Lessons from Patterning Early-Season Bucks
September 22, 2010
My destination was a gnarled old bur oak that was standing in the corner of an abandoned pasture. The lush grasses that once had grown under the towering oak and had fed a herd of resident cattle had long given way to a wide variety of weeds, briars and saplings: perfect cover for bedding whitetails.
But could I make it into the stand without alerting every deer in the vicinity?
I had traveled close to a mile out of my way across open ground in order to use the wind and terrain to my advantage and go undetected in my approach. The trek across the barren fields had gone off without a hitch, but now for the hard part.
I had to cross the squeaky old fence that once guarded the pasture from bovine escapees, and then silently move through 15 yards of thicket to my tree. If I pulled that off, I still would need to silently slide up the backside of the oak and into my stand.
The whole outcome of the hunt hinged on my being able to cover those last few yards without alerting any of the deer I knew regularly bedded nearby.
I stood next to the fence and waited for a modest gust of wind to cover any inadvertent sounds I might make as I crossed. When the time was right I made my move, then silently stood on the opposite side of the wire and listened for the sound of spooked deer crashing through the brush.
Silence told me I'd conquered the obstacle of the fence, but now the walk through the brush to the tree holding my stand and the climb up to it had to be pulled off as well. If not, the hunt would be over before it even had begun. Somehow, I pulled it off and was able to breathe a sigh of relief.
Looking down from my perch, it was impossible to see any sign of the deer I was certain were hiding in the cover below. That all changed shortly, however, as a doe and twin fawns stood from their beds and slowly browsed their way across the thicket before jumping the fence into the soybean field beyond.
I soon had reason to again be concerned, as they were feeding toward a position downwind of my stand. After getting into my stand undetected I was afraid I was about to be busted by the old doe. I held my breath as my carbon suit once again proved its worth.
The next deer to show was a yearling buck. He nonchalantly moved about the thicket both browsing and lightly rubbing his first rack on small saplings. As I enjoyed watching the young buck through binoculars, another doe and fawn somehow slipped into the field and joined the others. I now had five deer feeding downwind of me at ranges of 20 to 80 yards. The opportunity was ripe for disappointment, but somehow things kept going my way.
I eventually accepted the fact that the feeding deer would not detect my presence and concentrated on watching the thicket for other deer that might still be bedded in the thicket. As I did, eventually I saw what I was looking for, as a big 10-point buck rose from a patch of weeds only 80 yards from my stand.
The buck simply stood without taking a step, only moving his head as he scanned the area for danger. For several minutes I had the chance to study his rack through binoculars. I judged him to be close to a 150-inch Pope & Young and decided that he was definitely a candidate to fill my first Illinois buck tag of the year...if he'd present me with a shot.
That was a big "if," as the buck seemed in no hurry to go anywhere. Eventually, though, he did take a few slow steps in a direction away from my stand. He'd moved only about 10 yards when he kicked up another bedded buck. This buck, a 2 1/2-year-old 8-pointer, simply stood up as the bigger buck slowly walked by, then followed along at the snail's pace set by the older buck.
Soon, the yearling buck that had been meandering around the thicket earlier moved in and joined the other bucks. Several minutes passed as the trio slowly milled around within a small area, seemingly moving farther away from me.
I'd pretty much accepted that this would be one of those hunts that offered great memories but no venison. Suddenly, the 10-pointer turned 90 degrees and started angling toward my stand. He was still moving at a snail's pace, however.
Against All Odds
Minutes passed, and I was still thinking the odds of a shot were slim. Then he made another turn and followed a trail that would bring him within shooting range. It had been 30 minutes since he'd stood from his bed, but finally he had cut the original 80 yards between us to 30 yards, the edge of my self-imposed limit.
I'd remained amazingly calm this whole time, but as I drew my bow, reality set in; my heart raced as I realized the rarity of the opportunity that was presenting itself. My bow came to full draw as if on autopilot. I settled the sight on the buck's vitals and followed him as he slowly walked the path leading to the taxidermist.
"I reasoned long ago that to successfully bowhunt mature bucks, I had to hunt them where they spend their daylight hours during the time of the year I was hunting."
When the 10-pointer stopped to look back at the two younger bucks, the arrow was instantly on its way, and with a slight thud the razor-sharp broadhead pierced his vitals. He quickly scooted about 10 yards and then stood looking around for a couple of minutes, trying to figure out what had happened. He then walked on shaky legs back toward the bed from which he'd risen earlier.
He staggered and fell over in the weeds as I watched through binoculars. I could only see his rack and wasn't sure if he was dead or just bedded. Summoning the patience learned through decades of experience, I waited in my stand.
Within minutes the two younger bucks decided to head toward the bean field and join the does and fawns already feeding there. As they made their way to the fence crossing, they passed me at less than 15 yards. I savored the moment and held tight to my stand until dark. Then I quietly slipped out, going away from where the 10-pointer lay.
I later returned with a friend and recovered the buck at the spot where I'd watched him fall. The hit had been perfect, and he'd traveled less than 30 yards after the hit. He was as big as I had guessed, scoring 150 3/8 inches.
