Uncle Lynn was one of the most intellectually gifted people I’ve ever known. Born in a small town here in Illinois, he graduated as an electrical engineer from the touted Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and found his calling in life. His career path thrust him into the boom of space exploration. He began working with NASA and sending some of his handiwork through the atmosphere into places human beings had never been.
The man was extremely pragmatic and detail-oriented about everything. To that end, he often used a favorite saying: “Always have a Plan B.” That phrase stuck with our family over the years, and it was some of the best advice anyone’s ever shared with me.
In last month’s Part 1, I detailed how a local outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) impacted my 2019 season. At times, I felt as if all mature bucks in my area were lying dead in creek bottoms. With a mass die-off just a few weeks prior to the bow season opener, I had to scramble to locate a buck I felt worthy of a tag. When I adjusted on the fly, I was fortunate enough to take my best non-typical buck with a bow, tagging him in early November. It was an example of a Plan B in action.
As hunters of mature bucks, we often find ourselves searching for answers to whitetail quandaries year in and year out. The problem list can be tricky to navigate and, at times, the odds of punching a tag on a deserving adversary seem mighty long. In 25 years of deer hunting the Midwest, I’ve encountered many scenarios in which resorting to Plan B led to success. Let’s take a look at some of these scenarios and troubleshoot them a bit.
SUMMER INTEL TURNS COLD
We’ve all been there. The velvet bucks that were frequent visitors on our trail cameras or were highly visible in bean fields during the dog days of summer seemingly vanished off the face of the earth as bow season began.
It’s easy to get discouraged, but don’t. Your target buck is likely to still be in the area — he’s just feeding on other food sources that became more palatable as the season opened. He also might have shifted to his fall range after velvet peel.
Adjust your mindset if this is the case. Spread out a bit, glass freshly picked crop fields and spend time doing some low-impact scouting on foot. Stay busy and attempt to relocate him. Find areas you might have overlooked earlier in the year. Now isn’t the time to throw in the towel or toss caution to the wind. Be smart and tactical in attempts to find the target of your desire.
I’ve had several experiences in which, despite my full effort, a big buck I’d had my sights set on simply ghosted me. Seemingly at random, mature bucks can just vaporize into thin air during the season. Trail camera locations that have provided years of intel on a certain buck suddenly dry up, and frequent attempts to relocate the animal fail.
The Plan B here is quite simple: move on. If you find yourself spending tons of time during the season hunting or scouting for a certain buck, only to come up empty in all efforts, the smart thing to do is find and hunt other ones. Hunting time and vacation days to spend afield are finite. The more time that goes by between intel gatherings decreases the likelihood of harvesting a ghost buck.
In situations like this, I’ll leave a couple high-value trail camera locations behind and pull anchor. It’s difficult to do, but you could be missing out on a killable buck elsewhere.
LOSS OF HUNTING LOCATION
Nothing takes the wind out of a DIY hunter’s sails as much as losing his or her hunting spot. That’s especially true if it holds target bucks. I think every fellow deer nut I know has had this happen at one time or another. Farm ground gets sold, permission gets lost or hunting leases take over — and suddenly, your honeyhole is gone. This past spring my home state even shut off access to public ground for awhile!
What’s Plan B in these situations? Start from scratch! Door knocking in clean clothes and a washed truck at appropriate times of the day has allowed me to overcome the location loss obstacle in the past. I once lost permission to hunt a piece that housed a mega-buck in phenomenal habitat. But I rallied to kill him in a 4-acre patch of timber the adjacent landowner granted me permission to hunt.
Tired of getting told “no” on private property? Pack up your gear and jump into some open public ground.
DISTURBANCES TO HUNTING AREAS
Whether natural or man-made, disturbances to habitat can necessitate Plan B protocol. Fire, flood and major wind damage can all have a significant impact on the world in which a big buck lives.
In my experience, logging activity and the resulting timber loss have been chronic issues. I was hunting a big buck I called “May Day” a few years ago, and when I pulled up to check trail cameras in late August, I was mortified to see logging equipment and human intrusion. I lost all hope for hunting that spot but left one trail camera behind.
As it turned out, the landowner’s friend actually killed the buck on that very farm after the logging ended in November. And what I found on my camera’s SD card really surprised me: Not only had that buck stayed on the farm, it was as if the logging operation had had zero impact on his movements.
Plan B in these scenarios is simple: Don’t leave, adjust. When the forest changes from natural or human causes, more sunlight hits the forest floor, quickly resulting in tons of edible browse and a lot of new bedding cover. It might take a season or two for the rhythm of the property to be restored, but if it housed big bucks before, it still will.
A fair number of my Plan B issues revolve around weather. We’ve all been there. Opening day of archery season, the mercury is in the 90s. Then six inches of rain fall in two days. Then the November rut hits, but it’s unseasonably warm. In contrast, last year on Veterans Day I was high atop a doe bedding area in a blizzard, and the next three days were single digit cold.
