Every year millions of hunters head to the woods with dreams of an exhilarating encounter with a monster buck. These phantoms of the woods are living in many corners of hunting grounds without anyone even knowing. Consistently getting them within striking distance takes a willingness to push the envelope on standard whitetail hunting techniques. Some would consider hunters who passionately pursue whopper whitetails as borderline obsessive-compulsive. Instead, I would consider them aggressive, go-for-broke kinds of guys who know when to make the right move and where to sit, when to attack and when to sit back and be patient.
When targeting mature bucks, the average hunter is often chasing his own tail instead of positioning himself one step ahead. Understanding where a buck will be tomorrow instead of where he was yesterday is the key to getting in the middle of some red-hot action. Great hunters are doing a lot of little things different than the average Joe. Their strategies are defined by how aggressively they hunt. When you're pushing the envelope, it doesn't take long to understand what you can or cannot get away with.
Between a demanding work schedule, kids sports and parent-teacher conferences, it is amazing I have any time to hunt. Many other hunters have similar schedules and limited time to spend afield. However, I've found that logging more hours in the woods isn't always the best strategy.
Mature bucks have limited locations where they move during daylight hours. To be effective, hunters must situate themselves well within a buck's core area. This strategy is worth the payoff, because you're not wasting time hunting at locations that don't hold mature bucks. Whitetail biologist John J. Ozoga has proven that as deer get older, the area in which they spend the majority of their time gets smaller and smaller. "A mature whitetail's core area decreases to as small as 50-150 acres by the time he reaches 4 years of age," Ozoga said. "If a deer lives long enough, he becomes very entrenched in his core area, and by the time they are 5-6 years old they rarely leave that area, except during the rut."
Defining the exact location your buck is moving during daylight hours is fundamental to success. Andy May, who has taken 12 record-book whitetails in the past 10 years, has developed a simple philosophy. "Time on stand is meaningless and only educates deer if you're not hunting areas or setups that can and will produce," May said. This means he spends more time scouting in the off-season than hunting during the season. Setting up dangerously close to a mature buck's bedroom is a favorite technique. He is so close he can often hear bucks moments after they stand up from their beds. Well-placed trail cameras have greatly helped pinpoint daylight movement.
In my experience, the biggest cause of failure is hunting a great location at the wrong time of the season. Knowing when to make a move and when to sit back is the toughest decision a hunter has. May recognizes this, too. "Mature deer educate quickly, and often your window of opportunity is one to three sits on a particular stand, so I pick and choose those sits carefully," he said. Burning out a stand too early will ruin it for when the timing is right. Ken Mcintosh, professional guide from MidWest Woodlots, also recognizes the importance of staying invisible. "Most hunters get busted more at night after they've gone then while sitting on stand," he said.
Once you learn the whereabouts of a mature buck, it is important to keep him comfortable. He has developed a core area because it provides him with the key ingredients of his happiness — food and security. If you can avoid disturbing him, he will be more likely to move during daylight hours. This will provide you more opportunities to hunt the paths leading to and from his bedroom. Intimately learn your hunting areas and how the wind relates to rising and falling temperatures, changing thermals and wind currents. You cannot carelessly allow human odor to swirl over ridge tops or creek bottoms, giving away your position.
It also takes extreme self-control to leave a woodlot untouched and instead hunt 100 yards away from the woods, within a funnel, or along the wood's edges. Get too close and you bump the mature buck; hunt too far away and you'll never cross paths until after the cover of darkness. The key is finding the sweet spot where you can remain unseen yet close enough to score.
I love it when a plan comes together. Too often this is not the case with mature bucks because of increased hunting pressure, hunter mistakes or other factors. There is a time to move and a time to stay put. But moving during the middle of the season can cause the very buck you are after to become aware of your presence. May avoids this by carrying equipment for a new setup at all times. This allows him to hunt immediately upon discovering a buck's core location. Back in 2006, this is exactly how the second largest buck in Jackson County, Mich., fell to his arrow. On the way to another stand he noticed fresh sign and rubs. Instead of continuing on, he went back to the truck to gather his equipment and set up a stand immediately. By 3 p.m. he stood over a 171-inch monster.
Continue to move onto new hunting locations until you discover some red-hot sign. This often means the need to (very carefully) do some in-season scouting. During the peak of the rut I will move to different doe bedding areas until I locate a doe in heat. Each day this puts me in the middle of the craziness only the rut provides.
