Despite loads of sign and tons of deer sightings, there are places on this earth that God seemingly created just to frustrate hunters.
From my perch on an open ridge high above the James River valley in central North Dakota, I could see nine BTR whitetails — the same nine bucks I had glassed the week before, and the same nine bucks I had glassed the week before that.
With the opening of bow season only a few days away, it’s understandable that I was feeling a little smug. Actually, confident was the word, especially since I was able to secretly place six treestands across the valley.
From my vantage point on the wind-swept ridge a half-mile above the valley, I kept tabs on the deer. Twice on this last evening of scouting before the season was to open, I watched record-book whitetails pass right beneath a pair of my treestands. A giant whitetail seemed assured.
Deer season in North Dakota always opens at noon on a Friday, generally late in August, when temperatures are high and deer movement is low until late in the evening. Still, this setup was so perfect that I wanted to be in early. So, many hours before sunset, I set off across the prairie in shorts and a T-shirt, with my camo stored in my pack.
Nearing the overgrown gravel pit and the giant cottonwood that held my portable treestand, I relaxed for a bit and cooled down before easing the last few yards and climbing aloft. Not spooking any deer en route made me all the more confident that I would be tagging a monster buck before the sun kissed the western horizon.
The first few hours of my vigil were slow, given the 90-degree temperatures, but as evening approached, deer seemed to be popping up everywhere.
The valley consisted of several old gravel pits that had long since overgrown with brush and cottonwood trees, as well as several small groves of mature trees. All of this was enveloped in a vast sea of CRP and sweet clover. The deer bedded all across the valley and fed heavily on the clover, but they always seemed to move in and out of the gravel pits, which is where I placed my stands.
I had already passed point-blank shots at over a dozen deer, including several young bucks, when the first book-class whitetail stood up less than 100 yards away.
The buck was a clean 4x4 that was tall and wide and would score in the mid-130s. Almost immediately, he began feeding in my direction. As he closed the distance, I eased into position and prepared for a close encounter with the longbow that I held firmly in my left hand. But in short order, the buck’s head snapped around and he stared intently off to the south. For long moments, he stood like a statue in front of me, but I could neither hear nor see anything amiss.
Suddenly, a pair of pickups came roaring around a bend in the ridge far down the road that led to my honey hole. The big buck swapped ends and went streaking off to the north, taking every other deer in the neighborhood with him. The two vehicles skidded to a stop in a cloud of dust at an overgrown sand pile a couple hundred yards down the valley. Six “sportsmen” got out and proceeded to spend the rest of the evening plinking away with .22s right up until sundown.
I didn’t see another deer that night; and, to add insult to injury, this exact scene was replayed three more times over the season. Eventually, even on days when my hunts weren’t interrupted, the deer never moved until well after dark because of all the activity. My guaranteed buck setup became just another Perfect Place You’ll Never Take a Deer.
If you hunt a lot, you are bound to find a place or two that seems to be a can’t-miss setup — a place that’s overrun with deer sign and especially big buck sign, where you feel sure of tagging a monster.
Unfortunately, few things in life are guaranteed, least of all a record-book whitetail on the wall. For one reason or another, some spots offer nothing but frustration and empty tags. And if you’re like me, you keep hunting them because you just can’t convince yourself to do otherwise. The opening story is a perfect example.
I was hunting private land and had sole permission to do so. But my hunting was ruined by trespassers who had no regard for posted signs or other people’s property. The problem was that the landowner lived almost an hour away and didn’t have time to patrol the area.
I did call the game warden, and even though I did see him drive in and check things out a couple times, he was never able to catch the offenders.
Unforeseen disturbance to an area can come in other forms as well, and don’t think you are immune because you hunt on private land. I had a beautiful ambush on a heavily wooded oak ridge in Minnesota one year. It was littered with scrapes and giant rubs, and I was the only hunter on the property. Unfortunately, the adjacent landowner raised goats and wasn’t too particular about keeping them penned up.
They would regularly get out of their pasture and come over for a visit. Seems they liked the acorns as much as the deer, and they were also partial to the cornfield at the base of the ridge. On several evenings, I had a dozen or more raucous animals feeding all around me — and scaring away every deer for miles.
In my experience, though, unforeseen disturbances are not the main culprit when it comes to ruining a perfect whitetail setup. In most cases, the villain is the wind; or, more accurately, the hunter’s scent and what the wind does to it. A deer’s nose is its chief line of defense. The only sure way to fool a buck’s olfactory senses is to make sure the wind is in your favor. But what happens at a spot where it’s impossible to get the wind in the hunter’s favor?
Some areas are impossible to hunt because the wind is always wrong — period. I’ve seen more seemingly perfect spots ruined by this one factor than any other. A great case in point would be a heavily wooded draw I hunted several times in North Dakota. The draw cut through open pasture but was steeply sided and quite deep.
The entire draw from one end to another was full of brush, but not a single tree graced its length, making it necessary to set up on the ground. I did so a number of times near the water hole toward the lower end of the coulee. The problem was that no matter which way the wind was blowing up on top, it swirled terribly down in the draw, making it impossible to remain undetected as deer moved within range.
I saw several big bucks every time I hunted this spot, because the pond was the only water around for miles and it was a dry autumn. The bucks would advance to within 50 yards, their noses would go up, and they would snort and bolt back the way they had come.
I tried setups all around the pond and even moved up the draw; but no matter where I set up, the approaching deer would always catch my scent before getting in range. I even tried sitting beside a rock pile at the upper edge of the draw, which helped with the swirling wind but made shooting impossible because it was too far to the bottom of the draw. Another prime example of a Perfect Spot You’ll Never Take a Deer.
My most frustrating setup is right here on my farm in Minnesota. I have a 3-acre food plot that brings tremendous deer movement, especially early in the season when the clover is green and lush. It’s not uncommon to see 30 deer in the field. Watching from a distance, the vast majority of deer enter the field at a hidden cul-de-sac at the food plot’s northeast corner. A giant oak that guards this hotspot looks like the perfect ambush. Hunting it proves otherwise.
A northwest wind should push the hunter’s scent off toward an open slough directly away from where the deer make their appearance. But the wind carries above the thick woods until it reaches the cul-de-sac, where it drops down and eddies back upwind, alerting every approaching deer that danger is near.
This past fall, I had a beautiful, mature 8-pointer approaching steadily right before dark. But just like innumerable deer before him, his nose went up before he reached bow range, and he turned and raced back into the woods, despite the northwest wind hitting me square in the face.
I’ve given up hunting this stand early in the season when the trees still carry a heavy canopy, because the dense foliage makes the problem worse. After the leaves come down, the wind goes through the woods instead of over the top. Still, it’s a perfect spot from which I’ve never take a big buck.
Fortunately, if we’re not too stubborn, we can learn from our mistakes. Sometimes moving just a few yards can help. But sometimes you just have to give up on a particular area. In today’s world of crowded public hunting, I’ve found that it can be difficult to find a perfect spot and keep it to yourself, but it’s not impossible. As with all hunting, the harder you work and the more scouting you do, the more success you will enjoy.
First learn to recognize an unhuntable perfect spot. Next learn to give up on it and spend your time on a stand with less flash and more potential. Don’t get discouraged when you find that Perfect Spot You’ll Never Take a Deer. Simply look for another.
This article was published in the September 2007 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.