September 22, 2010
This well-known trophy hunter from Ohio shares over 30 years of accumulated wisdom and lessons learned in the whitetail woods.
The author poses with a wall full of impressive Buckeye bow bucks taken over the years, including his 2005 megabuck (also on next page) that scored 218 6/8 non-typical and graced the January cover of North American Whitetail.
When I first took an interest in deer hunting, if I learned about a veteran hunter's technique for harvesting big deer, I would usually take it to heart. After all, he was the expert and if it worked for him, then why not me? After I had a few seasons under my belt, the realization began to sink in that there's never a "never" and never an "always" in the whitetail woods. If I was going to increase my luck, I knew that I would have to adopt some basic principles that applied to my particular situation.
Over the last 30 years, I've developed a strategy through trial and error that, combined with a little luck, has helped to keep my taxidermist busy. These are a few of the things I've learned that have helped me get close to a handful of mature whitetails in the area I hunt. Not everything I do is necessarily in line with "conventional wisdom," and some of my techniques may not apply to every area that whitetails roam, but these strategies certainly have helped me on occasion.
THE MORNING HUNT -- WHEN TO GO TO THE WOODS
Most stand-hunters I know try to be situated in their perch long before the first light of a morning hunt. The common belief is that you want be on stand in the dark so the woods have a chance to settle down before legal shooting light. There is no doubt that listening to the woods come to life on a crisp fall morning is a special event, but it can also be a special thing to listen to deer snort and run off as you stumble in to your stand in the predawn darkness.
It has been my experience that the majority of deer movement I'll observe on a morning hunt will be one to three hours after first light. This is especially true as the rut kicks into full swing. I like to approach my stand site just as the sun begins to glow on the horizon while it's still fairly dark but I can pick my way along without a flashlight. Sometimes I'll spot deer before they spot me. These are deer that would have otherwise spooked as I tried to maneuver through the woods in the dark.
WIND DIRECTION AND THERMAL CURRENTS
How many times have you heard a hunter say, "I didn't hunt that stand today because the wind was wrong"? This statement carries a lot more weight in a flat-land situation, where the wind is less likely to swirl. This is a complex topic and I won't try to cover all aspects other than to say this: It is important to remember that warm air rises and cool air sinks, and these phenomena can and will change over the course of a day's hunt. As a matter of fact, this is one of the few variables you can count on when hunting the swirling winds of rolling hill country where many whitetails live and it usually applies only to calm days.
As the sun rises and warms the forest floor, thermal currents tend to carry scent upward or uphill. As the sun sets and temperatures cool in the afternoon, just the opposite takes place. Since thermals are subject to change 180 degrees over the course of a day, chances are your stand site will probably be wrong sometime during the day's hunt. To prove this to yourself, grab a tuft of fuzz off the top of a cattail and carry it in to the stand with you. Over the course of the hunt, periodically pull off individual floaters and watch them fly off. This can greatly help your understanding of changing wind currents.
HUMAN INTRUSION -- LESSONS LEARNED FROM MY KITCHEN WINDOW
For the past 20 years, I've been fortunate to live in a fairly rural area of the Midwest. We see deer in our backyard food plot year 'round. During the summer months, my sons can play baseball behind the house while does, fawns and young bucks feed undisturbed less than 100 feet away. As winter progresses, we begin a supplemental feeding program that allows us to observe mature bucks routinely during daylight hours.
The slightest bit of "human intrusion" or activity in the woods behind our home during this time will often cause older bucks to disappear for days, even during the high-stress times of late winter, when easily accessible, high-energy food is at a premium. Does and yearlings usually return to feed within a matter of minutes after being disturbed.
Many hunters don't factor in the change that their presence can have on a big buck's pattern or daily routine. On more than one occasion, I've found a buck I wanted to hunt and I set up shop in an area that I believed he would frequent only to have him vanish. I'm convinced these deer didn't necessarily leave the area, but they did change their habits in order to avoid me because they knew I was there.
WARY OLD DOES!
Old momma does are easier to hunt than mature bucks for one reason: there are more of them in the woods! An old doe can be the most cautious creature in the woods. They're jittery and suspicious of everything. An acorn drops and they jump. Many of them seem to spend the entire summer walking on pins and needles while raising their helpless young to adult status.