As is usually the case when a bowhunter kills a good buck, there was a certain amount of luck involved with the hunt. I was lucky to get into my stand without being detected. I was lucky that the feeding does and fawns didn't wind me. I was lucky that the big buck chose a route that would take him within bow range of my stand.
I like to believe, however, that it wasn't all luck. This wasn't the first time I'd killed a mature buck in October; in fact, he was the fifth scoring over 145 that I've taken during that part of the season.
While many hunters look at October as a time of casual hunting and a warm-up for the November rut, I've come to expect success at this time. Each season, I look to cash in on the opportunities October affords and have developed an approach that I believe sways the odds in my favor over traditional early-season tactics.
It's no secret that during October, a buck is more interested in feeding than rutting. He'll easily consume twice as many calories in October as he will in November. This is simply nature's way of preparing him for the rigors of the upcoming rut and a lean winter.
Many deer, and a few good bucks, are killed early each bow season in feeding areas. However, to bank on that for consistent success on mature bucks is a mistake. Such deer are recluses for most of the year. Daylight movement is spotty at best.
The 10-pointer I just described shooting is a fairly typical example of mature buck movement in October. He rose from his bed after most of the other deer were already up and feeding. He moved ever so slowly as he cautiously scanned the area for danger, even though he'd been bedded nearby all day. In fact, he took a full 30 minutes to move 50 yards. At this pace, he'd never have made it to the field before hunting hours ended.
The one thing about this buck that wasn't typical of most of the other bucks I've shot in October is how early he rose from his bed. At this time of year, it's far more common for mature bucks to rise during the last 15 minutes of shooting light.
Within two weeks of shooting that 10-pointer last season, I had two more close encounters with mature bucks whose actions were right in line with what I usually witness in October. About 10 days after shooting that first buck, I slipped back to the same stand.
Again, I was lucky enough to get there without being detected. About an hour before dark, I could hear antlers clashing in the thicket from a couple of bucks lightly sparring. Using binoculars, I eventually could barely see the bucks behind a thick screen of saplings 60 yards from my stand. The bucks were alternating between rubbing saplings and meshing their antlers lightly together.
The vegetation made it hard to get a good look at their racks, but one of them certainly appeared to at least be close to a "shooter."
These bucks were only on their feet for about 10 minutes; then, each bedded down right where he stood. I believe they had been bedded in this spot all day and had simply stood to stretch before lying back down.
On that evening, the does and fawns again made their way to feed in the bean field, just as they had on the earlier hunt. I sat patiently watching the bedded bucks through binoculars, waiting for them to make their move to the field, which was only about 50 yards from where they were bedded.
Finally, with only minutes of shooting light left, they again rose from their beds. Moving as slowly as molasses, the bucks made their way within 25 yards of my stand. I finally got an unobstructed look at each buck as they passed. The smaller of the two was the same 2 1/2-year-old 8-pointer that had been with the buck shot on the earlier hunt.
The bigger buck was very tempting, however. He was a 5x4 that would have gross scored 145-150. Normally, I'd have taken the shot without hesitation, but with a 150-incher already in the bag and Illinois' 2-buck-per-bow-season limit, I elected to pass.
The bucks made their way to the edge of the thicket and waited in the cover until total darkness before crossing the fence and entering the bean field. Once there, the older buck fed on the protein-rich soybeans as the younger 8-pointer pestered the does. I stayed in my stand for over an hour after dark to give the deer time to move away from my stand, then quietly slipped out a different direction to keep from souring the area.
Only a couple of days later, I was hunting another location several miles away when I had another close encounter with a mature buck. My stand was located in a soft maple, along the bank of a river. Besides the trees lining the riverbanks, the only cover was a weedy CRP field. Bucks use the field as a bedding area. By walking to my stand along the water's edge, I'm able to stay hidden from their view by the high banks. With my tree steps on the river's side of the tree, I can actually slip into a stand undetected with deer bedded remarkably close by.
After getting settled into my stand, I pulled out my binoculars and started picking apart the cover of the CRP field. After only a few minutes, I spotted what looked like the rack of a nice buck among the weeds and high grasses only 50 yards from my stand. I was fairly certain this was a bedded buck, but he wasn't moving a muscle.
After a few minutes, I decided to fish the grunt call from my pocket and give a couple of calls as I watched through the binoculars. Sure enough, at the first grunt the buck swung his head around, giving me a much better view of his 140-class 8-point rack.
Every 30 minutes or so, I'd give a couple of grunts to get the buck's attention and watch his reaction. He'd look my way, but never did he get up. This went on for over two hours until it was too dark to see. I believe he was still bedded as I left in the dark.
These two scenarios, along with the successful hunt described earlier, are typical of my experiences in October. None of these bucks left the cover they were bedded in before dark, though two rose from their beds with varying amounts of daylight left. If I'd been hunting food sources, even one such as an acorn-laden oak located within the cover of the woods, I wouldn't have seen any of these bucks.
I reasoned long ago that to successfully bowhunt mature bucks, I had to hunt them where they spend their daylight hours during the time of the year I was hunting. In a nutshell, this means I have to hunt October bucks in their bedding areas if I want to experience consistent success.