Try these three tricks to beat a buck in his most secure lair.
Bedded bucks? You might get a glimpse of a bedded buck’s whereabouts, but the cost is giving away your presence in his little moated castle. Bucks are as elusive as Osama bin Laden when they decide to hole out for the day. And if you believe in telemetry studies, not to mention the latest spate of I-spy trail camera photographs, you’re forced to a sobering conclusion: Most days, most deer are already bedded down by the time you enter the woods. And certain lunar phases — such as full and new moons — make it worse.
So why are we even discussing bedded bucks? Because you can deal with them. You just need to call upon a trio of tricks to exploit some rather peculiar tendencies of bedded bucks that occasionally make them vulnerable. What follows is my personal “Bedded Buck Guide.”
Outside of the rut, bucks can be social or antisocial, depending on the local hierarchy and the time of year. Bucks are most gregarious when they bachelor up during summer months and leading into the bow seasons of most states. Hunting early season whitetails is a sport I take seriously, and if it weren’t for elk, moose and pronghorns, this would be my favorite time of year to go mano a mano with a whitetail monarch. Why? Since these bucks bed near one another, they’re actually easier to hunt than later on when the group disperses.
That sounds contradictory, but here’s why it’s true: When male whitetails gang up, one of them often becomes what I call the “lowest common denominator.” I’ve seen it many times. Essentially, a lone buck relies on his own keen senses and rarely cuts corners to defend himself. He uses the wind, thermals and cover to keep hidden and far from danger. But the opposite often occurs with bachelor buddies that rely on one another for survival.
When a mature buck uses, say, yearlings and 2 1/2-year-olds as sentinels instead of his own eyes, ears and nose, he becomes vulnerable. It often boils down to tricking the first few individuals in a procession of bucks entering or leaving bedding areas. That’s a lot easier than trying to trick a buck that’s more skeptical and less curious than his younger brethren.
A good illustration of this principle is a South Dakota bowhunt involving a gang of four bucks that included the gamut — a dandy 12-pointer, a nice BTR mainframe 8-pointer and a 120-class buck. It was classic creek bottom cattle country, where water and feed were scarce. Since there were no primary food sources (alfalfa, clover, milo, corn, etc.,) all I could do was set up on the edge of security cover and hope to catch the bucks as they snuck in a little late in the morning or ducked out a bit early in the evening.
Ten days of watching these bucks from a distance made me re-think hunting any deer feeding on scattered prairie plants! Fortunately, a cold front the evening I’d packed to leave gave me the break I was looking for. Much to my surprise, all four deer materialized out of thin air in the deep, long shadows of a distant cottonwood stand, where the creek bottom forked.
The first buck was the smallest, the last the biggest, as usual. Because of this, I didn’t let them get to the fork, which would have meant a 50-50 chance they’d swing wide of my treestand. At precisely the right time, I used my homemade magnum grunt call to try to turn them. It worked. The lead buck nonchalantly swung my direction, bringing the other three with him. To make a long story medium-long, the biggest buck ended up chasing a doe he’d kicked up as he straggled behind, and I ended up arrowing the 8-pointer just before dark. I was ecstatic.
The Pre-Rut Switcheroo
Shortly after bucks shed their velvet, they sort out their hierarchy and disperse into their core areas. Alpha does and their families get the best habitat, and then the bucks shuffle into what remains. However, a peculiar bedding pattern begins to take shape around early to mid-October in most whitetail states. Bucks are true loners at this time, having little interest in fellow bucks or even does.
The exception is a buck’s fixation with keeping tabs on the estrus cycle of does in his core area. Briefly, the most efficient way for a buck to know which does are entering estrus — and which are not — is by bedding directly downwind from them. Without moving a muscle, this re-bedding buck can bide his time as he keeps a low profile. Then, when his nose starts sniffing irresistible doe odors, he begins his annual joy romp to track down receptive does one by one.
This unique bedding trait is another Achilles’ heel if (and only if) you know about it and can be in position before the shift occurs. The man who should get credit for this revelation is Minnesota bowhunter Myles Keller. Long ago, he learned he could follow bucks from their Lone Ranger setups to their doe-monitoring setups and quite often tag out on a dandy buck well before the rut gets into high gear.
“Any bedded buck is a tricky proposition, and this one’s no different,” Keller told me. “You really have to know your area to avoid bumping the does and the bucks. But if you can somehow sandwich yourself between the two, you can get a lot of action during a time when everyone else is complaining about the October lull.”
Following are three tips for pulling off this maneuver. First, be prepared to sit all day, arriving well before dawn and waiting until well after dark. Second, pick a setup that’s as foolproof as possible — no sky-lighting, no wind swirling or back-drafting, no nothing. Remember, you’ll get one chance on this buck (if that), and if he picks you up, you’re back to square one. Third, don’t forget that this is purely a game of interception; don’t even think about rattling, calling or decoys. This buck is still in survival mode and won’t respond to any such shenanigans.
When I first heard about this peculiar pattern, I was eager to try it out on a buck that had eluded me for two seasons. I always thought he’d be easier to hunt during the rut, but the opposite was true. I could pattern him early, but after that he’d retreat for cover so thick a retriever would think twice about recovering a grouse in there. I later discovered that this was a “generational breeding area,” but that’s another story for another time.
In any event, I was primed for action. Long after dark, I set up a treestand downwind from a stand of white oaks. According to my flashlight, the area was already marked up with fresh rubs. The next day, I was perched 30 feet up in a mature red pine. Sure enough, at daybreak on Oct. 10, a big 10-pointer appeared over my left shoulder. Next he veered left and bedded down about 75 yards away. All I could do was admire him. Interestingly, he lay there all day looking in my direction. Worse yet, I never did see him get up, forcing me to wait for jet-black darkness before I left the area. I’d guessed close, but not quite close enough, but the plan was sound.
The Front Chaser
A cold front late in the season can dictate hunting strategies as it coaxes deer into feeding patterns during afternoon hours. But there’s another frontal buck movement you can use to your advantage. Since all fronts are accompanied by a change in wind direction, bucks are forced to re-bed whenever the wind switches. If you know this and plan ahead, you can catch bucks in the middle of this maneuver.
The starting point is understanding where and why bucks bed during the day. Scent rises with the thermals, so bucks tend to bed at higher elevations during a rising sun and a warming earth. This places most bucks along ridges and similar terrain, typically a third of the way down from the peak of knolls and hills. It’s a cozy setup. By facing the opposite direction of the wind, a buck can watch for predators while his nose protects his backside.
Now suppose a front approaches and the wind switches from west to east. To use his keen senses, the buck is forced to make a move. It won’t be long before he tests the wind, gets up and heads for a new place to bed on the other side of the ridge. Consider the following as you set up for the front chaser:
• Always have stands on both sides of a prospective ridgeline, approximately one-third of the way from the top. Switch back and forth, depending on the wind.
• A high-percentage alternative is the top of the ridge; saddles top the list. Also take advantage of physical features such as breaklines, rocks and cover that constrict bucks as they head to the other side.
• New cell phone technology allows you to literally time fronts to the hour from the convenience of your treestand. If you have an Internet connection, you can surf sites such as accuweather.com or weather.com. An alternative is Weather Scout, a monthly service that hooks you up to real-time weather and is available from AT&T (formerly Cingular), Nextel, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile and Verizon.
Ordinarily, it’s futile to intentionally hunt bedded bucks; they’re just too wired when they’re not on all fours. But these exceptions are worth committing to memory. After all, when it comes to the wily whitetail, you can’t have too many tricks up your sleeve.
This article was published in the November 2007 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.