By Patrick Meitin
As the years come and go, every deer hunter eventually experiences a slow one. Reality is that the whitetail world is in a constant state of flux.
Populations peak and trough. Outside influences regularly change the dynamic on a given hunting property. Consider, too, that just maybe the deer have gotten your number.
My North Idaho "back yard," for instance, is occasionally subjected to the kind of winters that cause deer managers to shudder. Too many days of deep snow and negative temperatures can put serious dents in deer populations. And while we have the usual farming-trend influences, we also must deal with logging operations that can transform favorite buck haunts into wastelands in a single summer.
For instance, the ridgetop cedar grove in which I arrowed one of my best Idaho bucks doesn't even exist today. And I'm as guilty as anyone else about burning out favorite spots. You find one where you always see deer, where the wind's invariably friendly, and you lean on it heavily.
You might have 15 stands available, but when the going gets tough, anxiety creeps in and you fall back on that one again and again. You might kill a deer there, but eventually you also kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.
So for whatever reason(s), we're constantly forced to seek new stand sites, to pioneer new ground. And sometimes that also means changing perspectives in familiar places.
BACK TO BASICS
Especially on ground you've hunted a long time, it's easy to lose sight of the fundamentals. But doing so can cause an otherwise good place to go bad.
Never overlook careful scent management, even while en route to or from stands. Just as importantly, exercise the discipline necessary to never climb into any stand on anything but the right wind.
It's insane to gamble with prime sites, hoping suspect winds are "good enough" or that willing deer will approach from where you need them to instead of where they naturally funnel. This also takes more careful entrance and exit strategies, factoring in terrain, wind and deer patterns to avoid alerting your quarry while coming and going. This requires additional time and effort, but it also keeps deer in the dark.
Trail cameras can be a huge help. However, discovering the best new stand sites also can take accurate reading of deer sign. Unless you have snow, even tracks can be tricky; sometimes they remain intact in muddy ground for months, obscuring current realities.
If the first snow of the season falls when you can get into the woods, I encourage you to do so. But don't climb into a stand. Instead, spend that time tracking interesting or concentrated sign to discover where deer bed, pinpoint feeding-area entrance and exit points and sleuth corners, points or creek crossings deer use most. You can learn more in a single morning tracking in snow than an entire fall without it.
Otherwise, rely mainly on droppings for insight into deer movement. Green, soft ones obviously were made within the past few hours. Brown/black and hard/dry ones were dropped...whenever. So only the former reveal information useful to us right away.
In my view, the only exception to heeding old sign pertains to rubs. They of course reveal where bucks traveled last year and indicate places to watch as a new season gets going. I also conduct in-season scouting during the rut, seeking fresh scrapes. They aren't always daytime hunting spots, but they do reveal starting points for deciphering patterns. If nothing more, they at least reveal bucks are present.
We whitetail hunters naturally gravitate to edges — meadows, clearcuts, crop fields, cutlines — because we're visual creatures and want to see. But that isn't always the smart play.
In exceptional habitat where firearms hunting is verboten until after the rut, edges bring success on bucks seeking does or pawing scrapes. But where hunting pressure is intense, especially through the heart of the rut, big bucks understand stepping into the open during legal shooting hours is to court sudden death. So you might need to relocate.
Crop fields with abundant food are the most common edge settings. Such places invariably reveal copious sign, but sit after sit reveals little action. Obviously older deer are visiting under cover of darkness.
This typically is viewed as a problem, but smart hunters understand it also presents a solution. You know where the deer will be — eventually. The trick is to locate staging areas near these larger attractions. One solution is planting "micro" food plots 200 to 300 yards into cover, where deer feel safe.
You can create these with simple "no-till" seed-and-rake products. Natural staging areas consist of small openings set back from field edges, or small groves of acorn-bearing oaks, for example. Meticulously backtracking from field edges with trail cameras is the best way to discover these natural staging sites.
Using inside cover can be a matter of setting up on trails well away from edges to catch deer passing just before darkness falls in the evening or with the first silvering hint of morning. Topography such as ridge points or saddles, ditch heads or creek crossings can help funnel deer beneath stands in these cases. In thick vegetation, construct trails during the off-season to encourage deer to travel beneath stands located on broad ridges or slopes.
Savvy bucks also typically travel inside cover-adjacent edges, especially those posing an obstruction between two key points and while cruising for receptive does during the rut. Such "edge skimming" normally involves traveling downwind and 75 to 100 yards inside cover, avoiding exposure while also scent-checking for does. Ambushing such bucks requires solid horse sense, sometimes trial-and-error, taking into account vegetation density, prevailing winds and topography.
