One time Russ Van Zoeren hunted a public tract in western Kansas for a week. For the first five days of his hunt, the temperature was in the 80s, and the deer movement was predictably slow. But the night of Nov. 9, storms and a cold front crashed through the area. The mercury plummeted into the 30s, and a northwest wind shook the leaves off the trees.
The next morning at 8:15, a buck stepped out of a cedar thicket that Russ had been watching patiently all week. The rack glinted in the sun, and Russ gaped at the huge, forked brow tines. The buck prowled forth from the cedars, nose down and sniffing for 75 yards, and walked to within 13 yards of Russ’ stand. His arrow was perfect, and the deer didn’t run far.
The 61⁄2-year-old animal dressed out just under 200 pounds, on the light side for a fully mature Kansas buck. But there was nothing light about that rack, which grossed 238 6⁄8 and netted 229 1⁄8 Boone & Crockett inches.
There are two major takeaways from Russ’ hunt. One, the day after storms and a cold front whip through after an unseasonably warm period is a great time to hunt. You’ll have to deal with moderate to high winds on the backside of the front, but some big boys will move in the cooler weather and high pressure when they’re trolling for does in November.
More to the point here on where to set up, researchers have found a direct correlation between heavy cover and mature deer movement and harvest. For years Bryan Kinkel and his team of researchers managed the land and monitored the hunting on several properties in western Tennessee. Their records reveal that 95 percent of the 31⁄2-year-old and older bucks that were harvested on those lands were killed within 100 yards of known deer sanctuaries, such as thick pines, regenerating clear-cuts and cedar thickets similar to the one where Russ killed his 230-inch Kansas monster.
We all believe that big whitetail bucks love thick cover, and this information confirms it. Pinpoint a pocket of secluded, heavy cover on your hunting land, and study the predominant November winds in the area (typically northwest). Sneak in and quietly hang a treestand on the perimeter of the sanctuary where the wind blows out and away from the cover. Watch for a shooter buck prowling out at dawn, but don’t get down until noon. Or, heck, sit all day if the wind is right and if you can hack it. In the rut, a big buck might move in and out of the thick cover any time of day in search of a hot doe.
Sit On The Edge
You can set up anywhere 100 yards off heavy cover and maybe see a big buck, but here are two good ways to up your odds of a 20-yard chip shot if you do see him.
Bryan Kinkel’s research also shows that habitat breaks like “soft edges” (changes in type/age of timber, such as where pines abut hardwoods or where second-growth oaks melt into mature trees) and “skid trails” (old, brushy logging trails) are major travel corridors for rutting bucks. If bucks are using an edge or old road, you’ll know it. Scout and zero in on a break marked with a flurry of fresh rubs and scrapes. Then hang a stand on the break 80 to 120 yards off the cover where the wind is right, and try to cut off a bruiser buck as he comes or goes.
Dr. Mickey Hellickson has conducted extensive trail camera surveys on his Iowa property for decades. He has told me on numerous occasions, “My data clearly show one spot where older-age bucks move in the rut: The intersection of two or more drainages back in the woods near thick cover.” Capitalize on that. Scout around for a “buck junction” like this—maybe where two shallow ditches come together, or where a small creek splinters—and go 17 feet up a tree right there.
Let me add that a stand on any of these terrains—timber edge, skid road or drainage—is double dynamite because you are not just hunting one or two big bucks that are known to hang out in the area. In the rut, you are set up on a travel corridor that any number of interloper bucks might use as they come from miles around and check cover after cover for does to breed. Hang tough, because you never know how many bucks you’ll see or when a “new” giant might come marching by.
The Right Scrape Stand
Sometime this month most of us will find some fresh, big scrapes, get all excited and try to figure out how best to hunt them. Scrape hunting is always iffy, but here’s one thing you must remember. Researchers at the University of Georgia did an exhaustive study on buck scrapes back in the 1990s. One major finding was that three, five or more bucks might paw like crazy on one ridge, while other scrapes 200 to 300 yards away that appear to be hot can go cold overnight.
Don’t waste your time. If you hunt a set of scrapes for two days and don’t see much, pull out of there and scout for more active scrapes on the next oak ridge or in a nearby bottom. Keep moving around until you find the right ones. The Georgia study also found that at the best, hottest scrapes, almost every buck, big and small, that travels through the area will veer over to smell and/or paw them.
At the best scrapes, hang your treestand not so much on top of the sign, but nearby to overlook an edge, drainage or similar funnel where bucks will travel. The thicker the cover in and around a funnel, the better the chances that you’ll see a good buck coming to or from the scrapes in daylight.
Transition Point Stand
Nebraska bowhunter Connor Chance-Ossowski’s favorite stand is located in thick cover (there’s that term again) and in a “transition point” between cornfields and a major bedding area back in timber. Such a point might be a strip of cedars that juts out into a field, or a finger ridge that funnels deer from a field and back into the woods — you get the idea. A creek wends through the woods and just to the south of Connor’s stand. Any biologist will tell you that whitetail bucks are “creek bottom animals” that naturally run along streams and rivers all year, and especially in the rut.
One day during last season, Connor wasn’t seeing much, so he blew some loud, challenging grunts on his call. Suddenly a flock of turkeys spooked down by the creek flew off, “and I saw why,” he says. “A big buck was coming on a dead sprint!” The buck ran down the bank, splashed across the creek and made a beeline for Connor’s stand. He closed to within 15 yards, and Connor made the shot. The rut-crazed buck had 19 points and scored 175 green.
Look for a transition area like that between where deer feed and bed, and hang a stand there. It’s one of the best spots to kill a buck that is scent-checking the area, and it’s a great location to test your grunting and rattling skills as well.