Killing Mature Bucks Requires a Learning Curve
June 21, 2016
The yearling 6-pointer couldn't have picked a worse spot in which to bed. Or so I thought. Just 20 yards from my stand he plopped down, facing right at my tree, making it all but impossible for me to move without being detected.
So for over an hour I sat as motionless as possible. I'd waited years to hunt this stand for the first time, and I didn't want to ruin my hunt by letting a yearling buck bust me.
Finally, the sounds of deer running through dry leaves and brush caught both his and my attention. A doe and fawn ran up and stopped less than 20 feet from the bedded buck. As the new arrivals turned to look back in the direction from which they'd come, the 6-pointer rose to his feet.
He didn't seem a bit concerned with whatever had sent the doe and fawn running to him — instead, he focused on making a pass at a potential new girlfriend.
The young buck gave a couple of grunts and stepped toward the doe, cracking some brush in the process. Those sounds reached the ears of another buck I hadn't yet spotted, and he quickly began closing the distance toward the three deer in front of me. They all froze and turned to watch the new buck make his way toward them. One look was all I needed to confirm that this was the buck I'd been waiting for. With the other deer focused on him, I turned on the video camera and prepared for the shot.
I came to full draw before the big buck entered my first shooting lane. As I did, the doe darted straight away from me. This caused the buck to also turn and offer me a quick shot as he quartered away toward the departing doe. I released the arrow as if on autopilot and watched as my lighted nock disappeared into the buck's chest.
I stood in silence, trying to watch the buck as long as possible, as deer were vacating the scene in every direction. He was quickly swallowed up by the thick cover, so I sat down in an attempt to control a bad case of the shakes. I hung up my bow and intently stared in the direction the buck had just run. A couple minutes later the buck stumbled from behind a multi-trunked locust tree and fell to his final resting place just 60 yards from my stand. There would be no blood-trailing this one.
This hunt story is pretty short — if I stick to the day of the kill. To tell the "rest of the story," however, takes a bit longer. You see, I actually got trail camera photos of this buck for five summers before harvesting him last fall on the very first day I ever hunted him. Yeah, you read that right: I watched this buck for five years before ever trying to shoot him.
THE STORY BEGINS
It started in August 2011, when I captured a trail camera photo of a young buck sporting six points on each side of his rack. The youngster was just a 2 1/2-year-old and still a long way from being one I'd like to shoot. Still, that young rack showed a world of potential, so the following summer I intentionally set out to try to get his photo and confirm he was still alive. Mission accomplished. In 2012 he was 3 1/2 and sported a 14-pont rack. Still, he was a long way from being a buck I'd target.
As I've detailed in other articles, I feel 3 1/2s are be some of the most vulnerable to hunting pressure. They're running all over, doing a fair amount of breeding, while carrying racks big enough that few hunters will pass them. They also lack the cunning and caution they'd have just a year later. I hoped this buck would be one of those that beat the odds.
WATCHING HIM GROW
During summer 2013, I was eager to see if this buck had indeed survived the fall before, when he'd been 3 1/2. By this time I knew where to place my cameras to get his photo and soon found that he'd indeed survived. He now had a rack that would get him shot by just about any hunter he might encounter.
At 4 1/2, the buck had 13 points and would score around 170. I confirmed the size of his rack the following spring, when I found and measured one of his shed antlers. At that time I also started getting stands in place to hunt him.
In July 2014, I began getting the buck's photos as soon as I put out my cameras. He'd grown some and was now around 180 inches at age 5 1/2. I had a pretty good idea how to kill him and had stands in place to do so. Even though he was the biggest buck I knew I could hunt that fall, I elected to wait another year. I desperately want to arrow another 200-inch whitetail, and I thought that with a good growth spurt, this one might make it to that coveted score.
While I had stands in place specifically for this buck, I didn't hunt them at all; I didn't want to educate him to where they were and possibly change his travel patterns. Instead, I put some trail cameras in place to learn more about his fall travels. Then I stayed away.
READY TO MOVE IN
As summer 2015 approached, I was anxious to get the year's first photos of the buck and see if he'd indeed put on more antler than he'd grown the previous year. I was a bit disappointed to see that not only was his rack a bit smaller, he'd also lost points. He'd always had a 6x6 typical frame with a forked tine or two. This year for the first time he had a 5x5 main frame with both G-2 tines forked. His gross score would also be a few inches less than the year before. Of course, he was still huge.
"As a whitetail hunter, I've continually raised the bar. Today my preference is to hunt bucks I've watched grow up and have history with."
As hunting season drew near, I had to decide whether to go after the buck or roll the dice one more year. Once again, he was the biggest buck I knew of in any of my hunting areas. I finally decided to go for it.
Now, here's where it gets really interesting. Within this buck's entire home range, I had only one small property on which to hunt him. It consisted of a small, wooded draw through a farm field. Hunting pressure on surrounding lands forced several does into this draw, where they would bed each day if undisturbed. Trail cameras told me the buck I was after was seldom in this draw, however. The one exception was during the rut.
