Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet all too often, that is exactly what bowhunters do when pursuing whitetails. Day after day, we follow the same routines and sit the same stands. And day after day, we come home empty handed.
Before long, the season is over and there’s nothing to show for it but shattered dreams and a bitter bowl of tag soup. I’ve been there more times than I care to admit, and I bet you have too.
I believe the reason for many of our failures is we hunt too conservatively. But as you’ll soon learn, sometimes you have to press your luck to tag a buck.
Rules for Rule Breaking
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying we should throw conventional whitetail wisdom out the window or hunt with reckless abandon. Bowhunting basics such as keeping the wind in your favor, using entry and exit routes that keep your presence hidden from deer and respecting sanctuaries are fundamentals for consistent success.
However, I am saying that when conditions are right, it’s OK veer outside the lines to take advantage of new or unexpected opportunities.
With that understanding, let me propose the following rules for when it is OK to break the rules:
Rule 1: What you’re doing isn’t working.
This rule should be self-evident. If you are finding consistent success hunting whitetails by the book, why would you do anything different? As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
In an ideal world, you could tag out every year by playing it safe — never intruding too far into the deer’s core areas, never hunting a stand in the wrong wind, never using a blatantly obvious path to get to or from a stand, etc. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, so sometimes we have to make less than ideal choices to fill a tag.
Rule 2: Your hunting time is limited.
Like rule number one, this one is kind of a no-brainer. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but there is no reason for desperation on opening day or the first day of a seven-day outfitted hunt. It’s almost always a good idea to start slowly and exhaust your most likely options before doing anything drastic. However, if your local season is coming down to the wire or your days on an outfitted hunt are dwindling, you’ve got nothing to lose.
Rule 3: Accept the possibility of failure, and blowing out a prime hunting area in the process.
Trying something crazy certainly isn’t a sure-fire path to success. In fact, chances are it won’t work. And what’s worse, you may educate a pile of deer and burn up your best hunting spot in the process. If, for whatever reason, you can’t live with these very real possibilities, don’t hunt outside your comfort zone.
Rule 4: Conditions are such that the likelihood of getting away with your plan is at least reasonable.
As foolish as your scheme may seem, it’s got to offer some chance for success or there’s no point in even trying. But sometimes there are mitigating factors that make unreasonable actions at least somewhat reasonable.
For example, few bowhunters would set up right in the middle of a bedding area during the early season. But in the middle of the rut when desperate bucks are recklessly searching for does, you might get away with it.
Similarly, you might typically be reluctant to set up too close to a preferred food source or hunt it too frequently. But in the late season when hunger is high and food supplies are low, you may be able to take advantage of the deer’s desperation and get away with things that would never work in October. So, whenever you are considering an unorthodox plan of attack, evaluate it in the context of current whitetail behavior and/or habitat conditions.
The next time these rules for rule breaking apply to you, consider going “all in” with one of the offbeat bowhunting strategies described below. Sure, you might go bust. Then again, you might win the whitetail jackpot.
The Sanctuary Sit
The first example of gambling success comes from my 2013 Illinois rut hunt with River Bottom Bucks. I’ve hunted with outfitters Bob and Marsha Blair each November since 2010, and it has become my favorite trip of the year thanks to a combination of great hospitality, prime rut conditions and hundreds of acres of the best Midwest whitetail habitat you’ll ever see.
With several years of bowhunting the property under my belt, I’ve developed a pretty good understanding of local whitetail patterns and preferred travel routes. Last year, however, I was seeing plenty of deer from my usual stands, but not the mature bucks I was after. By mid-week, I was getting antsy, so Bob and I made a quick, early-afternoon intrusion into a sanctuary area.
Quickly surveying the scene, we identified a well-used trail between a piney thicket and an open oak flat that funneled to a pinch point between two branches of the Embarras River. Better yet, the spot offered several trees well suited for a climbing stand.
The outfitter typically does not allow hunters into this area because it isn’t that big and sits adjacent to a large, brushy bedding area better left undisturbed. However, I was fortunate to be the last hunter scheduled to hunt the property last year. So, without the need to worry about how my plan might negatively impact other clients the following week, Bob agreed to let me give the spot a try.
Two days after our scouting mission, the wind was right and I slipped my Summit Dagger climber to my back, waded across the shallow river and shimmied up my chosen tree under cover of darkness. I was fully committed to the plan and prepared for an all-day sit.
The date was Nov. 8, and the rut was in full swing. So, I wasn’t surprised when the morning produced a steady stream of bucks cruising through my area. Still, just like earlier in the week, I still wasn’t seeing anything I really wanted to shoot.
Then, just before noon, my luck finally changed when a hot doe with a young buck nipping at its heels came crashing through the woods behind me and ran into the pines. Closely watching the action, I was thrilled to see a much bigger buck emerge from the brush to chase off the young buck and claim the doe for his own.
I watched the pair for about 10 minutes, hopeful I would get a shot, but they eventually moved further into the thicket and disappeared.
The next two and a half hours passed without a deer sighting, and as I sat in my stand at 2:30 p.m. mindlessly flipping my Primos can call, I looked over to my right and saw that doe emerging from the thicket. Instantly snapping back to attention, my eyes scanned the brush behind her for the buck, which I figured had to be with her.
Sure enough, there he was. They had likely been bedded within a stone’s throw of me the entire time, and now they were standing just 30 yards away.
Slowly rising to my feet and reaching for my bow, I was mortified when the pair bedded down again just 25 yards from the stand. The doe was lying perfectly broadside in the open, but the tall-racked, 9-point buck was facing head on and blocked by numerous small trees.
