How to score on ultra-smart, ultra-wary whitetails.
It had already been a long day. I’d showered, crossed two swamps, stripped, bathed in Scent Killer and gotten dressed twice — and it was still an hour before first light.
Shortly after settling in, I heard the buck coming. At most, it was 60 yards away behind a clump of brush near several scrapes.
My stand was at the edge of the tall grass and brush I believed was the big buck’s bedding area. The problem was, it was still too dark to take an ethical shot.
As the bruiser began to walk away, I pinned my hopes on catching him coming back out later in the day.
That’s when I caught a break.
The high pitched grunt of a young buck caught both our attentions. The youngster approached the scrapes and began to sniff and paw the ground.
He must have felt the dagger-laced glare, because his head snapped up and he locked eyes with his older cousin.
The two bucks remained motionless for what seemed like an eternity, each passing second increasing the chances I would get a shot.
Finally, the youngster approached the big buck in a submissive posture. I drew my bow, focused on a spot just behind the big buck’s shoulder and released.
Just that quick, I’d taken a big 12-pointer on heavily pressured public ground.
DO NO EVIL
When hunting older bucks on pressured ground, you have to remember they didn’t get big by being stupid. They don’t take needless risks, and they don’t get fooled by aggressive tactics.
Forget most of what you’ve read about scents, calling and rattling. A pressured buck exposed to those tactics on a regular basis has learned to avoid those sounds and smells.
My 2011 Wisconsin public land buck is a prime example. I found a small pocket of cover within sight of the parking area and concluded the reason for the large bed and shredded trees in the pocket was because other hunters always headed for the big timber.
The first morning, I heard another hunter begin a rattling sequence at first light. Even before he finished, I spotted my buck coming. It was headed the opposite direction of the rattling and straight for its bed.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to public land, either. While you might wear jeans and a T-shirt to put up stands before hunting season on private property, you won’t get away with that anywhere that gets pressure from other hunters.
Along the same lines, I make as little impact as possible when creating a setup. While I might clear shooting lanes or use a chain saw on my less-pressured spots, as long as I’m done working a month or so before deer season, I don’t sweat it.
Conversely, when hunting pressured ground, I like to perform all stand preparation work extra early. You can’t have stands up in the off season on the public land I hunt, so I hang the stands before spring green up, do the minimum trimming required to shoot, and immediately remove the stands.
During this process, I practice the same scent control measures I use when hunting.
When the season finally arrives, I carry in my stand, set it up as quietly as possible and immediately hunt the setup. The goal is to catch a buck completely by surprise.
I believe mature bucks learn to identify the telltale signs of stand-hanging activity. While I don’t think a whitetail smells human odor on a cut branch and realizes a hunter just created a shooting lane, I do think they quickly become nocturnal and avoid any areas with human odor during daylight hours.
Taking such a cautious approach often means ignoring obvious deer sign.
One example of this was when I hunted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land along the Illinois River. The strip of timber between the river and farm fields was filled with jaw dropping sign. Fresh scrapes and large rubs were everywhere — and so were other hunters.
The deer sign on the islands was less impressive. There were a handful of scrapes and a few rubs, but it was the scattering of deer beds that sold me on the spot. That, combined with experience, told me deer were swimming to the island before first light, spending their days there, and swimming back after dark.
The limited trimming I did cost me a shot at one buck, and an unseen branch caused my arrow to deflect over the back of another. They were both monsters.
It’s important to remember that the only deer sign of value is that created during legal shooting hours. Focus on sign left in daylight, even when it’s far less impressive. Let everyone else hunt nighttime sign.
LET OTHERS WORK FOR YOU
Speaking of everyone else, let other hunters work for you.
One of the best public land strategies is to hunt right next to a bedding area and wait for other hunters to push deer to you.
That means you have to get in and get settled early. The early bird gets the worm, and the early hunter often gets the buck.
When mature bucks feel pressure, they head for areas within their home range where they feel safe. But you have to beat other hunters and the deer to those locations.
On pressured land, I plan to be settled in at least an hour before shooting light. That doesn’t mean I arrive at the spot then. Add to the hour enough time to set up a stand or do anything else you need to do to get ready.
When gun hunting, I sit all day. That way, every time other hunters so much as twitch, they are working for me. When they enter the woods, get up to do some still-hunting or walk out for lunch and come back for the afternoon hunt, they are driving deer to my location.
Hunting mature, pressured bucks is tough, but there are far more of them than most hunters realize.
If you’re willing to scout and set up your stands earlier, pay attention to scent control at all times in the woods, find bedding thickets most hunters overlook and get up earlier and stay later than everyone else, you can tag a mature buck on public land.
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This article was published in the November 2012 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.