I do spring banquets around the country, talking about the latest deer research and how it can improve your deer hunting success. Once the evening is winding down, some of those present will come up to talk about their hunting season. One common theme I repeatedly hear is that “the deer where I hunt just aren’t there anymore.” They then go on to explain how the state wildlife agency has overharvested the deer in their area. After that, the discussion goes in all directions.
“The game department needs to eliminate doe hunting.” “The game department needs to drop the number of doe permits.” “I used to see 30 deer a day where I hunt, but now I only see two.” The discussion goes on and on, and I never know whether what they say is true or not. Maybe too many does have been killed, but maybe not. If a hunter sees 30 deer a day in a forested area, then there probably were too many deer for the habitat, and more does needed to be harvested. Most hunters won’t buy that, even if it’s true.
Not to be overly critical, but maybe the hunter isn’t much of a “hunter.” He got away with poor hunting skills when there were lots of deer in the area, but because of that overabundance, the habitat deteriorated, so the game agency increased doe harvests. Now, with fewer deer, the hunter’s lack of skills means he isn’t seeing any deer. They are there, but he isn’t seeing them. That leads to complaints.
Regardless of the cause, when a hunter tells me there aren’t deer where he hunts, my answer is pretty much the same. If the area you have hunted for years no longer lives up to your expectations, move. Hunt somewhere else. Don’t get in a rut and keep going to places that don’t have the deer you once saw there. Things change. Maybe too many does have been taken there. More probably the forested area has matured, and mature forests almost always means there are fewer deer than when that forested area was young growth. What your old hunting territory needs is some timber cutting. Get that area back into early succession and my guess is that you will start seeing more deer. And if you can’t do that, then hunt elsewhere.
That same logic applies to your treestand locations. If you have stands that were great in the past but for some reason no long work for you, move them. A lot can happen that can cause what was a great stand location to go sour. Some of that is out of your control. Maybe your neighbor, whose property is only 400 yards from your stand, started feeding deer. That could change movement patterns for sure.
Or maybe that same neighbor is making a daily trek into the same treestand close to your property. That can also change deer movements. Maybe he planted a food plot near you. The point is that things change.
I once hunted a property when work prevented me from hunting mornings, but a friend on that same property only hunted in the morning. Our stands were about 300 yards apart, and both were in good travel corridors. When I stopped seeing deer, I had no clue what was going on. Unbeknownst to me, my friend had changed his morning entry route, and that seriously impacted deer movements to my stand. He had no idea that it caused me a problem, and it was only by accident that I learned of this change. Once I learned what was happening, I hunted another area.
Three major reasons stands go dry are: your approach allows deer to smell or hear you entering and leaving; the stand is hunted too much; and the stand is hunted when the wind conditions are not the best. Let’s take a look at some data related to the idea that a stand can be overhunted. The data come from a recent South Carolina study that compared behavior of bucks in relation to the amount of hunting done at bait sites and hunting stands. Researchers took a GPS fix from a number of mature bucks (and some yearling bucks) every 30 minutes from August 24 to November 22. They learned that indeed, older bucks knew when an area was overhunted.
For example, mature bucks were five times more likely to use bait sites during daylight hours on August 24 as on November 22. Hunting bait sites definitely educated those mature bucks. The researchers also looked at yearling bucks. I guess it is no surprise that yearling bucks were only twice as likely to use bait during daylight hours on August 24 as on November 22.
Mature bucks also became more wary of food plots in daylight hours. They were four times more likely to use food plots in daylight hours on August 24 as on November 22. Overhunting your stand also changes a buck’s behavior. This study showed that after 12 hours of hunting the same treestand over a three-day period, mature bucks were twice as likely to avoid that stand.
Hunting activity also caused mature bucks to keep their distance. Mature bucks were located an average of 55 yards farther away from hunting stands on the last day of the study versus the first day, and they were found an average of 17 1/2 yards farther away from stands during daylight versus dark. We often talk about how dumb young bucks are compared to their older relatives. In this study, yearling locations were 16 ½ yards closer to hunting stands at the end of the study as compared to the beginning and 15 1/2 yards closer to hunting stands during daylight versus dark.
Habits are hard to break and we get into a rut. Things change, and we need to change, too. In my younger years, I hunted scrapes a lot. I never had much success, except for a few smaller bucks, but I was in a rut relative to scrape hunting. My thoughts were fairly juvenile: Bucks made scrapes, so hunting near them must be a good thing. Today I never hunt over scrapes. I know hunters who do, and they get a buck now and again, but I’ve gotten out of my old habit of sitting on scrapes.
When I find a hot scrape, especially one that is present at the same location year after year, I look for a stand location away from that scrape — one where the wind works, and especially a location in a funnel that eventually leads to that scrape. And, as mentioned above, I now pay a lot more attention to how I get to and from my stands. Maybe that habitual trail to your favorite stand is not the best way to go. Time to rethink that old habit.
Two of the best buck hunters I know, Bill Winke and Don Higgins, don’t really hunt buck sign. Sure, they find sign that tells them that a big buck is in that area, but they don’t hang stands over that sign. Higgins notes that most big buck sign is made at night, so hunting that specific rub or scrape won’t help you much. So Higgins looks for secluded areas, out-of-the way thickets where other hunters do not go and big bucks do. Winke hunts travel corridors where those big guys are likely to move. For both men, their strategy involves lots of scouting, so that when they get to the pre-rut and rut, they aren’t wandering around the woods, leaving human scent everywhere. These buck hunters know where they want to go, the stands are already in place, and when the time is right, they hunt there.
One final tip. Don’t get it in your mind that bucks won’t be found in a small thicket that doesn’t appear to be big enough to hold deer. Higgins, in his excellent book “Hunting Trophy Whitetails in the Real World,” talks about a 20-acre sanctuary that he hunts every year with great success. He describes this area as “thick and nasty.” In other words, a perfect bedding area for big bucks. No other hunters have access to that small chunk of property. That is a major factor, and Don Higgins protects it. He never goes in that thicket except to find sheds in late winter, but he has six stands just inside the edge of this sanctuary. He’ll only use one of those stands when the wind direction is perfect.
Remember a “sanctuary” has to be just that — a place where big bucks know they can go and feel totally secure. Once hunting season puts pressure on them elsewhere, they know they can come there and be safe. They learn that, and Higgins makes sure the area stays that way.
As the peak of breeding season approaches, think out of the box a bit. Don’t stay in that same old rut, using the same area, same stands, same techniques you have always used. Hopefully a few ideas mentioned here will help you this year and in years to come. Here’s hoping you have a great fall season.