By Randy D. Smith
-- There was a time when I had all the deer hunting ground I could ever want. I had free access to nearly a thousand acres of sandhill pasture, creek bottoms, and riverine woods bordering some of the best farmland in Kansas. Some of it was pasture my father leased but much of it was neighbors' crop land. I also owned a small second home in Downs, Kan., that bordered 12,000 acres of some of the state's best public hunting.
Photo: One of several decent bucks I've taken in the slough on my father's farm. I took this one with a .50 caliber muzzleloader at 100 yards when he flushed from his CRP bed at dawn of regular rifle season open day.
We didn't work too hard taking deer on any one place because there was lots of other ground to try if we didn't spot something we wanted. It was a world of plenty, and we filled our freezers every year with does, while keeping a weathered eye out for a really good buck. Great gobs of grief! How times have changed!
My father retired from farming and settled in on his lone quarter of CRP grass. I sold my house in Downs and ended up in Dodge City, Kan., nearly a 5-hour drive away. A flood ravaged the Glen Elder public hunting ground and turned beautiful whitetail and turkey lowlands into weed choked ruins. Hunting it wasn't worth the drive anymore. Gradually, as neighbors grew old or passed on to the next world, their ground ended up being either leased or sold. Pressure from other hunters and private leases gradually reduced my land access to that one lone quarter my dad owns and a few small honey holes of walk-in public hunting.
Still, I didn't have too much trouble because the land I was hunting was highly productive. Normally I'll buy an any-whitetail tag and at least two Kansas Game Tags. I hunt the muzzleloader season for a trophy buck and then wait for the early December firearms season to fill my doe tags and the buck tag if it remained unfilled. For 17 years in a row, I took at least two, and often three, nice deer a season, filled the freezer with fresh venison, and lived like a king.
Photo: One of my favorite deer haunts on walk-in public hunting ground. I normally have no competition from other hunters on this ground because of the long hike to get to it. It is probably less than two acres but has yielded good bucks season after season.
Although I didn't realize it, I had developed a certain pattern of hunting where I eliminated much of my deer hunting competition. I was successful because of the methods and the timing of my hunts. When that fell apart, I came up with an empty sack for the first time in nearly two decades.
To make a long story short, I missed muzzleloader season because of business commitments and a trip to Washington, D.C. Opening day of regular rifle season, I came down with the mother and father of all flues and was bedridden for three days. I didn't get out until the first Sunday, the fifth day of the season. I got one crack at a truly superior white-tailed buck but pressure from competing hunters turned him at 300 yards. I was hunting with my Ruger No.1 .300 Weatherby Mag but had just replaced the scope and didn't have it dialed in as well as I should have. Shooting from a well-braced sitting stance, I missed him by a good foot. I had been sloppy when I hurriedly sighted-in the scope, and I paid the price. For the rest of the season, the only deer I saw were slightly larger than a collie.
Photo: The continuous crop wheat ground to the south of my father's farm has yielded many doe over the years. I shoot from a ground blind situated in CRP grass overlooking the open wheat field. I took this nice doe with a .54 caliber muzzleloader at 60 yards about 15 minutes before sundown.
By the time the season had ended, I looked back over the years and realized why I had been so successful before and had failed to take anything worth shooting that season. You can be sure that I'll go back to my old patterns this fall.
Hunt When No One Else Hunts
Opening day of muzzleloader deer season in mid-September normally finds me out in the woods with virtually no competition. It is hot, often windy, and usually bug infested. I do a lot of blind hunting at dawn and dusk. I use ground blinds situated along border areas between alfalfa fields and woods. I sit in one of the new, low-slung folding chairs that are popular for turkey hunting so I can remain perfectly still for long periods of time. I wear lots of bug repellant and cover scent, and try to get into position at least 90 minutes before I expect the deer to show up. Most years, I'll pass on a number of small bucks and does while I wait for a really nice buck. I'll often have deer pass to within bow range without seeing me. I enjoy that time of year and the close encounters as long as I have plenty of repellant.
