By John J. Woods
Streams and shallow pools don't deter a buck from using a buffer zone, but water can give hunters an advantage by helping announce the deer's presence.
-- Somewhere between the havens where bucks bed and their favorite buffet are secretive travel corridors and staging areas where they spend a good bit of time. White-tailed bucks use these runways and rest stops to check for hunter scent and to slip around potential danger. These haunts are known as buffer zones, and if you want to take a big buck, you need to know how they use them.
What Buffer Zones Are Not
First, buffer zones are not the typical travel lanes we all get excited to find. And although we get fired up when we spot a series of fresh rubs or scrapes, the bucks taken at such spots are usually the younger, less experienced specimens. In short, these areas are not obvious, and you have to search to find them.
Buffer Zones Defined
It would be much easier to show you a buffer zone than describe one, but I'll give it a shot. Buffer zones are narrow trails that cut through dense corridors away from obvious whitetail travel routes. A buffer zone could be a favored standing spot where a buck stops to observe a feeding area or other location where does congregate. It might be a secluded area like a woodland pool, honeysuckle bush or persimmon tree.
Big bucks live and move just like other deer, but we seldom see them. The reason is that they don't use the same trails as other deer. And when you do catch a glimpse of one of these monsters, you have to be ready.
One of my biggest bucks ever was a buffer-zone buck. The huge deer stepped slowly along a skinny trail beside a flooded drainage ditch that ran parallel to a food plot. I would have never heard or seen this buck if it hadn't taken a step or two in the water. That tiny sound caught my attention, and when the buck's antlers materialized out of a small gap in the thick brush, I thought I was seeing things. Then I got ready for the shot. The heavy 8-pointer never knew what hit him, because I reacted quickly at the first glimpse.
Upon investigation the next day, I discovered that this buck could have taken any number of worn trails coming into the food plot, but it bypassed them all. Two years later, just at dark, the whole episode repeated itself, except for the shot. It was too dark to see this buck's vital zone, but its rack was just as impressive. I hunt that stand every year now, and I've never seen any other deer use it.
John Cockrell of Brandon, Miss., likes to hunt power lines. He says that trophy bucks often use these areas as open travel routes.
These trails often run parallel to high-traffic routes, so you should scout out to 50 yards on either side of heavy trails. Buffer zone holding areas look as though something had been nervously standing in one spot for a long time. The only thing missing would be the dropped cigarette butts.
Look for matted areas or solitary beds where a buck could pause for a nap and avoid disturbance. Older bucks are seldom spooked and tend to just hunker down and allow danger to pass them by, including most hunters.
Hunting Buffer Zone Bucks
Buffer zone bucks can be hunted effectively, but there are a few tricks to being successful. First, refine your scouting. It must be done early in the season, at least a month before the opener. Complete on-site scouting quickly without leaving any scent, and always play the wind.
When your scouting is finished, seal the area and ice it down. While that's almost impossible if you share your hunting area with others, it's just one more reason to identify and hunt the most remote areas of a property.
Another tactic is to use non-invasive scouting to observe edge habitat or blended habitat via spotting scopes or high-power binoculars. This is best done at first light or late in the day, or any cloudy, cool days or during a light drizzle. Those conditions seem to make deer move during daylight. Be sure to glass under clusters of pines, evergreens in a sea of waist-high grass, or timber cutovers.
If you happen upon a rub line, however faint, all the better. Be sure to note the side of the tree the rub is on to confirm the direction the buck was traveling when making it. As you compile your data, be on the lookout for potential stand locations.
As challenging as it can be to find and hunt in buffer zones, always remember that the bucks using them aren't unbeatable. The key is to locate their travel routes and resting places and to figure out how to hunt them without being detected.
-- John J. Woods
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