Call it smart or call it instinct, big bucks often hide out where we least expect.
The first time I tried rattling, I thought I was disturbing the woods and doing more harm than good. I’m not from Texas, so I got into that game a little late. But my awkwardness quickly turned into euphoria when a buck popped into view before I could say Sham-Wow.
I’ve had that same “wow” feeling with unfamiliar experiences since then, but not all have stood the test of time. One that has stuck with me is the realization that white-tailed bucks routinely do things I would have called stupid a few years ago. This is especially true when it comes to spots, places and areas.
If you duel one-on-one with whitetails long enough, you learn to keep an open mind. Mature bucks develop an uncanny knack for holing up in some of the strangest places, including some that just ... well, stupid.
For example, it seems that some of my most productive hot spots over the years combine an element of danger along with the element of surprise. Normally, I’d expect a worthy whitetail to hide out in the thickest out-of-the-way pockets possible. But, thanks to trial and error, I’ve had to make myself include the very opposite in the quest for tagging mature bucks.
Life is a great teacher, but it often gives tests before we’ve learned the answers. Such was the case a few years back when I thought I’d made a perfect heart shot on a large-bodied buck just before the North Country rut. I was hunting along the edge of a gnarled tag alder swamp where several trails converged — one of my favorite setups.
The buck I had scouted stopped to lick a branch, and I let my arrow fly. It found its mark, right behind the shoulder. Strangely, I couldn’t find any blood — not even a pin-drop. After trying every tracking trick in the book, I gave up and used my rule of last resort: follow every trail until it disappears. This works wonders in super-thick vegetation, where deer tend to stick to their trails more.
Well, I found my buck. It was lying in the last place I would ever think of putting up a treestand: about 50 yards from a double-lane highway.
Fortunately, my curiosity got the best of me and I resisted the temptation of passing it off as a stroke of luck. I field-dressed the deer, flagged it with surveyor’s tape and began to circle the area. What I found was a treasure trove of buck sign the likes of which I’d never seen.
I counted about 15 rubs on thigh-thick trees, along with a host of previous years’ rubs. I also counted a half-dozen scrapes, including a community scrape the size of a pickup bed. What’s more, trails spiraled from it like spokes from an old wagon wheel — talk about the mother lode!
Since that day, I’ve discovered a stupidly easy way to uncover highway bucks in other places: “deer crossing” highway signs. Not all such spots are huntable; some are. To score in the latter, you need moxie and forethought.
For instance, there’s rarely a place to park near such spots since highways are designed to move traffic; wide shoulders are the exception, not the rule. This forces long walks in some very remote areas. One way around that is to team up with a buddy who can drop you off at a strategic entry point. My wife serves as my highway buck chauffeur when she has to make trips into town. When she doesn’t ... well, that’s another argument.
When hunting hear highways, remember that bucks often travel parallel to roads and other obstructions on their way to crossings. Quite often you will find subtle buck trails just inside the woods line. It’s a stupid place to set up a stand considering the road noise and the scenic backdrop of electricity wires. But the photo on the bottom left of this page is testimony to how effective this pattern can be.
Find some deer-crossing signs, log on to Google Earth and take the plunge.
THE OUT-IN-THE-OPEN BUCK
Another stupid thing I’ve learned over the years is that deer don’t always demand the thickest cover. A classic example is a CRP tract.
While most hunters consider these eye-high patches impossible to exploit, I’ve learned the hard way how best to hunt the bucks that live in them, partly through personal experience and partly through advice from others. I’ve written about bowhunter extraordinaire Adam Hays in Buckmasters before, and I’ll probably do so again thanks to his consistent success.
“The first and best step is to define the exact bedding area of a specific buck,” Hays says. “I use trail cameras to learn where bucks spend most of their time entering and leaving these bedding areas. Then I wait for a favorable lunar period that encourages the bucks to head for a predictable food source. Hopefully I’ve been able to glass the buck in alfalfa or bean fields. That allows me to pick a spot to set up.”