Playing the guessing game and bouncing from stand to stand is not productive. Instead, get aggressive by making targeted moves onto hot does or buck core areas. Before the season begins, it's necessary to fully understand where mature bucks are bedding. Having this knowledge makes it easier to slip in for a quick in-season scouting trip. But don't be fooled — this doesn't mean you can carelessly tramp around the woods. Only a peek to confirm your assumptions is advised. Scouting in the woods during the season must be is done with kid gloves.
Many hunters classify mature bucks as phantoms of the night. Similarly, hunters need to become phantoms themselves, leaving no trace of their presence. Creating a stealth entry is just as important as picking the right location. "When choosing stand sites, it is equally important to consider entrance and exits to that stand under various wind conditions as the location of the stand itself," May said. "Not only does the wind need to be right while on stand, but slipping into your location without your scent swirling into their bedding area is just as important."
Hunting dangerously close to a buck's bedroom requires a different approach for successful entry. Taking your time and stalking into the stand is far better than making extra noise by entering carelessly. To get daylight activity, hunting within a hundred yards of a bedroom is often necessary, and this takes extra caution. The woods are not quiet, so stop and listen to noises and mimic those on the way in. Bring a squirrel or turkey call to sound like a squirrel or turkey as you move through the woods. This will put nearby deer at ease when they hear you approaching.
Even preparing a tree that you can climb unseen is imperative. Too many times I have successfully accessed the base of my tree only to scare the buck I was after while climbing up to my stand. Pushing the limits and moving in close will put you in the "Red Zone." Even if you cross a mature buck's travel route under the cover of darkness, he will know you are around. Any misplaced steps, bumping whitetails, and spreading your scent throughout the woods will ruin your chances.
This past season I was chasing a buck I named "The Great 8." Early in the season I saw him far across a field. Within seconds I determined his path wouldn't bring him my way before the cover of darkness. A voice began screaming in the back of my head, telling me to get aggressive and go after him.
I slid down my tree in record time, then quickly moved 300 yards across the field. I must have looked like an idiot. Arriving along the fencerow, I glassed the beans, but saw nothing. Did I scare them? After several tense minutes, I finally saw him crest over the hill.
The light was fading quickly and I needed to make something happen, so out came the grunt call. The buck pinned me down with his stare, then turned and ran right at me. He was coming fast and I was a nervous wreck. I dropped the grunt call, backed as far as I could into the brush, and got ready. I could hear the beans breaking — crunch, crunch, crunch — then it stopped. He was right there on the other side of the fence staring at me, and I could see only his face and white chest patch. Face to face at less than 10 yards! After a few tense moments of standing face-on, he got nervous and bounded back out of range. The shot angle was straight on with some brush between us, so I didn't feel comfortable taking it — but what an encounter!
Stand hunters have the tendency to wait for whitetails to cross their path, but taking matters into your own hands pays big dividends. Break the mold by hitting the ground running. After my ordeal, I was unraveled and could barely contain my emotions. I was shaking from the excitement. Get aggressive — take on a mature buck on the ground for a face-to-face experience.
Even in heavily hunted areas, calling, decoying and rattling can work wonders. There is a small window when deceiving a buck becomes easy and cruising bucks can be called or decoyed in to your setup. Every buck responds differently, and it is important to look at a buck's face to tell if he is ready to rumble or too timid to tango. You can often read a whitetail buck's face. For example, those who are torn up with scars are fighters — bring out the horns and bring him running. The pretty boys would rather stand back and watch the fight from a distance. Subtle calling is a better choice for these whitetails.
Combine effective decoying with calling and rattling to complete the package. Watching a buck bristle up his back hairs and walk sideways into your decoy is exhilarating. Anytime I am hunting a new location, I'll hunt more aggressively and pack in a decoy. Without pinpointed knowledge of travel routes, you can use a decoy to reach out and touch.
Too often hunters are ingrained into hunting a handful of locations, entering and exiting these stands year after year. There is a fine line between aggressive and foolish. The more you push yourself beyond your limits, the more you realize getting assertive by making quick calls will pay big results. These six strategies will give you the knowledge to make the right move, where to sit, when to move, and when to sit back. Put your whitetail hunting in full throttle and hunt in the red zone.