By Russell Thornberry
In this world of fast food, fast living, and fast everything, the rush is too often carried over into the world of whitetail hunting. Unless you regularly beat the odds at Las Vegas, luck won’t carry you very far in rushing a hunt for a respectable whitetail buck ... especially if you’re a bowhunter. Doing it right takes time and patience. I realize those are not buzz-words for the 90s, but thus far, big whitetails still aren’t very sympathetic to our instant-gratification, push-button mentality. They won’t be rushed.
Before this sermon goes any further, let me acknowledge that alarming number of hunters who bought their first bows and fists-full of arrows, and went hunting the same day, only to shoot the biggest buck they will ever see. This only proves that the god of whitetail hunting has a strange sense of humor. The following treatise obviously doesn’t apply to that group. However, for you mortals who have not experienced such favor, please read on.
The fact that the older a whitetail buck gets, the more secretive and reclusive he becomes, is old news, but the prevailing timeless fact remains: You can’t rush ‘em.
When a bowhunter discovers a mature buck he wants to pursue in a particular area, initially the whole area should be treated with kid gloves. Just because you saw the buck in spot “A” doesn’t mean that’s the best place to try to set up for him. It may be the worst. Once I get a mental picture of a buck’s general home turf, I imagine it as a huge target with wide outer rings, descending to smaller rings nearer the center, and finally the bullseye—the 10-ring. The 10-ring doesn’t necessarily represent the center of the buck’s world, but rather the most vulnerable ambush site in his world. It’s important to understand that his world may change many times during the hunting season in accordance with available food source locations, the rut, etc. You can’t get the big picture of the buck’s world from the 10-ring. Conversely, you should first observe it from the peripheral outer rings, to see where deer are moving and what bucks are available, inching toward the 10-ring slowly and cautiously, until you have assimilated all the applicable conditions and factors. Then, when you set up in the 10-ring, you should strike the final blow. I don’t want to be in the 10-ring more than one shift if I can help it. I want my first shift there to be the last for me and the buck. It’s all about being observant and patient. It stands to reason that this kind of detective work offers better odds of success than just blundering blindly around in the deer woods, hoping to be lucky.
The first step is to stake out obvious feeding locations. From a distance, preferably through binoculars, watch food sources such as alfalfa, corn, sugar beets, or any other attractive food sources. Be prepared to watch the location at first and last light because that’s most likely when a mature buck will appear. You may have to watch the food source by moonlight should the buck be nocturnal. (Be sure of legalities before you commit to a moonlight vigil.) Watch the location for several days to be sure the buck feeds there regularly. For the bowhunter, early season should find bucks feeding on a fairly predictable schedule, before the rut alters their feeding habits. Knowledge of the agriculture in the immediate vicinity is critical, not only in terms of crops available, but harvest schedules.
For instance, last September, Buckmasters videographers, Gene Bidlespacher and Mark Oliver, went to Montana a couple of weeks in advance of our planned bowhunt. They were going to set up tree stands early so things could cool off and be settled when our mid October hunt began. When they arrived at the ranch, there were almost no deer there. They were on a neighboring ranch feeding in the alfalfa fields. Gene knew that by the time our hunt began, the alfalfa would have been cut, and by then a frost would likely have burned whatever remained, lessening its appeal to the deer. He also knew the sugar beet harvest would be underway on the ranch we would be hunting by the time we arrived. That meant the majority of the deer now feeding on the neighbor’s alfalfa would then be in the sugar beets, right where we wanted them. Had Gene not known about the harvest schedule of the crops, he would have assumed the worst, since the deer were not even on the ranch where we were going to be hunting. He knew the land and the agricultural scheme of the vicinity well enough to anticipate what would happen in the future.
From years of experience, Gene also knew where the bucks would be bedding while feeding on the sugar beets. He initially set up stands on the periphery of the movement corridors, which would enable us to observe the deer’s travel routes to and from their bedding areas. Naturally, there was some possibility of a good buck coming within bow range of one of our stands the first time we occupied them, but the objective was to get us on the edge of the target zone so we could observe and react to what we saw. For that reason, Gene and Mark purposely avoided setting up stands too close to the buck’s feeding or bedding areas. The plan was to observe from a safe distance so we wouldn’t alter the deer movement, then begin fine-tuning and moving toward the 10-ring.
This process is time-consuming. Many hunters simply don’t have the time to inch their way toward success, which is no crime as long as the hunter understands the limitations he faces in the absence of essential time.
Once the hunter has nailed down the travel routes of his buck, he has to consider several factors. Will he set up in a tree or on the ground? What is the prevailing wind direction? Is it a morning or an evening location?
A tree stand set up is more forgiving because the hunter leaves less of his scent on the ground in the critical 10-ring, and may be less vulnerable in the event of a “wrong” wind direction. However, the god of whitetail hunting has seen fit to plant more miserable, user-unfriendly trees in the 10-ring than anywhere on the planet. The hunter may have to improvise to make a less than ideal tree work unless it’s simply too dangerous. Should that be the case, and a ground blind become the only practical alternative, I suggest using extreme caution in setting it up. Don’t create a brand new structure in a buck’s travel corridor and expect him not to notice. It ain’t gonna happen. Nothing goes unnoticed.