Sometimes, however, you have to literally hunt in the CRP to have a fighting chance. You might have read the story about Spook Span’s bodacious stalk of a ginormous 230-inch buck in the October, 2008 issue of Buckmasters. Believe it or not, about the time that issue was on its way to Buckmasters members, Span pulled off the same maneuver on another world-class whitetail. He says you can sneak up on a buck, too.
“The first step is pinpointing where a buck prefers to bed,” he said. “Surprisingly, even trophy bucks tend to bed within a rather small radius in CRP patches if the area meets their basic needs. I’m talking about a circle of 30 to 50 yards. Next, pick your place. You need just the right wind for belly-crawling to the buck, and I’m not just talking about avoiding getting winded. I’m just as concerned about the wind’s orientation to available cover.
“Not even Spider Man could sneak up to a mature buck if there wasn’t some shrubbery between him and the animal. Look for plumb thickets, cedars, clumps of grass and the like. If you can get the wind and cover in the right combination, you have a pretty decent chance.”
While stalking in open country is difficult, at least it feels normal — you expect a buck to be hiding in the thick CRP. This next technique feels anything but normal, but it can be highly effective.
I’ll never forget my most recent out-in-the-open treestand buck. To be honest, I bit my tongue when Taby Schultz of Sand Rock Outfitters showed me one of her ladder stands. “No self-respecting buck would ever pass by this ladder during daylight hours,” I thought. Forget the fact that I’d only be about 12 feet above ground — half the elevation of the stands I hang.
Ladder stands are not my cup of tea. I had the common yet mistaken perception that ladders are best suited for the disabled, beginners and women. But I hung in there and, well, the story behind my best-ever Iowa buck will turn up in these pages in due time. Since that memorable day, one of the first places I seek out is a big field that looks impossible to bowhunt.
Suburbia affords the mysterious whitetail the best habitat on God’s green earth. There are plenty of sun-splashed openings that encourage the growth of lawns, gardens and shrubs, providing luscious and palatable high-protein table fare for hungry whitetails. And there are plenty of sanctuaries where they can grow old. Finally, there are a LOT of female deer.
I used to think that whitetails were creatures of the wilderness. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Whitetails thrive in close proximity to concrete, asphalt and steel. And, like the highway buck, the civilized buck knows how to negotiate man’s intrusions. With exploding populations and few options for reducing deer numbers, many cities rely on special archery hunts. Without obliging bowhunters, the alternatives are costly, socially distasteful and inefficient.
A telemetry study conducted by Howard Kilpatrick in Connecticut shows why. Invariably, crafty suburban whitetails have two ways to respond to pressure. The first is to dive deep into cover too thick to hunt. You already know what happens next: We go in after them anyway. Some goofballs (like me) persist and somehow manage to penetrate these thickets. That’s when smart bucks resort to their most stupid stunt of all. They hole up near dwellings.
That’s right, I’m talking about backyard bucks, the mature bruisers that go to ground within sight of garages, tool sheds and similar accessory buildings.
I used to help manage an urban hunt, and I learned from many bowhunters that setting up near buildings was the only way they could score on a consistent basis. While those hunts were focused more on does (and the wonderful meals they provide), bucks were never far behind. Such an environment isn’t postcard pretty, nor does it fit the perfect script you’d write for tagging your biggest buck. But it is still a hunt; these deer aren’t dumb.
Perhaps the best stupid whitetail spot is a suburban/urban management hunt that includes CRP-type cover. That’s the recipe accomplished bowhunter Jay Bergman tapped recently. “Let’s just say it’s a long story,” he told me when I asked him how he scored on such an amazing whitetail in the midst of automobiles and humans. The photo of Bergman and his management buck is in the upper-left corner of this page.
Bergman treasures his “city buck” so much that he refuses to score the rack. Now that’s an idea that some might consider stupid. I surely don’t.
– Jeff Murray is no longer with us, but his timeless writing and excellent advice lives on.
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This article was published in the November 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.