Huge blocks of unbroken timber allow bucks to get old and burly.
The barrel-chested 10-pointer strode confidently into the little clearing, heading slowly but steadily toward a sturdy, solitary evergreen at its center. In a sudden explosion of power and speed, the massive buck sent bark, pine needles and branches flying. Seconds later, a violent twist of thick, muscular neck snapped the tree cleanly in two. If you’d witnessed the scene from a nearby treestand, you’d have marked it as one of your most exciting outdoor experiences ever. But no one was there. No one discovered the impressive rub, much less glimpsed its heavy-beamed maker.
Many public land tracts hold the kind of isolated, big-woods habitat that mature, reclusive bucks crave. Yet for most hunters, figuring them out can be mystifying, even intimidating. The miles of timber and stands of thick brush devoid of game-luring ag fields seem an impossible nut to crack.
Big-woods tracts contain plenty of game-funneling topography if you know what to look for. Even so, they attract fewer hunters per square mile than less remote woodlots in ag land. You have to work a little harder and do your homework to crack the code of the “sea of sameness” in the big woods, but the rewards can be worth it.
SEA OF SAMENESS?
First, understand that locating big woods stand sites is more than throwing a dart at a map. There are definite hot spots, even in areas with virtually no elevation changes. Few know this more than Mike Noskoviak, who has owned and operated Superior Guide and Outfitters in northern Wisconsin’s Ashland County for the past 25 years.
For the same long stretch, Noskoviak has been a trapper targeting mink, raccoon, coyotes and more after his guiding season is complete. His dual-pronged lifestyle has served him well.
Successful trappers know about game movement, and Noskoviak says the same concepts apply to hunting.
“Find where all the feeder creeks and ravines run through a given area, because those are deer travel corridors,” he said. “The first thing you’re looking for is the biggest river. Find the major river (or rivers), and then find where the larger tributaries connect. Big woods hunting is very much like trapping; all of the area’s critters use the same basic travelways, just on different trails.”
BEASTS OF THE BIG WOODS
Wisconsin is known for churning out scads of record-book deer courtesy of its fertile farmland. Ever heard of Buffalo County?
Noskoviak’s remote camp is hundreds of miles away in agriculture-starved Ashland County and couldn’t be more different. It is here, near the state’s northern tip, where the camp regularly churns out heavy-beamed bucks with racks stained a rich chocolate from rubbing spruce and pines.
The impressive mass is courtesy of the mineral-rich soil near Lake Superior. The biggest bucks taken in Noskoviak’s wilderness camp have scored 213 (nontypical) and 184 (net typical), both taken by rifle clients. Bowhunters regularly arrow brutes measuring 150 to more than 160 inches, impressive deer anywhere they roam.
Much like many whitetail outfitters operating in the big woods of Canada, Noskoviak depends mostly on baited treestand sets. Adhering to Wisconsin’s strict baiting rules means there’s never much bait (typically corn and/or apples) near each stand site. To avoid turning bucks nocturnal, he typically opens the baits seven to 10 days before the rut begins in late October.
“Soon bucks will have scrapes and rubs around the area and start scent-checking for does,” Noskoviak said. “And within six days, I’ll have a big one in there. I’ve done that forever, and the results are consistent as long as you stay out of there as much as possible. You could take a big buck in this area every year just hunting the hottest scrape lines, but that kind of hunting might take two or three weeks. I’ve got to get my clients on big deer in six days.”
WHAT ABOUT FOOD PLOTS?
There are other ways to attract bucks, and Noskoviak also has tried food plots, which he found worked too well.
“They are excellent in the big woods,” Noskoviak admits. “The problem is, so many deer come into them, that instead of being able to put three or four hunters in an area, now you can put just one. Any nearby baits go dead. As an outfitter, that didn’t help me at all.
”If I was just one person hunting, a food plot would be great,” he continued. ”It draws deer from about a 3-mile area, but you’re only going to have one good spot. Also, deer up here don’t like openings, not even pipelines. They don’t like to cross those or expose themselves until after dark. In that respect, they’re a lot like wolves. Big-woods deer are used to living in the shadows and thick brush.”