Utilize existing structures like fallen or dead trees, brush piles, or the like. They can be altered somewhat which is far less likely to be noticed by a mature buck than a whole new structure. Once you find a structure which can be converted to a ground blind, you must consider the prevailing wind direction. If the ground blind can be utilized in a spot that is guaranteed to be downwind of the passing deer, you’re in business. If there is a likelihood that your buck will travel downwind of the blind, rethink your location. The buck will not travel step-for-step every time he comes through a travel corridor, so you may have to man the ground blind several times before he presents a shot. If this is the case, be sure the buck can’t travel downwind of the blind. Choose a location backed by a downwind barrier or obstruction to force the buck to travel upwind of you. An example of such a barrier might be a steep bluff or riverbank immediately downwind of the ground blind. The object is to keep the blind visually anonymous and always downwind of the buck, and/or unapproachable from a downwind direction.
Remember, the more you use the ground blind, the more of your scent you deposit there. In addition, the more you travel to and from your blind or tree stand, the more likely you are to tip your hand. That’s why I don’t want to set up in the 10-ring until I know every factor and condition is perfect. If you’ve done your homework and given due attention to details, your first time in the 10-ring should be your best. Experience has taught me that every unsuccessful trip to a specific ambush location diminishes the potential of the next trip to that same spot.
Mature bucks don’t have to be scared out of their wits to alter their travel routes. They feel the slightest pressure which may be nothing more than smelling the scent of your boot soles on the ground. While the buck may not pull out of the country because of this, he will probably adjust his course somewhat, perhaps by only 50 yards, but that’s enough to diminish or eliminate your opportunity as a bowhunter.
I once observed a buck sniffing the fine sawdust created from a limb I cut to create a shooting lane from my tree stand. From a distance, I had watched the buck pass that same tree four mornings in a row. The sawdust was something new in his world and though it didn’t terrorize him, he never walked past that tree again that season. I believe mature whitetail bucks basically respond negatively to just about anything new or different in their world. If it’s new, it’s worth avoiding in the future, or at least until they’ve had ample time to get used to it. A mature buck treats even the slightest trace of human encroachment with disdain and will move whatever distance he deems necessary to remove himself from further contact. This is why scent control is so critical. The hunter should spare no effort to keep from brushing against shrubbery while walking to and from his stand or blind. High-top rubber boots help contain human scent, but should not be worn except in the field. Otherwise, rubber boots will carry the odor of whatever they contact in the outside world, and transport it into the whitetail’s domain. Rubber boots are of little help if the soles smell of gasoline, oil, cigarettes, etc. In cattle country, fresh cow manure is hard to beat as a cover scent for boot soles. So far, it’s still free! Don’t hesitate to stomp in a fresh pie enroute to your stand.
Once, while walking to a tree stand, I accidentally allowed my pant leg to brush against a small, insignificant, knee-high weed. Later that morning, I watched a doe wear that weed out with her nose as she examined the minute scent I left there. Hunters generally have little understanding of how critical the scent issue actually is. Suffice to say that your comings and goings to and from your stand or blind can completely alter the travel pattern of a given buck, even if you’ve never laid eyes on him and vice-versa.
Bowhunters who smoke or chew tobacco while on stand are whistling in the wind. Cigarette butts or tobacco drool (yuck) on the ground around a stand or blind are dandy ways to keep those pesky mature bucks away. Clothing saturated with the stench of tobacco smoke is another sure way to keep them away.
I was on a guided bowhunt in Texas, and while I was organizing my tree stand for the evening hunt, I looked down and, to my utter amazement, saw my guide standing at the base of my tree, spitting tobacco on the ground. What’s wrong with that picture? So much for a surprise ambush.
Morning and evening locations are determined primarily by the hunter’s ability to reach the location without spooking deer in the area or alerting them to his presence. This is why setting up in travel corridors between food sources and bedding areas is so practical. The time to head for the 10-ring is when the deer isn’t there. The key is in determining whether the buck will pass by in the morning or evening. It is not uncommon for the morning route to the bedding area, returning from a food source, to be quite different from the evening approach route to that same food source. It’s up to the hunter to know the difference and plan accordingly.
There are those wise old bucks who seem to have no Achilles heel. They know all the tricks of the trade and choose fool-proof travel routes, leaving no opportunity for a bowhunting ambush. I’ve seen a number of bucks like this in open country. They choose to travel in the wide open and avoid trees like the plague. If you know of bucks like this, and if you know where they travel well enough, you can use their nature against them. A mature buck can be subtly pressured to change his course but he must believe all the choices are his, but again, this requires time. If he feels direct and obvious pressure, he’ll work against it, rather than with it, most of the time.
The fastest way to sour an opportunity at a great buck is to rush into the 10-ring without doing your homework and bumping the buck right out of your trophy room. Consider yourself an undercover detective, approaching the buck’s world secretively and from a safe distance, observing and gathering critical evidence as you go. When you know you’ve got the goods on him, move into the 10-ring, but don’t rush it. A bowhunter’s greatest ally is time.