I am not sure who coined the phrase “bigger is always better,” but it certainly applies to whitetail hunters. We’re always trying to shoot the biggest buck — in my book, that means the oldest — and that’s mostly a good thing. What many hunters overlook, though, is the fact that the biggest buck does not necessarily come from the largest tract of huntable land.
Here’s what I mean. When you are looking for a new public-land place to hunt and you have some options, are you not at first drawn to the one with the most huntable acreage? Even those who have the luxury of gaining permission to hunt or lease private ground often rate its worth by how much real estate is included.
I used to be that way, too. Today, though, I am a firm believer in quality ground over quantity. That might mean hunting anything from a small patch of woods along a major interstate to a nearly impenetrable thicket located on a farm that is mostly tilled land.
I have a lot of examples, but the bottom line on why all of them have produced great hunting for me is the fact that they are rarely, if ever, hunted by anyone else.
Here’s an example. For many years I had permission to hunt some land along the Cimarron River drainage in southwestern Kansas. One side of the property is bounded by 3,000 acres of city-owned land designated as a wildlife sanctuary. The bottom of the ranch is filled with old cottonwoods, while the adjacent hillsides are nothing more than sand hills covered with sagebrush. In the bottom is a little bump that juts up against the boundary fence, creating a little thumb-like protrusion that offers the deer added cover as they slip out of the thick bedding cover of the preserve and into the cottonwoods, which they use as cover to travel the half-mile to a neighboring farm where corn is grown.
This tiny little pocket measures no more than 100 yards by 100 yards, yet every year I see at least one absolute whopper buck cruising through there. The big reason? During gun season hunters work both sides of the bottom, up in the sagebrush, but they cannot access this little sanctuary pocket. If they hunt it sparingly like a stealth bomber when bow season reopens after gun season closes, it remains a safe haven for mature bucks. Or so they think.
A few seasons back I was hunting in Illinois and shared camp for a few days with Wayne Prajean, one of the best treestand designers and big-buck hunters I know. This was in late October, and Wayne had hunted a spot he has permission to access in Kansas during the early archery season. His spot was nothing more than a relatively short line of trees that bisect the prairie and feed into some corn. Wayne used trail cameras to help him locate, then pattern, the buck he wanted, and he arrowed him on camera on opening day. Pope and Young gross score? 171.
It is bucks like this that prove that when it comes to buck cover, size doesn’t always matter.
Why Hunt Small Pockets?
Whitetails live in tiny patches of cover for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s simply the best they can do. Out on the Western and Midwestern prairies, a thin line of windrow trees along a drainage or tiny clump of dwarf elms or big cedars around an abandoned homestead might be the closest thing a buck has to classic whitetail habitat. Those of you used to hunting traditional farms east of the Mississippi or in the Deep South would probably be shocked to see the amount of buck sign in these types of little wooded areas that often aren’t much bigger than a typical suburban back yard.
Do some scouting and you’ll often find that even when they have vast expanses of hardwoods and brush, whitetails often live in a much smaller area as a matter of ease — particularly if they can find food, water, and lots of peace and quiet. The same is true in agricultural areas, where a small patch of softwoods surrounded by crops are often where mature deer live as opposed to larger timbered hillsides. Here they feel secure spending their days in impenetrable blow-downs and brush jungles, only needing to walk a few yards to feed on crops at night.
The Best Time?
Even if they do not live there year-round, small, secluded pockets of cover are worth checking out once the season opens. I have learned the hard way that if the cover patch is big enough to hide a large dog, it is big enough to hide a pressured whitetail. Also, often the more such little pockets are located out in the open, the more attractive they are to whitetails. As well as being seldom checked by hunters, they offer a chance to watch for danger approaching from several football fields away.
My friend Jeff Louderback and I were cruising his ranch one below-zero December morning during gun season in Kansas when we looked out across the wide-open sagebrush and spotted three does standing still in soft light just before sunup. As their breath escaped in little puffs, I looked 75 yards to their right, and there stood a very nice 10-point buck. All of the deer started walking slowly before the buck bedded down behind a small brushy hump about the size of your living room. Jeff decided he wanted him, so he grabbed his rifle and walked over there, expecting to kick the buck up at close range and be able to shoot him before he made the trees a quarter-mile distant.
After 20 minutes of trying to get the buck up to no avail, we decided he must have slipped into the trees unseen with the does. It wasn’t until late that afternoon as we drove past that we saw the buck stand up in the very same place. He’d been there all along! Jeff’s 7mm Rem. Mag. made sure he didn’t do it again.
