If you’re looking for a story that begins with a dead buck at the end of an exuberant hunter’s arrow, then you’re going to have to look elsewhere. Instead, my lesson was learned when I chose to hunt a wise old buck in his bedding area. After four straight days on no action, he suddenly appeared out of nowhere and, to my chagrin, looked up and spotted me.
Despite that awful outcome, that hunt reinforced my belief that sometimes you have to use unconventional hunting tactics to beat gray-muzzled monarchs that have given hunters the slip for years. Here are five unorthodox strategies, each supported by expert opinion and scientific research, to get the drop on a mature whitetail buck.
Hunt Bedding Areas
Many hunters believe that hunting deer bedrooms is a no-win proposition. The thinking is that deer know bedding areas like the back of their hoof, so you can’t outwit them in their familiar domain. What’s more, if you spook a buck in its bedroom, you can wave bye-bye to your chance of ever bagging it.
I don’t dispute the notion that whitetails make ample use of bedding areas to escape danger. Each deer has multiple bedding areas, and it spends a lot of time in them.
“One study in Texas that used GPS tracking collars to monitor deer movements found that deer were only active about 40 percent of each 24-hour period,” said Brian Murphy, a wildlife biologist and CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association (www.qdma.com). “So, deer are inactive more than they are active.”
Murphy recommends hunting bedding areas during the peak of conception, when bucks are guarding and breeding does, and late in the season, when bucks are rutted down and resting.
Another time to hunt bedding areas is after the rut. Research has shown the huge toll breeding takes on bucks, which causes them to lose up to 25 percent of their body weight. After the rut, many bucks are worn out. Their bodies need rest and recuperation. Again, they get what they need in bedding areas.
When hunting bedding areas, plan on an all-day sit, particularly during the rut. Arrive an hour before daylight and stay an hour after dark to minimize your odds of bumping deer. Always stay downwind of bedding areas, and make sure to use scent-elimination spray on anything you come into contact with. Vary your entry/exit routes to prevent deer from patterning you, making good use of a pair of waders to traverse wet, mucky ground.
Tactic 2: Hunt The Hot Stand
After harvesting a deer from a particular stand, conventional wisdom dictates that you rest the stand for a few days. Deer do react to hunting pressure but not always in the way you may think. Former graduate student Justin Thayer and Louisiana State University professor Michael Chamberlin captured and placed radio telemetry collars on 37 bucks that lived in a bottomland hardwood forest in south central Louisiana. Several hunt clubs occupied the area. Thayer and Chamberlin found that bucks didn’t leave their home ranges (where they spend 95 percent of their time) because of hunting pressure. Instead, they laid low and waited for hunters to come and go.
A more recent study by Dr. Stephen Webb and his colleagues found similar results. Hunting pressure resulted in less movement during the day by Oklahoma bucks, who confined their activities to their home ranges.
“We found that deer were using the same areas, but smaller in size, even during Oklahoma’s rifle season,” said Webb, a landscape ecologist for the Noble Foundation (www.noble.org). “They maintained site fidelity to the areas they were most familiar with.”
What about stranger bucks hunters often see during the rut? Other studies have confirmed that many bucks travel outside their home ranges in search of estrous does. Former graduate student Gabriel Karns placed GPS tracking collars on adult bucks living at Chesapeake Farms, a large agricultural research area on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Karns took GPS fixes of each buck every 10 minutes to see if deer went on excursions, defined as movements lasting a minimum of six hours and venturing at least a half-mile from their home range.
Karns found that 63 percent of all bucks monitored made at least one excursion, and 59 percent of them did so around breeding season (pre-rut or rut). On average, bucks that took excursions during breeding time were only gone for 10 ½ hours and often traveled during daylight hours.
So just because you’ve harvested a deer from a particular stand is no reason to rest it during the pre-rut and rut. If you aren’t in your best stand during the rut, you might miss out on a buck you’ve never seen before passing through the area looking for mates. Whether it’s because your stand is in a high-traffic area or near where does often bed, the stand is hot for a reason! Again, make sure your entry/exit routes keep you downwind of deer activity, wear scent-control clothing and do your darnedest to keep your scent out of the woods.
Tactic 3: Ignore Rubs and Scrapes
Find a fresh rub or scrape line, and most hunters think they’ve stumbled upon a virtual goldmine of buck activity. Set a stand next to large rubs/scrapes, and you’ll ambush the whitetail architect that’s sure to revisit its handiwork, or you’ll intercept other bucks checking out the deer sign.
