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Sanctuaries: The Key to Big Bucks

Sanctuaries: The Key to Big Bucks
The author believes that with hunting pressure being what it is today most regions, designated sanctuaries are a must for serious trophy hunters. Big bucks feel safe in areas where hunters deliberately leave them alone, and undisturbed sanctuaries fill this need. Photo by Curt Helmick

Back in the early 1980s I was an aspiring trophy whitetail hunter with few bucks to my credit. I longed to tag monster whitetails year after year. Being young, I was long on energy and desire but short on experience and knowledge. I was consumed with whitetails 365 days a year when most guys my age were running around as helter-skelter as a yearling buck in November.

Effort was never an issue and my open mind was a blank canvas waiting for the master hunters of the day to slowly paint the recipe for consistent success.

I distinctly remember reading a particular article in North American Whitetail in which an experienced hunter had noted that his success from a stand was normally best the first time that he hunted it and that with each successive hunt his deer sightings decreased from that specific location.

That was the first time I had heard of the "first time on stand" theory or the basic premise that the first time a stand is hunted is the best time to kill a buck from it. The whole idea made perfect sense to me. It stood to reason that the more a stand was hunted the more likely it would be that a mature buck would detect a hunter's presence.


This new idea quickly proved its worth when, during one of those early seasons, I had shooting opportunities at bucks on 13 consecutive hunts from fresh stands. Today that record may not raise many eyebrows, but 25 years ago the whitetail population was a fraction of what it is today. I became a firm believer, and soon my whole approach to trophy whitetail hunting was based on always hunting fresh stands.

Besides nearly always having a couple of dozen stands in place, I often would head to a fresh hunting area during mid-day with a stand on my back for an evening hunt. I would remain mindful of the wind direction and other factors as I slipped into an area and quietly placed the stand that I immediately hunted. I have to admit that my success was above average for most deer hunters of that time. I figured that tagging nice bucks was almost guaranteed for the rest of my days as I learned the exact trees over a wide area in which to place my stand for a single hunt each season.

whitetail sanctuaries

As the years rolled by I learned more and more areas. That made it a lot easier to slip in and hang a stand for a single hunt without the need for extensive scouting as I went. I became so obsessed with hunting fresh stands that I kept track not only of my buck sightings but also of the number of different trees that I hunted from during the course of a season.

Each year one of my goals was to hunt from more different trees than I had the year before. I actually thought that my success hinged on always hunting a new stand. It was a lot of work, but the rewards were worth it because a number of good bucks fell to my arrows during those days.



Well, time changes all things. I now have a strong grip on middle age, and while my passion for hunting big whitetails continues to grow, my desire to constantly hang tree stands has waned considerably. On top of that, a number of changes have also taken place within our sport. Primarily, the number of deer hunters has increased to the point where it would be nearly impossible for me to constantly find fresh properties to hunt.

While I can still access many of the properties that I hunted 20 years ago, if I did continue at my old pace I would be sharing most of those tracts with other hunters whose activities would either put mature bucks on red alert or completely push them off of the properties in question. This increase in hunting pressure has definitely caused the whitetail to evolve and adapt. So, as I have tried to stay on top of my game, I also have had to change my approach in order to remain successful.

One of the biggest changes that I have witnessed in our sport is the small army of hunters who now own and/or manage properties specifically for hunting whitetails. I see this as a welcome trend that benefits not only the hunter but also the local whitetail herd. I work directly with many of these hunters/landowners on several fronts. First, I own a business as a reforestation tree-planting contractor and I plant hundreds of acres of CRP tree seedlings every year. I also sell seedlings and other related products to customers who fall into this group.

On top of that, I also operate a whitetail hunting and land management consulting service in which I help hunters get the most from their hunting properties. These endeavors take me onto numerous properties each year where the primary goal of the landowner is to improve the deer hunting opportunities -- specifically for mature bucks. I feel that this experience makes me qualified to offer some advice on what I see as the most common mistake that many hunters make in the management of their properties.


Nearly every land manager that I meet seems to realize the importance of food plots. Most of these hunters/managers have implemented some form of a food plot program on their property. An entire industry has been created that revolves around supplying nutrition to wildlife, and land managers have bought in big-time. I'm not going to dismiss the importance of food plots. They are one of the keys to the puzzle.

However, on most properties there is another important element to a hunter's success that is often completely lacking, or at least misunderstood. I'm talking about sanctuaries. In my opinion, sanctuaries are so critical to the hunting success on a specific property that I would rather give up food plots than not have a sanctuary on the properties that I own and manage.

"A mature buck doesn't care why you are in an area, and it's likely that he can't discern whether you're deer hunting, picking daisies or watching "tweety" birds."

Back in the days when I roamed the countryside hunting new stands on nearly every hunt, a mature buck had many more safe bedding options than he has today. The relative lack of hunting pressure made nearly any suitable location a likely safe bedding area. Today a whitetail buck either finds a sanctuary or he doesn't survive long enough to make it to mature status. I firmly believe that every wild mature buck alive today has at least one sanctuary. If he didn't, he would be dead.

I have found that many hunters misunderstand what is meant by the word sanctuary. A sanctuary is simply an undisturbed area where deer feel safe. It seems that many hunters mistake "undisturbed" for "unhunted." A mature buck doesn't care why you are in an area, and it's likely that he can't discern whether you're deer hunting, picking daisies or watching "tweety" birds. All humor aside, any kind of human traffic within an area eliminates it as a possible sanctuary.