A trophy is in the eye of the beholder, and any mature white-tailed deer, regardless of sex, didn't just fall off the turnip truck. Setting out with the intent of harvesting a big old doe, especially with a bow, can be a challenging and heart-pounding experience. And although this thrill is often overlooked by many hunters, it's also very beneficial to deer management plans.
Deer that live in suburban areas in proximity to humans tend to be less wary than those that reside in more remote areas. This doesn't make them tame by any stretch of the imagination, but they interact with people on a regular basis and it's not uncommon for humans to be part of their home range.
Biologists say there are three factors that determine a buck's trophy potential: age, nutrition and genetics. In a wild herd, you can't do much to influence genetics. However, you can do a lot in the nutrition and age categories. In fact, age is critical in growing trophy bucks, and in some areas attaining older bucks is easier in a suburban environment.
Unfortunately, access to suburban hunting ground is often more difficult and sometimes downright impossible to obtain, hence the older age structure!
I don't hear well and I'm forced to wear glasses when I hunt. And since poor eyesight and poor hearing are not much of an asset when you're trying to call up wary whitetails, my experience with calling deer has been mixed. Most of the bucks I've rattled in to my setups have spotted me before I could get in posi
tion for a shot. A few times, I've had a buck respond negatively to a deep, challenging buck grunt. But I've never had a deer spook at a doe bleat. Sometimes bucks pay no attention to me, but occasionally they'll turn and come in to investigate. I'm never afraid to use a doe bleat at a deer in most situations.
REMOTE FIELDS -- A POACHER'S PARADISE
I've spent countless pre-season hours glassing mature bucks in remote fields. I recall a big buck one year that was so predictable I felt like tagging him was going to be almost unfair. Unfortunately, this buck mysteriously disappeared just before the early part of archery season. I used to rationalize this yearly occurrence by telling myself that the acorns were dropping on the wooded ridges and that's why the bucks would leave the evening bottom fields. To some extent, I still believe this to be true. However, I've also come to believe that poaching is a real problem in some areas, and remote fields are a magnet for illegal activity.
Poachers, like all criminals, don't like witnesses. A nearby house or dwelling does much to deter illegal hunting. It's kind of like having an ADT sticker in your front yard -- even if you don't have the alarm system in your house, the sticker will sometimes deter the crook.
So what if a remote field you hunt is accessible or bordered by a public road without any dwelling in sight? My strategy has been to obstruct the view. A poacher can't kill a deer he can't see. One option is to stack large round hay bales along the perimeter or road border. I've also planted fast-growing pine trees or, at a minimum, let the first 40 or 50 feet of the field edge grow up with native vegetation.
Access is also important to these scoundrels. I've gone so far as to erect a board fence with permanent pipe gates to a field entrance, even on property I don't own (with the landowner's permission, of course), just to make field access more difficult.
Obstructing the view and limiting access are paramount to reducing this problem.
When deer decoys became popular a few years back, I had to try one. I first experimented with a doe decoy saturated with estrous deer lure. My initial experience was negative, and I quickly wrote this off as a ploy not useful in the areas I hunt.
Several years later I was filming a hunt for Hunter's Specialties with my good friend Eddie Salter. It was peak rut time and Eddie wanted to set out a buck decoy topped with a large set of synthetic antlers. After dousing the decoy with scent eliminator to remove our human odor, we put the decoy out about 20 yards from our stand site in a highly visible area near a clover food plot. I proceeded to watch (and film) in amazement as the first mature buck to enter the field walked right past several other feeding does to confront what he thought was a potential rival. The big buck seemed oblivious to everything in the area except that decoy.
The following year, I was fortunate enough to fill my Ohio buck tag on the first day of a two-week vacation. With the rut kicking in, I didn't want to stay out of the field, so I set out with my buck decoy and video camera to do a little "catch and release" hunting. During this time off from work, I filmed nine different mature bucks, and all were attracted to the decoy and drawn within bow range.