I had no idea how long I would be pinned down, and for the next 30 minutes I stood nearly motionless playing out every possible scenario in my mind and trying to mentally prepare myself for every potential shot. Under the circumstances, I thought I was doing a pretty good job of holding it all together, but what happened next proves otherwise.
When the doe finally stood, she led that buck exactly where I wanted for a 25-yard, broadside shot. Coming to full draw and taking aim, I hit the release and watched in disbelief as the arrow sailed harmlessly over the buck’s back.
Startled, but not spooked, the doe and buck ran several steps before stopping to scan the area. Quickly grabbing a second arrow from my quiver, I reached full draw again, put my 30-yard pin on the buck’s side and sent a second arrow on its way. This too was high and deflected off a pine tree with a loud thwack before careening off into the forest.
At that point, there is no doubt I deserved failure. But you know, the rut does strange things to deer. The doe took another several bounds before stopping again and trying to figure out what was going on. And as long as that estrus doe didn’t run, that rut-crazed buck wasn’t going anywhere either.
Amazed at my good fortune, I nocked a third arrow and estimated the range at 40 yards as I reached full draw once again. Lining up the shot and touching the release, I watched as the arrow sailed directly to its mark, burying the Rage Hypodermic deep into the buck’s chest.
At impact, the buck sprinted about 30 yards, slammed on the brakes, did a complete 180-degree turn and ran back toward my stand before stumbling into a tree and falling dead in plain sight!
Did I get lucky? Oh, heck yeah! Getting three shots at a mature buck is almost unheard of, and I doubt I’ll ever experience anything like that again.
Still, my epic case of buck fever aside, there are a couple lessons to learn here. First, our quick and dirty scouting paid off, and I was able to catch the deer in that area completely by surprise. And second, whitetails are extremely distracted during the rut and let their guard down far more than at any other time of year.
That clearly worked to my advantage, and it can work for you, too.
Here’s what a few of the most accomplished whitetail hunters do to press their luck:
Professional bowhunter Mike Stroff sacrificed a night of sleep to punch his South Dakota whitetail tag last year. Stroff, co-host of Savage Outdoors on The Sportsman Channel, spent two months running trail cameras in the area and had compiled a hit list of three particular bucks.
The bucks were bedding up on a pine ridge and using a thick patch of scrub oaks to transition down to riverside alfalfa fields in the evenings.
“Our rule is not to go into the bedding areas or on the fringe of the bedding areas when hunting this area,” said Stroff, who offers guided South Dakota hunts through Western Ranch Outfitters. “Typically, these deer make it into the fields with plenty of daylight left, but this week was different and the more mature bucks just were not being predictable. Each day they came out in a different part of the field.”
On the fifth day of losing this cat-and-mouse game, Stroff and his cameraman waited until midnight and then set up in the patch of scrub oaks hoping to catch one of his target bucks heading back to bed in the morning or possibly even heading back to the alfalfa again the following afternoon.
“We were breaking a few of our cardinal rules here, and as close as we had set up to the bedding area, there was no way to get out of the stand without bumping deer,” Stroff said. “Plus, our wind was marginal at best, but we decided this was the only way we had a chance at one of these bucks.”
In the morning, all the mature bucks managed to slip past out of bow range. But that afternoon, after 15 hours of sitting, one of the target bucks finally offered a shot and Stroff capitalized on the opportunity.
“It was a long day, but it paid off,” he said.
The Great Wide Open
Field Editor Eddie Claypool is one of the most accomplished whitetail hunters you’ll ever meet, and one of his favorite strategies for tagging mature bucks in the rut involves hunting in the wide open.
“Ninety-nine percent of the bowhunters out there sit in ‘traditional’ places, and certainly many good bucks are knocked off from these locations,” Claypool said. “However, I’ve come to find that from about Nov. 15-30 each year, off-the-wall stand locations are extremely productive, even more so than traditional spots.”
During that time period, Claypool says most of the biggest bucks in a given area will be holed up with hot does. And Claypool said the most dominant bucks will push does out into treeless areas to get them away from the other bucks and keep them better controlled. Claypool also notes that these mature bucks are easier to fool at this time of year because they are focused almost solely on breeding.
“During these two weeks of the season, you’ll find me sitting in fence lines, brushy pockets far detached from timberlands, grassy pastures and CRP fields,” Claypool said. “If you’re after a truly top-end whitetail in the later half of November, get out in the open. You’ll be surprised what you see out there!”
The Backyard Buck
When champion archer and accomplished bowhunter John Dudley needs to turn his luck around in deer season, he likes to look in unlikely places. In fact, Dudley often finds trophy bucks living right in the shadows of human civilization.
As an example, Dudley recalls a giant Kansas buck he killed in 2011 from a stand just 80 yards from his truck and 100 yards from a mobile home park. Dudley knew most other hunters in the area were hiking nearly a mile into the timber, so he decided to keep his distance from the hunting pressure and stay closer to the day-to-day human activities the local deer were used to.
“In areas close to roads and civilization, be sure to look for signs of deer travel, such as trails and road crossings,” said Dudley, host of Nock On TV on The Sportsman Channel. “Experience has shown me deer get used to the travel routes hunters take deep into the timber and they also get used to the patterns of daily road traffic.
“Many times, deer have to funnel through very specific areas in order to avoid these situations. For this buck, it was a narrow timber ridge that was only 60 yards wide leading into the big timber where all the locals headed to hunt. This buck made his way past my stand about 30 minutes after a local school bus made its rounds through a nearby mobile home community.
“It was also after a few hunters had already driven by after leaving their stands. Obviously, this buck was the one that had everything patterned. The key to my success was breaking the pattern by doing something different.”