PACK IN AND PACK OUT
Waterways are not just deer travel corridors, they’re also barriers to human intrusion. This is especially true in states like Wisconsin that require public land hunters to pack stands and gear in and out each day.
As a young lad in Wisconsin, I cut my bowhunting teeth under the pack-in, pack-out rules I thought were restricting. These days, I consider such laws an advantage.
I’ve adapted my techniques so I can out-maneuver the less-motivated competition. Staying ultra-mobile lets me hunt a wide variety of potential hot spots in a short period of time.
I’m as comfortable hunting new tracts of public land as I am on familiar private tracts, thanks to a six-point system (see below) that allows me to pack in and hunt the hottest sign – primarily fresh scrapes and rub lines – immediately.
1) TREASURED MAPS
All your hunts should start with detailed maps, and the first step is to pattern other hunters.
Smart bucks get fat and happy side-stepping predictable hunters, so I start by locating public access. Most hunting pressure is concentrated within about 1 mile of any well-defined public parking area.
Look for large unbroken chunks of woods at least 1½ miles from the nearest road; 2 miles is ideal.
2) THE SPOT ON THE SPOT
Good topo maps and computer map programs let you dissect the big woods by revealing clues to find whitetail hot spots.
The banks of rivers, streams and creeks are obvious game highways. I like to place stands just a bit down from the top of the steep banks, a favored spot of rut-cruising bucks.
Less-obvious hot spots include dry islands in large swamps or funnels created by thick swamp edges. One of my favorite features is anywhere a large, irregular-shaped swamp pokes out toward a large river. The thin funnel between the two is often a perfect stand site. If you can cover the entire funnel with your weapon of choice, you just might hit the jackpot.
3) IN-SEASON RECON
Early spring scouting for last fall’s sign is useful, but the most critical big-woods scouting occurs in mid-October, when new rubs and scrapes reveal the location of living, breathing bucks.
I’ve found that older, mature bucks are typically among the first to begin rubbing. When I find a cluster of big rubs in September or early October – clear signs of dominant aggression – I know where I’ll be spending some serious stand time.
4) ULTRA LIGHT AND LETHAL
Light gear will help you move faster, go farther and find more hot sign. The biggest challenge is your stand system and finding a balance of weight, comfort and ease of setup.
I’ve used the Lone Wolf Assault II (11 lbs., www.lonewolfhuntingproducts.com), and Ameristep Buck Commander Redemption (9.75 lbs., www.ameristep.com), paired with a good set of climbing sticks. The Millennium M7 Microlite (8.5 lbs., www.millenniumstands.com) is a new stand for 2015 that should be ideal. My goal is to be set up and ready for hunting in 10 minutes.
It’s important to use a treestand pack that will allow for maximum comfort while toting all your gear. I use a rig I made from an old external pack frame that allows me to tote my stand, sticks and daypack efficiently.
5) BEST BOOTS FORWARD
I’ve worn out several pairs of hip boots over the years while hunting public land, which says a lot about my penchant for crossing rivers and streams, and wading through marshes and sloughs. Hip boots (or waders) are integral to my system.
I like camouflage neoprene models (typically LaCrosse or Rocky) with insulated feet that function well in cool temperatures. In severe cold, I stow my waders after I’ve crossed the water obstacle and change into insulated pac boots that I carry over my shoulders.
6) GET READY TO ROAM
In my formative years, I ran with a whitetail guru who told me to scout two days for every day I hunt. One of the most fun things about the big woods is finding new hot spots while you hunt.
Roaming the woods in a continual search for the hottest sign takes serious energy and motivation. You won’t tap into either if you’re out of shape.
My love for DIY high-country elk hunting (i.e. scaling mountains with a 60-pound pack) keeps me in the gym almost year-round, and my whitetail hunting has seen the benefits.
You don’t have to be a gym rat, but some type of exercise program is a must before hunting large tracts.
Gym time also helps prevent injury while you’re doing some of the most rewarding grunt work you’ll do all year – dragging a trophy from a remote big-woods tract.
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This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.