By John J. Woods
The single best clue to unraveling the secrets for tagging trophy bucks is to nail down their travel routes. One of the enduring questions about understanding buck behavior is whether or not their travel patterns are set in concrete. Let's face it: If you know where a buck travels, you have a much better chance to take him. Once you put these pieces of the travel puzzle together, you can devise a plan for a big buck encounter.
BUCK TRAVEL SCENARIOS
Two years ago I was hunting a deer stand set up to observe a food plot on the edge of a cypress swamp. A deep drainage ditch bordered the western side of the plot. At dark thirty, as we call it, I heard deer footsteps walking in the water. A buck stepped out of the bushes on the edge of the creek and stood broadside. The 300 WSM ended his life. I began to wonder if this creek was a significant travel route.
This past season the scenario repeated itself except for the harvest part. It was simply too dark for a shot. This buck came out in the same spot where the previous one had stepped, so I figured this for a confirmed travel route of choice. For the next three days I hunted this stand literally morning, noon, and afternoon. I never saw hide or hair of this buck again, and no one else did for the remainder of the season. So, is this lane along the creek an established buck route or just a site for a random stroll?
For years I have watched a muddied trail coming out of a cottonwood sapling thicket across the tip end of a food plot going into thick woods. Many hunters have seen plenty of deer shoot across this opening including bucks. A friend called to tell me to hunt that stand and be there before 8 a.m. when a certain 9-point buck would come out to cross. He had witnessed this three times and actually missed the buck twice.
I wondered what crazy buck would do this again, but I took the stand with high hopes. The scene played out just as my friend had described -- almost, that is. The buck gingerly walked out of the saplings, breeched the 20 yards across the plot and paused momentarily before leaping into the woods. During that momentary lapse of reason, a single 200-yard shot cancelled the buck's travel plans.
When I called my buddy, I told him he had everything right but the time. It was 9 a.m. when the buck showed. Now, was this travel route on a regular routine, or was I just in the right place at the right time? Or was I just lucky?
RANDOM ROUTES OR CUT-AND-DRY PATTERNS?
My own assessment of these two examples was that the first was a random event. Though the creek was an occasional travel route, observation data reported by club members was not conclusive. Inspection of the exit spot along the creek did not reveal excessive use. In fact, a much more evident crossing point on the creek was found a hundred yards south of this site.
It was just the opposite with the other trail. It showed considerable use and dozens of buck and doe observations were reported over several seasons. When the trail exit and the pathway across the plot were scouted, it was found to show a tremendous amount of traffic sign going both directions. Numerous rubs were found on the edges of the sapling thicket to further indicate buck action in the area. The same trail remained very active this past season as well. I'd say this was a patterned travel route.
DECIPHERING TRAVEL ROUTE SIGN
Much has been written about whitetail funnels, trails, hedgerow tunnels, creek slides, and all manner of deer travel routes. Certainly there is no denying how critical it is to determine which travel routes are a part of a regularly patterned mode of travel or just some isolated random series of passes through the area.
I've often heard it said as well as pointed out that "when you see a hot deer trail you will know it." Many hunting seasons have proven that statement to have a certain amount of validity. Like an active or an old rub or scrape, most hunters know the difference when they see one. Fresh sign begs for further investigation.
Regardless of the label put on the type of travel route or trail, the key is in assessing the quantity and quality of the sign. A half dozen dried up track groupings do not make for a hotspot. A trail that has its dirt or mud churned up like a chisel plow worked it over with tracks traversing back and forth suggests closer scouting.
Using as scentless an approach as possible, carefully walk both directions of such trails to find their terminal destinations. Look for secondary splitter trails, rubs, scrapes, matted beds, and intersections. If you can cave in the sides of a deep deer track with a simple push of your finger, then it is probably fairly fresh. If it is hard and dry, it is not.
If you have stands in fixed places near identified travel routes, then nothing can tell you more about deer activity in the area than sustained observation data. Clubs that are serious about quality deer management require hunters to record their sightings in observation record books. Over time, this will prove which travel routes are used regularly.
White-tailed bucks are creatures of habit, but unfortunately they can change their modus operandi in a flash. Whether chasing down a popular food choice, or a receptive doe, bucks will use certain pathways like clockwork. When you scout through the season, be on the lookout for well-used funnels, tunnels, and turnpikes. Maintain a vigil on those rites of passage and sooner or later a buck is going to show up.
-- John J. Woods