My final evening’s chosen stand the first year I hunted whitetails in America’s heartland was a natural ground blind of head-high scrub oak saplings, still clutching to their brittle brown leaves at the edge of a CRP field of waist-high grass. A dilapidated barbed-wire fence marked the northern property boundary to my left bordering a small 5-acre field of cut corn whose far edge fell away into a low depression where it met a timbered draw. Honestly, I didn’t expect much to happen. I’d pulled my treestands to get an early start home to Pennsylvania that evening, and was just passing the waning hours of my hunt dreaming of next season. BIG mistake!
The sight of bone-white tines moving in sync with a purposeful stride as he exited the depression and entered the field triggered that familiar stutter step as my ticker jumped to its next gear. He was an absolute brute! A massive tall-tined rack, thick as your wrist at the bases and throughout most of his beam length, sat atop a thick-necked, barrel-chested 300-pound body.
His body language left no doubt he was on the prowl, and as I regained my senses, I reached for my favorite call: two soft doe bleats, pause, then one more. Before that third bleat died away he was already headed for the fence crossing I had identified and ranged earlier at exactly 31 yards. As he cleared the fence, my kisser settled at the corner of my mouth, and I remember thinking, “This is just too easy.”
Yeah, I missed the shot! Though it looked perfect off the string, just 5 yards from his rib cage my HellRazor hit the thick grass, cutting stem after stem, and dove just under his brisket. Truth is, though, I blew that opportunity at my first true “Booner” earlier that afternoon. The first, most basic rule of bowhunting trophy whitetails is, “Put in the time and avoid shortcuts.” I had failed on both counts here, and I paid a heavy price.
Forty yards behind me along that same fence line sits the only oak large enough to support my hang-on with me in it and provide just enough cover; a place from which I had spent many hours hunting this same area. But lots of action and a few close encounters with a couple of solid Pope-and-Young bucks never produced a shot, though I never got busted. Worst of all, I could see that same cut corn field from that very stand. Still, I stupidly pulled it around noon that day. In hindsight, having seen how heavy into rut that buck was, there is no doubt in my mind I could have called him to my stand for a shot where the result might have been so very different.
A few seasons later, Dave Courtney, one of my younger hunting buddies, provided a clear flipside view of how different things can be when a bowhunter sticks to that one fundamental rule I had ignored.
It was the middle of November, and really the week from hell. The first day wasn’t too bad, with only a few showers. But days two through five were downright miserable, with chilly temperatures and steady rain alternating periodically with heavy downpours. Through it all, Dave stuck with his plan. I remember two occasions where I watched from a warm bed as Dave headed into the rain-soaked pre-dawn darkness with bow and daypack in hand. I never saw him before dark on any of those five miserable days. While I had another week until my hunt ended, Dave had just one day. And despite his efforts to present a bold front, the strain of the hunt showed clearly on his face.
The stand he had chosen for his last day was in a creek bottom with swollen waters from the heavy rains, and the only way to cross was on the ATV. The noise was a risk, but we had no choice. In the end, the rushing water provided some cover to the motor’s noise, and drop-off was roughly a quarter mile from his stand. We felt good about our approach. All was quiet from daybreak until 10 a.m. — and then it all changed.
A wide-racked bruiser with long fighting tines appeared on the far side of the CRP, and after a short pause, he headed straight at Dave. He wasted little time crossing open ground, but slowed as he passed broadside at 22 yards. In his excitement Dave forgot to grunt to try to stop him, and the hit was solid, but a bit far back.
I got Dave’s text, and based on his description, we diagnosed it as a liver hit and decided to back out. I know the agreed-upon time of 3 p.m. seemed to him like it would never arrive, but it did. And in short order Dave had his buck. He was a beautiful 5×5 grossing 170 6/8 Pope-and-Young points, a just reward for a great effort. Funny, all that strain from the night before seemed to vanish, replaced by a smile that split his face from ear to ear!
Our Midwestern states are without a doubt the destination for the serious trophy whitetail bowhunter. Here are a three tips that are sure to tip the odds in your favor when you get there.
