one way. Of course, the grasses and weeds will be far more prevalent than the clover, and the clover's growth will be stunted from the competition. However, over-seeding, annually frost-seeding, and applying low-nitrogen fertilizers will all help give it a fighting chance. Even with that, one must remember that this isn't a cash crop endeavor. This is for deer.
Even if the meadow is 90 percent grasses and weeds and only 10 percent clover, we have accomplished our goals and created a nice draw.
Simply applying a lawn fertilizer to the meadow in the spring and late summer is another trick that can help. In this case, treat no more than an acre area in the vicinity of where the stand will be placed. That helps focus feeding activity near the ambush point.
Speaking of fertilizing, that option also exists for oak trees. Begin by targeting an area where feeding naturally occurs. Then, in the spring of the year, either pound fruit tree spikes or apply a 10-10-10 to 15-15-15 slow-release fertilizer. If you go the granulated option, begin at the drip line -- the outer circle around the tree where the canopy ends -- and apply a moderate amount to within a foot of the trunk.
This doughnut of fertilizer has the ability to boost both the size and quantity of acorns the tree is capable of producing. Annually treating a group of oaks near the stand location can make a positive difference. Deer are attracted to these trees. Although I have no scientific evidence to prove this point, eyewitness accounts from many hunters I have talked to seem to indicate that the fruit of fertilized trees is much sweeter and tastier.
In the states and provinces where baiting is legal, determining food sources requires special considerations. Though hunters can argue both sides of the baiting issue, the fact is that it's a big money generator and is likely here to stay.
Another fact is that it affects deer movement. For those sharing the big woods with other hunters, bait piles popping up randomly akes it extremely difficult to pinpoint feeding activities. Mr. Big may be here today and feeding on a corn or beet pile a mile away tomorrow.
Two options exist for trying to nail feeding patterns in this setting. The first is to find the pockets that baiters don't go to and hunt them.
Because lugging bait long distances is too much work for most baiters, these piles predominately pop up along woods roads and ATV trails. If some form of vehicle can't get to an area, it's a pretty safe bet that it won't have bait piles. Furthermore, because most old bucks realize the dangers of baits, they either visit them only at night or seek refuge in the same unbaited areas we're looking for.
The other option is to cut the buck off before he gets there. Personally, I'd never advocate purposefully setting up within 300 yards of another hunter's bait pile. Luckily, because the old bucks most often hit them after dark, being at least that far away is the best chance of intercepting him during daylight anyway.
In the South, baiting usually is not an issue, because it's illegal in most states. While some large landowners and deer managers do put out supplemental feed in feeders throughout much of the year, they do have to curtail all feeding activity during the legal deer season.
HUNT FRESH BUCKS NOW
A final key to hunting big-woods bucks is the ability to react swiftly to sightings and fresh sign. Unlike farm country deer, which can live within small pockets of cover, big-woods bucks can seemingly go anywhere. Because of this, their patterns often change more frequently and more radically than those of their farmland brethren. This increases the importance of jumping on fresh mature buck sign and sightings now. A week from now may be too late.
"That's absolutely true," agreed Duncan. "Especially when bucks are feeding on acorns. When they are feeding in one area, you need to get in there before the supply is gone or they decide to shift to easier pickings. They'll usually stay in one area for at least several feedings."
In no hunting scenario do I cling to the "three sighting" rule more than here. If I see one mature buck or two separate big guys in the same area twice, the third time I better be there. Though in farm country I'll rarely relocate based on one observation, I'll use one sighting to investigate and shift positions far more often in the big woods. In that case, the deciding factors are how confident I am in the current setup and how good the other area looks. However, if I see the buck again, I guarantee that I'm moving, no matter how good my original stand site looks.
As Duncan and I talked, we both agreed that each buck has his own personality. Duncan even recalled a buck he'd kicked from his same bed numerous times in his very early years of hunting, and I've had similar experiences. With that said, big-woods bucks also typically have larger home ranges and the ability to easily adjust their patterns to pressure. I'm afraid that mature bucks with a high tolerance for disturbance are more often the exception than the rule in big-woods settings.
That places a high premium on keeping disturbances to a minimum when jumping on fresh sign. Carefully picking access routes and either religiously playing the wind or taking full advantage of odor-control techniques is also important. If a mature buck knows you're sitting in a particular tree, the odds of taking him from there are almost nonexistent.
The big woods can be intimidating for good reason. At first glance, it seems that deer can be nearly anywhere and that virtually nothing exists to focus their activities. However, these features do exist and can be found. After that, the challenge becomes finding a cluster of mature-buck sign around this area. Large rubs and consistently used scrapes or trails sporting big tracks all indicate potential spots in which to set up. Furthermore, keep an eye pealed for in-woods funnels, such as swamp peninsulas, pinch points between lakes, and topographical features.