My photos from the previous few years showed this buck would start visiting the draw each year on Nov. 6, give or take a day or two, and not visit it after about Nov. 20. Between those dates, he'd be in there several times each fall.
I had two tree stand setups that would allow me to hunt this property with most wind directions. But as luck would have it, the wind direction was wrong for me to hunt either stand last Nov. 6-7. On the morning of Nov. 8, however, it was perfect. That morning I slipped in and the hunt described at the beginning of this article unfolded, and I had my tag on a buck I'd watched for five years. And for the second year in a row, my very first hunt for a specific buck had resulted in my killing him.
Just over 20 years ago, my first-ever article appeared in North American Whitetail. It was titled "How to Beat a Whitetail's Memory," and in it I described how a buck remembers past events or experiences to keep him safe.
For example, if he responds to rattling and it almost costs him his life before he escapes, he'll be a lot harder to rattle in a second time. By the time a buck is mature, he's accumulated an arsenal of experiences to help him survive. His memory is one of his best survival tools. To improve your odds of killing him, you have to throw him something he hasn't seen yet, such as placing your stand in a location where he's never encountered a hunter.
With the story of last season's buck serving as the perfect example, I'd like to revisit the "memory factor" from another angle. You see, just as a buck will use his memory as a defense to keep him safe, we as hunters should use our memories to put us in position to kill him.
It of course seems obvious, but we simply need to figure out "when" and "where" a buck will be, and then wait for him to show. Too often we're hunting fresh sign and in doing so are hunting where a buck recently was, in hopes he'll soon return. Sometimes this works, but with mature bucks it often doesn't. If it were that easy, everyone would have a wall full of big ones.
Let's dissect the details of my 2015 hunt and see how I was able to put myself into position to take that 6 1/2-year-old 179 6/8-inch 12-pointer. When I first got his photos at 2 1/2, I became intrigued with what he might look like as a mature buck. So the next year I made an effort to get his photo again, to confirm he was still alive. Once he survived past the fall in which he was 3 1/2, I knew he had a great chance to get to 5 1/2.
That spring I got stands in place to kill him, even though realizing I might not hunt them for a couple seasons. The key here is that if he'd made a huge jump in growth at 4 1/2, I wanted to have stands in place, and I didn't want to be prepping them in late summer or early fall. I'd pretty much determined by this point that I could hunt him only on that one small property with the wooded draw. My margin for error would be small.
When the buck's 4 1/2-year-old rack wasn't big enough to make me target him at that point, but showed potential to grow even bigger, I made two important moves that would eventually help me tag him. First, I decided that I'd stay entirely out of the draw during hunting season that fall. The last thing I wanted was for the buck to encounter danger there.
The next thing I did was place a couple of high-quality trail cameras with fresh batteries and high-volume SD cards to monitor the property all fall in my absence. I had complete faith in my Reconyx cameras to remain in working order without my needing to check them.
I learned long ago to use only dependable equipment. Cheap cameras are a waste of time and often do more harm than good, because they need to be constantly monitored to make sure they're still working and have good batteries.
That fall, when the buck was 4 1/2, I began gathering photos to tell me about his use of the only property on which I could hunt him. The next fall, when he was 5 1/2 and I'd again decided not to target him, I did the very same thing.
Those two seasons I never stepped onto the small property to hunt. Still, I gathered enough information to tell me this buck was only on it during the rut, presumably to check the group of does that often bedded there. To be more specific, he'd start visiting around Nov. 6 and be there several more times between then and Nov. 20. I knew I had a two-week window in which to kill him. I remembered what had happened in years past and used these details to be in the right place at the right time.
One problem I had to deal with on this property was that accessing the stands across the open agricultural fields was a bit tricky during daylight. So my plan was simple: I'd hunt one of these two stands every morning the wind would allow Nov. 6-20. I'd enter my stand before first light, hoping to remain unseen by deer. If I couldn't exit without spooking any, I'd stay all day. Again, I didn't get a huntable wind until Nov. 8, when I slipped in and filled my tag.
As a whitetail hunter, I've continually raised the bar. Today my preference is to hunt bucks I've watched grow up and have history with. I want them to be at least 5 1/2 when I go after them, though the right 4 1/2 can change my mind.
It's been more than a decade since I drew my bow on a buck I'd never seen. I have little interest in deer I know nothing about. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that — it's just not for me. I want that long history with a buck, because my memory of past events is what helps put me in place to kill them.
The trophies I took the last two seasons weren't on land I own or lease. They were "real world" bucks in every sense of the word, living in heavily hunted areas. As mentioned, I only had 10 acres of cover to hunt the buck I shot in 2015. By using my memory of what he'd done in previous years, I made it happen.
Many deer hunters are looking to buy a shortcut to success. In reality, we carry our most important hunting "tool" with us at all times. Our memory is a key component that can take any hunter's success to a new level.
Don Higgins is an experienced trophy hunter and has contributed many feature articles to North American Whitetail over the past 20 years. To purchase his books or learn more about his services, visit: higginsoutdoors.com