Buckmasters Magazine

Bassin’ for Bucks

Bassin’ for Bucks

By Kathy Etling

These tournament fishing pros know a thing or two about taking whitetails.

KEVIN VanDAM 
Age: 44 
Home base: Kalamazoo, Mich. 
Former occupation: tackle and boat salesman 
Years as a pro: 22 
Tournament earnings: nearly $6 million 
Notable achievements: four-time winner of the Bassmaster Classic; seven-time BASS Angler of the Year; FLW Angler of the Year

"I've been bowhunting since I was 12, which was the first year it was legal for me to do so in Michigan,” VanDam said.

His father took him hunting for pheasants and cottontails. He hunted deer, too, but wasn't serious about it.

Considering the youngster had no one to show him how to deer hunt, and hunters in Michigan were not permitted to use treestands, it is remarkable how well VanDam did.

“As a 12-year-old I had a nice opportunity while I was still-hunting,” he recalled. “It seemed like a giant at the time, but the buck was probably just 2 1⁄2 years old. The next year, I bagged a doe. Before long, I was getting a deer, usually a buck, every year. Becoming a serious trophy hunter came with time.”

Thanks to his fishing success, VanDam has hunted deer in Michigan, Texas, Montana, Kansas, Illinois and all over Canada.

He said that when he was a young man he used to keep every bass he caught. Now, it’s strictly catch-and-release.

“It was the same with deer,” he said. “I wanted to shoot any buck I saw. Now I’m looking for quality, and so are my (15-year-old twin) boys, Jackson and Nicholas.”

VanDam’s best buck is a 2011 Kansas 11-pointer that grossed 175 inches. An earlier Kansas buck grossed 173 inches, and he took a Michigan buck that grossed about 150.

He said his experience fishing is similar to hunting, whether on private land or public ground.

“You must be very perceptive to succeed consistently at either one,” he said. “Be aware of everything in your surroundings. Notice what’s going on in nature and determine how it might affect deer behavior and habits. Some of the best fishermen are also good hunters because they notice the little things.”

Like Hackney, VanDam says big bucks are different from their juniors. “Bigger bucks are more sluggish and have a more restricted territory than younger deer, which also is true of big bass.

“Both bucks and bass become vulnerable when a really good food source becomes available. A big bass can go crazy during the shad spawn. The same can be true of a big buck, especially when acorns are falling, persimmons are ripe or he’s found a standing bean field when snow is on the ground.”

GREG HACKNEY
Age: 38
Home base: Gonzales, La.
Former occupation: logging contractor
Years as a pro: 11
Tournament earnings: $2 million plus
Notable achievements: BASS Rookie of the Year in 2004; FLW Angler of the Year in 2005

“I shot my first deer when I was 7 while hunting in Arkansas with my father,” Hackney says.

His favorite place to hunt is an island in the middle of the Mississippi River, and his best buck is a mainframe 10-pointer with three stickers that grossed 1701⁄4 inches. Two days later, he shot a 155-inch 8-pointer.

“Catching a 10-pound bass is like shooting a 170-inch whitetail,” Hackney said. “Each animal has survived for a long time. They are smarter and usually solitary. They don’t do the same things that smaller fish or deer do. A buck that lives that long is almost unkillable; a fish that lives that long is almost uncatchable.”

Just like when fishing, Hackney says structure is the key to success; big bass and old bucks relate to key land features.

When he sets out to find a big bass, Hackney zeros in on any key structure off the beaten path.

“I’m looking for something that other anglers might have overlooked, or that you might have to go to some trouble to reach,” he said.

Fishing examples could include a solitary log, an isolated rock, a piece of wood on a big flat or something he sees on the electronics that looks interesting.

In a recent tournament, Hackney concentrated on an area where other anglers rarely fished, despite its perfect cover: cattails mixed with eelgrass, including some isolated clumps with lilypads.

“The big fish I caught there were always in a seam where different types of vegetation came together,” Hackney said. “The same thing holds true for deer. Hunt where others haven’t, particularly edge areas near heavy cover.

“I’ve taken some really nice bucks in places where I could hear kids playing in the background. They like heavy cover, but they like to see, too. That is why they lurk along the edge.”

DENNY BRAUER
Age: 63
Home base: Camdenton, Mo.
Former occupation: masonry contractor
Years as a pro: 32
Tournament earnings: $2.7 million
Notable achievements: 1987 BASS Angler of the Year, 1998 winner of the Bassmaster Classic, 1998 FLW Angler of the Year, first angler to grace the front of a Wheaties box.