Some mature bucks feel threatened by a potential rival and will at least investigate if not flat-out attack a stranger to their turf. The critical factor to me is antler size. You want the buck to look intimidating. Most hard-shell buck decoys come with fairly small antlers. I'll sometimes modify these decoys by adding real sheds or synthetic rattling antlers.
Without a doubt, the realization of the effectiveness of using a buck decoy has been my most important discovery in my time as a deer hunter!
Every year I tell myself that if I don't see something that I really want early in the season, I'm going to stick it out until the late season, because that's when the big bucks become somewhat easy to pattern and hunting pressure is low.
To date, I still don't have a whole lot of experience with late-season hunting, but I have friends who always seem to score late, and they seem to see more trophy-class bucks consistently during this time than I have during any rut I've ever hunted. Finding preferred food is the key to late season success.
WHICH WEEK TO HUNT?
If you could hunt only one week out of the year, which week should it be?
For the last 20 years or so, I've scheduled time off from work the last few days in October and beginning weeks of November. In most areas of the Midwest, this would be considered the pre-rut stage, when active buck sign is plentiful.
As secretary of Ohio's Buckeye Big Buck Club, I process close to 1,000 score sheets per year entered into our state record book. Our minimum score requirements are 140 net B&C inches for a typical and 160 net B&C inches for a non-typical. Both of these minimums represent true trophy bucks by most standards.
I also have access to all 12,000-plus entries in our record book dating back to 1958. One pattern I've noticed is that the majority of bow-killed entries are taken during the pre-rut phase in early November. However, the majority of what I call "top-end bucks" (with net scores over 170 inches) are taken during the second half of November or later in the rut. I'm seriously starting to rethink when to schedule my vacation!
Each year, some of the very best bucks are taken by novice or inexperienced hunters. I believe part of this is due to the fact that a novice hunter is less likely to get overly excited at the moment of truth. Some will argue that an experienced hunter should be more prepared, and this is true. However, how do you prepare for the adrenaline rush that hits the moment the buck of a lifetime steps into range?
REDUCING HUMAN ODOR IS INCONVENIENT
OK, I admit it. I'm neurotic about scent reduction! I shower in scent-free soap before each hunt, both morning and evening. I dry off with a fresh towel that's also been washed in scent-free soap. I brush my teeth before each hunt with baking soda and peroxide toothpaste. All my undergarments are washed in scent-free soap and stored in scent-free containers. I wear three carbon-layered suits on top of Medalist X-STATIC underwear in the early season and as many as five carbon suits when the weather cools off.
I never wear my outer garments in the truck and always dress in the field, regardless of weather conditions or temperature. I spray down my equipment with scent eliminator before every hunt. Despite all of this, sometimes I still get winded . . . a lot less than I used to before taking these precautions, but if conditions are right, or wrong, I'm still busted!
I've heard of hunters who become vegetarians a month before and during hunting season who claim they never get winded. The theory is that carnivores give off specific smells that herbivores find offensive. If I ever get real
serious about this hunting stuff, I'm going to try this approach some day!
I don't own a climbing tree stand. Not that they don't have their place in the deer woods. But I never hunt from single or straight trunk trees. All my stands are fixed position in multi-trunk trees. The more branches to break up my outline the better, and my stand sites are usually in place long before hunting season starts.
You hear a lot about bedding areas. If we're talking about a 500-acre agricultural field bordered by a 20-acre swamp bottom thicket, then a bedding area might be pretty easy to spot. In the large wooded areas that I hunt, deer bed wherever they get tired. After a fresh snow, I've observed deer beds in the bottoms, up on top and everywhere in between. Sometimes deer bed in thick cover and sometimes they bed in open hardwoods. When it's really cold, my experience has been that deer tend to rest on southern-facing slopes. If the habitat is all the same, I'll usually find fresh beds higher up on the ridge.
THE KEY TO SUCCESS
Successful hunting, like most endeavors, is almost always the result of diligence, persistence and learning from your mistakes. Yes, monster bucks are taken every year by lucky hunters who never paid their dues. And lightning strikes the earth every day, but how often does it strike the same place twice? Every successful hunter I know who consistently harvests top-end bucks relevant to the areas he or she hunts works at it very hard. These hunters are students of the game.
I believe in luck. And you know what? The harder I try, the luckier I become!