In the world of professional sports, champions leave nothing to chance. Long before game day arrives, champions secure an advantage by thoroughly scouting their opponent, studying tendencies and carefully identifying any weaknesses — however slight — that might be exploited at a critical moment.
As deer hunters, we need to adopt a similar mindset if we hope to find consistent success on mature whitetails. A buck that lives to 4€‰½, 5€‰½ or older is truly the master of his domain and knows the playing field far better than any hunter.
In a sense, a mature buck is already a "defending champion" with several hunting season titles to his credit. And that leaves hunters with the daunting task of beating veteran bucks at a game they have already won several times.
Just as a pro sports team will use every available tool in the quest for victory, so should we. And if you aren't already including deer attractants in your buck-hunting arsenal, you are ignoring a critical asset that could be pivotal to your success.
"There's so many [attractants] out there, and most of them work," said Tevis McCauley, owner of Whitetail Heaven Outfitters. "But one thing is certain — they don't work if you don't use them."
The term "deer attractants" is a catchall phrase that includes a wide variety of products, from mineral supplements to scents to food. Each variety of attractant is another tool in the toolbox, and which one to use depends largely on timing.
Whitetail Heaven offers free-range, trophy whitetail hunts across tens of thousands of acres in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. Clients take dozens of bucks in the 150-160-inch class annually, including several that meet or exceed the mythical 200-inch mark. McCauley said attractants play a key role in his operation's success as part of Whitetail Heaven's year-round scouting and hunting strategy.
From March to September, for example, mineral supplements are the most important attractant used at Whitetail Heaven because they allow McCauley to meet the nutritional needs of deer while also drawing them in front of his trail cameras.
"[Minerals] are probably the most economical way to take an inventory of the bucks you have on your property and learn what kind of deer density you have," McCauley said.
As an added bonus, the calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and sodium in quality mineral supplements such as Rack-Up Trophy Class from Evolved Habitats helps bucks maximize antler growth and assists does during pregnancy and lactation.
"Bucks really start hammering the minerals about the time they start growing their new antlers," McCauley said, "and then we notice that the does really start hammering those minerals right before they are about to give birth and right through the whole period they are nursing."
Mineral sites and trail cameras go hand in glove, and ideal locations include agricultural field edges, hardwood ridges, forest clearings and anywhere multiple deer trails intersect. Once established, deer will return to mineral sites repeatedly, and sites can be kept active simply by "freshening" them with additional minerals every month or so.
Making the Shift
Although minerals are a great scouting tool, they aren't the most effective attractant for in-season use because deer change their behavior as their nutritional needs change. And come fall, deer gradually shift their focus from mineral sites and high-protein food sources such as soybean plants to foods with higher fat and/or carbohydrate content, such as acorns and corn.
Whitney Fouts, co-owner at Wicked Outfitters in Lacygne, Kan., uses a variety of food-based attractants such as Acorn Rage and Fall Feast Crush from Wildgame Innovations throughout the hunting season. By experimenting with various products placed in front of trail cameras, hunters can determine which varieties work best in their area.
"I want to know what my deer like and what they don't — what they are going to smell from a mile away that makes them want to come in," Fouts said.
Pat Reeve, co-host of Driven with Pat & Nicole on Outdoor Channel, said food-based attractants have been critical to success on numerous hunts in the expansive, boreal forests of Saskatchewan, where deer densities are low and there are no concentrated natural food sources.
"You've got a massive area there and there's nothing to make that deer come to you," Reeve said. "They can go anywhere, so you've got to give them a reason."
Reeve's favorite "go-to" attractant is Evolved's Dried Molasses Dirt Bag, which was developed in partnership with Driven TV. Reeve said one of his favorite things about Dirt Bag is the fact it looks like dirt — making it almost invisible in the woods and not easily recognized by competing hunters.
Yet at the same time, Dirt Bag has a sweet molasses aroma and is enhanced with Evolved's exclusive Glo-Cote additive that emits an ultraviolet glow and is visible to deer but not humans.
"I've hunted new stands where I put it out and hunted the same day, and they notice it," Reeve said. "Even though it looks like dirt, they pick it out."
Set Up Your Shot
When it comes to hunting success, the use of attractants really serves two purposes. The first, and most obvious, is concentrating deer in specific areas of your hunting property. But second, and more important, is the advantage attractants can offer in helping you maintain maximum concealment while positioning target bucks for ideal shots.