There are two problems with this strategy. To understand them, we must first differentiate between rubs and scrapes. When it comes to rubs, research has shown that bucks 2 ½ years old and older make the majority of rubs. While finding an abundance of rubs during the pre-rut generally reveals the presence of older bucks in the area, it doesn’t mean you should base your hunting strategy on this seemingly hot deer sign.
“Bucks consistently rub throughout the entire breeding season,” explained Dr. Karl Miller, a research scientist and professor at the University of Georgia.
Because there’s no consistent peak rubbing period, the signpost rub you’re sitting over may be devoid of buck activity for days or even weeks.
The problem with hunting over top of fresh scrapes is that most are made and visited by deer at night. While a graduate student at the University of Georgia, Karen Alexy used game cameras to monitor scrape-making activity for two consecutive breeding seasons. She found that most visits by males (85 percent) and females (75 percent) occurred after dark. Interestingly, she found that up to nine different males made one scrape line.
Hunters shouldn’t completely discount rubs/scrapes – they just shouldn’t base their entire hunting strategy on them. Instead of hunting next to deer sign, set stands 50-100 yards away to ambush a buck that may be scent-checking these communication signposts or that may be on its way to visit the buck sign after dark.
Tactic 4: Don’t Rely Totally on Game Cameras
Today, game cameras are an important piece of a deer hunter’s arsenal. Tech-savvy hunters use them to see the deer they have in their hunting area and to pattern individual ones. Strategically place several cameras on your property, and you can just about follow a buck’s movements on your swath of deer-hunting heaven.
But there are disadvantages to using game cameras, the biggest being that they increase your level of intrusion on the whitetail world. You first have to traipse over hill and dale to set them up. And while some cameras employ satellite technology to transmit photos to a computer or mobile phone, the vast majority of hunters collect photos by visiting their cameras and pulling memory cards. Every time you have to check your cameras, you’re increasing the likelihood that deer will notice.
Wildlife consultant Neil Dougherty (www.northcountrywhitetails.com) helps clients turn ordinary properties into prime deer-hunting meccas. He’s seen first-hand the damage that cameras can do to a hunter’s efforts.
“I think the one thing that saves more deer on my clients’ properties is trail cameras,” said Dougherty. “When you saturate those core areas just to get a few pictures, it’s harmful. You’re reinforcing to deer that you’re there.”
Based on his experience, Dougherty believes that the average hunter visits the woods at least 40 times each year to set up, monitor, move and take down trail cameras. That’s a ton of undue pressure you’re placing on whitetails.
Just because the technology is available doesn’t mean you should use it excessively. Instead of relying completely on trail cameras, why not glass fields and talk with farmers and commercial drivers to locate buck haunts? Get your hands on an aerial photo and topographic map of your hunting area to identify geographic features deer use to traverse the land. Use your aerial to identify funnels and breaklines, which are lines of demarcation separating two types of cover. When studying a topo, look for saddles and benches bucks likely use to get from point A to point B. Use these smart scouting strategies, and give your game cameras – and the deer – a rest.
Tactic 5: Stay Put
Most hunters don’t have unlimited time and resources to pursue deer. Having only a week or two to hunt, they hunt during the rut because they believe bucks are most active during this period of the hunting season. After sitting a day or two in one stand, if they don’t see a shooter buck, many hunters quickly move to another spot. The thinking is that their hunting time is precious, and they don’t want to waste a moment of it watching nothing but birds and squirrels.
This game of stand “hopscotch” may seem harmless, but it can cost you. Studies of buck movements have proven that many males don’t leave their home ranges during the rut, and those that do aren’t gone for long. Besides the Karns study, other research conducted by Dr. Mark Conner and James Tomberlin found that, while many bucks go on excursions during the rut, they return to their home ranges within a day.
The size of bucks’ home ranges also varies. This means that one buck may take a day or two to come around again to your hunting spot looking for estrous does, while it may take another three or four days to swing back around. If you move from stand to stand, you may never find yourself at the right place at the right time to bag the buck of your dreams.
“If you have a spot with good, consistent activity during the rut, then that’s where you want to hunt no matter what,” Murphy said.
There’s a reason your favorite stand during the rut is your favorite. Don’t abandon it just because Mr. Big hasn’t been by after a couple days.
While these unconventional strategies will elicit a lot of raised eyebrows and snickers from your hunting buddies, they’ll put you within shooting distance of many bucks that other hunters never encounter. These not-so-tried yet true strategies will take your hunting to the next level, and make you the envy of all those who still desperately cling to many deer-hunting myths that science has proven to be false.