* Read the sign and react to what you find.Whatever is going on with the deer herd in your hunting area at the beginning of your hunt is not what will be going on a week later, possibly even a day later. What the deer are actually doing changes rapidly during the rut. Unfortunately, with the explosion in trail camera use, digital scouting, etc., reading sign in the deer woods is becoming a lost art. Still, it is critical that hunters can identify even subtle changes in deer behavior, adjust their hunting tactics accordingly, and move about their area as those changes dictate. To that end, I always have a couple of portable stands and sticks with me so I can move as observations, sightings and deer sign dictate.
Except on days when deer movement is high, I’ll use middays to scout, choosing rainy days whenever possible to keep scent to a minimum, to see what has changed and to set a new stand or two over any newly discovered hot sign.
* Stick to proven tactics that have worked for you in the past.Stay within yourself. For bowhunters, that means stick with the products and tactics that fit your skill set and have produced results in the past. Hunt only from stands that will offer shots within your effective killing range, and resist the temptation to take marginal or unethical shots that might exceed your proven skill sets and capabilities.
* In the Midwest, a hang-on stand will allow you more options than climbers. The Midwest has fewer straight, limbless trees than here in the Eastern hardwoods. Also, many times you will not be able to hunt as high as you would like, so a tree wide enough to screen slight movements and great backdrop cover to break up your silhouette are an absolute must when trying to fool mature bucks of 4½ years of age and older. Lastly, an undetected approach to your stand is most critical of all. Wherever possible I use ditches, creek bottoms, even the creeks themselves to achieve the lowest possible impact to my hunting area when approaching my stand location.
For me it all came together on my 2013 Illinois bowhunt. A good outfitter’s services allow you to hunt effectively from day one. Most Midwest outfitters, in addition to their fully guided hunts, offer the type of hunt I prefer most: outfitted/unguided, where outfitters provide you with exclusive access to private ground, pre-set stands, and detailed information on deer movement throughout the area. This allows you to take control and hunt as you choose, putting the outcome in your hands alone.
When I arrived at my assigned lease last November, an afternoon of scouting revealed most scrapes were being pounded, and rubs where visible just about wherever you looked. My first day on stand just below the brow of a hardwood ridge produced no less than 11 bucks, two of which were 130-inch-class bucks or better. I elected to pass on both. The next two days I drew a blank. A midday scouting session revealed the scrapes had gone cold, and with zero recent sightings of mature bucks, I guessed the breeders were locked down with the does.
During “lock down,” your best chance for a trophy buck is to catch him cruising as he searches for his next hot doe. I switched stands to one such travel corridor, but drew another blank the next morning. Two days earlier, I had set a stand along a fence line that bordered a huge CRP field. A bench that paralleled that field just inside the timber was littered with scrapes and rubs. It seemed likely that this might be a great place to waylay a cruising breeder buck, and I decided to put that theory to the test on my evening hunt.
During the early stages of my hunts, I keep things low-key. I do not want the bucks I am targeting to know that I am even on the same planet! But as I get deeper into each hunt, I call more frequently and utilize scent attractants such as doe estrus urine and buck tarsal gland scents (all fresh, no additives). I had a quartering wind from behind off my left shoulder out into the CRP, and had hung two estrus wicks 15 yards out in front of my stand. Any buck coming into a quartering wind, whether in the field or the timber, would hit that estrus scent well before it got to mine. In addition, the Ozonics 200 unit positioned above my head left me confident that it would take care of the rest.
With 45 minutes of shooting light left, I’d just finished my last series of estrus bleats when I saw him 150 yards out, neck stretched and testing the wind as he paralleled the fence headed straight for me. His mahogany-colored rack was heavy and high, and I knew immediately he was good enough for me. He was coming so fast I drew when he was 50 yards out and still coming. At 20 yards I thought I was going to have to shoot him straight down between his shoulder blades, but at 12 yards he turned abruptly. Now broadside, he paused briefly, and I slid my top pin two-thirds of the way down his side at the crease and touched it off. My HellRazor obliterated both his lungs, and I found him less than 80 yards from the hit.
He was a real bruiser, better than 275 pounds and probably 5½ years old. His rack was a bit unique with matching bifurcated G-2s, grossing 162 2/8 P&Y points.
You should know the end result here is not that unusual. The Midwest is loaded with big bucks. And as we all know, to kill big deer you need to hunt where big deer live. When you do get there, remember the basics — put in the time, pay attention to the changes happening around you and adjust your strategies accordingly. Do that and you will succeed. Mature whitetail bucks are smart, but they are not Houdini. And they can be fooled!