By Tracy Breen
Jeff Murray with one of his many large whitetails he harvested by hunting in the transition zones.
Most deer hunters harvest wall-worthy bucks only occasionally. Even then, it’s most often a case of being in the right place at the right time. A few hunters, however, seem to have discovered the secret to the big-buck program. At most, they make up 10 percent of the hunters in the woods. That 10 percent harvests about 90 percent of the Trophy bucks.
What separates the elite from the rest of us? What do they do that we don’t? Perhaps a better question is, what can we learn from the 10 percent?
I talked with three trophy hunters. All three have been harvesting trophies for years, often on public ground or small parcels of private land where any one of us could gain access. Because of their success, all three have opportunities to hunt exclusive parcels today, but those opportunities came about only after they were considered big-buck experts. They paid their dues and gained their expertise by hunting hard and smart.
Most of you have heard of Myles Keller. Keller is a buck-hunting machine. What does he do differently from other hunters? Several things. “For starters, when I’m looking for a good area to hunt, I want to know if big bucks are in the area,” he said. “That might sound dumb; but the truth is, you won’t find a big buck if one doesn’t live in the area you are hunting. To narrow down the search, I look at record books and determine which counties produce the biggest bucks in the state I am hunting in. If you are hunting in an area where bucks don’t get a chance to grow old or don’t have the food sources available to grow big, it doesn’t matter how hard you hunt - you will never find a big buck. Begin by hunting areas that hold large bucks.”
After Keller finds a good location, he takes a look at an aerial photograph of the property. “You can get a better feel for a piece of property by looking at a photo,” he said. “It helps to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I could walk around for hours trying to locate good funnels and bedding areas. With a photo, I can figure things out much faster.”
To be successful, Keller says, a buck can’t know it is being hunted. Big bucks are smart and will change their patterns quickly if alerted to your presence. Keller tries to find the quietest way into the woods. “As I’m scouting, I look for ways to get in and out of the woods without making a sound. Sometimes that is by walking through a creek for a long distance. Other times, it is by paddling a canoe. If you stay quiet, the bucks will never know you are there.”
Keller is so confident about his ability to slip in and out of the woods that he often hunts on the edge of bedding areas or even in them. To hunt these locations, you must pay attention to every little detail. “I try to remain as scent-free as possible when hunting, especially when hunting bedding areas,” he said. “I achieve that by using scent-elimination sprays. I try to hunt the wind, but you never know where a buck is going to come from. Being scent-free helps you succeed more often. Never cut corners when it comes to eliminating your scent.”
It is bucks like this one that have made Myles Keller a household name.
Keller says you shouldn’t over-hunt your favorite stand. “If you have a great stand location, don’t over-hunt it. You should only hunt it occasionally and at the right time of the season. I often hunt observation stands. This allows me to pattern deer that use the area around my best location. If I hunted my best locations all the time, the deer would quickly catch on to my presence.”
Another man who is no stranger to big bucks is John Eberhart. Eberhart does the vast majority of his deer hunting on public ground in Michigan, a state that boasts almost as many deer hunters as deer. He also hunts private property, but those areas often have crowds as well. Even though he hunts pressured whitetails every year, Eberhart ends up nose-to-nose with whitetails that anyone would be proud to hang over the fireplace.
Pressured whitetails are a different animal that, according to him, require extra effort to tag. “If you want to consistently tag a large-antlered buck in Michigan and other high-pressure locations, spend a lot of time in the woods after the season ends,” Eberhart said. “After the season, many hunters want to go home and sit on the couch. This is the most important time to be in the woods.”
When scouting during the post-season, Eberhart looks for sign from the most recent rut. “During the post-season, I try to locate old scrape lines in thick cover. Once I locate them, I trim branches for shooting lanes and do whatever else I need to do to prepare for the next season. By scouting right after the season ends, I don’t worry about scaring Mister Big.
“Hunters who walk through the woods a few weeks before the season opens are going to spook deer. The last thing I want to do is spook a monster buck. Since big bucks are so rare where I hunt, I do not want to ruin the few chances I get, which is why I do most of my scouting just after the rut.”
When Eberhart does his post-season scouting, he also locates food sources and travel routes. “You can get a better lay of the land after all of the trees lose their leaves and will often discover travel routes or an old apple tree you didn’t even know existed a month ago,” Eberhart said. He looks for lone fruit trees because he knows that a fruit tree will receive lots of attention once the fruit begins to fall.
