By Tracy Breen
Tom Johnson with one of the many wallhangers he has harvested over the years.
-- In the past decade, numerous white-tailed deer hunters have traveled to Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Wisconsin more than ever before with one goal in mind: to harvest a wallhanger. The above-mentioned states along with others hold large bucks. Many hunters I talk to believe they will find large bucks everywhere and expect to go home with a top-heavy bruiser. This just is not the case most of the time.
It's an entirely new ball game when you leave your stomping grounds and travel to unfamiliar territory. Not knowing deer patterns, where the big boys roam or where to find them are some of the reasons many hunters go home empty-handed.
However, there is hope for intrepid travelers of the deer woods who are looking to tag a giant somewhere other than their back yards. They just need to learn the tricks of the trade.
Going in blind to a new area and pulling a buck out of a place you have never hunted is challenging, but there are a few hunters who have mastered the art and typically tag monster bucks every year as a result.
Joel Maxfield of Mathews Inc. is one of these hunters. Maxfield regularly finds himself at full draw on bucks. Sometimes he is being taped for a television show and is hunting prime real estate; other times he's hunting public land by himself. Because Maxfield works for Mathews, he has a lenient schedule in the fall as his employer allows him to hunt. The rest of us aren't always that fortunate, but Maxfield says that in order to consistently tag big bucks, time off from work is critical.
"If hunters are going to a new area they have never hunted before and want to hold out for a big buck, they should plan on having a couple weeks to hunt," Maxfield said. "A long weekend won't cut it. It takes time to locate good areas, hang stands and find bucks," Maxfield explained.
There are several ways to locate big bucks. Topo maps and state maps that show public and private land is the best way to narrow the number of huntable locations. On a recent outing with Maxfield, we studied a topo map that was downloaded onto a cell phone.
Many experts use climbing treestands to make them extremely mobile. The moment they see fresh sign, they are ready to hunt instead of worrying about climbing sticks or a ladder.
At one point, we changed stand locations based on a funnel we found on the topo map. Topo maps can teach you more about an area than you can ever learn on your own. A few hours with a topo map can help you learn an area very well, even if you have never been there.
In addition to topo maps, you need to hunt in areas that are known for holding big bucks.
"A few years ago, I was looking for a new place to hunt," Maxfield said. "I looked at a few maps of states I knew held big bucks. I literally closed my eyes and put my finger on the map, drove to that area, and began scouting. I drove up and down dirt roads scouting out property from the truck."
That area is one of Maxfield's favorite places to hunt. Would he have put his finger on a map of Vermont or Rhode Island? Of course not. He only goes to states that hold big bucks. With computers, you can scout from your chair, locate good areas based on aerial photos and topo maps and locate possible bedding areas and funnels without leaving home.
Maxfield spends a fair amount of time locating public land that others overlook or don't realize is public property.
"I have hunted public land that is better than a lot of private land," Maxfield said. "Some states have walk-on programs where farmers basically allow hunters to use their property. Sometimes this property isn't well-marked so many hunters overlook the area. Other times, I've hunted public land that doesn't get much pressure.
"The key is finding these areas, which takes time. I have hunted public land in the middle of the rut and have only seen one other truck on the property, which is unheard of in certain parts of the country," Maxfield added.
During the summer, Maxfield travels on the weekends to find prime locations and prepare for the fall. Like most bowhunters, he uses scouting cameras to pinpoint big bucks.
"Everyone who is serious about finding bucks in unfamiliar territory should have a scouting camera. They can really help a hunter narrow down where he should hang his stand," he noted.
Scouting cameras are a must-have piece of equipment if you are hunting a new area.
Another hunter who regularly travels to hunt white-tailed deer is Tom Johnson from west Michigan. Two steps he takes in preparing to hunt unfamiliar areas include calling local biologists and using trail cameras.
"Calling a biologist months before a hunt to get information about the area you plan to hunt can be very helpful," Johnson said. "A biologist won't tell you about his favorite hot spot, but he may help you narrow down which areas you should hunt if you tell them about a few areas you are considering."
If you don't have weeks to scout a new area, calling biologists, studying maps and choosing an area to hunt that you know holds big bucks long before your feet hit the woods is one way to get educated and save some valuable time, too.
"Hunters need to be detectives in the woods," Johnson said. "Whether I am hunting at home or in a state I have never hunted before, I hunt big bucks like a detective. I try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Hunters should use the same tactics they use at home or on the road. Look for feeding areas, funnels and hard-to-get-to locations where most hunters are unwilling to go.
"Hopefully, by doing lots of research before leaving home, hunting smart and focusing on areas that I think hold big bucks, I will have a big buck to show for my couple of weeks of hard hunting," Johnson added.
For Maxfield and Johnson, there is no off season. When hunting season is closed, they are working hard to find locations for the following season. In some cases, that means putting in for tags in states that hold drawings. In other cases, that means trying to locate pieces of property that others overlook by studying aerial photographs and calling biologists.
By doing this, they are prepared before they ever arrive at their destinations. Although they may be going in blind, they have enough clues up their sleeves to tip the odds in their favor.
If you are planning an out-of-state trip, always have a GPS. If you have a photo of a big buck on your camera, you can mark the spot on your GPS. Johnson likes having a few different locations marked on his GPS so he always has a back-up plan. On the flip side, if he hangs a camera and doesn't get any pictures and sees little sign, he leaves the area and looks for a new one.
"Hunters should never commit to one spot," Johnson said. "They should always try to find a few spots that are fairly close together. If one spot doesn't pan out, they shouldn't be afraid to go somewhere else."
If you are not sure how to plan an out-of-state hunt and where to go to find a bruiser, I suggest that you start looking at record books kept by Buckmasters, Pope and Young Club and Boone and Crocket Club. Look at the states that consistently produce large bucks and then start doing your homework and saving your vacation days.
Armed with a little time, a few gadgets and some information you found on the Internet, you can be the next Sherlock Holmes of the deer woods.
-- Tracy Breen
To learn more about the author, visit www.tracybreen.com.
Editor's note: Be sure you read and obey all local and state game laws before hunting public land as laws can vary by location and state.
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