Any experienced deer hunter knows the first deer seen on a hunt are typically fawns, young bucks and does. Mature bucks have an annoying habit of lurking just out of sight, often making their appearance on the very edge of shooting light.
That being the case, savvy hunters know they must be careful to avoid spooking "non-target" deer if they hope to get a shot at one of the big boys. And that's where McCauley believes attractants can be doubly helpful as long as they are properly deployed.
One of the biggest mistakes hunters make with attractants, McCauley said, is pouring a pile out on the ground directly in front of the stand where the hunter's movements are easily detected.
"When you put that right in front of the stand, you are going to get picked off by one of those younger deer or one of the first does that shows up," he said. "Too many people end up blowing their cover before the hunt really ever starts."
The ideal setup is to find a location where you have a clear shot at deer as they approach and/or leave the attractant but are somewhat shielded from your view while feeding. This helps early-arriving deer feel secure and also boosts the confidence of larger, late-arriving bucks when they show up to find a herd of contentedly feeding deer at the bait.
Another trick Fouts likes to use when placing attractants near her clients' stands is to pour the products on the ground in a line rather than in a single pile. A line not only allows multiple animals to feed at the same time but also gives her the ability to "guide" the deer into an ideal quartering-away shooting position as they emerge from the cover and feed their way down the line in relation to the stand location.
When using attractants while hunting from a ground blind, Reeve has discovered that borrowing tactics he learned from baited bear hunts can really help seal the deal on mature bucks. For example, Reeve likes to place logs parallel to the attractant relative to his position because he knows that, like bears, deer would rather not stand over the top of the logs while eating.
As a result, this is typically going to result in a perfect broadside or quartering-away opportunity for hunters who are patient enough to allow bucks to come in and feed before taking the shot.
Late Can Be Great
During the peak of the rut, when bucks are more concerned with breeding than feeding, the effectiveness of food-based attractants can be spotty. If a hot doe stops by for a bite to eat with a mature buck in tow, you just might hit the jackpot. But otherwise, you might be in for a long, boring sit.
After the rut, however, hunting over food-based attractants can be absolutely dynamite as bucks seek quality food sources to refuel depleted energy reserves and prepare for the long, cold winter. During this portion of the season, McCauley said hunters would do well to watch for approaching cold fronts. And the worse the weather, the better the buck hunting.
"Deer sense weather better than the best weathermen in the country," McCauley said. "I know it, because we run 500 trail cameras, and an hour or two before a snowstorm every deer is going to be out on a corn pile. I've seen some of the biggest bucks show up on the nastiest days when it's either pouring rain or spitting snow — the kind of day when most hunters don't go to the woods."
Hunt Smart, Hunt Hard
As every champion knows, there is no shortcut to success. Effort precedes results, and the race is not always to the swift but to those who keep going.
This deer season, put together a comprehensive hunting strategy that includes thorough scouting, solid stand selection, super scent control and stealthy entry and exit routes to and from the woods. Then, add some quality deer attractants to the mix and stick with your game plan until your investment pays
dividends in the form of a trophy buck.
As with any victory, it won't be easy. But it will be worth it.
Go-To Rut Lures
Although minerals and food-based attractants can lure deer year-round, the rut is prime time to take advantage of whitetail breeding activity with scents such as dominant buck and estrus doe urine.
One of the biggest issues when using urine-based scent products is how to effectively dispense them in the field without the mess associated with drag ropes and scent wicks. Wildgame Innovations has eliminated those hassles with its new Dominant Buck and Wild Estrus Squirt and Dripper products ($12.99 each).
The Dominant Buck and Wild Estrus Squirt products feature a one-way valve that allows users to shoot urine up to six feet with no mess, making them a great option for laying down a scent trail on the way to the stand.
Meanwhile, the Dominant Buck and Wild Estrus Drippers are designed to be hung near the stand or blind location. Simply open the seal to activate a time-release nozzle that dispenses fresh scent several times per minute and keeps working up to eight hours.
Both Squirt and Dripper products are packed in three-ounce, airtight foil packs that keep urine fresh, and both also feature Wildgame's exclusive Glo-Cote additive that emits an ultraviolet glow and makes this pee something deer can not only smell but see.