Eberhart doesn’t waste his time hunting during the early part of the season. He hunts the first few days of bow season in hopes of finding a buck at a food source. After that, he stays out whether he tags a buck or not. “After two or three days of hunting in the early season, I stay out of the woods until the rut,” he said.
“Once the rut is in full swing, I hunt hard. I often get into my stand two hours before daylight and stay there until after dark. A large percentage of the bucks I have taken were harvested in the early afternoon. Bucks at this time of day are checking on hot does and are usually traveling to specific locations. I try to stay near the bedding areas where the does come and go, near a food source, or near a scrape line. Bucks know hunters aren’t in the woods at this time and regularly travel during midday to avoid hunting pressure.”
Eberhart likes to find a number of hunting locations. “I often network with friends and family to obtain permission to hunt land from people I know. I always look for new places to hunt. I spend a lot of time on public land. I like to have lots of options. I trim dozens of shooting lanes each year and often only hunt 10 or so of those locations. I hunt from an ambush saddle [a wearable ‘treestand’] so I don’t have to worry about hanging stands.
“With a saddle, I can hunt from almost any tree, even if it isn’t straight. They are quiet and make me extremely mobile, which is important when I am looking for big bucks. If I discover a new food source or if something changes, I am ready to go. My saddle only weighs a pound and a half, which makes it perfect for long hikes.”
Eberhart, like Keller, spends countless days scouting and finding new locations, and hunts extremely hard. Like Keller, he is a fanatic about scent. He never climbs into a tree without wearing a Scent-Lok suit, complete with a hood.
Well-known outdoor writer Jeff Murray is another guy who consistently tags monster whitetails. Murray has a variety of tricks up his sleeve to get the job done. One of his main tactics is hunting deer by the moon. In the 1990s, Murray did research on how the moon affects deer and their movement patterns. He wrote a book on the subject, “Moon Struck.” Murray says the moon plays a big role in deer movement. The places he hunts and when he hunts depend on moon times.
“Most hunters, including myself, don’t have a lot of time to spend in the woods,” he said. “I like to hunt when the odds are in my favor. Research shows that the moon greatly affects deer movement, and if I hunt based on moon times, I put the odds in my favor. The best time to be in the woods is when the moon is overhead or underfoot,” Murray explained. He loves to hunt the transition zones between bedding areas and food sources.
He believes, as Keller and Eberhart do, that you need to be in the woods all day. “Sometimes the best time to hunt is midday. Making it a priority to be in the woods during the middle of the afternoon can greatly increase a hunter’s chances of bagging a buck.”
One thing Murray does a little different is a lot of shed hunting. “I look for sheds after the season, because I want to know which bucks made it through,” he said. “If I find good sheds, chances are that buck will be there next year. This helps me decide where to hunt. I want to hunt areas that I know hold large bucks. Finding sheds is one of the best ways of knowing your buck inventory.”
Murray likes using scouting cameras, too. “I wasn’t always a big fan of scouting cameras, but now I realize that they are a great tool when used properly. The key is not checking them too often. If you are in the woods every other day to check your camera, you will leave a lot of scent in the woods. Check them sparingly to get an idea of what time of day the deer are using a certain area and how big the bucks are.”
Scent elimination is the common thread that ties these three hunters together. Murray is a scent fanatic. He wears a different Scent-Lok hood each time he goes hunting, because he believes hair and breath give off a large portion of the human odor that deer smell. “We take thousands of breaths daily, and our heads sweat a lot. By constantly rotating my hood, I allow the fresh hood to do the job it was intended to do. A lot of hunters use the same carbon-lined hood all season. Carbon has a saturation point; and if hunters don’t rotate their mask and regenerate them in a dryer, a fair amount of human odor will still be floating through the air.”
Listening to these pros, one thing becomes clear: They all pay attention to the small details. By constantly making sure they are scent-free, spending hours in the woods before and after season, and studying deer behavior, these hunters learned how to take a lot of the luck factor out of harvesting big bucks.
Every bowhunter I know had a mentor who taught them a thing or two about chasing whitetails. Murray and Eberhart said Keller taught both of them volumes. If you do what they do and pay attention to the details, maybe next year you’ll be smiling over a trophy buck.
-- Reprinted from the July 2007 issue of Buckmasters Magazine