On my farm I have set aside two distinct areas as sanctuaries and only venture into them on a couple of occasions. Normally I go into these areas only in late winter when I'm post-season scouting and looking for shed antlers. Even then I limit my intrusions to one or two trips into these otherwise off-limit areas. The only other time that I ever venture into these sanctuaries is to trail a wounded deer that I have shot. Otherwise, every other form of human activity is strictly off limits in my sanctuaries.

This is an extreme step in land management and one that some hunters find difficult to follow. They seem to think: One little intrusion surely can't hurt anything. My response is always the same. An area is only a sanctuary as long as you allow it to be. You're only fooling yourself if you think that you can get away with a single hunt or other activity in your sanctuary.

Whether or not you own or lease, tagging a mature whitetail buck on property requires making sacrifices. If you own deer hunting property, you need to honestly evaluate why you own it, and you should prioritize. How important it is to kill mature bucks? If that is your primary interest, you definitely need to create a sanctuary and respect its boundaries at all times.

Creating a sanctuary is often easier than it sounds. You should start by deciding how much acreage you can commit to a sanctuary on your property. Bigger is definitely better. You will have to take many things into consideration when you decide how big your sanctuary will be. Things like the number of hunters on the property and the size of the overall property must be factored in. You also must decide on the location of your sanctuary. I frequently encourage landowners to place their sanctuaries in the middle of their property. There is no sense in designating a back corner as a sanctuary and then have hunters on neighboring lands sitting the fence and capitalizing on your efforts.


When I'm advising someone without having had the benefit of actually walking their property, I often tell landowners/hunters to consider making the entire property a sanctuary except for the outer 50 to 100 yards around the perimeter. I admit this is a pretty broad-based approach, but it does allow these hunters the chance to hunt the entire property boundary and utilize every possible wind direction.

whitetail sanctuaries for big bucks

Whenever possible, use natural land features as boundaries for your sanctuary. Creeks, logging roads, field edges, power line rights of way, and fences are all good examples of features that make excellent boundaries to mark a sanctuary. Beside the obvious benefit of making it easier for hunters to distinguish the sanctuary from the rest of the property, it also serves the same purpose for the big bucks that utilize it.

While I don't give any animal too much credit for reasoning ability, I do believe that a whitetail buck can figure out that he never encounters human scent or human disturbances on a certain side of a fence, creek or road. He learns that he is safe as soon as he crosses that particular feature. Creating a boundary through the middle of terrain such as an open section of woods leaves a "gray" area where the sanctuary and the land being hunted meet.

In other words, if you have a sanctuary boundary cutting through the middle of unbroken terrain, it's difficult for a buck to determine that "imaginary line" beyond which he'll be safe. One way to offset this problem is to stretch a single strand of barbed wire through these types of areas along the edge of the sanctuary. That way a buck will know he is safe once he crosses the wire. I realize this is an extreme measure that will require some serious work in some cases, but I've found that those who are willing to put in the extra work are the ones who consistently tag good bucks.


Once you have decided on the boundaries of your sanctuary, you will need to address the cover within it. In a nutshell you want the area to be as thick and nasty as possible. Again, do whatever it takes to make it happen. If it's in a wooded area, consider logging it as heavily as possible. Find a reputable logger and tell him to cut every tree with any value at all and to leave the treetops scattered about. This will instantly create bedding cover, and as the sunlight is now allowed to hit the ground, a new growth of weeds and saplings will soon take over. With each passing season, the cover will get thicker and be more hospitable to bucks looking for seclusion.

If your sanctuary area contains open fields, consider planting them in native grasses or tree seedlings. You may even be able to get this land enrolled in a CRP program where the government will help pay for such plantings. One of the quickest ways to create great bedding cover is by planting tall native grasses such as big bluestem or Indian grass. I have seen this firsthand on my own farm, and I was amazed at how the deer not only utilized it but actually preferred these tall grass fields over wooded areas.

big deer sanctuaries

A well-placed and properly managed sanctuary actually does more than just improve the hunting on a particular property. It will also draw in and hold mature bucks from other surrounding properties. Think about that for a minute. If your property is located in a region where big whitetail bucks are fairly common, you can draw them in from a considerable distance just by creating a sanctuary where they feel safe.

As I stated before, every mature buck has a sanctuary. This is where he will bed down during the day. I have often said that in order to be consistently successful at hunting mature bucks, you have to hunt them where they spend their daylight hours. You stand a lot better chance of killing a mature buck if he is staying on your land. If he is only visiting it at night or on infrequent occasions, your chances are greatly reduced.


While I am no longer marching around the woods with a tree,stand on my back looking to hunt a new tree on every hunt, I did have some success while doing so and learned the importance of not overhunting any one stand site. Today my success is a bit better because I have added a new twist to that old approach. I continue to hunt from fresh stands whenever possible, but I also try to have those stands positioned on the edges of known sanctuaries.

Whenever I spot a mature buck or hear a credible report of one, I know that this buck has a sanctuary. If I can find his sanctuary, I feel I have a reasonable chance to tag him, provided that I can get permission to hunt the property. Many times a buck's sanctuary may be nothing more than a small over-looked draw or woodlot where, for whatever reason, hunting pressure does not exist. Many of my stands are placed on these incidental sanctuaries that I have found over the years. I've worked hard to keep them free of human traffic.

Other stands, such as those on my own farm, are placed near sanctuaries that I helped create. If you own hunting land, you also have the chance to significantly improve your odds of success by creating a sanctuary on it. Always remember: To the buck you are hunting, his sanctuary is sacred ground. Tread on his sacred ground and he will likely find another place to spend his daylight hours, probably far away from your property!


To order a copy of the author's popular book Hunting Trophy Whitetails in the Real World, visit You can also learn more about the author's whitetail consulting and tree planting services on this website.

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