WALK LESS, SEE MORE
Ever notice, whether on a small lease or in a big woods, how many hunters gravitate to the far end of the available ground? Leaseholders in particular often travel to the far corners of available acreage, as if to guard the neighbor's fence line.
"Populations peak and trough. Outside influences regularly change the dynamic on a given hunting property. Consider, too, that just maybe the deer have gotten your number."
Public-lands hunters also commonly have "end-of-the-road syndrome." It's a natural inclination and response to the old "grass is always greener" canard. Everyone's so busy rushing off to the far corners of wherever. Meanwhile, the briar patch, woodlot or creek right behind camp, or that wedge of property tight against the highway, never gets touched.
This hit home with me one year in Illinois. The outfitter had repeatedly suggested someone hunt a corn field within sight of the lodge. But no one was interested — not with 14,000 acres of prime land available to hunt.
Long story short, I killed a Pope & Young-quality buck on a distant stand and suddenly became motivated to fill my doe tag. After 23 years of outfitting hunters, my goal when on guided deals is to always try to make life easy for my hosts. So I opted for the lodge corn field, as I could walk myself out at dark.
You know what happened: When I hunted there, I saw nothing but bucks — three of them big enough to make mine look silly. Yet I still couldn't elicit interest from my campmates to try that "ugly" spot behind the lodge. Don't overlook obvious places others ignore.
Despite these observations, sometimes trekking farther really is the answer to better hunting. That is, if there's a point to it. This is most often true when hunting public lands.
My literal back yard, 40 acres in the middle of a quilt of other properties blocked out in 20-, 40- or 80-acre parcels, could be whitetail nirvana, given different circumstances. We have the genetics, habitat and plenty of does luring trophy bucks from outlying areas. But we also have intense hunting pressure that turns bucks, in particular, nearly nocturnal.
Interestingly enough, bucks on adjoining public lands regularly move in broad daylight — at least, in areas posing access difficulties.
My most productive public-land stands involve 20- to 30-minute ATV rides on muddy logging roads gated to truck/SUV traffic, followed by 1/2- to 1-mile hikes onto mountain ridges or into high saddles. I locate hotspots by first studying topographical maps, seeking blank spots with no roads combined with appropriate topography.
Final reconnaissance involves long hikes, deploying trail cameras and noting concentrations of scrapes and rubs often showing overlapping "territories" in conjunction with natural funnels. I carry a folding saw, screw-in steps and lightweight stands, preparing trees or setting up to make sites available without forcing me to engage in return trips. Hunting these sites requires earlier wake-ups, bone-chilling ATV rides and then sweaty hikes, but the extra effort is offset by more productive sits.
In other locations it's not necessarily sheer distance that detours other hunters, but rather, nasty vegetation requiring hands-and-knees entry. I burrow in, find a relative clearing in the middle of the "jungle" and set up. When the guns began going off all around, deer will find such places. Some of my best Idaho whitetails have come from these difficult-to-reach spots.
A FRESH START
On the other side of this coin, sometimes there just comes a day when you must admit defeat and abandon the familiar. And I mean literally walk away from your current hunting spot and find something new.
I understand this isn't always easy. I recall a piece of property I hunted in Texas while attending college. It was just a 500-yard-long strip of cottonwoods and brush surrounded by scrubby CRP on three sides, with maybe 50 acres of shin oak at one end. There were invariably scrapes beneath those cottonwoods, and I once found a gorgeous shed there. I rarely saw deer, but it was all I had, and one year I did shoot a lopsided 2x3 for my efforts.
But there came a day when I was forced to face reality: I likely was never going to kill a big buck on that property. And despite its affordability to a destitute college student (I was paying a $35 daily trespass fee, as one rarely hunts private land for free in Texas), I finally quit it.
Hunting permission in many places can still be secured by knocking on doors, given a requisite degree of respectability and manners. Traveling farther from major population centers and tossing in a few "yes sirs" and "no sirs" normally helps.
And little-known public land is often available with careful research. Even Kansas and Iowa offer public "walk-in" areas for those willing to do their homework. Sometimes good hunting is in the form of state or national wildlife areas, timber or mining properties, federal BLM tracts or national forests. More likely, in these times, it entails investing in a better deer lease, taking your lunch to work instead of eating out, selling the bass boat, etc. If need be, do whatever it takes to scrounge the extra cash needed to buy into something better.
If slow or blank seasons have come to define your whitetail efforts, it's time to do something about it. Become more proactive, investing extra energy needed to jump out of your current rut or rethinking your entire approach to make something positive happen this season.