Successfully Picking Pockets
Successfully picking pocket whitetails is different than hunting bucks in more traditional terrain. Often pocket whitetails have no patience for human intrusions. Recent research has shown that if you spook them out at any time of the year, they might not return again for months, if at all. Likewise, push them out during a hunt, and the smaller the area the smaller your chances of ever getting another opportunity. This means absolute stealth is critical.
In semi-open and open country I like to do much of my in-season scouting from long distance with good optics early and late in the day. However, if the pocket is fairly large — up to 5 acres or so — it is possible to cautiously walk up to the edge and check for sign. The keys here are perfect wind conditions, the ability to get to and from the place without being seen, and being able to walk quietly. I try to stay on the perimeter, resisting the urge to follow rub lines or tracked-up trails. Always remember this: The smaller a buck’s bedding area, the larger his schizophrenia.
Ready to hunt the pocket? Remember you’ll need just as much planning and stealth as you employed when you were scouting. If I am gun hunting, I eschew treestands and instead bring some netting and make a small natural blind up against a tree trunk to minimize any noise. When bowhunting or I feel the need for some elevation, I pick a tree that requires little or no trimming, one that will be easy to set the stand in quickly and quietly. I bring a small, light stand and climbing sticks that let me get the job done quickly and quietly. If possible, I also try to set up a treestand on a day when wind noise can help mask any noise I might make.
If They Won’t Move?
What if the bucks in the little pocket patch won’t show themselves?
During gun season many deer hunters turn to the organized drive. However, in my experience, that term is an oxymoron, as it seems like something always goes wrong. So before driving deer — which, of course, will destroy that patch of cover as a hunting spot for the rest of the season — be creative.
I remember one time locating a plum thicket about the size of my old high school gym set inside a patch of tall cottonwoods and thick cedars. The perimeter was loaded with fresh scrapes, and while there were several trails leading into the thicket, one just seemed a bit larger and more beaten down to me than the others. I set a treestand 50 yards from the tunnel-like opening, hunting it three afternoons. The first two days I could hear deer walking around inside the thicket, and even heard a buck grunt a time or two, but saw only glimpses of deer through the brush. On evening three, with about 30 minutes of shooting light left, I changed my style and grunted softly, followed by a couple of soft doe bleats. Just before the end of light, out he came, nose in the air. He began working a scrape 40 yards from my seat. He met Mr. Thunderhead.
The key to successfully hunting this little pocket was being able to get in there without being detected. Earlier I’d noticed the area on an aerial photograph and thought it might be worth checking. A small stream ran from a spot where the trees met an agricultural field, and the stream made for perfect cover in terms of both scent reduction and stream noise to mask my walking. Once I got close I stopped walking and spent a lot of time casing the joint using my binoculars. It is amazing how much detail you can see with good glass — rubs on tree trunks, whether or not scrapes have been freshened, trails that have been recently used, even whether or not there are acorns or apples or persimmons or whatever in the fruit and nut trees. In the back of my mind I kept asking myself the same question I always ask when stalking a bedded mule deer buck: “Why am I in such a hurry to screw this up?”
And so I took my time, actually making my scouting trip without hunting, and coming back at noon the next day with everything I needed to quickly and quietly set my stand.
You can find little pockets just about everywhere if you use your imagination. Today some of the biggest bucks being shot are killed right in or next to towns and cities as more and more municipalities permit some deer hunting to help control burgeoning populations. I’ve sat in some suburban treestands where I was actually able to watch TV through a patio sliding glass door with my binos as deer walked right under me. In Wisconsin one year an outfitter pulled me aside and asked if I would be willing to do some walking, as he had a little pocket that he thought would be excellent but couldn’t find an energetic client. I said yes and was amazed at how short the walk really was, but it didn’t matter. It led me to the top of a hill ringed with hardwoods and surrounded on four sides by fields of standing corn. The deer were bedding in the brush right up on top, and my stand was on the edge. I saw numerous bucks chasing does out of range until a bruiser 8-point gave me a 10-yard shot. Again, the secret was isolation and no human encroachment.
The key here is to think outside the box, and once you have located what appears to be the type of small, isolated little cover thickets where deer can live without being bothered by people, become a stealth bomber.
It’s a chess game, not a rugby scrum — the smart, patient and diligent, not the strong and bullheaded, will prevail.