It hit me as I sped down the winding country road towards my destination for the evening hunt. The date was Oct. 15. Five years earlier on this same date I tagged a mature buck under similar weather and wind conditions. Within seconds I was turning the truck around and heading in a different direction towards a different property.
I settled into my stand in the cottonwood with the southwestern wind hitting my cheek and the setting sun shining right in my eyes. The wind was perfect and once the sun sank a little lower on the western horizon some larger trees would shade me from its piercing rays. In front of my stand was a small thicket where bucks liked to bed during the early archery season. My stand was hung in one corner of this thicket where a major tree-lined fencerow divided a soybean field behind me and a standing cornfield in front of me.
As the setting sun signaled the final minutes of my hunt I started to question my decision to change stand locations at the last minute. Surely I would have at least seen some deer had I hunted the original stand. At that thought the sound of a single deer slowly approaching snapped me back to reality as I strained to see into the thick vegetation. It was almost déjà vu as everything was exactly as it had been the night I shot the 150-class buck a few years before.
It was impossible to get even a glimpse of the slowly approaching deer. I had no way of knowing if it was even a buck until it stepped from the cover into the first few rows of standing corn. With shooting light fading, the deer stepped from the cover and revealed a nice symmetrical 10-point rack. At a steady gait the buck passed by my stand at 10 yards. It was an easy shot even for my recurve bow. A well-placed arrow sent the buck on a death run. I quietly slipped away to give the arrow time to do its job, returning later to claim the 145-incher.
Killing two nice bucks from the same tree on the same date 5 years apart really opened my eyes to some things regarding mature whitetail bucks and started me down a path to more consistent success on these challenging critters. At this point in my hunting career I was really starting to pay very close attention to every detail surrounding every mature buck encounter that I had. I then began trying to find similar situations to increase those encounters. It worked.
Two years later I again returned to this same tree and killed a third buck, a big 12-pointer that was, at the time, my best, scoring 169 5⁄8. The date was Oct. 22, just a week from the date of the previous two buck kills at this location. Although the date was not exactly the same, everything else was — wind direction, crop rotation, time of season (the dreaded “October lull,” by the way). This was clearly a special stand site, but only during this time of the season. Despite trying mightily, I was never able to spot a good buck from this stand during any other time of the season — including the rut.
I would like to say that I tagged several more bucks from this stand, but, sadly, a bulldozer destroyed that little bedding thicket and the treeline that held my stand the year after I killed my third buck there. That was nearly 20 years ago and while this stand site was destroyed, I credit my hunts from that stand with helping me take my whitetail hunting success to new levels. The lessons I learned there have certainly helped me tag a lot more big whitetails from other stands on other properties.
I have clearly learned a lot about hunting mature whitetail bucks from other deer hunters, outdoor writers, seminar speakers and others. At the same time I have also ingested a lot of deer hunting material that contained no real value and, in some cases, was downright false. Over the years I have continually sifted through mountains of whitetail information obtained from human sources to find the rare jewels hidden among the rubbish.
On the other hand, I have also met some true whitetail professors who have continually fed me information that has always been valuable and accurate. I never question the lessons they teach me although I sometimes wonder how I will put it to use. These “whitetail professors” are simply the mature whitetail bucks that I have encountered.
I have often said during my seminars that even a yearling buck knows more about whitetails than any human will ever know. Now I don’t believe that we have people purposely misleading deer hunters by putting out false information, but I do believe that a lot of unproven theories and ideas have been shared and repeated to the point where they are accepted as fact by the majority of the deer hunting public. This is another topic for another day; instead I want to use this space to encourage you to listen to those real whitetail professors, the mature bucks that you encounter.
The three bucks that I described killing from one tree showed me that mature bucks in an area will tend to follow the same general patterns from year to year. This is especially true with individual bucks, but the same goes for other bucks, provided no major environmental changes occur.
For more than 25 years now, I carefully note every detail of every mature buck encounter or sighting. I note things like the time of day, time of year, wind direction, where was the buck coming from and where was he going, was he pressured or moving naturally, was he alone, could I have been set up in a stand along his travel route without him scenting me and so on.
Over the years I have gotten to the point where I know what the bucks I am hunting are going to do months before they do it. I am a step ahead of the bucks and waiting on them when they show up rather than hunting sign made days or weeks before and always being a step behind. I think this is a very common deer hunting mistake. My professors have taught me not only where I need to be but also when and under what conditions to be there.
Ask any deer hunter who has a wall full of mature bucks and they will tell you that the first one is the hardest one to kill. Once a hunter gets that first good buck under his belt he then has the confidence to know he can get it done. This makes the next one just a tad bit easier. With each trophy buck a hunter tags his confidence grows along with his knowledge of his quarry. Eventually it becomes almost easy to tag mature whitetail bucks. I believe the reason for this is that with each tag a hunter fills with a big deer, another “professor” has taught him another lesson or two.
Working as a whitetail consultant, I get the unique opportunity to visit a lot of hunting properties in numerous states each year. I find it very interesting how easy it can sometimes be to walk onto a property and pick out stand sites that result in the tagging of mature bucks based on experience and knowledge gained elsewhere. Sometimes the landowner will already have a stand in the right location, but often they do not. With experience it becomes second nature to “see” an opportunity to replicate something you have seen mature bucks do on a different property or even in a different state. One of my biggest thrills is to get a phone call or email from a client telling me they just shot a big buck exactly where I told them to hang their stand and the buck was doing exactly what I told them I thought it would do.
The buck I shot last season is a perfect example of letting the professor teach me where and when I needed to be to kill him. I had been watching this buck through trail camera photos for 5 years, starting in the summer 2011 when he was 2½ years old. I only had permission to hunt one small piece of cover within this buck’s entire home range. Trail camera photos showed that he only visited the property during the rut, surely to check the does that bedded there daily. In fact, it gets even more specific — the photos showed that he would start visiting the property around Nov. 6 each fall and his last visit would be around Nov. 20. During the two-week period between those dates he would randomly be in and out of the thicket during the heart of the rut.
I eagerly waited for Nov. 6 to roll around so I could start hunting the buck. However, on that day as well as the next, the wind direction was wrong for the two stands I had in place there. On Nov. 8, however, things were right so I slipped in and shot the 179 6⁄8 12-pointer on my first hunt for him.
There is absolutely nothing that any human could have told me to help me kill that particular buck. I had only one very small tract of land where I could hunt him. That fact took the “where” out of the equation. The buck himself told me “when” I needed to be there by his past actions, which I had carefully noted.
Hunting for mature bucks is a never-ending education in their behavior. I have learned a lot from experienced hunters as well as some greenhorns. Without a doubt, however, it is the “professors” themselves that have taught me the most. The next time you encounter a mature whitetail buck you would be well advised to note as many details as possible. Over time things will start to make sense and those elusive bruisers will start to become easier and easier to kill. Remember, a yearling buck knows more about whitetails than any human.