“I started hunting when I was still in high school in Nebraska, so it’s been at least 45 years,” Brauer said.

His best buck is a non-typical from Missouri that grosses 180 inches. He took a 170-incher in Mexico and has hunted whitetails in Nebraska, Kansas, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Texas, Missouri and Illinois.

Brauer says patience is the key to success for bass fishing and deer hunting.

“You need patience for either one,” he said. “If you want to catch a big bass, you have to stick with it. Deer hunting is the same way.”

But it takes more than just drive to take a buck or a bass.

“You can almost look over the land and pick out where, if it were flooded, a big bass would be,” he said. “It’s no different with deer. A big buck will look for a place with heavy cover where he can get away from pressure.

“I have a magical stand at a friend’s place in Illinois that has been very good to me,” Brauer continued. “It’s located at the junction of several nasty ravines that are overgrown with honeysuckle and are almost impenetrable. Those ravines lead to bedding areas, and I see lots of deer. In 16 years of hunting there, I’ve shot maybe four or five deer, but I’m awfully picky.”

SHAW E. GRIGSBY, JR.
Age: 55
Home base: Gainesville, Fla.
Former occupation: pest control business
Years as a pro: 28
Tournament earnings: almost $2 million

“I grew up hunting and fishing with my father, but I gave up hunting when I was about 15 or 16,” Grigsby said. “I started shooting a bow about 20 years ago and am now passionate about deer hunting. Nowadays, I like to say I fish so I can afford to hunt.”

Grigsby has hunted whitetails in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Colorado and South Carolina, where he owns 200 acres. “South Carolina has a huge population of whitetails and a really long season, so it fuels my addiction,” he said.

Although not his highest-scoring buck, the pro angler says he’s particularly proud of a 120-inch Florida 8-pointer, a very nice buck for the Sunshine State. He’s taken several 130-inch bucks, and his biggest is a 154-inch Colorado 11-pointer.

Like Brauer, Grigsby says patience is one of the keys to being successful.

“Fishing taught me patience and stealth,” he said. “If you come rambling into a cove and make a lot of noise, you won’t have much success. It’s the same with whitetail hunting. Keep quiet and leave as small a footprint as possible and you’ll have better success.”

In addition, he likes to be prepared for the moment a big buck shows.

“Neither bass nor bucks will get big and old without being super smart, so a lot of things have to come together to take either one,” he said. “That means paying attention to every little detail. I spool up all my reels, sharpen my hooks and do everything right. When hunting, I keep my bow shot and tuned, my broadheads sharpened and make sure my arrows are spinning properly. Paying attention to detail is what helps you succeed.”

Bassin’ for BucksGERALD SWINDLE
Age: 42
Home base: Warrior, Ala.
Former occupation: carpenter
Years as a pro: 17
Tournament earnings: more than $1.5 million
Notable accomplishments: 2004 BASS Angler of the Year

“I was hunting with my father at such an early age that he had to carry me on his back to the treestand,” Swindle said. “And I’ve been an avid bowhunter for the past 22 years.”

Swindle’s biggest buck is a 164-inch 9-pointer that has a spread of 22 3⁄4 inches. His favorite, however, was taken in his home state of Alabama, a 12-pointer that scored 155. He’s also hunted in Kentucky, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Ohio.

Swindle says he’s learned more from his failures than his successes.

“The more you fail, the harder you try,” he said. “The feeling of figuring out a mature whitetail’s daily eating, bedding and chasing patterns is every bit as exciting to me as figuring out how to catch a limit in a Bassmaster Elite tournament. Patience is something you must cultivate to be a successful outdoorsman. You have to study the conditions and the weather and hunt or fish accordingly.”

He compares a heavy, old bass to a big, mature buck. “Big bass and big bucks have a few things in common,” he said. “They don’t make many mistakes. A big bass won’t bite a lure that is presented wrong, and a big buck doesn’t walk out into a greenfield for no reason. You have to study each animal’s weakness, which is usually food or love, and know how to take advantage of it.”

Swindle also isn’t afraid to take the fight to a buck.

“I’ve found that sometimes it’s better to be more aggressive when hunting around a big buck’s bedding area,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to push the envelope.”

Read Recent Articles:

Does Matter: If your objective is a buck, you should spend more time scouting does.

Climbers vs. Hang-Ons: Being wrong isn’t always a bad thing.

Every Deer, Every Time: Follow this expert tracker’s advice to increase your recovery rate.

This article was published in the September 2012 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2017 by Buckmasters, Ltd