During the day, I stalk areas where deer usually bed down. I concentrate on isolated small woods areas, old farmsteads, and low land CRP grass that is surrounded by hills. When I advance through heavy CRP grass, I'll stop every 70 yards or so and give one hit on my grunt call. I'll bust a nice buck from his pillow about once every three seasons. On many occasions, I've shot him as he rose from his grass bed to see the source of the grunt. Shots are usually very quick and at ranges from 30 to 60 yards. I like to carry a big-bore muzzleloader carbine and shoot the heaviest conicals I can load. I have a .58 Plains rifle shooting patched round balls, a .54 caliber inline carbine shooting 430-grain conicals, and a .50 Knight Revolution loaded with a 300-grain sabot load. Open sights are regulated for the early season. I like to use a muzzleloader load that will knock a buck down with a solid hit or leave a massive blood trail if he runs. This is no time to be using high-velocity, light-weight bullet loads. I want big holes and heavy blood trails.
Except for last season, I normally take all my deer on the Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday of opening week of deer season. After the first weekend, hunting pressure drives most of the shootable deer onto isolated ground where there is little or no hunting allowed. The early bird truly does get the deer as I learned last season.
Hunt Where No One Else Hunts
The rules to this are simple. Eighty-five percent of firearms deer hunters are too lazy to walk more than 100 yards from their trucks. Any time you can find isolated woods a half-mile to a mile away from a road, your chances of taking a deer early in the season are magnified. I have one piece of walk-in public hunting, only 80 acres, with less than 2 acres of lowland woods on it that produced nice white-tailed bucks for five seasons in a row. The reason is that the 2 acres of woods are at the extreme center of the section bordering another 30 or 40 acres of private woods. Season after season I'd work into that small area before dawn on opening day of regular rifle season, find a nice sit down, and wait for hunting pressure from the private land to drive the deer by me.
Another piece of ground is walk-in public hunting but the best whitetail cover is a mile and a half walk from the nearest road and no vehicles are allowed. This has never been a piece of ground where I'd shoot just anything because of the labor involved in dragging it out. But a trophy buck is a different story. I've taken two 140-plus-class bucks on that ground, always the second weekend of a 10-day season when all the easy ground was hunted out and the bucks were hiding where there was no pressure.
Work the Ground You Have
Almost anyone looking at my father's quarter section of CRP would never consider it to be prime whitetail hunting ground. It is virtually treeless except around his farmstead. If you carefully study the ground and watch for sign, however, you'll quickly see that it is a veritable deer highway. A dry slough runs the entire length of the quarter with gentle slopes toward hilltops on both sides. This slough links an isolated 10-acre stand of cedars and tall cottonwoods in the center of the section to a large, heavily traveled highway bridge on the north. Deer are able to follow that slough without much open exposure and pass under the highway when the water is low. At the south end of the quarter lies another open section of continuous crop wheat land. To the east of that lie several quarters of creek bottom pasture.
A hunter can wait by that slough all day and never see a deer because virtually all the traffic is at night. To get around that I place deer lick blocks and corn at three locations along the slough to attract bucks to the minerals. Even though they hit the blocks at night, I want them to maintain the habit of using that slough. Using my ground blind, I set up along that slough near the borders for the first and last hours of the day and during extremely cold or snowy weather. Bucks will often use heavy CRP grass for warmth, cover and a windbreak when hunting pressure is heavy. Once the wheat on the south side of the quarter is attracting deer, I set up at the extreme southeast corner and wait for them to come out of the creek pasture to the wheat in the evenings. I have permission from the landowner to shoot does only on his ground as they cross to the wheat. Usually this is in the very last minutes of legal shooting time, but it has proven to be a dependable source of does for the freezer. I like long-range rifles with high-powered scopes for this hunting. Normally I'll use my .300 Weatherby Ruger No.1 with a 4-12X scope or my .30-06 Mossberg 100ATR with a 3-9X scope.
Once in a great while, a buck will be with them, but most of my bucks have been taken along that slough when hunting pressure and cold weather have forced them to lay up in the tall grass. I never enter the ground during deer season without carefully glassing areas where I know bucks traditionally lie to get out of the wind. We allow no upland bird hunting on the ground until after deer season so the bucks are not disturbed during the day. We stay off the ground as much as possible during the day for a couple of weeks before the season. I honestly believe that this little piece of heaven has produced more shootable bucks over the years than any other piece of ground I've hunted over a 30-year span. I didn't realize how good the ground could be until I lost my other land. Go figure.
Hunt when no one else is hunting; hunt where very few would hunt; know the ground intimately; and try to be there early in the season. This is nothing expensive and it is certainly not rocket science, but it has filled my freezer season in and season out. You can be certain that I'll try to get back in that groove this fall.
By Randy D. Smith