Screwy weather is something we all have to contend with. Plan B revolves around being “weather adaptive” in your approach. If it’s warm and dry, hanging near water can help, especially during the rut. If it’s unusually cold and snow and wind hit, move to thermal cover where deer like to winter.
Adverse weather elements can be a handy excuse for not chasing your target buck hard, but deer live in whatever the weather is, and they do it 24/7/365. To them, it’s just another day on the job.
I’ve sometimes found myself hunting bucks that roamed across hill and dale, covering several square miles during the course of the season. Deer like this often require not just a Plan B, but all the way through Plan Z.
Two things that help me troubleshoot a roaming trophy are simple: mobility and historical intel on the animal. I keep one Lone Wolf Assault hang-on stand outfitted with an army surplus kidney belt, backpack straps and four climbing sticks at the house at all times during the season. It’s what I call my “bugout” set.
If I know of a mature buck that likes to roam and if I have historical knowledge of his activity in an area over a narrow time span, I’ll go in after him during the same dates this season. To kill a mobile buck, become just as mobile. It might take several sits, but if you catch up to him before you run out of time, a successful Plan Z is still just as rewarding.
Getting hurt and still trying to chase trophy deer is daunting. About 15 years ago, a tree stand accident left me with a compression fracture in my back. As fate would have it, my stepson, Troy Metzger, learned the same lesson with the same injury only two seasons ago. He’s also had to learn to hunt through football injuries, namely a concussion and a torn ACL in his knee.
In each of these situations, he and I continued to hunt but always at ground level until healed. I sat behind the boy in 2018 for a cold gun opener here at home, and he killed two great bucks that morning, all while wearing a back brace and leaning against a towering white oak. The ACL surgery was tricky, though; crutches are a pain in knee-high waterway grass.
One of my best hunting buddies, Zach Dimmich, blew out his pectoral tendon this summer, and I have a nagging rotator cuff that needs to get fixed. Plan B for us this year is adapting to injury, he more than I. If injury won’t let you climb, sit on the ground or still-hunt. If you can’t pull a bow, and it’s legal to use a crossbow in your area, get one. Then, once season ends, get your body fixed and above all else, train to prevent these problems before they arise again.
INVASION OF THE ORANGE ARMY
Archery-only hunters lament firearms season, proclaiming it will surely mean the death of every big buck. No doubt some get killed every year, but gun season has yet to claim every mature buck walking the earth.
Once gun season comes in, if I’ve yet to fill a tag, I’m going to do two things: (1) grab a gun; and (2) find the areas of least pressure. When gun seasons close, relocating target bucks near late-season food sources should be top priority. Good hunting can still be had, and a late-season Plan B Buck can be found.
HE’S HIT! BUT WHERE IS HE?
Is there any tougher Plan B to formulate than after a less-than-ideal hit? It happens to the best of us; I’ve never met a hunter worth his or her salt who hasn’t been in this situation.
When a deer doesn’t drop within eyesight, critical thinking helps. Wait as long as you see fit. When the blood stops and desperation kicks in, ignore that feeling. Trail smart and be quiet. Use two people max, refrain from recklessly wandering about the timber, and always mark last blood.
If legal, bring in a trailing dog and handler — the earlier in this process, the better. Refrain from grid searching and looking for a body only after all resources are exhausted. Take as much time as you can to cover it all.
The last big buck I shot, my arrow entered mid-body broadside. The shot was made around sunrise. I immediately backed out of the area and about 13 hours later brought in my friend Jonathan Beachy and his bloodhound Sally to a totally unspoiled track. Sally was howling with joy after about 250 yards — and so was I!
THE NEIGHBOR’S SON
You know that 4 1/2-year-old 10-pointer you’ve been saving? The one you’d like to give another year or two? Little Jimmy, the neighbor boy, just took him down with a slug gun while hunting with his granddad.
Better find a Plan B for next year, right? Right! But before you do that, find the boy and congratulate him. Shake his hand. Swallow the lump in your throat over that buck you’ve been saving. Take the high road and show some class.
I’ve been fortunate to take some big bucks that were on other hunters’ radar screens. I fondly remember those who congratulated me when I did. I also recall those who took a negative approach, though those haven’t been the norm.
If someone else killed “your” buck, don’t taint his or her trophy with negativity — instead, add to it with sportsmanship. Plan B calls for decorum and kindness. The next big buck you put in the truck might have been someone else’s Plan A.
I recently rewatched the movie Apollo 13, which starred Tom Hanks. Those boys made it back safely home with a plethora of Plan B-type maneuvers radioed in from NASA below. I think of Uncle Lynn when I watch that flick and wonder if any of his handiwork was aboard. I heard him utter his patented phrase, “Always have a Plan B,” when I was in my 20s. Pretty sound advice for life, both in and out of the deer woods.